One of the great things about this awards season is he re-emergence of Emma Thompson. We have got to say that she has been missed. We need to see her more because she is a rare, unfiltered, delight. Have you seen her singing at the Mary Poppins sing-a-long? You must.
The delightfully outspoken actress, who stars as Mary Poppins author P.L. Travers in Disney’s upcoming Saving Mr. Banks, was the highlight of The Hollywood Reporter’s annual Actress Roundtable, criticizing sexism in the film industry at all stages of production.
Other standout moments from the Roundtable, half of which was comprised by black actresses, include Thompson and Winfrey’s confessions that they were discouraged from pursuing acting by their families, Octavia Spencer’s statement about finding it difficult to find roles as a “short, cute, chubby woman,” and 12 Years a Slave ingenue Lupita N’yongo’s admission that she began to pursue her dream after watching Whoopi Golberg and Oprah Winfrey on screen during her Kenyan childhood. Julia Roberts and Amy Adams also participated in the discussion.
Emma Thompson is the only person in the history of the Academy Awards to be nominated for acting in and writing the same film. (She won the Best Adapted Screenplay award.) Still, shooting Sense and Sensibility with director Ang Lee was apparently quite a challenge. Thompson recalls one of her scariest profesional moments as being the moment Lee told her after a scene, “Don’t look so old.”
Her career after Sense and Sensibility, however, was hardly easier. Speaking of roles she’s refused to take, Thompson says, “Apart from the muff shot and things like that — but let’s not go there (laughter) — there was a patch of time when I was in my 30s and just started [being offered] a whole string of roles that basically involved saying to a man, ‘Please don’t go and do that brave thing. Don’t! No, no, no, no, no!’ That’s a trope, the stock woman who says, ‘Don’t do the brave thing.’ I said no to all of them. I’m so proud.”
She showed exasperation at the slow pace of improving roles for actresses. Asked, “Are people writing better parts for women now?” she responded, “What the ding-dong heck is going on if this is still something we’re talking about?”
Thompson also demonstrated a lighter side when discussing working with Meryl Streep. “I’ve snogged her. (Laughter.) And what I learned was, you have to use tongues even if you’re not a lesbian.”
Thompson and Winfrey shared an unexpected similarity in their histories: disapproval of their intended careers.
THOMPSON: My father married my mother [actress Phyllida Law], and my grandmother locked herself in the toilet for a couple of days because “actress” was still synonymous with “whore.” Or, as you say here, “ho.” (Laughter.)
WINFREY: I remember when I said I wanted to be an actress as a teenager. My father said, “No daughter of mine is going to go out there ho-ing herself.” And I made a decision then: “Well, all right, I will still major in speech and drama, but perhaps I’ll have to teach it or defy my father.” But there was always that in the back of my mind: You got to ho in order to act.
THR Interviewer: So you would have become an actress if it weren’t for your father?
WINFREY: I probably would have been more strident about it, but in our household it was very clear, “I don’t want that to happen.” So I was looking for an alternative. But still, as anybody knows who feels that inside, I felt the yearning to act.
None of the black actresses mentioned the greater difficulty of finding roles due to her race (this is after all a polite awards roundtable), but Spencer acknowledged it obliquely: “I’m a short, cute, chubby woman. There are fewer and fewer roles that I haven’t done already, or archetypes that I haven’t played. And to break out of that box, the most interesting stuff is television.” Spencer will star in the remake of Murder, She Wrote.
Nyong’o emphasized the importance of seeing someone like themselves on screen to viewers and artists alike. “When I was a little girl, the first time I thought I could be an actor was when I watched The Color Purple,” she says. “I grew up in Kenya, and a lot of our programming was from all over the world, and we didn’t see ourselves onscreen. It was very rare that you’d see people that look like me. And there was Whoopi Goldberg and Oprah and everything. It’s so meaningful to be sitting here beside you.”
Oprah answered, “It is equally meaningful for me.”