Gillian Anderson had been dreading this. A tripod had arrived at her home in the U.K., along with a mess of lights and, really, just the thought of having to sit through an hour-plus on Zoom had her practically reeling. But then the woman who stuns as Margaret Thatcher in the most recent season of Netflix’s The Crown got talking — about pigeonholing and pay equity, about grieving and giving oneself over — and soon she didn’t want to stop talking. And neither did anyone else — The Queen’s Gambit‘s Anya Taylor-Joy, Pose‘s Mj Rodriguez, Genius: Aretha‘s Cynthia Erivo, WandaVision’s Elizabeth Olsen and Ratched‘s Sarah Paulson — at THR’s annual (virtual) Drama Actress Roundtable.
Let’s start easy. Complete this sentence: On set, I’m the one who is most likely to be …
GILLIAN ANDERSON Hiding in a corner. (Laughter.)
ANYA TAYLOR-JOY Pacing whilst moving my hands like this (waving above) trying to figure out what it is that I’m doing.
SARAH PAULSON Bossing everyone around.
ELIZABETH OLSEN Probably trying to make the crew laugh.
At the same time, you’re also inhabiting characters for long stretches and often they require you to go to dark or heavy places. What happens when a director yells, “Cut”? Do they come home with you?
MJ RODRIGUEZ I try to separate myself from Blanca as much as possible, especially [because we’re] dealing with immense trauma. So, when I go home, it’s Michaela Jaé going home, and I bring Blanca to the set. It’s easier that way because it can weigh on you otherwise and wash off on your family.
TAYLOR-JOY I wish I had as much control over it. For me, there are some characters that you can very easily snap in and out of and then there are other ones like Beth in The Queen’s Gambit. I’d worked back-to-back on two projects with one day off in between, so by the time I got to filming the show, I was exhausted and there was no energy to create a barrier. And that was potentially the toughest thing about the show, because it was a wonderful experience as an actor to be able to not have to reach for any emotion, but then you also have to go through the psychological warfare of figuring out, “Why do I feel so awful in the morning?” Like, “What is happening?” And then you go, “Oh, it’s not my feelings,” but I have to sit in them all day and I have to be aware enough to go, “You are not depressed, the character is depressed, and at some point that will leave you.” But I do think a bath every single night — being able to have the visual representation of washing yourself clean of something — helps.
OLSEN Regardless of what exactly the day requires of you, emotionally, you’re just tired. And so you try to be patient and professional and kind, and then when you go home, that’s when your fuse is just … smaller. (Laughter.)
TAYLOR-JOY You should date us, we’re fabulous.
Cynthia, I’ve heard you say that after making Harriet, you had a mini breakdown, and I can’t imagine Aretha was any easier to let go of …
CYNTHIA ERIVO I did, it was a real ugly cry. After playing [Harriet Tubman in the 2019 film], I went straight to see my mother in London and I don’t know what happened, but I just broke. You know the visual representation of shattering glass? That was what was happening to me. All the stuff I had to dig through to play her, all that heartbreaking stuff didn’t leave me when I finished, and it took time to just dissipate. And it was the same with Aretha — unfortunately, the pandemic hit when we were in the middle of shooting, so I couldn’t completely get rid of her during the six-month hiatus, and then I had to go right back into playing her. And it’s little things, like mannerisms, that stick with you. The lilt in her voice when she’s speaking to people. Like, that’s not me but I was stuck with that for a bit. And I was recording an album at the same time, so there was no space between one and the other. It took me a while before I could listen to an Aretha song again.
ANDERSON I certainly had that experience doing X-Files for nine seasons. I had a good couple of mini breakdowns during that, and at the end, could not talk about it, could not see it, could not see pictures, could not. I needed to immerse immediately in theater in another country. And then after a while, I was able to embrace it again, but when I started to embrace it, it was almost like I separated myself so much that I was looking at the image as if it was another person. When you immerse yourself so entirely as we can and we do for such long periods of time, there’s not going to be no consequence to that. Of course there’s going to be consequence to that.
TAYLOR-JOY May I pose a question to the group?
TAYLOR-JOY It’s so wonderful hearing you two talk about this, because I’ve always felt really crazy for the depressions that you go into after you leave a character and not being able to necessarily connect with yourself. And I’m really curious to hear what your relationship is with something being seen. Because when I first started working, I convinced myself that filmmaking was a very private practice with a private group of people and that no one was ever going to see it. And I thought I’d grow out of that, and I haven’t. Every project I have to sit myself down about two months after it’s finished and go, “People are going to see this and have access to it whenever they want.” How do you guys work [handle that]? Because for Queen’s Gambit, I had to go through a grieving period. It was grief, genuinely, to think, “Oh goodness, this thing that I loved so much is not mine anymore.”
ANDERSON I had that experience after doing Blanche in Streetcar [Named Desire] here in the U.K. and then in New York.
OLSEN I saw your last performance in New York. You were fabulous.
PAULSON Fucking phenomenal.
ANDERSON I felt like I’d lost my best friend. I was grieving. Some friends of mine in New York had a brunch for me the weekend after [I finished my run], and I arrived like a complete wreck. It was so profound. I also knew it was unlikely I was going to do it again because I knew that I’d probably lose my mind. I got really close. Like, I’d survived by the skin of my teeth and if I did it again out of ego or attachment or not wanting to let her go, there would be consequences. So I knew it was the end, and it was so sad.
ERIVO Do you know what’s so crazy? I listen to you and I’m like, “Oh my God, that’s what was happening to me during The Color Purple.” It was the last show and I started grieving in the show, knowing that it was coming to an end. There’s one last song and I couldn’t get through it. And then the show ends and I buckled under the sadness of it. But there was no way I could have continued playing Celie on that stage. It [had been] 14 months and I had to let her go. The line between me and her had disappeared. But to answer your question, Anya, I’ve never had an issue with people seeing things. I usually have an issue seeing it after it’s done.
PAULSON This happened when I did Marcia Clark [for The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story]. I felt a profound connection to her and I felt protective of her, and the experience had been so tectonic plate-shifting for me, both as a performer and as a human, and I thought, “If I watch it, I’m going to pick apart everything.” She was left-handed, so every time I use my right hand, I’m going to think, “God damn it, why did they use that?” So, the only way to protect myself from that is to detach from what the world will experience with it. And I’ve maintained that for a long time now — I really don’t watch [things I’m in] because I don’t have the strength, first of all, to bear the sight of my face and, also, I find it really confronting. The preciousness of the thing you were creating with these other people is what I want to be the indelible thing for me and not how it was edited.
PAULSON All that does is make me furious because I don’t have the power to go in and go, “Hi, um, could you choose take six? It’s infinitely better.” (Laughter.) And when you don’t have that ability and you’re at the mercy of someone else’s opinion of what is the finest work that you’ve done, which doesn’t always line up with what you feel, it’s really jarring and you feel so powerless to do anything about it. So, I have to just sage it all out and let my experience be the only thing that governs the way I feel about it.
RODRIGUEZ When the first two seasons of Pose came out, I didn’t watch them at first because I was just so nervous about how the world would receive it. It was a story that a lot of people haven’t gotten to see, and it was a whole bunch of trans women of color finally getting their shot. It’s a lot of responsibility. And on top of that, it’s a story that’s filled with trauma and things that a lot of us trans women have gone through, so it was hard for me to watch all of those things back.
Gillian, in your career you’ve also been a champion for pay equity. But even as you were promoting a book you co-authored on female empowerment a few years ago, you acknowledged that you were nervous speaking up about being paid less than your male co-star. What do you think you were scared of, and how have the conversations for you changed since?
ANDERSON I just need to point out that I first fought for pay equity way back when it was audacious by anybody’s standards, because I was a nobody when we started to do that series. But when I really spoke up about it was when it happened again, four or five years ago, after the career I’d already had post-X-Files. We were going back to do another season and Fox came to me to offer, I don’t know, a 10th of what my co-star [David Duchovny] was being offered. That was the point where I was like, “Fuck this. I’m actually going to talk about this [publicly].” And since then, it hasn’t really come up. I mean, I haven’t worked with a lot of men, so that hasn’t been an issue. (Laughs.) I’m certainly tuned to it, and were it something now, I’d address it. But I have so much admiration for anyone who stands up for their right either to be paid or to be hired, period. And look, they weren’t going to fire me on The X-Files. The stakes weren’t that high. I put my foot down, not because the stakes weren’t high, but if they were going to fire me, some people were going to have some things to say about that. It’s very different for a young woman going into a job situation with a boss who’s overbearing and asking for a pay raise.
Sure, you had leverage.
For the rest of you, when have you spoken up in your careers?
ERIVO I mean, the obvious is I’m a Black woman, and that has a lot to do with how you’re paid, how you’re hired, if you’re hired, the way you’re hired — it affects everything. I’m lucky enough to have a team behind me that is brave enough to ask the questions I’d like asked: What I’m being paid compared to the leading man in the show, or if I’m being paid a lot less, whether or not they are willing to come up so it becomes equal. And about little things in my contract that just make it easier to exist on a set. For me, it’s about having the guts to stick with it and to keep asking and keep fighting. And there are definitely times where you’re like, “I am so exhausted from asking the same thing.” Like, if we could please have this makeup artist with me because usually there are no Black makeup artists on a set and you’re the only one who needs one, and I’ve had to have that fight every single time I’ve gone onto a set: “I need to hire these two people because they are the only people that understand how to do my face or my hair.” It isn’t about vanity, it’s about making sure that whoever I’m playing is represented in the right way because they understand how to work with my skin tone and my hair. But you keep sticking with it because it’s not just me having my way, it’s me being able to employ two other people. And then maybe I’m asking, “Can we have a DP who understands lighting that works on my skin tone?” So it’s constantly being OK with asking the questions. And there is a bit of fear, like, “Am I going to be seen as difficult?” And yes, there are times where I’ve had someone say they’ve heard I was difficult, but usually it’s because I’ve asked a question that will make for a better surrounding or a better show. And if I keep asking the questions and if other ladies like myself keep asking the questions, and we keep trying to better our spaces, it just becomes the norm — because at some point it has to just become the norm.
Elizabeth, I believe you had a saying in your house growing up, “No is a full sentence.” When do you find you use it?
OLSEN I use it a lot. (Laughs.) I use it when I’m on set. I mean, I want to be a part of every department when I’m on set. I want to understand the schedule. I want to understand everything. I produced a TV show [Sorry for Your Loss] that didn’t get too much light of day because it was on Facebook, which, whatever … but as a producer on it, it was really important for me to be a voice of everything you’re saying, Cynthia, and have heads of departments feel like and look like the freakin’ world. And just from having a taste of that for two seasons, I can’t [go back]. So when I go to do Dr. Strange 2 in England, I guess I use it when I just can’t shake it even though [the production is] so much bigger than me. I don’t know, my opinions are vast and everyone hears them, from the first AD to the EP. I think I’m like a representative of anyone having a hard time on set. … (Laughs.)
PAULSON You’re the Equity rep, I love it.
OLSEN Oh my God. (Laughter.)
When you think about your careers, is there someone else’s that you look at and go, “Ooh, yeah, I’d love that”?
OLSEN Gillian’s, Sarah’s …
ERIVO Yeah, Sarah, you’re that for me. You’re fucking incredible.
PAULSON You saying that to me makes me want to cry because sometimes you feel like you’re doing this in a bubble and you don’t even know if anything you’re doing ever has any meaning or impact to anyone.
ERIVO It does. From my heart, it does. And I hope I get to work with you one day.
PAULSON I’d give my eyeteeth. (Laughs.) For me, it’s Gillian — somebody being on a TV program for a long time that’s wildly successful and then retreats to another country to be onstage, to reconnect yourself to the very things that inspired you and made you want to be a part of this. It all gets very confusing in terms of how to navigate [this business]because you do want to make a living, but you also want to follow your heart. And there does come a time where you can become quite depleted from the constant output without any input. And if you’re a woman of a certain age, which I certainly am, I feel like I’ve got one foot on one window frame and I’ve got the other one over here and I’m just trying to insist that they stay open for as long as possible. And some of that is beyond my control, but when I look at Gillian’s career I just go, “Well, I want that.”
ANDERSON Thank you for saying that. On the one hand, I feel like there is some degree of design, but I’ve also never really gone after things. And when I finished with X-Files, I didn’t know if I wanted to be on a set again ever. So aside from having grown up in the U.K. and wanting to go back, I knew it would take time before I could, if I was going to. And in London, you could move between theater and TV, and that was always my dream. But every actor has the thing that they’d want more than the thing that they have, and I’m a cinephile, and so I [wonder], “Why do I keep doing TV? All I want to do is do film.” And I’m still doing TV. (Laughs.) But I’ve had such amazing opportunities that, coming from Scully, I even questioned people, like, “Why are you offering this to me? What makes you think that I can do this?” I’ll also say that as soon as you have kids, kids are the priority. So, I say to people, “I’m gonna be such a pain in the ass for you to hire. But if you think I’m this person, I’m gonna need to work during this period of time and then have time with my kids. And it’s going to be expensive for you. If you are willing to do that, then I’m your girl, and if you’re not, you need to find somebody else.”
Anya, Queen’s Gambit became a global juggernaut. How have your opportunities and choices changed? Is there pressure to strike while the iron is hot?
TAYLOR-JOY I think I’ve always followed character and only recently did I start following directors as well, but it’s always been about, “Do I feel like I’m the right person to tell this story? Do I think I can tell this story correctly?” And if you look at something like Queen’s Gambit, it was not supposed to be the white-hot show; it’s a show about a girl that plays chess for seven hours, but I felt so compelled to tell that story. So, it sounds cheesy, but I really just keep following my heart. OK, wait, I take that back. Something I’m also learning is that you give yourself to this person for three to six months, and I never used to think about this before, but now I start thinking, “Am I ready to give up my life for this person? Do I need to tell this story so badly that I’m going to do that?” I try not to think about what other people will think, because it’s your life at the end of the day. And as we all know, you’re that [character] every hour of the day, and when you go home it’s difficult to let go of them, so you have to really love them.
Mj, you’ve talked about how significant this show was for you and for the visibility of the trans community. How have the opportunities being presented to you post-Pose changed?
RODRIGUEZ In the middle of the third season, I started figuring out my worth, and it’s scary. I was nervous. I didn’t expect to actually book my next job after Pose.
ERIVO I did.
PAULSON We all did.
RODRIGUEZ And see, that’s my insecurity and that’s something I have to fix. I didn’t think it was possible. To get an opportunity like Pose and have myself centered in the story and to end it with hope, and then to get another opportunity with an iconic actress [an Apple TV+ comedy co-starring Maya Rudolph] was surreal. But if I’m still feeling the need for protection as far as my Blackness, my Latina-ness and my trans-ness go, that means there is more work to be done.
Are there doors still not open to the rest of you? Parts you’d love to play if only Hollywood would see you that way?
PAULSON No one has asked me to do a comedy, and I’m a little frustrated about that.
ERIVO And you’re funny as fuck.
PAULSON I spend a lot of time in these worlds where I’m either running or crying or screaming or playing a real person and trying to get their physicality, and I’d really like to do a nice road picture with me and a couple of chicks.
ANDERSON Ooh, I’ll go with you!
PAULSON How about all of us just in a road movie — like, get a Winnebago and let’s go?
ERIVO I’m down.
RODRIGUEZ Yeah, count me in.
ANDERSON I’m 53, Sarah, and I’ve really only been offered comedy in the last three years of my life, and I don’t think that’s because I’m any funnier than I used to be. I think a lot of it is that people just couldn’t fathom it, whether it was that Scully was still in their minds or it was someone else, because I’ve played a lot of dark characters, too. And so they just weren’t coming. And then came [Netflix comedy] Sex Education — and I passed when it first came to me because I didn’t think it was right. It was my partner who proverbially dug it out of the trash.
ERIVO I’ve yet to see a Call Me by Your Name for a Black woman, I have yet to see a piece that allows a woman of color to be sensual and soft and loving and be loved. I’ve just not seen it, and I desperately want to experience that, just because I want to be able to be in that space of vulnerability and lilt. I really want to do that. And that hasn’t come my way. A comedy hasn’t come my way either.
RODRIGUEZ Same. It’s been so hard when it comes to trans women being loved in a sensual way, and I’d love to do something like that.
Elizabeth and Anya, to Sarah’s point, Hollywood likes to keep actors in a lane. How have you avoided that kind of pigeonholing in your careers to date?
TAYLOR-JOY I’ve been saved from a lot of things in my life from pure innocence and naivete, genuinely. My first movie was called The Witch, I got a script immediately afterward that was about, you guessed it, a witch, and I figured, “Wow, why do they want to see me do this again?” So, I was immediately like, “Can I not do anymore witch movies, please?” And my agent was like, “OK. Sure, whatever you say.” I wonder how many people agree with me here because I certainly want to please, but in order to please, I don’t have to give up myself, and actually it’s more important to please myself than it is to please anybody else. I’m giving my heart, my body, my soul, everything to this character, I’m not going to do something because somebody wants me to do it. That doesn’t make any sense and, also, it makes me miserable and then I can’t do my best work. And so if I feel the opportunities that are being given to me aren’t the right ones, then I have to stick my neck out and go, “Hey, I think I could maybe do this, if you’ll give me the opportunity to try.”
How about you, Elizabeth?
OLSEN [In the beginning,] I was just trying so hard to not be put in a box that that’s what was guiding my choices. I knew that I didn’t want to be an actor who was thought of as “youthful and beautiful” and whatever that attachment people like to put onto young women, and so I did everything in my power not [to be seen as] that. But I didn’t have my own pillars of why I wanted to do things beyond just the character. That started to solidify only in the last five years. So I made a lot of odd decisions [after theater school at NYU] because I didn’t know enough about film and the machine of it. Right, Sarah? You were there for that time. We were in Martha Marcy May Marlene, and I remember someone asked me, “You had Sarah Paulson with you, didn’t you know it could be a film people saw?” And I was like …
PAULSON You were like, “Who the fuck is Sarah Paulson?” (Laughter.)
OLSEN No, but independent cinema to me was just, like, going to Quad Cinema in New York and seeing a movie. The theater world is all I understood. So I feel like a moron for going back to theater only once in 10 years. And this conversation with Gillian right now is inspiring.
In light of Elizabeth’s concern about the trap of being perceived as “youthful and beautiful,” how would you all complete this sentence: I wish our male counterparts also had to …
OLSEN Deal with lighting and hair and makeup before doing press. I don’t know what I’m doing.
ERIVO Deal with people believing that you’ve lost your sexuality after the age of 30.
TAYLOR-JOY Had an understanding of what it was like to walk into a room and sometimes have to enforce yourself for people to take you seriously. That ability to just walk into a room and go, “I am valid, I own my space and everybody respects me” — it would be good if they knew what it was like to not have that.
ERIVO And on the flip side, to not have to deal with walking into the room and trying to make sure people aren’t scared of you when you get there.
What do you all know now that you wish you could have told yourself at the beginning of your career?
PAULSON I would like to have told myself that I didn’t need to excise myself from the experience. I was very focused on looking at other actors who had careers that I admired when I was first starting out and wondering what it was about them that made it possible for them to be chosen or employed and I’d often try, in an audition or a social setting, to mimic what I imagined was the desired effect, taking me out of the scenario. And there’s this beautiful Martha Graham-to-Agnes de Mille letter that I used to keep in a dressing room any time I was doing a play, about how there is only one you in all of time and space and that what you see and how you experience things is unique to you. And if you block it, the world will not have it. And as a young person, I thought, “Mute me, mute my opinions, my thoughts, my assessments and try to fill it with other things,” and now I think it’s the exact opposite, so I wish I had known that earlier. But I’ll take knowing it now [over] never knowing it at all.
RODRIGUEZ I would have told my younger self that my existence is worth it. When I was younger, I tried to fit into this mold of what a woman should do — you know, keep your legs crossed, always bow down to a man. But we don’t have to live in that world anymore. It’s a new day.
It is, and that’s a good place to end. Thank you all for sharing your time and your stories.
ERIVO I know we’re supposed to finish, but do you know what’s occurred to me as I’ve listened to every one of you? I remember where I was when I watched every single one of you — and I remember what I was dealing with or going through. I was watching you, Sarah, when I was shooting Aretha. I was watching you, Elizabeth, when I was in London on my own, and you, Anya, when I was in Atlanta. Mj, I remember watching a season of Pose while I was shooting The Outsider. And Gillian, I watched you when I was in a hotel with my partner outside of London. And I remember what happened. And so your performances aren’t just brilliant, your performances get to be Post-its in all of our lives, and so I thank you for that.
PAULSON That’s a very beautiful way to put it …
ANDERSON It also brings us back full circle to what Anya said at the beginning, which is, “Oh my God, I have to keep reminding myself that people are going to watch this.” But actually, thank God that people are watching it, because we’ve touched each other’s lives and numerous other people’s lives just by focusing on the thing that we love most.
TAYLOR-JOY And the importance of these conversations is the honesty, because it’s very easy for us to get locked into our own heads of this as an individual experience — “There’s something wrong with me,” or “Everybody else is doing really great and nobody else grieves their characters,” or whatever your version of that is in whatever industry you’re in. But having honest conversations with people who are willing to be vulnerable just makes me feel so much less alone.
PAULSON The next time you feel that way, text me. I’ll remind you. I’d also like to say that there’s this [perception] of women being pitted against one another and not being there for one another, and this conversation is diametrically opposed, in that what we are actually saying is that each of us has been buoyed by and inspired by the work of everyone here. So, I may not watch anything I do, but I sure as hell am watching all of you.
Interview edited for length and clarity.
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This story first appeared in the June 2 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.