This story first appeared in the June 7 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
The only thing lacking in The Hollywood Reporter‘s kickoff Emmy Roundtable event held April 6 in Hollywood was, well, drama. The six women who gathered to talk on a sunny Saturday afternoon — Connie Britton, 46 (ABC’s Nashville), Anna Gunn, 44 (AMC’s Breaking Bad), Kate Mara, 30 (Netflix’s House of Cards), Elisabeth Moss, 30 (AMC’s Mad Men, Sundance’s Top of the Lake), Monica Potter, 41 (NBC’s Parenthood), and Kerry Washington, 36 (ABC’s Scandal) — chatted with such relaxed candor about their lives and work, it was easy to forget they headline some of the most dramatic series on television. Between trading war stories about terrible jobs, wearing Spanx to auditions, their confusion over social media and one’s utter love for Cheez Whiz, these ladies launched THR‘s Emmy Roundtable Series 2013.
The Hollywood Reporter: What was the worst job you had while trying to become an actress?
Monica Potter: I worked at a restaurant called Chi-Chi’s — for one day.
Kerry Washington: Did you get fired or did you leave?
Potter: I quit. That was in Cleveland, back in the day … but go ahead, I didn’t mean to [interrupt]! Welcome to The Real Housewives. And no, I’m not Camille Grammer. Don’t say it!
Elisabeth Moss: You’re so not Camille!
Connie Britton: I worked at The Gap and discovered I am not a good folder. That was when I was really pounding the pavement in New York for acting work. I also did murder mystery dinner theater in the Poconos.
Potter: Now we’re talking!
Anna Gunn: Oh, that’s good.
Potter: I did a Mexican game show. It was called Nubeluz. I had to sing and dance. It was like You Can’t Do That on Television, except the FCC wouldn’t let us into Mexico because we were holding kids’ heads underwater. So it was filmed in Lima, Peru.
Britton: Wow, how exotic!
Moss: I worked at the silent movie theater here in L.A., but that actually was kind of cool. Though, I didn’t like cleaning the bathrooms as much. People are really messy in movie theaters. You’d expect it to be a respectful experience, not popcorn all over the floor, and Coke, and … sticky.
Kate Mara: That’s not what’s sticky. (Laughter.)
Washington: It wasn’t one of my worst jobs, but I used to be a substitute teacher for New York City schools. It was great and hard, and I even did it after I started working in films. But I had to stop after I did Save the Last Dance because the students were like, “Chenille is substituting!”
Potter: So you’re like really smart in real life, huh?
Washington: No, no.
Potter: You probably went to college too.
Washington: I did.
Potter: I’m going to college! My oldest is in college now, and I thought, “Wouldn’t it be fun to go to school with him?”
Washington: Yeah, he’s not having that.
Gunn: My worst job was in Chicago during the summer. I was a terrible waitress, a terrible temp, so the only job I could get that would let me off to audition was for a cleaning service called Merry Maids. We were doing cleanouts for apartments after leases were up in huge towers downtown. Humid, 110-degree weather, and the A/C was off. I thought, “I have to make this acting thing work or I’m going to be scrubbing toilets.”
THR: What’s the most surprising thing about being a working actress?
Mara: Maybe I’m just lucky, but I feel like people are generally nice and generous and not that dramatic.
Moss: Yeah, especially actresses. I think people expect us to be clawing at each other.
Potter: It’s a sisterhood. But it’s not all roses and daisies. Uh oh, I think I just quoted a Real Housewife. (Laughter.)
Gunn (To Britton): I remember seeing you at auditions years ago, and we struck up a friendship just from seeing each other in those rooms. It was nice to meet somebody that you could talk to and there wasn’t the vibe of, “Oh, I can’t talk to you because we’re going in for the same job.”
THR: Last year, January Jones told THR a story about her audition for Coyote Ugly during which Jerry Bruckheimer told her she was a terrible dancer. What’s your worst audition?
Potter: I’d like to see him dance. Jerry, put on the tap shoes, brother!
Moss: Well, sometimes, you think something went badly, and then you get it! Or …
Britton: “We just didn’t get you.”
Gunn: “We just didn’t respond to you.”
Potter: OK, I have a good one. I’d just had my last kid, Molly. She’s 7 now. And my agents were like, “OK, let’s get out there again!” And it takes me a couple years to lose the baby chub. It just does. I gain about 60 or 70 pounds while pregnant. I’m not one of these girls hitting the yoga mat. I like to eat Cheetos, I’m not going to lie. And after I have the kid, I like to have some drinks.
Mara: Were you drunk when you [auditioned]?
Potter: I wasn’t, I should have been. I was pushing like 180 pounds at the time. I’m like, “You guys, I just don’t feel physically fit yet.” I had my Spanx on and looked like a damn sausage, but I went in and thought I did a really good job. I got home and get the call from my agents. I’m like, “I did good, right?” And they say, “You did great. The problem is you’re just …” “I’m too fat.” “Yeah, we’re just going to wait a little bit.” I said, “I already told you this!” The weight thing is a crappy thing in this town, you know? So I just ate some Cheez Whiz.
Britton: Cheez Whiz is so awesome.
Moss: On the first season of Mad Men, I had to wear a fat suit and prosthetic makeup to make me look bigger. You spend your whole career thinking that you have to be one way. Then I got this amazing job and had to pretend to gain 50 pounds? We all have this perception of what we’re supposed to look like. But that’s what’s so great about all these women here today: We’re all completely different-looking, you know? We’re all beautiful, but real women.
Britton: I agree. I’ve never had somebody say to me that I needed to look a certain way for a role, but I’ve always lived in dread of what that would be like. It’s our responsibility to play these full-fledged women, and to play women who look like people we actually see in life. It’s more interesting, and I think audiences appreciate it, too.
Washington: It’s a little bit different for me because I’ll audition for something and they’ll just decide that they’re not going “ethnic” with a character, which I hear a lot.
THR: Casting directors still use the word “ethnic”?
Washington: If not “black,” then yeah. People have artistic license … that’s what casting is: fitting the right look to the right character. Whereas you could maybe lose some weight, there’s not really anything I can do, nor would I want to, about being black.
THR: What is the craziest thing you’ve ever done to get a role?
Mara (To Washington): Oh, you have one, you’re already laughing!
Washington: I’ve written a lot of letters to directors.
Mara: Yeah, I’ve done that too.
Moss: I don’t know if it works.
Washington: It has and it hasn’t.
Britton: Maybe you need to write a different letter? (Laughs.)
Moss: If you paste it together with letters from newspapers. Wait, is that weird?
Britton: You put little, tiny pictures of yourself in your different moods!
Washington: It has only worked one time.
Potter: Do you send it to their house?
Washington: The production office, or whatever.
Moss: You could take it to their house, show real passion.
Washington: Boom box over my head!
Britton: The ones I fight for really hard, I don’t get.
Washington: But when you look back, don’t you feel like there is a logic to how things have fallen into place? Like, if only I could have known then what I know now, I would have cried a lot less! Those heartbreak moments. Before Scandal, the only other two pilots I’d ever done were shows that got picked up, but I got fired. They recast my character on both shows.
Mara: Oh, that’s horrible.
Washington: But if I had gotten picked up on one of them, I wouldn’t have been able to do Ray. You know what I mean? It seems at the time like a my-career-is-over moment, but it makes perfect sense in the end.
THR: How involved are you in the writing of your characters? Matt Weiner has said the actors aren’t too involved on Mad Men.
Mara: (To Moss) Really?
Moss: Yeah. But why would I be involved? What am I going to come up with that’s better? I’m not a writer, so I wouldn’t dare to try to come up with a better idea.
THR: Monica, did the Parenthood writers talk with you in advance about your character’s cancer storyline?
Potter: Around this time last year, I went in for a mammogram. They said, “We found a little something, we need you to come back in a few weeks.” I went home, panicked and thought, “This is BS. Nobody in my family has breast cancer!” And I e-mailed Jason [Katims, Parenthood creator] and said, “You know, I’m really scared about something … can we maybe explore this storyline for Kristina?” I knew his wife, Kathy, had gone through it. He e-mailed back and said, “Oh my God, I have the chills. I’m in the writers room, we just broke this same story for Kristina.”
Potter: So it was just kismet. I went back to the doctor, and I’m fine now, obviously. But so it was one of those things where he said, “I really want you to be a part of this collaboration.” Though, I’m always asking the writers to write less for me! I get nervous in the big family scenes where everyone’s talking. So, I just eat in those scenes. It makes it much easier. I’m just going to eat a piece of ham or some chicken.
Britton: Or Cheez Whiz. (Laughs.)
Moss: Did you know your character was going to survive?
Potter: I kind of knew because Kathy had made it. A lot of what’s written mirrors what’s going on in Jason’s life, including his son being on the autism spectrum.
Gunn: [Breaking Bad creator Vince Gilligan] knew my character’s story very intimately, and in a very detailed way, from the beginning. But we did some talking at the beginning because she wasn’t particularly clear to me. She was a tough character to play; very shrouded, keeps everything pretty close to the vest. I needed to know more so that I could play her.
Gunn: One of the things that was bothersome to me was in the pilot, Walt was working two jobs and Skyler was at home. I asked, “What is she doing at home all day? He’s taking the kid to school and everything else. And what is she doing?” And Vince said, “She’s pregnant.” And I said, “Yeah? And?” (Laughter.)
Washington: I love that!
Gunn: And he said, “Well, she’s just taking it easy.” And I said, “Well, you know, people still do things when they’re pregnant.” So we came up with something for her to do at home, which ultimately fell by the wayside, but that made it more understandable for me. It was important for me, and Vince respected that.
Mara: As House of Cards went on, I felt as if Zoe was doing things that I do. Really, really subtle things. Not sexually! (Laughs.) But as simple as she’s sitting at home eating raw carrots for dinner. That’s one of those things I do, too. Also, Beau [Willimon, showrunner] got to know me really well, and we would joke about how my notes on scripts were always, “I think I should say less. Like, let’s cross out these lines. Less is more!”
THR: Kerry, you’ve been pretty active politically. Have you experienced any career blowback or any negative reaction to that kind of stuff?
Washington: I come from a family where people really participate in the democratic process. I don’t think that being an actor should prevent me from continuing to do the things I do. A lot of people fought for me to have the right as a woman to be able to participate, and as a person of color, and so I don’t want my acting to get in the way of that. I do it as an American. And blowback? Absolutely. After I spoke at the Democratic National Convention — our show has a very active life on Twitter and Facebook — I couldn’t go near any of it because there were threats to my life, sexism and racism. It was shocking that me speaking at a convention incited all this anger. Thank God for block on Twitter!
THR: What were they angry about, specifically? Just the audacity of an actor speaking at the convention?
Washington: I guess so, and also disagreeing with my views, which I totally think is great. I would never block somebody for disagreeing with me. But the threats to my life … that’s not so good.
Britton: Last year, I co-wrote an op-ed because [Mitt] Romney had started using “Clear eyes, full hearts, can’t lose,” the motto from Friday Night Lights, in his campaign. I did the piece with Sarah Aubrey, our executive producer on the show, about the actual intent of that slogan and what the women of Friday Night Lights would think of Romney using it. I was really nervous because we had just started doing Nashville, and I got really scared about what people would think. I don’t do Twitter, so I probably missed a lot of the reactions. And then Hurricane Sandy happened …
Washington: That was nice and distracting!
THR: What’s the best or worst career advice you’ve ever been given?
Gunn: When I was a young actor, somebody said, “If there’s anything else you feel you can do, you should do it.”
Mara: Wait, was that good advice or bad advice?
Gunn: It was good! It was from another actress, a teacher of mine, and she just meant acting is tough, so if there’s anything else that is pulling your heart or your desire, then you should go for that. But if this is in your blood so deeply that you need to do it, then you know that’s the thing.
Mara: My mom has always been really, really supportive of me and my sister [actress Rooney Mara] since we were kids. It’s all I ever wanted to do, and no one in my family had ever acted before. It was very new, and she had no idea how to help me go that route, how to get an agent — none of that. It was all very foreign to us. I mean, I was playing the tree in The Wizard of Oz for the first 10 years of my acting career.
Washington: That’s a lot of trees.
Mara: How did I never get Dorothy? I’m still upset about that! Red hair and everything.
Moss: You were too good of a tree.
Mara: But that support … was the best thing. She never doubted me. Or if she did, she certainly never told me.
Moss: I did this miniseries recently, Top of the Lake, with Jane Campion, and she gave me the best piece of advice I’ve ever gotten before an audition. We were on the phone, and I was going to be putting myself on tape with the casting director and sending it to Australia. I was so nervous just talking to her. And she said, “You don’t have to hit the bull’s-eye. Just get the dart on the board.” And as an actress, I was like, “Oh my God, thank you!”
Mara: That’s such a relief.
Moss: Yes, I don’t have to come in and give you this fully realized character. I can show you a sketch; an idea. It should be a collaboration. I think that advice probably helped me to get the part because it relaxed me.
Potter: Can I say something?
Washington: Please, please, please, please.
Potter: My stomach’s growling.
Moss: Mine is too.
Britton: Oh no, mine is too!
Potter: But back to advice. … I’m one of four girls, and we are all athletic. And my dad would always say, “Think of yourself like a baseball player. Step up to the plate, take a deep breath and get your feet grounded. Point to over the fence, swing, imagine your scene going over the fence and the crowd cheering.”
THR: What is the biggest personal sacrifice you’ve made for your careers?
Britton: Going to do Nashville right after I just adopted my baby. That was big. I had just become a mother and moved to a town where I didn’t know a soul and started working 16 hours a day without a support system.
Washington: What did you do?
Britton: Well, I’m still doing it. Luckily I work with wonderful people who are really supportive, and people in Nashville have been so great. I have a nanny who came with us. That’s been great, but it’s been challenging, I’m not going to lie.
Potter: It’s tough when you have kids to sort of go, “Oh boy, am I going to miss this parent-teacher meeting?” You feel this guilt. But you also have to look at it like, “OK, Mom’s going to work, putting food on the table.” That’s how I grew up: blue-collar, working-class home, and kids have to understand that. You have to have a life of balance and not feel guilty because I think that kids can sense that.
Britton: Oh yeah, even at 2, they can sense it.
THR: What about loss of privacy?
Mara: I don’t experience that.
Britton: Me either.
Mara: Maybe at the airport, but it’s never anything crazy …
Britton: That’s the one place where I’m like, “Gosh, you guys really dig me!” I got in last night from Nashville, and this woman, the greeter, came to take me out to my car. Their job is to keep the paparazzi away from you. Still, there was one guy — he was actually very courteous — and we started walking to the car, and she looked behind us and said, “Oh God, they’re coming! Run!” Literally I was running down the sidewalk of the airport dragging my bag, feeling ridiculous. “Are they going to photograph me running away from them? That’s going to be really embarrassing.”
Potter: That does sound exciting!
Britton: I didn’t have my son with me last night, which was the first time that was the case. They always get me with my son, which I don’t really love, but I’ve never had to run. Let’s put it that way.
THR: What’s the strangest fan interaction you’ve experienced?
Moss: The backhanded compliments. “You look skinnier or younger in real life.” And it’s like, “You know that’s not a compliment, right?”
Mara: But they really don’t.
Britton: We were shooting in a grocery store in Nashville, and when they called cut, there were these two older ladies standing there. One of them grabbed me and said, “You look so much bigger on camera!” And I’m like, “Thank you?”
Potter: Maybe she meant taller?
Britton: I told myself that. (Laughs.)
Moss: People always say to me, “You’re so short. Like, really small, really short.”
Potter: It’s better than, “Hey, you’re a fat ass!”
Gunn: People in Albuquerque are crazy about Breaking Bad. And the thing that I didn’t expect was how much people got into the characters, and this incredible backlash against Skyler. I wasn’t really aware it was happening until people started telling me, “Your character is a bitch. Did you know that?” And I was like, “I do now!” There were blogs about it, and having a daughter who’s 12 — I know that she’s guarded from that stuff at my house, but maybe not at other people’s homes — it became a real area of concern. It was interesting that this gender war broke out — she’s such a bitch, she’s nagging with Walt because he’s cooking crystal meth. She’s ruining all the fun.
THR: Scandal has had a lot of success engaging viewers on Twitter. Kerry, do you feel that the personal involvement with fans is a good thing?
Washington: Yeah. I mean, you read the good stuff. … But I don’t tweet about my personal life. I don’t tweet things that are about me.
THR: Do the rest of you feel pressure to interact with fans in that way?
Britton: I’m starting to, a little bit.
Moss: I had to have someone explain to me what the hashtag was.
Britton: Oh, I still don’t know what it is.
Potter: I’m thinking hash browns.
Mara: And on your show (to Washington), they have it on the bottom of the screen and in the middle of a dramatic scene, they’ll be like, “Hashtag, ‘Where’s Tuley?’ “
Moss: So the hashtag is the symbol?
Washington: It’s like a Google search on Twitter.
Moss: OK, thank you.
Britton: So if you had your own Twitter account, it would be like, hashtag, and then your name?
Washington: No, that’s an “at” sign.
Gunn: This is so strange, I had no idea!
Washington: I work with a woman who is a digital social media consultant because I was terrified to go on Twitter. She helped me to figure out how to engage — as an actor — to promote the work without promoting myself. It’s scary. It’s this whole other universe.
Britton: The self-promotion aspect of it …
Washington: … is awful. It feels disgusting. So you want to feel like there’s a purpose around it.
Britton: That’s never what it’s been about for me.
Washington: I’ll give you her number!
THR: A final question. If you could be on any other show in the history of TV, what would it be?
Potter: Three’s Company, hands down. I could play Chrissy’s sister. Or anyone.
Britton: Mary Tyler Moore. Such a perfect show. They were all such amazing, rich characters, and she got to be so badass, funny, smart and in charge of her life. It was just a great inspiration.
Mara: Mine’s not as inspirational, but I was really obsessed with My So-Called Life. And it was only on what, like, one season? Which is my dream, because I don’t want to have any job commitment, and so that would be perfect!
Gunn: I’m sort of thinking The Wire.
THR: So something light and totally different from Breaking Bad. (Laughter.)
Washington: More drugs!
Gunn: It’s good to be bad, you know? [I’d] definitely be the bad guys.
Mara: Yeah. Hashtag bad!