When eight of the world’s most accomplished performers gathered in one place on Nov. 14 for THR‘s annual Actress Roundtable, you might have expected some backstage drama. Sure, there was a slight kerfuffle over whether their stylists should be allowed on-set, and then there was a major case of hunger pangs when new mom Carey Mulligan, 30, and newly-in-from-China Jennifer Lawrence, 25, both had to wolf down bananas before the shoot. But other than that, it was a lovefest as the two actresses joined Cate Blanchett (Carol, Truth), 46; Jane Fonda (Youth), 77; Brie Larson (Room), 26; Helen Mirren (Trumbo, Woman in Gold), 70; Charlotte Rampling (45 Years), 69; and Kate Winslet (Steve Jobs), 40, in a discussion that ranged from the pay gap between men and women to the other careers these actresses might have chosen to — yes — how to pee on film.
I’ll start with a simple question. Why do you act?
LARSON: That’s not a simple question. (Laughter.)
LAWRENCE: Because I have to.
RAMPLING: It’s all I can do, I think.
MIRREN: I became an actress because I discovered the world of the imagination when I was about 14 or so and the concept that you could engage in this amazing world of storytelling. I saw a production of Hamlet, and I didn’t know Hamlet died in the end.
BLANCHETT: He does? Shit.
LAWRENCE: Who’s Hamlet?
BLANCHETT: It’s a bit like asking why you love somebody. But for me, it’s a vocation, and in the end, I feel like I didn’t choose it. It chose me. All those out-of-work actors will probably tell me to shut up — and I’ll have to commit ritual suicide — but I’m always trying to not do it, to be honest. And then you get a call from Martin Scorsese or Todd Haynes, and you get drawn back into it.
WINSLET: It can be lonely, actually, especially when you’re younger. I remember those moments of going, “Wow, I’m doing this by myself.” And what’s interesting is: Who do you act for? I remember being asked that in a room with lots of really scary people, like Kenneth Branagh and Derek Jacobi. And everyone said a parent. Every single person.
BLANCHETT: As a way of seeking approval? It’s that whole thing, isn’t it, that actors want to be liked? And that doesn’t interest me at all. What I love about the theater is that you know who you’re acting for: your audience. And the thing I find really hard in film is, you don’t. The audience is invisible. And we’re sitting there, hoping there’s other people out there.
Jennifer, who do you act for?
LAWRENCE: My agent. (Laughter.) If I hadn’t found [acting], I would have never been able to make sense of all of these bizarre things we all had when we were kids. Why, if I think something, do I feel it? Before you’re acting, that just makes you feel crazy.
BLANCHETT: All those voices.
LAWRENCE: [Once] I convinced my entire bus that we were being held up for ransom because I was reading about it and I was like, “This is real.” I have an outlet, and now I understand what it is, otherwise I would have felt mentally insane. I really act for myself. I really love it. I don’t think there’s a way that you could handle these schedules, all of the actual work that goes into it, if you don’t really, really love it.
FONDA: I never wanted to be an actor. My dad was an actor, and he never brought joy home, so I didn’t view it as something that I would want to do. But I got fired as a secretary, and then I started studying, and Lee Strasberg said I was talented, so I started doing it just to earn money. And it took me a long time to learn to love it. And what I loved was telling a story. I tried to avoid making plays or films that weren’t telling a story that I felt was important. And what I discovered in the process is, it makes you more empathic because you have to enter someone else’s reality and you learn to see through many other people’s eyes.
LAWRENCE: That is what acting is.
FONDA: What’s totally terrifying is that, unlike a musician who has a musical instrument, or a painter that’s got a canvas and a brush, this is us. Our energy, our soul, our spirits. And it’s so hard because it’s so vulnerable. You’re exposing everything.
Jane, if Strasberg hadn’t liked you, what would you have done?
FONDA: I probably would have become a landscape architect.
LARSON: Oh, I quit many times. It was too hard. So I went back to college a couple of times to be a photographer, and then an interior designer, and then, at the real depths of it, I wanted to be an animal trainer. That was like a real low point —
BLANCHETT :— for all you animal trainers out there.
LARSON: I had started acting when I was 7, and I was always wrong. I would always get to the very end [of the audition process], but I wasn’t a perfect package of one thing. I wasn’t a cliche, and it always worked against me. I wasn’t pretty enough to play the popular girl, I wasn’t mousy enough to be the mousy girl, so I never fit in. And so I’d get close, but I never got anywhere, and it was really painful. And then there was a TV show that Toni Collette was starring in, and Toni Collette was my absolute hero. And when this role came, to play a girl who was struggling with identity and who was a little bit of everything, I thought: “Oh, this is what I was supposed to do. Everything’s leading up to this moment.” I was 18. I was like, “This is it.” And I tested for it, and I didn’t get it. And I was devastated.
MULLIGAN: I remember when I did The Seagull, there’s a line Nina says: “I’m a proper actress now, and when I think about my vocation, I’m not afraid of life.” It’s a way of dealing with life.
Are you ever afraid of acting?
MULLIGAN: All the time. (Laughter.)
MIRREN: Of course, absolutely. It never stops. Younger actors say, “As you get older, as you’ve done it more, does the fear go?” Noooo. Sorry. It gets worse, actually.
LAWRENCE: I’m always terrified before every movie because I haven’t found her [the character], and I don’t get it. [Without acting, I’d have] become a nurse.
LARSON: I think you’d be a great nurse.
LAWRENCE: Well, thank you.
LARSON: I don’t know if I’d let you put me under, but —
LAWRENCE: No, no. I’m not good with math. You don’t want me to deal with your Propofol.
WINSLET: My dad was an actor, and my older sister is an actress, and so I very much remember thinking, “Well, of course I’ll do that as well.” But I never imagined myself as an actor who would be in films. I always only thought of myself being in a play or a musical and maybe the odd episode of [U.K. ’80s TV drama] Casualty. My backup plan was to do something with children, to start a nursery school or work with underprivileged kids. And I still dream of maybe doing that in some way. I’ve always got children in my house, always.
Cate, you have four children. Does that make acting less important?
BLANCHETT: No. It just makes you really economical. All of the stuff that I frankly loved and enjoyed, all of the researching — you just don’t have time to do it. But it’s also made me more fearless because a lot of the research one does is really just a process to stave off the anxiety of doing it. It’s, “Well, I’m just going to do this shit and it’s either going to be really embarrassing or it’s going in the right direction.” You’ve got no time to be frightened.
Is it hard to find good roles?
MIRREN: Yes, of course.
FONDA: If you’re older.
RAMPLING: Ah, the eternal question.
FONDA: A woman who’s older? It’s very difficult.
Older means over what age?
LAWRENCE: In Hollywood or in real life? (Laughter.)
FONDA: I’m told over 40, although what I did when I was in my 40s was I simply produced my own movies because no one offered me anything. But certainly after 50 it’s hard for a woman, which is why television is such a welcoming thing.
MIRREN: It’s hard for young women, too. It’s very interesting, Brie saying, “I wasn’t pretty enough to be the pretty girl and I wasn’t unattractive enough to be the dorky girl.”
LARSON: That’s what we’re all doing: paving the way, finding the roles that have the complication instead of the one that’s always got it together or the dedicated housewife or the wild one who smokes cigarettes and sleeps with anybody.
WINSLET: So much is made of good, strong roles for women. Actually, it’s really interesting playing vulnerable people as well.
MULLIGAN: People always say, “You played such a strong character.” I remember someone said that to me when I played a role in Shame, and she was a suicidal mess. I said, “She’s not strong at all; she’s incredibly weak.” But “strong” to people means “real.” It means you believe that’s a person who exists, as opposed to some two-dimensional depiction of women.
Jennifer, you’ve written about the pay gap between men and women, and you’re taking a stance on issues. Has there been a backlash?
LAWRENCE: There’s always a backlash in everything that you do, but it’s not going to stop or change anything. And it’s not only an issue in Hollywood. When you’re asking about roles for men and women, men certainly have a longer shelf life. Men can play the sexy lead for 20 years longer than we can —
LARSON: But that’s just because it’s mostly dudes in charge.
BLANCHETT: It’s lazy thinking across all industries. We’re at the pointy and probably the most public end, but in what industry do women receive equal pay for equal work? I can’t think of any.
LAWRENCE: Across all fields, women are generally paid 21 percent less than men.
MIRREN: I love the way you wrote about it because you wrote about it very simply and personally. I so recognized that thing you said about, “I didn’t want to be an asshole,” you know? I want to be polite. We’ve got to stop being polite. If I ever had children, which I don’t, the first thing I’d teach a girl of mine is the words “f— off.”
FONDA: Have you [all] gotten braver? When Kate was in [Holy Smoke], it’s nighttime, and she walks out of this building stark naked and urinates on herself, you know?
WINSLET: One of my finer moments. (Laughter.)
LAWRENCE: Was it real pee?
WINSLET: No, it wasn’t real. ‘Cause you can’t piss on cue. We did actually do a pee test because I did want to do the pissing part if I could. But when you stand up and pee, it doesn’t go in a nice stream right down the center, which is what they wanted. It just races for sanctuary down one side of your leg. That didn’t work when we did the pee test, and I really did pee down my leg. So what we did is, we hung a bag of saline-drip fluid and dyed it slightly yellow. It was tied to the back of my hair on a small thread, and it just sat happily in the base of my back. And someone activated it.
LARSON: Did you wedge it or did someone else wedge it?
WINSLET: I wedged it.
BLANCHETT: Who did that? Was that credited? (Laughter.)
Is there anything you wouldn’t do as an actress?
WINSLET: I wouldn’t be a part of anything that had acts of violence toward children. I don’t think I would do a horror film, either. That just doesn’t sit well on my soul.
BLANCHETT: Oh, I love horror films.
WINSLET: Do you find them funny?
BLANCHETT: No, I find them scary.
LAWRENCE: I get nervous.
BLANCHETT: There’s [also] plenty of girlfriend roles out there. They’ve come my way, and many people have turned them down, and I think, “Oh maybe I could do something with this.” It’s interesting when you get those roles, which seem like nothing on the page, and you kind of subvert them. It’s hard to say no.
Have you said no to doing something onscreen?
LAWRENCE: I don’t think so. I mean, I’ve skinned a squirrel.
Not a real squirrel?
LAWRENCE: Of course it was a real squirrel. I didn’t kill it. But no, not yet. I had my first real sex scene a couple weeks ago [while shooting Passengers with Chris Pratt], and it was really bizarre. It was really weird.
BLANCHETT: When you say “real” sex scene, do you mean penetration or …? (Laughter.)
LAWRENCE: No, no. Thank you for clarifying. It was weird. And everything was done right; nobody did anything wrong. It’s just a bizarre experience.
How do you prepare for that?
LAWRENCE: You drink.
I got really, really drunk. But then that led to more anxiety when I got home because I was like, “What have I done? I don’t know.” And he was married. And it was going to be my first time kissing a married man, and guilt is the worst feeling in your stomach. And I knew it was my job, but I couldn’t tell my stomach that. So I called my mom, and I was like, “Will you just tell me it’s OK?” It was just very vulnerable. And you don’t know what’s too much. You want to do it real, you want everything to be real, but then … That was the most vulnerable I’ve ever been.
MULLIGAN: There’s always the things that you think are going to be tough. I’ve been nude once, and I was like, “Oh, that’s going to be a nightmare,” and actually that was fine. It’s kind of, “F— it, now I’m naked and everyone else isn’t. This is hilarious.” But [the toughest part of acting] is never a single thing. It’s more like a whole character. I find film really difficult — trying to make it feel like a consistent character when you’re filming everything out of order.
You had one scene with Meryl Streep in Suffragette. What did you talk about off-camera?
MULLIGAN: They didn’t have any shoes in her size. So she brought her Out of Africashoes, so we were drilling her [about that].
Brie, with Room, did you speak to women who’d been held captive in real life?
LARSON: I’m a big believer in privacy, and I didn’t feel it was my place to invade their space and ask them about that. Because ultimately the story is universal, and I didn’t want to get into some sort of invasive crime tale. But I had been given some videos of the very rare times these girls had done public interviews, and they just broke my heart and made me so angry.
Is it different when you play a real-life character?
MIRREN: Yes, of course, because you have a responsibility to look like them and sound like them and maybe walk like them. But the essential journey is exactly the same, really, as with a fictional character, which is a journey of imagination. And the great thing about playing a real-life character is you don’t have to make up all that backstory stuff. And truth is always so much more interesting than fiction, isn’t it?
Speaking of truth, Cate, some people have questioned the truth of Truth, the Dan Rather story.
BLANCHETT: There’s many versions, depending on whom you speak to. Someone’s viewpoint has to take you through the story. A film is not a documentary. And what’s wonderful about film is that it’s a real provocation for people. I never, ever see film as being an absolute version of the truth.
In creating the truth, do you borrow from other actresses’ performances?
LAWRENCE: I take from people all the time. I didn’t ever go to acting classes or anything. You can just watch people.
MIRREN: Onscreen, babies and animals are my inspiration. They’re so alive and there and not messed up in the head the way I am, you know. (Laughter.)
MIRREN: Yes, all the time on the set, oh god, absolutely.
BLANCHETT: All you need is one moment of flow, and then you’re back. You’re constantly reaching for that moment. One of my favorite moments is onstage, when you see a dancer leap, and you think they’re flying, and then they fall. It’s that moment of suspension that you look for, and sometimes you get it and sometimes you don’t.
WINSLET: I’m always inspired by actresses who are older than me. Because I know that person has lived so much more life than I have. There’s a whole other toolbox.
RAMPLING: You become more and more charged with your life and with a life that you’re observing. When I was younger, I was actually looking forward to getting older, to have more insight, more understanding. I’m much more tolerant with others and with myself. I’m not in rebellion all the time, I’m not angry so much. But all those feelings are really useful [when you’re young] because they fire us, as long as they don’t get out of control.
Jane, you had very strong feelings as a young woman. Have they mellowed?
FONDA: They are still strong, but they’re tempered in a way. I mean, they’re strong to where they keep me up at night, but it has nothing to do with acting. I left acting for 15 years, and I think it’s really nice to have another life. I took too much for granted when I was younger. I didn’t
really want to be an actor. I didn’t really love it. And so I made a lot of mistakes. Oddly, I care much more about it now. I feel like a complete novice.
WINSLET: God, how lovely. What a fantastic feeling.
Do you like to watch your own work?
FONDA: I watch dailies.
LARSON: Playback? Is that what you mean?
FONDA: I learn so much by watching it.
LAWRENCE: I do, too. It’s hard to do, but I think it’s really important to go back and watch yourself.
MULLIGANL: I can’t watch anything. Nothing.
LAWRENCE: I can’t hear myself. I can stare at my double chin all I want, but hearing this androgynous voice, you can’t even tell what sex I am.
FONDA: I produced On Golden Pond, and I was curious that Katharine Hepburn never went to dailies because she was a complete control freak. And I said, “How come you’re not coming to dailies, Miss Hepburn?” And she said, “A point came with The Lion in Winter where all I could see were the wrinkles, and I realized that I had lost the ability to see what was right for the movie, and I’ve never gone to dailies since.”
Have you ever acted onstage?
LAWRENCE: I never have. I’m scared of it. I don’t know if it’s a different animal, I don’t know if it’s the same animal. I don’t know.
BLANCHETT: The audience gives you so much, the other actors give you so much, and what it [has] is the rehearsal process. You know that moment in week three? You f—ing lose it and everything falls apart and you go, “Oh, this is shit! It’s the week three moment.” On film, that might be take three — and then what you do is you rebuild it, but you’re rebuilding it together.
LAWRENCE: When I watch you onscreen, it’s your eyes and it’s your soul.
BLANCHETT: And doing that:
(rolls her eyes).
LAWRENCE: Yeah! (Laughter.) You have crazy eyes.
BLANCHETT: Thank you. That’s my bag of tricks. Both mediums feed each other. I know more now how to use a wide shot because of working in a frame on the stage. And I know much better how to be present and immediate and intimate with a thousand-seat house because of doing a close-up. They’re connected.
How else are film and theater different?
BLANCHETT: I wonder if we take for granted that there is a certain way to make a film. You start on day one, and you finish on day 30 or whatever. But I wonder if you did shoot a bit, rethink and go back, if there’d be more female directors. With preproduction, the shooting, the postproduction — that’s two years of your life. And a lot of women, particularly with families, think, “How am I going to manage this?”
LAWRENCE: I’m going to ask this because I don’t have children: What is the difference between men who direct [and] have families, too?
BLANCHETT: There’s still an expectation that someone’s going to be keeping the home fires burning.
WINSLET: My husband is a very present husband, and that has made going to work feel easier. I don’t feel guilty. I definitely feel less guilt because I know he’s there during breakfast, lunch and supper if I’m not.
LAWRENCE: I do want to be a mother. But I don’t need to think about it right now. I really only think about work. But it’s interesting that there’s so many different sides of this: Women get frustrated that we don’t get paid enough; and then the Republicans or the CEOs that are men say, “Well, it’s because women take off time for maternity leave.”
LARSON: It’s our fault, obviously.
MULLIGAN: We’re continuing the human race for you. You’re welcome! (Laughter.)
FONDA: More women have to be in charge of studios, so that they can greenlight films with women.
MIRREN: I don’t think that works though, does it?
LAWRENCE: I think women can be just as sexist. Women can be misogynistic, too — more so, they have more freedom to do it.
MIRREN: The economics have to change.
LAWRENCE: Why would people have confidence in a female director when there are so few? What is it, 3 percent or something?
MULLIGAN: Ava DuVernay was saying so interestingly about the year that she was offered Selma. She was in the Sundance Institute with another guy, and they spent the whole year doing all these festivals together, and the films were equally successful and equally well reviewed — and at the end of the year, she was like, “Oh, I’ve been given this money to make this film, Selma.” And her friend was like, “Yeah, me too. I’m making Jurassic [World].” (Laughter.)
Charlotte, you did 1974’s The Night Porter with a pioneering female director, Liliana Cavani. Did you expect more women to follow in her footsteps?
RAMPLING: For me, it’s a question of choice. Liliana Cavani, she wanted more than anything to work and to be directing pictures — and that’s what she did, and she carried on all her life doing that because that’s what she wanted. And she made it happen. So if a woman is determined, she will get what she wants because we are very determined creatures.
BLANCHETT: You want to exercise different muscles, and it’s that opportunity which is not always afforded.
Speaking of exercising different muscles, Cate once played Bob Dylan. Is there a male role the rest of you wish you could have played?
WINSLET: I’d love to play Hamlet.
MIRREN: I did do Prospero. Oh, there’s always male roles I want to play. I’m so annoyed when I watch movies and go, “That could have been played by a woman.” And it’s driven me crazy to watch wonderful, brilliant actresses — my contemporaries when I was younger — diminish and disappear and mediocre actors carry on, male actors. It’s so annoying. Just change the name is all you need to do.
BLANCHETT: I had that opportunity with a director, and I was saying: “This is a really interesting script, and it would stop being formulaic if you had a woman playing one of their team.” And they’re thinking, “Yeah, we have to rewrite it.” I was like, “You don’t have to change the dialogue.”
Is there any great actress you’ve learned from or wish you had worked with?
FONDA: The two people I would have said, I did work with: Vanessa Redgrave and Meryl Streep.
BLANCHETT: Gena Rowlands.
LARSON: I was just going to say that.
MIRREN: Anna Magnani, the goddess of film acting for me.
RAMPLING: Monica Vitti.
WINSLET: I’d love to work with Toni Collette, to be honest.
LARSON: I’d see that movie. Do that!
BLANCHETT: And Lucille Ball. We are doing something with Lucille Ball, one of my all-time favorites.
FONDA: Are you playing Lucille Ball?
BLANCHETT: That’s the plan. (Groans.) Unless they change their mind.
MULLIGAN: Marion Cotillard. But I also feel like I don’t want to be on the same screen as her because you would see through whatever I was doing.