RANCHO PALOS VERDES, California — At a star-studded conference hosted in Los Angeles County this week, Hollywood women were ready to burn the world down.
Frustration was in the air at the Makers conference, where hundreds of women gathered for three days in Rancho Palos Verdes to network and hear female celebrities and luminaries speak. Just weeks after the Women’s March and the inauguration of a president who has bragged on tape about sexually assaulting women, Hollywood women in particular were openly critical of the way they’d been treated in their professional lives.
“I was asked to be a prostitute a lot,” said Academy Award–winning actor Octavia Spencer on Monday, the first day of the conference. “And I was asked to play a nurse a lot, and I did that about 50 times. I honestly feel as if I can take a blood pressure.” According to Spencer, who is currently nominated for an Oscar for her role in Hidden Figures, “’No’ is the most powerful word that you have in your vocabulary.”
Later in the evening, Debra Messing, who has four Emmy nominations and one win for her role on the hit sitcom Will & Grace, recalled being briefly forced to wear “chicken cutlets” to make her breasts appear larger early on during the show.
She also told a story about director Alfonso Arau, with whom she worked on the 1995 film A Walk in the Clouds. According to Messing, he yelled in front of the entire crew that they needed to get a plastic surgeon on set to give her a nose job — for the rest of the day, Messing said, he referred to her as “that nose.” Through a representative, Arau denied Messing’s account to BuzzFeed News. “Alfonso was shown many actresses for this particular role in A Walk in the Clouds and out of all these actresses he picked an unknown Ms. Messing; if he had had a problem with her nose or her looks he would not have cast her,” the representative wrote. “He chose her because she had the rare combination of humor, beauty and acting talent.”
Messing said the next day on the set of A Walk in the Clouds, Arau made her do a nude scene with no advance notice. She recalled asking him about it, and this, she said, was his reply: “I’m the director. It’s my movie. Your job is to get naked and say the lines. That’s it. You should be grateful to have this part. Get out.”
Feeling coerced, Messing did the nude scene. “I powdered my rouged vagina, put my robe on, went to set. I get under the sheet, take off the robe. Alfonso comes over and says he wants to set the sheet. He lifts it, scans my naked body, then drops the sheet on top of me like a used Kleenex. … It turns out, after all this trauma, the only part of my body that is seen naked in the film is my back. The whole thing is a power play.”
She concluded: “There’s something wrong with Hollywood.”
“In regards to a nude scene Ms. Messing is referring to, Alfonso remembers that she was actually fully clothed,” Arau’s representative wrote to BuzzFeed News. “The scene was cut because a female Fox executive had objections with how Ms. Messing was wiggling the legs.”
The representative concluded that Arau had a hugely positive impact on Messing’s career. “He wanted Ms. Messing to color her hair from brunette to a shade of red for the role but she objected and gave the hair stylists an incredibly hard time about coloring the hair red,” the representative wrote. “Ultimately, after a lot of push-back, it was colored red for the role, and has stayed that way and she cemented her career as a redhead. Alfonso takes credit for that.”
Like Messing, Zosia Mamet, best known for her role on Girls, said she’d felt coerced on set, referring to an experience filming 2015’s Bleeding Heart, which she didn’t explicitly name. “I shot a movie a few years ago with a male co-star who was going through a nasty divorce, and very angry at women. I was playing a sex worker, and he my abusive pimp boyfriend,” she said. Mamet recalled that while working on a sex scene in which the male character was supposed to “fuck [her] at gunpoint,” her co-star said, “‘Oh, man, wouldn’t it be so great, like wouldn’t it be really moving, if I fucked you with the gun? Wouldn’t that just really up the stakes?’
“So standing in front of the entire crew, the director, and the producers, I said, ‘Yeah!’ And I told myself at the time that it was for the sake of the movie, but in truth, I just didn’t want to seem difficult, because difficult for an actress, for any woman, is an incurable leprosy that haunts you to the grave,” Mamet said. She declared she would never again say yes to “a co-star sticking a firearm up my vagina because they hate their wife.” (Joe Anderson, the apparent subject of this story, did not immediately respond to BuzzFeed News’s request for a comment.)
On the second day of the conference, Eva Longoria, the executive producer and award-winning actor best known for her role in Desperate Housewives, called out Hollywood whitewashing. “When I went to get my master’s in Chicano studies, I found all these amazing stories,” she said. “Argo was a Latino, but yet when you get into the Hollywood mainstream it’s changed.” She’s currently developing a project at HBO about the first Mexican-American attorney to argue before the Supreme Court, she said.
Longoria, who has been a spokesperson for L’Oréal for 12 years, also said: “I think we’ve had a female director once in any of our commercials. I was on set the other day with L’Oréal, and I said, ‘I want to direct one of the commercials.’ And they all looked at me and they go, ‘Yeah!’ Like, duh!”
Also on the second day of the Makers conference, Jill Soloway, creator of the acclaimed show Transparent, said she was in Germany preparing to speak about her series when she found herself shrinking away from her makeup artist. “Here was a man who was sent to draw a new face on top of my face so that my words would be heard. I got really offended. I thought, Why do I need a whole different face on top of my face to speak?” she recalled. “I thought, What if I never, ever wore makeup again?
“I know what you guys are thinking: Alicia Keys said it first. I don’t think people would have cared if I had made the announcement the way they did for Alicia. But a lot of women, when Alicia Keys said she was gonna stop wearing makeup, a lot of women said, ‘Well, if I looked like that, I also wouldn’t wear makeup.’ And I ask us to question this, ‘If I looked like that.’ If I looked like her. The question is, who is looking at her, and what automatic arithmetic do we employ when we accept that looked-at-ness as part of our gender? I am absolutely jealous of how men have this default invisibility, and I often wonder if the layer of beauty that we add before going out in the world has a very subtle but symbolic consent to be taken in aesthetically. Aesthetically first, intellectually second.”
Boiled down, they all said the same thing: Enough. And the conference-goers, many of whom were questioning their place in the world under an administration that has already begun to undermine women’s reproductive rights, cheered.