Ellen Pompeo, Emma Roberts, Gina Rodriguez & Gabrielle Union
Welcome to the third annual Women in Television issue, which celebrates some of the industry’s most incredible women and asks them to debate the problems facing females working in TV. From fair pay to power imbalances and speaking up on set, they get vocal in this unmissable interview…
When Pompeo, 49, revealed that she had renegotiated her Grey’s Anatomy salary to the tune of $20million, women everywhere rejoiced. Because while our numbers may differ, the example of a woman who knows what she’s worth and wins the fight to see that recognized is uplifting for us all. The actress is passionate about ensuring equal on-screen representation and is unafraid to use her position to make it happen
Shonda Rhimes changed the game with Grey’s Anatomy. Shonda put a black actress and an Asian actress as the leads on her show – no one was doing that. But I don’t think her work was done in one show. Grey’s Anatomy being so successful and staying on the air for so long gave Shonda the power to then make Scandal and to put a black woman in the lead of a network television show. So Grey’s Anatomy was part one, and Scandal was part two.
There are good men in Hollywood. I took my daughter to the theater to see Frozen when it came out. I looked around and saw that more than half the children in the theater were children of color. They were all loving this movie, but my heart was breaking that here they are, idolizing these images on screen, and none of the images reflect more than half of them. But this is all they have to wonder and marvel at. And I was so moved by that experience, that when I happened to bump into Bob [Iger, the CEO of Disney, the parent company of Grey’s Anatomy] a couple of weeks later, I relayed it to him. I said, ‘I hope you don’t mind my candor, but I wouldn’t be doing my job as a mother and a human being if I didn’t express to you my feelings.’ He promised me that he was aware and that things were going to change and that he was doing everything in his power, every day, to make that possible. And three years later, Black Panther came out. When I saw it, I cried at every frame. It had so much significance for me, not only because I have black children, but just thinking back to how Bob kept his word. There aren’t many people in positions of power who are committed to doing the right thing.
When I walk the red carpet now, it’s so much easier because I just give zero f***s. I mean, of course you want your outfit to be amazing, your hair, your makeup, but you’re so much less self-conscious at this age. I’m 48 [Ellen turned 49 just after our shoot] and I give zero f***s. No one tells you that about aging – the little things don’t matter to you anymore. You’re just happy to be healthy and getting to do what you love.
I’m battling every day. At this particular stage of my career and my show, season 15, it’s a different experience and there are a lot of reasons why people don’t do shows for this long. But my battle every day is to make every scene as good as it can be. How can we improve the writing, how can we improve the acting… I feel quite a lot of pressure. I feel more comfortable with certain things now, but I’m in a real contest with myself, to keep the quality great, to keep it interesting, to stay engaged and not get complacent or bored, so that the audience feels that, and we give them the show that they’ve always loved.
I’m not much of a risktaker. I’ve kept the same job for a really long time, I’ve been married for a really long time [to music producer Chris Ivery, with whom she has three children]. I do make calculated risks – I make sure I know what I’m doing, I don’t go into anything blindly, just winging it and asking for s***. I know what’s happening, I know what I’m up against and when the time is right, I’ll go for it.
Season 16 of Grey’s Anatomy will air on ABC in 2019
“WOMEN have been multitasking since the beginning of time. To think that we couldn’t do that on a Hollywood set and CREATE the most successful production? Y’ALL ARE LATE. We’re not missing a beat”GABRIELLE UNION
After starting out in TV classics such as Saved by the Bell and Sister Sister, Union, 46, broke through via big-screen hits like 10 Things I Hate About You and Bring It On. After a five-season run in Being Mary Jane, she’s about to blaze a trail on the box in the Bad Boys spinoff L.A.’s Finest, with Jessica Alba. With her own, Sony-signed, production company, she’s as badass as the characters she plays
The TV show that influenced my life the most was Beverly Hills, 90210, the original. When Vivica A. Fox had Brandon [played by Jason Priestley] as her love interest, it was the first time I’d really seen a black woman that looked like me who was the object of affection and centered in a story, in pop culture. It was huge just to see that and to know that we’re not always ignored and erased and we are desirable. It changed what I saw as possible for myself.
The best lesson that TV taught me was that you can get canceled. You can go from ‘it’ to ‘s**t’ very fast.
The best TV show right now? Game of Thrones. Top to bottom: writing, acting, directing, cinematography, just entertainment value – I don’t think that there’s a better show. It’s just leaps and bounds ahead of everyone else. I mean, there are problems with it, like representation of people of color on the show, but as someone who has never been into dragons, sci-fi, that kind of random-ass mythology, it’s really f***ing good. I’m obsessed with it, my husband is obsessed… We can’t wait for it to come back.
I’d name the TV show of my life after my production company, I’ll Have Another. For black folks and people of color in this country, none of this [blatant discrimination] is shocking or new, so it’s kind of business as usual. If you’ve never been treated like the rest of us, it can feel very shocking, but for us it’s like, “Welcome, the water’s warm, we’ve been in here for centuries.” So ‘I’ll Have Another’ or ‘I’m Still Standing’ means I’m still fighting another day.
Which TV show changed the game for actresses? I don’t know… I mean, for which actress? [laughs] Those ‘transformative’ shows don’t translate to everyone in the same way. There’s a history of successful black-led shows, half-hour comedies. The networks will use those shows that center black faces and black women to build up the network, and then they categorically will cancel those shows and bring in white teen shows to fill the network and rebrand themselves. So even what should be transformative doesn’t translate to all groups of actors. Grey’s Anatomy was the most diverse show for how many years before people started saying, ‘Oh, maybe that worked’? No s**t, it worked.
The greatest thing about working in TV is having my own production company. Being able to give more people opportunities to create and to get paid. I tell all the people we work with, “My job isn’t just to get you on the air, my job is to get you paid at the same rate as every other new find.” Sometimes we throw up our hands like we’re at the finish line: “There’s a black girl!” or “There’s an Asian!” And it’s like, yes, Awkwafina is the first Asian to host Saturday Night Live in 18 years, but what’s her rate? How much are you paying her? If I’m going to change the game, I have to change all of it.
On the set of L.A.’s Finest, I feel empowered as f**k. With me, Jessica Alba and [showrunner] Pam Veasey as women in charge – it’s awesome. We are not figureheads. I mean, Jess is a freaking mogul. Between set-ups, while she’s in glam, she’s having business calls and you look over and she’s nursing, too. Women have been multitasking since the beginning of time, and to think that we couldn’t magically do that on a Hollywood set and create the most efficient, effective, successful production? Y’all are late. We’ve been doing this. We’re not missing a beat.
L.A.’s Finest premieres on Spectrum in 2019
The youngest scion of a Hollywood dynasty, Roberts, 27, took the lead role in teen drama Scream Queens before becoming a regular in Ryan Murphy’s cult TV anthology, American Horror Story. She currently stars in its eighth season, Apocalypse
Growing up, I was obsessed with all shows Nickelodeon – Clarissa Explains It All, Sabrina the Teenage Witch… I remember saying to my mom, “I want my own show on Nickelodeon one day,” and she was like, “That’s a great dream to have.” Then when I was 12, I auditioned for a Nickelodeon show [Unfabulous] and my childhood dream came true.
What excites me the most about TV right now is that we’re living in a time where there are so many different ways to tell a story. Reality TV is my guilty pleasure – The Real Housewives of Orange County and The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills.
I think TV’s biggest female trailblazer is Reese Witherspoon – I’ve loved her ever since I was a kid, just for her acting. But what she’s done with Big Little Lies… She’s a powerhouse. It’s really amazing to see what’s possible now. When I was younger, I never thought I could direct, produce and star in a show, because I didn’t see it. Now it’s being done and it really makes me feel confident in the places I can go in my career.
If I was to describe American Horror Story’s Madison in three words, I’d say ‘misunderstood’, if we’re being sympathetic. ‘Bitchy’. And ‘fun’! To be given dialogue that is so unapologetic and smart is really fun. The way Ryan Murphy writes for women is so specific.
In the American Horror Story cast, I’d turn to Sarah Paulson for life advice. She is the smartest, coolest, funniest person I know. I go to her for fashion advice, too; I see her and I’m like, “Just stop. You’re too amazing.” Gabourey [Sidibe] is great to party with – she’s the most fun.
I’d love to do a TV adaptation of Educated by Tara Westover. It’s a memoir and absolutely breathtaking. I would say more titles but I don’t wanna give them away!
If I was to name the TV show of my life? Let me text my best friend… OK, Brit said it would be called My Little Feet in the Bathtub As I Read Joan Didion [laughs], or I Hope It’s Okay If I Read to You Forever.
Season 9 of American Horror Story will air in 2019
“I wonder how much more TOLERANT our society would be if there weren’t such stereotypical roles PORTRAYED for so long. Art can be responsible for healing so much – when it’s a reflection of REALITY”GINA RODRIGUEZ
Rodriguez, 34, rose to fame as the titular star of acclaimed comedy Jane the Virgin, which is currently in its final season. In 2015, she was the first actor on the CW Network to win a Golden Globe, and this year donated the money that was set aside for her Emmy campaign to pay for the college tuition of an undocumented Latina student. She set up I Can & I Will Productions to tackle the lack of Latinx representation on- and off-screen
My favorite TV show growing up was Martin. I love comedy and Martin Lawrence was revolutionary in that time because there weren’t many people of color on screen. He lived with his wife Gina in a small apartment… It just felt much more relatable than, say, Full House, which definitely wasn’t the way I was raised at all.
Growing up as a Latina in the United States, I didn’t see us portrayed positively on TV. When you see certain images repeated so often, the reflection of representation on screen makes you feel a certain way about yourself. You tell somebody over and over again that they’re something, eventually they’re gonna believe it. I just wonder how much more tolerant our society would be if there weren’t such stereotypical roles portrayed for so long. If Latinos weren’t always portrayed as the villain, would we really feel a particular way about that community? If Muslims weren’t portrayed as the terrorists, would we feel a certain way about that community? I don’t think so. Art does, I believe, create tolerance. It can be responsible for healing so much – when it’s a reflection of reality.
I grew up economically challenged. We did not have much, at all. When I would do small short films or things for barely any money and I could barely pay rent, my father would tell me: “Don’t worry about the money you’re making now. You prove to them how much you’re worth!” And I used to think, “Do I know how much I’m worth? Have I been taught how much I’m worth?” Now, when I get blessed to be the lead or get a big film, do I know my worth? And do I know how to ask for my worth? How do you get that when you’re not taught it?
When I get the chance to watch television, I love It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia – they’re really awful people and they remind you that there’s funny in the world of awful. I started watching Vida, which is very cool – I’m really proud of [screenwriter] Tanya Saracho for creating something new and revolutionary. And The Good Place brings me so much happiness and light-heartedness right now. But if I was going to award anything, I’d say Black Mirror. We should be using it as a guide to what we shouldn’t do in our culture.
I feel extremely listened to as a woman on set. Very empowered. Very respected. Jane the Virgin is female-led – 70% female writers, 70% female cast, 70% female directors – so it’s very common to see women in high-powered positions on our show. I know that’s not common, so I don’t take that for granted. At all.
The TV show of my life would be called I’m Just Trying.
Watch Season 5 of Jane the Virgin on Netflix now
THE BIG TELEVISION DEBATE
Can you put a price on commercial success? Why don’t actresses talk more about how much they’re worth? And how can we all use our power to empower each other? Press play now to hear four incredible women raise up their voices for a whole industry
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