By Sandra Gonzalez
Updated 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.”

Did you all talk to each other at all during this process?

ALL: No.

So you did jumped into it on your own?

LANE: It was all one at a time and each person had their own experience. And it was so great because I saw the show and I have such great reverence and respect for what [they] went through and what [they] saw.

RYAN: But Diane went first. You were a real guinea pig.

ALL: [laugh]

RYAN: I’m sure we were the beneficiary somehow.

LANE: I don’t know about that.

FERRERA: And each place was so different from the other. I don’t think we could have prepared from each other’s experience. We were going into a whole different thing.

I imagine this whole experience was emotionally taxing, but is there anything specific that will stay with you, behind the scenes or that we see in the documentary?

RYAN: Little snippets of facts. One is: It’s more punishable to pirate a DVD than to traffic a girl. Then there were things like faces — these little wonderful triumphant stories and impossible circumstances. [There was] this one little girl who was kept in a barrel, let out to have sex, kept in a barrel, let out to have sex — for years. And she told me at the end of our stay, “People think love is hard. I don’t think that. I think hate is difficult. Love is easy.” And there are those things — flashes.

LANE: It was almost like a dream, right? I’m glad they filmed it or no one would believe that I met those people and saw those things. I came home, and I didn’t know how to regurgitate that to my family. I didn’t know how to do it justice in the telling. And it’s such an emotional journey, it got my ire. I became angry, and I didn’t know what to do with my anger. And crying is considered manipulative. [Laughs] What does that say? I felt responsible to bear witness, but I also wanted to bear witness in a way that did justice to not dictating a way to feel. Does that make sense?

Yes.

LANE: It was a tricky tightrope emotionally. As an actor, I know that there is an emotional responsibility to the moment. But I wasn’t thinking in those terms. Selfishly, I want to go back and cry my eyes out. Selfishly, I want to go back and scream my lungs out. Selfishly, I want to have a three-year-old’s tantrum about what I felt. But there’s absolutely nothing appropriate about that or helpful to anyone. But I can tell you that now.

FERRERA: I went into it was afraid of how much emotion I was going to have. Like Diane said, it’s not appropriate to walk in and shed your tears, like it’s some gift to people living in a terrible situation. I was really afraid of that because I know I can get really emotional sometimes. But I was so shocked at how little I felt — or how little I could access. There were no tears. It was too much to take in all at the same time. When I left and said goodbye, that’s when the floodgates opened and I couldn’t contain it anymore. But I couldn’t explain the tears and non-emotions for months. Coming back over the Williamsburg Bridge and into my life, that moment for me was “I cannot believe that 12 hours ago I was in India and seeing what I was seeing.” It took me months to try to figure out that journey.

RYAN: Some things you can’t even let yourself [believe]. You’re standing there and the four-year-old [in front of you] was used as a prostitute. You can’t conceive of it. But hopefully this is a story about much more triumph than that and more optimism than that and a story about the third world grasping the hand of the first world. Gender oppression is a global issue, and hopefully, it’s an optimistic four hours.

Watch an exclusive clip from Ryan’s segment below:

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