This weekend at the PGA’s Produced By: New York — the very same conference where Anthony Bourdain criticized longtime Harvey Weinstein collaborator Quentin Tarantino for his “life of complicity and shame and compromise” — women’s-rights champion Jessica Chastain called her former self “complicit” in another Hollywood epidemic: systematically denying women equal pay, screen time, and ownership of their work.
Seated alongside fellow actress-producer Sarah Jessica Parker, their producing partners Alison Benson and Kelly Carmichael, and PGA president Lori McCreary, the two-time Oscar nominee explained that she founded Freckle Films in February 2016 “because I was realizing that being part of the industry meant that I was a part of the problem.” She added that “we don’t acknowledge the fact that we’re complicit in our inaction — and that goes across many areas.”
Even if she didn’t explicitly mention them, Chastain had Weinstein’s alleged victims on her mind. Following “The Power to Shake It Up,” she endorsed the list of 82 Weinstein accusers shared by actress-director Asia Argento — Bourdain’s girlfriend, who claims Weinstein raped her during the 1997 Cannes Film Festival — with a retweet and the hashtag “#ibeliveyou.”
Yet the purpose of the Deadline-sponsored panel was to offer tangible solutions to what has been dubbed the entertainment business’ “inclusion crisis.” Moderator Dr. Stacy L. Smith, founder and director of the Media, Diversity & Social Change Initiative at USC Annenberg, first clarified that while on one hand “it feels like women are ascendant in power” — citing the Women’s Marches in January, last month’s Emmy victories for “Big Little Lies” and “The Handmaid’s Tale,” and the multitude of newly public sexual-harassment and -assault allegations — they made up less than 30 percent of all roles in the 100 top-grossing films of 2016, a statistic that’s held since the late ’40s. Additionally, women represented just 40 percent of last year’s speaking characters and series regulars on television.
Pretty Matches Productions founder Parker responded first, sounding apologetic that six white women had been assembled to discuss this topic. “There are more solutions beyond this panel, and many of them are women of color who I think have important stories to tell and need to continue to be encouraged to contribute to these stories that I think that we all want to hear, I think that are necessary and vital and dynamic and incredible,” she said.
They proceeded to discuss their companies’ strategies for helping women achieve better representation. Those include hiring female interns and steering women toward departments they hadn’t previously considered and putting more women than men in crowd scenes and fighting for production credits commensurate with the actual tasks women performed.
Photo by Mark Von Holden/Invision for 42 West/AP Images
The challenge is not only increasing the number of women in production roles, but also creating opportunities for foreign women on American projects, and helping women have more mobility between film and television, plus comedies and dramas. Surprisingly, Parker, who produces and stars in “Divorce” for conference-backer HBO, said, “I’m always begging for a smaller budget, to be totally honest,” since larger budgets can feel like a “terrifying burden” where she’s forced to give up control. In its second season, premiering this January, “Divorce” will boast more female than male directors.
Meanwhile, Chastain practices “a rule for myself that I work with a female filmmaker every year,” even if that means squeezing in a short film when her schedule is particularly jam-packed. Her collaborations with female directors constitute 25 percent of her narrative-feature filmography and include “Texas Killing Fields” (Ami Canaan Mann), “Miss Julie” (Liv Ullmann), and “The Zookeeper’s Wife” (Niki Caro). Still, she’s observed that when she has joined a project “primarily because of the female filmmaker…there’s [then] been difficulty [with] whether or not they can close the deal,” as new, male directors are suddenly suggested.
Since agency-provided director and writer lists typically consist of “all men,” Chastain continued, “We need to go beyond what the agents submit and find the artists because they are out there.” Once she’s tasked with actually choosing roles, Chastain “always want[s] to move away from a stereotype of an old-fashioned idea of what a woman is. A lot of people were saying to me, ‘You’re always such strong women,’ and I find that the most obnoxious thing to say to a person, because basically it’s implicating that women aren’t normally strong,” a myth she blames the media for perpetuating.
She also rejects physical qualifiers typically tied to female characters: “If you read the script you have an idea of who the woman is, you don’t need to know that she’s 34 years and weighs 110 pounds, and is blonde.”
The other panelists shared some of their own experiences with industry sexism. Carmichael, Freckle Films’ president of production and development, said she’s been asked whether she can handle certain assignments because she’s a mother. McCreary — an executive producer on “Madame Secretary” who also co-founded Revelations Entertainment with Morgan Freeman in 1996 — has been mistaken for Freeman’s assistant as recently as a decade ago.
When it comes to her “Divorce” character, Frances, Parker says that during season one she was “stunned” by “how many people kept asking me was I concerned that she wasn’t likable” — many objected to her extramarital affair. “But Tony Soprano was a murderer, and we loved him!” Parker exclaimed. “I liked that she was unlikable, by the way, sometimes. I was really drawn to her prickly, withholding, exacting nature.”
On the subject of casting, Parker admitted a “strange thing”: “I love not getting jobs sometimes,” because “the process of wanting something, seeking, working toward, and not getting it…sort of adds up more.” She likened it to a very un-Carrie Bradshaw-like sentiment: “A girl gets her heart broken, I’m like, ‘Oh my God, that’s fantastic! Years from now, that’s going to be some experience that’s going to be really good.'”
Chastain ended the panel by reminding the audience that inclusivity means more than giving women jobs. “This is an industry that encourages actors to stay closeted, and I would suggest that we break free from that and start casting people not based on their sexual preference,” she said. “Allow someone who is openly homosexual, lesbian, whatever, to play someone who’s not. And I think the more we start to do that, the more inclusive we’ll be.”