All women in Hollywood kick ass, but there are some actresses who take the term a little more literally than others. Yes, we’re talking about action stars — the women who are fierce and fearless in every sense. Entertainment Weekly‘s aptly-named Women Who Kick Ass panel brought together Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.’s Chloe Bennet, Watchmen‘s Regina King, Riverdale‘s Camila Mendes, The Darkest Mind‘s Amandla Stenberg, and Doctor Who‘s Jodie Whittaker, to discuss their experiences in an industry that has, until recently, been dominated by men.
EW’s own Jessica Shaw moderated the event, which kicked off with a nod to the real-life “superhero women who bravely spoke out against the ugliest of villains.” The mood stayed both revelatory and celebratory as the actresses opened up about both their struggles to break into Hollywood and all the ways in which their experiences have improved. Despite the fact that the women span years among them, they all spoke of childhoods in which they found a dearth of onscreen role models — or at least role models who weren’t played by men.
“I was obsessed with Summer Roberts on The O.C.” Mendes said with a laugh. “She was speaking her mind and was fearless about it, and she was also the closest thing I could find to a Latina actress simply because she had brown hair and was a little tan.”
Once she decided to become an actress, she was faced with unbearable typecasting, telling the packed audience in Hall H that she didn’t even think she would go out for the role of Veronica because of all the different ways she had heard no.
“In my first year of auditioning I kept going out for Latina roles but wasn’t booking them because their idea of Latina was more ‘urban,’ as they liked to say,” shared Mendes. “I feel like a lot of times people are trying to fill a quota or to make a point with diversity.”
The same happened to Chloe Bennet, who changed her last name (it was originally Wong) after a slew of bad experiences.
“When I was first auditioning there were Asian roles or white roles and they’d tell me I didn’t look Asian, but that I wasn’t right enough to be the lead,” said the Marvel star. “I was even once told ‘You actually have a leading lady personality for an Asian.’ I felt a little guilty about [changing my name] but I also knew that it was going to help make it so that other girls after me wouldn’t have to do that. And I booked the first role I auditioned for after I changed my name, by the way.”
For Jodie Whitaker’s part, she waxed poetic on her barrier-breaking gig as the very first female doctor on Doctor Who, a role she never imagined playing.
“There was no part of me that ever thought I would be auditioning for the Doctor, because the Doctor’s played by a guy,” she explained. “But why? I’ve got as much qualification to play it as any guy — none of us have come out of alien school, you know?”
While Whitaker has loved getting to take on the iconic character — and getting the opportunity to give little girls and boys an onscreen role model to look up to — there is one aspect of the role that she cited as more difficult than she anticipated.
“For a long time I was just answering questions in scenes, so I never started the dialogue or got to take the conversation in another direction when people were talking about something,” said the actress. “So I got into the mindset that it was easier to learn lines because I was always just waiting for my cue to answer the question.”
Regina King is set to star in the highly-anticipated Watchmen series — which is still under lock-and-key — but she recently completed another groundbreaking gig: directing the season finale of Insecure. She told the audience that, alongside her female director of photography and assistant director, which she nicknamed the Holy Trinity, she felt an entirely different kind of empowerment.
“I’ve noticed as an actress that if I’m being directed by women there’s a sensitivity that’s there,” she explained. “I’m always leery about using the word sensitive along with woman because it’s so often thought of as a negative, but I think of leading with love…the three of us were feeling like badass broads.”
Amandla Stenberg echoed her sentiments about having women take the lead on set, telling the audience that while men have the sense that power is gained through dominance, “Women understand that power is based in trust. Instead of people doing what they’re told out of a place of fear they do it out of a sense of wanting to contribute to something larger than themselves.”
And, it wasn’t lost on the audience that the same could be said for that very panel.