Oscars Round Table: Actresses on the power of empathy, Meryl Streep and virginity scenes

Watch the hourlong video of “Hollywood Sessions” as Jennifer Aniston, Emily Blunt, Jessica Chastain, Gugu Mbatha-Raw and Shailene Woodley talk about what it takes to be an actress today.


For this year’s awards season, The Envelope brought together a unique group of actresses, including rising stars breaking through to the next level and established stars breaking out into new roles and challenges, each earning some buzz for their current films.

Participating in the conversation were Jennifer Aniston from the small, personal drama “Cake” (opening in December); Emily Blunt from the musical “Into the Woods” (opening Christmas Day); Jessica Chastain from the recently released space epic “Interstellar” and the December drama “A Most Violent Year”; Gugu Mbatha-Raw from the historic drama “Belle,” which opened in May; and Shailene Woodley from June’s young adult love story “The Fault in Our Stars.”

Here are edited excerpts from the free-flowing conversation moderated by Times film writers Rebecca Keegan and Mark Olsen in which the actresses share their experiences singing on-screen, drunk singing on-screen, what it takes to land a part and the changing roles for women in Hollywood.


Keegan: Emily, in “Into the Woods,” you’re singing on screen for the first time. What was that like for you?

Blunt: Really, really, frightening. I had always just sort of sang in private, in the shower, in the car. And that was about it—I’d never sung in front of my husband.

Aniston: Really?

Blunt: I just had always kind of enjoyed singing a little bit by myself, so I didn’t want to audition for it at all. And I had met Rob Marshall and I really liked him. And my agent was like, “Come on, you’ve got to go in, you’ve got to go in.” Like he’d said on “Mamma Mia!” and “Les Mis” and I said, “No, I can’t, I find it so deeply embarrassing, I can’t do it, I don’t enjoy it.” And Rob just said, “I don’t need her to sing great, I want to see the character.” And I learned it and I had props and I just did it, and he, thank God, gave it to me, because it actually turned out to be so life-enhancing and extraordinary and I got to sing with a 60-piece orchestra and it was just kind of amazing.

Olsen: And Jennifer, in your film “Cake,” you do a little singing as well.

Aniston: Yes. Drunk, drunk singing. (laughter)

Keegan: The best kind of singing.

Aniston: Yes. Drunk and on-the-verge singing — not quite the same.

Keegan: What was that scene like to shoot?

Aniston: I wasn’t actually supposed to sing along with it, and then they did playback and it was Billy Joel’s “Honesty,” so you couldn’t help but do the stupid imitation of, like, pretending to try to know the words and you don’t know the words. (laughter) So it was really fun. In not one of the lightest, light-hearted, you know, movies of all, it was actually…we did have a lot of light moments and that was definitely one of them.

Olsen: And Gugu, you’ve now sung onscreen as well. What was that like for you?

Gugu Mbatha-Raw: Yeah, in “Beyond the Lights” — actually I was in “Into the Woods” myself when I was 16 with the National Youth Music Theatre at home.

Blunt: Who did you play in it?

Mbatha-Raw: Well, I came in to replace somebody who’d left and gone to drama school, so I played Cinderella’s mother, which is a tiny, tiny part, but then I got to understudy Rapunzel.
Blunt: Oh, that’s cool.

Mbatha-Raw: I got to wear the full blond wig, which looked absurd on me. But yeah, in “Beyond the Lights,” to go into the hip-hop world and more of that sort of pop style, was a real challenge, I have to say —taking out all of the vibrato that I got from my musical theater background and having to kind of put in all that sort of attitude and swagger into the voice.


Olsen: One of the big surprises in “Into the Woods” is going to be Chris Pine for people.

Blunt: Like Frank Sinatra.

Woodley: I hear he’s…

Blunt: Like unbelievable.

Olsen: Were all of you surprised when he starts singing and that comes out?

Blunt: We were surprised by everybody. I was just rocked by Meryl as well, I mean, she can really belt a song out. She has a voice like a trumpet—it’s crazy. And when Chris started singing, you know, and I know he loves all the standards and all that music, he just sounds like a full-bodied wine. I mean, he’s just beautiful. Beautiful.

Olsen: This is actually your second time working with Meryl Streep. What was that like? Have the two of you become friends?

Blunt: Well, she’s always playing someone who’s just vile to me. I think it would be weird if we were pals in the next one. I don’t think we know how to do that. She was so great to me and we’d obviously hung out since “Devil Wears Prada” years ago and she’s just very maternal with me; she was particularly maternal because I was pregnant during “Into the Woods,” so she was making sure that everyone was giving me a chair and a snack.

Keegan: Shailene, I know you really had to fight for “The Fault in Our Stars” and kind of make your case to play that role. Why was it that you did fight for it?

Woodley: I read the script and I immediately read the book afterwards, and it touched me on such a profound level, just the universal messages that were entwined in this young adult book. I wrote a long letter to the author, just sort of professing my love for him and for his genius in creating something like this. He responded very politely back, but at the end of it he said, “You do understand I’m not the casting director of this film, so I can’t actually cast you.”

And then when the director, Josh Boone, became attached, he was not interested in auditioning me because he thought I was too old. We met, we had dinner the night before [my audition] and afterwards he was like, “I really enjoy you as a human, you know, I’m interested to see what you do tomorrow, but to be honest, I still think that you’re not this character.” I was like, “That’s great, I respect that and I think it’s amazing that a director has such a strong point of view on who he feels the character is.” So the next day I auditioned and left feeling very satisfied that what I did was what I could bring to the table. And I guess it was aligned with his thoughts of who this person was.


Chastain: You’re so beautiful in that movie.

Woodley: Thank you.

Chastain: I watched it twice and one time on the airplane and I was sniveling and sobbing. (laughter) Because, you know what, airplanes make you more emotional and it was really like I was loudly crying, and I didn’t realize it because I was wearing the headphones and someone told me and I was like, “Oh, my God!”

Keegan: I think a lot of people were heartened too that a film led by a young woman on this subject matter performed quite well at the box office. I mean, it suggests the potential for other stories like this.

Chastain: Everyone says that and I agree with you and there always seems to be an article that’s like, “Wow, this movie with these lead female characters is doing well,” but there’s a lot of those articles. So to me, it’s not a surprise anymore—it’s just like it’s a fact. Women perform great in the box office. Audiences want to see lead female characters.

Keegan: And yet there are studies that come out every year—there’s one from USC that two out of three speaking roles are male, and I wonder, what do you think it would take for that to change?

Chastain: Women writers. We need more points of view from women and we need more support for female directors and writers in the industry?

Aniston: You hit the wall almost right when you get up to the top. If there’s a female writer being suggested to do a rewrite on a script, it’s always the big boys going, “Mm, let’s go with [a man] …” Even having these events like Women in Film or the Elle Women Celebrating Women. You don’t have guy nights like that. But it’s constantly a sort of a shout-out when we’re here.


Keegan: Gugu, you’re in the unusual position of having a female writer and director on “Belle.” Do you think that informed the story in any way?

Mbatha-Raw: Oh, absolutely. I have been really fortunate in the last year or two to work with three female writer-directors, on “Beyond the Lights” with Gina Prince-Bythewood and Amma Asante on “Belle” and Courtney Hunt in “The Whole Truth” over the summer. They’ve provided me with my first lead roles onscreen, so in terms of point of view and in terms of a three-dimensional, complex character, I have women to thank for that. It’s the layers and the nuances that they bring to the writing and to be driving the story, not just an adornment.

Olsen: Jennifer, in “Cake” there was a female cinematographer.

Aniston: Yeah, there’s always a different energy when you’re surrounded by a group of women creatives. There’s just no question. She was like “La Femme Nikita,” she was so awesome and she was also the shooter. I mean, she held the camera. It was beautiful, just in her moodbooks and the images that she was drawing from for this told such a story. To watch her light a room — sometimes it would be a long day — but it was worth the wait because she was really creating a painting.

Keegan: You’re playing a woman who’s in chronic pain in “Cake,” you have some scars. I heard you wore a back brace also to sort of help your movements?

Aniston: Without even consciously knowing, you just start to slouch or move certain ways and that [brace] was this constant reminder, a little stick up your butt, sort of like saying “Don’t slouch.” There would be times I knew I would have to do a take over because I moved too easily. But what’s odd is that after about two weeks of taking on this physical state, that starts to become your natural state of being and moving. And it turns out people around you are [she turns slowly as if in pain] are acting like that too. All of a sudden, everybody’s just feeling really old and in pain.

Keegan: Shailene, I’d be curious what you have to say about this too, having played a character who has cancer and is carrying around an oxygen tank. When you go home at the end of the night, are you able to shake that off physically and mentally?


Woodley: The tank sort of just became second nature. It was more a matter of deciding how far we were gonna take it because if we were to actually bring the straight amount of truth that Hazel’s condition would have been, the movie would have been five hours long because she would have to talk so slowly because she couldn’t catch her breath. So the director and I had a lot of conversations about making [the cancer] not so much a character and just have it be a part of her. We didn’t want it to distract from their love story, which is really what the movie is about. One thing that I love about the film is that it showcases that cancer doesn’t define a person. It’s just part of you; it’s not who you are.

Keegan: There is this very sweet love story involved in “Fault in Our Stars” in the midst of this tragic stuff unfolding. It was even a very sweet losing her virginity scene.

Woodley: Yeah, it’s really sweet. I mean the thing with virginity scenes — I feel like I’ve lost my virginity four times now on screen — they look beautiful and you feel like it’s a great experience and it’s sort of always not the case. And so I’m always keen on making sure that it doesn’t look like a glamorous experience. With “Fault in Our Stars,” there’s something so sweet about it because he has one leg and she has this oxygen tube in her nose, but I feel like their love transcends the physical nature of who they are. And I think that was such a beautiful example for young adults out there that sex does not have to be this beautiful, glamorous situation. You know, it’s really about love, about connecting with someone.

Keegan: Jessica, in “Interstellar,” you’re working with Chris Nolan, who is a famously secretive director. I heard that someone had to fly to a set you were on in Ireland to deliver the script to you?

Chastain: Yeah, I was shooting a film in Northern Ireland and I got a call that Chris was interested in me for this film. I mean, I already knew at that point I was going to say yes before I read the script because I love all of his movies. Normally I do smaller films and I’d been looking, like, I would just love to see what it’s like to do some big action adventure-y film. And he’s definitely the man to do it with.

They put someone on the plane in Los Angeles, he flew all the way to Dublin, drove two hours north to Enniskillen, handed me this script that was the color of the dress I’m wearing with my name written on it. So of course, as you’re trying to read it, you’re getting a migraine with the red and trying to separate the red and the black. It was great. And then I handed it back to the gentleman and he flew back to L.A. It was very, very secretive, but I can say now that it is a musical. (laughter)


Olsen: In your film “A Most Violent Year, Oscar Isaac plays your husband but you— the two of you went to Julliard together?

Chastain: Yeah, we’ve known each other for a long time. And we’d always kind of kept track of each other’s work but we’d never acted together. I’ve never seen him be bad, never once. When he’s acting, there’s no props, no costumes, nothing. He’s making something out of nothing and it’s always great. I was super impressed by [last year’s] “Inside Llewyn Davis.”

Woodley: I thought he was great.

Chastain: I was gonna do “Most Violent Year” with another actor and the actor fell out and, I had never done this but I sent this really impassioned email to the director about Oscar, it was this long email and I felt, “Am I overstepping my bounds?” But immediately I got back, “I’m gonna cast him, but don’t tell him yet.”

Keegan: You got it done.

Chastain: I don’t think it was me. I think it was already in the air.

Woodley: You’re just the extra little nudge.

Chastain: I don’t know, maybe. But it was nice to put myself out there and support a friend who I believed in and now when you see the film, he’s incredible in it.

Olsen: Gugu, “Belle” is really kind of the role that’s breaking you out to more attention, but you’ve had a couple American television shows and you were on Broadway. Have there been moments when things didn’t happen the way you thought they were going to from step to step?

Mbatha-Raw: Well, everything happens for a reason, you know, I do a TV show for six months and it would get cancelled but that would have been my first job in America so I get a Visa and I get an agent and a manager. So there’s been benefits to every step along the way. I feel like I am growing and it’s sort of about the experience for me. I don’t really have expectations necessarily of this is the one. That’s not for you to decide, that will become apparent further down the line?


Olsen: Jessica, you’ve spoken about that same thing that when success has come for you, you’re sort of glad in a way it didn’t come earlier?

Chastain: If I had a done character like Maya in “Zero Dark Thirty” 10 years ago, it would have been a completely different performance. As we get older, we develop more skills. I would have been so excited about like craft service and the free food and, you know, fancy restaurants. Everything that we criticize young actresses for, they’re supposed to do because that’s when we’re supposed to make mistakes. And find out who we are. So I would have made all those mistakes. I mean, I wouldn’t have made every mistake, but yeah my heart goes out to those girls. Every time you fail, you learn more.

Olsen: Jennifer, you had mentioned with “Horrible Bosses” that you loved that character even though for a lot of people she’d be one of the villains of the film and even with “Cake” you spoke about how you love that woman even though she’s kind of a difficult person.

Aniston: Well, I had a lot of empathy for her. I mean not Dr. Julia, I mean she’s just god awful and just a horn dog. She has a problem.

Blunt: She has problems.

Aniston: But for Claire, I just had a lot of empathy for her struggle and I think she is beautiful and I think problems and her choices and her journey is beautiful in the fact that we feel empathy for people going through pain.

Blunt: I think that’s almost what it is sometimes if you sum up what acting is. It’s just the ultimate expression of empathy.


Keegan: Have you ever played someone who is hard to empathize with?

Blunt: I guess “The Devil Wears Prada” girl. I mean she was just vile.

Keegan: Yeah, she was a tough cookie.

Blunt: She was but I got it. She was desperate and I just decided to play desperate rather than bitchy. Her whole identity was wrapped up in the fashion industry. And so without it she was nothing.

Chastain: I find that the monsters are usually the people that I have the most empathy for because they’re the ones that are hurt the most. There’s a reason why they’re the monsters.

Olsen: And Gugu, with “Belle,” even though that film is set in the historical past, did you find that your experience mirrored the character more than you might have expected?

Mbatha-Raw: The thing that I really loved about that whole experience was the idea of identity. Like your character’s identity being in the fashion industry, Belle’s really struggling with her identity — biracial in a Jane Austen sort of land. Not that I’ve ever felt that personally but I certainly related to Belle on that in terms of trying to define yourself through your own choices rather than just accepting society’s kind of you’re that, you’re that, let me put you in a box kind of thing.

Keegan: Shailene, that’s something you’ve been doing really well, not defining yourself just by the outside world saying do this, do that. How have you been able to do that?

Woodley: The thing with labels is they’re not for you, they’re for other people. Like labels are just a word for other people to understand you and that’s it.


Mbatha-Raw: And they’re an oversimplification as well.

Keegan: Gugu who’s on your bucket list to work with?

Mbatha-Raw: Oh my gosh.

Aniston: Bucket list? Already?

Mbatha-Raw: Um, you know, I mean Meryl Streep is one of my favorite actresses.

Blunt: That hack?

Twitter: @IndieFocus, @ThatRebecca