Six top actresses — including Mary J. Blige, Jessica Chastain, Allison Janney and Saoirse Ronan — open up about risky roles and how the industry’s culture of abuse might finally be on the verge of change: “I feel hopeful because we’re not ignoring it anymore.”
Jennifer Lawrence had some advice for recent New York transplant Mary J. Blige on acclimating to life in Los Angeles. “Just make friends with your neighbors, like I did,” Lawrence, 27, said to Blige, 46, before the start of The Hollywood Reporter‘s annual Actress Roundtable, held Nov. 11 at Line 204 Studios in Hollywood. The mother! and Mudboundstars were meeting for the first time, but Lawrence is already good friends with fellow Oscar winner Emma Stone, 29. And three of the participants — Stone (Battle of the Sexes), Jessica Chastain (Molly’s Game), 40; and Allison Janney (I, Tonya), 57 — worked together on 2011’s The Help. And all seemed endlessly fascinated by the thick Irish accent of Saoirse Ronan (Lady Bird), 23, so much so that nearly everyone attempted their own Ronan impression before the hourlong conversation was over. Of course, it wasn’t all laughs, especially not this year with the horrors of sexual harassment in the headlines. The actresses came with strong opinions on the subject, which quickly segued into a frank debate on how sexism and harassment are intertwined with the issue of pay inequality in Hollywood. Depressing? Yes, but given the attention on this subject, Janney noted, “It’s exciting to think of our culture changing.”
Let’s rip the Band-Aid off. Headlines in Hollywood have been all about instances of alleged harassment. Some people believe the entertainment industry will never be the same.
JESSICA CHASTAIN I hope the entertainment industry will never be the same. If you look at Louis B. Mayer and Fatty Arbuckle and Jack Warner, if you read Shirley Temple’s book, you find out what happened to her when she was a child — there is a history of abuse against women in our industry, and it’s never been addressed. I’m devastated by all the stories that have come out because it’s heartbreaking, but at the same time I feel hopeful because we’re not ignoring it anymore.
JENNIFER LAWRENCE The big misconception, though, is that this is just in the entertainment industry. Once again, the entertainment industry is kind of the stage on which you can see the inner workings of problems that are all over the world. If a flight attendant comes forward about a pilot, it doesn’t end up in the news because nobody knows about it. That doesn’t mean that there’s less sexual abuse going on anywhere else in the world, in any other place of work. But fortunately, we’re starting the conversation now.
EMMA STONE There’s a really amazing article Brit Marling wrote that was essentially saying, if women were paid equally in every industry, this would not be occurring. Women have had to fit into these different boxes for so many years just to get work, and if these things are happening and they bring them to people’s attention, they are much more likely to be fired or to be dismissed than a man in a more powerful position. So it’s a huge conversation for our industry, but I would hope that this is only the tipping point for us to discuss equal pay for equal work for women across every industry.
(Following the publication of this Roundtable discussion, Stone added: “After seeing our Roundtable conversation in print I realized I need to elaborate my oversimplified response to part of the issue of harassment being pay inequality. While true to a big extent, I don’t think my response was as clear as I hoped it would be. Equal pay clearly wouldn’t fix ALL of the issues surrounding abuse of power, violating behaviors and much more. The Brit Marling article I referenced at the beginning of this quote is a deeply intelligent and not at all oversimplified look at this issue at large.”)
Have these stories caused you to look at your career in a different light or re-evaluate any interactions you’ve had?
ALLISON JANNEY I’m very fortunate that I have never experienced any kind of harassment, and the only reason I can think of is that I’m 5-foot-15 and my career didn’t start till I was like 38. I was always aware of the casting couch — that was just something I thought women had to navigate growing up in the business. But it’s exciting to think of a time where kids growing up won’t know what that is, that it will be a thing of the past, and there won’t be any more abuse of power. It’s exciting to think of our culture changing.
SAOIRSE RONAN I was very lucky that I was protected from a lot of that. I never was really exposed to what went on at parties, I was never left on my own with anyone; my mom and dad were always around. The really disappointing thing about all this is that [journalists and others in Hollywood] had all of this shit on all of these men and women for the last few years, but they hadn’t done anything with it. It’s just been swept under the carpet.
Can the culture of leveraging power and the culture of abuse change?
LAWRENCE I hope eventually. I think it’s going to be a while. It’s deeply ingrained, unfortunately. It’s kind of this social proof in some way of your masculinity.
CHASTAIN Whenever you have one demographic that’s in charge of the livelihood of another, you’re going to have abuses of power. [To Blige] I’m interested in your point of view on this in terms of being in music, now being in film, and what you’re seeing.
MARY J. BLIGE Well, in the [music] industry, I never had that problem. I was always kind of a tomboy and one of the guys. I feel sad for the women, but I’m happy that they’re free because they had to hold on to a secret for years. And I believe that things will change because this is making other women say, “Me too,” “Me too,” “Me too” — it keeps happening every day because people are tired of sitting around with that secret that holds them prisoner. Women have been going through this since they were children. As a child, I went through it all the way up until adulthood. When I got in the music business, I never had it because I went through so much of it in childhood.
CHASTAIN But you said you were a tomboy. Do you think you made that decision to shield yourself from it?
BLIGE I did. Because I’ve been through so much as a child and a teenager, I just wore baggier jeans and Timberlands and hats turned backward. It took me a very long time to even wear makeup and tight clothes because I had been through so much. And those secrets I still have to deal with. So hopefully these women are free, because it hurts.
STONE I’m someone who holds in a lot and gets really nervous to speak. We have to recognize that there are so many who haven’t told their stories yet, who aren’t comfortable to share. I feel so much compassion for those who are still getting up and going to work every day with their abuser or have had abuse in their past and who are not ready to say anything. And putting pressure on women to share it, you know, “If you’re not saying it now, then you’re complicit in this evil that’s occurring,” isn’t fair.
BLIGE A lot of people are not ready. When you’re young and you want to be an artist and you want to be an actress, there are people that threaten you to do certain things. And sometimes you [experience] sexual harassment, but you don’t know it is.
LAWRENCE Sometimes — I’ve had this happen: I finally made the decision to stand up for myself, and then I went to go to the bathroom at work and one of the producers stopped me and was like, “You know, we can hear you on the microphone, you’ve been really unruly.” Which was not true, but basically my job was threatened because the director said something fucked up to me and I said, “That’s sick, you can’t talk to me like that,” and then I was punished, and I got afraid that I wasn’t going to be hired again.
STONE Yeah, you were “difficult.”
LAWRENCE Yeah, I was called difficult and a nightmare. I think a lot of people aren’t coming forward because they’re afraid they’re not going to work again. You need to be able to say, “This is wrong” and have somebody do something about it instead of saying, “Oh, it’s wrong? Well, you’re fired.”