Two working mothers bonded about how they balance career and family, dealing with “mommy guilt” and the rules they set for themselves. There are no easy answers to any of those questions, even if you’re named Jennifer Lopez and Felicity Huffman. During their revealing conversation at Variety’s “Actors on Actors” studio, the stars of NBC’s “Shades of Blue” and ABC’s “American Crime” also talked about the challenges of playing complex characters who may not always do what’s right — and why they wouldn’t have it any other way.
Jennifer Lopez: I think that as an actor the thing you want most is to work with talented writers, directors and get great material. We’re nothing without that.
Felicity Huffman: It’s all on the page and the stage.
Lopez: It’s so challenging to do hour-long dramas. It’s probably the hardest job in our field. The hours, how demanding it is, the pages, and the lines you have to learn in one day …
Huffman: And you’re in every scene.
Lopez: “Oh my God, that speech is today? With these other 12 pages?” I found myself with Harlee [on NBC’s “Shades of Blue], who is on a tightrope walk the whole season, it was like, “How am I going to balance this, how am I to keep myself out of jail and not betray everything that is dear to me? How do I do that?” [Showrunner] Adi Hasak and I talked about this slippery slope of, “OK well maybe I’ll take this Coke from the fridge and it’s OK. And then maybe next time I’ll take the watch off the dead guy.” For me, the biggest challenge was figuring out, “OK, I’m lying to the audience here, I’m lying to the person here, but the audience doesn’t know that.” It was so confusing at the time. I am so glad I don’t live this dishonest life, I could never do this. Harlee had to navigate that shitstorm. For me that was the challenge, but also the thrill of it, too.
Huffman: For me, playing someone who is a complex character and who is both good and evil, you can basically say that’s good writing. I think the thing about playing a complex character who is both good and bad and multilayered is basically synonymous with good writing. Because it’s not that it’s two-dimensional. I feel that if you have something that is well-written, every character is trying to do good as they see it.
|“Playing a complex character who is both good and bad and multilayered is basically synonymous with good writing.”|
Lopez: But that’s the key, as they see it.
Huffman: I mean even if you were playing Hitler, what he’s trying to do is he’s trying to save the world. So with someone like last year on “American Crime,” someone who is somewhat of a bigot and a racist not from her point of view, or someone who is like this year on “American Crime,” someone who is wedded to the industrial good, she’s backing the institution, it had to be something I had to endorse. As a person I tried to get behind it in my motivation. This year, I was trying to save a school.
Lopez: I think that’s the thing. When I was working with Barry Levinson on the pilot, the one thing I think I was most proud of, is having him come to me and he goes, “What I love about your acting is that you’re constantly searching for the truth in every word.” And it’s true! I almost couldn’t say it. Even just one little saying, if I didn’t, like you said, get behind it, endorse it, believe it. In every single way, the smallest of lines. It’s about finding that truth in every single world as you would as we are talking right now. That, to me, is the exciting part, when it gets that natural, when it gets that real, when I understand it that much, when I believe it that wholly, that it comes off that way, you’re not play acting anymore, you are just kind of being.
Huffman: When you said, “I had to keep in mind I was lying to the audience, but lying to this guy, but telling the truth to this guy …”
Lopez: How do you play that?
Huffman: When I watched your show, your character was always coming from a deep, deep truth and always talking to people from a deep, deep truth and that’s part of the reason why as an audience member you could endorse her even if she did questionable things.
Lopez: You felt like at the end of the day she is trying to save her daughter, people could get onboard with that. Even when you’re doing things you’d never do in real life, you’re like, “How is this happening right now? I would never do this!” But you believe it, you get on board with it.
Huffman: My experience on working on broadcast TV, and the limitations and the boundaries because you know network has a reputation as being safe and if you really want to walk the gang-plank you go to cable or streaming. But I think there’s a difference between limitations and boundaries. I think certainly because of the FCC there are boundaries to network television. But I also think by the very nature and mandate of network TV, which is to serve the public good, at least “American Crime” has always been, [executive producers] John Ridley and Michael McDonald have always been encouraged to do the highest level of their work and to tell stories and to reflect the diverse nature of America we live in. And we never, never pull back on telling a harsh ugly truth. We never had suits on set, there was never the network coming in and saying, “Wait, she’s going to look like that? She’s going to wear those glasses? Shouldn’t she have makeup on? Are you sure you want to show a drug den? Are you sure you want to show that murder?” If you’ve seen “American Crime” particularly the first season, it’s hard to watch. Because it’s so stark and I think that’s where network television is going and I think those stories are underserved in cable and streaming.
Lopez: I agree, I feel like if anything our network was encouraging us to push the boundaries as much as we could and tell the truth as much as we could and be as shocking, because you really can’t compete with cable in that sense because they can go so far with the violence, with the sex. But you realize you don’t need all of that to tell a great story or to show intense situations. They are just as intense when left to the imagination. People can fill in those blanks so easily and I felt very encouraged by our network.
Huffman: Did they ever come in and go, “Oh, I don’t know about that?”
Lopez: No, I don’t know of anything that they did in this season, where we felt like we had to do something else because it was too edgy or too much. We went for what was real for that world. But there are things that I look at in TV, where I go, “Would I have felt comfortable as a woman doing that or as a mother doing that?” I don’t know sometimes. As an actress I want to believe that I’ll go where I have to go and do what I have to do. But because it’s so far now, that I look at some scenes on some of these shows that I actually love watching and I get angry! Wow they put her through that? Would I have been OK with that? Would I be fighting with the producers backstage going, “Did it have to be that long? Did I have to walk naked through the street for that long with you throwing poop at me?” I don’t know!
Huffman: I know exactly what scene you’re talking about!
Lopez: It infuriated me and maybe that’s what it’s meant to do! And good on them for that, but as an actress it made me feel like, “Ugh, did they take advantage of this moment?” Being on network, I know we won’t ever have to deal with things like that.
|“I still like to think I’m a renegade, but being a mom changes things a little.”|
Huffman: No, I think you’re right.
Lopez: But as an actress you want to do whatever it is, you want to be fearless and brave and she certainly was in that moment. But being on network we don’t have to deal with that type of thing, or worry about that moral dilemma within yourself. We do put ourselves through things like that as actresses.
Huffman: Oh, totally that idea — is it necessary for the scene for you to be naked.
Lopez: Totally. And you’re like, “Do I feel good about this?” Later I’m going to go to my trailer and cry, I think. And you do it and they think it’s all fine but it takes a toll on your soul. Later when you have kids you think about that stuff even more. I still like to think I’m a renegade, but being a mom changes things a little.
Huffman: If you have an answer for how do you balance kids and a career, give it to me! Because I did a whole website about this.
Lopez: I want to hear about you, too! Listen, I feel like it’s a lot. Those kids come first and once you know that and everybody in your life knows that, they’ll work with you, they’ll be on board with you to make sure everything is taken care of. That priority is tantamount to my success and everything I do.
Huffman: What do you mean?
Lopez: Meaning, without that being right nothing else works. I can’t be right. I worry too much. And I have so many things that I juggle besides the show, I produce it as well. So there’s always that guilt we talk about.
Huffman: That mommy guilt.
Lopez: I think it’s just about how I schedule things. It’s about people understanding that when I say no, it’s no and when I can’t, I can’t. And that’s it.
Huffman: Do you have a rule like always try to be home at dinner? I know you can’t do that when you’re doing a show.
Lopez: Yes, you can sometimes. You go, “Look, I haven’t been home the last couple of nights, you’re going to have to get me out a little bit earlier.” I haven’t seen my kids, it’s not OK. If you want me to be OK, and you have to be at a certain point in your career to do that, you can’t start off doing that. Trust me, we’ve paid our dues at this point, but I just feel like it’s having great people around you to help you take care of those kids. My kids visit me at the set and after school they come right there. I try to shoot the show in the summer so it’s only a couple of months I’m doing the show when they’re in school, so they can visit me constantly and it’s just like that’s part of their life. My son says, “Where are you today Mommy, are you doing a photoshoot or on set or at the recording studio?” He knows at the recording studio I like to play with this or I should bring my iPad because it’s boring when you’re on the set. We work it out and we have a life and this is their life. They travel a lot.
Huffman: What percentage would you say you feel guilty about your kids during the day? I’m not saying that because you should, but I’m just interested.
Lopez: A lot, I think, a lot. “Do they need me right now? What are they doing? Are they OK?” Or if I get lost in my work for a little while and I feel so guilty when I come out of that haze. It’s like seven hours and I haven’t even checked on them. What is wrong with me? What kind of mother are you!? You know what I mean?
Huffman: I read the best study, you’ll love this. They asked working moms, what percentage of you feel guilty working outside the home. And it was about 98%. And even part-time moms, it was still 98%. And then they asked working dads, both full-time and part-time dads. And guess what percentage of working dads feel guilty about their kids?
Lopez: What is zero?
Huffman: Goose egg! That’s exactly right, not at all. It’s just so different! Why are we walking around burdened by it all the time?
Lopez: Because they’re attached to us, it’s like this part of you is right there and I’ve got to take care of that! You know when it was over for them, they’re like, “OK, you got this? You got this.”
Huffman: I turn to my husband and say, “Why am I climbing lead on this all the time?”
Lopez: Because he has a series, too, that he’s probably gone six days a week doing the whole thing. It’s totally not the same.
Huffman: I would like it to be a little more even, but I don’t know if that’s possible. You know what, it’s not going to happen.
Lopez: There’s this question of diversity that’s come up so much, especially in film. TV is a little bit different, I find. Just wondering what your thoughts were on that.
Huffman: I think it’s a great question. I think there’s more diversity in television because there’s more diversity of how people watch it, where you don’t just have network anymore and anytime you have a screen people watch stuff, it’s not brand anymore. It’s very different how people watch so many more stories get told. I think many more people are creating television now. I mean, what are there, like 470 scripted shows out there right now? Which means you just pull from a greater diverse group of people to tell their stories. And I think it’s fabulous. I have to say John Ridley and Michael McDonald both have so much diversity on our set in terms of writers, directors, producers. We had a female DP/camera operator. I mean, it’s white, yellow, bi, straight. It’s a real amalgamation and that’s admirable.
Lopez: Because it’s in our living room, it’s OK to show exactly what’s happening in society. Where movies, it’s like an idealized 60-foot version of people, it’s a different thing. And TV has always been just on the forefront of pushing the envelope on this is what’s going on in the world, this is what people are really saying in their living rooms, this is what we’re thinking. And the more you can be real with that it’s what people tune in to watch because it’s literally a mirror of society and their own homes and I just feel like that’s why it’s easier to have that diversity on TV. People want to see exactly who they are.
Huffman: When you guys were casting your show and working on it, did you specifically say I want to cast many different types of people?
Lopez: We want it to reflect a New York precinct and Brooklyn and you can’t do that without black, white, Latino, Asian, Indian — everything that you can think of. You have to have an Italian-Irish-Jew, that’s New York. And when we were casting, there were certain roles like the young innocent rookie who arcs into something else who was a white character, Loman, and we decided to make the young innocent cop black, and Dayo [Okeniyi], who plays Loman, does a really good job doing it. It was the perfect choice. Same thing with Tufo [Hampton Fluker]. Tufo was supposed to be the Italian guy and he wound up being a black character. The actors who came in, their attitudes told us who they were going to be. We really cast for who we thought the essence of the people were instead of what the color they were outside. It was a great experience, I wound up reading with everybody who wound up getting cast in the session. And it was great, we were able to go like, “No! We just saw Tufo! That’s Tufo that’s not that person.” We realized this is how it should be. We should be looking at the inside, not the outside of people.