Although there has been a lot of discussion about the number of women working in Hollywood, as well as the need for pay parity for them, one area that needs just as much examination but has yet to receive as much notice is the type of projects and roles available.
“We’re still having to operate in fantasy,” said “GLOW” star Betty Gilpin at Netflix’s “Rebels and Rulebreakers” FYSee brunch in Los Angeles, Calif. on Sunday.
Bringing together talent from female-led series such as “Dead To Me,” “GLOW,” “Orange is the New Black,” “Russian Doll” and “The Umbrella Academy,” the streamer hosted a conversation about the differences in roles and work environments available to women today. Gilpin pointed out that she still has to be in hair and make-up and wearing “dorsi muscle-defining” shoes if she is in a scene that takes place in a grocery store, which doesn’t necessarily lend itself to realism, even though her character is multi-faceted. “Dead To Me’s” Christina Applegate also shared that she would love to be able to wear jeans and a tee-shirt and just allow what is most interesting about a character to come through in the dialogue and emotional expressions.
The age female actors are allowed to play is still a point of contention for some, with Gilpin sharing that she goes on auditions to play the girlfriends of male actors who, just four years ago, she was auditioning to play their daughters. Gilpin said that her mother once told her being an actor meant being a “weird clown witch person,” and she believed she’d be able to tap into such range. But it was “a shock graduating from college and auditioning for ‘Gossip Girl’ and [hearing], ‘Don’t be weird, just the squinting and no choices.'”
“I believed the business when it told me you should Trojan horse the clown witch in a girly filter,” Gilpin said. “I did whatever it takes. I wanted health insurance; I wanted to work as an actor.”
However, when working on shows led by women, the women agreed they have seen progress.
“There was previously this very limited idea for a female character where endgame must be finding ‘him,’ said “Russian Doll” and “Orange is the New Black’s” Natasha Lyonne, “but once you eliminate that, there are so many other moves that that character can make. In a deeper sense there are so many bigger ways to write when it’s all of us together.”
Lyonne added that in classic films such as “Easy Rider” and “Raging Bull,” male characters were allowed to just linger in moments because “we know they’re thinking big thoughts; they’re men. Ali McGraw maybe pops up, but let’s keep our focus, guys.” But today, thanks to shows like her own and the others the women on stage were representing, women were moving into such spaces, too. “These are the new ‘Easy Riders,’ ‘Raging Bulls,’ and I’m very excited.”
After more than 40 years in the business (she got her SAG card in 1975), Applegate said “Dead To Me” was the first time working on a set dominated by women, from the showrunner and other executive producers to the directors (eight of the 10 episodes were director by women). The difference she observed was that it was a “beautiful, creative safe space” where “no one was trying to make you perfect.” The series called for her and co-star Linda Cardellini to go to some raw places, dealing with grief and deception, and the ability to be able to take some time on set to find those places was something they attributed to having women at the helm.
“I think women just trust other women more,” Cardellini said. “Women, we know that we come in all different forms of power [and] can support each other with a community feel.”
While part of the attraction to “Dead To Me” for Cardellini was the ability to share as much screen time with another woman as she had with men in her past work, “The Umbrella Academy’s” Mary J. Blige admitted she had to grow into being comfortable being around women all of the time. Once she worked on “Mudbound” with Dee Rees, she saw a new benefit to having women in leadership roles: She could clearly and concisely communicate what she wanted, wheres with male directors Blige had worked with in the past, she said they would “overtalk” until she no longer understood what she was supposed to be doing.
“Once you grow up, you’re confident with yourself, then the female gang changes. We’re all a gang; we’re all a crew; we can hang out and vibe together, and that’s when the business will change,” Blige said.
Such a movement towards supporting each other, rather than viewing each other as competition when auditions traditionally, literally, pit women against each other for the same, sometimes very small role, is not something that will be easy for everyone over night. But the most important thing is that it is inclusive for all: “This movement isn’t only for one person who has her shoulders back and purse organized,” Gilpin said. “It’s for the person who has trash in their purse, as well.”
Polanco said that true change in the industry will come when “we’re not singling out the women director,” though. “Who we are, gender-wise, [isn’t] what should be accentuated,” she said. “There’s a lot of pressure on us when we have a platform to be this individual. I think what works now is embracing your authentic self: We come broken, there are fragments we leave behind, and we have to be proud of it. I truly believe that our platform is to voice our journey and to reach out and inspire, to connect.”
Added Lyonne: “There’s surrealism to the fact that on the one hand you’re reading the news and it’s like, ‘Let’s squash women’s rights; let’s get rid of Roe V. Wade; I think that’s causing trouble,’ but on the other hand, women in film! Which is it? There’s sort of a battle right now being fought between how this is going to end up. Is this going to end up with a loss of rights? It creates this team spirit of, ‘We must side with each other; we must hold each other up.’ Now is the time to band together on every level, and yes professionally as well.”