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How much pain goes into a movie? Kristen Stewart, Lady Gaga sound off in our roundtable

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Lady Gaga had been holding back.

Fifteen minutes into a conversation with five of her peers — Penélope Cruz, Kirsten Dunst, Jennifer Hudson, Kristen Stewart and Tessa Thompson — the performer had yet to speak unless spoken to. It was so unusual for her that she decided to interrupt the conversation to offer an explanation.

“I really apologize that I’m so quiet,” Gaga said, joining the actresses virtually from Las Vegas, where she was slated to go on stage for her residency later that evening. “But I’m so fascinated listening to you. I feel like I’m learning so much about all of you and the way that you approach your craft and the way your personal lives are interwoven into everything you do. I feel like being vulnerable for a second and sharing that.”

Pop star and lead actress Lady Gaga
Lady Gaga.
(Jay L. Clendenin/Los Angeles Times)

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The “House of Gucci” star, 35, went on to describe herself as a “masochist” when she acts, “completely detached from real life.” She said she was opening up about her “totally unhealthy” process in the hope of both connecting with the others on The Envelope’s Actress Roundtable and seeking advice from women who have more film experience than she does.

Gaga’s role in “House of Gucci” is just her second major turn as a movie star, following her Oscar-nominated part in 2018’s “A Star Is Born.” In the new Ridley Scott film, she plays Patrizia Regianni, the real-life Italian whose stormy marriage to the head of Gucci nearly brought down the famous fashion house.
Compare her with Stewart, who at 31 has appeared in more than 50 films. The “Twilight” veteran, who began acting when she was 8, appears most recently as Princess Diana in “Spencer.” In the movie, Stewart depicts the late royal in the fragile final days before she separated from the Prince of Wales.

Kristen Stewart
Kristen Stewart.
(Jay L. Clendenin/Los Angeles Times)

Dunst, too, has been in front of the camera since childhood. The 39-year-old began auditioning for commercials when she was just 3, spending her youth in films as varied as “Little Women,” “Interview With the Vampire” and “The Virgin Suicides.” Her latest role comes in “The Power of the Dog,” in which she plays a newlywed whose ornery brother-in-law refuses to welcome her to the family.

Hudson, who like Gaga began her career as a singer, pivoted to movies with her Academy Award-winning turn in 2006’s “Dreamgirls.” Now, the 40-year-old can be seen as Aretha Franklin in “Respect,” which follows the legendary soul artist from her church origins through alcoholism to global superstardom.

Watch their full conversation on television beginning Jan. 14 at 7 p.m. on Spectrum News 1.

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Thompson, 38, has been acting for the majority of her life but first made an impression on the industry in the 2014 Sundance hit “Dear White People.” Now a member of Marvel’s “Thor” franchise, she is still loyal to her independent roots with her new film “Passing.” Set in the 1920s, the movie is the story of a Black woman who realizes her old friend is passing through New York society as a white woman, causing her to reassess her own life choices.

Growing up in Spain, meanwhile, Cruz was a teenager who danced before she started acting. Her breakthrough role in the U.S. was 2001’s “Vanilla Sky,” but she has continued to work in both countries, often with the director of her latest project, Pedro Almodóvar. He was behind “Parallel Mothers,” in which the 47-year-old plays a new mother who forms an unlikely bond with another woman she meets in the labor ward at the hospital.

The six actresses spoke via video chat in late October. Their conversation here has been edited for length and clarity.

Gaga, you’ve said you spent six months speaking in character to play Patrizia Regianni. How is that even possible?

Lady Gaga: My process was very much: How do I get so inside of the accent that I can just completely forget about it? And then do all the work of the script analysis, so that when I get to set, I can throw all of that out the window and just be in the moment.

Kristen, did you take a similar approach with Princess Diana? That’s an accent so many are familiar with.

Kristen Stewart: I think for me, I needed to be this kind of live wire — as spontaneous as I possibly could. In all of my research, I felt like when [Diana] walks into a room, it just feels like the ground starts shaking. There’s this tenuous, precarious, broken energy that is also contagious and sort of buzzy. I didn’t maintain the accent in between takes, nor did I do it over the weekend. I feel fairly absurd unless the time is now, you know what I mean? So it was a slightly different approach, but I still felt like I needed it to be in my body to the extent that I didn’t have to fixate on it.

Jennifer, you also played someone so many fans knew. But Aretha herself asked you to portray her in “Respect.” How did you deal with that pressure?

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Jennifer Hudson: I still sit with it, like, “Did I do everything? Did I miss anything?” I took piano for my portrayal of her, which I started three years ago. And I still do it. So it’s bled over into my artistry, in a way. It felt like being given an assignment to do it by her, but at the same time, it’s what gave me the encouragement to be able to get through it while filming. “OK, if she said I can do this, then I can do it.”

Some of you are speaking today from your homes. As the pandemic has unfolded, we’ve seen a societal shift away from an all-consuming work lifestyle. Did COVID change any of your attitudes toward your jobs?

Tessa Thompson: Having time to really slow down was so fortifying. I really love acting and love being in front of a camera, but doing it too often is maybe not what I want to do. Ultimately, I’m really interested in storytelling. So it’s nice to think about other ways to be a part of that process, which has been really gratifying in terms of producing over the pandemic. I launched a production company, and that’s been so fun, to concentrate on story.

I think it’s made me reevaluate the approach to work — just like what a set feels like. The idea of safety and making things in a slightly gentler way is something that I think a lot about. And, obviously, we’ve been going through that with the strike, and conversations around what safety looks like on set.

Actress Tessa Thompson
Tessa Thompson.
(Allen J. Schaben/Los Angeles Times)

Has the tragedy that occurred on the set of “Rust” in October made any of you think differently about on-set safety protocol?

Stewart: Oddly, in my experience, the larger movies are where people find themselves not being present in a way that is safe and definitely never gentle. My philosophy behind what it takes to make a movie is that you are down to rip your fingernails out doing it. Artists that perpetuate this sense of desperate commitment to the thing — theoretically, I’m so for that. There’s this weird, fiercely psychotic thing that you have to have — this desire that you chase to the end. We just need leashes.

Not only is the perspective broadening in terms of who is telling stories, but the way that we’re doing it is changing. What Tessa said really resonated with me. Let’s reinvent the wheel. We sat inside not knowing if we were ever going to come outside again for that long. So I think reemerging is fun, because sometimes you need to have these weird resets to check yourself and go, “Are we doing this the way we really want to do it?”

And I imagine you feel more comfortable when you’re working with those you’re familiar with, right, Penélope?

Penelope Cruz
Penélope Cruz.
(Kent Nishimura/Los Angeles Times)

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Penélope Cruz: Yes. [Almodóvar] is actually like a family member for me. We met when I was 18 ... and now we’ve done, like, eight movies together. It’s such an incredible experience every time, because even if we are so close, we are like brother and sister. Without planning it, we have created a healthy distance with each other when we are on set. It’s like a completely different relationship than when we are hanging out as friends.

Thompson: Penélope, I’m curious: Do you develop things together? Do you speak when he has a seed of an idea?

Cruz: He tells me. He’s always writing, like, three or four things at the same time. When we were during COVID, in total lockdown in Madrid, he called me from home and said, “I’m writing this, and I’m writing thinking about you.” And of course, it was such great news to have that on the horizon.

Penélope, you’ve also worked with your husband, Javier Bardem. And Kirsten, your partner, Jesse Plemons, is in “The Power of the Dog” with you. What are the upsides and downsides of working with your significant other?

Cruz: I like it, but I couldn’t do it every year. Once in a while, it’s OK. When he was playing Pablo Escobar, and I was Virginia Vallejo [in 2017’s “Loving Pablo”], I could not stand him. I could not even look at him. It was really hard.

Dunst: That’s amazing. I love working with Jesse. He’s my favorite to work with. We fell in love creatively first. And so we plan to do something together maybe every five years or something. But, honestly, on this movie, we don’t really have that many scenes together. It was nice to have someone you can have lunch with. You’re usually alone in your trailer. It was nice just to lay down in our bed together, trying not to mess up our costumes or our hair and makeup, just having a little nap next to each other if we had a break.

Gaga: I really apologize that I’m so quiet, but I’m so fascinated listening to you. ... I’m always thinking when the movie’s over and I’m a bag of bones going home, that there has to be this other way for me to tell stories without abandoning myself. I still feel like I have a lot to learn in that way.

When I studied my character during COVID, I read and read and read so much and annihilated my script in a way where I was starving to understand this woman. I don’t create a safe environment when I work. I chain-smoke cigarettes, and I’m writing tons of notes, and I’m working on all sorts of sense memory and personification. My therapist always tells me that I should try to work at 70%, because I’m hurting myself. Hearing about you being with your loved ones and the way that you’re able to balance your lives is a really important message for a lot of people.

Thompson: My personal safety feels tied to every single person on set. I don’t mind the emotional brutality that is required sometimes. I think it’s just the brutality of the hours and looking around at the people that you’re making something with and realizing that they’re losing it and haven’t seen their families. It feels like we need to do better.

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Stewart: Emotional brutality is a really good way of putting it. ... I used to think: “I need to f— myself up so badly, or else it’s not going to be real.” Or: “I need to embed every personal memory and tie it to something in this character.” But then I found that when I actually kind of chilled and stepped back, I was more present, honest and therefore more vulnerable. It was like this reverse discovery. If I don’t try and smash my face through a plate glass window, I might actually be able to think of the scene. Also, it’s just not sustainable. You smoke that many cigarettes, you’re going down. Can’t do that for so long.

Gaga: You’re not wrong. There was this one scene in the film where my character gets served divorce papers at her child’s school. My husband sends the papers through the company’s family attorney. So I’m being dumped at my daughter’s school. And I just remember saying, “I’m going to yell at you for every woman on earth, for every woman that’s been hurt in this way.” And then I took myself back to the place where I was assaulted in my own life. I still feel like a rock star that I have been able to pick myself up and keep going and keep working.

I hear everything you’re saying about that vulnerability, but I kind of get off on that chaos for myself — reliving things that hurt me and bringing them back. It feels like I get to take something that was so painful and turn it into something meaningful. And yet I was such a f—ing wreck after that scene. It did take me down.

Dunst: Well, sometimes your emotions don’t stop, either. You’re supposed to yell at someone and cry, and then the take ends, and you might have to find someone to give you a hug. You do use your own s—. For me, the helpful thing is to almost make it feel like you’re doing therapy between you and the character. And maybe it can become something cathartic. Even though you have to go to places that sometimes can be very painful, I feel like, hopefully, it can help other people.

Penélope, I’ve heard you say that Almodóvar says you suffer too much for your art.

Cruz: If somebody else would tell me, I might listen, but coming from him — on the set, you can see him ready to leave his life for the movie. So I said, “You are the last person allowed to give me this advice, because you don’t know how to do it yourself.” But it’s true that I dealt with this in a very different way before. What changed it for me was becoming a mother. I don’t want to take that energy home. In my 20s — or even my 30s — I really believed that the more I suffered the better the result will be. And since I had kids, that completely changed, because every hour that I’m not with them, I go 100% into this fiction. In a weird way, it allows me to go deeper, because I can get out and get oxygen and feel safe, feel where I am and what my life is, and then go back again.

 Jennifer Hudson
Jennifer Hudson.
(Jay L. Clendenin/Los Angeles Times)

Hudson: Coming off of everything y’all are saying, it’s certain things you connect to, you pull from, that you could use in those moments. And it was a discovery for me in so many ways as an artist, being a Black woman ... not only was I learning more of [Aretha], but I was growing stronger in so many different ways while taking on her journey. Even vocally, I was like, “Aretha’s sending me back to music school.” I’d be over here pecking my few little keys on the piano. I ain’t never going to be Aretha or you, Gaga, baby, but it’s inspired me, to want to even —

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Gaga: I think you’re doing great, Jennifer.

Hudson: I’m working on it. But that’s the power of the Queen of Soul. By the time you get to the end of the movie, I hope everyone has a newfound respect for her, because I know I did. It wasn’t until the Queen of Soul owned her voice that we got our queen of soul. If all of us took the time to own that voice within ourselves, what king or queen is under there?

Like with “Respect,” Tessa, “Passing” is a film that’s set many decades ago. What themes in the film did you feel were relevant to 2021 audiences?

Thompson: I think [it] brilliantly uses the idea of passing in terms of race as a metaphor for the ways in which we all pass. This idea that the version of ourselves that we project out into the world doesn’t always line up so squarely with who we are. We perform and put on masks because society tells us we need to fit inside of this box. The truth is, when we are the fullest expressions of self, we’re bound to spill out the sides.

This woman, Irene, is someone that was just so repressed by the ideas of what she needs to be. She’s performing heterosexuality. She’s performing happiness inside of domesticity. She’s performing this idea of what it is to be a woman — a Black woman. And inside, she is unraveling, because those performances aren’t really who she is. As an actor, something I found really challenging and delicious is this idea of how do you both not show [what’s inside] someone that is so repressed and measured and also show enough that the audience gets a sense that there’s all of these things underneath.

You mentioned your production company earlier. You’ve said it’s important for you to help tell the stories of Black women. How much of a responsibility do you feel to work on movies that represent the community you come from?

Thompson: I think sometimes you, as an artist of color, you can get boxed into these spaces. This idea that you should be the ambassador. I just want to do things that compel me, that feel complex and interesting and fun or wild or daring. I don’t want to feel hemmed in by the necessity of representation. Something I loved about playing Irene is actually the privilege of ambiguity. She’s a character in the narrative that has so much ambiguity. So often, I feel like, particularly as a performer of color, you’re always playing a role that is functional inside of a narrative and there’s no room for ambiguity, and I just find that so deeply boring. I think that’s what I hope to do in the things that I produce. I’d love to create the kind of landscapes and characters that I would’ve died to play when I was beginning in this industry, when I thought, “I don’t know how long I can stick around, because there are not enough interesting parts for someone like me.”

Kirsten and Jennifer, you both have powerful scenes in your movies where you have to act inebriated. Is it as difficult as actors always say to play drunk?

Hudson: It was difficult for me at first. I’ve never had a drink in my life. ...There’s a scene where Aretha falls off the stage in the middle of a performance, and for that scene, [co-star Forest Whitaker] said, “Jennifer, spin around in a circle,” to be able to help create the drunkenness. I feel like it gave me a sense of what it would feel like to be put in that state.
Dunst: It’s a great trick. Allison Janney taught me that trick on “Drop Dead Gorgeous,” because I had to be out of it during a scene. And she’s like, “Just spin a bunch in a circle.” And I was like, “Oh, yes, this works great.” Whenever I have to feel off-balanced or stumbly, I am spinning until I have to go on camera. I spin like it’s a joke. It makes you even worse if you close your eyes when you spin, too.

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Kirsten Dunst
Kirsten Dunst.
(Christina House/Los Angeles Times)

Gaga: Does anyone ever drink the prop drinks and actually feel drunk, even though they’re not real? I do.

Stewart: Every time I’ve had a drink or two to sort of grease the wheels when I’m supposed to be tipsy in a scene, I get the adverse reaction where I’m totally fine. In fact, I’ve never been more fine.

The pandemic has changed the entertainment landscape, making streaming more important and in-person theatergoing more difficult. Amid such shifts, why do you all remain committed to acting in films?

Hudson: I think movies are an escape for all of us — especially at a time like this. Since we’ve been sitting in our home, a huge thing we’ve been doing is watching films.

Cruz: But nothing can beat the experience of watching something in a theater instead of watching it at your home with so many interruptions and getting used to watching things with those interruptions. I feel like one of the main problems that has become even bigger because of COVID is attention span and the relationship with technology. The generations that are now teenagers and kids and the ones that will come later, they deserve to have this kind of magical ritual that is going to a theater. I feel like even if it was just for that reason, the world cannot give up that.

Thompson: Films just always made me feel less alone. The idea of people watching it together with people that they don’t know — that they maybe will never see again — there’s just a romance to that. And also something I think that connects us to each other’s humanity. Films make us more curious about people that we don’t know.

Stewart: Film allows you to dream beyond most art forms. I’m biased, because I like movies the most, but we can’t stop doing that. We can’t stop doing it in big, dark rooms alone together. I can’t tell you my dream in exactly how I felt, but I can make a movie about it.

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