For a recent roundtable conversation among actresses in supporting roles, The Envelope brought together four women to share their experiences both onset and off with film writers Mark Olsen and Rebecca Keegan:
Jane Fonda has a small, scene-stealing turn in Paolo Sorrentino's "Youth" as an actress all too aware of her status as an aging grande dame. In "Joy," Isabella Rossellini is a wealthy widow who finances the entrepreneurial dreams of her new boyfriend's daughter. Joan Allen in "Room" plays a mother reunited with the abducted daughter she thought was lost forever. Jennifer Jason Leigh enters the period western "The Hateful Eight" as a woman with a black eye and a bounty on her head.
All four actresses were open about the boundaries Hollywood would put up for them, as well as the ways in which they fight to make a space all their own. As Rossellini said of her recent interest in raising and studying chickens, "They have reputations like us actresses, that they're stupid. They're not. They're so bright."
Olsen: Jane, in the movie "Youth" you play an actress who's meeting with a director about a role, and that's an experience you probably have been through a few times. How much of your own experience do you bring to a part like that?
Fonda: At least for me, unconsciously you tap into the things about you that are present in the character. I didn't think too much about the parallel, and, you know, I knew Bette Davis, I knew Barbara Stanwyck, and my character, Brenda, is a little bit more Stanwyck-y than some of the others. But I knew all those divas. I came in just at the end of that era, into Hollywood, and so, that was kind of in my DNA. But except for the fact that she and I both went to the Actors Studio, I never cleaned toilets in Brooklyn and I didn't spend too much time in the producers' underpants. But I know people who did.
Keegan: Do you have to like a character to play her, Isabella?
Rossellini: You have to understand her, but no, not like her. In order to play her, I think it's more important to understand what you're doing.
Fonda: Have empathy.
Rossellini: Empathy, yes, we have empathy. But you don't have to like it — actually, it's fun to sometimes play nasty, a murderer, or somebody dark. You don't wish to be in life, but it's fun to play it.
Keegan: Jennifer, as you were shooting Quentin Tarantino's "The Hateful Eight," you were one woman of seven or eight really tough guys in that cabin, right? What was that like?
Leigh: Oh, it was heaven. I always have thought of myself as a real girl's girl, and so to be surrounded by all these macho guys, I had no idea what I was getting into, and they never treated me like a princess, or like I was any different. And at the same time, I felt so protected and cared for, and it was just an incredible experience. Also, I got to be a fly on the wall. I mean, you never get to have that experience, you know, like, really see how men are together — I mean, they didn't clean up their language, they didn't clean up their stories for me; nothing. I loved every second of it, I really did.
Keegan: Because sets are typically often so male, do you find, Joan, that it's nice to be on a set where you have, in the case of "Room," you and Brie Larson as mother and daughter, you have some scenes working with another woman?
Allen: I remember when I did "Nixon," and I was Pat Nixon among, you know, a sea of men, and I remember when we had our first read-through and there was this enormous table of all these guys, and I walked in and I turned around and I walked back out. I was like, "I just need a minute to take this in." And I imagined how she felt in that world and that situation, and it just gave me, it gave me a lot of empathy for her, a character that a lot of people didn't always say very nice things about. I thought, "Wow, I can see how it would've been a little bit hard for her."
Olsen: Isabella, in "Joy," the power dynamic between your character and the title character, played by Jennifer Lawrence, you are financing her business operations and there are many conversations about commerce and money. Did you find some connection to that, even in the way that you've navigated your own career?
Rossellini: I have to say that I was always — I made more money than I planned. That was a wonderful surprise, mostly about modeling. My mom is Ingrid Bergman, and Mamma, you know, I think she was very intimidated by money and she always had a business manager or a husband, and she lost a lot of money, so I said, "This not going to happen to me." And I managed my money. I had the courage to do it because I saw that it wasn't working her way. I think she delegated others, feeling it wasn't a woman's world, or she would make a mistake. She just wanted to be an artist. But I said, "No." With money, there is also independence, and that's why I wanted it.
Olsen: And, Jane, as someone also born into a show business family, did you find that that was something you had to learn how to navigate for yourself?
Fonda: I'm still learning. Something weird happens to my brain when there are numbers written down. Like, I go numb and I have a very difficult time with numbers, so I'm not good at it. I do more like what Mamma did.
Rossellini: But Jane, you were among the first women who produced film, you did —
Fonda: I produced film, I started a huge business that was incredibly successful, the workout business, but I was only involved in the creative parts of it. When it came to the, "Oh, are we making money?" I'm not sure.
Keegan: Joan, your character in "Room" appears just about halfway through the movie, and you're greeting your daughter as she's coming out of captivity. How did you prepare to play that? It's so specific, and so unusual.
Allen: Well I did some YouTube-ing, and I actually wanted to speak with Jaycee Dugard's mother, Terry Probyn is her name — that was a big captivity case where she had been in captivity for, like, 18 years. I wasn't able to do that, but I was able to find footage of her speaking and that was helpful. And I think just, even though the situation is so extreme, of losing a child and not knowing what's happened, I think as parents we know. I've been in a mall, and my daughter was little, and I turned around and within a flash she's not there, and that depth of panic — I think even those small moments, you can extrapolate larger things from.
Olsen: Jane, in "Youth," your character also doesn't arrive until somewhere late in the film. And how does that impact your decision to even take the role; what does that sort of limited screen time do for you?
Fonda: Well, I'm 78 years old, so, if I get a good scene offered to me that is very explosive and combustible, who's gonna say no? Actually, it was Al Pacino, at dinner one night about six months before I did the movie, who said, "Listen, there's this scene that feels like it was written for you." So I called my agent and I said, "This is what Al tells me. Try to get —" and it was already cast. And, then the actress dropped out — I don't know why — and so I said to my agent, "Get it."
But, I had not read the script, so I didn't know what the scene was or anything. I'd only known what Al had told me, but I knew it was Paolo Sorrentino and I had seen "Il Divo," and I had seen the movie that he won the Oscar for, "The Great Beauty," and I've never worked with a director like that, you know, kind of Fellini, kind of surreal, and so impersonal, so specific, and I really wanted to work with him. So, I said, "Well, this'll be an adventure," and I'm so grateful he offered it to me. And I didn't really read it until I was on the plane going over there. So, I didn't care if it was one page.
Olsen: Isabella, your director on "Joy," David O. Russell, he has a very specific way of shooting. Was it difficult for you to learn his process, to sync up with that?
Rossellini: No, for me, it was completely easy. But I understand that he might be difficult, because he talks during the takes. But my father, Roberto Rossellini, talked during the takes because in Italy, the films are always looped afterward. So, for me, it was, I felt like I was back the way I knew it.
Keegan: Jane, there's an issue that you have been talking about since before it was cool, which is what confronts women in Hollywood as directors, as actors. I wonder, what's it like for you to see people talking more openly, now, about the disparity in Hollywood.
Fonda: Well, I think we'll all agree that the fact that it's out there — you can't solve a problem until the question is posed and people are aware that there's a question, and it's asked properly. And I think, for all kinds of reasons, it's happening now. You know, I think the ACLU suit is important, just because it exists, and it means that it's being taken seriously.
And, I mean, it is kind of shocking, because women view stories differently. The stories that we're gonna gravitate to are different. And we're more than half the world, so if you don't have women developing stories and filming them and green-lighting them, and photographing them, you're leaving out the narrative of half the world. And that's not just bad for women, it's bad for men. It's bad for everybody. We all are less as a result of women not being fully represented in the thing that creates consciousness, which is our culture.
Keegan: Is there anything that you have figured out, Jennifer, in the last few years in your career, that you wish you knew when you were starting out?
Leigh: When I was starting out, I did "Fast Times at Ridgemont High," which was a big group of kids, basically, and we made this movie, and it was this huge hit, and so we all just thought, "Oh yeah, this is what happens."
Fonda: Woman director, by the way.
Leigh: Woman director, exactly. "You make a movie and it's a hit, and that's what happens." So, I really took it for granted and it isn't really what happens. And then I would get offered something, and I'd be tired, and so I would turn this down and turn that down. And I turned down the opportunity to work with some really great people, and the opportunity to be involved in some really beautiful, wonderful movies, and I know we're not supposed to have regrets, but I do, I do have some regrets. And I wish I hadn't taken things for granted. But you don't know that when you're so young, you know?
Olsen: Jane, was there a role when you felt like, "Now I have a career," like, this had sort of clicked in for you?
Fonda: No, I hated it. I hated Hollywood, I hated having to worry about how I looked, I totally took it for granted. When I made "On Golden Pond," I will never forget, Katharine Hepburn, who was younger than I am now, came up behind me. I was combing my hair in the mirror, getting ready for a scene and she came up behind me and she went like this [pinches her cheek]. "This is your box. This is your container. What do you want it to say?" She hated the fact that I was not self-conscious. And I used to think that was a pejorative word, but it meant "aware of how you present," which I was not at all. And I regret that.
I just played all the cards wrong. How I ever survived, I don't know. When I was just beginning to make it, I moved to an attic in France to live with a Frenchman.
Rossellini: Oh, but I love your career. Don't say that you did it wrong! You were such an inspiration to all of us because you were always surprising!
Fonda: I never should've survived. But in a way, I'm glad I didn't think about it more because then I wouldn't have done the things that were the most important and interesting.
Rossellini: Exactly. I think it's so hard to work for a career, like, you have a design of what your career should be. I always work in what is interesting to me, and I hopefully will make a career.
Mamma came home, she was so depressed, because she was getting older and she wasn't getting a lot of work, and I kept on saying, "But Mamma, why don't you direct? Is there anything else you could do?" And she said, "I can only act," and she did theater, television, but it was never enough; she wanted to do so much more. And then you came and you produced. And I remember saying, "Of course. You can do that." You empowered me. And, yeah, my mom was very powerful, and had an extraordinary career, but you are such an inspiration to me.
Olsen: Joan, was it a difficult transition to make from theater into film?
Allen: That probably took me a good five years. I mean, I understood character, and how to build character but I didn't understand how to do it. And I found all the hair and makeup people, and wardrobe, extremely annoying, and they made me angry. And Jeff Bridges helped me so much because he was on "Tucker," and he'd been doing it for so many years. And finally, one day, I said, "Jeff, I've been spending so much time going, 'I hate you, get out of my face [to the crew].'" He said, "I embrace them. Instead of spending all that negative energy pushing them away, I bring them into me, and I think, I can't do my job until they do theirs, because if I have a piece of spinach in between my teeth, they're not gonna use the take." And he just made me relax and find my own space to work while they're working, because they're essential. He was so helpful to me.
Olsen: Jennifer, for you, as someone who has been acting since you were relatively young, did all that come very naturally to you or did that take some time to figure out?
Leigh: I was doing this TV movie, and it was the first time, I think, I had a close-up, and then I suddenly saw the camera and it was enormous. And I was just mesmerized by how big that thing was. And I went home to my mother, and she said, "How was it?" and I said, "I was terrible. I was so intimidated by the camera," and she said, "The camera is your friend. You have to just take it in." Don't pretend it doesn't exist. It's there, it's there and it's just part of your world. And so I got those lessons early.
Keegan: Do any of you ever read film reviews?
Rossellini: That's a dangerous one. I try not to read it, and I'm pretty disciplined. But there's always somebody that calls and said, "I can't believe what the Los Angeles Times has written about you," "What? What did they do?"
Allen: I read nothing.
Fonda: Oh, I read every review. After you've been doing it for a long time you learn what to take seriously and what not to take seriously. But the ones that are smart, you can learn a lot from. But, when you're in a play, it's different, 'cause you have to do it again that night. So, I waited a couple of weeks before I read my reviews. And then I lied. I said I didn't read them, but I did. I can say that now.