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This story first appeared in the May 30 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
You’d never know from their instant rapport and freely shared advice (tip: wearing the same workout clothes every day keeps the New York paparazzi away) that this year’s drama actress roundtable participants actually are one another’s biggest competitors. Among the stress of landing TV’s most coveted lead roles, making time for film work on hiatus (and sometimes losing roles to one another) and maintaining a normal life at home, being a working actress never has been more difficult — or, to hear them say it, more gratifying. Inside a studio in New York’s Chelsea neighborhood on a recent Saturday afternoon, The Good Wife‘s Julianna Margulies, 47; Homeland‘s Claire Danes, 35; Mad Men‘s Jessica Pare, 33; The Americans‘ Keri Russell, 38; American Horror Story: Coven‘s Sarah Paulson, 38; and Bates Motel‘s Vera Farmiga, 40, opened up about their biggest self-critiques, the horror of doing sex scenes while pregnant and exactly what they’d do if they stopped acting (hint: it involves chocolate macaroons).
How much pressure do you feel on your shows to deliver shocking moments?
JULIANNA MARGULIES: I don’t know if there’s pressure to be shocking because on our show, we’re actually a little bit limited by being on broadcast television. We knew that Josh Charles wanted to leave The Good Wife, and my character is so connected to his character that there was no way for him to walk off into the sunset or get a job in Ohio where I wouldn’t follow him. So the only way for my character — and to allow other people to come on the show — to have any kind of romance would be to make a final choice so [drastic] that poor Josh could never come back. He’s dead now! But I think what it did was definitely elevate the stakes for us. I don’t think they’d have to do this on cable, but we actually had to ask permission if we could kill his character, Will Gardner.
Permission from whom?
MARGULIES: CBS. I think [CBS Entertainment president] Nina Tassler and [CBS chairman] Leslie Moonves had to OK it, but they loved the idea. They thought it allowed us to keep the show going, but I don’t think we can ever quite be as twisty and turny without it getting soap opera-y on [broadcast] TV for some reason, because we have to spread it out for 22 episodes.
JESSICA PARE: Right.
MARGULIES: You can do a twist and a turn for two episodes, but if you do it constantly, then you end up with a nighttime soap, and that’s what we want to stay away from.
Keri, speaking of shocking, there was a pretty explicit sex scene in the season-two premiere of The Americans featuring yours and Matthew Rhys’ characters performing oral sex on each other.
KERI RUSSELL: I’d like to re-create it right now for you. (Laughs.) I actually fought against that scene. I just didn’t know if that was the best emotional place for those characters. I wondered if there was a different physical act that could be happening other than that one. But they thought that it had to be something that the daughter was walking in on that was so much more graphic than just sex and then keep her from walking in again. It’s funny, though; sex has never been something I’ve done in my career — at all. But I don’t mind it on this show. It may be the nature of them being spies helps inform the characters. It’s not sexuality for sexuality’s sake.
Claire, how difficult for you was the death of Damian Lewis’ character, Brody, at the end of Homeland‘s last season?
SARAH PAULSON: Oh, I can’t even talk about that. Not that you’re asking me!
RUSSELL: You ask me, that was the hardest to deal with!
CLAIRE DANES: [Killing him] was supposed to happen in the second season. Then the Carrie-Brody relationship became so captivating for audiences that Showtime wanted to extend it. We had been anticipating the finale for quite a while. We shot the scene [where Brody is hanged] on our final day working in Morocco. It was all very heightened, literally. The crane broke at one point. I still don’t think I’ve really processed it. I go back to work in a month, and I think it’ll occur to me then that he’s really gone. It’ll be a very different environment when we return and Damian, whom I love, isn’t there.
VERA FARMIGA: The Bates Motel audience thrives on those plot points and twists, too. We started with very high stakes; this backward exploration of the great American tragedy, where the son kills the mother. But those are actually my least favorite moments to play as an actress. “Your brother’s showing up on your doorstep and you have a history of incest. Go!” My favorite moments are the more restrained moments.
PARE: There’s also something happening in television similar to what happened in the ’80s, when people stopped taking so many drugs and wanted to hear real instruments in music again. I think people want plot, story and characters. Those are more important than having a big star.
There has been chatter that your Mad Men character, Megan, is going to be killed by the Manson family or that she’s going to light her house on fire. Do you talk with creator Matthew Weiner about these theories?
PARE: I hadn’t heard those! First of all, Matt wouldn’t tell me. We’re all so secretive about the show, and it’s best that way. The writing is so great; there’s so much between the lines that it’s actually best viewed unspoiled. It’s a great exercise as an actor to do what’s on the page, but not more and not less. I don’t know what’s coming, so I don’t want to act myself out of a better storyline.
What is your biggest self-critique when you watch your performances?
PAULSON: Do you have a week to sit here? No, I get frustrated when I haven’t asked for another take. I get really panicked sometimes when I can feel the clock going. We’re all under the gun; our show’s very expensive. There’s never enough time. So when I watch something and think, “I just knew I was full of shit in a scene,” and they used it, I wish I had asked for another one. And sometimes, depending on whom I’m working with, and if I’m more terrified and feel small and less than, I will definitely not ask for another take. But sometimes, I think the comfort of being on a show for a while [means] I can look over at James, our camera operator, and say, “Can I please have another one?” And he’ll find a way to help me out, which I never can do on a movie — ever.
What’s been your most challenging moment so far on American Horror Story?
PAULSON: I would say in season two, it was twofold: One, when I had to simulate performing an abortion on myself, and two, playing a 75-year-old woman. That was very hard. And it was very important to me to kind of hold on to who the character of Lana Winters was as an older person, not just go into a kind of caricature. Also, I had the crazy makeup on that was terrifying, and I sent the photograph to my mother, and I was like: “I guess you’ll never see this. This is me at 75!” (Laughter.)
What was the most difficult phase of your career?
MARGULIES: OK, I’ll start: [2002’s] Ghost Ship. It had been written as a psychological thriller about what happens when you have too much of something — money is evil, greed, and these two people start going crazy — so I said yes! It was a big Warner Bros. picture. I was the lead with Gabriel Byrne. Then I got off the plane in Australia and the script had totally changed. Suddenly, I was in a really awful horror movie, and it was shocking.
Did you blame anybody?
MARGULIES: No. Whom do you blame? I think you get back up and go, “Maybe there’s a better one down the road.” And I’m huge in Japan. (Laughter.) I don’t think there’s anything you can do except be disappointed for a minute and move on.
DANES: I went through a period in my mid- to late-20s when I was transitioning out of that ingenue period, which I was very grateful to be doing. But I was playing a lot of roles where I was defined by my love for some guy, and that got really tedious. I mean, I love love and falling in love, but it can get pretty flat real fast. Then I did Temple Grandin, which was such a blessing because it was so antithetical to any ingenue role. I felt stretched, inspired and robust. Then there was just nothing again, and that was almost harder. I really didn’t have any tolerance for a limited kind of secondary role. I had to wait for Carrie on Homeland. She was the first character who could match Temple’s dynamism. It was the first time I was scared into action, and that felt great.
PAULSON: For me, it was after [NBC’s] Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip [was canceled]. Everyone on the show thought it was going to be this thing, and it didn’t become anything. I didn’t work for two years, and then I moved back to New York …
DANES: It’s crushing.
PAULSON: And it’s really hard. It was not only my expectations I was dealing with; I was dealing with everybody else’s expectations about something that was disappointing for them, too. So I went back to New York and did some plays that nobody saw, and that was fine. Then some casting director came to see a play, and then I did a movie called Martha Marcy May Marlene, which kind of put things back on track.
DANES: I think you work for long enough, too, and you start to realize that working for working’s sake is counterproductive. I realized that that wasn’t really an option anymore, so I had to just wait, but that’s so painful.
PAULSON: It’s an act of faith to have that kind of patience and also a certain willingness to believe that you have something to offer. But if it doesn’t, what does it mean? Where will you go? And what will you do? And will you find a home?
PARE: Sounds like me!
Keri, you had a lot of success at a young age. Did you feel a lot of pressure coming off a hit network show like Felicity?
RUSSELL: No. I just didn’t want to work anymore after that. I was just tired. I think for me, I was younger, and I didn’t like it enough. It felt life-arresting on many levels. I wasn’t experiencing life. I wanted to read books, travel, be a kid for a minute, so that’s what I did. I left L.A., which didn’t feel good to me anymore. I had this great apartment in New York, and I just took over a year off. I got to show up to birthday parties, go out dancing with girls and walk home in the snow. I have to fill myself up, and that’s not what my experience of network TV was. It was really hard to be that young.
FARMIGA: There was a point in my career where there was a wonderful [Oscar] nomination [for Up in the Air], but no work came. And the kinds of things that were landing on my table were things that potentially could have had a really big cheese factor. The Conjuring was that. But it’s just a matter of application, the spin you put on it. [Editor’s note: The Conjuring earned strong reviews and made $318 million worldwide.] And Bates could have been horribly wrong, and at first I scoffed. But after the third page, I thought, “OK, there’s something here.”
And Carlton Cuse said he and Kerry Ehrin had you in mind when he was writing it.
FARMIGA: They all say that. You find out later they offered it to Cate Blanchett! (Laughs.) No, I believe him.
What’s the most physically demanding thing you’ve had to do onscreen?
DANES: Working while pregnant.
DANES: I was pregnant for the second season of Homeland, and as my baby progressed, the show got more action-packed. At one point, we were shooting in an old sewage factory. I was kidnapped, I was chained to a pipe, it was 4 a.m., I was 7½ months pregnant, and I was like, “This sucks.” They were like, “Sorry!” At one point, the baby was on my sciatic nerve, and I was charging down the halls of pretend Langley. I also had to do love scenes pregnant.
RUSSELL: Yeah. It’s creepy when your belly’s up against them. You’re like, “This is wrong.”
DANES: At the very end, I was a month and a half shy of popping, and I was doing a romantic scene.
RUSSELL: Oh my God.
DANES: And Cyrus was really active. It was late at night, it was after dinner, and [my son] was going crazy in my belly. It was like he was protesting on my husband’s behalf or something. That was hard.
FARMIGA: And post-pregnancy, too. At one point in Up in the Air, I’m lactating on George Clooney’s chest during an intimate scene, and he grins and bears it!
MARGULIES: He probably got his glass of vodka and … (pantomimes holding a glass up to Farmiga’s chest). (Laughter.)
DANES: White Russian?
Jessica, how afraid were you to perform “Zou Bisou Bisou” on Mad Men?
PARE: I was pretty self- conscious. Before that, the stakes were pretty low; there was not much on the page for the character. Then I came back for season five, and I had to do a literal song-and-dance routine for all these people whose work I’d admired for years. It was horrifying, but they were awesome. I think by take 60, I got comfortable!
Whom do you lean on most for career advice?
DANES: I love my agent at WME, Stephanie Ritz, because she actually has an opinion. A lot of agents don’t; they’re terrified of committing. There was this potential movie, Bulletproof Monk, and my agent at the time was saying, “You know, it’s one of those movies, like you either love it or you hate it,” and I said, “Well, what do you think?” She said, “I don’t know. I like it?” (Laughs.) So yeah, I love Stephanie. And my husband — he has really great taste.
FARMIGA: Same thing, my husband is my best friend; he knows my sensibilities. Also, my manager, who’s had a very sort of esoteric approach. “Why do you need to take this job? What is it going to provoke? How’s it going to feed your spirit?”
DANES: That’s so lovely.
MARGULIES: David Chase had written me a part in The Sopranos, and they didn’t send you scripts. They just send you your pages, so it was hard to see where the character was going. I hadn’t done television in a long time. I’d been doing off-Broadway and independent movies. It was right after ER. And the script weirded me out. Her name was Julianna, and she was from Rockland County, which is where I was born. And I’m reading and reading, and suddenly [in the script] I’m in a bra and panties, doing heroin, and then I vomit. I was like: “That’s gross. I’m not doing that. This is crazy.” So I called my friend [actor] Griffin Dunne, one of my favorite people on the planet. He’s produced, directed, written — I needed someone’s opinion who’s been there and done that. And he goes, “Don’t be a f–ing idiot. Of course you’re doing it.”
Sarah, did you have any reservations about doing 12 Years a Slave and playing such an evil character?
PAULSON: I didn’t. I think I found a way for me to be able to stand there and do it that was just about who the woman was inside. Her actions are deplorable, but she’s doing it because she feels she’s being usurped by another woman in her home. She’s a small, tiny creature inside who just is panicked. Also, I don’t think she was capable of having a deeper thought or a self-reflective kind of way of functioning, and she was taught to be racist. She was in love with this man who was clearly smitten with another. I never saw it from an outside perspective of, “How do you find a way into playing someone so cruel?” Someone asked, “Aren’t you worried that people are going to ask you to play villains now?” That never occurred to me … but yeah, bring it on!
FARMIGA: I wanted that role in 12 Years.
PAULSON: Oh my God. That’s so extraordinary.
How much do you know about who else is up for parts you’re auditioning for?
PAULSON: I didn’t know!
FARMIGA: It depends on the project.
PAULSON: Do you ever ask? Sometimes I do.
FARMIGA: [The 12 Years part] was a high-stakes role. (To Paulson) Girl, I made a full-blown audition tape with hurdy-gurdies playing in the background. The dance scene … remember?
PAULSON: I auditioned with the same scene. I put my hair back in the tightest bun I could. I wore an outfit that was actually in my closet, which is terrifying. I did really want it; I did really go for it. Some people have theories about not going into an audition in costume or in character, like if you’re playing a nurse, you can wear an orthopedic shoe. But for a movie, sometimes you’ll meet the casting people, and they’ll be like, “Why aren’t you wearing a dress that’s cut down to here?” — even if it has nothing to do with the character. They still want to think you’re super-hot.
DANES: Alex Gansa and Howard Gordon said they wrote the Homeland role for me; the character’s name was originally Claire. When I agreed to do it, that became too creepy. But it was one of those dream scenarios where you didn’t have to fight your way to the door. I definitely had reservations about it at the time, and it took me a while to arrive at “yes,” because I was a little spooked by the role and continue to be a little spooked by it, which is why I’m glad I still have the job four years later.
What aspects of the role spooked you?
DANES: She’s just so troubled. Alex actually just pitched the next season to me. Each year I’m like, “Maybe things have settled down a little bit for her?” Not this year! She’s under great duress, she’s hyper-vigilant, she’s operating at a very high frequency. It’s a little intimidating, and it can be a little exhausting. The challenge is grounding it so that it’s not farcical.
MARGULIES: It’s funny: When The Good Wife came to me, it came in such a backhanded compliment. “Ashley Judd was offered this script, but she’s turning it down. Now, I’m going to give it to you, but first, we’re going to Helen Hunt. And if Helen Hunt passes, it’s all yours.”
PAULSON: Sometimes I don’t want to read it when it comes that way.
MARGULIES: I wanted to hate it, because you know, “F– you! You didn’t want me to begin with.” The [Good Wife] writers always say: “No, we always wanted you. It’s just the studio wanted Helen Hunt!” But my agent said a great thing: “No one will know when they watch this show that Helen Hunt was offered it before you.”
DANES: I don’t ultimately begrudge another person getting a job. I really am very Zen about it. I’m meant to do it or I’m not.
RUSSELL: It’s such a fluid business.
Keri, how did The Americans come to you?
RUSSELL: Through the usual channels. I was just at a place where I didn’t think I was going to be working. I had a brand-new baby, a week old, and I was like, “Guys, a Russian spy? Why do you keep bringing this to me?” But I’m so glad they kept pushing, especially [FX Networks president] John Landgraf. It’s been such a fun surprise.
What is the last piece of acting you saw that made you jealous?
MARGULIES: I hadn’t seen a movie in a long time, and I took myself to a matinee — I couldn’t believe I had the day to myself — and I saw Fading Gigolo. Johnny Depp‘s ex Vanessa Paradis plays a Hasidic Jew in this movie. She did such a beautiful, magnificent job!
PAULSON: I can’t pronounce her name, but the woman from Blue Is the Warmest Color, Adele … ?
DANES: Oh, I still haven’t seen that.
PAULSON: That performance is so extraordinary. How do you say her last name, ’cause I’d really like to know. Adele Exarch … She’s French. Can you help me out? Adele Exchar …
MARGULIES: Idina Menzel? (Laughs.)
If you could go back to the beginning of your career and give yourself advice, what would it be?
DANES: Be as relaxed as possible when you’re working. Somebody once told me that, and I had no idea what it meant. It’s strange because you have to be relaxed, but you also have to be the opposite of that, simultaneously, and it’s something that I could only grasp through experience. People will stop me in a grocery store and say: “Hi, I’m an actor. What’s the advice?” And it’s just to do it. Find as many opportunities as you can and clock as many hours as you can.
PARE: The advice I would give myself is: “Don’t date that guy, don’t drink that, go right home, get a good night’s sleep.” (Laughs.) I’m terrified because Mad Men is coming to an end, and I’m going back to that place of not having work and not knowing what’s next. I seem to be in a different position now, I hope. But to feel like an actor when you’re not working is a real struggle. When you don’t have something coming out or coming up, it’s hard to still feel like you’re a creative person.
PAULSON: You feel like you’re atrophying.
MARGULIES: But we’re so lucky. First of all, roles written for women are so much more complex on television. The film world is becoming quite flimsy for women. It’s so lovely having been doing this since I was quite young, and now to see all these movie stars wanting to do TV … there’s no real differentiation anymore, except to say you have a steady job. That feels so good.
FARMIGA: There’s just a deeper level of sophistication in the writing of female characters on TV.
MARGULIES: They’re also not scared of women working in television. My unit production manager is a woman, two of my executive producers are women and three of the writers.
PAULSON: Are there female directors on your show?
PAULSON: I’ve never had a woman direct our show.
MARGULIES: Oh, there should be. TV is a much more female-friendly environment. It’s so nice to be employed! The hardest thing about being an actor, and especially when you’re a woman trying to also have a family and a relationship, is to maintain some sort of normalcy. With television, you might not be home a lot, but you have a routine …
PAULSON: And structure.
MARGULIES: We all really need structure.
DANES: Even actors!
What’s been the oddest fan interaction you’ve experienced?
MARGULIES: I once had a guy ask me — I was at a play during intermission — and he said, “I’m in the middle of a divorce and need a really good lawyer.” And I said, “I’m not a lawyer.” He goes, “Alicia needs to be in court Monday morning.” I said: “Sir, I think you’re confused. I play a lawyer on TV.” And he goes, “No, you can do this case, because I need this relationship …”
PARE: Oh, that’s sad!
MARGULIES: Finally my husband said to him, “You need to stop.”
PARE: I’m always way more excited about being on my show than anybody else is about me being on this show. When I first got recognized in New York, this girl said, “Oh my God, are you Megan from Mad Men?” And I was like, “Yes!!!” And I almost pushed her over.
How long did it take for that buzz to waver?
PARE: I don’t know. I’ll let you know. (Laughs.)
Keri, had there been social media when you cut your hair on Felicity, it probably would have broken the Internet.
RUSSELL: But it wouldn’t have because today, haircutting would be nothing! It’s much more salacious now. You think a haircut’s going to beat out blow jobs? That’s so tame compared to what’s going on now.
If you stopped acting today, what would you do with the rest of your life?
PARE: I totally know this because I have had a lot of time to think about it! I’m in my 30s now, and it turns out I’m a morning person, so I would probably bake.
Are you a good baker?
PARE: I don’t know. I don’t eat wheat. But I’ll have a richer inner life!
PAULSON: I would probably just be some inert thing floating in the water. I’d also really like to go sit and watch a play every night for the rest of my life.
FARMIGA: I would love to foray into film editing. Or become a shepherdess, wandering.
MARGULIES: (To Pare) Well, I’m going to hire you because I do bake. I’m famous for chocolate-dipped macaroons. So we can start a cookie store and sell macaroons made by out-of-work actresses.
DANES: I went to college — I didn’t graduate — but I went for a few years. I took a lot of psychology classes initially and always thought that if I didn’t act, I would be a therapist. But then I was like, “Wow, this is a lot of lab work!” I think I’m better at going to therapy as the client. I also took a lot of fine art classes, my parents are artists …
PAULSON: Those are two things you know how to do. I’m really screwed!
DANES: Well, I can’t do the first one, so I’d probably be a graphic designer. I took a graphic design class and had such an amazing time.
MARGULIES: (To Danes) OK, so you’ll do the sign and graphics.
PAULSON: What about you, Keri? What are you going to bring into our store?
RUSSELL: I’m going to just keep having kids and my kids will come eat the cookies.
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