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“Whyyy Do I Do This?”: Kaley Cuoco, Jean Smart, Lena Waithe and the THR Comedy Actress Roundtable

Aidy Bryant, Holly Hunter and Cristin Milioti also get real about "dreadful" sex scenes, the fights to play messy, flawed women and the early advice they wish they’d gotten, like, "Don’t do it!"

At one point during The Hollywood Reporter‘s annual Comedy Actress Roundtable, Hacks star Jean Smart paused the rollicking conversation to poll her peers, certain they were drawn to the profession for the same reason she was. “OK, raise your hand if you were a middle child,” she said. But, to her shock, no one did. Instead, her fellow Emmy hopefuls — The Flight Attendant‘s Kaley Cuoco, Made for Love‘s Cristin Milioti, Master of None‘s Lena Waithe, Mr. Mayor‘s Holly Hunter and Shrill‘s Aidy Bryant — revealed their status as either the oldest or youngest in their respective families. “My God,” Smart responded, acknowledging: “This is my excuse for being an actor; I didn’t get enough attention.” Without missing a beat, Waithe replied, “The rest of us are just hams,” and then it was back to the discussion.

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So, if you were to run into a fan on the street, what is that fan most likely to recognize you from and what is he or she likely to say?

AIDY BRYANT For me, it’s 50-50, Saturday Night Live and Shrill, and they take a very different tone. For SNL, they’re like, “You were a chicken, and I liked that,” and for Shrill it’s usually about body image, which is a sharp contrast.

HOLLY HUNTER If I don’t want to be recognized, I don’t speak. But generally it’s fun to have 5-year-olds recognize my voice from The Incredibles.

CRISTIN MILIOTI Mine is a mixed bag. It’s some Palm Springs more recently, some Black Mirror, definitely How I Met Your Mother, too. Although my favorite ones are like a deep cut — every once in a blue moon, someone will be like, “You’re the sexy baby from 30 Rock,” which is always when I’m like (clapping), “What do you want? I’ll give you anything.”

JEAN SMART People always tell me that they recognize my voice before they recognize my face — and I don’t know what that is, except I think, “Well, then, Jesus, why can’t I get more voice work?” (Laughter.) I still get Frasier a lot, Watchmen

LENA WAITHE Wow, they’re sleeping on Designing Women.

SMART Oh, I still get some of that.

WAITHE The gays, I’m sure. (Laughs.) For me, the Asian community [knows me for] Master of None. And lesbians, just because of the coming-out episode. But then also a lot of kids and sci-fi folks know me for Ready Player One. And then the voice thing, too, because of AT&T [ads]. It just depends on the day.

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Jean Smart Ani Gilliland/Courtesy of Subject

Do you see them coming and know what they’re going to be a fan of?

WAITHE No, never. Like, straight white Jewish men love the Thanksgiving [coming-out] episode. I don’t judge. I’m just grateful.

KALEY CUOCO I get a lot of people knocking at me. They’ll “knock, knock, knock, ‘Penny,’ knock, knock, knock, ‘Penny,’ ” multiple times [referencing main character Sheldon’s OCD knock on The Big Bang Theory]. In a store, on a plane, on my body, they love to knock at me, and they think it’s very funny. (Laughs.)

I’ve heard Kaley describe herself as the opposite of a Method actor. She’s said, “I’d be hysterical and we’d be done, and I’d be like, ‘What’s for lunch?’ And never think about it again.” For you, what happens when a director yells “Cut”?

CUOCO That’s true for me. I’m kind of in it, and then immediately I’m not. I can’t wait to get to craft service the minute I’m done.

SMART Like Kaley, I hear wrap, and I think, “Oh, what’s to eat?”

WAITHE The lines were so blurry this season on Master of None with myself and Aziz [Ansari]. He and I were writing it, and it’s interesting because we went into more emotional stuff in a way we haven’t before. I even asked Aziz, like, “Should I get an acting coach, like, make sure I don’t flub this?” And he said, “Some musicians are classically trained, others learn how to play by ear.” He’s like, “You learned how to play by ear, and Naomi [Ackie] is classically trained, so let’s see what these two musicians sound like together.” That said, I had no choice but to be a little Method. So if I was sad or upset, I just drew from things that would make me remember that — or even having Angela Bassett, who plays my mom, actually on the phone with me talking about a dark moment in my life.

MILIOTI I find with very emotional scenes, the second the director calls “Cut,” I’m so excited to not have to be there anymore. I’d say leading up to it, I’m very isolated, in my own little corner with my music or whatever, and then the second someone yells “Cut,” there’s the joy of having gotten it all out and then I can make fart jokes and go eat and not sit listening to things and thinking about the character. There’s always an unbridled joy, like a little kid getting out of school for the day. Even though I love that material, there is a, “Whew, OK!”

SMART I don’t recall you farting on Fargo … (Laughter.)

MILIOTI Fart sounds, fart sounds.

When was the last time you looked at a script and were nervous about what was being asked of you?

BRYANT I write on the show, and so in the room, it’s all the writers, and we’re thinking of ideas and you start to be like, “Yes, OK, and then she falls.” And then the night before, it’s like, “Oh, that’s me, I’m the one with my pants off, screaming.” The disconnect there ends up biting me in the ass on the day, where I’m like, “Oh no, I’m on the ATV driven by the child!” (Laughter.)

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Kaley Cuoco Courtesy of Subject

Aidy, I’ve heard you describe the experience of doing sex scenes as a bit of your own body journey because you didn’t anticipate feeling any discomfort. Is that fair?

BRYANT Yeah, particularly for intimate scenes because I’m a size 18 and there is a different process for an intimate scene with that size element. And, yeah, there’s a little bit of a freakiness to that because you feel like you’re going into uncharted territory in some ways. But I always felt very fortified by the story where I was like, “OK, I know what I’m here to achieve, and I was in the writers room, so I know why we’re doing this and what is funny about this.” And that felt easier to grab onto than being like, “Oh, I’m in my underwear.”

What about the rest of you? What were the things that had you a little nervous going in?

SMART My biggest concern was having it be believable that I was a stand-up comic. That was the piece where I thought, “If I fail that, then the show is not going to work at all.” And I didn’t want to pattern it after any specific stand-up because I knew that if it didn’t come from my own gut instincts and rhythms, it would feel false.

CUOCO For me, coming from a sitcom of 12 years, it was about trying to do something different — but not so different that people are like, “Why is she doing that?” It was a bit of a fine line. Like, I wanted to flex different muscles, but I get asked a lot, “Are you trying to get away from Penny?” And the answer is not at all. I would’ve played Penny for 20 years. But I was nervous, wondering, like, am I going to be accepted, even by the business? Or are [people] going to be like, “Why is this sitcom girl trying to do this semi-serious show?” And [then] it was like, where is the audience? Why isn’t anyone laughing? I need people just to clap for me 24/7. (Laughs.)

SMART It was a brilliant choice you made doing that show.

CUOCO Aw, thank you.

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Lena Waithe Swurve/Courtesy of Subject

WAITHE With Master of None, the writing is always the fun part. I’m like, “Oh yeah, and then they get into a big argument, they get divorced, they go through all this shit, yeah, OK, this is interesting.” And then we get there, and we decide we’re going to do the scene all the way through five times, and it’s draining. So there were times I would tell Aziz, like, “You got three takes, tell your crew to be ready,” just in terms of protecting myself and Naomi. But that was scary. And we had a wonderful intimacy coordinator on set, and she was very helpful because it wasn’t just the nakedness, it was also the idea of us having to feel like we’re in this marriage, and us being close and in bed and all that stuff that really forced us to be comfortable in a very uncomfortable scenario. So I said there can’t be a ton of people on set. I don’t want to feel like I’m being ogled. I asked for that space, and we got it.

MILIOTI A common thread I’ve noticed, the more I do things, is that I’m always shocked that the thing I’m the most afraid of in the weeks leading up to it is myself — like, getting out of my own way. I live so much in my own head, and I pore over the material and I do a bunch of research, and I’m getting better with each show of actually asking for that space. I think I’m so afraid of ruffling feathers. There is a scene in our show where Billy Magnussen, who plays my husband, [and I] hash out how horrible our marriage was, and it’s one of the first times in my career where I’ve sat everyone down and I was like, “Can we have space to do this?” Because this is where you learn so much about who these people are, and I want to be able to play with it and do all these things and I may not otherwise feel comfortable swinging and missing. And it’s hard when you’re moving really, really fast and you know that there are hundreds of people waiting on you. And also, I’d say intimacy scenes. I had to do one in the first episode, and I, like, blacked out the entire time. It was just dreadful. I’ve never walked away from one being like …

WAITHE “Killed it.”

MILIOTI Yeah. I always walk away being like, “Whyyyy?”

CUOCO Wait, how did you do that scene? Seriously, Cristin, how?

MILIOTI I was so afraid. Thank God I’ve known Billy for 10 years. The worst part was they had a camera right here [right up to her face] and they were like, “Great, now do an orgasm like it’s real. Now do it like you’re faking it for him. Now do it like you want it …”

SMART Oh my God!

MILIOTI They had me do, like, 20 orgasms, and I was so embarrassed. I drove home that day being like, “Whyyyy do I do this?!”

CUOCO I had never done any sort of sex scene ever, and I had one in Flight Attendant with Michiel [Huisman]. He’d been in Game of Thrones, so he’d done all these scenes, and I just had no idea. When they called “cut,” I’d be hovering over him like I was on a toilet. I’m like, “I’m not touching anything, I’m not looking at anything.” (Laughs.) I didn’t know what to do. He was like, “You’re acting so weird, you’re making this way weirder than it needs to be.” But I was totally out of my element.

HUNTER What I find on sets is there’s always this desire to keep moving, so it’s important for me, and I continue to demand it, really, to have the set. I want the crew to go away. I want the director and the DP to be there, and that’s it, when we rehearse the scene for the first time — when we rehearse it to set marks and to find the scene. I want no one to be there because I want to feel uninhibited. I want to be able to feel my instincts and my intuitions because sometimes they’re small, sometimes they’re faint, they’re a little voice, and I can’t hear it if there’s a bunch of people around looking at their watches because they want to get the scene set up so they can start lighting.

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Cristin Milioti Courtesy of Subject

SMART It is very hard for actors to ask for that, and sometimes you have to realize where you are in the pecking order to know even how much you can ask for. Some of it’s just experience, knowing what you need and standing up for yourself. There’s always this feeling with actors that we’re the kids and the director and the producers are the grown-ups and it’s always wanting to be a good sport and a team player and, like you say, move things along.

HUNTER I tend to legislate that from the beginning, before we start shooting. I say, “Look, this is something I need,” so that it’s not debatable, it’s not negotiable. I get to have it. And of course it can erode as the shoot goes on. Sometimes things creep in, and I always go, “Hey, guys, remember that thing that I said that I need?”

SMART Do you bring your Oscar with you when you have that conversation? That could help. (Laughter.)

Kaley, I’ve seen you say you pushed to make your character messier, notably to drink more, and that the network had some concerns about it. Why was that important to you?

CUOCO I wanted her to be complicated. This was a girl who is an alcoholic, a functioning alcoholic, and the times when she was unable to drink is actually when she starts spiraling. You can’t play someone drunk 24/7. But when she’s drinking, she gets through work. I have people in my life who function and work and drink all day long. So taking these sips throughout the day is what kept her normal. I was like, it’s the only way she can survive.

Had the hesitation been that having her drink so much would potentially make her unlikable to audiences?

CUOCO For sure. There was a constant conversation of, like, “Well, she has to be likable.” And I was like, “We’re playing a complicated woman here. Like, not everything is likable, and we can still love her.” But we probably have all dealt with this in our careers. And I kept pushing, like, this girl has a lot of problems and it’s OK and we’re going to show it and maybe this will reach someone else. But it’s a constant battle fighting that exact thing that you just said.

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Aidy Bryant Courtesy of Subject

I’m curious if the rest of you can relate to that. Cristin, I’ve heard you talk in the past about the desire to play messy and how you fought to get there. Can you speak to what that journey was?

MILIOTI Yeah, it’s exhausting that we’re even still talking about it. Like, the last couple of things I’ve done press for, and I’ve appreciated these questions, but they’ll ask, like, “What did it feel like to play a complicated person? Like, did you jump when you read the script?” And I kept wanting to be like, “Do you ask, like, Bryan Cranston that?” And the tides are changing, clearly, but there was some press I did for Palm Springs where people were like, “You’re really not likable in this.” And I was like, “I don’t know what to tell you, man?” (Laughter.) Like, we are still having this conversation?!

We’re having it here because, as Kaley just said, it’s the note you still get, unfortunately …

MILIOTI Totally. And it certainly is something I fight really hard for. My favorite movie growing up was Beetlejuice, and I wanted to be Beetlejuice. I wanted to crawl out of a grave and eat a bug and like honk my crotch and possess Winona Ryder. I didn’t want to sit there and bat my eyelashes and be “the fun girl.” I never wanted that. So I’m glad that it’s shifting. But it is still something that has to be fought for constantly.

SMART When we did Designing Women 30-plus years ago, we’d get question after question after question, like, “Wow, what’s it like with four gals on the same set? That must get a little triiiicky.” And even then we’d roll our eyes, but it was expected back then. Finally, I said, “Do you guys ask the guys on Barney Miller that?”

WAITHE It gets even more complicated if you’re a person of color …

MILIOTI Of course, sure.

WAITHE It’s a little bit more layered. I’m unafraid to be complicated, to not be perfect, but I also know it can create a very complicated relationship. And I want to be as free as my white counterparts, I want to play complicated roles. Like, Denise [her character] deals with infidelity, she’s smoking weed all the time, she’s feeling herself and things come crashing down, and it’s important for us to see ourselves that way. It’s like, it’s OK for us to be a hero, it’s OK for us to a villain. All of us live somewhere in between, depending on the day. But that can be tough when you’re a part of an othered group and you are so rarely seen on television. There is a reason why the Huxtables worked first. People want to see palatable folks of color, not complicated folks of color. So that’s why it’s super important for me to continue to write those complicated characters that are flawed and interesting and broken because that’s the only way people will see us as human beings.

BRYANT I know what you mean. I don’t think I ever would have had a role like this had I not written it for myself.

WAITHE Absolutely.

BRYANT That was my only way to enter into the space, and I felt that pressure on some level of writing a fat character with dignity that has a sex life, that’s not a punch line, that her existence isn’t a punch line, that there’s comedy in her. And [without writing it for myself,] I probably would’ve been cast as the funny friend for the rest of my life, and I love playing those roles, I really do, but I just think there’s more.

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Holly Hunter Jo Strettell/Courtesy of Subject

What are the types of roles you haven’t yet played but would love to do, if only Hollywood could see you that way?

SMART Well, unlike all you spring chickens, there are a lot of roles that are now unfortunately out of my age range, which is sad. A lot of the attention I’ve been getting recently I’m thrilled about, and I don’t take any of it for granted, but there’s that petty part of me that goes, “Where the hell were you 30 years ago when I could’ve done some great rom-coms and whatever?” (Laughter.)

WAITHE Still possible, still possible.

BRYANT I would like to play someone, like, really mean.

SMART I’ll trade you! I just want to play someone maternal and happy because that’s how I think of myself. I’ve always been a happy person, and I would like to actually play somebody like that. (Laughter.) I did Designing Women, I played this sweet Baptist girl who married the all-American boy and went to church, and then the next part I was offered was Aileen Wuornos, America’s first female serial killer. So, I don’t know.

MILIOTI I’d like to play a psychotic demon or a villain who’s gross and, like, evil, maybe a ghost vampire or just a psychopath.

BRYANT Like Beetlejuice, you’re describing Beetlejuice. (Laughter.)

HUNTER It’s interesting to be able to play women who are not mothers and not wives. Initially those were the parts that were out there, with a few exceptions of course, but it’s a beautiful thing to get to express something other than maternal love.

CUOCO I was doing an interview recently, and this woman said to me, “In season two, I want to see Cassie [her character] just find a good man.” And I was like, “What? I don’t want that for her.” She was like, “What do you mean?” And I’m like, “I just want her to be OK with herself.” But it was fascinating. And this woman was around my age, and I just said, “I’d love to be the example of something else — where the show ends with her just being cool on her own.”

Aidy, I can’t help but think, you can play anyone you want on SNL. What are the types of things that writers bring to you at SNL, where you say, “Mmm, I’m not so sure about that,” and, conversely, what are the things there you say, “Yes, I can’t wait to do this”? 

BRYANT The fun of SNL is that you’re cold reading, like, 40 sketches and it’s insane. I would say I’m pretty much up for anything. The stuff that I’ve ever pushed back on on the show would be when I played Sarah Huckabee Sanders and there would be jokes about her appearance or something like that that I’d nix because I was like, “That’s not the vile thing about this woman.” (Laughter.) Like, that’s not the interesting thing about what’s happening.

WAITHE Right. (Laughs.)

BRYANT And I think it makes us look bad to write those kinds of jokes. It makes us not have any kind of high ground. But pretty much everything else. Honestly, I’ll do just about anything, which is humiliating to admit. (Laughter.)

I’m hoping to end on a reflective note. What do you all know now that you wish you could go back and tell yourselves at the beginning of your careers?

SMART Maybe be a veterinarian? (Laughter.)

CUOCO I always say, “Don’t do it!”

WAITHE Somebody once said to me that getting your own show is like being beaten to death with your own dream, and I have to say it’s accurate. (Laughter.) But look, I’ll take the hits. It’s better than the alternative.

HUNTER Beaten by your dreams, now that’s a good one.

MILIOTI I’d say two things. One, I would have focused more on living. Maybe it was because I really struggled to make ends meet for a while, but I was always so focused on wanting to just act all the time. And if I could go back, I would tell myself, “Also, don’t forget to live a little bit. Like, go away, go meet people.” And I wouldn’t have compared myself so much.

SMART Mm-hmm.

MILIOTI The best advice I was ever given was when I went in for some terrible CW show. Because I would get called in for, like, Gossip Girl, and they’d be like, (scoffs) “We’re good.” I had no idea how to do that. And so I was called in for some CW show, and the casting director stopped me and she was like, “I see you in all these off-Broadway plays, all these weird theater pieces, and then you come in here and you give me this weird, bubblegum idea of what you think I’m looking for. And the reason that I keep calling you in is because I have seen your work in other things, and I know you’re desperate to get the job and I know you want to work, but, like, I called you in for you, I didn’t call you in to do an impression of a CW show.” That was such a turning point for me.

SMART That’s the actor’s curse. “What do they want for me? How am I going to change myself so I can be what they want?” And that was a very wise casting director.

MILIOTI Yeah, she was great.

SMART A director once said to me, “When you come into the room to audition for me, you’re here to solve my problem. I have a problem, I have to cast this role, and I’m going to be thrilled if you’re the person who solves that problem for me. So instead of coming in nervous and feeling like you’re going to be judged, and am I going to be good enough, or am I going to be right, come in with your idea of how you’re going solve my problem.” And that really took a lot of pressure off.

HUNTER I think when I was younger, when I was first starting, I thought there was a right way to do a scene. And as I got older, it’s like, “Oh yeah, yeah, let’s try that, great.” I’ve grown more malleable over the years. But there are so many agendas when you’re doing a movie or a TV show that are not necessarily your agenda, and I didn’t know how to negotiate that landscape then. Now I just feel more relaxed about the whole thing. So I guess I’d say that I needed to breathe when I was younger in a way that I’ve learned how to do over the years.

BRYANT I definitely relate to that feeling of, like, there is one way to do it. I’m from Arizona, I had no way to wrap my head around the entertainment business. And so when I got here, I was like, “Tell me what to do. I’ve never been here before, whatever you guys think, I’m good with.” And pretty quickly, I realized, “No, they don’t know anything either.” Like, I probably should trust my gut and that will get me to where I want — because ultimately you know yourself, and your way is going to be best for you rather than being like, “Yes sir, whatever you say, I’ll sign on the dotted line.”

Absolutely. Thank you all for sharing your time and your stories. Maybe we can all gather again at Cristin’s Beetlejuice premiere …

MILIOTI From your lips to God’s ears. (Laughter.)

Interview edited for length and clarity.

This story first appeared in the June 23 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.