Why Do the Best Actresses Get All the Worst Questions?

Why Do the Best Actresses Get All the Worst Questions?

Nov 23, 2012

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THR CoverBy 2012, we’ve gotten pretty good at calling out obvious, antiquated sexism. Chastise a woman for critiquing a superhero movie, refuse to “publish reviews of films where women are alpha and men are beta,” and the more enlightened masses are going to mock you. It’s nice, but it’s not the whole story. These are merely the easy-to-pin, black-and-white situations – the anomalies that have us questioning the extremes and ignoring the insidious impact of the unintentional.

Much of it manifests in The Hollywood Reporter’s yearly awards season roundtables. This week, the hour-long conversation with THR’s top picks for Best Actress was published. The likes of Anne Hathaway, Helen Hunt, Naomi Watts, Sally Field, Marion Cotillard, Rachel Weisz and Amy Adams sat down with news editor Matt Belloni and executive editor Stephen Galloway to talk about their craft. They sit in a large, bright room flooded with soft light, relaxing on pristine white couches. Their discussion is teamed with their photo shoot – the seven actresses swathed in ball gowns in front of a pastel pink paint and flowers.

The heavy-handed gender-casting has been a trend this year, as the site’s Emmy roundtables featured mostly pale ball gowns and homey backdrops for the serious actresses, with summer dresses and vivacious colors for the comediennes lounging on rooftop gardens and eating pastel sweets. This starkly contrasts the dramatic actors sitting in a dark room, a few decks of cards away from playing poker and posing for pictures in casual tees, while the comedic actors sit at a studded leather table in a dark bar full of beer bottles, and pose for pictures on a bowling alley. It could be excused as a thematic approach to the year, if not for the ongoing insistence to approach both groups differently.

The actresses face the pressing questions:

What makes you afraid as an actress?

In real life, what makes you afraid?

Were you nervous about the nudity?

What makes you angry?

The hour-long talk will likely invoke a state of déjà vu. Last year, the actresses were asked what scares them and whether they have stage fright, whether nudity makes them uncomfortable, and how they deal with the paparazzi. THR likes that paparazzi angle, asking the mothers who’ve recently had run-ins involving their children. Amy Adams’ rant mirrors Christina Applegate’s earlier anger during the television roundtables. Their craft is framed through their gender – their skin and appearance, their emotions and fear, their instincts as a mother.

Unlike last year, however, Helen Hunt called them out on it. The actress laments the “softball questions” lobbed at women and states: “I want to know the process of every one of these actresses. Yes, I get freaked out about paparazzi and, yes, awards. But ultimately, where do you put your attention?” She turns the questions on the interviewers, asking if they ask male actors about things like age. “Absolutely,” they reply. “There is no question that we go through, when we do these, that is different for the men,” they explain, except for issues particularly pertaining to women, like ageism.

At times, that’s true. Both female and male dramatic actors received the same opening question for the television roundtables. In film, however, the actresses dealt with fear while the actors were asked about the most shocking thing they’ve encountered. Overall, while the actress roundtable focused on fear, nudity, paparazzi and too little about fighting for parts and the business itself, as the actors discussed their career trajectories, politics, women, fame, role models, violence and life-changing advice.

Helen Hunt in 'The Sessions'It’s not, however, just about planned questions. It’s about how a supposedly skilled interviewer approaches a topic and chooses when to deliver follow-up questions. It’s about how well you prepare and understand the field you’re asking questions about. It’s about what comments are considered newsworthy when the hour-long piece is split into news bits. (Television trumps film this year, as the dramatic men’s discussion was framed through their work, and the dramatic women’s discussion was framed through nudity and kissing Brad Pitt.) It’s about the environment created for the interview, and how you visually present each group of talents.

At the end of the interview, Hunt’s question remains. What is each actress’ process? What attracts them to their roles and how do they tackle them? Most are both comedic and dramatic actresses, so how does their approach change? Rachel Weisz talked about struggling to get one woman’s story adapted into a film, so what other roles/projects about women have actresses loved but failed to get off the ground? How do they navigate their politics and what roles are available to them?

The same questions linger with most female-centric interviews, where women like Anna Kendrick, Emma Stone and Scarlett Johansson must call out interviewers for reducing their work with questions of beauty, diets and style. It’s all part of a world where actresses’ careers depend on their willingness to pose half nude for men’s magazines and must often lather in the ultra-feminine without any bit of irony.

As Matt Damon noted in the actor’s roundtable: “I would try to steer my daughters away from acting. Women are in a different business than we are. It is just brutal for women. For us, the roles get really good at 40 and beyond. And that's really when you start doing your best work.”

What would be great is if this sentiment – this truth – could actually be absorbed and help film media evolve. It’s not like any of these habits are innate anyway. Less then a century ago, pink was the color for boys, because it was “a more decided and stronger color” while blue “is more delicate and dainty, and is prettier for the girl.” In 1927, most stores still preferred pink for boys. Before Donna Reed, there was Marlene Dietrich. The Hayes Code wasn’t reality. It still comes as a shock to learn that Marilyn Monroe was much smarter than her carefully curated demeanor, that Jayne Mansfield had an IQ of 163, that Hedy Lamarr is the grandmother of wireless communication.

Let’s not let it take 50 years to learn about the compelling aspects of women like Hathaway, Hunt, Watts, Field, Cotillard, Weisz and Adams.

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