Before cameras rolled at THR’s Drama Actress Emmy Roundtable, Jennifer Garner turned to Jennifer Coolidge and asked whether she’d be returning for The White Lotus season three. It was an innocent question and an instant giveaway that the Last Thing He Told Me star had yet to see the season two finale, in which (spoiler!) Coolidge’s character takes a header off a boat and drowns. There was a moment of awkward silence, and then Coolidge filled her in. “Nooo!” Garner shrieked in response. But before she could pepper Coolidge with follow-ups, the more formal discussion between the two and their fellow performers — Dominique Fishback (Swarm), Melanie Lynskey (Yellowjackets, The Last of Us), Emma D’Arcy (House of the Dragon) and Claire Danes (Fleishman Is in Trouble) — began. Over the course of an hour, the sextet got candid about navigating the Hollywood system, paparazzi cameras and gender norms.
If a fan approaches you on the street, what do you typically hear?
JENNIFER COOLIDGE It was split down the middle. Girls would come up to me and say, “You’re that lady from Legally Blonde,” and guys would always say American Pie. Now it’s just, “You’re the lady from White Lotus.”
CLAIRE DANES It’s shocking how many people approach me with their appreciation for My So-Called Life. I mean, that was a verrrry long time ago, but teenagers are still finding it.
EMMA D’ARCY I get asked if I’m me because I look quite different in real life, which actually presents a possible out because there’s a temptation to say, “No, but I get that all the time.”
MELANIE LYNSKEY If someone comes up and says, “My dad loves you,” then I know they’re going to talk about Two and a Half Men. But if someone comes up and says, “Are you famous?” which sometimes happens, I say no.
JENNIFER GARNER I’ve taken the out for sure. (Laughs.) I get a lot of 13 Going on 30. It’s, “Oh, it’s my comfort movie,” or, God forbid, “My mom’s favorite movie.”
Emma, I was sure you were going to say something about a Negroni [after their drink of choice became a meme]. How often do you have people buying you one, and have you reached the point where you’d just prefer a beer?
D’ARCY I got sent a lot and you know, it makes a lovely gift. (Laughter.) But there was a period where I was desperate for a lager.
You’re all here because your work has resonated. Did any of you have reservations going in?
DOMINIQUE FISHBACK I definitely had reservations. Donald Glover and Janine Nabers originally wanted me to play the role that Chlöe Bailey plays, because of the roles I’ve played before. Donald said, “It feels like when you play characters, you want to protect them.” But I never wanted to put myself in a box with characters that are easier to digest. Then, after [I got the role of Dre, a serial-killing superfan, that I’d wanted], I was like, “What did I do?!” One of the things I was afraid of was that we never really see African American women getting to play roles like this. And a lot of times, you start to represent everybody when you do a role, and I didn’t want them to feel like, “Oh, we don’t want to see ourselves like this; we’re already seen in so many ways that are not necessarily great for us.” But I’ve watched Monster with Charlize Theron or Hilary Swank in Boys Don’t Cry, and I was like, “Man, I want to do something like that.”
Jennifer, when Mike White first approached you about The White Lotus, you didn’t say yes. Why not?
COOLIDGE Mike and I were going to do another show, which had been turned down by a lot of people, and he mentioned he was going to write [his next] show about rich people on vacation, but I never heard anything more about it. Then we were like six months into COVID, and I’d been locked up in my house in New Orleans just pigging out on these vegan pizzas. A good friend and I were doing two at breakfast, two at lunch and two at dinner. We were in COVID, no one knew I’d be getting a call going, “Hey Jennifer, my show got greenlit, let’s go do it. And it’s all going to be on a beach in bathing suits!” So, I was just like, “No, I’m not doing this,” but I didn’t tell Mike I wasn’t doing it. I just said, “Oh, that’s so nice, Mike. God, congratulations.” I thought we were all going to die during COVID, so I was just like —
GARNER Eat pizza!
COOLIDGE Yeah, just do whatever you want. Walk around naked, get arrested, whatever, it’s all going to be over. But then it started to become a real thing, and I was hearing from business people. And then [I hear] that little ping in my bedroom in New Orleans at like 2 a.m. and I look down at my phone and it said, “Are you afraid?” It was from Mike. He knew. But I still wasn’t going to do it, and I think this happens to actresses a lot. You sit around and bitch your whole life that you’ve never been given the role of your dreams, and then when it comes, you’re like, “Yeah, I can’t do it. I ate a bunch of pizza.” You can ruin it. And thank God I have a bestie that just caught on to my bullcrap. She knew exactly what I was doing, and she was like, “You are an idiot. I’m not going to let you do this.”
DANES What do you think frightened you so much?
GARNER I’d be scared of putting on a bathing suit!
COOLIDGE Yeah, and look, they have Sydney Sweeney and Alexandra Daddario to wear those bathing suits, I don’t know what I was thinking. I don’t know, it was self-hate and not being prepared.
When Mike called in season two and says, “Your character dies,” do you then do the opposite and try to convince him to keep you?
COOLIDGE I kept thinking if I did a good enough job, he wouldn’t kill me.
DANES You did too good of a job. He had to!
GARNER Wait, was it your assistant?
DANES She’s the one person on the planet, who happens to be sitting next to [Coolidge], who doesn’t know what happened! (Laughter.)
GARNER Sorry. Sorry. Proceed.
LYNSKEY What episode are you up to? I’m so curious.
GARNER Greg just left. … (To Lynskey) The pity on your face!
LYNSKEY It’s such a shock.
COOLIDGE I’m sorry, but it’s just so late in the game. Where have you been? (Laughter.)
Emma, you were signing on to one of TV’s biggest franchises — did that give you any pause?
D’ARCY I wrote a pros and cons list during the auditions process. The big one on the cons list was loss of anonymity, but probably that was a way of writing self-hate or something. Then I auditioned [via self-tape] for three months during the pandemic after losing a year of work, so in some ways, I think my hands were tied. Halfway through the process, the then-showrunner, Miguel Sapochnik, called to ask me if I owned a wig. A proper person would’ve asked someone who does hair for advice.
Oh no, what did you do?
D’ARCY I had a bag of hair in my color from another job, and me and my partner, we literally stuck it to my head, which took about two hours every time I self-taped.
FISHBACK Oh, gosh.
D’ARCY At the end of that, I did a four-hour in-person audition, and then I didn’t hear anything.
COOLIDGE How does a four-hour audition go? I’ve never had an audition more than five minutes.
D’ARCY I feel like, by the end of three months, I had taped every scene in the show. Because they took a punt on me, I guess, in that I couldn’t bring an audience. I just remember that it was good for a while and then it was awful. And then after a few hours, they said, “Great, you can go home and get drunk, we’ll be in touch.” Then Miguel came up behind me and put his hands on my shoulders and said, “Can we do one more?”
D’ARCY It was the virtuosic performance of my life. And they got me to tape [as the character] across the series, even though I’d only play the older character.
LYNSKEY What was that about?
D’ARCY Maybe I just come across really old and they wanted to know whether or not that you could believe this person was ever young? I don’t know …
DANES Oh, I’ve been a grandma forever.
How about you, Melanie? Between Yellowjackets and The Last of Us, these are very dark worlds to inhabit.
LYNSKEY The only reservation I ever have is that I’m so tired. I have a 4-year-old. I’m 45. But I didn’t have reservations about the material. I was excited to read something in both cases where it was a woman who was going through it and it was being shown. It’s exhausting to try to be likable. And I think as a young, working actress, just auditioning and auditioning, trying to be likable, trying to fit myself into whatever box people needed me to be in, was so tiring. So I was really grateful to be like, “Oh, this is a person who doesn’t care how people see her.” It was very freeing.
For all of you, what happens when a director yells cut?
GARNER If your character, for whatever reason, is trying to be restrained, that’s when you let yourself cry. That’s when you’re allowed to finally let it out.
Claire, your showrunner, Taffy Brodesser-Akner, described you as otherworldly in your ability to be light and laugh between takes. Has that always been you?
DANES No, not at all. And I’m very grateful that I’ve collected some technique over the years because it’s really draining.
GARNER Really draining.
DANES And sometimes it’s a bit of an illusion, my in-between-takes persona, because it’s definitely still on a simmer.
FISHBACK In between, I’m often like, “Oh, what are we doing? What are we eating?” But for the seventh episode with her girlfriend, that particular kill, with her bare hands, I couldn’t shake. I asked them to have a therapist on set just because I didn’t know how I was going to be affected or other actors or even the crew. So, on that day, she was there and it was really helpful because, after, I couldn’t stop crying. I was like, “Am I doing something bad?”
DANES That’s so self-possessed and smart of you to ask for a therapist.
FISHBACK I didn’t want it to feel like, “Oh man, she’s dramatic.” I didn’t even know if I was going to need it, but I thought it’s better to have it and not need it than to need it and not have it.
LYNSKEY Oh, I’m very impressed.
GARNER Coolest thing I’ve heard.
How good are the rest of you at knowing what you need to protect yourself and do your best work?
LYNSKEY Because I’m in such a big cast and so many are younger than me, I feel like I need to advocate for whatever their needs are — to ask for protections and for people to be transparent with me about how they’re feeling. But I love that idea of having a therapist for those scenes.
FISHBACK It’s something we learned on Judas and the Black Messiah because the 50th anniversary [of Fred Hampton’s death] fell on a day where we were shooting the assassination.
LYNSKEY Oh, wow.
FISHBACK I’m covering his body, and my character’s pregnant, and we’re in a replica of the apartment and the energy is just swirling. I remember the night before — I kept feeling something bad was going to happen because your body can’t differentiate what you told your mind to believe. And so, that day, Shaka King, the director and co-writer, came and he looked at all of us and we were all real quiet and he said, “I think we should have therapists on set.”
Emma, did you get any advice from Game of Thrones actors on how to navigate the world you’ve entered?
D’ARCY I spoke to Emilia Clarke before I started shooting, and she was beautiful and so generous.
What did she tell you?
D’ARCY Loads of stuff, which honestly, I’m going to keep for myself. I’m also very lucky. That wig is a blessing; people don’t recognize me, so my day-to-day is broadly unchanged, which I feel very grateful for, not least because, and maybe this is also a question, I feel that the ability to observe others and not be the observed is so fundamentally important to our job. I guess I’ve just really worried about that.
GARNER It’s an enormous loss when you are the person that the eyes are directed toward. The loss of just being able to smile at someone on the street and say hello as yourself is a really intense thing — something to mourn and not to be taken lightly. And, probably, a natural outcropping of your success and your beauty and your work. So, it’s not something to be totally feared. But it’s something to know for yourself and to talk about. And then figure out where can you still observe and be quiet in yourself and make room for those places.
DANES It’s also true that it fluctuates, which is heartening, right? Because there are times when it spikes, and it can be because you got a haircut, or there’s some disruption in your personal life, and it’s uncomfortable and the volume can go up. In those periods and those peaks, I take some comfort in, “This will dissipate, and I’ll be afforded a lot more freedom soon.” Look, what I’ve experienced is just a modicum of what [Garner has,] but I also think denial is a great tool and you can set the tone, too. Sometimes it’s beyond your control, but if you’re not that interested in it, then people take the cue from that.
GARNER That’s more true now than it used to be. And maybe just because I’m older now and I’m not at the center of things, it’s just calmed down enough for me in a way that I’m so grateful for.
DANES With photographers, I used to be terrified of them, but I found I can approach them directly and say, “Hey, do you have a shot? Can you back off?”
GARNER That used to not work at all. And with pregnancy, they just want to track and consume it.
DANES It can be gross, but there are spaces, sometimes surprisingly public ones, like the subway, where nobody [bothers you].
GARNER I can be at Disneyland, oddly.
Melanie, you engage online with a lot of people who have wonderful things to say, but also the trolls who don’t. Does doing so ever feel masochistic?
LYNSKEY Yes! (Laughter.) But I’ve been relatively anonymous for 30 years of my career, so it’s been very hard to get used to people paying attention to anything I say. I was in group therapy for five years. I’m a person who … I don’t know how to make small talk. I only know how to connect. And I have a lot of respect for writers and journalists, so when I’m sitting down with somebody, I want to connect. I’m finding it very hard to get the balance right of not being too forthcoming because you’re not in control of how things get spun off. And there are headlines where you’re like, “Well, that’s not actually the thing that I said. That’s so far removed from the point I was trying to make.” And I desperately wanted to recontrol it, and you just can’t, I’m learning now. I also was bullied as a child. We moved a lot, and I was very, very shy and very weird, if I’m being honest. So, I have a hard time now with bullies. And there are a lot of bullies on the internet, and I don’t want to talk about it specifically, but it’s hard for me sometimes to not just say, “I actually have a voice now.”
D’ARCY It’s interesting you’re saying that because as soon as the show came out, I felt like I was back in the playground. I had this bizarre hyper-visibility, paranoia and this type of sociability that I found very difficult to reckon.
FISHBACK Because you knew that it was going to happen, did you find ways to prepare before? This is small, but last summer I was in Brooklyn, where I’m from, and I decided to ride the train all summer just because I didn’t know, like, what I might miss if this were to change.
D’ARCY For me, the new reality arrives before I have the tools for it every time. And every time, I’m just proved really naive and I go, “No, this was predictable.”
Jennifer, I see a lot of descriptors of you now that go something like, “After decades as a secret weapon the industry didn’t know how to use …” What do you make of that?
COOLIDGE It’s like the guy that you always wanted, when you’re finally over him, you get the call and he’s like, “Hey, I’ve really missed you.” And you’re just like, “Too late.” (Laughs.) But with this, I’m not angry that this is happening. I’m thrilled. I thought I had had my moment, I had my little comedy bits, my movies, whatever, and the wave had passed. And then this unexpected moment, it’s thrilling because I didn’t have this for myself. Maybe when I was 15 and I was like, “I’m going to be the lead and everything.” I’m just so happy I got this moment before I croak.
Emma, you’ve said you felt pressure to “present as a woman in order to find success in this industry. It wasn’t sustainable. And I stopped pretending.” And at that point, you started to find real success. What was the feedback before and how has it changed?
D’ARCY I was very lucky because I’m aware that it could have gone the other way. I got an agent, which is what I thought I was supposed to have done, and then I panicked that I duped him because I’d grown my hair to look more like a girl so I could be an actor. And then as soon as I had an agent, I thought, “I don’t know how to live like this. Am I going to do this forever? Can I even get a job if I don’t look like this?” After about a year, I just thought, “You know what, I’ll just cut my hair and I’ll feel better.” I was running a theater company, so I was busy, just not paid. But then I got this stage job where I was paid, like, $480 a week, and it was just amazing. And it was straight after and I’d never told my agent that I now looked radically different.
What was the agent’s response?
D’ARCY By that point, it was fine because I had a job. And I think he only found out when photos of the cast came out.
D’ARCY But I’m very lucky. He’s a beautiful person and he gets it. I guess I just realized that it was fundamental to be able to live in the gaps. I, too, was bullied to pieces — I just didn’t exist well, so I was a good target. And I spent a lot of time wondering how other people were managing it, and then I did a play at school and discovered that there was incredible freedom in being somebody else. But there’s loads of other time [when you’re not acting], and, yeah, I probably felt more comfortable [when I stopped presenting as someone I wasn’t] and so I probably was better at my job and better in auditions and better at the interstices of the role of an actor, which mostly aren’t being onstage and doing the thing.
Jen, I have to imagine you get all sorts of things sent to you, but with The Last Thing He Told Me, you wrote passionate letters to ensure you were considered. Why?
GARNER I really connected to the book. I just loved this woman. I read it first aloud to one of my teenagers. It’s not something that you would typically read to a kid, but things got spicy during the pandemic. It wasn’t a role that was available [Julia Roberts was initially attached], and when it became available, I’m not like Hannah, my character, but I felt like I needed to play her — like there were things in my life that I could play out through her. And I wanted to check out what it would be like to be more still, more calm, less extra than I am naturally. I didn’t see myself as someone who would be considered for the role, and so sometimes you just have to take matters into your own hands. There are lots of people raising their hands on our behalf. Our agents are saying, “Think of this person.” But I needed to say, “I’m inextricably connected to this character and I need to do this.”
Dominique, I’m curious, what feels riskier: fronting Swarm or a major blockbuster like Transformers?
FISHBACK I make all of my choices based off of this inner child who watched these movies and said, “I want to do that.” Because you don’t control the edit, especially with big, blockbuster movies. But I told [director] Steven Caple Jr., “I’m an actor that loves to talk about character,” and I was like, “I’m going to have notes.” He was like, “Give me your notes,” and two or three times I sat with the writers, and it doesn’t mean that those things are going to be in the movie at all. You watch it and it’s completely different, but at least I got to speak for myself and for the character and I can go to sleep at night knowing that I did.
Jen, Claire, you’ve done major blockbusters, be it Elektra or …
DANES I’m like, “Oh yeah, I did Terminator.” (Laughter.)
Any advice for Dominique?
DANES Oh, I wasn’t carrying it, I was just dipping in, going, “Whoa, cool.” I’m just impressed that you knew that about yourself and were comfortable sharing that.
GARNER Yeah, your wisdom is wacky. The two of you [Fishback and D’Arcy] have such different sides of the coin of young wisdom that is so beautiful to see.
DANES It wouldn’t have occurred to me to dare share my process.
Who’s comfortable giving notes?
DANES Now I feel more comfortable. But with a behemoth project like that, being younger, I’d just insert myself discreetly.
FISHBACK I started in this theater company at 15 where, in order to act, you had to write your own stuff, so it gave me a sense of confidence and, even without knowing it, it was preparing me. And it wasn’t always like that. The Deuce was my first series regular role, and I was like, “Yeah, I’m not going to do that.” But Nina Noble, the producer, knew I was doing this journal and she said, “Oh, can I see that?” and she told David Simon. I never knew he knew.
DANES I bet he loved that. (Laughs.)
FISHBACK He did! And with Judas and the Black Messiah, I read the script and I sent Shaka an email of all the things that I love, and I said, “Hey, I have two thoughts, but I don’t want to overstep.” And he said, “You won’t overstep. You’ll be playing her, you can give me your notes.” He called them notes. I just said thoughts. Then I said, “Well, the Panthers were very poetic people, and the first thing she says is, ‘Do you like poetry?’ And we never hear any poems. I think we miss an opportunity.” He said, “You’re right. Do you want to take a shot at that poem?” So, I end up writing the poem in the movie.
LYNSKEY Really? That’s so amazing.
FISHBACK Yeah, so any time I go in these general meetings with these directors, I say, “Hey, listen, I never think that something is supposed to be how I want it to be, but I do like to talk about it. And if you like what I’ve done, please know that I’m a communicator.”
Before we go, is there a role you’d love to play if only you were asked?
LYNSKEY I’d love a comedy, please.
DANES I’d like to do something more comic, too. Nobody has ever let me do anything remotely light.
COOLIDGE I’d like to play skinny, but then I have to get skinny.
LYNSKEY You’re perfect.
COOLIDGE I’m joking, but I look at you two hotshots [to Fishback and D’Arcy] and I’m just like, “Why didn’t I come out like that? You’re such advanced people.”
FISHBACK But also the work that everybody here has done has allowed me to be able to speak the way I do. You guys were there first and you did everything first, which allows us to be able to say, “Hey, I have a voice about this.” We weren’t just born this way.
DANES That’s incredibly gracious and stupid impressive.
COOLIDGE I just want to be given a job where I have to improve myself. Like, you’re a famous ice skater and you have to do triple whatevers, and you have to really do them, so you’d have to get in great, physical shape. And if you don’t, you’re fired.
A superhero, perhaps?
GARNER You’d be so good in pleather.
COOLIDGE Well, there we go. I’ve always wanted to wear pleather.
LYNSKEY Wear it exactly as you are.
Interview edited for length and clarity.
This story first appeared in the June 21 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.
“I Think We Should Have Therapists on Set”: Jennifer Coolidge, Dominique Fishback and the THR Drama Actress Roundtable