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Mae Whitman and Jane Levy, who met via mutual friends on a night out at Los Feliz mainstay the Dresden, have shared many adventures as best friends of eight years, and in February they became neighbors (on NBC’s Sunday night lineup, that is) as Levy’s musical dramedy Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist led into the third-season premiere of Whitman’s Good Girls. The new seasons of their shows involved major challenges for both: Levy, 30, performed six musical numbers in a single 42-minute episode, while former child star Whitman, 31, was planning to direct for the first time (though her episode was shelved due to the pandemic). The pair spoke to The Hollywood Reporter about how they support each other’s career, what’s been different about working on sets led by women and how they handle the pressures of the industry.
How has your friendship influenced your professional choices? Have you ever been up for the same role? Do you consult each other about projects that you want to take?
MAE WHITMAN I get really, really upset and jealous, and Jane has to come over and hold me like a baby and rock me to sleep every time we go out for the same part. (Laughter.) No, I’m just kidding. Honestly, it’s funny, I forgot that we sort of are in that category together. I think when you get to know somebody so well, you see the whole picture. I feel like we both have very specific and unique personalities, and I think what we bring to the table is so different. I feel like we’re an exact yin and yang. I feel like all the energy and spirit and athletic grace, all of that went to Jane, and then I got whatever the tired part of yin and yang is.
JANE LEVY Yeah, right. Mae is the funniest person on the planet.
WHITMAN Here we go.
LEVY You are a comedic genius. We definitely consult each other. I wouldn’t be doing Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist if it weren’t for Mae. We talk about parts, we send each other the scripts.
WHITMAN We’ve also been known to both go into auditions and be like, “We are not right for this, but my friend is actually the person for this.” We’ve both done that.
LEVY Mae has been working in this business for so long and she’s so good at it that she can really break down script and story and genre and what the experience is going to be like if you’re working in this city or that city. She’s a great person to consult with because she is really good at this job and knows so much of the ins and outs. So she was really helpful when I was deciding whether to do Zoey’s. And I’m really, really glad that she encouraged me to do it.
WHITMAN I get overwhelmed very easily and I’m very sensitive, so it’s hard for me to make decisions, and I have to talk things out a lot. One thing that really helps me is the influence of my closest friends. I have these two people who are really close and know me so well that it’s such a gift. I feel so grateful that I can fully put my life in their hands. I bring this up because the other person is [Parenthood co-star and Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist actress] Lauren Graham. She is somebody who I feel the same way about. These are two women in my life who I can just put my decisions in their hands. And that, to me, feels like the greatest gift of the universe — when I’m just too fatigued or I can’t see past my own perspective on something, I can go to Jane and Lauren and be like, “Should I do this? What is this? Is this anything?” When you have friends who know you better than you know yourself, it’s such a spiritual gift to be able to turn and get their perspective on things. Let alone projects, I couldn’t decide what to have for breakfast without them.
What are the best and worst parts about being a working actor today?
WHITMAN I don’t know any other way. I’ve been working since I was like 2, so it’s so deeply ingrained in me that it sticks to my bones. I feel my most comfortable on a set. I feel the most comfortable making a family with crew. It’s where I enjoy being and where I thrive. I’m trying to think of the worst part. Driving to Santa Monica to audition and wear makeup and a nice bra is sort of unpleasant. I guess that’s one bad thing.
LEVY I would say the best part is the work itself. I love acting. I love it so, so much. The worst part is the part of the business that I for some reason have thought it was more feminist to just not even acknowledge, which is the dress up, look pretty part. For some reason, I’ve always been hard on myself about it, like if I don’t even mention it and just do it, it makes it more radical. But the truth is, it makes me feel terrible. Putting on makeup and a dress to look as pretty as possible, I feel so insecure every single time I go to an event. I’m really trying to be honest with myself about that whole experience, but the idea that as an actress your job is to look pretty to promote something — I totally understand from a human nature perspective of just being an attractive person to attract audience members, but it really makes me feel all these terrible things that I’ve tried to ignore my whole life about being a lovable woman.
WHITMAN I’m used to the ’90s, when it was Sandra Bullock showing up to a premiere in a cute satin top from Limited Too and a leather jacket and a Planet Hollywood hat — there was less of this conscious effort to [look a certain way]. It’s hard to try to manufacture feeling your best, because there’s a lot that goes into feeling good and going out and being exuberant. It’s more than just hair and makeup. You can plaster stuff on there but still not really be feeling the energy or whatever it is. That can definitely be tricky.
Like dressing up for the male gaze versus the female gaze.
LEVY I’m always fielding my own internalized patriarchal expectations. So much of how I operate is defined by the patriarchy in ways that I’m still unconscious of, and so much of what we are fielding as actresses all the time is notes from men, notes from male executives, directors, notes about our wardrobe, notes about how our bodies react in this situation. You’re always like, “Hmm, is this a good note? Or is this actually just how a man thinks?” And it’s not always bad, but it’s just not how I am as a woman, as a human. There have been more women in roles of producers or cinematographers in my life, and I’ve noticed a huge shift when there is a woman I can look to for direction. There’s obviously generalizations to be made here, but I have seen that women are able to see more holistically and just see a broader picture. It feels so fucking good to have. I’m so happy that the conversation is shifting and that there are mandates now, because it makes a world of difference and I’m learning so much about myself throughout this process.
WHITMAN I’ve been so lucky that on the past few jobs I’ve had, there’s this collective sense of trust and respect and saying, “Listen, we brought you here because we trust you, now go do your job.” I feel like it gives everyone a sense of ownership over what they’re creating. And especially on this job, I’m so lucky I am working with two incredible women [co-stars Retta and Christina Hendricks] who are so intelligent. I go to them all the time for questions, things I don’t understand. We make big decisions as a group. And on top of that, our boss is Jenna Bans, who is this incredibly brilliant, kind, open, smart, genius woman. I can go to her with the most nuanced questions, the most sensitive problems, things that are really deep inside, and I am always met with the exact amount of sensitivity and consideration and respect and kindness and openness that I would hope for in only my wildest dreams.
For me to be able to direct this year, I’ve been [working] for so long, but still I’m so insecure and afraid. I think it really took me being in a situation where I felt seen and respected and understood. The people that I work with genuinely want me to succeed. They genuinely want to know my perspective. I’m so grateful that I get to actualize this dream of trying to get into the zone of making things ourselves. That’s something Jane and I have always wanted to do, we’ve always wanted to work together. I’m excited to share whatever my thing is and see whoever connects with it and keep going down that road. And Jane, whenever we do our movie, I think we should both just wear Planet Hollywood jackets and no makeup.
LEVY I’ll do it if you do it.
Interview edited for length and clarity.
This story first appeared in a June stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
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