Saturday afternoon at Comic-Con International in San Diego, Entertainment Weekly’s Sarah Vilkomerson hosted a panel of some of the top female action heroes, bringing together Nikita’s Maggie Q, Danai Gurira from The Walking Dead, Tatiana Maslany from Orphan Black, Battlestar Galactica’s Katee Sackhoff, and Michelle Rodriguez of Machete Kills for a frank discussion of women on camera, in the entertainment industry, and in culture at large.
The session began with Vilkomerson asking the panelists who they looked up to in their youth. Maggie Q kicked things off by citing Lynda Carter’s Wonder Woman. Gurira said she didn’t watch many superhero shows, but admired Susan Day from LA Law. Maslany name checked April O’Neil from Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, while Sackhoff began by saying she followed male action heroes like Arnold Schwarzenegger, “then I discovered Alien and realized I could be Sigourney Weaver.”
The actresses also spoke about the best and worst of the costumes they’ve worn into battle. “Men are dumb; they think we fight in heels and dresses,” Maggie Q said.
“I’m lucky because my character is in an apocalypse — she dresses very practically,” Gurira countered.
Sackhoff, on the other hand, said she recently had to perform a scene naked… with a gun. “This is not normal,” she said. Beyond the on-screen gratuity, the scene was awkward for the actress who had to perform the role. “I just met this crew, and here’s my vagine,” Sackhoff laughed.
Discussing tricky action sequences, Gurira said, “I’ve always wanted to be the chick who does cool stuff,” and one such example on The Walking Dead is riding a horse. Asked if she knew how to ride, Gurira said, “YES. No,” then, “it’s something new.”
“I have learned that horses have a mind of their own,” she added.
Sackhoff recounted several on-set injuries, prompting Rodriguez to say, “you hurt yourself in style.”
“I push myself to do the things [my characters] do to understand them better,” Sackhoff said, explaining why she does her own stunts — after, of course, they’ve been tested by the stunt double. “Ok, you didn’t die, I guess I’ll do it,” she joked.
“My history of stunts usually ends with someone else getting hurt,” Rodriguez said, largely because her training for Girlfight inadvertently carried over into other roles. “You train for five months how to hit somebody, and five minutes how not to,” she said.
Sackhoff, too, said she carried elements of her characters over into other aspects of life. “I feel like if I was on a plane and they said, oh my god, the pilots just had heart attacks, I’d be like, ‘I got this,'” she said. “I was a pilot for seven years!”
Gurira added that she “can’t stand injustice” and occasionally while going about her daily life has to remind herself that she can’t strike back the way she would on The Walking Dead. “I’ll be like, Michonne gotta go home — gotta go back to Danai using words and not thinking about other ways to deal with the situation.”
Speaking about sexism on set, Rodriguez said she was filming in South Africa and had a scene where her character drives a car off a cliff. Another actor protested that “a girl’s not going to drive the car,” prompting Rodriguez to challenge him back. “I’m looking at this cat like, you want to race me, homie?”
Maslany said she’s “treated by the crew as a young girl because I look like I’m 12.” She recounted an unsettling episode of Orphan Black in which she was tied to a bed for a scene, and between takes a crew member hit on her.
Sackhoff had perhaps the most graphic account, though she said she wasn’t sure if it was sexism or something else. During a fight scene she performed with an actor with whom she’d had previous conflicts, Sackhoff said the other actor pulled both her arms out of their sockets and caused severe scraping to her back as he threw her against a table as part of the choreography. The next day, after she’d recovered, Sackhoff said she asked the actor to take it a little easier on her, to which he replied, “I’ve seen your work and figured you could take it.”
“People either think you’re incredibly tough, or the opposite, and they say you’re a girl so you can’t do it,” Sackhoff said.
There is also the matter of how and whether to call out sexism, Gurira said, describing how entrenched culture perpetuates sexism in subversive ways amongst men and women who might not even recognize it as such. “You might have to be the chick who is sometimes in their face,” Gurira said.
Rodriguez’ proposed solution is more female-run entertainment businesses. “How about chicks come up with their own content and start their own production companies?” she offered. She returned to this theme several times in the panel, adding that “women will want to work together” and having men come to them would change the dynamic industrywide.
Gurira said the entertainment business should be more aware of what it’s putting out into the world, as American films and programs are seen well beyond our borders. “I grew up watching American shows — I watched Girlfight in Zimbabwe,” she said. The reach of American cinema makes her very conscious of “what we are putting out to these girls around the world.”
Rodriguez said she chooses her roles based on whether she can respect her character, while Maslany remembered hating Charlize Theron’s Young Adult before coming around to understanding what the actress had accomplished. “She bravely played this character that exists and played it with empathy,” Maslany said.
A fan asked about the possibility of a fight scene between Maggie Q and Michelle Rodriguez, but Maggie Q suggested they could team up instead. “Men rule the world because we’re always bickering and fighting each other, and we should be working together,” Rodriguez said.
Sackhoff half-joked that male filmmakers “can’t imagine 15 women in a movie together who all kick ass and aren’t fighting with each other.”
“Or fighting over a guy,” Rodriguez added.
The panelists noted that, with 80% of Hollywood writers being male (according to Rodriguez), this can sometimes create limitations on the leading roles created for women and can lead to typecasting. “I’ve got the action box and the ethnic box,” Maggie Q said, adding that her Vietnamese heritage informed producers’ expectations and the roles she was offered. “Yeah, I wake up, brush my teeth and then I do kung fu.”
Gurira, speaking to Rodriguez’ point about women creating their own content, mentioned that, as a playwright, “women are always the protagonists — that’s just the way I think.”
The women also spoke of stories they’d like to see in film or movies that simply aren’t being told in the present environment. “Three African women just won the Nobel Prize from Liberia, and we don’t know their story,” Gurira said. The actress described how the women stood up to dictator Charles Taylor and “went where they weren’t welcome to demand change.”
Rodriguez and Gurira praised the new Netflix series Orange is the New Black, which is set in a women’s prison and prominently features a lesbian relationship. Rodriguez said she would like to “break down the representation of queer culture” to the degree that seeing gays and lesbians on TV “becomes not even mainstream, but just a given.”
Sackhoff spoke about her mother as an inspiration, a woman who “didn’t do anything in her life that people would think of as massively impressive,” but “taught school for 35 fucking years and raised an incredibly headstrong daughter.” Rodriguez added that that should be a story worth telling, and the question becomes how to make it salable.
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