Oscar Roundtable: The Actresses

Five actresses chat about stage fright, becoming professionals and the moment they knew they were meant to perform.

Just as the awards season race began warming up, five actresses -- Amy Adams (Miramax's "Doubt"), Sally Hawkins (Miramax's "Happy-Go-Lucky"), Taraji P. Henson (Paramount's "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button"), Emma Thompson (Overture's "Last Chance Harvey") and Michelle Williams (Oscilloscope Pictures' "Wendy and Lucy") -- met with The Hollywood Reporter's Stephen Galloway and Elizabeth Guider to talk about their profession and what led them to it.

The Hollywood Reporter: When was the exact moment when you first started thinking about acting? When was the moment that you said, "Yes, this is the thing the I really want to do"?

Sally Hawkins: (Laughs.) At the circus. I was about 3. It was just a realizing of, "I can make people laugh and get paid for that." I thought I wanted to go into comedy, but then I ended up doing theater stuff.

THR: Emma, what about you? You grew up in a theatrical family.

Emma Thompson: Yes, I did. There was a lot of juggling before breakfast, I can tell you. (Laughs.) Like Sally, I wanted to be a comedian. My mom was an actress; my dad was an actor. I resisted it for a long time. I wanted to be a hospital administrator. A hospital administrator came to the school, and I thought, "Hmm, you get to control people. Very interesting."

THR: Amy, what was the exact moment for you?

Amy Adams: I'm still waiting for it. (Laughter.) I trained as a ballet dancer, and so that's what I always thought I was going to do. But as I got into dance, I realized dance didn't really fit me. My personality goes better with musical theater. Ballet dancing was too disciplined, really straining. And I was always talking and smiling.

Taraji P. Henson: In kindergarten, at the graduation ceremony, they had certain kids come up and say little things. I was the loudest, most charismatic little kid up there. And whatever I said did it, because the audience was like "Ha ha ha!" and I was like, "Wow!" Then in high school, I remember seeing (1980's) "Fame" and was like, "I really want to go to a spectacular school like that." In Washington, D.C., where I was born and raised, there's a high school for the performing arts called Duke Ellington. So I auditioned, but I didn't make it. I thought that meant I couldn't act, so I was crushed. I wanted to throw myself under a bus; I wanted to slit my wrists, because my best friend got accepted. I didn't. So I had to go to a regular school, and I never toyed with the idea again. I thought I was going to go to college for electrical engineering. Anyway, I get to college and I failed precalc. Not calculus. Precalc! The class that preps you for all the math you have to do. I remember calling home crying and going, "Daddy, I want to get out of here." And he knew that wasn't what I wanted to do. So he said, "Come back home. I always knew you were an actor." So I left, enrolled at Howard, and never looked back.

THR: What did your parents do?

Henson: My dad was a metal fabricator, and my mom worked for what is now Macy's Co. She didn't want me to starve.

THR: Have you starved?

Henson: I wouldn't say "starved," but I became a mother young, and so when I came out here, my family -- this is so cute -- they passed a hat around and raised $700. So me and my baby came out here.

Michelle Williams: I had a similar moment of being a kid and seeing a play and holding on to my seat like I would be propelled onto the stage. It was this rinky-dink production of "Tom Sawyer," and it was in a basement and the ceiling was leaking and the costumes were bad, but it just was: "Done!" And then it just became this way out. I got emancipated from my parents when I was young, and I moved here to Los Angeles, and it was a way out.

Thompson: When you say emancipated, why do you use that word?

Williams: It's a legal term. It's like a divorce.

Thompson: You got divorced from your parents?

Williams: Like irreconcilable differences.

Thompson: How old were you?

Williams: I was 15. I wasn't happy at school, so I left and graduated from a correspondence school. It was a very shady education; I finished in three years and I don't know if it still exists -- I bought it in the back of a magazine for a few hundred bucks. But that is one of the (conditions) for being emancipated: You have to get your diploma or your GED.

Thompson: That is incredibly brave of you.

THR: Do you regret it at all?

Williams: No, not at all. I feel really far away from it. It used to be this very defining moment. My whole identity was wrapped up in the fact that I was independent and that I had done this thing. But now it just feels like another lifetime, and I'm just so happy that I'm alive, because it's a lot to look after yourself when you're 15 in L.A. A big problem was that I couldn't legally drive, so I drove on a learner's permit and luckily didn't have any problems for six months.

Thompson: This is a question for all of us. What age did you start earning a living? I started when I was 19.

THR: You were at Cambridge University then?

Thompson: Yes, but I paid my way throughout the university. My father died young, so at that point all of us had to earn our own living. My first job was a comedy revue. What I'm trying to get at actually is that it seems to me that we have five women who were earning their own living. They're very independent when they are very, very young. I wonder if that is a commonality in actresses.

Adams: I've worked since I was 12. I'm one of seven kids, so if you wanted anything, you had to work for it. I didn't go to the university because there weren't options in my family. And I stopped the athletic options. I was supposed to stick with track because I was really quick and I could run fast, but I told them, "I want to dance." So I pursued that, and I have been working on my own since I was 17. I taught kids when I was in high school. That's how I paid for my dance classes. I worked in a dancewear store. I just waited to get out of school. I wasn't one of those people who enjoyed being in school. I regret not getting an education, though. (To Thompson) I read that you've really educated yourself, and you read a lot of really intense, smart books, and I'm so busy reading everything off the national best-seller list. I try to desperately read those novels and I think, "I should have at least gone to community college or something!"

THR: Do you think the intellectual background helps?

Thompson: I always say to young people who want to be actors, "Have another string to your bow if you can. Train your brain if you can." If I hadn't trained my brain, then I don't think I would have ever been able to write. Writing has freed me a lot.

THR: Has writing changed what you've done as an actor?

Thompson: Not really. I love acting. For me, acting is an absolute release and writing is harder. But I discovered something about writing quite recently, which was, I'm prone to depression and to all sorts of mental illnesses. With writing, if you ever get sick, you can pick a pen up and say, "I have to write." And you should certainly write your early experiences because they're fascinating.

THR: Sally, when you worked with "Happy-Go-Lucky" writer-director Mike Leigh, how involved with the writing were you?

Hawkins: Because you never get to the see the script, you're in collaboration, and you're improvising. There were months of preparation. Six months of building a character and building a character's relationships with other characters. You're creating a whole world. You're creating memories to the tiniest details. Different films have different routes. It's just creating a very real world for the actors to tap into. You're not allowed to talk about it. You're not allowed to tell your friends.

THR: Do you write down notes?

Hawkins: I do, just for me. But I know that he doesn't really like it. If you're writing in character, that's another thing, but if you're writing as an actor ...

Williams: I once did a Mike Leigh play, "Smelling a Rat." Everything means something. There is no extraneous material.

THR: How is theater different from film?

Henson: For me, it's the one time you get to live the whole life of the character. But theater is for the strong. It's not for everyone. You don't have the luxury of "I messed up my line. Can I get another take?"

Adams: But I love that. With films, I don't own my performances as much. I become a voyeur of myself, which is really strange.

THR: What do you prefer?

Thompson: I prefer film. Because I'm a morning person. I know that sounds utterly pathetic, but I did a musical for 15 months. Eight shows a week with Robert Lindsay in the West End, and I became clinically depressed even though I was being paid to be cheerful. But by the end of the night, you were ready to take morphine. So 15 months in, I thought, "I don't think I can do that again." Also, musicals are dreadfully hard. I had no life at all. I lived like a nun. I didn't drink. I didn't have sex. I was 24, for crying out loud. No wonder I was depressed.

Williams: I was really superstitious when I did it. About that. About sleeping, about drinking and sex and food. It's about the energy. When I film, you can take a nap or listen to music. But with theater, there's that energy.

THR: Do you ever get afraid of being onstage?

Henson: At first you do, until you get that instant validation where you go, "Oh, they love me."

Williams: There's a moment when you get relief, but before that, you feel like you're going to be ill.

Adams: I think I learned to act because, as a dancer, I had such bad stage fright. You're just sitting there thinking, "I agreed to this? It's my own fault!"

THR: You were more afraid of dancing than acting?

Adams: It's (more) the singing onstage. That fear of forgetting your lines. Of cracking.

Thompson: Have you ever done standup?

Adams: Oh my gosh.

Thompson: Don't. (Laughter.)

THR: Have you ever played a character you don't like?

Henson: A pregnant whore (2005's "Hustle & Flow")? I never wanted to be a whore, but it's about trying to find that humanity, the why-she-ended-up-on-this-road. I did a very elaborate background story on her. You always start with the character's name: Shug. Short for Sugar. Meaning she had to be the sweetest person. That was one big trait that I wanted to show. She was so wounded. She was almost like a diamond in the rough. I just remember saying that when people come to see this movie, I want them to want to reach through the screen and try to save her. As opposed to some sassy little hooker.

THR: What do you do when a director has a different vision?

Adams: You refuse to come out of your trailer until they bend to your will. (Laughs.)

Thompson: If you're working with a good director, then they're like an editor. They let you do what you want.

Hawkins: That ability to talk and listen (is important). Talking to you as a human being. A sense of humor.

Thompson: The capacity to be complicit, to make a plan with you, to play with you. Ang Lee, the first note he gave to me (on 1995's "Sense and Sensibility") was, "Could you do that again, but not so boring?" The next note was "Don't look so old." We used to shriek with laughter. But yes, that's very useful. Because he wasn't being mean, he was just being completely honest -- and he couldn't speak English very well.

THR: Did he do that to you on 2005's "Brokeback Mountain"?

Williams: He did that to the boys more. With me, he was very compassionate. He was so gentle; he would literally just hold my hand and say, "I know, I know, I know." He was just so dear to me. I think it was because that was what I needed. Personally I'm shy, and I work best when somebody trusts me. With the boys, he was very tough. They would say, "How was that?" and Ang would just say, "That was good" -- when they'd just poured their hearts out. But that's a good director, too, you know. Knowing what each actor needs.

THR: Have you had any terrible experiences with a director?

Henson: I had a director who wasn't prepared. He didn't know what he was doing. No vision. It was an independent. I'm pretty uninhibited, but if I don't trust you, I pull back. Working with David Fincher (on "Benjamin Button") was the most amazing moment in my career. They talk about how many takes he does, (but) at the end of the day, you walk away thinking you did it all.

THR: Did the special effects inhibit your performance?

Henson: Oh, I could totally work through it. I played a 50-year-old woman, a 70-year-old woman. I just remember (Jacqueline West), the costume woman, she's incredible. I remember her putting the fat suit on me, and she put these shoes on. These shoes were so worn. They were like these little old-woman shoes, and the right foot leaned a little bit. I remember trying to force my foot, but then a little voice in my head said, "Use it." You'll see in the movie, Queenie has this walk. Whenever they would yell action, I would go into this walk and they would scream, "Oh my God! You look like my grandmother!"

THR: Does being well-known limit the roles you can play?

Thompson: I'm a character actress, always have been. So I don't think I've had that problem. It's much better to be a character actress.

Henson: I'm always fighting against the characters I've played. If you do something really well, they just want to keep you in that little box and they don't recognize you're a trained artist who can do pretty much anything.