The Hollywood Reporter hosted a roundtable discussion with some Emmy-contending actresses (Jessica Lange, Lizzy Caplan, Viola Davis, Ruth Wilson, Taraji P. Henson, and Maggie Gyllenhaal and— surprise to no one— it only took about three minutes before the conversation turned to all the ways these women had been told over the course of their lives that their bodies were wrong and worthless. (Which happens to be a forte of THR itself.) Maggie Gyllenhall told a story that a lot of the other women in the room (and the world, no?) related to:
When I was starting out, I used to hear “no” a lot and still do. And, “You’re not sexy enough. You’re not pretty enough… When I was really young, I auditioned for this really bad movie with vampires. I wore a dress to the audition that I thought was really hot. Then I was told I wasn’t hot enough. My manager at the time said, “Would you go back and sex it up a little bit?” So I put on leather pants, a pink leopard skinny camisole and did the audition again and still didn’t get the part. After that, I was like, “OK, f— this!”
Is everyone else getting major end-of-Grease flashes? Okay, good. Because yes, a woman isn’t a woman unless she’s giving off constant boners. And Gyllenhaal wasn’t the only one to talk about typecasting. Viola Davis spoke about how uncomfortable she was first thinking about herself as a sexualized character in How to Get Away With Murder, but that she ultimately learned to embrace it. Because just as Gyllenhaal was being forced to be overly sexy early in her career, Davis was the opposite. She wasn’t allowed to be seen that way.
There was absolutely no precedent for it. I had never seen a 49-year-old, dark-skinned woman who is not a size 2 be a sexualized role in TV or film. I’m a sexual woman, but nothing in my career has ever identified me as a sexualized woman. I was the prototype of the “mommified” role. Then all of a sudden, this part came, and fear would be an understatement. When I saw myself for the first time in the pilot episode, I was mortified. I saw the fake eyelashes and, “Are you kidding me? Who is going to believe this?” And then I thought: “OK, this is your moment to not typecast yourself, to play a woman who is sexualized and do your investigative work to find out who this woman is and put a real woman on TV who’s smack-dab in the midst of this pop fiction.
The thing I had to get used to with TV was the likability factor. People have to like you, people have to think you’re pretty. I was going to have to face a fact that people were going to look at me and say: “I have no idea why they cast her in a role like this. She just doesn’t fit. It should have been someone like Halle Berry. It’s her voice, and she doesn’t walk like a supermodel in those heels.” And people do say that, they do. But what I say to that is the women in my life who are sexualized are anywhere from a size zero to a size 24. They don’t walk like supermodels in heels. They take their wig and makeup off at night. So this role was my way of saying, “Welcome to womanhood!” It’s also healed me and shown a lot of little dark-skinned girls with curly hair a physical manifestation of themselves.
I want to play a superhero. I want to be a Bond girl. I want to play a man. I want to play a white woman.
And Viola Davis just wants the work she gets to reflect her talent, not anything else.
I’d like to go back to Broadway and revisit [Henrik Ibsen’s] Hedda Gabler at some point. But I mostly want what [actress] Lynn Redgrave said to me once. I did a reading of Agnes of God with her right before she died. She told me she’d left L.A. many years ago, and I asked her why. She said one thing she felt after many years in the business was that her past hadn’t counted for anything. I want to feel like my past has counted for something. I’ve been doing this for 27 years. I’ve performed in basements, churches, off-Broadway. I want the work to reflect my level of gifts and talent. I don’t want it to reflect my color, my sex or my age. That’s what I want most.
Jessica Lange, for her part, seems to be doing just fine. She opened the discussion asking if they were going to serve whiskey and closed it by saying she was thinking about retiring to become a falconer. So don’t you worry about Jessica Lange.