Defying expectations, challenging Hollywood’s norms and facing one’s own fear of failing emerged as central themes when Michelle Pfeiffer, Kate Winslet, Rashida Jones, Vanessa Kirby and Andra Day met virtually in December for The Envelope’s Actress Roundtable. Collectively, they represent four decades in film and more wild experiences than we can fit in one discussion — and they’re also behind some of the most complex characters in film right now.
Pfeiffer is eccentric, wealthy New York widow Frances Price in the quirky drama “French Exit,” which opens this week in limited release. When Price blows through most of her inheritance, she flees to Paris, where she attracts an odd assortment of friends. Winslet is rough-hewn paleontologist Mary Anning in “Ammonite,” a period drama that explores the hardships of a female pioneer in 19th century England’s patriarchal science world and the challenges she faced hiding her love for another woman.
Jones is Laura, the dutiful daughter of an eccentric father in the comedy-drama “On the Rocks.” Despite their complicated history, daughter and father embark on a covert mission to find out if her husband is cheating, but self-discovery may just be the biggest reveal. Kirby conveys anger, sorrow and grief following the death of her newborn baby as Martha in the emotionally wrenching “Pieces of a Woman.” And singer Day makes her film debut in “The United States vs. Billie Holiday,” a period drama streaming on Hulu later this month that chronicles Holiday’s battles with law enforcement, drugs and the crush of systemic racism.
“It definitely feels like a different time right now ... we want to represent women that we identify as being us, and the weird parts of us.”
— Vanessa Kirby
Their conversation here has been edited for length and clarity.
Your films are built around narratives of complex women, many of whom face challenges that aren’t often explored on screen. “Pieces of a Woman” is a great example of a film that is so specifically female, it would have never made it to the screen in the past.
Vanessa Kirby: It definitely feels like a different time right now ... we want to represent women that we identify as being us and the weird parts of us. In the movie, my biggest intention was to make it not a sanitized, movie version of a birth. So [she] felt super sick and burped a lot. She was really nauseous ... things that we might think are unpalatable or not comfortable. That’s all the facets of being human, and particularly being a women. I’ve read so many scripts where it was a version of a woman that I don’t know. It was a film version as opposed to my sister or my best mates or me.
When six directors — David Fincher, Paul Greengrass, Regina King, Spike Lee, Aaron Sorkin and Chloé Zhao — recently got together to talk about their latest projects, they shared candid feelings about control on-set and the movie business in a post-COVID world.
Kate Winslet: That’s what is great about now ... the world is making space for all of these stories. We’ve always tried to tell these stories, but the world is more receptive to hearing them now. That is a shift.... It’s such a moving, seismic time to be doing this job.
Michelle, your character Frances Price is the perfect example of an imperfect female protaganist. She is a mess, and fantastic, and I couldn’t take my eyes off her.
Michelle Pfeiffer: I was just was so curious about this woman, and I thought she was so odd and not like a character that I had seen or that I had played. And then the dialogue is very stylized. So you have to give in to it but, at the same time, not too much. It was made up of these disparate tones of absurdism and melancholy, and it was funny, and it was tragic — these oddballs sort of living on the fringe of society and trying to make some sort of human connection, all of them, in some way.
Rashida, in “On the Rocks,” you play a reserved writer with a charming, flamboyant father. Your real father is Quincy Jones. What sort of parallels did you feel playing Laura?
Rashida Jones: I very much related to this idea of coming of age with a larger-than-life father who commands presence and changes the atmosphere of any room he walks into, and how that in itself can be something you have to untangle from. Because in order to be your own person, in order to find your life, in order to figure out who you are in the world, not relational to anybody else, you have to separate yourself from all that charm and the warm light of your father’s love. That part of it I very much related to. But Laura is unlike me in the sense that I’m pretty outspoken. This character, I think, has a lot of restraint. That was a challenge.
Andra, stepping into the shoes of Billie Holiday must have been a huge challenge, and this is your first film!
Andra Day: It was definitely terrifying. First of all, I’m a fan of hers. And I’ve always loved movies and had such a great respect for the craft of acting. My biggest terror was that I was going to suck. So I was like, “OK, I’m going to take two to three years off of music just to study and focus on acting.” I auditioned at the end of 2017, landed the role at the beginning of 2018, and then we shot at the end of 2019. So I had time to really live in her [shoes]. The film isn’t a sanitized version of Billie Holiday. She is raw. She is a fighter. She’s a hero, in all of her real humanness, even as a fractured figure. All of the emotional pain. It was the most challenging and rewarding thing I’ve done in my life — and the most terrifying.
Day: That’s actually my question. I mean, do you ever really, really shed all of it or let it go?
Winslet: Honestly, it does not go away. But I feel so excited for you, Andra, that in this moment you are connecting with other people, having these kinds of conversations, because we all learn on the job. All of these experiences that we are sharing are the things that will hold you up and buoy you through, and this is a time when we have to hold each other up. But it doesn’t get any easier. And I’m afraid you will always be terrified. I f—ing am.
Pfeiffer: When I first started acting, probably for the first 10 years, I literally on the first day would shake so terribly that I was sure you could see it on film. Fortunately, you couldn’t. I don’t shake any more, but I still have those jitters. I still think the first week of shooting I’m going to be fired and replaced.
Jones: Yeah. So congratulations on that, for a lifetime.
Day: This is a roundtable, but also a therapy session.
Let’s talk about the risks that jangle those nerves. Those of you who have been doing this a while have tackled a wide variety of characters and survived, and thrived. That’s unusual in Hollywood, especially for women.
Pfeiffer: Like all actors, you sort of choose the best of what is available to you, and go for as long as you can without working, until you need a paycheck. It’s also that thing where, depending on what your last role was, that’s how the industry sees you. It’s really up to you to try to find those things that shift it in the direction you want it to go. I did “Grease 2,” and that was one thing, and then was lucky enough a year later to get cast in “Scarface.” People were very upended, because nobody expected that turn. And then when I did “Married to the Mob,” that [was] another seismic shift, like, “Whoa, wait a minute; who’s that?” I remember when I met Marty Scorsese for the first time, he expected this dark-haired girl from New Jersey to walk in. That was one of the most flattering things anyone ever said about my work. It’s just looking for those opportunities, and sometimes they’re very small, but those small opportunities end up having the biggest impact on the direction that your career goes in.
Jones: I just want to interrupt and say how cool this is. Michelle, obviously, you’re an icon and a legend, but the fact that you did [those films] back to back; such different things, such different audiences, such different characters. To me, that is the success of the art form.
Pfeiffer: Well, thank you. I spent lots of time being unemployed and waiting and really stretching it out, but it is, for me, the most exciting thing about being an actor. And that’s why we’re always terrified, because we’re always trying to do something different.
Day: As music artists, people are always trying to put you in a box, like, “This is what you do,” and we’re constantly rebelling against that, because life’s not like that. I can’t be the same. This role changed me, and I wouldn’t have been the same [person] as three years ago anyway. As a fan of yours, [Michelle], it’s exciting not to know what you’re going to come out with next.
Kate, your recent leap into the unknown is playing Mary Anning.
Winslet: She was a woman of scientific brilliance who made pioneering discoveries in the fossil world. But she was an unsung hero, because she lived in the early 1800s, and the world of science and geology was, like so many worlds back then and still now, dominated by men. And those men would buy her finds and claim them as their own discoveries, actually put their names on them. But there was something incredibly stoic and accepting of her lot in life. Mary was self-taught. She was extremely working-class, actually impoverished, lived a very harsh life. I just loved her even though she is cantankerous at times and quite difficult.
Vanessa, in “Pieces of a Woman,” Martha is emotionally distant and hard to read even after going through significant trauma. Was that challenging?
Kirby: In her nature, [Martha] tries to never show anything she’s feeling. So I was really scared, because I thought, “Oh, my God, what if it looks like I’m feeling nothing or nothing’s going on?” I just had to trust that if I really felt it, and I really thought those thoughts [it would come through]. I’ve never given birth ... so a lot of women spoke to me about their experiences of miscarriage or stillbirth or losing children. I owe them everything, because they allowed me to sit with them and try and understand how it really felt. At the end of the shoot, I was like, “I hope it’s done them justice,” because it’s definitely something that’s not spoken about. There’s so much silence around it. I hope that the film will help start conversations that really need to start happening.
Andra, Billie had an exceptional life that was also quite brutal. How did you go about trying to convey that while still honoring her greatness?
Day: She is musically, my foremost inspiration. I already knew a lot about the government going after her. The early war on drugs, and the subsequent wars on drugs, were wholly entrenched in race. I was aware of that, but I didn’t know about how deeply they went after her, even up to her death. Yes, she was an addict and, yes, alcohol and drugs ... but they wanted her to die. And not just kill her, but to actually eradicate her legacy. It’s why I call her the godmother of civil rights, because she was doing it alone. Her singing “Strange Fruit” and the death of Emmett Till reinvigorated the civil rights movement. She was innately a fighter, a character with resilience and tenacity.
Kirby: Kate, can I ask what it was like being so young in “Titanic”? Did it like blow your mind after it came out and you realized that that many people were watching you in the cinema? Did you know at the time when you were making it —
Winslet: I didn’t. I was playing an American for the first time. And working with Leo, who I’d seen in “[What’s Eating] Gilbert Grape” and “Basketball Diaries.” So it was like, “Oh, my God, I’m Kate from Reading.” I was the overweight girl who would always be at the end of the line. And because my name was a W, sometimes I wouldn’t even get in the door of the audition because they’d run out of time before the Ws. And I was in “Titanic.” It’s mad.
Jones: How were you smart enough to know, even with all of that pressure and then getting hit with all of that fame, how did you know to back off and not take the big paychecks? You were so young. How did you know to shoot for longevity?
Winslet: The honest answer is I was scared of Hollywood. A big, scary place, where everyone had to be thin and look a certain way. And I knew that I did not look that way or feel like I fit there, so if I was ever going to belong, I had to earn my place. And to me, I hadn’t earned it. “Titanic” might have been a fluke. I had done “Heavenly Creatures.” I had done “Sense and Sensibility,” which I was nominated for an Academy Award for at the age of 19, but still I had this feeling of “maybe that was just luck.” When I became a mother at 25, all of that stuff evaporated completely. Then two years after she was born, I was asked to do “Eternal Sunshine [of the Spotless Mind].” I do believe that was a huge turning point in my career, because from then on people suddenly went, “Oh, she can do that?!”
Kate, what if anything did you learn from “Ammonite”?
Winslet: It really opened my eyes to wanting to take responsibility for this sort of shared voice that we have as women. To try harder to not be objectified.
Jones: But we take it for granted that things will be the way they’re supposed to be. And that’s what’s been cool about the last five years is there has been a complete and utter subversion of just having that existential moment of like, “Wait, what is it that I’m supposed to do? What are the societal norms? What are the professional norms that I’ve agreed upon that actually don’t feel comfortable?”
Kirby: I remember when I first started reading scripts, the character descriptions. The man, it would always be “articulate, intelligent, high-powered.” And then the woman would be “attractive, dark, beautiful hair, and all eyes look at her when she comes into the room.” It was so subtly objectifying. Often, the woman would be just ever so slightly moving the man’s story along, rather than necessarily having her own journey.
Day: I think we so often write this [young] generation off as like, “Oh, it’s the social media generation, and all they care about is selfies and dah, dah, dah.” But I think we can partly attribute this shift to them. I don’t think this generation wants the glossy, clean, the sanitized version of life. Also, with the internet and social media, everyone’s still connected; the globe is so much smaller now.
Rashida, you’ve not only acted, you’ve written, produced and directed. Do you think that kind of representation behind the camera is making a difference in what we are seeing?
Jones: The good news now is there definitely is an appetite, at least within Hollywood, for female content creators. And what’s nice is what all of you have been saying is the more women there are around, the more comfortable women feel advocating for themselves. If you don’t have that representation around, you’re less likely to speak up, because you don’t feel like you have any backup.
Day: One of the things we learned is that certain audiences would wince at [Billie] getting beat, but I was like, “If we don’t have that in there, then we’re continuing to retool her narrative, the thing that she’s been a victim of her entire life.” Suzan-Lori Parks cowrote this movie with Lee Daniels. Women’s stories have always been told through the lens of masculinity, through how they view us or how they want us to be. Most of our stories need to be told by women, written by women, done by women. Not to write men out of the picture, but for them to understand that it is a collaborative effort.
Lorraine Ali is television critic of the Los Angeles Times. Previously, she was a senior writer for the Calendar section where she covered culture at large, entertainment and American Muslim issues. Ali is an award-winning journalist and Los Angeles native who has written in publications ranging from the New York Times to Rolling Stone and GQ. She was formerly The Times’ music editor and before that, a senior writer and music critic with Newsweek magazine.