At Sundance’s third annual Women Breaking Barriers panel, singer-turned-actress Andra Day (“The United States vs. Billie Holiday”), pop-star-turned-director Sia (“Music”), actress-turned-producer Zendaya (“Malcolm & Marie”), and two actress-directors who star in their own movies, Robin Wright (“Land”) and Halle Berry (“Bruised”), admitted that jumping those hurdles wasn’t always easy, even when making a transition from an already-established career.
R&B performer Day, certainly, was not ready to leap into acting so soon, with a starring role in a major motion picture, playing her idol Billie Holiday. “I was nervous, terrified, said ‘no’ multiple times,” she told the panel hosted by the Hollywood Foreign Press Association. “I didn’t want to dishonor her legacy. I wanted it to be great if I was going to do it. I didn’t want to retell ‘Lady Sings the Blues.’ Diana Ross gives an incredible performance.”
But she met with director Lee Daniels (“Precious”), who persuaded her to honor Holiday. “She was truly the early godmother of civil rights,” said Day. “She was public enemy number one, integrating audiences. She knew racial terror in America, it was a virtual genocide. The idea of vindicating her legacy became more enticing, with a lot of prayer.”
Zendaya, Zooming from her trailer on the set of Marvel’s “Spider-Man 3,” said she encouraged her “Euphoria” director Sam Levinson to write “Malcolm & Marie” during the pandemic for her, co-star John David Washington, and her sidelined “Euphoria” crew, who shared points on the Netflix sale. “It was nerve-racking. It was the first time investing in myself. I put in my own money, did my own hair and makeup; everybody was doing five different jobs. I was bringing my clothes and using them as set dressing, trying to remember continuity because we had no AD and or script supervisor. I knew I was taken care of because I was in my own hands, looking at dailies. I had myself to answer to. It was scary but also quite liberating.”
She also praised her supportive and open male collaborators and the people who are “constantly breaking down the doors and barriers,” she said. “If it hadn’t been for the women before me, I wouldn’t be in this position.”
“Land” was supposed to be Wright’s feature directing debut after directing 10 episodes of “House of Cards.” Because she had to cover four seasons in 29 days, by the time the movie was financed, she had no choice but to cast herself. “I’m going to be there anyway,” she said. “I’m alone onscreen for half of the movie!”
Sia was sympathetic, having cast herself for a cameo role as a pop star in “Music.” “I’m a fucking pop star, I can do this,” she said to herself. “I have no objectivity. I had to trust the producer. Just that day was the hardest day of the shoot for me.”
“You know when you suck,” said Wright, who told her producers to be brutally honest. “You need a good team.”
During filming on “Bruised,” director Berry relied on her dialect coach Denise Woods to catch her watching the other actors instead of acting herself. “I have to do my part,” she said. “I have to pull my weight.”
All the women thanked their friends for cheering them on and making them believe in themselves. Berry wasn’t planning to direct herself for her first film. She was driven to play the MMA fighter, but couldn’t find a director who saw the story the way she did. Finally, Elaine Goldsmith-Thomas told her she should do it herself. “I acquiesced,” said Berry. “If you believe in me I am going to believe in me. If I didn’t have this woman telling me, I’m not so sure I would have.”
Berry thanked the Black Lives Matter and #MeToo movements for pushing Hollywood to treat people differently. “We are holding more people to a higher standard and not feeling guilty about demanding parity and equality,” she said. “In the past I didn’t feel as confident about speaking up as we deserved. We fell into the system. We know we are not standing alone anymore, we have groups behind us. Individually we are finding our voices in a more powerful way. Also in the past two to three years I came into my own power, and was demanding the opportunity to have the same rights as my white male peers, not to start arguments, but to demand what we deserve.”
Even during the filming of “Bruised,” as Berry was putting in long hours of MMA training, she kept having to remind the men on set that women see things differently. “It was me having to change the thinking of the people around me,” she said. “It was hard. We have a different lens on the world. ‘Guess what? My reality of being a woman is different than you think it is.’ It was a hard struggle to get them to relinquish what they knew and come over to this point of view. I had to convince them.”
“It was fear and fear,” said Sia.
“It’s about being comfortable with that,” said Berry. “The more we push for the right to see things through a different lens, the more people will respond in a positive way and the numbers of people will start to validate that we want to see things through more than the male point of view.”
“Hopefully we get to a point in the future where we don’t have to fight,” said Day. “Why wouldn’t we tell these stories? There’s diversity in different experiences; the more color we have, the more beautiful we are. I have a desire to tell women’s stories, Black stories, marginalized people’s stories. The system of oppression cannot continue when truth is in this space; it’s integral to our survival as a society. I am hopeful [telling diverse stories] will become second nature.”
Since women have broken through the glass ceiling, Wright added, “Now we have a foundation. We feel safe, not shunned, marginalized. It’s just about time! We have to continue to amplify the vote and command that stage and demand parity. It’s uncomfortable for the men. It’s awkward. They have to shift their perspective.”
Which barriers will these women break next?
The women on the panel cheered on Day, who has downloaded Final Draft Pro and is adapting a book. And they encouraged 24-year-old Zendaya’s directing aspirations. “I’ll give you a year,” said Berry.