Taraji P. Henson, Viola Davis and Drama Actress A-List Tackle Race, Sexism, Aging in Hollywood

10 min

Hollywood Reporter cover
Hollywood Reporter

In The Hollywood Reporter’s roundtable, six Emmy contenders — including Lizzy Caplan, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Jessica Lange and Ruth Wilson — speak candidly about the current climate in a conversation about nudity and typecasting: “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,” says Davis.

The actresses also opened up about sexism, race and ageing within the most competitive film industry in the world.

Excerpts from the conversation + videos below…

Taraji and Viola, you both took on meaty roles in dramas in a year when “diversity” was the buzzword of the broadcast season. Fox’s Empire and ABC’s How to Get Away With Murder both showed that audiences were craving diverse talent onscreen. Taraji, your Empire character, Cookie, specifically …

HENSON I hate that bitch. She’s stolen my identity! (Laughter.) My friends don’t want to talk to me unless it’s about Cookie.

She quickly has become iconic. Did anything worry you about taking the role?

HENSON Cookie scared the hell out of me. Just before I got the role, I’d said, “F— it all, I’m going back to theater.” I felt lazy and like I needed to sharpen the tools. So I did theater at The Pasadena Playhouse. Then my manager said,“You have to read this script.” I’m like, “Hip-hop? Oh my God, what are they trying to do? Fox is going to pick this up? This isn’t HBO?” And then I got nervous and started pacing the floor. “Oh my God, Cookie is bigger than life. You will love her or hate her.” Empire has forced people to have conversa – tions that they were afraid to have. And that is what art is supposed to do. I just didn’t know it was going to shake things up this much! (Laughs.)

You’ve been known to improvise a lot of Cookie’s one-liners. Is she based on someone in your life?

HENSON A lot of people think those came from a woman I know, but actually Cookie is based on my dad. You either loved him or you hated him because he was always speaking truth. The one line I said in the show about someone’s hair smell – ing like “goat ass” was his. Once I didn’t wash my hair for two weeks because it kept the curl better when it was dirty. We were on a public bus, and he grabbed my head and asked, “Why does your head smell like goat ass?” in front of everybody. I learned the lesson. I washed my hair. Thanks, Dad. See, everything happens in life for a reason.

Viola, you’ve been vocal in the past about feeling marginalized as a nonwhite actor in film, saying many of the roles you’d been offered were “downtrodden, mammy-ish” women. What most appealed to you and scared you about playing the lead in a Shonda Rhimes drama?

DAVIS 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.GYLLENHAAL Isn’t it so much hotter to see a woman on TV who looks like an actual woman, someone whose arms aren’t perfect?

LANGE (To Davis) Except your arms are perfect!

GYLLENHAAL I was talking about mine! (Laughter.)

DAVIS 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.

Is there a specific point in your career when you felt you were the bravest?

GYLLENHAAL I had a rape scene in The Honorable Woman where it was clearly written that she’d be saying, “No, no, please, no,” right away. But I wanted her to be complicit and wanting it; the darkest, most painful sex, right up until the point it turned into rape. I wanted her to want something she knew she shouldn’t want. I can sometimes tell when actors fought an ordinary approach to a scene, and I’m so glad they did because it tells a better story.

Lizzy, you have to do a lot of nudity on Masters of Sex. How difficult are those scenes for you? Do you ever push back on doing them?

CAPLAN I was more afraid of doing nudity on [HBO’s] True Blood. It got easier after that, but I’m not ever 100 percent comfortable. There was a scene last season where I take my robe off, I’m naked and then transition into locked-eye [with Michael Sheen’s character], full-on masturbation from beginning to end. We have a female showrunner who considers herself a prude, so the sex scenes always move the story forward. But I remember being in my trailer before that scene and thinking for the first time since the show started: “I really don’t want to go out there and do this.” HENSON It’s very vulnerable

GYLLENHAAL I think sex in film is so interesting. It’s uncomfortable to take your clothes off in front of people you don’t know, but it can be an opportunity for really interesting acting. I’m 37, and I’ve had two babies, and I’m really interested in nudity now. More so than when you were younger?

GYLLENHAAL I was interested in it then, too. (Laughs.) But I was never the actress asked to be the hot girl who took her clothes off on her first day of work. I was never objectified that way. But in The Honorable Woman, my character Nessa is so controlled, I wanted the sex to be animal. Unfortunately, it was the BBC and so it couldn’t be totally animal. (Laughs.) Also, I wanted to show what a woman my age actually really looks like. I am much more turned on when I see people’s bodies that look like bodies I recognize.

DAVIS It’s courageous because even when you see sex scenes in the theater, it’s like, “OK, she’s been to the gym four times today.”

GYLLENHAAL “I’m only going to have a smoothie for breakfast.”

CAPLAN You think you have some control if you have that one smoothie.

DAVIS I refuse to drink a smoothie for breakfast to get down to a size 2. It’s just not going to happen with me. I’ve done a couple of sex scenes in How to Get Away With Murder, even one where was I thrown up against the wall, and I’m like, “I really don’t want to get thrown up against the wall anymore.” I threw my back out! (Laughter.) I had to just allow myself to be uncomfortable. I’m not going to stand in front of a mirror, or else Viola will kick in and go, “OK, my titties are saggy and I have stretch marks.

And now Broadway is almost wholly dependent on huge film and TV stars to launch shows.

HENSON It also seems like you’re all actually trained in the craft of acting. That’s how I was trained. It’s never been about the money for me. I mean, I went from being an Oscar nominee [for The Curious Case of Benjamin Button] to No. 10 on the call sheet. I’ve never once thought, “I’m now part of some elite group of actors; I’m never going to do theater again or do an indie again.” If I fall in love with the role, I don’t care if it’s outside in the parking lot. CAPLAN It’s an old way of thinking, too, that movies are the only thing. Actors who aren’t open to doing television are missing out. Roles in TV are better for women anyway. In film, we’re relegated to the nagging wife or the slutty girl in the leather pants with the pink leopard print. (Laughter.)

You’re all at enviable places in your careers, but was there ever a moment when you considered quitting acting?

VIOLA DAVIS I felt that way before I even started. I didn’t know how to get into the business. The only thing I had was a desire, and people thought I had talent. But then what? How do you get a job? How do you audi – tion? I didn’t come from people who could pay my bills. So I dove in. When your passion and drive are bigger than your fears, you just dive. I’ve been on my last unemployment check before with no way to pay my bills, but we stay in it because we all know it’s an occupational hazard.

TARAJI P. HENSON High school was the only time I ever can remember [thinking about] quitting. I auditioned for Duke Ellington School of the Arts in Washington, D.C., and didn’t get accepted. At that age, their word was law. It meant I couldn’t act! So I went to college to be an electrical engineer. I don’t know why I did that — I still count on my fingers, and I failed calculus with flying colors. But then I rerouted my life — enrolled at Howard University, took up theater and studied the craft. I felt like I was armored enough to come out to Hollywood. And I knew that I would get told “no” a million times.

MAGGIE GYLLENHAAL 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.”

HENSON Heard those before!

GYLLENHAAL When I was really young, I audi – tioned 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. (Laughter.) After that, I was like, “OK, f— this!”

JESSICA LANGE I’ve been in the process of retiring for the last 30 years.

CAPLAN What do you fantasize about doing if you did actually quit?

LANGE I’ve only done two things in my life — be a waitress and an actress. So I’d probably do something far afield. I’ve even thought, “What if I studied to be a falconer?”

HENSON I find it very therapeutic. I’ve healed myself through characters, and you come out the other side of it and it’s like, “I don’t feel that way about it anymore.” I’m healed, I’m healed! (Laughter.)