Visible Women

7 actors on the importance of working with female film directors

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Moya Crockett
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Alison Brie, Jessica Chastain, David Oyelowo and others weigh in on the benefits of having a woman in charge.  

By now, we’re all well aware that Hollywood can be a difficult place for women. Even before the first wave of the #MeToo movement broke in October 2017, women had long been speaking out about other kinds of inequality in the film industry – not least the troubling lack of diversity behind the camera.

It’s an ongoing problem. Less than 4% of major studio films being released this year are directed by women, the lowest percentage of female-helmed movies in at least half a decade, and women accounted for just 11% of directors working on the top 250 films of 2017.

Things are fractionally better in television, but not by much, with women making up 17% of directors in TV. While women in Hollywood are becoming increasingly vocal about the need for change, it remains to be seen when – or if – that outspokenness will influence the hiring decisions of studio bosses.

But what is clear is that women directors make a difference. That’s not to say that they’re bound to make uniquely female-focused films, necessarily: look at the work of Kathryn Bigelow, the only woman to ever win the Oscar for Best Director (for The Hurt Locker), who specialises in epic thrillers packed with violence, political drama and war. Rather, research by the British Film Institute (BFI) suggests that women directors are more likely than men to hire other women to join their cast and crew, positively influencing the gender balance on set.

Here, seven actors explain how female directors have shaped their experiences of working in TV and film.  

Alison Brie

Alison Brie at a Netflix event for Glow, May 2018

Former Stylist cover star Alison Brie says she’d never experienced a female-dominated TV or film set before joining wrestling comedy Glow, which has women working as showrunners, directors and in other behind-the-scenes roles. 

“The first thing that they told everyone is ‘We want you to be able to do your own wrestling. It’s very important to the show, we want you guys to be able to do your own moves, but we don’t want you to change your bodies. We want all different body types represented on this show, we cast you, we like you for who you are’,” Brie told Variety.

“It really was a different way of thinking about my body as a woman in this industry, coming from years of thinking ‘I have to be really skinny to get a part, I have to be really sexually appealing for men to want to cast me,’ and this felt much more geared toward strength, and it really changed the way I was working out and I was training.”

Diane Kruger

Diane Kruger at Cannes Film Festival, May 2018  

After working with director Alice Wincour on 2015 thriller Disorder, Diane Kruger spoke about how much she’d enjoyed the experience. Like Brie, she found that there was less of a focus on her physical attractiveness than there might have been with a male filmmaker.

“[It’s] not that male directors are not demanding, but I find women, especially when it comes to their female characters, to be much more demanding than men,” Kruger told Metro US.

Women, Kruger observed, “always look for something more realistic. They’re usually not afraid to show, say, a woman being hysterical. A lot of men don’t want to see women cry or shout. They’re very involved in your physical appearance.

“It’s my experience that women don’t want you to wear make-up or get your hair done in a certain way. They’re just more directed and demanding.”

Keira Knightley 

Keira Knightley: female directors “allow men to understand women”

Knightley, who got her big break in Gurindher Chadha’s 2002 film Bend it Like Beckham, has also starred in films by directors Lorene Scafaria (Seeking a Friend for the End of the World), Lynn Shelton (Laggies) and Massy Tadjedin (Last Night).

“It’s nice working with women, because you don’t have to do this loveable, soft version of what the female sex has to be,” she told The Sunday Times’ Culture magazine in 2014.

“It also allows men to understand women, as opposed to them being something pink and fluffy. There’s a weird view of femininity we put into our culture that has nothing to do with the experience of being a woman.”

Mila Kunis 

Mila Kunis at the 2018 Billboard Music Awards 

Kunis will soon be seen starring opposite Saturday Night Live comedian Kate McKinnon in espionage comedy The Spy Who Dumped Me, directed by Susanna Fogel. 

It’s the first time Kunis has appeared in a film helmed by a woman, and at a recent event for Variety, the actor said the experience was unlike any she’d had before.

“There’s a noticeable difference,” she said. “No one is yelling at each other. … Nobody got mad … no screaming matches. At 7 o’clock, bye, go home. I got to see my kids for dinner. It was lovely.”

Jessica Chastain 

“It’s just a healthier set to be on”: Jessica Chastain 

In recent years, Jessica Chastain has established herself as one of Hollywood’s most candid female voices, speaking up on issues from the gender and racial pay gap to sexual harassment. She has also frequently criticised the film industry for its lack of female directors, and famously called out the limited portrayal of women in films selected for Cannes in 2017.

Chastain has worked with seven female directors over the course of her career: Kathryn Bigelow (Zero Dark Thirty), Ami Canaan Mann (Texas Killing Fields), Niki Caro (The Zookeeper’s Wife), Liv Ullmann (Miss Julie), Susanna White (Woman Walks Ahead) and Edna Luise Biesold and Sarah-Violet Bliss (The Colour of Time). While she doesn’t think that women will automatically make different films to men, she believes that having more female directors will create a “healthier” industry.

“I didn’t experience anything different in terms of working with a woman to working with a man. For me, filmmaking isn’t gender specific, which is why we need more women in filmmaking, because women can do it too, right?

“[But] when there’s more balance on set in terms of more women on the crew, more women in positions of power – it’s just a healthier set to be on. Everyone’s happier. It’s a great place to be. […] Perhaps [women filmmakers] make more room for women because they know it’s been difficult for them to get to where they are – and they’re not intimidated.” 

Gal Gadot 

Gal Gadot with Patty Jenkins at the 2018 Critics’ Choice Awards 

Patty Jenkins, who helmed Wonder Woman to record-breaking success last year, is now the highest-paid female director of all time. Shortly after the movie’s release, star Gal Gadot said that she couldn’t imagine it in the hands of a male director.

“It’s a story about a girl becoming a woman,” she told Entertainment Weekly. “I think only a woman, who has been a girl, can be able to tell the story in the right way… All my life I’ve been working with male directors which I’ve really enjoyed. And I’m lucky in that I’ve worked with men who have a lot of respect for women.

“But working with a woman is a different experience. It feels like the communication is different. We talk about emotions. With Patty, it’s a thing now, we communicate with our eyes. She doesn’t need to say a thing. If I’m hurt, she feels the pain. It’s a whole different connection that I have with her. She’s also brilliant, she’s bright, she’s fierce, she’s sharp. She knows exactly what she wants Wonder Woman to be.”

David Oyelowo 

David Oyelowo: women directors “don’t shy away from emotion”

It’s not just women who appreciate working with women. Last year, David Oyelowo discussed the subject after appearing in Amma Asante’s film A United Kingdom.

“I want to work with female directors because they’re going to take me places that are unexpected. In my opinion, and in my experience, they don’t shy away from emotion; they don’t shy away from the messiness of it. They’re less interested in what it looks like, and more interested in what it has to say,” he told The Independent.

“That’s not to negate, or to vilify the perspective of men, it’s just we’ve had that perspective for so much of the time it has become the perspective, the received perspective. We don’t even know there are different perspectives that are equally rich that we’re being robbed of. So, for me, it was more, ‘I want more of that!’”

Throughout 2018, Stylist is raising the profiles of brilliant women past and present – and empowering future generations to follow their lead – with our Visible Women campaign. See more from Visible Women here.  

Images: Martin SchoellerGetty Images