Actress Anna Gunn garnered plenty of attention, both positive and negative, as Skyler White, the long-suffering, outspoken wife of the chemistry teacher-turned-drug kingpin Walter White on five seasons of the hit TV series Breaking Bad. Her character was so hated for her strong-willed, no bullshit nature (and perceived shrewishness) by the show’s loyal fan base and provoked such personal vitriol from them that it prompted Gunn to pen an Op-Ed for the New York Times in 2013 entitled “I Have a Character Issue” in which she detailed her concern that the greater culture continues to attack non-subservient females.
She is continuing to break new ground with her role in the movie Equity, opening this Friday. The taut financial thriller, notably produced, written and directed exclusively by women, follows star investment banker Naomi Bishop (Gunn) as she pushes a tech start-up through what she hopes will be a hot IPO, one that will make up for a recent professional set-back. Complicating the picture is a former college classmate turned white collar crime investigator (Alysia Reiner) who is eyeing potential foul play and a junior associate (Sarah Megan Thomas) jostling for her turn in the spotlight. Through this trifecta’s eyes and Naomi’s arc, we are privy to a multi-layered portrait of female ambition and sacrifice in a world typically dominated by men.
What was the genesis of you taking on Naomi? Was it an immediate moment of “I have to do this”? Yeah, it really was. I was sent the script by my agent and he said, “I think it’s extraordinary.” I read it right away and I thought the role was exactly what I was looking for and hoping for. I thought, “Ooh, here it is, something I can really dig into.” And then I met [director] Meera [Menon] and talked with her for a couple of hours and we were so completely on the same page and had such understanding and such good intuition between the two of us, so I was sold on her immediately and just wanted to dive into it.
What specifically was it about Naomi that elicited that reaction from you, that you had so much to work with? She’s such a powerful woman. And she’s a woman who really believed in something and went for it and put everything into it. I admired her courage, I admired the warrior in her, but I also got the overtones, the things layered in so beautifully by our screenwriter Amy Fox in terms of the nuances of who she is inside and privately, the isolation she feels. And that’s something she’s chosen to deal with, so she’s a character who doesn’t feel sorry for herself and I really liked that. I liked that also about Sklyer [White, from Breaking Bad]. And I enjoy taking on characters that you understand may be perceived as difficult or as abrasive, but I think that that’s important, that women start to expand into those roles. And we can be, just as [Naomi] says in the movie, “Why is it bad for us to say we want to make money, that we want to be ambitious, that we want to rise up as high as men do?” And to own it and not feel like you have to be quiet about it. So I really felt that the message of that was important. I also felt that it’s an interesting story as a hero’s journey, as it were, when you meet a character who’s been on such an upward rise and then suddenly has a big failure. And you meet them at a crisis point in their lives and as things start crumbling down because it’s a real crossroads in somebody’s life. And so I was fascinated by this journey she took and how she finally understands herself and it really changes throughout the course of the movie. That kind of fully realized, rich experience for me was very new and something I had been looking for, so I was very excited.
Did you have any preconceived notions of what the world of Wall Street would be like for women, and to what extent were those debunked or heightened by your preparation for the role? I think that there is across the board in all professions women dealing with a lot of the same issues. But what I’m surprised about in terms of investment banking and that particular side of things is how artful it is in terms of making the deal. It’s not just a technical, numbers game. You have to be really psychologically and emotionally intuitive. You have to really understand who you’re dealing with. You have to understand the needs of the clients, the needs of the investors. You have to really walk this tightrope between being extremely prepared, confident, powerful, but not too much because that might get you in trouble or people might perceive you as being abrasive or as they say to her, “rubbing people the wrong way” or ruffling feathers. You can’t be too soft or meek, either, because then people just dismiss you and push you aside. So to me, what I really learned about [was] the fine line that they have to walk every day, in terms of the likeability factor, in terms of appearance, in terms of presentation, in terms of all those things they have to think about that men don’t necessarily, somebody’s not necessarily going to go after a guy for wearing a certain suit, whereas a woman’s wearing pants or whatever, I think there’s much more scrutiny. And what also surprised me, even though in our film it shows you the competitive nature of what they do and to me the takeaway is not that women will stab each other in the back, but that they are as competitive as men are and they’re going to do what they have to do. And ultimately, Naomi makes a different turn. But what I observed in the women who were both investors in the film and also an inspiration for these characters, there was an incredibly supportive feeling I got, like a support network amongst them, a sisterhood, an understanding and a shorthand. And I was told over and over how necessary it was for women to support each other and nurture and bring other people into the business and mentor them.
You obviously did a lot of research speaking with women who work in investment banking. Were there any stories that made you think, “My god, does that really happen?” There were so many things, actually, in terms of how Naomi has to talk to her boss, the fact that he so openly backhands her and she’s not a woman who suffers fools and she’s somebody who speaks her mind and speaks it freely, but she’s still in that position in that moment of wanting to…I think that’s why she boxes [recreationally with a trainer]. Because she can’t say it. She knows she’s got to keep it in, but you can see the fury she feels in that moment. It’s like, “I’ve been winning and winning and winning and winning and suddenly I have one loss and you’re not going to give me a promotion that I’ve been working for for twenty years.” So, that was a really rich moment. And also the chocolate chip cookie moment [when Naomi screams at a junior male colleague for giving her a cookie with fewer chips in it than in his]—of course I loved it from the beginning, but when I was told it was an actual story that one of the women told Amy verbatim, it’s so brilliant. Because it’s such a great metaphor, of course, but the fact that somebody in that moment just went “Why do you have 20 chocolate chips and I only have 3?” says it all. So the fact that it was true…
You brought up Skyler not being the most likable character. In that moment when Naomi’s boss tells her she rubs people the wrong way, I couldn’t help but think of the op ed you wrote for the New York Times [in 2013] about how Skyler rubbed people the wrong way to the extent that viewers hated you. Did this world and this character resonate for you as an actress who has played so-called unlikeable characters before? Yes. And what really always amazed me about Skyler was “Unlikeable? Why is she so unlikeable?” I could see certain things that were set up in the narrative and the story-telling. She was the one having to take charge of the household because when we first meet [her husband] Walt[er White] and Skyler, Walt is plodding along, looking at the ground. He’s the guy who has almost given up on life. And she’s gotta be the one to take charge. And she’s one of those people who finds that she can keep the inner chaos and inner anxiety at bay by trying to order and control things externally. I can see why that could be perceived by people as, “Oh, she’s difficult.” But the extent to which people hated her because she stood in the way of Walt and she was the one, more than anybody else, who said, “You’re not doing [the drug dealing] for us. You’re not doing it for your kids. Come on. Look at the mountain of money. When is enough enough? Why are you doing this?” And watching this person become, quite frankly, a monster, it was disturbing to us all. We couldn’t understand it. If we don’t shine light on it and look at why that happens, we won’t make progress. And we have to allow women to progress as human beings and to move forward into those positions of power. It’s still perceived as threatening when a woman is strong and voices her opinion and says, “I’m not going to just play the charming and sweet one.” So if we chip away at it by moving ahead and telling these stories of powerful women and what they go through, then we’re going to continue to make progress.
The toeing of the line between asserting yourself and holding your tongue, is that something that you have felt you need to do as an actress in your industry? Yes, sometimes I remember especially in my 20s and 30s…I had really good mentors and acting teachers who gave me a really good sense of myself as an actor and gave me a sense that you are the one creating this character and if you don’t agree with the direction something is going in or you don’t agree with the direction you’re being given, voice it, say something about it. Or really continue to go your own way if you believe that’s the way to go. And I think that sometimes that speaking up and saying, “I get what you’re saying, but I actually feel like it should go this way” or “It seems more natural or realistic for it to go this way because this is the way I’m building this character” that could be perceived as being difficult or being unlikeable. It’s crazy because if an actor says that, if a man says that, it’s not perceived as, “would you just be quiet and go do what I told you to do?” There might be more give and take and a bit more of a discussion about it. And I would feel sometimes as a young woman that when I had something to say, it would be dismissed or I would get a negative reaction.
This being a project that is female produced, female written, female directed. Did you notice a shift in environment in terms of the dialogue you were able to have with each other, without the concerns you just highlighted? Absolutely. We had a really open dialogue. We had the luxury of having some rehearsal time before we started shooting and [co-producer and co-star] Sarah [Megan Thomas] and [co-producer and co-star] Alycia [Reiner] and Meera and I talked through the scenes, talked about the backstories, really wanted to flesh them out. It felt like such a collaborative process. And you don’t always get that. So it did feel like we were all very much in there as a team working together. And we were all advocates for our characters, very strong women playing very strong women. Which was great. Because we had debates about the way we saw certain things. And that’s what’s happening as well in the movie.