In THR’s annual actress roundtable, this season’s top seven awards contenders — including Amy Adams, Patricia Arquette, Laura Dern, Felicity Jones and Hilary Swank — open up about how to fight the lack of female leads and what you teach your daughter when you yell at a paparazzo to “leave us the f— alone”.
If the vibe at this year’s Hollywood Reporter Actress Roundtable was especially convivial, it was because the panel was packed with longtime friends and colleagues. Patricia Arquette, 46 (Boyhood), has known pal Laura Dern, 47 (Wild), for more than two decades; Dern has worked with Julianne Moore, 53 (Still Alice), and currently is promoting her supporting turn in Wild with star Reese Witherspoon, 38; Amy Adams, 40 (Big Eyes), and Hilary Swank, 40 (The Homesman), met each other at THR’s Actress Roundtable in 2010 and stayed in touch after Adams sent Swank a thank-you note; and relative newcomer Felicity Jones, 31 (The Theory of Everything), has been getting to know her self-professed idols while making the rounds this awards season. The hourlong roundtable, held for the first time in a soundstage on the 20th Century Fox lot and taped to air on the A&E network Dec. 28, featured a candid discussion about everything from Jennifer Lawrence’s hacked photos to the recent attention on Renee Zellweger’s face (“It’s cruel and rude and disrespectful,” says Witherspoon). An edited transcript is below, with the full video available Nov. 25 on THR.com.
What has been your bravest moment as an actress?
HILARY SWANK For me, it would probably have been Boys Don’t Cry, playing Brandon Teena or Teena Brandon. I felt a huge responsibility because it was a harrowing, tragic event that happened and I wanted to be able to tell it as honestly as possible. What about you guys?
REESE WITHERSPOON I played Cheryl Strayed in Wild. And she was standing there the whole time, which was hard. I felt embarrassed for the first three days. Was I doing her voice right? And is she going to judge me? She was amazing and really lovely. But one of the hardest days on that shoot was, I had to do a sex scene with two guys that — I’ve never had to do a sex scene like —
JULIANNE MOORE Two at once? (Laughs.)
WITHERSPOON I called Cheryl that night, and I was like, “I can’t believe I have to do that.” And she was like, “Sorry I was such a slut in the ’90s!” (Laughs.) Laura [Dern] was on the set because she’s an apparition, watching me. She had to literally watch me, and she told me a great story that helped me get through that. But I don’t know if you want to tell that story.
LAURA DERN Yes! I worked on this film Citizen Ruth and it was the first day of the shoot and Alexander Payne, it was his first feature. So he came up and said, “OK, we’re going to start with this love scene and I want you to meet the guy you’re going to be doing the scene with.” And I was like, “Great, you know, what actor is playing that part?” And he goes, “His name’s Lance; we just picked him up at the bar down the street.” (Laughs.) And he came in and he was like, “I am so excited to be here! I just went down to the 7-Eleven and I got some Arrid Extra Dry and some breath mints. Let’s go!” I’m just like, “Oh my God, day one of Citizen Ruth.”
FELICITY JONES I played a real person in this film Theory of Everything and, like you guys, it’s that thing of knowing they’re going to be watching it at some point. You think, “What if they just hate everything you’ve done?”
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Amy, there’s a nice photo of you and Margaret Keane together at the end of Big Eyes. How much did you consult with her?
AMY ADAMS She’s a very private, very quiet person. I wasn’t sure if she’d be open to me coming up and picking her brain about her private life. But there’s not a lot of footage of her, so I had to really use her as my resource.
PATRICIA ARQUETTE I was joking that the most brave thing I’ve ever done on film was natural childbirth. But that’s my own actual natural childbirth, and you can’t have any of that footage.
Patricia, after spending 12 years working on Boyhood, what were the emotions like watching the premiere at Sundance? Were you surprised at what made it in or didn’t?
ARQUETTE There’s one beautiful scene that I hope someday makes it somewhere. It’s a scene where I’m sitting with [co-star] Ellar [Coltrane], and we’re talking about his grandfather dying and our connection to people who have died. But other than that little scene, nothing else was cut out. We had such a small budget; we only had $200,000 a year.
MOORE It was extraordinary. That scene where you’re sitting and having dinner with your kids, and the kids are so little, and you’re telling them that you’re going to move. I was so struck by your authenticity, and how real they were; they weren’t really acting, they were just behaving. And you had commandeered the entire scene. It was so, so good.
Julianne, you’ve made some very bold choices in your career. I’m curious what your most challenging moment has been.
MOORE Maybe going to the Golden Globes six weeks after my son was born. (Laughs.) You don’t even know how big you are, you know? You’re just like, “Oh, I look good! I like this dress, I’ll put this dress on.” I put on a dress that had this low thing; and by the end of the night (gestures to her low-cut dress), I was almost choking. (Laughs.) [I had] a horrible hairdo, it looked like birds of paradise coming out of either side of my head. It was terrible. Every time I get ready to go somewhere, I think, “It could be worse.”
WITHERSPOON “This is not that, it’ll never be that again.”
ADAMS That’s amazing.
That leads to a good question for the group: your most embarrassing moment in Hollywood?
WITHERSPOON Bad auditions, where you just totally f—ed it up. I did this audition for a director and I really wanted that part. I got to the end of it and I thought I nailed it, and he was like, “Why are you playing it stoned?”
DERN I had just got my first professional job [in 1980’s Foxes]. I was 11 and Scott Baio was a very beloved actor. I saw him from across the room and he was wearing a white leisure suit. He looked so stunning and I was so excited, and I knew I was about to make the best first impression and he would love me forever. The director was there and the producer and it was a big deal — it was my first opportunity to be a professional actor. My dog was with me, and my dog got her period on his pantsuit. (Laughs.)
DERN I got down on my knees with a bottle of club soda and proceeded to clean the blood out of his pants. It went over really well. I’ve actually never seen him again.
Patricia and Laura, what did you learn — both good and bad — from growing up in Hollywood families?
ARQUETTE My dad [Lewis Arquette] was really a struggling actor; to raise five kids he would do any job that he had to do. So my parents were miserable when I told them I wanted to be an actress.
DERN My parents had a very similar response in terms of their fear about me going into a business that had no real stability to it. But the greatest gift for me was, (to Arquette) I was raised like you, with a clear awareness that it’s about following a path because there’s no other option. It’s something you love to do.
Now that some of you have kids, what would your response be if they wanted to become actors?
WITHERSPOON It’s a wonderful business. I feel like I’ve seen the world. I’ve met amazing people. I used to have all these regrets; I didn’t finish college. And about a year ago it was like, “Why would I regret not finishing college?” I’ve had a wonderful life and I’ve been everywhere and I’ve gotten to work with creative people and tell stories. That’s all I ever wanted to do. So if [my kids] wanted to do it, I’d be very encouraging. I do think it’s hard. I would definitely illuminate all the difficulties. But my kids don’t seem to gravitate toward it anyway. So we’ll see.
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MOORE I’m most disturbed when there are young people who can’t figure out what they want to do with their lives. My son went to camp this summer and a lot of the counselors were college students. He goes, “Mom, nobody knows what they want to do for a living.” I worry about that, for them. He couldn’t understand why they felt directionless.
Reese, you’ve had success as a producer this year with Gone Girl and Wild. A lot of actors have transitioned into producers, but far fewer actresses have done that. Why is that?
WITHERSPOON I can’t speak for other people. I just recognize that about three years ago, I started seeing this complete lack of interesting female leads in film. First I got mad, really mad. And then I was like, “It’s nobody’s fault; if you’re not proactive about things …” I’d had a company before, but it was basically about trying to develop things that I would eventually be in. So I just switched the idea: If I can develop anything for any other women, I don’t care who it is; I just want my daughter to grow up seeing complex, interesting, nuanced women in film. So I started it with my own money — you know, the first thing people tell you is, “Don’t put your own money into anything” — so I was like, is this really dumb? But I got a great partner [Bruna Papandrea] and the first two things I sent her were Gone Girl and Wild. And those were the first books that we optioned.
Did you ever think about starring in Gone Girl?
WITHERSPOON I was always open to doing it, but whenever David Fincher says he wants to do a project, you just sit back and say, “Whatever you want to do.” We had a long conversation where he was like, “You’re not right for it. And this is why.” And I actually completely agreed with him.
Do any of you reach out to people out of the blue whose work you like?
DERN I cold-call. I’m on Tinder. (Laughs.) “Guys, I’m at a restaurant on Abbot-Kinney with the following 10 actors. Let me know if you’re within a five-mile radius. You also have to be really cute.” (Laughs.)
WITHERSPOON Actor Tinder!
DERN I remember in the old days, I had the privilege of my first time [being] nominated for a film, and I was so touched because other actors sent me telegrams.
SWANK Amy wrote me a letter three years ago after our [first Hollywood Reporter] Roundtable. She wrote a letter just saying, “It was so lovely meeting you.” It really was touching.
ADAMS I’m actually very shy so I would rather write or sit and have coffee. Because when I get in large groups, I get weird. Reese has sent me something before.
WITHERSPOON Yes. I’ve always admired your work and I just thought you were amazing last year in American Hustle. So brave and bare and just fearless, you know? And you looked like —
MOORE So hot.
ADAMS It’s amazing what a spray-tan can do. Who knew I was meant to be tan?
How has fame impacted your personal lives?
SWANK I got this award last night at the Outfest for my work in Boys Don’t Cry, which has been 15 years now. I started the [transgender] conversation with that. But the presenter got up and said, “When I was 19 years old and I was questioning my sexual identity, I was looking for things that helped me connect to myself, and Boys Don’t Cry was a pivotal moment and it changed my life. And in fact, in a lot of ways it was my lifesaver.” I never became an actor for that. But that became this side effect of it, and it is so touching.
ARQUETTE My sister is transgender. … As a sister, a sibling of a transgender person, it’s really scary when you’re growing up, especially in the world of the early ’80s. You’re going to get killed, people are going to beat you up. People are assholes out there; it’s a dangerous world. And also, will you be accepted? Will you find someone who loves you, who accepts you as you are? So when I saw that movie, it just was so important to me.
JONES When you get to see people being vulnerable and you get moved by something. Films do that all the time. I was thinking Michelle Williams in Blue Valentine, and seeing that.
On the fame question, what did you all think when you saw that Jennifer Lawrence and other actresses had their private photos hacked and leaked online?
ARQUETTE I feel really strongly that there’s nothing deviant about two lovers sharing sexual intimacy. That is normal. It’s been happening since the beginning of time. Through any different medium. We had paper. Before that, we met behind the bush. You know? What is deviant is when a community decides that they can break into your sexuality, steal that from you, insert themselves, observe your private sexuality. And what really disturbed me — I ended up in a lot of Twitter battles with people about it — is, I feel like we’re teaching our children social values. I had a lot of women write to me that [the hacked actresses] were stupid to take those pictures to begin with. Victim-blaming — we have a long history of that. And, of course, someone who has a long-term relationship — three months that [Lawrence was] away [from her boyfriend], they’re going to share their intimacy with their partner. That society thinks it’s OK [to hack the photos], that it’s their fault — that’s deviant. That’s what we’re teaching our kids, that if somebody messes up or does what they want in their private life, they’re stupid and you can, basically, communally molest them.
SWANK Well said.
DERN My boundaries are clear about how I want to live my private life. How I want my children to be protected. The privilege of having a community of friends who do deal with the Internet celebrity and their intimacy being exposed or invaded, they help me define everything. “Oh my God, I just came out of the mall and they’re taking pictures of my kids! Is that right? Should they be able to take pictures of my kids?” That I can call you guys and go, “What do we do about this? And should we be doing something? And how do we protect our children?”
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What do you think about the attention Renee Zellweger got recently for her appearance?
WITHERSPOON It’s horrible. It’s cruel and rude and disrespectful, and I can go on and on and on. It bothers me immensely.
JONES What’s sad is when people start to self-censor and start not doing certain things because they’re worried what X or Y is going to think about it.
WITHERSPOON I know this is so Pollyanna of me, but why — and it’s particularly women — why do they have to tear women down? And why do we have to tear other women down to build another woman up? It drives me crazy. Like, this one looks great without her makeup but that one doesn’t look good without her makeup, and it’s all just a judgment and assault that I don’t — look, men are prey to it as well. I just don’t think it’s with the same sort of ferocity.
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ARQUETTE I had a big fight with one [paparazzo].
ADAMS I wish I had been there to have your back.
ARQUETTE He kept following us. And I said, “OK, leave us the f— alone.” And he goes, “Nice, mom! Good job!” I said, “I’m teaching my daughter. If a man is following you and you tell him to go away and he doesn’t, you turn around and say, ‘F— you!’ as loud as you can.” Because there’s no difference. I don’t care if he has a camera.
Is there a contemporary woman whom you would each like to play?
MOORE You know, I feel characters don’t exist without a narrative. You need a beginning, a middle and an end.
ADAMS I just want to be her.
Why did you say yes to playing Sarah Palin in Game Change?
MOORE It was a great story.
ADAMS Speaking of brave, that was so awesome.
MOORE But by herself, just the character, I wouldn’t have known the story. It was the story. I said yes before I even thought about it. And then I hung up the phone and went, “What am I going to do?” Everyone knew her voice, everyone knew her mannerisms and she wouldn’t go away! You know? She was very public.
WITHERSPOON You’ve done so many brave things. I have a question for you. I just imagine every part you’ve played. I think of Boogie Nights, so many roles; I’d be so scared to do the things that you’ve done. The day before, do you not panic?
MOORE I panic more on stage. I really have a lot of stage fright. I get really shaky and it’s not fun for me. But in movies, I don’t. I had a therapist say to me once, “You know, a feeling can’t kill you.” And it can’t. What I’m really afraid of is skiing, and going fast, and people knocking me down, and maybe breaking my teeth. Those are the things that frighten me. But being on a movie set with a lot of really terrific actors and having some great language and the director —
SWANK I’ve got to rub on you because every time I walk on, I’m like, “Oh, can I do this?” I don’t want to mess it up and let everybody down.
MOORE Even if you do fail, what could happen?
JONES They’ll cut it out. (Laughs.)
MOORE So you stink, you know? So you stunk in a movie. OK. When I was doing The End of the Affair with Neil Jordan, we had shot the entire movie and it was the part in the middle of the movie where the big explosion happens, and we think that Ralph Fiennes is dead. And I’m supposed to run down the steps in my tiny slip, and throw myself at his body and burst into tears. And I run down the stairs, I run [to the] right, and I was like, “You know, I’m sorry.” (Laughs.) And the third time, I just stopped and Neil went, “Ahh, I think you’d be crying here.” And I was like, “I know! But I can’t cry! I can’t!”
If you could give your 20-year-old self advice on your career, what would you say?
JONES I spent my life trying to make myself cry because I thought that’s what an actress had to do. Pinching myself. Punching myself in the face. And then realizing that just because it says “cry” in the script doesn’t mean you have to do it.
ADAMS Just let it go, Amy. In the words of Elsa, just let it go.
DERN The best advice my third-grade teacher, Mrs. White, gave me is, “Keep your eyes on your own paper.” That’s a good one.