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THR’s Actress Roundtable: 7 Stars on Nightmare Directors, Brutal Auditions and Fights With Paparazzi
Naomi Watts on years of rejection, Sally Field on fighting to play opposite a man 11 years younger and what it feels like to be told you don’t have a “shelf life.”
This story first appeared in the Nov. 30 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
Before shooting to stardom in 2001’s Mulholland Drive, Naomi Watts toiled for a decade as a barely employed actress. Helen Hunt initially was told she was “too on-a-sitcom” to play the female lead in 1997’s As Good as It Gets, the role that won her an Oscar. Perseverance emerged as a theme of The Hollywood Reporter’s Actress Roundtable, held Oct. 22 at Siren Studios in Hollywood. Awards contenders Watts, 44 (The Impossible); Hunt, 49 (The Sessions); Anne Hathaway, 30 (Les Miserables); Amy Adams, 38 (The Master, Trouble With the Curve); Rachel Weisz, 42 (The Deep Blue Sea); Marion Cotillard, 37 (Rust and Bone); and Sally Field, 66 (Lincoln) sat down for a frank discussion about their biggest fears, their worst auditions, the roles they fought for and the secrets to surviving in Hollywood.
The Hollywood Reporter: What makes you afraid as an actress?
Anne Hathaway: You start with an easy one!
Naomi Watts: I’m not happy unless I’ve got a little bit of fear going. I’m always trying to pull out. I’m always calling the director and saying, “I don’t know if I can do it.” With Mulholland Drive, I was completely terrified working with David Lynch. I was going on years and years of auditions and being told I was too this, too that, not enough of this, not enough of that, to the point where I was so afraid and diluting myself into absolutely nothing — and then he just looked me in the eye and saw something. He just spoke to me and unveiled all those locked masks.
THR: Do you still have those masks?
Watts: Yeah, I keep them in reserve. (Laughter.)
Amy Adams: I was 30 when I got Junebug, so I had the same thing. Whoever was getting the job, I tried to figure out what they did and do the same thing. I remember hearing about Naomi’s experience. That gave me a lot of faith in times where I was going to quit.
THR: How close did you get to quitting acting?
Adams: Pretty close. Not quitting in the sense that I wasn’t going to be an actress, but maybe move to New York, move back to a smaller market. I just wasn’t happy. If I wasn’t going to be happy, then it wasn’t worth it.
THR: Are you happy now?
Adams: Yeah. (Laughter.)
Rachel Weisz: Fear is like the steam that fires the combustion engine. You need fear to get a performance going.
THR: In real life, as opposed to acting, what makes you afraid?
Weisz: What is real life?
Sally Field: The freeway! It’s terrifying. (Laughter.)
THR: Denzel Washington said something interesting at the Actor Roundtable. He said, “You attract what you fear.” Do you agree?
Anne Hathaway: That would explain some relationships! (Laughter.) Actually, Rachel, I have a question for you. Is it true you have a tattoo on your hip of a ladder because of the theater piece that you did?
Weisz: Um, yeah. I started out very avant-garde [at Cambridge] — I’ve sold out very steadily since then! It was more like performance art. It was me and another girl, and we were at university together. We had this stepladder, and we used to basically hurl each other off this ladder, and often we would bleed. We were 18 years old, and we just thought that was really cool and radical. I’m joking about it, but it’s something I’m extremely proud of, and I had a ladder tattooed on my hip to commemorate this theater company — which isn’t, like, a ladder to my nether regions. It’s the avant-garde theater troupe.
THR: Anne, in Les Miserables you’re playing a part your mother played onstage. Did that make you afraid?
Hathaway: Yeah. My mom was in the first national tour, and she understudied the character [Fantine] whom I wound up playing. It made me nervous to tell her that I was auditioning for it, just because I knew how much it would mean to her, and I was worried that if I didn’t get it, she would be disappointed, and if I did get it, it would be weird. And she was so cool about it. We talked about the character. And when I got the part, no one was happier for me.
THR: Was there a piece of advice you took from her in preparing for the role?
Hathaway: She gave me an image. My mom and I were talking about the idea that Fantine has lit a match, and she’s just watching it burn down. And she needs to blow it out and let in the darkness. It was amazing to have that conversation not with an acting teacher, not with a director, but with your mother. I’m the only one here who’s not a mother. I hope to join the ranks soon.
THR: Helen, were you nervous about the nudity in The Sessions?
Helen Hunt: Sure. But you read something beautiful rarely.
Field: It’s also — Helen, I realized we’re, um, the only ones sort of a certain age, or my age is more certain than yours. It gets harder and harder, girls.
Hunt: My desire to be in something beautiful was bigger than my nerves. I met this woman whom I play [Cheryl Cohen Greene], and she’s in her 60s, cancer survivor, grandmother, still a working sex surrogate who is as enthusiastic about her granddaughter as she is about the orgasm that the man who maybe was never going to have one is going to have. I heard all of that and thought: “Prostitutes. Let’s not dress it up.” But then you meet her, and you really hear what she does. It’s really something, you know?
THR: Marion, is there a role you’ve played that changed your life?
Marion Cotillard: After La Vie en Rose, I started to feel the need to clean up some relationships, which was really weird. Suddenly, I needed to start fresh. Sometimes you go deep inside yourself, and I think it opens things inside of you. I don’t know if you can really identify what it is, but you just need to heal. Did I answer the question? (Laughter.)
THR: How has fame changed your life?
Adams: I am going to get in an altercation with the paparazzi. It’s going to happen. They keep focusing on my child. You guys are mothers. How do you handle it? Because I need to calm down. I have a really bad temper. I need to learn how to control myself.
Hathaway: I’m thinking about that because I really want to have a baby, and my husband and I are like, “Where are we gonna live?”
Cotillard: Come to France! We have laws!
Field: It’s just such a different world. I’ve been here for 50 years, in the business. They had fan magazines, and they would set up young stars on these dates with people you didn’t know, you didn’t like. Recently, I was going through stuff, and I got horrified. I was doing this at 17, 18, 19, 20.
THR: Can you say no to press? Mila Kunis said recently that a studio chief had told her she had to pose for a men’s magazine if she wanted to work for the studio.
Hathaway: At The Princess Diaries 2 premiere, they wanted me to arrive in a carriage, and I said no.
Field: I was doing a series called The Flying Nun [1967-70]. I didn’t want to do [the show] more than life itself; I was so massively depressed, I weighed 40,000 pounds. Then they asked me to appear at the Golden Globes. “We want you to fly across the Cocoanut Grove, and we want you to present an award.” I did not have the guts to say, “Are you out of your God darn mind?” So I said, “I won’t wear the nun outfit.” Now I find myself flying across the Cocoanut Grove into John Wayne’s arms at about 400 miles per hour, wearing pink taffeta. It made no sense whatsoever. I wasn’t even the flying nun. Now I was little porky Sally Field in a pink taffeta outfit flying across the Cocoanut Grove. (Laughter.)
Weisz: But you stood your ground.
THR: Have you ever really fought for a role?
Weisz: I fought for The Constant Gardener. I hounded the director. I called him a lot, and I wrote him a lot of letters. They were quite bold, basically telling him why I thought I was right to play the part. That’s very un-British. But I dropped my British-ness and at the end of the day [director Fernando Meirelles] said that tenacity was right for the character.
Hunt: I’ve had to fight for every part — certainly As Good as It Gets. I was too young, too blond, too on-a-sitcom, too utterly uninteresting for this part. I had spent many, many years where the director would want me but the studio wouldn’t. In this case, I had the reverse. I was suddenly on a big TV show [Mad About You] and I had been in a huge blockbuster [Twister]. The studio was saying, “Read her,” but he [director James L. Brooks] didn’t want to see me. My experience of acting is not this kind of lightning-in-a-bottle thing. It’s like elbow grease: work with someone, work with yourself, find the shoes. You said, “What scares you?” What I thought of is the feeling of being bad. There’s no feeling like acting when you know it’s bad.
Hathaway: I always think I’m terrible. So it’s always a relief when I find out that I wasn’t. I’ve had roles where I realized that I was in way over my head — and that is my biggest fear. My biggest fear is overreaching. I have been in situations where I felt swamped, and it’s turned out really well; and I’ve had other situations where I’ve had to walk off the film after five minutes because I realized I was in way over my head.
THR: You’ve done that?
Hathaway: Yeah. I’ve had a couple of films that I just can’t watch. The experience that I’m thinking of — and I will not say which one — I tried to get out of it because I just knew from a technical standpoint I wasn’t going to have enough time to prep and I just talked myself into it. It was just too good of an opportunity to pass up and I thought, “I can get there, I can do this.” And when you don’t feel that you got there, it’s always going to just gnaw at you.
Marion Cotillard received a nomination for the French version of the Razzies for her role in a film she’d fought for, only to learn too late the director was less than skilled.
“I spent two months in the middle of the desert wanting to kill him [the director] and wanting to beat myself because I fought for him and he was so bad,” she said. “I realized that if I don’t trust the director, if I don’t like him, I’m going to be bad.”
On her dream role: “I would like to play a monster, like Gollum or something totally that you have to create almost everything.”