The Hollywood Reporter‘s Drama Actress Roundtable was set to take place two weeks before it actually did. But as the country hit a boil, erupting in protest following the killing of George Floyd, its early June timing no longer felt right.
The actresses — The Morning Show‘s Jennifer Aniston and Reese Witherspoon (also of Little Fires Everywhere and Big Little Lies), Homecoming‘s Janelle Monáe, Euphoria‘s Zendaya, Mrs. America‘s Rose Byrne and The Crown‘s Helena Bonham Carter — collectively decided they needed the space and time to properly process what was happening around them. And with it, a chance to listen and learn.
When the sextet ultimately came to the (virtual) table on June 20, they spoke candidly about their own reckonings along with their professional fears and the power that they, as women, have now like never before. As Witherspoon says at one point, “We know that we matter.”
We are living through a unique moment in history, both with the pandemic and, more recently, the social unrest. What have you learned about yourselves during this time?
REESE WITHERSPOON A lot, and I’m continuing to learn. I think being an awake, aware, conscious, empathetic, thoughtful human being, if you have even an ounce of any of that, it’s pretty exhausting and morally trying. And it’s been a time to really dig deep and examine what are you doing in your life and in your business and in your work and really look at those things with new eyes.
JENNIFER ANISTON And having the [space] to be alone and not be distracted has been almost divine timing in terms of the order of how everything has unfolded. I think that’s a blessing of this pandemic because there wasn’t any chance for people to get distracted going back to work or going out to dinners or whatever. We were all pulled together, and it feels extremely unifying and oddly beautiful. And I’ve never read more in my life.
HELENA BONHAM CARTER I’m over here in London, and it’s extraordinary that there is one thing that has unified us all and yet we are all having very different experiences, depending on your privilege, your situation economically and also your health. I haven’t been directly affected or known anyone who’s been badly affected by COVID, so it’s the luxury of time that we don’t [ordinarily] have. It’s fascinating that we have to rely on the whole world stopping for us to stop.
BONHAM CARTER And with the Black Lives [Matter] movement, because it’s happening now, we have the time to properly consider it and see what everyone can do about it. People have said, “Do you think it would have happened if COVID hadn’t happened?” And I feel unfortunately not.
ANISTON I agree with you.
BONHAM CARTER Everyone has the time and the space to actually change society on a profound level. But it’s extraordinary living through history. We are very privileged. And I know that this time for me has been utterly precious and I think I’ll come away with things that are profoundly changed. Also, as an actor, it’s a nice thing because everybody is as unemployed as I am and I don’t have to worry about it. You’re always looking over your shoulder. (Laughter.)
You all have giant platforms. How much of an obligation do you feel to speak up in this moment? And what is the weight of that?
JANELLE MONÁE This is an interesting time and an important time for all of us to check our perspective. For me and my people, for the Black community, this is not an exciting time. This isn’t a time that we get to really reflect. We’re dealing with a lot of trauma. We were dealing with COVID-19, which affects us disproportionately — if America sneezes, the Black community gets pneumonia — and now we’re having to deal with the very color of our skin making us a target.
For me, I’m trying to figure out how to channel my anger. That’s my emotion. Black people make up the essential workers who are making sure that we have our packages and our food, and this is not a time for them to reflect in the ways that we, as artists, have the privilege to do. So, I’m checking my privilege and I’m also mourning with my people. One of the things that I learned about me is that I’m not settling for those who say that they’re allies. I’m not settling for lip service. If you want to show me that you’re an ally, it’s going to have to be rooted in acts of service.
MONÁE In the same ways that we have been marching, we have been screaming that Black Lives Matter, I’m asking of my white friends or those who consider themselves supporters of me and us during this time to have those conversations around white supremacy and around why your ancestors started chattel slavery. Have those tough conversations of why we are even saying Black Lives Matter as though Black people are objects and not subjects to study until the end of time. Have those conversations around how you dismantle systemic racism.
That’s where I am now. This is a moment for Black people to stand our ground and ask more of our systems. Because it can’t just be, “We’re going to march with you and do a hashtag,” it has to be rooted in justice as well. Systemic change has to be made. The way that you’re hiring folks, who is on your board, how many Black people do you have there, what kind of films are we greenlighting, what kind of depictions of police are we greenlighting. I’m team “Defund the police” — that’s very clear for me — and I want to put that money into our education and into our health care systems. I want to redistribute that money and put it into places that have oppressed us for far too long.
WITHERSPOON That’s right.
Do you feel you’ll make different choices on the other side, whether it’s the stories you choose to tell or the characters you inhabit?
MONÁEI’ve made it a point in my career to make sure that the world knows we’re not monolithic. We can do the math that gets men into space [the basis for Hidden Figures] and we can also be in the ghettos in Moonlight, and it was super important that those were the first roles I took. Even in music, I’ve tried my best to walk my truth as a queer Black woman growing up in America and what that means. Representation is important. Our voices onscreen, our presence onscreen, it’s all super important. I’m also at a point where I want the freedom like all of my favorite actors who get an opportunity to do fantasy, sci-fi, drama, all these things. I want to see more scripts where you’re writing for the human, you’re not pushing me to be a stereotype of what you think Blackness is.
I want to touch on one of the things Janelle just said, which is that white people have to have the conversations that make them uncomfortable. Reese, this idea of white fragility is at the core of Little Fires Everywhere. What kinds of realizations and conversations did it force you to have, and what from that became part of your show?
WITHERSPOON Examining privilege, as Janelle said, I went through a reckoning probably four or five years ago with the Time’s Up movement, realizing that we work and exist inside of systems that are really broken, and trying to get strategic about using my influence and platform to create change. Every time I took a job, I’d call whoever was the head of the studio and ask, “What does your board look like? Where are your female executives? Where are the people of color?” I started to ask more questions about how the money flows through companies, what kind of representation is at my agency, like, “Are there people of color who are agents?”
Were you nervous to do so?
WITHERSPOON Absolutely, because I had never spoken up or asked anything before. I just accepted systems. And at the time, I was 40 or 41, and I was like, “What am I doing? If I don’t use this one walk on Earth to create a better reality for the women coming after me, what are we doing?” And I have been very privileged. I’ve been the beneficiary of a system that valued people who looked like me. I have made a lot of movies and I can make a lot of movies, but I want to make things that matter and work in partnership, in real partnership, with people who are committed to change within our industry. And that means empowering women and getting women paid — pay equity for Black women, Latinx women, LGBTQ women, differently abled women. And it’s a life commitment.
We could have made a great show that said a lot of things about white privilege and class and race and how we treat immigrants in this country, but it was how we made it that is really valuable to me. Our writers room was made up of the most diverse [group of writers] I’ve ever seen. People with immigrant parents, LGBTQ representation, adopted children, Black women, there was even a man in there. (Laughs.) After I worked with Ava DuVernay on Wrinkle in Time, it just became a paramount thing in my career to focus on how things are made in our business. So, we are part of those systems and we can ask a lot of questions, and we should and we need to. It’s OK to make the people who own these companies feel uncomfortable, because they make money off of us and they get the best of us, right?
ANISTON Yeah, they do.
WITHERSPOON So, why shouldn’t we ask questions?
Zendaya, before Euphoria, I’ve heard you talk about the pressure, almost to the point of paralysis, that you felt about making your next move. What was that pressure, and how much of it was internal versus external?
ZENDAYA I think, like a lot of artists, I’m my biggest critic, so some of it was internal — not wanting to make a mistake or worrying that maybe I didn’t have the room to make a mistake and wanting to make the right next move. But I also wanted to prove myself. When Euphoria came along, I was very grateful because all those fears melted away and I felt like it was something that I had to be a part of. So, the fear became just, like, push yourself. If you go to work and you’re scared, that’s a good thing. You should be worried about whether you can do it.
MONÁE I just want to say you were brilliant.
WITHERSPOON I agree, and I’d be scared to play that character, too.
ZENDAYA I appreciate that so much.
You just said you didn’t feel you had the room to make a mistake. Can you elaborate on that idea and how it impacts your choices?
ZENDAYA It’s a constant thing. Being a young Disney actor, that’s one level, being a young Black woman is one level, and then being very hard on myself is another level. It’s also just a personal fear. I want to do a good job, and sometimes that can cause you to be fearful of things. But I will say that there’s something that happens when a special character comes along, for me at least, and those fears melt away. They don’t come back until it starts airing, which is when I started to get a little scared again. (Laughter.) But now, I’m excited to go back because the motivation is to work harder and become a better actress. I just want to get better.
Helena, you needed some convincing to join The Crown. Why?
BONHAM CARTER It might not be a relief to Zendaya to know that 30 years later you’ll still be carrying the onus of having to prove you can do it to yourself.
ANISTON Oh, that never goes away.
BONHAM CARTER It doesn’t. Or maybe other people are fancy free and they’re like, “Fuck it, I got it down.” (Laughter.) With Margaret, I was very conscious that I was inheriting a hit. I was conscious that Vanessa [Kirby] had just won a BAFTA. At the beginning, the first two weeks, everyone was terrified. Then you relax.
But the other thing was I have to see a script and have to respond to the words. People were shocked that I wouldn’t just take it. I think [creator Peter] Morgan thought I was insulting them, and I wasn’t. I just needed to know whether I could do it. He sent me the last episode, which is a really good Margaret episode, and I knew instantly, “Yeah, I know how to do this.” That was why I took so long — it wasn’t a lack of faith in them, it was faith in myself.
And once you did, you threw yourself in. I’ve heard you even bought the perfume that she wears?
BONHAM CARTER Oh, I do everything and hope that something will stick. It’s insane the lengths to which I go, and it comes from insecurity and anxiety. And also, I enjoy that bit. For me, the best part of the job is when I get the part and there are all of these possibilities. And if you’re playing somebody who’s well known, you get to meet all these people and then have these conversations with them. So, yeah, I went to ridiculous lengths, but I don’t know if it pays off because Olivia Colman, who plays the queen, she does nothing. She literally learns the lines and turns up and puts on an accent. And it’s kind of galling, like somebody who does no work and gets an A+. She didn’t even know when [the queen] was born. (Laughter.)
ROSE BYRNE For me, Gloria Steinem was a lot of preparation. Like Helena, I was like a detective, trying to find stuff — reading everything and watching footage, and my trailer was covered with pictures of her. I was just obsessed and dreaming about her. But you don’t know what’s going to pay off and don’t want to do a caricature. I was deeply paranoid during the shoot. I’d always be calling up Dahvi Waller [the showrunner], “Am I terrible? What am I doing? Is it bad? Is it too much? Is it too little? Don’t fire me.” (Laughter.)
Unlike Helena, you were playing someone who is very much alive. At any point, even if it was after the fact, did you want to reach out?
BYRNE Yes, of course, but I just sort of know that I can’t.
BYRNE I don’t want to go into it too much, but it’s a tough show for women of that time. Phyllis Schlafly is an incredibly polarizing character and it’s told through Phyllis’ eyes, so that would be incredibly hard if you were Gloria or whomever to revisit that time from Phyllis’ perspective. I mean, I’m assuming, I don’t know. But as an artist, the project was incredible to be a part of. There would be no Time’s Up movement, no #MeToo without these women. I thought I knew about second-wave feminism, and I quickly realized, “Oh, I don’t know anything.” And I had a great wig. (Laughter.)
Many of these projects are relevant in ways you wish they weren’t. The Morning Showdelves into the gray areas of the #MeToo movement. Reese and Jen, as hands-on producers, what kinds of conversations did you have about exploring the complexity of the emotions and the responses to sexual misconduct?
ANISTON For us, it was to really pull the curtain back on how dark and messy and unforgiving the world was and is. And also to say all of the things that are said behind closed doors that no one has the guts to say out loud. That’s what was so refreshing about it. And talk about characters to build on. It was extraordinary.
WITHERSPOON She came in ready with that journalist voice and I was like, “Where did you get that journalist voice?” She’s like, “I’ve been preparing it for eight weeks.”
ANISTON It was so much fun. Oh, and their jewelry and the clothes — you just kind of get lost.
Reese, what were the parts of the conversation that weren’t being had out in the open that you wanted to have within the show?
WITHERSPOON When we talk about systems, [the series] shows you from the top to the very bottom exactly how people are treated and who is listened to and believed and who’s not and who’s important in an organization and who’s not. And media is its own mixed bag. It’s a bizarre world that we live in where we don’t even know where to get the truth anymore.
Janelle, your Homecoming role was written without an ethnicity. You’ve said, “I love the fact that I am Black and that I get to bring that to the table.” How has your own identity helped to shape the character?
*This article originally appeared in The Hollywood Reporter. You can view the full article and images HERE.