Human connections and telling new stories motivates these actresses
Several of the year’s actresses in supporting roles - Naomie Harris, Felicity Jones, Nicole Kidman, Aja Naomi King, Octavia Spencer and Michelle Williams - describe the routes they took to connect with their characters.
Even before the six actresses were supposed to begin talking, they quietly approached one another. At a renovated warehouse in downtown Los Angeles last month, the women responsible for some of the year’s most acclaimed supporting performances gathered to talk with the Envelope about their careers. But long before they took the stage, they engaged with one another — pulling out their phones to share photos and exchange numbers.
The group included Octavia Spencer, who plays a 1950s mathematician working at NASA in the fact-based “Hidden Figures”; Felicity Jones, who appears as a mother struggling to raise her son while battling cancer in “A Monster Calls”; Aja Naomi King, who stars as a slave whose husband leads a rebellion in “The Birth of a Nation”; Naomie Harris, who plays a mother grappling with a crack addiction and her son’s homosexuality in “Moonlight”; Nicole Kidman, who stars as a Tasmanian woman who adopts an Indian boy from a Calcutta orphanage in “Lion;” and Michelle Williams, who plays a mother struggling to maintain a relationship with her ex-husband despite their shared tragedy in “Manchester by the Sea.”
Here are edited excerpts from the conversation moderated by Times film writers Amy Kaufman and Mark Olsen in which the free-form conversation covered crying at the movies, balancing work and family, human connections and what it’s like to wear so much makeup all the time, among many other things.
Octavia, you said recently that you’d never played a role that felt like you. If you could write your own role, who would you be playing?
Spencer: Well, see, I can’t write for myself because I know that I’m kind of dull. But I’m always playing these salt-of-the-earth sages, and you don’t want to come to me for life advice. You seriously don’t. So I don’t know, maybe someone a little more carefree, a little less bound by struggle of some sort. I kind of don’t want to be a downtrodden mom anymore for a very long time. Sorry. I love you, moms. I love my mom. But right now I just want to break free.
Williams: I always feel like those are the roles that I don’t want to take in movies anymore because I’m, like, I do that in life every day. And so to then go to work and do tired mom? It’d just be so unfulfilling.
In “A Monster Calls,” Felicity Jones wanted her young-mom character to be geniune -- and that was tough at times.
Jones: I found it much harder [to play a mom in “A Monster Calls”] than I thought it would be. I kept being really cheesy. I’d do one take, and it would always be way too saccharine and sweet. And I thought, “Actually, mums aren’t like this. They’re quite tough with their children. Sometimes it’s quite antagonistic.” So it would take a few takes to find the reality of that relationship. It didn’t come completely easily. And then suddenly you worry, “Am I not maternal?” You have these horrible voices in your head saying stuff like that.
Michelle Williams watched and listened to locals to authenticate her performance in “Manchester by the Sea.”
Michelle, you’ve done a lot more theater than film over the past few years. Why is that?
Williams: One thing that theater has definitely afforded is an opportunity to stay at home. Nicole and I were talking about it earlier. You’re just always evaluating: What is this worth to me, and what is this going to cost my family? Because you know, it’s a traveler’s lifestyle. You go where the work is. And then at a certain point, it’s really not very fair to do, as a kid needs a kind of steadiness and consistency, so their relationships can ground and grow. So theater has been a real way for me to stay at home and torture myself.
Williams: It’s hard work.
Kidman: I’m in a situation where I have two little girls, 5 and 8. And I say no to stuff. I was just telling Octavia, we do a family meeting and they get a say in whether I do [a project] or not. And that’s just how it goes. I mean, I’m at an age where I’ve worked since I was 14, and so the most cherished thing is my family. And I have a husband who I love, and I want that family unit to flourish and be strong. So we all make decisions as a family on what gets done.
Octavia, you’ve recently started doing more producing. Is that because you want to have more of a sense of control over the parts that you’re getting?
Spencer: I’m a puzzle person. I’m dyslexic, and the way that I learn through my process is very different. Everything is a puzzle. And that’s the way I see producing. It’s less artistry. Well, I shouldn’t say that because I don’t want producers to think that I don’t think they’re artistic. But for me, it really is about bringing people together that I think would have a wonderful impact on a story and telling different stories that we haven’t heard. I am tired of rehashing the things that we’ve already seen all the time.
Naomie Harris describes the last-minute introduction that ensured spontaneity in a key scene in “Moonlight.”
Harris: I think it’s really important to shed light on communities that don’t often see the light of day. As an audience [member] as well, you’re really excited when you get access to a community that you’ve never seen before. In “Moonlight,” you’ve never seen that kind of world represented on screen before with characters that are three dimensional — a drug-pusher who actually has a heart of gold and is caring for a child that is not his own. It’s very rare that you see those kind of people represented on screen, and it’s really beautiful when you do. It’s life-affirming.
King: I always feel a little embarrassed, like, when I heard about “Hidden Figures” and it was, like, “How do I not know that?” And when it comes to Nat Turner’s rebellion, it’s, like, “Oh, yeah, I remember reading a sentence about that somewhere.” How did I not understand that viscerally what happened? So much of all these characters are about how we’re surviving and connecting with other human beings. You can be in a world filled with so much darkness, but people don’t just dwell in the dark. They seek out the light. Coming out of [drama] school, it’s, like, “Yeah, I don’t want to be the girl from the hood or someone’s baby mama,” but that person exists and they’re fully human. So when you get a script that actually allows them to be the full breadth of their character, then it’s, like, “Oh, yeah, she deserves to have her story told in a really real way versus being like someone else’s footnote.”
An extraordinary 1831 newspaper article give “Birth of a Nation” costar Aja Naomi King the information she needed to envision her character: Nat Turner’s wife.
Harris: And then we see that we aren’t as different as we thought initially from these others. We create these groups of other people but actually they are just us, just in different circumstances with different opportunities.
So many of the films you’re in this year are real tear-jerkers. Why do you think these emotional, cathartic stories are coming about now?
Jones: It’s so important to be able to go to the cinema and cry your eyes out. It can be cathartic, and hopefully it happens when people feel that they are entranced by a story and care about the characters and connect to it in some way. When you do go to the cinema and leave in floods of tears, it’s ultimately a good experience.
Kidman: I don’t know if the desire is “Oh, you’re gonna go and cry.” But hopefully you’re gonna feel something, because there’s such a desensitization now in society. It’s hard to make people feel, and it’s hard to get people in when they’re told ‘You’re gonna feel something from this.’
King: It’s empowering that you can take someone on a journey through a character — especially something that might not be familiar to them.
Spencer: And we’re so isolated these days with computers and cell phones. Sometimes it’s good to step outside of that, and art definitely influences real life.… I mean, that’s one of the reasons why I love going to movies. I just like to go and watch them. I don’t like to go with anybody, because it’s my moment to connect with the artistic world as an audience member and be moved to laugh, to cry, to eat lots of popcorn and just enjoy the artistic process as a person — as just a regular person.
Williams: I’ve had the experience so many times as an audience member watching performances — feeling myself turn inside and walking out because I saw something that I hadn’t seen before. I’d seen a life that I hadn’t seen before. I’d seen an experience that I hadn’t seen before, and it changed me. Ultimately, that would be the highest, most lofty goal that I can think of — that there’s some person that would sit in a theater and say, “I think a little bit differently after seeing that because I hadn’t seen it before.”
“Lion” actress Nicole Kidman talks about going in search of a character, after a lot of research.
What about being on the other side of those emotional moments? How do you approach a scene where you’re expected to cry?
Kidman: Cross out all the directions. Sorry to the writer. But anything that says “she cries now” or anything, I immediately cross out. That gets blanked out in my script because as an actor, I don’t want to have any result. I don’t want to be aiming for something. I want to find things and I don’t want to have a template given to me that I have to achieve.… And there’s days when it doesn’t happen, and you go, “Gosh, I wish I would have another shot at that,” and you don’t. And then there’s days when it’s just, like, “Wow, I’m so glad that something happened and that was magic.” And done. You walk away.
Spencer: Don’t you guys think that that’s one of the things that you miss when you prepare for a play? You have all of that time in rehearsal for the moments of discovery, and when you’re on a set, most of the time you don’t get rehearsal time. It’s like two weeks and it’s makeup tests, it’s costume tests, and then you kind of meet and sit around and talk about the character for a little bit. But there’s very little time for discovery. So I always go to the set early. I like to get dressed and I like to go and I like to sit in the rooms and in the kitchens and in the offices. And production people get really nervous, because they like to know where you are at all times. You know, it’s like, “We didn’t invite her.” But I’m like, “Guys. I’m supposed to have been in this place every day for the past 15 years. I kind of need to spend some hours in here.”
And the woman I play in “Hidden Figures,” Dorothy Vaughan — this woman could disassemble and reassemble a car. So I thought, “Well, I gotta try to do something like that to get ready for this movie.” And I realized I was not actually gonna do anything like that to get ready for the movie. But we were filming in Atlanta, and it was so hot that production bought me a fan and it was in a box. I just thought all I’d have to do was take it out of the box and plug it in. But I had to assemble the fan. Normally, I would just call and say, “Can somebody do this and drop it off at my place?” But I thought, “Dorothy would put this fan together.” So I kind of piecemealed it together, but you know, by the end of the week something was falling off. It was terrible. I’m not mechanically inclined.
Octavia Spencer likes to research her roles, but there wasn’t much on file about her “Hidden Figures” character, Dorothy Vaughan.
Harris: That’s so interesting about how little ownership we have over our space and our beings when we’re on set, because there are these demands on our times constantly. So it means the time that we have to prepare to get into character is so small, which is why I think the preparation that we do beforehand has to be so vast and so in depth, you know? There’s a huge amount of research that you have to do beforehand so that you cannot be distracted when there are like 20 people in the room and they’re all, like, fussing with your hair and your makeup and what have you, because you’ve got to stay completely centered in your zone.
Before we sat down today, you all had a team of hair and makeup artists glamming you up. Do you enjoy that, or does it ever feel unnecessary?
Spencer: I like it, because, well — I’m gonna be really honest right now. This has been a tough week, emotionally [after the election]. And there was a part of me that’s going, “Uh, half of this country is feeling a certain way, and I need to go promote this movie.” And then I realized this movie hopefully will be a calm for some people, for a moment of escapism. And, hey, maybe if I put on some makeup and corset things, I might feel a little better as a woman.
Harris: I sometimes do wish, though, that we could just come as we are a bit more, you know?
Williams: You get people to put beautiful makeup on you and beautiful hair and you’re, like, “Well, that’s a nice change. I’ll take that for a moment.” I kind of enjoy that interplay between allowing yourself a freedom in your work, where you can really go somewhere in a play or in a movie without a kind of self-consciousness, and then having people reel you back together to make you feel like a better version — or a more presentable version — of yourself.
Kidman: And we do have a choice. We can show up with dull hair, no makeup, if we wanted. And that’s fine, you know? Really.
Spencer: Let me just put the damper on that right now. Some of you girls are all beautiful without makeup, but there’s a big “no” on that for me. I’m never going makeup-less. I will always have makeup. You’ll just think I won’t have any on. It’s a mess.
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