This story first appeared in the June 5 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
“So, what’s your policy on ‘pussy’?” inquires a polite Amy Schumer regarding what can and can’t be said during THR‘s annual gathering of Emmy-contending comedy actresses. If the ensuing conversation — held inside a Manhattan studio where, at one point, one of the six women offers another oral sex — is any indication, nothing is off limits when feminism and comedy collide: From rape and death threats on Twitter to the absence of women in late night (“Les Moonves is asleep in a cave somewhere far away,” offers Lena Dunham as an explanation) to hanging their hopes on Hillary Clinton, Schumer, 34 (Inside Amy Schumer); Dunham, 29 (Girls); Gina Rodriguez, 30 (Jane the Virgin); Ellie Kemper, 35 (Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt); Tracee Ellis Ross, 42 (Black-ish); and Kate McKinnon, 31 (Saturday Night Live), prove they are as fearless as they are (f—ing) funny.
What was your most mortifying moment performing comedy?
KATE MCKINNON I did stand-up at the Aspen Comedy Festival once, a tight two and a half minutes. I asked the booker afterward, “What did you think?” She said, “There wasn’t enough for me to judge, but what I saw, I didn’t like.” I went to a Starbucks and cried.
LENA DUNHAM But look at you now!
AMY SCHUMER I was opening for [comedian] Dave Attell at an Improv in Washington, D.C., and was walking past the White House. This woman came up to me; she had kind eyes. I’m like, “She’s a fan!” I was like, “I’m a comedian,” and she goes, “These people are on a hunger strike; would you perform for them?” I then noticed there were 40 people there with signs showing how long it’d been since they’d eaten. I called some friends, and I was like, “I shouldn’t do this, right? [Comedian] Jim Norton was like, “You gotta take the gig.” (Laughs.) So I tried to write hunger-strike jokes. These people looked like everyone in The Exodus.
TRACEE ELLIS ROSS You have such a good soul.
SCHUMER So I performed, and no one laughed.
GINA RODRIGUEZ They were hungry!
SCHUMER I made jokes like, “Hey, at least no waitresses will be distracting you here!” But I bombed. They put a video of it online, and I found out later they were a known terrorist organization. Making people laugh is what I can do to give back.
Is there something that you would never do for a laugh?
SCHUMER I would never suck a dick for a laugh.
DUNHAM I would never f— someone.
RODRIGUEZ I’m a brown girl, so I have to cross all the lines. I did just recently give birth onscreen [in Jane the Virgin].
MCKINNON Me, too!
RODRIGUEZ The actress playing my OB-GYN, Julie, was in right between my legs. I have Spanx on, this big [fake] belly, legs spread wide open. I probably should’ve showered that morning.
DUNHAM I stopped wearing the nude patch after the first season of Girls. There’s not one guy who works on that show who hasn’t seen the inside of my vagina.
SCHUMER They could draw your ovaries.
DUNHAM I used to wear the patch but …
ROSS What’s the patch?
DUNHAM This patch — you glue it over your vagina. It gets sweaty and always falls off. My male co-stars, at the end of the day, don’t care.
ROSS Are they covered up?
DUNHAM They wear a bag.
ROSS A sack?
DUNHAM Like a penis bag.
ELLIE KEMPER I’ve never done a sex scene. I am so prudish that when I’ve had to kiss someone in a scene, I think for the next hour that we’re in love! It’s a middle-school frame of mind.
DUNHAM I never understand when people say, “Sex scenes are so mechanical; it doesn’t feel like anything.” It feels like someone f—ing you! It’s confusing.
ROSS On network shows, there are a lot of instructions: “Close the mouth. You can move, make the sounds, but no tongue.” I had some incidences on Girlfriends. This guy’s tongue jammed in like a lizard out of nowhere.
SCHUMER When I was filming [Trainwreck] last summer, I had a bunch of sex scenes. Full penetration. We went for it. (Laughter.) This guy we were going to have make out with me was like, “Um, do you want our first kiss to be on camera?” I was like, “No, no, come to my trailer and we’ll make out beforehand.” It was so grotesque. I’m like, “Did you think I cast you because I want to make out with you?” Then there was a lot of unnecessary touching. I was like “Get that guy out of there.”
What’s the most overtly sexist thing that’s happened to you working in Hollywood?
DUNHAM I heard a guy on my show say into his microphone: “I hate this job. I can’t wait to be back on a show where there’s a man at the helm.”
SCHUMER I hope you sent [Girls actor-comedian] Colin Quinn home for that. (Laughs.)
DUNHAM Colin is actually the world’s biggest feminist! Later, that same guy came up to me at lunch and said, “You’re really enjoying that buffet, aren’t you?”
SCHUMER Who the f— is this?
DUNHAM He’s the worst person alive. I hope he reads this, which he won’t because he’s drunk.
ROSS I think racism trumps everything. [It all] happens behind the scenes.
DUNHAM So many shows wouldn’t exist if you and Mara [Brock Akil] hadn’t made Girlfriends and pushed it as far as you did.
ROSS We did 176 episodes.
ROSS Being on a show run by a woman with four women leads gives you a template that when you walk out into the world, you don’t see it. It changed my expectations.
Tracee, Chris Rock wrote an essay for The Hollywood Reporter in which he talked about how you can go to the movies once a week for months and never see a black woman in a substantial role.
RODRIGUEZ I think that also goes for Latinos as well.
DUNHAM [To Rodriguez] That’s why I sobbed during your Golden Globes speech!
MCKINNON That was the best.
ROSS There aren’t many [roles in film]. That’s why I say no to all the offers! (Laughs.) Working on a film is one job where you look at a casting breakdown and I’ll think, “That’s me!” But she’s not supposed to be black.
RODRIGUEZ One hundred percent.
ROSS But I go for them anyway. Gina, what’s been your experience?
RODRIGUEZ I remove myself instantly if something’s perpetuating a stereotype. But the only way to stop stereotypes is to say, “I’m going to wait for a journey that suits me.”
DUNHAM I got into Jane the Virgin after reading your early interviews. You were obviously grateful, but rather than going, “I’m so lucky to have this part!” you took back the power and said, “I waited for something that spoke to me as a Latina and didn’t feel like I was compromising.”
RODRIGUEZ When you compromise, you don’t do your best work.
ROSS I can’t sleep at night.
RODRIGUEZ You’re only left with your integrity. You can’t take those Jimmy Choos with you!
SCHUMER [To Ross and Rodriguez] I never thought how bad it could be for you guys until I had a TV show and we had to do auditions. Many black women who auditioned thought that we wanted them to be “sassy.”
RODRIGUEZ “Get me someone more urban!”
SCHUMER We’re like, “No, just be yourself.” I thought: That sucks. It meant they’d been in a lot of rooms where they were like, “Uh, can you be more like (snaps her finger).”
ROSS Hey, I don’t sound like that.
SCHUMER I visited the Girls and 30 Rock sets before my show. Seeing how Lena and Tina [Fey] ruled … it was unapologetic and strong. Every crewmember would die for these women.
How much responsibility do you feel on your shows to fight racism and sexism?
DUNHAM There was a lot of dialogue about race when Girls started. I’d been thinking so much about representing weirdo, chubby girls and strange half-Jews that I had forgotten that there was an entire world of women being underserved.
RODRIGUEZ I don’t believe it’s an issue of hard-core racism [in Hollywood].
SCHUMER It’s ignorance.
RODRIGUEZ Lack of being surrounded by a culture.
ROSS We’re quick to vilify people instead of acknowledging we all have these huge blind spots.
DUNHAM I also hate how the comedy community is so defensive. People are unwilling to learn. There was a big issue a few years ago with Daniel Tosh and rape jokes. But there couldn’t be a civil conversation about it within the comedy community. I’m a sexual-assault survivor, so I would love to sit down and have a totally nonjudgmental conversation with a male comedian who makes rape jokes. But there isn’t room for that.
ROSS It’s a scary thing. I think that’s part of what’s happening around race, too. It’s not just race. It’s socioeconomic.
RODRIGUEZ It’s also about what Hollywood finds financially beneficial. So when we show them shows like Jane the Virgin and Fresh Off the Boat …
DUNHAM And Shonda Rhimes owns the entire television mainstay. (Laughter.)
RODRIGUEZ Show them it’s all a good investment. And it’s not about race. When you vilify it, people shut down.
DUNHAM [To Kemper] I was so obsessed with the one-two you guys pulled on Kimmy Schmidt, where you thought she was going to go off with the handsome British guy but she loves her ESL Asian friend.
RODRIGUEZ Always go with the dark one!
There actually was chatter online that showed people were divided on whether that character, Dong, perpetuated stereotypes. Ellie, how did you feel about it?
KEMPER Yeah, there was some criticism about how our show dealt with race, and maybe [that character] was stereotypical. But I’ll shove off that question by saying I’m not in the writers room. (Laughs.) But Kimmy doesn’t end up with the white man. She ends up with Asian Dong!
Most of you are active in social media. Kate, why aren’t you?
MCKINNON I send emails and text messages to about five people. Other than that, it’s absolutely zero. I’m very frightened of saying anything. I scare myself. (Laughter.) I don’t want to put anything out there that could misrepresent my feelings. If I had Instagram, it would be pictures of my son, who is a cat. That’s mostly what’s going on with me.
How much input do you have in your image on SNL and the characters you play?
MCKINNON A lot because we participate in the writing of it. [Playing] Justin Bieber was originally handed to me by [“Weekend Update” anchor] Colin Jost, who wrote it. I hadn’t played boys before, and now I’ve made a habit of it.
What have you said no to?
MCKINNON Tits out! (Laughter.)
RODRIGUEZ You look like you have great tits.
MCKINNON Thank you so much. There’s nothing I’ve said no to because it’s probably been vetoed already by the people in charge. But if it came to it, I’d stand up for myself.
Amy, your name came up when people were talking about who should replace Jon Stewart on The Daily Show, sparking a conversation about why women are so absent from late night. Why are they?
SCHUMER Because we get our periods at night. (Laughter.)
DUNHAM The idea of risk-taking is terrifying. I love Stephen Colbert, he’s a genius, but CBS [couldn’t] take the David Letterman slot and hire somebody who represented even an ounce of diversity? Also, when they got James Corden — another guy I love — there was this joke, “We’ve run out of white men here, we have to import them from England.” There is no shortage of established women who’ve been on the comedy circuit for years. It bums me out that someone like Kathy Griffin was relegated to Fashion Police.
ROSS There’s a plethora of female talent, and it’s not just about moving someone into a late-night slot.
KEMPER But it’s back to that thing — until you show a new formula can work, people are too scared to take a chance.
DUNHAM When Letterman announced his retirement, I tweeted that [Parks and Recreation actress] Retta should replace him, and 10,000 people were like, “I would kill to see that.”
Why don’t those opinions make it to the higher ranks?
DUNHAM Les Moonves is asleep in a cave somewhere far away. I don’t know!
ROSS We’re not making the decisions, obviously.
SCHUMER I think people hate women. I don’t think they want to hear a woman talk for too long. A lot of people project their mom yelling at them. My [career] has been about tricking people into listening. I’m not saying all men hate women, but there’s such an aggression.
DUNHAM The way women are spoken to in social media is truly shocking. It’s how you imagine people screaming at prisoners in Guantanamo.
What’s the worst thing that’s been said to you?
DUNHAM Rape threats. Death threats.
SCHUMER Wishing me to get ovarian cancer. [To McKinnon] You’ve got to get on Twitter! (Laughter.)
DUNHAM Gina, you’re so cute; people are probably nice to you.
RODRIGUEZ I get a lot of marriage proposals!
KEMPER The circles in which we run, there’s an understanding that there’s no difference in what women can bring to comedy. But there’s a huge portion of the country that this is still news to. There are a lot of men who fly business class still rooted in the idea that women aren’t funny.
MCKINNON So exhausting!
How much does self-deprecation figure into how you connect with your audience?
DUNHAM The “12 Angry Men” sketch Amy did is the most important thing that’s happened on TV in a long time.
SCHUMER It’s very important to me. I heard this heated debate once between two male comic friends of mine about whether [actress] Michelle Williams was hot. One was like, “I don’t think I’d have sex with her.” I’m looking at them, both in their 40s …
SCHUMER Gargoyles. (Laughter.) Actually, gargoyles are interesting to look at. And I’m like, “You guys would both die to f— her.” Then I watched [SNL‘s] Cecily Strong host the White House Correspondents’ Dinner. She did a great job. Then right away, the cable news anchors are deliberating whether she was funny. Um, are you guys comedy experts? People love burning somebody at the stake. So I just burn myself first!
DUNHAM When I get comments like, “How did she wind up on the cover of a magazine? She’s hideous,” I’m like, “I may not have a perfect body, but I do have a really nice face.” I’d love to see a hideous woman on the cover of a magazine. It doesn’t happen.
RODRIGUEZ I was up for a role and auditioned in character. They’re like: “We love her. But can she come back in with a tight black dress?”
MCKINNON Just another whore story!
DUNHAM I want to say we all have really nice faces.
SCHUMER I would love to eat you out. (Laughter.) Is that OK? When this is over. Right after?
DUNHAM I feel the same way about you.
ROSS Gina, finish your story!
RODRIGUEZ I said, “That doesn’t make any sense for the character.” They were like, “We need to know if you’re pretty enough to be on the cover of a magazine.”
ROSS I tested once for a network show to play a lawyer. A Harvard-educated motherf—in’ lawyer, OK? I wore a skirt suit and heels. Seemed appropriate. Then there were many discussions about my hair. They’d printed up all these pictures of me from 15 f—in’ years ago and had me in and out of the bathroom trying on clothes. They finally pick a skirt — the shortest I brought. Then got a T-shirt from one of the people in the office. The woman says, “Hmmm, your boobs.” I was like, “I didn’t bring a bra for this T-shirt.” She screams down the hall, “Who wears a 34B?” I put on someone else’s bra, a size too small, and somehow auditioned. I remember wondering, “What did I just allow myself to do?” The other actress [who auditioned] was dressed like she was going to a club and got the role. It was one of those moments where you’re so confused and humiliated. But that’s part of the biz.
Another ugly side of the business that was revealed in the Sony hack …
SCHUMER Hey, don’t call Kevin Hart that. (Laughs.) I’ve been sitting on that joke for months. Thank you.
… was the pay disparity between male and female executives and talent. What’s the biggest fight you’ve had about money?
KEMPER I’m not powerful enough to have that fight.
MCKINNON I’ll work for a hamburger.
You really feel like that?
MCKINNON I just want to be onstage. And I want a hamburger.
DUNHAM [Lean In author] Sheryl Sandberg once asked me, “Do you know what you make compared to men who run an HBO show?” and I was like, “Why would I ever ask about that? I can pay for dog food, and I have an apartment.” I hear my boyfriend [musician Jack Antonoff] on the phone all the time saying, “I’m worth more than that.” I do not have that skill.
SCHUMER I do. A couple years ago, I heard how much Floyd Mayweather charged for fights. (Laughs.) He’s not my role model. I just, like, want to date him.
You fought for more money for a stand-up gig?
SCHUMER Yeah. I’m like, “These people are only going to be there because of me, so I’m not crazy.”
KEMPER I once heard an exec say, “If you don’t ask for it, we can’t give it to you.” We can’t go through our lives just being grateful for everything.
SCHUMER I noticed when I had a suggestion for [Trainwreck director] Judd [Apatow] on set, I would say, “Um, sorry but …” I started all my sentences with “sorry.” I’ve made an effort to not do that now.
ROSS I was raised by a woman [singer Diana Ross] who has high standards for what she’s worth, which has been called “diva behavior.” I have witnessed flagrant, disgusting behavior, and that is not my mother. There is a way to be a woman, ask for what we deserve and be able to negotiate.
DUNHAM When it was leaked how much I was getting for my book [a reported $3.7 million for Not That Kind of Girl], there were 39,000 articles asking, “Is she worth it?” Then it came out what [comedian] Aziz Ansari was making on his book [a reported $3.5 million]. No one says a goddamn word.
KEMPER The vitriol, it’s stunning.
ROSS I want to ask you all a question: Where does funny come from?
MCKINNON There was an episode of RuPaul’s Drag Race where they did stand-up, and [comedian] Rita Rudner told them, “There’s nothing funny about a confident person who’s doing well.” So I start from a place of exploiting things in me I find objectionable and display and celebrate them.
You have a huge platform this year playing Hillary Clinton on SNL. Are you nervous? What’s the secret to playing her?
MCKINNON I do feel pressure. I’m rooting for her, obviously. It’s a combination of the writers’ take on her but also this contrast between a woman so driven and hardened by her experiences — She needs this! The country needs this! — and this sweetie granny from the Midwest. The juxtaposition.
SCHUMER Hillary is a laugher. The coolest.
MCKINNON I’d be so nervous to meet her. I find her so resplendent!
If you wrote a campaign slogan for her, what would it be?
SCHUMER “Snitches Get Stitches.”
MCKINNON “Guys, Come On.”
DUNHAM I love that people are like, “She’s not qualified to be president.” Then everybody else they bring in, they’re like, “He managed a Ben & Jerry’s for a while.” (Laughter.)
SCHUMER “He’s the night manager at Petco.”
KEMPER I want to hear other slogans!
DUNHAM “Blondes Have More Foreign Policy Experience.”
How do you balance comedy with political correctness?
SCHUMER I listen to my pussy.
RODRIGUEZ Yours talks?
MCKINNON [Speaking in a low voice as Schumer’s vagina] “Hear me. I’m talking to you.”
SCHUMER Do you guys hear that?
MCKINNON “It’s too hot. Spread your legs, Amy. I can’t breathe.”
RODRIGUEZ I worry about it a little bit, about political correctness, because I deal with themes of virginity and Catholicism on my show.
Have you found Latino fans to be more conservative-minded on these themes?
RODRIGUEZ No, the Latino audience is all over the place. It encompasses 50 different countries.
ROSS Have you met every single one of them?
RODRIGUEZ I have, and they’re all related to me! (Laughter.) It’s nice to talk about controversial things without making judgments. I have my own beliefs and don’t put them on anybody else, but when you’re the lead in a show, your word is your bond, you know?
How have you adjusted to fame?
RODRIGUEZ I get a lot of free Subway sandwiches. (Laughs.)
KEMPER I got what I thought was a black Subway card …
RODRIGUEZ What the? I didn’t get that.
KEMPER I thought, “Subways for life!” But you guys, it’s not forever. It’s only $50.
RODRIGUEZ I also get people screaming, “There’s the virgin!”
ROSS I get, “There’s that lady from ABC’s The Chew” [Carla Hall].
SCHUMER I’m so embarrassed. I’m just now realizing you’re not her. (Laughter.)
Have there been moments where something luxurious is happening, and you think, “Eh?” A humblebrag?
DUNHAM Amy got snapped by the paparazzi in Hawaii, and it was, like, so annoying.
SCHUMER Well, it was annoying because we were eating big breakfasts every day, so I looked like I had Alfred Hitchcock’s body while paddleboarding. I did recently go on my first private jet. I caught myself before saying, “We need a bigger jet.” Three years ago, I’m begging for half-off potato skins, and now I’m like, “This jet is wack.”
KEMPER [Fame] can change your perspective unless you catch yourself.
SCHUMER I have people around me saying I’m a piece of shit. (Laughter.)
KEMPER My husband is good about saying, “You’re nothing!” I was making a pilot once and tripped over some gear. I said, “Someone needs to move that!” It was horrifying.
MCKINNON It’s a fine line. I prayed for many years to be tired because I was so unemployed. And now I’m really tired and always sick.
DUNHAM But it’s cool — you’re sick because you’re on SNL! Earlier I asked Kate, “Do you get any time off?” She was like, “No, I have to shoot …” I was like, “Ghostbusters!”
RODRIGUEZ I gave my grandmother a fat f—ing check. I was like, “This is for you.” And she’s like, “Ah, no, no puedo” [I can’t]. I was like, “Just take it.” She opens it, sees the amount and “All right!” (Laughs.)
ROSS I’m driving a really fancy car now. An SL550 Mercedes, and that shit is brilliant. I don’t have a two-car garage. So my best friend now has my car.
KEMPER There it is!
DUNHAM I want women to have all the things.
ROSS And to think we started this conversation talking about penis bags.
MCKINNON It was pretty awesome.
SCHUMER Let’s never apologize for anything.
The full Comedy Actress Roundtable aired on Close Up With The Hollywood Reporter on Sunday, Aug. 16, at 11 a.m. EST on Sundance TV. Tune in this Sunday for the next episode.
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