Returning for a second year at Comic-Con International San Diego, Entertainment Weekly's “Women Who Kick Ass” presentation featured Sons of Anarchy's Katey Sagal, American Horror Story's Sarah Paulson, Orphan Black's Tatiana Maslany, Sleepy Hollow's Nicole Beharie and Maisie Williams and Natalie Dormer of Game of Thrones for a lively discussion of their characters, issues facing Hollywood, and Manslany's various identities.
Moderator Nicole Sperling opened the discussion by asking the panelist what aspect of the first script they read of their series made them feel they just had to land those roles. Williams admitted that, at 12 years old, acting was more of a hobby, but she felt Arya Stark was "similar to me, but in my 12-year-old head, I didn't know it would turn out to be this."
Dormer revealed her audition scene was the moment in Season 2 in which Margaery Tyrell offers to allow her brother Loris be part of her sex life with new husband Renly Baratheon if it would help them secure an heir. Before that, she was a fan of the show because "they just wrote women really well." More than the audition, her reaction to the first season drove her to get the part.
For Beharie, it was the moment in which Ichabod Crane asked whether her character Abbie was emancipated from slavery. "I knew I had to take this and show him how emancipated I was," she said.
Maslany said it was overall quality of initial clone Sarah that got her hooked. "She wasn't likable, and everything she did was deplorable. I was drawn to that idea. I was fascinated by her and wanted to embody it," she explained.
While Sagal and Paulson couldn't recall their own eureka moments, they did mention standout scenes in their respective series that let them know they made the right choice. For Sagal, it was the moment her character, Gemma, calmly threatens the life of Drea DeMatteo's Wendy with a syringe. Paulson, meanwhile, said it was a scene in which her season two character Lana Winters had to simulate masturbation and attempt to convincer herself that she was heterosexual. "That was a difficult thing to do," she said, knowing her family would eventually watch the show. Though uncomfortable, she relished the challenge.
Dormer was asked if Margaery's ability to play the angles suggests a darker motivation in her wish to be queen. "[This is] where television is ahead of film," the actress replied. "It doesn't need to polarize women so much. I experienced it as well with Anne Boleyn [on The Tudors]. Male writers tend to want to make a character like her an angel or a bitch. With Margaery, you don't have to be political and not be a good person." In her opinion, the tendency to write women as either completely evil or completely good leads to less compelling film scripts. "Half the people in this room are female. They're as complex and contradictory as the men." She is grateful that television offers a scope to illustrate that complexity.
Continuing on the Game of Thrones direction, Sperling asked Williams about Arya's final scenes with Rory McCann's The Hound and the character's decision not to give him a swift death. "It was the main change in Arya so far," she replied. "You want a nice closure." Though it was a major change from the scene in the novel, she thought the alteration went “seamlessly" when she read the script.
She also appreciated that it marked the end of Arya's transition away from the young daughter of Ned Stark with romantic notions of wandering the land as an adventurer. "That's who she was then and she's let go of what she had before," she said.
Beharie, asked about the growth of her character over the first season, admitted she never expected to be part of a genre series. "Once I found myself in the part, you have no choice but to expand the possibilities," she said. Abbie's growing confidence mirrors Beharie's own rising comfort level on set. "I found I had a certain command on set. I learned how to own that and not, as a woman, shrink."
Maslany, diving head first into multiple adult characters, recalled that before joining Orphan Black, she had never played an adult before. "The closest I got was Mary, Mother of Jesus, but she was 15!" she said. She also agreed with Beharie that one becomes accustomed to a certain authority on set. "As an actor and the characters, I moved into a position of power."
Asked if they enjoyed the more physical aspects of their roles, Williams noted that in the spirit of authenticity toward the novels, she made action tougher for herself. "Arya was written as a left-handed fighter," she explained. Though right-handed herself, she kept that aspect of the character, even if it slows her training down. "I come in to learn a stunt sequence and it's been choreographed right handed because they've forgotten!" she laughed.
Sagal simply said, "I liked whacking someone with a skateboard."
Behaire said she recently worked in a six foot water tank, calling the experience "fun stuff."
Though Margaery fights with her wits, Dormer said she had a lot of fun running around The Hunger Games: Mockingjay set with a semi automatic rifle in tow, but, "now after nine months of mud and being physical, I'm ready to go back to the silk skirts."
The group also discussed times when they were unsure they could meet the demands of the scripts. Maslany mentioned the transgendered clone, Tony, from the most recent season. "For me, it was a huge responsibility and privilege to explore gender in that way," she said. It also challenged the way she related to costar Jordan Gavaris' character Felix, introducing a sexual dynamic for the first time. Though it added fear and doubt, she felt that it is the exact emotional state an actor should examine. "We're in fear at all times, so it's a natural state," she said. "As artists, it's the most fertile ground."
Pauslon thought it was hard to play an 80-year-old woman in the final episode of the Season 2 story. "Not being near that age. I didn't want to do a caricature," she explained. The character did age over the course of the season, allowing the actress to feel somewhat comfortable with the characters final scenes. Still she called it, "the scariest thing I've ever done."
She and show creator Ryan Murphy were also concerned about the old age make up, fearing a comical effect. In the end, Paulson thought she "ended up looking exactly like my grandmother in a terrifying way." With the old age makeup perfected, the actress still worried about her performance."I [didn't want to] ruin this now by doing some schlocky 'old-age-acting class' thing. It was difficult." Once completely comfortable with the particulars of the scene, she thought being old was incredible freeing, saying "I didn't have to worry about looking attractive to other people."
Sagal admitted that there is always at least one thing that scares her each year, but "it feels good to be challenged every year." The most terrifying things tended to be seemingly simple, like hitting high emotional marks. "I have to be where [the scene says] I am or drum it up and you have to [find the emotions] quick."
Coming from comedy, she wanted to be challenged by the dramatic role Sons of Anarchy offered to her. "The blessing and curse of television is you get to be known as one thing," she said. "I've been so blessed and grateful. Every episode there's something [challenging], but you do it and you enjoy your job."
"Any performance on TV that's halfway good is amazing because there's no time," said Paulson. Even shows that produce ten-to-thirteen episodes a year operate under tremendous time restraints. "You're producing such a volume of material with no time," she added. Turning to Maslany, she continued, "You see someone playing twelve different people, it's so hard to do well. [She's] awesome."
Maslany explained that on any given day, she plays up to three of her clone characters. In the first season, they attempted to schedule scenes with more characters, but "logistically, it was a nightmare." She cited the clone dance party at the end of Season 2 as a particular challenge to shoot.
Getting back to the topic, Beharie said the fear is vitally important to the performance. "If you're not frightened, nothing drums up," she explained. "I've found myself on auto pilot once or twice and had to dig deeper. I go where I need to go; use personal things. I might not be comfortable, but it's going to be good."
Turning toward maintaining a real life amidst fictional ones, Williams said, "In this industry, you have to be blank canvasses, but you get a role and that's what you are." She recently pierced her nose and "all hell broke loose" because it was not Arya's look. She also said it is extremely difficult to be a teenager in the business and trying to find your way with that added scrutiny. "You want to be yourself," she explained. "But it's hard to do when you can't. It's finding the balance."
"I have three children and there's nothing like it to pull focus," said Sagal. "It keeps things right-sized." Though she knows some actors have to maintain the mindset of their character for the duration of shooting, she can leave it all on set. Sagal's husband, Kurt Sutter, created and produces Sons of Anarchy. Together, they found a balance in how much shop talk they can do at home.
But Dormer, whose Mockingjay hairdo has started a bit of a trend, relishes the way screen life can affect real life. "You find yourself doing things you wouldn't normally do," she said. "You have a multitude of lives for the price of one. And Tatiana times that five over."
Asked what in Hollywood pisses them off the most, Behaire immediately said, "Body image." Paulson added, "Being self conscious about the size of one's ass."
Dormer said she would love jobs where "you don't have to care about how you look. It's not healthy for young girls to be flipping through magazines and see these films." She noted the European sector of the business is more open to a wider range of body shapes. "We need more of that here," she said.
"And that it's okay to get older," added Sagal. "The ageism doesn't have a realistic view. It seems in Europe you can get older [and still work]."
Reiterating her early point, Dormer said, "The best female roles are in television. Katniss is popular, but she's an anomaly."
Sagal introduced another troublesome issue for her. "Piracy pisses me off. People should pay for their movies [and] their music." Aware that people assume Hollywood types are made of money, she pointed out the more modestly paid production people get hurt the worst by the pirates. Beyond that, there is the fact that the artists, from production assistant to lead actor, deserve to be paid for their work. "I encourage my children [to buy]," she said. "I'd rather give them the money to buy that CD or game or movie. It doesn't help the creative community to contribute to piracy."
During the fan Q&A, the group was asked about their favorite "kick ass" moments for their characters. Maslany recalled a scene in which alpha mom Alison is forced into an intervention and "projectile vomits this stuff at the people who cornered her." Since that character has a contained disposition, the opportunity to lay into people was exciting for the actress. "For her to scream sketchy words at people was a thrill."
Williams said it was scene in season two in which Arya tells Tywin Lannister that anyone can be killed. "He doesn't believe it [and] he doesn't know who she is. But it means something to her," she said.
For Beharie, it was the moment Abbie decided to take on the role of Witness and "goes in, alone, to hell." Sagal said it was quiet moment in which Gemma reveals to Clay and Jax that she had been raped. "For the good of the whole, she didn't tell the secret because she knew it would start a war," she said. Coming at the end of the season, the revelation was "a powerful moment." She continued, "For her to reveal that secret was a big step. That was pretty kick ass for her."
Though she quickly thought of thirty moments across the three stories, Paulson zeroed in a scene from the season three finale, in which Jessica Lange's character died in her arms. "The only way for my character to own her 'Supreme' title was to let her mother go."
Dormer simply quoted Margaery, saying, "I want to be the queen."
Another fan asked what superhero they would like to play. Williams immediately, giddily, said, "I'd play Spider-man." She explained that, "the typical superhero look is strong, muscly, big, but I love that Spider-Man is agile. It's a lot more subtle."
"I'd love to be Raphael from the 'Ninja Turtles,'" said Maslany to approving cheers. "He's awesome and has the Brooklyn accent." Beharie said she would want to be the Hulk. "Press the wrong button and it's on." Sagal picked Caesar from the recent "Planet of the Apes" movies while Paulson would want to be Wolverine. "I sort of look like that in the morning," she joked.
"I was a huge Batman fan," said Dormer. "The psychology of that man is so interesting and that's why it's had so many incarnations."
For the final question, a fan asked Williams and Dormer which of their characters is the more ruthless. Instead of answering the question directly, Williams brought up something that concerned her about fan response to the character. "Arya has experiences that are awful for a 12-year-old. We all like to brush aside that she's twelve," she said. Though she acknowledged that the character has many kick ass moments, she felt "you can't live your life like that and be okay in the head forever." She is certain Arya got on the boat to Bravos at the close of Season 4 because "she doesn't know what's right or wrong anymore."
Dormer also gave an interesting, if not direct, answer: "Game of Thrones shows you all the ways people can wield power: political, sexual, dragons."