The Hollywood Reporter kicks off its annual Oscar roundtable series with a first: Two actresses from the same film -- The Help's Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer -- were among the six A-listers who sat down for a wide-ranging discussion that touched on topics ranging from bad reviews to nudity.
Joining the duo -- who play maids who participate in a tell-all book that shakes up life in 1960s Jackson, Miss. -- were four other awards contenders: Glenn Close, who's turning heads for her gender-bending title role in Albert Nobbs; Michelle Williams, who gave her spin on a screen legend in My Week With Marilyn; Carey Mulligan, who brought to life a lounge singer with suicidal tendencies in Shame; and Charlize Theron, who conquers an evil character again in Young Adult.
The six actresses gathered Oct. 24 at Smashbox Studios in West Hollywood -- along with THR news director Matthew Belloni and executive editor, features, Stephen Galloway -- to discuss their biggest regrets, the mean things people say to them ("You look much better in real life" is one, says Close) and watching their own performances. And in Theron's case, she even tells Close that she learned about "the birds and the bees" from watching Fatal Attraction as a child.
The Hollywood Reporter: Have you done roles that you were disappointed by afterward?
Octavia Spencer: I never watch my work, so I can't say that I'm disappointed.
THR: You haven't seen The Help?
Spencer: I sort of had to. [Davis and I] saw it together.
THR: Did you like it?
Spencer: I did like The Help. I was really scared that I would just hate everything. When you watch yourself, it really does take you out of the purity of that world that you create. I'm thinking? "Really? Does my stomach look like a smiley face? Really? You went with that take? Ugh, there was one that was better."
Michelle Williams: I haven't seen everything I've done.
Glenn Close: Fatal Attraction seems to be on all the time.
Charlize Theron: You know, that's how I learned about the birds and the bees.
Theron: I grew up in a farm community town [in South Africa], and we didn't have movie theaters. My mom loved movies, and every Friday she would drive us out to a drive-in 45 minutes away from our farm. But we didn't know what would play. When the cars started lining up, you would see what was playing and you would see the rating, and my mom would hide me under a blanket if the rating was R. So I was about 8 or 9, and it was Fatal Attraction, and my mom was sitting in the car, and I could feel the panic. And this conversation started, and it ended up being my sex conversation. It screwed me up, so I can't have a healthy relationship. (Laughs.)
Close: Oh, that's great.
THR: Carey, I read that Shame originally was set in London, but director Steve McQueen couldn't find people there to talk about sex addiction. True?
Carey Mulligan: Yeah, in England you can't find people that talk about sex. He and [co-writer] Abi Morgan tried to write it in London, but no one was willing to have the conversations.
Theron: That's because they don't have sex [in Britain]. (Laughter.)
THR: There's full-on nudity in the film. Did that make you uncomfortable?
Mulligan: The notion of it always has. I've never wanted to take my clothes off and be sexy. I'm horribly afraid. [But] it wasn't that at all. Actually, Steve and I spent a lot of time looking at an artist called Francesca Woodman, who was a photographer who started taking nude photos of herself when she was 15 and committed suicide when she was 22, back in the early '80s. She just had sort of a freedom with her body; it was sort of an instrument for her art. And Sissy, the character I had to play, she wants to be loved and she wants to be seen. The nudity felt like exactly who she was. There was one camera and Michael [Fassbender], who's naked throughout.
Theron: The idea of somebody saying, "Take your clothes off" was a little frightening, and then I did it and I was like, "Oh, OK."
THR: Given your success, does a bad review still hurt?
Close: A bad review can be very hurtful. People don't think that we are as engaged and invested in what we do as we are. So they think they can come up and say anything sometimes, and it's very, very hurtful. She should just boil their bunnies tbh.
THR: People really come up to you and say nasty things?
Close: They usually don't say nasty things to my face. Well, they do say, "You look much better in life than you do on film."
Viola Davis: I get that all the time.
Close: It's unbelievable. You think to yourself, "Is that a compliment?"
Davis: I'll take it. I'll take whatever I can get. (Laughs.)
THR: Viola and Octavia, are opportunities better or worse for black actresses now than when you started?
Davis: I would be foolish if I said it wasn't better. It's obviously better. I worked with Gloria Foster, a great black actress from Nothing But a Man; she was in The Matrix also. She said that when she started in the business, there was nothing. Maybe only one or two black actors had an agent. So it's definitely different. I just always feel like it starts and stops. One year you have Precious with Gabourey Sidibe and Mo'Nique, and then you have two years of nothing.
THR: And then you have The Help …
Davis: And then The Help. You know, even listening to the conversations about sympathy and empathy, I remember when I played the character in Doubt, it was a character that not a lot of black people embraced because they didn't like her. I think women face that more than men. Black women really face it. We are always overly sanctified [in movies], overly nurturing and overly sympathetic. And to find that place where you're messy, it's very difficult.
THR: One critic said you brought dignity to that character with restraint. Do you agree?
Davis: (Smiles painfully.) I love and hate the word "dignity." I feel it's overused for black actresses, as with "sassy" and "soulful." I can go on. The same adjectives are pulled out of a magic box. That's who she is in the book. My job was to create her. So yes, she is a quiet character. People always migrate toward the flashy character. They say what they mean, they're out there, you can see it in their behavior. The character that doesn't speak a lot is usually in the background. One of my favorite roles I ever played was a serial killer, which didn't get a good response, either. It was for television, Law & Order. I appreciated killing a whole family with a baseball bat. You know, sometimes one person's junk is another person's treasure.
THR: Do you like the book The Help? Do you think the portrayal is accurate?
Davis: I thought it was a very good book. And I think one of the things I loved about the book is that Kathryn Stockett, who is a white woman, her main objective was to find out who her maid Demetrie was. That's a great place to start. Now, because I grew up in abject poverty, there were certain things about the book that struck me as disingenuous, like the fact that everybody had a phone. That's the first thing that goes when you don't have money. Minnie had a phone, and Minnie could barely afford to feed her family. The phone would be gone.
Spencer: We have to remember that it's a work of fiction. It's accurate; it's sentimental; it's a work of fiction. It takes you on an emotional journey, and good art does that.
THR: Charlize, do you ever worry that the audience might not like you when you play a nasty character?
Theron: Wait, what are you trying to say? (Laughter.)
THR: In Young Adult you play a role that's …
Theron: She's a bitch. I don't like sympathy, I like empathy. Sympathy to me is not natural behavior. I don't think it's reasonable to expect people to have sympathy for other people. I never expected people to have sympathy for Aileen Wuornos [in Monster] or for Mavis [in Young Adult]. And I don't aim for that. I just aim for understanding: If you can understand her, you might hate her, but if you can understand her, then I've done my job. That's all I care about.
THR: So you equate sympathy with liking?
Theron: I think sympathy is more like, "I feel sorry for you." I don't want my character to be a victim. We have innately bad human behaviors that sometimes we can explain and justify. It's easy to say someone's an a--hole because they had this, this and this happen to them, so we have to forgive them. But what if someone was just an a--hole? That's interesting to me.
THR: Do you have to have those nasty qualities somewhere deep inside you in order to play it?
Theron: Yes, I am an a--hole. (Laughter.)
THR: Glenn, what do you think?
Theron: Wait, you're going to leave me there on "I am an a--hole"? (Laughter.)
Close: I really agree with the sympathy/empathy thing. You have to find a place where you can love your character to do them justice, because if you're judging them, that separation will show. To totally find that connection between you and the character -- that is what will connect you to the audience.
THR: Could you play Hitler?
Theron: You see, that's exactly the problem.
Close: You could, but you would want to know where he came from to be absolutely committed to that character. I don't think Hitler was someone you wanted to empathize with.
Theron: People are so concerned that if you look at a monster, you might find a human being. There was this great story that I came across when I did research for Monster about the guy who originally came up with profiling serial killers. His name is John Douglas, and he had a chapter in his book about writing. He believes that fables and werewolves and Dracula and all these scary characters were created because people don't want to believe human beings are capable of bad things. But we are definitely are capable of some shit that will scare you, given the right circumstances. The quintessential character is Hitler. You have to be brave enough to say he's a human being. And on that level, we're all like him. It doesn't mean that you're saying what he did was right, but you've got to admit that he's from the same breed as all of us. It has to make you aware that, given the right circumstances, there are things you might do that you don't want to believe you're capable of doing. And I think that is the work -- that is what's interesting for me in my work: to try and find those things that you can't just kind of go, "Easy, easy, easy." It's the stuff that scares you a little bit that makes you go: "What if I find something about that guy that I can actually have empathy with? F--."
THR: Very last question: What's your biggest regret?
Theron: I don't have one. Are you kidding me? I don't work in construction, I have a job that I love.
Davis: They're princess problems, like, "Gosh, I took that for the money." I was able to pay my mortgage -- but God, I took it for the money!