October 01, 2012 at 02:45 PM EDT

The air in the room is heavy when Meg Ryan, Diane Lane and America Ferrera take a seat at a large round table for their chat with Entertainment Weekly at the Beverly Hilton Hotel in Los Angeles. The subject at hand — gender violence — is a tough one to tackle, but not talking about it directly contradicts the mission that brought all the women together for the PBS documentary Half the Sky.

The two-part, four-hour doc, based on the bestselling novel of the same name, begins airing tonight on the network. And if follows the actresses, normally seen to audiences in a number of beloved movies and television shows, in the belly of a very real global issue. (On the second page, watch an exclusive clip from Ryan’s segment, airing tonight.)

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Tell me about what drew each of you to this specific cause and project.

DIANE LANE: After reading the book, I was so electrified by the heroism I’d read. In each chapter, the odds were so stacked against these young women in various ways — whether it was from the sex trade industry, if you can call it such a thing; or maternal mortality, which is what I covered in my segment; or surgical chastity, which is imposed on girls as young as seven. And to meet [author] Nicholas Kristof was like meeting David Bowie. He’s a rock star. So when they approached me, it was a no-brainer to say yes.

AMERICA FERRERA: For me, it was definitely the book. I’d read the book, and I think what struck me about it was that it wasn’t just about sad stories and victims, it was really powerful and about women who had so much strength that they could pull themselves out of the worst conditions you could imagine. I closed the book and didn’t feel so burdened by just how awful things are in the world. I closed the book and thought, “There are solutions.” So that’s what made the book feel so special. So when the opportunity came around, it was like, why wouldn’t you take this incredible opportunity?

There is a fair amount of danger involved in putting yourselves in the center of these situations. Tell me about your expectations leading up to the trip. Were you nervous?

LANE: I was a little nervous. Look, you can wear a Burka or some sort of head covering that makes you feel a little less stigmatized for being a Westerner, but I didn’t know about the landmines left over from their civil war that were 15 years old and still undetonated. [The guides] didn’t know where they were, and you’re driving around [with] no roads. But then again, I was with Nicholas, who had been there before, and our crew. And being with [activist] Edna Adan, it was being like Elvis. She’s been so helpful within her own community.

Meg, did you ever feel scared?

MEG RYAN: [Activist] Somaly [Mam] wanted to go talk to some prostitutes in a part of Phnom Penh that was particularly dangerous, and they were going to outfit us with secret cameras and who we were supposed to be aware of were the police because they were the ones who could have put us in jail. It’s so corrupt that when certain girls leave the brothels and go to policemen [for help], those policemen sell them back to other brothels at a higher price. So there were situations where you couldn’t quite get your bearings. “Oh, the people we’re afraid of are the police?”

LANE: Who do you trust?

RYAN: There were certain situations like that.

FERRERA: I didn’t really think about all of that until I got on the plane to New Delhi. I finally started reading the pamphlet they gave me to prepare and they said, “Here’s the terrorist alert” and “Here’s where you’re going.” I thought, “Oh my, God. I haven’t even thought of these things.” And I was like, “You’re on the plane. What are you going to do about it now?” And once you’re there, [Lane] had Edna, I had [activist/guide] Urmi [Basu]. And you immediately feel like you’re with the safest person you could possibly be with. It was the last thing on my mind when I was there. I never felt in danger.

NEXT: “I became angry, and I didn’t know what to do with my anger.”

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