When Scarlett Johansson was seventeen, she shot Lost in Translation in Tokyo. “It was really hard,” she remembers. “It was a seven-week shoot; I missed my boyfriend; we had a Japanese crew, so there was a language barrier. I remember being quite lonely.” That, to a large extent, was also the tone of the film: the anomie of geographic displacement, filtered through the bright lights of a luxury high-rise hotel. “It was just a different time to be an American in Tokyo,” she says.
Today you can know “where the cool kids are,” as she puts it—and they are everywhere, in Jakarta and Jerusalem, in Buenos Aires and Brussels—simply by glancing at your phone. Much more has been found in translation than lost. In the entertainment industry, Johansson—who will appear in Avengers: Endgame next month—elaborates, everything is more porous now, from the way people work to the way they watch. “There’s a scope to entertainment,” she says.
The first shoot for this story takes place on a crisp winter day in a secret skylighted studio in East London. The city and the country are gripped—as they have been for the past two and a half years—by the prospect of Brexit, a withdrawal that symbolizes, like the plan for an actual wall in the United States, an increasingly closed-off nationalism. (A second shoot will take place a few weeks later in New York.)
The gathering of these actresses over the course of a long, convivial weekend, however, feels like a sign of a different kind of political and cultural movement. The women who have assembled here live in places like Berlin, Seoul, and Shanghai. They are massively famous in their home countries, and, in many cases, well on their way to that kind of fame in countries we more typically think of as entertainment powerhouses. But bringing them together is not intended to make a statement about crossing over from the periphery to the center; it is about the new center, which is everywhere and nowhere at once.
Travel is easier and cheaper than it once was; films and TV shows from around the world are accessible in an instant. Netflix alone currently offers about 35 foreign-language shows that will stream straight to your laptop, and plans to host up to 100. Broadway is a testing ground for the West End, and vice versa, with Sydney and Melbourne not infrequently triangulating the transatlantic (and transpacific) theater trade. Social media make a certain kind of fame unrestricted, cut loose from subway posters or network television. We live in global times, and these are the faces of the new world order.
This is not to say that borders don’t exist. In the process of putting this story together, other boundaries arose—ones that are perhaps more pertinent in a post–#MeToo era than the color of one’s passport or the language that comes most easily. “I’d like to have no nationality and no gender,” says Léa Seydoux, who has worked with Quentin Tarantino and Wes Anderson, been a Bond girl, and won the Palme d’Or at Cannes for her portrayal of a lesbian artist in Blue Is the Warmest Color. The pale-eyed Icelandic actress Hera Hilmar recently appeared as a postapocalyptic heroine in the sci-fi thriller Mortal Engines, yet when I ask her who her role models are she names Al Pacino. Eiza González, the Mexican bombshell who broke out in the U.S. in Baby Driver, mentions she is inspired by Marlon Brando, and Seydoux, entirely independently, names Brando as the actor she most admires. Alba Rohrwacher—born to a German father and an Italian mother, delicately featured and steely of thought—says her goal is “to play a male part. Like Cate Blanchett in I’m Not There or Tilda Swinton in Orlando.”
Without prompting, the testimonies stack up: Gender is another boundary that is breaking down. When thinking of the parts they’d like to play, many actresses instinctively reach for a level of complication that has traditionally been a male preserve. “We’ve had so many different kinds of men on-screen. We’ve had so many heroes, so many antiheroes; we’ve had crime, romance, drama, thrillers; we’ve had psychos and kings,” says Elizabeth Debicki—an Australian who stole Steve McQueen’s Widows last year from a stellar female cast. “We don’t get to run the gamut like that as women. We need a myriad of experiences.”
If there is one thread that unites these actresses, one topic to which they all seem drawn, it is the fact of being female—what that means now, and what it could mean in the future. Do they feel more vulnerable than men, still, to breaches of privacy? Could they use their visibility wisely? Do they have a responsibility to show teenage girls, however subliminally, options for who to be? The feeling over the course of these fourteen conversations is one of mounting freedom, as if what we were witnessing, globally, were an overturning of a passive tradition. An actress, they collectively suggested, is no longer someone who waits to be asked; she’s a person who opens her own doors.
What is the measure of success for these women? Is it box-office numbers? Instagram followers? Number of bodyguards required when traveling? Work they find rewarding? Or could it be, in some formula yet to be identified, degrees of separation from Adam Driver? (Three of these actresses have starred opposite him—Johansson, Rohrwacher, and Golshifteh Farahani.) The women gathered here are not, it should be said, one another’s exact equivalents. Grouping them is a kind of impossible exercise, one that encourages comparisons to clarify their standing in the world, but then quickly makes those comparisons irrelevant.
When I meet Angelababy (the single name is her own invention), she expresses mild regret over the fact that she has forgotten the password to her Instagram account. “Oh, no,” I say. “What will your fans do if you can’t post anything?” (Angelababy has 6.9 million Instagram followers.) The woman dubbed “the Kim Kardashian of China” smiles and sighs with modest insouciance. “I have other social media in China, so it’s fine.” She explains that she has a Weibo account, accessible only within China. She checks her phone to get me the number of followers: 98 million.
Bruna Marquezine, the quiet 23-year-old Brazilian telenovela star, dated the soccer player Neymar for many years. In Brazil, you’d need a whole new mathematical principle in order to calculate the level of fame that particular combination confers. “He was my first real boyfriend,” Marquezine, a former child star, tells me. She was seventeen when they began dating, maturing in public whether she liked it or not. “People loved to watch the relationship as if it were a soap opera. We broke up more than four times,” she says with sadness in her voice. “As someone watching, you want a happy ending, but as a producer sometimes you know it’s not working out. It was like telling people: There won’t be another season.”
The geographical specifics of Hilmar’s upbringing almost certainly have some bearing on her work. She comes from a film-industry family in Reykjavík, the capital of a country that elected the world’s first female president. When she describes the harsh weather and black sands of Iceland, her casting in strange dystopian stories makes a lot of sense. “The story goes that they trained for the moon in Iceland,” she says before pointing out that this environment was an unusually supportive one in which to grow up. In a country of 300,000 people, she explains, “everyone matters a lot.”
And then there is someone like Deepika Padukone, who is the highest-paid actress in India and the first woman ever to make it into the top five of the Forbes India Celebrity 100 list. (She also featured as part of Time’s 100 most-influential-people list.) She is, at 33, a truly international star. As Vin Diesel, her costar in xXx: Return of Xander Cage, wrote in Time, “She’s not just here to represent India; she’s here to represent the world.” Padukone’s latest hit, Padmaavat (2018), made $50 million at the domestic box office in India, and $80 million worldwide. Not bad, by Hollywood standards; but Hollywood standards are meaningless here. The critical numbers are these: A ticket to the movies in Mumbai costs anything between 50 cents and $6. Think how many people had to see Padmaavat in order for the film to amass those kinds of earnings.
The Nigerian actress Adesua Etomi-Wellington can’t walk down the street in Lagos without getting mobbed, and if she’s with her husband, the actor Banky Wellington, forget it—a trip to the grocery store launches a thousand selfies. But unlike some of her cohorts on the shoot, she’s more of a third-culture kid, born in Nigeria and raised mainly in England. (She speaks in two fluent accents—Lagos and the British Midlands.) She went to school in Coventry, studied drama at University of Wolverhampton, and then got a nine-to-five job with the fashion arm of a large supermarket chain. It was then that, as she puts it, “I can’t explain it—I felt I had to go back to Nigeria.”
That was toward the end of 2012, and in the past six years or so she has become one of the biggest stars in Nollywood, Nigeria’s relatively young film industry. The Wedding Party (2016), a colorful and witty romantic comedy in which she plays the lead opposite Wellington, was the highest-grossing film in the history of Nigerian cinema, until it was eclipsed by its sequel, which also starred Etomi-Wellington. In fact, she points out, of the four films that have done best for the relatively young industry, she is in three. “I love, love, love Nollywood,” Etomi-Wellington says brightly over tea and biscuits at the shoot. “I feel like she’s my baby, and it’s my responsibility, along with a lot of other performers, to grow her.”
The South Korean actress Doona Bae insists that her life at home is, by contrast, pretty low-key. “No one bothers me,” she says with a shrug. “It’s not like K-pop stars—they have no privacy. I’m an actor.” Still, pull at the threads and this picture of quiet anonymity begins to unravel. Bae never takes taxis in Seoul, because she doesn’t want the drivers to know where she lives.
The daughter of a stage actress, Bae is a serious performer. (“I watched Crazy Rich Asians on the plane,” she says. “It was kind of decent.”) The Korean film industry is thriving, and she has worked with some of the best directors in Asia—not just Koreans like Park Chan-wook (who recently directed the AMC adaptation of John le Carré’s The Little Drummer Girl) but also Japanese directors like Hirokazu Kore-eda (his masterful Shoplifters was nominated for an Oscar this year), for whom she played an uncanny inflatable sex doll in Air Doll (2009). She’s crossed over with Tom Tykwer and the Wachowski sisters’ Cloud Atlas and worked with the Wachowskis on their TV series Sense8. In 2006, she starred in The Host, the highest-grossing Korean film to that date. Shrinking with embarrassment, Bae has to admit that her life is “basically what all millennials would probably dream about.”
What happens when you leave your home turf and see it—or yourself—from another angle? Alba Rohrwacher has worked in France, Germany, Austria, Belgium, Albania, and the U.S. (She’s played Scottish actress Tilda Swinton’s daughter in Italian director Luca Guadagnino’s I Am Love—a role that seemed to defy borders—and a fictional counterpart to Marion Cotillard in Arnaud Desplechin’s Ismael’s Ghosts.) Yet she remains indelibly associated with some of her own country’s greatest exports: She starred in her sister Alice Rohrwacher’s Cannes-celebrated The Wonders and Happy as Lazzaro, and she narrated the TV series of Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend. “Because we are European, we have fewer opportunities,” she suggests, comparing her position with that of a Hollywood actress. “But at the same time, more. We have the possibility to be adventurous.”
Seydoux often feels at her most adventurous, ironically, when she’s working at the heart of the Hollywood mainstream, on films like Mission: Impossible—Ghost Protocol or Spectre (she’s about to start shooting Bond 25). “Maybe because I’m French, it’s still exotic,” she suggests. “I can reinvent myself there because there’s a cultural discrepancy, and it’s an extremely pleasant feeling. Sometimes when I make films in France, I feel much less free.” When she works with independent directors such as Yorgos Lanthimos (she was in his 2016 film The Lobster), she thinks of it as “almost a sociological enterprise,” she says. “I have to understand where they come from in order to adapt to their way of filmmaking.” She considers her international career to be an unusual stroke of luck. “It would have made me very sad to be a French actress, only making films in France,” she says.
For González, things are a little different. She has been well known in Mexico since she was fourteen. But after she starred in the American TV series of Robert Rodriguez’s From Dusk Till Dawn (2014–2016)—and more particularly, after Baby Driver—she began to see Latinas from Hollywood’s point of view. “In Mexico City we’re all sort of Mexicans,” she explains. “We see each other in the same light.” Whereas in the U.S., she’s become aware of herself as a representative of a larger population. “Am I Latin enough? Am I not-Latin enough?” she wonders. González began to realize than many of the scripts she was sent reinforced stereotypes. The characters proposed for her were involved in the drug trade, or they were “the help,” as she puts it. She began to turn down work on moral grounds. From then on, her choices had to reflect the fact that she is “a Latin woman representing Latin women,” she tells me.
González is not the only actress to understand that crossing cultures can be a political act. Of all the actresses gathered here, perhaps none feel that more acutely than Farahani. She is finished with her shoot when I speak with her, and she’s wearing her own black-and-white-striped sweater, her hair tied back in a ponytail. “Most actors that are here,” she says, surveying the room, “act in their mother tongue and in their own countries. I don’t perform in Farsi, and I don’t perform in Iranian movies. Because I’m the enemy of the state.”
Farahani’s trajectory is complicated. In the United States, depending on your cinema-going habits, she might be known as the bald, tattooed villain Shansa in Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales, or as Adam Driver’s supportive wife in Jim Jarmusch’s quiet Paterson. In Iran, once upon a time, Farahani was a heroine. In 2006, she made a melodrama called M for Mother that was a box-office smash in that country and turned her, by her own estimate, into “the mother of the nation.” So when she went to work with Ridley Scott on Body of Lies (2008), it was considered a betrayal of a certain ideal—she was the first actress born and raised in Iran to appear in a major Hollywood film since the 1979 revolution, and she dared to bare her head at the New York premiere. As punishment, the Iranian authorities took away her passport; Farahani subsequently fled to France. She now splits her time between Portugal and Ibiza.
This does not prevent her actions from being seen as political in Iran. “This movie, that photo shoot, kissing—farting is a political act! Now I’m out there without a veil and provoking the youth.” When Farahani posed for the cover of the French magazine Egoïste in 2014, she further fanned the flames of disapproval in Iran. But the actress insists she does not want to be turned into someone else’s flag. “Women are weapons of war,” she explains. The nudity—about which an actress of another nationality might barely think twice—was in her case a means of striking back at the people who had tried to impose restrictions on her. It said, she tells me, “I don’t belong to you, my body doesn’t belong to you. You think I’m your property? No.”
What can these actresses do with their visibility? Being looked at is one thing, but can they turn it to positive effect? To some extent, their work is a kind of statement, their professional choices setting the bar higher and higher in terms of what is expected of female actors. “I’m not interested in repeating myself,” says Liv Lisa Fries, the petite and irrepressible star of Babylon Berlin—the German series about the Weimar era that appears on Netflix, now shooting its third season. Fries’s hugely immersive past roles in German films have included a woman with cystic fibrosis (in Zurich) and the survivor of a high school massacre (in The Dam). With the success of Babylon Berlin, Fries has found herself thinking that she doesn’t want things to “just happen” to her, she says. “I want to do things for myself.”
To Vanessa Kirby, the British actress who portrayed Princess Margaret in The Crown, it appears that much of the film industry is about “selling stuff.” But in a TV series like The Crown, not only do you get the ability to explore a character to capacity, you’re working on a platform that, as she says, “doesn’t have to be sold.” That’s true for many of these actresses, who have embraced the era of peak TV. As well as the German series, Fries has had a recurring role in the American show Counterpart opposite J. K. Simmons; Hilmar is making See, a futuristic sci-fi drama series, for Apple; and Debicki is committed to Lovecraft Country, a horror series for HBO executive-produced by J. J. Abrams and Jordan Peele.
But even with their more-mainstream projects, these actresses are cognizant of the messages they’re sending. Kirby, alongside González, will soon appear in Fast Furious Presents: Hobbs Shaw, and Kirby’s mission in that movie was to make sure her character was not your average sex symbol. “She’s as much of a fighter as the men,” she elaborates. “I was wearing polo necks and trousers—I mean, you literally don’t see any skin at all. And it was important to make sure she is never saved by the man. Even if it’s on a subconscious level, a thirteen-year-old girl might walk out of the cinema and feel, ‘Oh, I’m as capable as my brother.’ ” All of this was Kirby’s idea, and, she says, she “felt heard”: “I think it’s a really different time.”
“It’s a conversation that Hollywood has never had before,” says Johansson. “It feels like we’re all kind of catching up.” There’s a broadening and receptiveness in the entertainment world, a movement to encompass wider and wider circles. She cites the Kiwi actor and director Taika Waititi, her collaborator on the forthcoming film Jojo Rabbit, as a prime example of Hollywood’s ever-expanding perspective: “He is this Maori dude, who was directing these small films in New Zealand and then was doing the Thor franchise.” And she’s in preproduction on Black Widow with Cate Shortland, who is the first solo female director of a Marvel film.
Perhaps the best distillation of the shift in expectations came from Debicki. “It’s always: ‘Susan, 22, light, slender, beautiful. A biotechnician,’ ” she says of the less-than-imaginative way scripts often introduce female characters. “Or: ‘Amanda, mother of three, gets off the motorcycle, the most beautiful woman you’ve ever seen.’ ” When it comes to male characters, she says, it’s just “Rob or Matt or whatever his name is gets off his horse. You’re like: But is he beautiful and slender? Is he handsome and fit?” Debicki is laughing, but the point is not insignificant. Since #MeToo, she says, she has felt relieved. “A space has opened up, and people are saying what they want.” Women talk to one another more about collaborating, she says; there is, in a way there hasn’t been before, “a sense of connective tissue.”
For the women in these pages, and with any luck for many more, the working world is shifting, fermenting, maturing. There is a feeling that something new will come out of this moment; that it will be imaginative and energetic and various, and that it will happen everywhere.