Six complex women — also including Nicole Kidman, Jessica Lange, Elisabeth Moss and Chrissy Metz — debate the power and pain of strong females (onscreen and off-) amid a culture of discrimination in the industry and beyond: “I don’t think we’ve ever seen this much misogyny.”
When Oprah Winfrey decided to adapt The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks for HBO, she had two actresses in mind to play the role of Lacks’ daughter Deborah. But HBO Films president Len Amato wasn’t interested in her casting ideas: He wanted the media tycoon to be involved onscreen as well as off-. And after some heavy arm-twisting and a little time to get comfortable with the idea, Winfrey, 63, agreed — in part because the role allowed her to showcase, as she puts it, “a whole range of craziness.” It’s the opportunity to explore those layers of character and emotion that has drawn her and five other stars — Nicole Kidman, 49; Reese Witherspoon, 41; Elisabeth Moss, 34; Jessica Lange, 68; and This Is Us breakout Chrissy Metz, 36 — to work on television, as they revealed during The Hollywood Reporter‘s annual Drama Actress Roundtable discussion on a Hollywood soundstage in May. “We have the opportunity to show the entire spectrum of human emotion that women have,” says Witherspoon, who, like Kidman, is a producer and star of HBO’s Big Little Lies. “We aren’t just the wives and the girlfriends. We are actually living, breathing people who have insecurities.” During the course of an hour, the six spoke candidly about the unexpected rewards and residue that come with inhabiting complicated women.
You have tackled ageism, sexism, misogyny, depression, domestic abuse, adultery and rape. When was the last time you were genuinely nervous to tackle a storyline?
OPRAH WINFREY (The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, HBO) I was genuinely nervous to take on the role of Deborah Lacks because look at this table. I come as the least experienced person at this table. I come as a person who has great respect for the craft of acting — and for years interviewing actresses and being inspired by actresses, but not developing the craft. I was really afraid to do that.
Afraid of what, exactly?
WINFREY I was afraid of making a fool of myself! (Laughter.)
NICOLE KIDMAN (Big Little Lies, HBO) That’s every day.
REESE WITHERSPOON (Big Little Lies, HBO) What are you talking about?! The Color Purple is so amazing.
WINFREY When was that? That was like 30 years ago now. And let me tell you what actually made me even more intimidated: I just finished doing a film with Reese and Ava DuVernay and Mindy Kaling [A Wrinkle in Time], and I just happened to ask Reese, “How many films have you done?” And you said, “Oh, honey child …” (Laughter.)
WITHERSPOON Do you all know how many movies you’ve done?
WINFREY You said, “I don’t know, 100 or so.” I was thinking, “Oh, God, I hope she doesn’t ask me because my number will be like, five, maybe?”
CHRISSY METZ (This Is Us, NBC) Oh, I’ve got you beat. I’ve done maybe one independent movie.
ELISABETH MOSS (The Handmaid’s Tale, Hulu) I don’t know if I was nervous about the scenes themselves, but [Margaret Atwood’s] book itself is so beloved, so that was my only hesitation. I wanted to make sure that we were going to do the book justice and do it in the way that it should be done or we were going to get in trouble. I don’t have any fear with scary stories. That’s what I want to do. But I took six weeks to say yes because I wanted to make sure we were going to do a good job.
WINFREY And how did you make sure?
MOSS I spoke to Bruce [Miller], our showrunner, for about an hour and a half. I was in Australia doing the second season of Top of the Lake with Nicole [at the time]. And then I spoke to Warren Littlefield, our EP, and to Hulu. I asked for the second script because I know the second script can be a little bit of a … (Laughter.)
WINFREY Everybody’s so excited over the pilot and then … yeah.
MOSS Exactly. Everyone spent 10 years on [the pilot], and then you get the second script and you’re like, “Really?! Is there a third one?” And then one night I was thinking about saying no. I just wasn’t sure what to do and I couldn’t sleep. I don’t know if anyone else does this, but if you’re thinking about taking a role, I pretend that I said no to see how that feels. I felt terrible and was super jealous of whoever did it and then I knew.
When was the last time you panicked before a scene? Chrissy?
METZ That first scene where they were like, “Oh, do you want to get half-naked on the scale?” I’m like, “What?!” But everything is about the way we look — initially, anyway — so I think it is super important that the fear is being removed.
How did you get to the point where you were comfortable standing on that scale?
METZ Well … hmm.
WINFREY She didn’t say she was comfortable. (Laughter.)
METZ I just got to the point where I was like, “This is so important for this character and for the journey that she is going on and for me and for all the women who are in [the show’s] hair and makeup [departments] who were like, ‘Oh, I could never do that!’ ” I’m like, “But why? Why are we so judged on the way we look when it’s just the vehicle — it’s just the package that we’re in? And it ebbs and flows and it changes.” And when other women were like, “Oh, my God, I know what it meant to take off the earrings [before you step on the scale].” I’m like, “Every ounce counts, girl.” (Laughter.)
MOSS We’ve all done it!
WINFREY Lean on one foot. Lean to the side …
METZ Hold your breath. Tricks of the trade. But yeah, it was more about everyone else and not about me. And as actors, that’s what we do. We’re telling a story, so let me separate this from who I am and then also know that whatever anybody thinks about me is not my business. I’m just going to do it. It’s my job and it’s important. It needs to be seen. And so many women have been like, “I’ve never seen my body shape on TV.” And I say, “I know! Neither have I!”
As actresses, and producers, too, do you feel a responsibility to shed light on these topics?
WITHERSPOON Absolutely. I think everyone at this table is mission-driven. We all have a mission to understand the greater humanity of women and to promote that. Nobody has done that more than you (turns to Winfrey).
WINFREY And a few cool men, too.
WITHERSPOON A few cool guys, yeah. But just examining the human condition and also putting a bigger array and a more dynamic idea of what a woman is and what her experience is — and I think it has been such a great year. I look around the table [and think] about what these shows are and the topics that are coming up because of these shows, and it’s incredible. I have been talking about [The Handmaid’s Tale] ad infinitum at dinner parties because it feels possible. I mean, you’re jogging and then you go in to buy a coffee and your credit card doesn’t work anymore. It could be any one of us.
WINFREY It feels ominous. It’s the reason why I heard you (turns to Moss) saying that it’s the one show that you don’t think people should binge-watch, and I agree with you.
MOSS You won’t be able to get out of bed. And it needs to be digested and thought about.
Whether it’s The Handmaid’s Tale or Feud, much has been made of these shows’ relevance in today’s political climate. How would they have landed differently if Hillary Clinton were president?
JESSICA LANGE (FEUD: BETTE AND JOAN, FX) We started shooting in September, before the election, and Ryan [Murphy, the showrunner] said he was thinking, “Well, we’ll make this piece about misogyny, sexism, ageism, all of this, but come the beginning of the year, it might just be ironic.” But of course …
MOSS It wasn’t …
LANGE No, we took a different turn, and I think it’s more relevant now than it could have possibly been at any other time. I don’t think we’ve ever seen this much misogyny, this much sexism, and I think the fact that we have this story that is set in a particular period, but obviously Hollywood in the 1960s, is just a microcosm of the greater atmosphere that we are all living through now.
Chrissy, why do you think This Is Us has struck such a chord, and what does its success say about our culture today?
METZ Oh, I think we all want to love each other and we’re at this point where we’re like, “Help?” And I think the show is so relatable because we’re all going through something, and it doesn’t matter how tall, thin, rich or poor we are, we all want the same thing and we all feel inadequacies.
Nicole, your character on Big Little Lies is a victim of domestic abuse. What did your preparation process and the conversations you had with your director and your co-stars entail?
KIDMAN Reese and I talked about everything else, pretty much.
WITHERSPOON I remember the first time you were shooting the first scene where [your character] gets hit, and I was so nervous. She was so vulnerable in her underwear.
With very few exceptions, you opted against relying on a body double for those violent scenes. Why?
KIDMAN There was one point when [director Jean-Marc Vallee] wanted to go back and reshoot me being slammed into the wardrobe because it wasn’t hard enough. I’m like, “I’ve got bruises because of how hard it was, so I can’t believe that it didn’t read that way.” But as we all know, on film sometimes what you’re feeling doesn’t read. I felt my way through the character. It was beautifully written, and I was allowed to bring some things to it as well.
KIDMAN I would call [showrunner] David [E. Kelley] and say, “It’s important that you know that I [her character, Celeste] gave up my career, that I moved there for him. When he says that I don’t love him, it’s important that I say, ‘But I gave up this and this and this and this. Isn’t that enough to show you how much I love you?’ ” So that you see the constant push-pull of the relationship and my desire for him to realize how much I love him, which is to me an interesting motivation. The motivation of her the whole time is to say, “Look what I will do …”
WINFREY “What else can I do …”
KIDMAN “… to keep this relationship?” A lot of it was just the way Jean-Marc shoots, which I love. There was no rehearsal, there was just, walk into the room and do the scene, and he would shoot it. It’s a fantastic way to do a performance like this because you’re just in it, particularly for the sex scenes.
Elisabeth, yours are not typical sex scenes; they’re rape scenes. How do you prepare?
MOSS I just thought, “What would one do in this situation?” Which sounds so oversimple, perhaps, but I was just like, “If you were being sexually assaulted on a regular basis and you knew there was nothing you could do about it, what would you do?” There’s no escape and you can’t fight back. And so I thought, “Well, she would probably try not to be there — try to go somewhere else.”
KIDMAN Oh, yeah, that was so apparent.
MOSS You can’t be there. You can’t experience it. You wouldn’t make it. Which happens to women in that world; they don’t make it. So I was trying to show that she wasn’t there. And in the shooting of it, it was really important for us to have it be extremely clinical, mechanical; there’s nothing remotely sexual about it. It was really important to show it exactly for what it should be. That no one is enjoying this. That all three parties are in a terrible place.
What happened when the director yelled, “Cut!”?
MOSS I mean, you know how these things are. (Laughter.)
LANGE A couple of jokes.
MOSS Exactly, a couple of lame jokes.
WITHERSPOON You’re like, “Good game, good game.”
MOSS “You all right down there? You good? You’re doing great.” You know? (Laughter.) Everyone’s in an awkward position. There’s usually, “Am I hurting you?” That kind of thing. And then you do it again. And there are 65 people watching and so it’s not as dramatic as anyone thinks it might be.
KIDMAN Except I remember lying on the floor in the last episode, being in my underwear and having just been really thrown around. I just lay on the floor. I couldn’t get up. I didn’t want to get up. And I remember Jean-Marc coming over and putting a towel over me in between the takes because I was just like …
WINFREY Too exposed?
KIDMAN I just felt completely humiliated and devastated. And angry inside. I went home and I threw a rock through a glass door.
WITHERSPOON We were staying at a hotel and she called me and she says, “I’ve just done the craziest thing.” She got home from work and she had one of these horrible scenes and she goes, “I couldn’t get into my hotel room so I threw a rock through the window.” And she goes, “I don’t do stuff like that.”
KIDMAN I was obviously holding all that rage and what had been done.
LANGE The amazing thing about being an actor is that your body doesn’t understand that it’s make-believe.
LANGE So that everything is internalized in that way — that rage, sorrow, grief, whatever. And it seeps into the marrow of your bones, and every molecule is actually believing that this is happening — no matter what the mind is telling it.
WINFREY This happened to me once when I was doing The Butler, where I had a scene where my son had died and I had gotten myself to the point where I’m ready to just let it all go, and the director, Lee Daniels, said, “Nope, I don’t want her to do that. I don’t want her throwing herself all over the casket. I just want her to hold it, hold it, hold it, hold it …” And so, I didn’t release it. I left that scene, got on a plane, went to interview somebody else and was holding it …
So when did it come out?
WINFREY Holding all of that energy in the middle of an interview, I thought I was going to burst into tears in the middle of somebody talking about something that was not even related to me bursting into tears. And I felt a little cuckoo. I realized it’s because I didn’t go through the process of letting go.
LANGE Even if you go through the process, you’re still a little cuckoo. (Laughter.) Because you carry this stuff around with you; it’s the residue of all these emotions that you’ve been dealing with for the last couple of days, months, years.
WITHERSPOON On our show, we were shooting the finale and we were on our seventh day of night shoots, and I was losing my mind. And they kept saying, “OK, we’re going to do the scene where you have the breakdown and you tell Shailene [Woodley’s character] that you’ve cheated on your husband.” And then they’d be like, “We ran out of time. We’re going to do it tomorrow.” By day seven of getting prepared and not ever using it, we came in and, out of nowhere, we were told we had to do the title sequence, and I just couldn’t do it. I started to scream, and I’ve never screamed like this. Like, howling. And instead of having this feeling — like, “Oh, my God, what did I just do?” — all the women came over and said, “Girl, I have so been there.” (Laughter.) And Nicole goes, “Jean-Marc, she’s ready to shoot right now, right now. We need to get Jean-Marc.”
KIDMAN “She’s perfect.”
WITHERSPOON We’re not machines, and we are expected to turn it on and off, and sometimes it’s the most maddening aspect of what we do.
Oprah, sexual violence has been a theme in your work dating to The Color Purple. What draws you to those stories?
WINFREY I keep trying to share with the world what it means not just to be sexually violated but what it means to have someone who is a predator in your own space and to be preyed upon. Just as Reese was saying, we’re all about sharing the story that is going to raise consciousness on any level. I tried to do it for many years [on my talk show]. I did 127 interviews with victims of molestation, sexual abuse, sexual violence or the molesters and rapists themselves in one form or another. And at the end of the show, I said it’s the one message I think I failed at — allowing people to see the depth of the pain, because everybody looks at the act itself, particularly when it comes to sexual molestation, and they want to know: Was there penetration or not? So I tried and tried and tried and tried. Now I’m doing it through our storyline on Greenleaf [on OWN]. I try to do it with the subjects that I choose, the books that I choose, always trying to let people see the light of that.
WITHERSPOON Sometimes art is a way that sort of removes you in a certain capacity.
WINFREY I think it’s actually the best opportunity for people to see themselves.
Jessica, Feud has made us horrified at both how things used to be and at how little has changed. In your experience, what hasn’t changed?
LANGE When we were doing it, it was never with that thought of, “Oh, we’re doing a story that is still relevant today.” But I’m at this point in my career where things have really dropped off. The idea that these women [Bette Davis and Joan Crawford] by their mid-50s were done, that the industry was finished with them, to a certain degree that still is the case. But TV has kind of stepped into that void that is left when your film career begins to really thin out. (Laughter.) And the characters that I’m playing now are as rich as the characters that I was playing in my 30s and 40s in films.
KIDMAN I have turned down films to do TV because I love the seven hours of exploring a character, and it reaches more people. It costs so much money to make films and to market them and get them out there that they do have to be events or superhero movies.
WITHERSPOON And people want to see all ages, ethnicities and cultures represented.
WINFREY The audience responded to This Is Us because they were thinking, “This is us.” So, it’s a perfect title.
METZ We had a contest, and [showrunner] Dan [Fogelman] was like, “We’ll give an iPad to whoever names the show.” I think my title was “This Is Me and You” or something along those lines. So I like to say that I had a hand in it. (Laughter.)
Sterling K. Brown has said that he infused his experiences as a black man and a father into his character. What have you drawn from your life?
METZ So much. We use what we know. I’ve had people give me all kinds of looks on airplanes when they know that I’m going to be coming to sit by them. Even to this day. I was like, “Sir, we’re in first class; you’ve got some room.” (Laughs.) But those are his issues; they’re not mine. “If you want to move, boo, just move. It’s fine.” It’s [that kind of] discrimination because it’s such a visual issue.
You’ve said that before you landed this role, you had 81 cents in your bank account. What gave you the confidence to keep going?
METZ It was after doing American Horror Story and there was a whole year that nothing happened. I thought it was a good jumping-off point. “Nobody’s interested? OK, great.” (Laughter.) What do I do now? Do I go back and teach preschool in Gainesville, Florida? And my mom was like, “You can either be miserable in Los Angeles pursuing your dream, or you can be miserable in Gainesville, Florida.” And I was like, “Yeah, I don’t want to go.” There was that whole year that I was on unemployment. I had one audition that whole year. I couldn’t even get gas because you have to have $20 in your bank account to get gas. So yeah, my life has completely changed. I can get gas now. (Laughs.)
Hollywood likes to lock people into lanes, and there is a certain thing they want from you or a role that they expect from you. What is that role? And what are the roles you don’t get approached for but you feel like you’d be great at?
METZ Comedy was really my thing, and I guess they were like, “Oh, it’s the sad big girl; we better put her in some drama.” I’m kidding, but I would love to do comedy. I would also love to do a project that is not about weight. So just a woman who happens to be going for a job interview or whatever. Slowly but surely it will happen.
WITHERSPOON I started a production company five years ago because I was looking at maybe the worst script I’ve ever read in my entire life and it had two parts for women. I called my agents and said, “This is such a terrible script.” They said, “Well, seven women want it so … you’re the only one who’s not vying for the part.” And I thought, “God, if this is what we’ve come to, I have to get busy.” Because you can either complain about a problem or you can be part of the solution.
KIDMAN We created the show for that reason. The other thing is, being a woman and having children, there are so many things I would want to do, but so much of my life is, how do I balance that? If I had my fantasy life, there are so many roles and places and things I’d want to do. I’m now at a point where I have to go, “What is that going to cost me? And what is that going to cost the people I love? Do I want to leave now to do this?” Men have that, but they don’t have it in the same way that we have it.
WITHERSPOON They go away and come back and they’re a hero. We go away and come back and we have abandoned our children. (Laughs.)
KIDMAN We don’t get the choices as much with our careers and our lives because a lot of it is, we have to be there to take care of everything still. Or I do. And so a lot of my fantasy life is that I can go and read a play and then I’ve done it. I then don’t have to go and actually do it because I have done it in my bedroom. And that’s what I realized at this stage of my life. That’s going to have to be enough.
Is there a way to change that paradigm?
WITHERSPOON No, that’s a choice you’re making. I was talking to this very famous actor and I said, “How did you prepare for this role?” He said, “Well, I went into the woods for three weeks and I didn’t talk to anybody.” And this person has a lot of kids and is married. And he’s like, “You did the same thing for Wild, right?” I was like, “Uh, no.” If I went away for three weeks and no one could call me, everybody would’ve had a mental breakdown. I got on a plane and was shooting within 24 hours. I wish I had prep time. I love the preparation. I love watching and reading and digging deep.
LANGE What happens is you pack [your children] up like a little troupe of gypsies with the dogs and you find another school and you do all that when you get to location, and you don’t have time to do any prep because you’re trying to find them art classes and …
WITHERSPOON And camp.
KIDMAN And then they have strep throat and you’re up at night.
LANGE But the only thing that I ever have regretted is saying yes to a film and the time that has taken me away from my children. I wish I had said no.
WITHERSPOON I did a movie every time I was pregnant, and I wish that I hadn’t. I just wish I’d just let myself be pregnant.
LANGE Yeah, just be pregnant, be home with the kids, don’t have something that you have to get up at 5 a.m. for. Those are the regrets, not the ones that you said no to but the ones you said yes to.
More THR TV Roundtables will roll out throughout June in print and online. Watch them all on Close Up With The Hollywood Reporter starting June 25 on SundanceTV. And see clips at THR.com/roundtables, with full episodes on THR.com after broadcast.
This story first appeared in the June 7 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.