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.