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“It’s a Revolution”: The Hollywood Reporter Drama Actress Roundtable

Six top TV stars — Angela Bassett, Claire Foy, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Elisabeth Moss, Thandie Newton and Sandra Oh — unload on the power of producing, onscreen nudity (male and female), learning to say no and the better-late-than-never push for gender pay parity: "There was so much talk, and where was the action?"

The Hollywood Reporter‘s annual Drama Actress Roundtable conversation veers into the subject of pay parity. It is a hot-button issue that the Crown star has been unable to avoid since March, when a producer on her acclaimed Netflix drama disclosed that Foy, who has played Queen Elizabeth for two seasons, was paid less than her male co-star Matt Smith. Going forward, however, the producer noted, “No one gets paid more than the queen.” The admission ignited fury and was quickly followed by an apology for dragging Foy and Smith to “the center of a media storm.” But the saga was not without a silver lining: HBO stars Thandie Newton (Westworld) and Maggie Gyllenhaal (The Deuce) quickly saw their own salaries boosted to match their male counterparts’, as they reveal to their compatriots at the Hollywood gathering.

Over the course of an hour at Line 204 Studios on April 29, Foy, 34, Newton, 45, and Gyllenhaal, 40, were joined by Elisabeth Moss, 35 (Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale and SundanceTV’s Top of the Lake: China Girl); Sandra Oh, 46 (BBC America’s Killing Eve); and Angela Bassett, 59 (Fox’s 9-1-1) for a wide-ranging discussion that also hit on the politics of sex scenes, the power in producing and the parts that have warranted an easy and immediate “no.” But first and foremost — as is increasingly the case in today’s Hollywood — they talked money.

Claire, one of the conversations that you got unwittingly pulled into was one about pay parity.

CLAIRE FOY Here we go … (Laughs.)

How much did you know about the pay disparity between you and your co-star before the world knew, and what did it feel like to be at the center of that?

FOY I [could have] kept my mouth shut and said, “I have nothing to say, I’m a robot.” I was part of a really incredible show that I’m really proud of and grateful for, but that shouldn’t stop me from having an opinion about something that I have been brought into the center of. It would be very different if it was something that I didn’t have an opinion on, but it’s something that I feel really strongly about and that I had a suspicion of …

THANDIE NEWTON Is that why it got talked about? Because you had a suspicion?

FOY No, no, no. It came about purely because the producers brought it up [at a conference] as a way of saying, “This is a good thing because in the first two [seasons] this is what happened, but we’ll never do that again.”

SANDRA OH Oh, whoops!

NEWTON That’s what’s happened with HBO now because of what [happened on your] show. They’re now having all the men and women [making] equal pay. It’s a revolution.

MAGGIE GYLLENHAAL It’s true. That’s a place where honestly there was so much talk, and where was the action? And then I just get a call going over the bridge to Brooklyn saying my salary now is way higher than I ever considered it would be, and it’s because of these conversations. At first, I was like, “Wait, this is not fair. Why do I get to win the lottery?” And then I went, “No, it’s been unfair to the point where I’ve digested it and accepted it without ever considering that it could or should be equal.”

FOY Looking back now at the conversations you have at the beginning of doing a deal and all that, and this may be a cultural thing, but in the United Kingdom we don’t talk about money.

GYLLENHAAL We don’t talk about it here either.

But will you now?

FOY No. (Laughter.) But the point is I don’t have to now.

NEWTON It’s going to set a precedent.

FOY Yeah. And the thing is, at the beginning of the deal when they’re saying, “This is gonna happen and you’re gonna get paid this and blah, blah, blah,” I have never felt that I would ever be in a position where I could ask [for more] and I would know what was happening and I would know what decisions were being made. But they used that to their favor, [the fact] that you can’t, and they’d all say, “But you’re not worth that.” And you go, “You’re right, I’m not.” Because that’s what you say to yourself when someone tells you that, and you absorb it.

ALL Yeah.

For those of you who are producers, do you feel compelled or empowered to start having those conversations and speaking up about pay on your shows now?

ANGELA BASSETT I’m probably feeling a little bit more empowered to do so, but for so long it’s just been about wanting to work. And wanting to be paid fairly, sure, and not having a frame of reference of what someone else is getting or the fear of, if you over-reach you’re going to lose the job.

NEWTON And that’s used against us all the time.

BASSETT You hear, “We’re gonna move on if you say no.”

NEWTON But then you say no, and suddenly they say, “Oh, actually would you reconsider?” That’s a tactic I’ve used.

BASSETT Good for you. (Clapping.)

ELISABETH MOSS When you’re leading the show and you’re the face of the show and a lot of people are making a lot of money off of that face and your work, it does put you in an empowered position. It’s not just financial, it’s about other ways of having control and a say, which frankly no one is used to. You start asking for something, and they’re like, “Oh right, I guess you could have that. No one has ever asked.”

FOY I can’t imagine being an executive producer on a show and me saying something and them not just going, “But you’re just an actor.”

You’ve heard that?

FOY That’s what’s understood. And that you’re difficult when you say, “Could we just push my pickup time by 25 minutes?”

MOSS Oh yeah.

GYLLENHAAL I asked to be a producer on my show because I’d never done this thing before where you get three scripts and the season is 10 scripts and then you might go on for three years. And I’m playing a sex worker, and of course I have to take my clothes off all the time, and I’m like, “Wait, I have to be able to know that I will be included in the conversation.” But, actually, I wouldn’t feel comfortable saying, “Could you please push my call time 25 minutes?” (Laughs.)

MOSS Really? I do that all the time.

FOY All the time. I’m like, “I need to sleep.”

What are you asking for with that producer hat on, Maggie?

GYLLENHAAL Well, for example, in our show there is lots of prostitution, lots of transactional sex, lots of fake orgasms. They’re not called fake orgasms, but you cut in on the end of a sex act between a sex worker and a John and you hear this loud orgasm, and I said to David Simon, the man running our show, “I think you need to see a real feminine orgasm in order to show the contrast and to show that these are performative. It will illuminate the misogyny and the performance and all that stuff.” When I first said it to him, he pretended to spit his water back in his cup. But then he wrote a scene where my character is sleeping with somebody whom she actually wants to sleep with. He doesn’t make her come, and so she turns over and makes herself come.

NEWTON That’s amazing.

GYLLENHAAL And I was like, “This orgasm needs to be the realest orgasm ever. This needs to be one that takes 30 seconds, that’s very quiet, that’s just about her.” I thought about it, and then I went in and did that on TV. And that’s way more vulnerable than the orgasm that’s the performance.

OH How empowering to be able to have an artistic say in what your character is doing.

GYLLENHAAL But then I see the cut, and they cut the orgasm.

ALL No! (Laughter.)

GYLLENHAAL I wrote a dissertation by email, and then I woke up at 6 o’clock in the morning to see if they [read] it. And the second I got to set, I was like, “Where is the orgasm?” I explained to them again why they needed it in. And they put it in.

BASSETT You fought for it.

OH That’s fantastic. Such a great win.

MOSS I know that dissertation email so well. (Laughs.)

When you’re considering roles, you’re all at a point in your careers where you can afford to be picky. How do you decide what’s a yes versus a no?

OH It takes a while to get to a point in your career where you can actually make a choice. And after a decade of my life on a show [Grey’s Anatomy], I had enough economic power to be able to say no. Those four years were like active waiting. I was not not working really in here (motions to her gut) to be able to figure out what the right thing is and what it is to say no and what it is to say yes. It’s like falling in love. Now, what I realize is I have a little bit more awareness, a little more consciousness, I want this out of a relationship and I’m just going to wait until they show up because I feel like they’ll show up.

You’ve talked about reading the initial pilot script for Killing Eve and scrolling through quite a bit of it before you realized you were being asked to play the central storyteller. Why do you think that is, and what did you learn from that realization?

OH That moment was a real punch in the gut for me because the internalization [that I couldn’t be seen as the lead] was really deep. I get the script, I’m on the phone with my agent, I remember exactly where I was, right by BAM in Brooklyn, and I’m going, “Scrolling, scrolling” (scans her phone). I’m just like, “I don’t know, who am I playing? What’s the part?” [My agent] goes, “Eve! You’re playing Eve.” Something happened to me in that moment where I couldn’t even see myself [as the central character].

NEWTON You hadn’t given yourself permission.

OH Right. Why didn’t I?

FOY That makes me want to cry.

OH So the fact that [creator] Phoebe Waller-Bridge, BBC America and Sally Woodward Gentle, our producer, said, “Yes, why not this [for me]?” I felt slightly ashamed — and if I can’t see myself in that moment, then other people have that weight as well. And so we need to hold these things up for other people to see.

NEWTON Oh my God, yes.

OH And that’s one of the reasons why I said, “I’m going to take this. I’m gonna leave my life here — I’m going to do everything to make this.”

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So that was your big yes. For the rest of you, are there types of roles that you just say, “Mmm, not gonna do that”?

NEWTON Oh my God, yeah. Ninety-five percent [of them].

What’s an easy no?

NEWTON Well, for a start, it’s how a character is described in a script. For years, I’d be called up and they’d say, “Thandie, they want to go exotic with the role, so get excited.” (Laughter.) Or they want to go “ethnic” with the role. And I would just have to brace myself because it was so deeply offensive, but I wanted to work. And then I’d read the script and I’d transform it out of this bizarre objectification. I’d think, like, “How can I help make this more progressive?” I’d spend a lot of time trying to give more dimension to these women’s roles. And oftentimes — well, always — they would be written by men, and I’d find myself desperately trying to stop these characters from being demonized, and that happens [because] you don’t have enough lines or screen time to actually try and humanize these characters. So, I’ve found I’ve had to rise above the initial hurt that I feel that a man has written a role that is objectifying this person, whether it’s their ethnicity or [a description like], “She turns up, she’s beautiful, she’s sexy without giving too much away …”

FOY Oh God, that’s an awful description. (Laughter.)

NEWTON Or you turn up at a photo shoot, and it’ll say, “The idea behind this shoot is strong, powerful, sexy.” And as soon as I read sexy, I’m like, “Really? Do we have to be sexy in order to be powerful?” Let’s start looking at the way things are described because they have ramifications. I have daughters. I don’t want her thinking you have to be sexy to be powerful.

BASSETT Well, at least you stay in the conversation. If I look at something and I feel that way about it, or offended, then it’s like, “Well, it’s not for me, but it’s for someone else, perhaps.”

NEWTON But we have influence and we can help them because very often people have no idea that they’ve done it. I’ve heard unbelievable statistics about how many men are writing our roles, and of course they’re going to get it wrong. How can they be in our shoes? How can they really understand how we feel? We have to correct that. And we have the opportunity.

GYLLENHAAL I’ve worked with a lot of men who are actually interested in and curious about women. Even if, of course, it’s impossible for a man to entirely understand a feminine experience, there are men who are interested in exploring it with you and in correcting it if you’re like, “Mmm, no, it’s actually more like this.”

NEWTON Sure. It’s scary, though, to be the one to say, “Hang on a sec, guys, can we try this?”

GYLLENHAAL My show is actually about this: sex as a way into having an actual interesting conversation. And when I look back with a little objectivity on the work I’ve done in my life, I don’t think I was conscious of this but I do think sex and sex scenes and sexuality has been a way to get people’s attention and then go, “OK, are you listening now? Here’s what I actually really want to talk about.” That’s what was available to me, so that’s what I used.


GYLLENHAAL I’m really interested in sex, like everybody else, and I’m interested in sex scenes. But in my show, my character has access to filmmaking but only in porn and only with her body. That’s how she can get in and start having the conversation where she’s like, “What does that light do?” — while she’s got her clothes off. But I kind of relate to that as an actress. I don’t know if you all feel this way, but it has felt like a prerequisite that, yes, you can be smart and powerful and all these things, but you also have to throw a little sexiness in there. And I don’t know if it’s going to stay that way, but it certainly has been that way for most of my career.

NEWTON [It’s one thing] when you’re in control and empowered to be able to dial up and down however much sexiness you want to use, but what worries me is when you’re a young person coming into this industry and you’re encouraged to use your sexuality and you haven’t made decisions about that.

GYLLENHAAL But haven’t we all been …?

BASSETT Mmmm, no, not really. (Laughter.) I’ve not been asked to use my sexuality in my career.


BASSETT Not as a black woman, no.


NEWTON I wonder why?

OH I’ll echo Angela’s experience. For me, I don’t think I’ve ever gotten any job based on bum bum bum … (motions to her body). As fabulous as it is. (Laughter.)

FOY That’s really interesting and alarming.

OH But it’s also complicated in lots of ways if you are the person [for whom] that’s not at the forefront of your toolbox. And there’s a lot of different feelings that we have when people are not interested in your [sexuality]. I have realized in a lot of this awakening that there are a lot of times where I have felt left out, ignored, not seen, but now I see I’ve been protected.


FOY If people didn’t see you that way, you don’t get sent those parts?

OH It’s not so much that, it’s the compromises. I have not necessarily been in the situations where I have had to compromise in those ways. Other ways I have — but my ability to continue the integrity of my work has not, I don’t think, been as weighted as it has for a lot of other actresses I know.

FOY What really pisses me off is that there is one idea of what is sexy. And now because I’m doing more and more photo shoots and things like that that are required of me and I’m expected to be a certain way …

What way is that?

FOY (Gives mock sexy poses.)

NEWTON Yeah, yeah, yeah, the sexy thing. (Laughter.)

FOY I just don’t have it. I don’t have it in me to be sexy as someone else. I don’t know why I would be sexy or in what way I’m sexy, and I don’t know whether I can play up my sexiness.

GYLLENHAAL But I’m not talking about that kind of sexy. I’ve been told I’m not sexy enough or beautiful enough so many more times than I can even remember from the time I was 22 years old. I’m talking about what you’re saying (looks to Oh), which is: I figured out at some point that one of the things in my toolbox was the way I feel that I’m sexy. And for us as women, we have to use whatever’s in our toolbox. I’m not interested in the pretend sexy thing and I’m not interested in seeing it in other people, either.

FOY That’s the fallacy of it. I don’t think anybody really is.


GYLLENHAAL I know. (Laughter.)

How do the conversation and tone on set change as you start to see more male nudity?

GYLLENHAAL Oh, I’ve had like three prosthetic penises put in front of a group of people to figure out which one went best with which man.

OH Wow.

And what does that feel like, having always been the one who’s had to strip down?

GYLLENHAAL I don’t know how to compare that to anything! (Laughs.)

NEWTON I do. With the season premiere, [my co-star] Simon Quarterman was completely naked and he was terrified. There was no prosthetic penis there. He decided to go for it. And just being aware of his vulnerability … What I love about Westworld is that it’s showing the vulnerability and the objectification of a person, and if you see a person naked and not in a sexual context, suddenly you don’t want to look. Well, maybe some people do want to jerk off to what I was doing in season one, but that’s really weird and they should check into a hospital.

ALL Mm, hmm. (Laughter.)

NEWTON But that’s why I took the show. I’ve been objectified, I’ve had directors lie to me when I’m in a naked situation on a movie and been told that they’re cutting here (motions to her bust line and up) when in fact they’re shooting from here (motions to whole body), so you see everything. I’ve had terrible things happen, so to be able to say to the showrunners of Westworld, “I am willing to stand for 75 percent of this season totally naked” because it wasn’t a sexual context [is powerful]. And then to see this man terrified of being naked when Evan Rachel Wood and I have grown accustomed to it, sitting there, having a chat, a glass of water, totally naked, it was very touching. And he’s learned that it’s really tough, and the more men that do it. … And men are also really worried about how their bodies look. So much more worried than us. Like these guys on Westworld are all, “How does my bum look? I’m really scared, can you do some shading here and there?” And we’re like, “Really?’ (Laughter.)

For those of you who are producers, when have you decided to weigh in as a female voice?

MOSS Luckily, I work in a really incredibly collaborative atmosphere on my show that I’ve never experienced before — and I’ve been around for a while. As one of the only female executive producers, obviously there’s a weight there. I have a perspective that nobody else will have, and that’s so respected and appreciated. That shouldn’t be crazy that it’s appreciated, it should be appreciated. As far as the nudity and the sex, I was lucky in the sense that five years ago I worked with Jane Campion [on Top of the Lake] and it was my first nude scene, and she gave me 100 percent approval without me asking.

NEWTON Oh, that’s incredible.

MOSS I was like, “I don’t know, I don’t know,” and she was like, “Listen …”

GYLLENHAAL I have that, too.

MOSS Everyone should have it.

What does 100 percent approval over nude scenes entail?

MOSS It means I have 100 percent approval over all the footage and I can literally say, “You cannot use that scene.”

GYLLENHAAL And it means instead of having to negotiate [ahead of time] — which I think is really strange — “You can show a right nipple but not this (motions to her rear) …”

MOSS Instead it’s [seeing the footage and saying], “Oh, I’m comfortable with this but I’m not comfortable with that.”

GYLLENHAAL I’ve been doing a lot of nudity all my career and I’ve had it for 15 years, and I’ve actually never taken anything out.

MOSS You’ve got to get it. I have it on everything now. They can’t send out a cut that has something in it without me approving it.

NEWTON I wish I’d known that. That’s why we all need to talk.

This story first appeared in the May 23 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.