2023 – The Envelope
December 19, 2023
As a teenager, Eve Hewson dreamed of being an actor. But like so many parents of starry-eyed adolescents, her father was vehemently opposed to the idea. Unfortunately for Hewson, he also had more experience with the entertainment industry than your average mom and pop: He’s Bono.
Over the course of his career as U2’s frontman, he’d heard from women in the business about the difficulties they’d endured — and he was concerned that his daughter might face similar struggles.
“We ended up having this weird conversation/fight where I was like, ‘Your dad didn’t want you to sing, and you didn’t listen! And you don’t want me to act, so I’m not going to listen to you!’” Hewson, 32, recalled.
So at 18, she left Ireland to study acting at NYU. Since then, she’s appeared in a handful of major projects — “The Knick,” “Bad Sisters” and, most recently, “Flora and Son,” a Dublin-set film about a single mom who finds her voice while taking online guitar lessons from a charming L.A. musician.
Bono is particularly taken with her latest project, Hewson said, noting he’s seen it at least six times. “He listens to the soundtrack and calls me all the time, talking about how great the songs are and how I need to, like, get Rihanna on a song.”
Hewson was in L.A. chatting at The Envelope’s Actress Roundtable, where six performers discussed their roles in some of the year’s biggest films. Alongside the Irish native was Fantasia Barrino, who plays a woman in the Jim Crow South struggling to escape decades of abuse in the musical adaptation of “The Color Purple”; Emily Blunt, who portrays the fierce wife of “the father of the atomic bomb” in “Oppenheimer”; America Ferrera, who appears as a working mother in “Barbie”; Sandra Hüller, 45, the German actress in two talked-about films this fall — “Anatomy of a Fall,” about a woman suspected of murdering her husband, and “The Zone of Interest,” as the uncaring wife of the Auschwitz death camp commandant; and Julianne Moore, who co-stars in “May December,” about a woman who began a relationship with a 13-year-old boy when she was 36 — and later married him
The women shared their fears about artificial intelligence impacting the industry, what they love — and hate — about their jobs and which director has a “no Uggs on set” policy.
Their Nov. 18 conversation here has been edited for length and clarity.
We are coming off a huge summer at the box office, and a big part of that is because of movies that two of you were in: “Barbie” and “Oppenheimer.”
Emily Blunt: Go on, say it. You wanna say it.
America Ferrera: Say it together.
Blunt and Ferrera: Barbenheimer!
Blunt: It was so cool. I feel sometimes it can be so gladiatorial when movies are pitted against each other. And this was a celebration. Like, “Go see both, and if you don’t see both, then you’re gonna be outta this conversation going on.” People took Thursday off work to go see both.
Ferrera: It was so exciting. I think one of the things about this summer, and Barbenheimer in particular, was this joy at a cultural experience that everybody could be a part of and then talk about. I live in Manhattan, so on the day that the movies came out, I could see on the subway and in the streets, people dressed in pink, people dressed in suits, people dressed in half pink and half suits. It was like Halloween, but for the movies.
Eve Hewson: I saw “Barbie” three times the first week it came out.
America, everyone loves the monologue your character has about women and their role in society. Did you really do 30 takes of that scene?
Ferrera: It felt like that. We shot it over two days. It was a really invigorating experience. … We didn’t shoot the monologue until the end, so I had a lot of pent-up energy to give. And it was actually really nice to have a long time to live in it, to let it evolve and try everything. [Director Greta Gerwig] said, “I just want you to go for it.” I’m like, “Does it need to be funny?” And she just let me play and be truthful and honest in the moment. What’s so moving is how many people felt such catharsis through it and felt like they could be seen or understood better by their own children or their own partners.
Fantasia, you played Celie in “The Color Purple” on Broadway in 2005. But when you were asked to be in this film adaptation, you didn’t want to do it. Why?
Fantasia Barrino: Yeah, I said “no” several times, even to Queen Oprah — and I love her.
To her face?
Barrino: On the phone, and I said it nicely. I was just like, “Oh, Oprah, that was very taxing for me, because my life is so much like Celie’s.” At the time I played it, my life was in shambles. I was carrying my stuff and Celie’s stuff, and that was heavy. And to play it every night, sometimes twice a night, so I remembered that time. But I knew I was in a different place. I’m married now, and I’ve had a lot of therapy … I’ve healed and taken time for myself to learn how to love me as a Black, full-figured young lady who didn’t quite see a lot of women like myself in the industry.
It was tough for me to play that part. To be called “ugly” every day. To be physically abused. But I prayed about it. I have a 22-year-old daughter and a 2-year-old daughter. And there’s so many young women like myself who are going through those same things now — who feel that they’re not beautiful, who feel that they’re not smart enough, who feel like because they went through something, it’s over.
And Sandra, you were also hesitant to play the role in “The Zone of Interest,” right? You’d said you never wanted to play anyone who was a Nazi or associated with the Holocaust. How did you decide to take it on?
Sandra Hüller: It had a lot to do with working with [director] Jonathan Glazer. We had a lot of conversations about how we would approach this. And it was very clear from the beginning that it wouldn’t be the common approach that we have sometimes in Germany, to just put people in uniforms and put down the swastika flags and then we have fascism. He wanted to show it from another side, and he wanted people to feel this phenomenon and the pain that came with it. I felt it really appropriate not to show some sort of heroic gesture or even make a dramatic story out of it.
You made that movie in a different political climate, and now we’re in the midst of the Israel-Hamas conflict. Antisemitism and Islamophobia are on the rise.
Hüller: It touches something very universal and deeply human. It deals with the fact that humans do these things to humans, and if we are not careful, we will do it all over again. It kind of points out the responsibility that we all have to treat each other in a good way, to be respectful with each other and to not let conflicts about religion rule our lives.
Eve, you had a very different fear approaching your movie; you said you’d rather go swimming with sharks than sing, which you do in this film.
Hewson: I would rather run through the streets naked. Honest to God. It’s not my comfort zone. I never planned on sharing my beautiful voice with the world. [Laughs] But I read the script, and I was just like, “Oh, my God, this is so good, so bold, so everything I know being an Irish girl.” I just had to get over it. It would’ve killed me if I let it go just because of this little anxiety that I have.
Barrino: I wanted to ask you all, because this is all new for me. Stepping into this was different from Broadway. This time, I was able to leave Celie on set. But I still felt like when I got home, it was a bit heavy. Taxing. Did you ever feel like that because of the role you’re playing?
Hüller: Sometimes. When I was younger, it was more. Now, I think I can leave it behind a bit better. But in this situation [with “The Zone of Interest”], we were close to Auschwitz … having all these observations and feelings and dealing with the past of your country. But I embraced all these things, because they are important. And I didn’t want to run away from it.
But nowadays, I put on a costume. That’s something you learn in theater — you put on a costume and you say words that are not your own, and everybody knows, really, you can take it off. Some people have rituals, like they’ll wash their feet after they go on stage.
Barrino: When I did Broadway, I did not know how to let go, and nobody taught me how to let go.
Julianne Moore: Yeah, I think that’s unfair. Part of training, like Sandra was talking about, is learning how to go into something, learning how to construct something and then hopefully having the tools to get out of it. … I think there’s a lot of mythology for actors, unfortunately, about the staying in it, staying in it, staying in it. It’s really destructive. It’s not fair to take someone who hasn’t had that kind of instruction and say, “Just do it,” because of course you’re going to feel so responsible for holding onto all of that stuff.
Ferrera: I think it should be said that for so many of us whose stories have not been told, there’s so much to catch up on. And it feels like the first foundation and layer of the stories that get told are about our trauma. And those of us who probably don’t come from backgrounds of training and access to that level of support — we’re asked to come in and bring up our trauma but not necessarily surrounded and supported to survive as a human being. I feel like a lot of my career has been about digging into painful stuff. And honestly, on “Barbie,” I was so grateful to be invited to have fun. It’s rare that someone writes a Latina character into a story that’s about joy.
Regarding getting into character — Emily, Christopher Nolan is really into authenticity. He had you film in the actual home of the Oppenheimers. How did that impact you?
Blunt: It was eerie being there. Everything on his sets is so real, and so of the world and in the moment. He built a set in the middle of the New Mexican desert, and you felt like you were in, like, “Lawrence of Arabia.” So that will transport you. You get kinda kidnapped by the world that he creates, and even though he’s not an actor, he knows what you need. As much as we all love sitting around and checking our phones and drinking our coffee, I realize when that’s taken from you, it’s not torturous. It’s amazing, because everyone focuses, and everyone talks about the work.
Hewson: You can’t drink coffee on the set?
Blunt: I mean, you can. Listen, I do. I just, like, sip.
Hewson: I’m never being in a Chris Nolan film.
Blunt: No, you can! But even things like — it became this running joke of me wearing my Ugg boots to set before I put on these horrible heels. I hate wearing heels. And he was like, “Can you please take your Ugg boots off?” And so I got him Ugg slippers as a prat gift. Well, it changed his life. He loves them.
What’s the logic there? Uggs are too 2023?
Blunt: Yeah, he just finds it all — “Take your Ugg boots off, get your big puffy coat off!” He just wants everyone to be in the moment.
Julianne, “May December” is your fifth collaboration with director Todd Haynes. You two must have developed a real shorthand.
Moore: It’s just been the great joy of my life to have this partnership. There was one time, though, on the very first day of this movie, where we were really, really tense. We were losing the light, and we had this long tracking shot and we just were getting to know [co-star] Natalie [Portman]. Todd was like, “You’re gonna walk this way.” And I’m like, “Yeah, yeah, yeah, but I’m gonna try this.” He goes, “No, you go this way.” I said, “No, I’m just gonna do this.” And he goes, “No, do this.” I said, “I’m working it out!!!” And I thought, “Oh, my God, it was like talking to my brother.”
You’ve been very clear that the woman you play in “May December” is not based on Mary Kay Letourneau but that there are pieces of inspiration from her story. Did you go back and research her story?
Moore: I looked at some documentary footage, and I read some stuff about the case. It was interesting preparation, because at the same time, I had to create this character. … I found she is hyper-female. It’s like she swallowed her gender whole. And she’s also childlike. So I started messing around with this idea of a vocal thing. And then I called Todd, and I was like, “I’m thinking about a lisp. What do you think?” And Todd was like, “Uh, Julie? Oh, I’m not sure.”
Blunt: I think it’s amazing.
Hewson: It’s honestly the most iconic thing. I was like, that is the boldest choice I’ve ever seen.
Ferrera: What was the inspiration for the lisp?
Moore: I was watching a lot of people talking about transgressions. And there was something in courtroom footage about the way people spoke. Like I said, I thought about her hyper-femininity and her belief in herself as naive. I thought in order to have a love story with a 13-year-old boy, you have to make that 13-year-old a man. And that means you are a child, right? I wanted something that was an indication of that state. Almost not even being able to be articulate.
America, in college, you questioned if you wanted to be an actor because you thought you might be able to make more of an impact on the world in another profession?
Ferrera: I studied international relations and learned the world can be a very dark, heavy place. I thought, “Oh, my gosh, am I being incredibly selfish, dedicating my life to making art and having fun when there are so many ailments to fix in the world?” I had a crisis. I went to an IR teacher and sobbed in his office and told him, “I have to quit acting.” He actually stopped me and told me his young Latina mentee came to him and said, “If you really want to understand what my life is like, come watch this movie with me. It’s called ‘Real Women Have Curves.’ ” That was the first feature film I ever did, at 17. He told me that so I would understand the impact of storytelling. And that it doesn’t have to be either-or.
Fantasia, you started on “American Idol.” Now you’re in this movie that’s up for Oscar contention. Is acting now something that you feel a calling toward as much as singing?
Barrino: Well, after sitting with all these ladies, we’re all gonna become friends, and they’re gonna coach me through all this.
Blunt: You need to keep doing it, because you’re so good.
Hüller: I can’t believe she hasn’t been here forever.
Barrino: Thank you. You’re about to make me cry. I hope that [director] Blitz Bazawule does another movie and calls me again. I hope somebody calls me again. I’ll go. And I will challenge myself to create a world. I’ve been blessed through what you guys do.
Moore: You are going to be called again, believe me.
The SAG-AFTRA strike was recently resolved. The use of artificial intelligence on screen was a big sticking point. What about AI keeps you up at night?
Moore: I think that we need federal legislation. This is a much bigger issue and in terms of economics, something that’s out there as a product that people are going to jump on as quickly as possible. People are gonna be like, “Oh, I own that.” It should be a basic human right that we own our own images. So before somebody else monetizes them, I really do think that the government needs to do something about it.
Ferrera: I think what keeps me up at night in terms of AI in our industry is just how it will dehumanize our work. For every 10 extras that you take away from the background, there are wardrobe, hair, makeup, ADs, PAs, catering. It’s a human art. If profit dictates, you just go towards what’s automated and we’re gonna wipe out the humanity of our industry.
Emily, is it true that when people come up to you and say, “My daughter wants to be an actress,” you tell them not to go into the industry?
Blunt: It is obviously an industry that is not for the faint of heart. If my kids want to do it, I’m not gonna be holding onto them by their ankles. They should, and I will support it. It’s also the best job ever. I have a friend I’ve known since I was 7, and she said to me, “Do you know you’re the only one of my friends who loves what they do?”
Barrino: I ask everybody in the industry: “Do you still love it?” Because it’s hard. Like she says, you gotta have thick skin.
Ferrera: I love parts of it. It’s like any love; you have to be open-eyed about it. It sounds like everybody had really beautiful experiences on the films they’re talking about. It’s not always that way. You don’t always get the call. I mean, even being a part of this conversation with this level of talent is a tiny percentage of a tiny percentage of people who get to have this experience. The truth is, like anything you love, there’s always a complexity to it.