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Actress Roundtable: Jennifer Lopez, Kerry Washington, A-Listers on Nudity, Network Fights and the “Diva” Label

"I've always been fascinated by how much more well-behaved we have to be than men," says Lopez, as she and Washington join Julianna Margulies, Sarah Paulson, Kirsten Dunst, Regina King and Constance Zimmer.

Jennifer Lopez has been saddled with the reputation of a diva for much of her career. Sarah Paulson has yet to land a leading-lady role without being asked to dye her naturally brown hair blond. And Julianna Margulies likely still would be fighting for acceptance into the Producers Guild had her seven-season drama, The Good Wife, not already concluded its run. Such is the plight of today’s working actresses, even those at the top of their game.

In late March, THR gathered seven such women — Margulies, 49; Lopez, 46 (NBC’s Shades of Blue); Paulson, 41 (FX’s The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story, American Horror Story: Hotel); Kirsten Dunst, 34 (FX’s Fargo); Regina King, 45 (ABC’s American Crime, HBO’s The Leftovers); Kerry Washington, 39 (ABC’s Scandal, HBO’s Confirmation); and Constance Zimmer, 45 (Lifetime’s UnREAL) — for a candid conversation about the roles they will (and won’t) strip down for, the scenes that required them to call their lawyers and the need to love their characters, even if their audience does not.

On The People v. O.J. Simpson, Sarah plays Marcia Clark, who became a victim of rather grotesque sexism. She’s told she has to change her look, dress in more feminine style, smile more, change her hair. As actresses, what have been the most overtly sexist things you’ve experienced in your careers?

KERRY WASHINGTON I’m in this very surreal environment right now having Shonda Rhimes as my boss, where it’s almost the opposite. It is specified in scripts that guys take their shirts off all the time.

JULIANNA MARGULIES Is it really?

WASHINGTON The guys are naked all the time! And she has said to all the women on the show: “You want to do a love scene in a parka? You just let me know.” So it’s this weird, like, reparations moment where the girls get to do what they want to do and the guys get to do what they want to do, but they know what Shonda wants them to do.

CONSTANCE ZIMMER On UnREAL, we have two female leads, female showrunners and writers, and it’s very driven toward us being empowered, which is definitely different. We can treat the men a bit like how we may have been treated earlier in our careers or just as women in general. It’s fun to watch the tables be turned and to see the guys on set eating lettuce. (Laughter.)

SARAH PAULSON I’ve never been asked to play the [romantic] leading lady without having to be a blonde.

Are you naturally a brunette?

PAULSON Yes. I don’t mind it, I like the blond — but to be told that in order to be considered a romantic lady opposite some hunky guy, I need to have long blond hair that looked very L.A. Real Housewives? It does do something to your brain. You go, “Gosh, so the way I came into the world is not as appealing as it would be if I were altered in some way?” That’s a funny message to extend to a person. And that’s the other thing: I did it. I put the extensions in, I blonded it up.

MARGULIES Well, you’ve got to pay your rent! (Laughs.)

JENNIFER LOPEZ I’ve always been fascinated by how much more well-behaved we have to be than men.

What have these roles taught you about yourselves?

MARGULIES I’ve learned to listen more and to not talk so much from Alicia. She’s able to see both sides of a coin before forming an opinion, and I’m an actress, so I’m always immediate with my opinion.

KING Every project I’ve worked on, as a whole I’ve learned something — not so much that the character that I’m playing has taught me something, but the people whom I’m working with or the story that’s being told has taught me something about people. With American Crime, it was that so many people think that black people can’t be elitist, that a black elitist doesn’t exist. I’m just surprised how many people are so shocked that Terri [the well-to-do, strict mom to basketball player Kevin, played by Trevor Jackson] actually exists. I’m like, you don’t know a Terri? I could show you three. (Laughter.)

Regina, in addition to two dramas, you’re also directing. At this stage of your career, how are you deciding what to and what not to take on?

KING I’ve been working for quite some time, and I’ve been lucky enough and confident enough that I’ve been able to say: “I’m not signing any multiyear deals. We’ll take it season by season.” It worked out perfectly with The Leftovers and American Crime, and HBO and ABC both responded well, surprisingly. My agents were like, “You’re sure you want us to go this route?”

MARGULIES That must be very freeing.

KING It is, especially because there are so many things that I want to do and that I’m developing. Look, I love to work, but I don’t want to keep putting off the things that I want to do because I’m tied down.

MARGULIES That’s the power, isn’t it? Creating your own stuff. More and more women of every shape, size, color and age need to just start creating their own [stuff] — to make a door for ourselves to walk through.

More roundtables featuring comedy actresses, comedy and drama actors and reality hosts and producers will roll out throughout June in print and online. Tune in to new episodes of Close Up With The Hollywood Reporter starting June 26 on SundanceTV. And look for clips at THR.com/roundtables starting May 16, with full episodes on THR.com after broadcast.

This story first appeared in the May 27 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.