There’s a proverb passed down through generations, one that’s inspired entrepreneurs and authors, artists and CEOs: “If you want something done, do it yourself.”
I think of that phrase when I look at the careers of women in Hollywood — icons and upstarts finding new ways to shape untold narratives and bury stifling stereotypes. When you mold your mouth around that idiom, words like “ambition,” “determination” and “drive” trigger in your mind. It’s the slogan of the “go-getter,” the “work-horse,” the over-achiever ready to wrangle life’s proverbial balls in search of that elusive notion of success.
But when you examine the careers shared by Hollywood’s of-the-moment actresses through the prism of that maxim, the word that materializes isn’t “power,” it’s “versatility.” Because that ability to adapt, to adjust, to not only switch up your perspective but also, your expected trajectory, is something the women running the business of film and TV right now have in common.
It’s certainly a defining character trait of Olivia Wilde.
Like any attractive, promising actress hoping to rise through the early aughts ranks of Young Hollywood, Wilde was limited by roles that did nothing to serve her talent. She played a bisexual lynchpin in the fated romance of the sun-soaked teen soap, The O.C., and one half of a modern-day Romeo & Juliet pairing in another Fox series that imagined Verona as a more soul-sucking version of L.A. and the feuding families led by porn magnates and self-righteous lawmen. When her “big breaks” did come — a revised take on a video game franchise with Tron: Legacy and the comic-book-inspired sci-fi mashup Cowboys & Aliens — they flopped too quickly for Wilde to trade on the currency of their pre-release buzz.
So instead of mourning an early career that might have included more franchise options and action behemoths, Wilde pivoted, indulging her interest in the art of filmmaking by learning from some of the industry’s biggest auteurs. She shaped opportunity from small parts and indie projects, taking on-set lessons with Spike Jonze and Reed Morano. She steered music videos for bands like the Red Hot Chili Peppers and Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros. She found interesting projects that taught her the value of creative control and began to re-direct her course.
“I remember being on the set of Tron, at age 25, and really wanting to do more to control the storyline of my character, wanting to have a bigger voice in the creative direction,” she told Vanity Fair. “To their credit, the producers and director on that film were remarkably receptive to that. It was an awakening of sorts because while they were being very generous and allowing me to speak up, that wasn’t happening on other sets, and I just felt like I needed more actual control.”
But plenty of actors desire a voice, a method to channel their creative impulses. To make the jump from on-screen to behind the camera, Wilde had to start taking risks, leveraging her name and the relationships she had forged with other women in the industry to tell the stories that mattered to her.
She also had to figure out exactly what kind of stories those were.
“‘You love movies — you should be a movie star,’” Wilde said in a Variety interview last year. “No one tells a little girl, ‘Why don’t you become a director?’ It’s just not a part of the conversation. But if a little boy says he loves movies, it’s like, ‘Maybe one day you’ll direct. Maybe you’ll be the next Steven Spielberg or Martin Scorsese.’”
Friendships with insiders like producer Jessica Elbaum helped her find the script for Booksmart, the Gen Z coming-of-age comedy that would serve as her directorial debut. Revolving around a pair of studious best friends who embark on a wild journey the night before their graduation, the film looked very different before Wilde came aboard. She didn’t just want to adapt a story that had already been written in a way that had been done so many times before. She wanted to tailor it for a new generation and film it through the lens of a decidedly female gaze. And she was given the space to do it, following Morano’s advice to “pitch exactly the movie” she wanted to make without making compromises or filtering her vision to please executives in the room.
And it worked, in part because Wilde chose a project she connected with that also found an audience of teenagers looking for their own voice on-screen, and in part, because other women in positions of power — people like Annapurna Pictures’ Megan Ellison took a chance on Wilde’s passion project.
And while the budding director helms the singular stories that interest her — she just wrapped filming the thriller Don’t Worry Darling this year — her peers, women like Reese Witherspoon, are carving out a larger space for the kind of diverse storytelling that’s only possible when someone who’s survived the relentless grind of the movie-making business for decades decides to use their amassed fame and name recognition as a hammer to smash ceilings for others.
Witherspoon, like Wilde, knew early in her career that she wanted a say in the kind of women she played on-screen, but that idea of creative autonomy didn’t fully realize until she gained the wisdom that comes with more years spent playing by industry rules.
“I had no idea what I was doing,” Witherspoon told Fast Company of starting her first production company at age 25. “In four years I produced one film. It was beautiful, and I loved it, but it was clear to me that I wasn’t ready to tell stories—because I didn’t know what stories I wanted to tell.”
That company would go on to champion one of her most iconic roles in the film, Legally Blonde before she launched another outfit, Pacific Standard. That production house found more success, as an older Witherspoon felt drawn to films like Gone Girl, Wild, and Big Little Lies. But the actress would pivot once again, with the help of social media this time, to bring her current company, Hello Sunshine to life.
She had been the aging actress looking for meatier roles since her mid-30s — Hollywood’s immaterial expiration date when it comes to its female members continues to boggle our minds — but it wasn’t until her husband, a talent scout, suggested she start taking the reigns, not just in funding the stories she found interesting, but in finding them as well, that something clicked.
“I talked to my husband around that time when the movies weren’t working for me,” she said. “And he said, ‘Are these movies you want to be making?’ And I said, ‘No, I’m waiting for the scripts to come in.’ And he said: ‘You don’t seem like the kind of person who sits around and waits for the phone to ring. You read more books than anybody I know, so why don’t you start making them into your own material?’”
That’s how Reese’s Book Club was born, a digital gathering of book nerds on Instagram that would end up snowballing into a media company that now has shows in development at almost all of the major streaming companies, its own women-focused cable channel — think the Oprah Winfrey Network but with Witherspoon’s bubbly, Southern flair — multiple podcasts, digital programming on Facebook Watch and IGTV, a talk show, and more.
And whether it’s curious-minded talent getting behind the camera for the first time, or beloved actresses weaponizing their clout to create media empires that serve women, the trend of female ownership continues to bulldoze through the studios and networks that have stood as gatekeepers for far too long.
Award-winning actresses like Regina King are bringing social-justice dramas to Academy Awards voters and demanding they listen to the sound of their own history. Multi-hyphenates like Issa Rae and Mindy Kaling are trading in web series for author bios, building season-long comedies on streamers, and financing sitcoms that give us a tongue-in-cheek picture of the new American dream. Prodigies like Margot Robbie and Zendaya are shuffling off the archaic Hollywood typecasts of “movie star” and “ingenue” in favor of crafting roles and backing films that not only interest them but also serve as a mirror for the audiences they want to reach — women, of different creeds and colors, with disparate backgrounds and unique life experiences who’ve been shortchanged by the industry for too long.
In a post #MeToo and #TimesUp era, these women are rediscovering their agency and unapologetically pursuing their interests — on-screen and off. And the movie-making business is a hell of a lot better off for it.