FOX drama EMPIRE star TARAJI P. HENSON and ABC drama HOW To GET AWAY With MURDER star VIOLA DAVIS cover the new issue of THE HOLLYWOOD REPORTER!!!
TARAJI and VIOLA are a part of a group of 6 fellow A-LIST Actresses including JESSICA LANGE, LIZZY CAPLAN, MAGGIE GYLENNHALL, and RUTH WILSON who are nominated for the discuss The TRUTH of RACISM, SEXISM, AGEISM, and NUDITY in HOLLYWOOD for the 2015 EMMY AWARDS: BEST DRAMA ACTRESS ROUNDTABLE.
Here are some interview highlights:
You're all at enviable places in your careers, but was there ever a moment when you considered quitting acting?
LIZZY CAPLAN There have been many times I've realized I have no real education or skills in any other area. I have to make this work, or I'm on the street. I've talked myself out of it every time I've gotten close to the edge.
RUTH WILSON Coming out of drama school was tough. You're going out for every audition — things you'd never want but you have to do. I got rejected so often, I gave myself two years. If I didn't act in two years, I knew that I wasn't good enough, and therefore I wouldn't do it. It was quite hard realizing early in my career that we actually have very little control.
VIOLA DAVIS I felt that way before I even started. I didn't know how to get into the business. The only thing I had was a desire, and people thought I had talent. But then what? How do you get a job? How do you audition? I didn't come from people who could pay my bills. So I dove in. When your passion and drive are bigger than your fears, you just dive. I've been on my last unemployment check before with no way to pay my bills, but we stay in it because we all know it's an occupational hazard.
TARAJI P. HENSON High school was the only time I ever can remember [thinking about] quitting. I auditioned for Duke Ellington School of the Arts in Washington, D.C., and didn't get accepted. At that age, their word was law. It meant I couldn't act! So I went to college to be an electrical engineer. I don't know why I did that — I still count on my fingers, and I failed calculus with flying colors. But then I rerouted my life — enrolled at Howard University, took up theater and studied the craft. I felt like I was armored enough to come out to Hollywood. And I knew that I would get told "no" a million times.
MAGGIE GYLLENHAAL When I was starting out, I used to hear "no" a lot and still do. And, "You're not sexy enough. You're not pretty enough."
HENSON Heard those before!
GYLLENHAAL When I was really young, I auditioned for this really bad movie with vampires. I wore a dress to the audition that I thought was really hot. Then I was told I wasn't hot enough. My manager at the time said, "Would you go back and sex it up a little bit?" So I put on leather pants, a pink leopard skinny camisole and did the audition again and still didn't get the part. (Laughter.) After that, I was like, "OK, f— this!"
JESSICA LANGE I've been in the process of retiring for the last 30 years.
Is there a specific point in your career when you felt you were the bravest?
HENSON Playing a pregnant whore in Hustle & Flow. No one wanted to touch that
movie. But when a character scares me like that, I tell myself, "Taraji, it's your job to make the people empathize with her." I wanted people to reach through the screen and hug her. Go find that ho on the corner and save her! (Laughter.)
LANGE Having come from film, it was doing four seasons of American Horror Story. But I loved the tornado and chaos of never knowing where the show was going. It forced me to live within the imagination rather than, "You have a first act, second act, third act," and you see what the character's going to do. This way of working has been so unstructured and chaotic that I've found that the work itself has become more interesting within that insanity.
GYLLENHAAL There's room for your unconscious to come out.
LANGE You also never knew when your character's backstory was going to be introduced and you discover that she'd had her legs amputated in a snuff film in the Weimar Republic. (Laughter.)
HENSON I recently learned how to just leave a scene alone. I did this Lifetime movie where there was a scene that was incredibly weighty. My [character's] husband has taken my son to Korea without my knowing and disappeared. I'm going to the FBI to try to get some help and going through all this f—ing red tape. I didn't know the f—ing lines and I panicked: "Oh my God, I'm going to blow it." They kept saying, "Are you ready?" "Give me five minutes! There's a storm about to happen!" Then all of a sudden, a calm came over me. I said, "Girl, you've been doing this too long. You know where you are, you're a mother. What happens when you go to the FBI and you want help and they're not helping you? Go in there!" I'm really a bubbly person, and the crew saw a moment of panic and tensed up. Then it just came to life, and I just started doing things that I wouldn't have if I had structured it the night before. We got an Emmy nomination. It paid off.
DAVIS It's also about that element of surprise. I did a [stage] role in New York once where I was dying of cancer. [Actress] Julie Kavner played my lover. I thought, "She has to cry, she has to weep." And a doctor came in to give us advice on deathbed scenes, and he said: "I have never seen a deathbed scene where people are weeping. It's usually really quiet. They're just holding each other's hand, encouraging the person to go." So now I like leaving myself alone to ask: "Why does this scene have to be that way? Why do I have to say the line like that?" If I'm supposed to be screaming it, I'll say it calmly.
GYLLENHAAL I had a rape scene in The Honorable Woman where it was clearly written that she'd be saying, "No, no, please, no," right away. But I wanted her to be complicit and wanting it; the darkest, most painful sex, right up until the point it turned into rape. I wanted her to want something she knew she shouldn't want. I can sometimes tell when actors fought an ordinary approach to a scene, and I'm so glad they did because it tells a better story.
What are your dream roles and who are your dream collaborators?
LANGE How about revisiting something? I'm going to do a production next year where I play Mary Tyrone again from Long Day's Journey Into Night. It's been 15 years. I did a production before in London. To play it and then to step back and it to come back, the work becomes like something else. I don't know how to explain it. It's in your marrow, your muscle memory, but it finds a new expression. It's thrilling.
HENSON I want to play a superhero. I want to be a Bond girl. I want to play a man. I want to play a white woman. (Laughter.)
CAPLAN That sounds like an Eddie Murphy movie. I'd like to start working with really good film directors. I'm a huge Wes Anderson fan, also the Coen brothers. And David O. Russell.
GYLLENHAAL I'd love to [work with] Quentin Tarantino, David Lynch or Pedro Almodovar. I'll play anything they want.
DAVIS I'd like to go back to Broadway and revisit [Henrik Ibsen's] Hedda Gabler at some point. But I mostly want what [actress] Lynn Redgrave said to me once. I did a reading of Agnes of God with her right before she died. She told me she'd left L.A. many years ago, and I asked her why. She said one thing she felt after many years in the business was that her past hadn't counted for anything. I want to feel like my past has counted for something. I've been doing this for 27 years. I've performed in basements, churches, off-Broadway. I want the work to reflect my level of gifts and talent. I don't want it to reflect my color, my sex or my age. That's what I want most.