The first thing Danielle Macdonald did at the Cannes Film Festival in May was break into a cold sweat: The airline had lost her luggage.
She was already nervous enough. Macdonald, 26, had been plucked from obscurity to play the lead role in Patti Cake$, a drama about a rapper that was about to face the Cannes critics. Now she had to find something glamorous to wear – pronto – to the premiere.
“As a bigger girl,” Macdonald told me recently, “where was I meant to find something that would fit?” Her story then veered in an unexpected direction – revealing her approach to Hollywood, which expects its lead actresses to be scarily skinny. “I gave myself a pep talk,” she said. “This situation is what it is. Find a way to work around it.”
The red carpet crisis was resolved (another Patti Cake$ star, Cathy Moriarty, lent her a black dress), but if the experiences of countless actresses before Macdonald are any indication, it will not be as easy to overcome the career obstacles that await her post- Patti Cake$ (out Aug. 18). For women – less so for men – weight is perhaps the most stubborn of the entertainment industry’s many biases. Have an average-sized body? Call us when you’ve starved yourself.
In particular, Macdonald must avoid a cycle that plays out over and over in moviedom, one that some film agents coarsely call the fat flavour of the moment. A plus-size actress, almost always an unknown, lands the central role in a film and delivers a knockout performance. She is held up by producers and the entertainment news media as refreshing, long overdue evidence that Hollywood’s insistence on microscopic waistlines is ending.
And then she is slowly but surely pushed into bit parts, many of which are defined by weight.
Consider Nikki Blonsky, who shot to fame in 2007 as the plucky Tracy Turnblad in Hairspray. It was a box-office hit, and Blonsky was nominated for a Golden Globe. She then secured some television roles (Queen Sized, Huge). By 2011, even as she continued to audition, she had turned to cosmetology to pay her bills. After a long acting drought, she surfaced at the Tribeca Film Festival in April in the indie drama Dog Years, which is awaiting a release date.
Gabourey Sidibe’s heart-stopping performance in Precious: Based on the Novel ‘Push’ by Sapphire, her first movie, earned her an Oscar nomination for best actress in 2010. Steady supporting work in television has followed (Empire, American Horror Story), but film roles have been scarce. Most recently, she had a glorified cameo as a maid in The Brothers Grimsby.
Rebel Wilson broke through in Bridesmaids in 2011 and found success in the Pitch Perfect film series. But she has also hit roadblocks. She tried, for instance, to play a romantic heroine in the ABC sitcom Super Fun Night, but viewers weren’t interested. For this year and next, she has only one project, Pitch Perfect 3. She is reprising her role as Fat Amy.
“So often leading roles are perceived by writers, directors and producers as physically idealised, leaving little room for inventive ways of portraying them,” said David Rubin, a casting director and Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences board member. “The ultimate goal is to cast actors in roles where their unconventional appearance has absolutely no bearing on the character or storyline.”
Rubin added, “It’s terrific to see Chrissy Metz do such fine work on This is Us, but casting won’t fully reflect the real world until someone like Chrissy is cast in Mandy Moore’s role.” (Metz plays a woman who struggles with weight loss and emotional problems; Moore’s character moves back and forth in time, from her younger years as a newly married aspiring singer to her present-day life as a grandmother.)
The lack of opportunities in Hollywood for “bigger girls,” as Macdonald says, is increasingly out of step with the broader culture. They are hardly unconventional: About 71 per cent of Americans over the age of 20 are overweight or obese, according to the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention. There is a growing body-positive movement online, with women pushing back against fat shaming. In the music world, artists like Adele, Nicki Minaj, Meghan Trainor, Beyonce and Lady Gaga have spoken out about body acceptance.
Roxane Gay’s straight-talking book about body image Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body was an instant best-seller when it was released in June. With the clothing market for plus-size teenage girls booming, the fashion industry has lately taken steps to become more inclusive. (It still has a long way to go.)
Television is slowly changing. Lena Dunham’s Girls helped break down barriers for actresses with average bodies. Even though Metz’s storylines on This is Us are frequently about dieting and overeating, she is a star on the show. (She is up for an Emmy, to boot.) And Katy Mixon plays a forthright mum stuck in no-carb Connecticut on American Housewife, an ABC sitcom.
But movies – studio movies in particular – show little improvement for lead actresses. There is only Melissa McCarthy. She has become one of Hollywood’s most bankable stars, reliably carrying movies like Spy and The Boss to No. 1 at the box office. But instead of opening doors for other lead actresses, her success is viewed by studios as an anomaly.
“The people making casting decisions really need to expand their brains about who can play what part,” said Melissa Silverstein, the founder and publisher of Women and Hollywood, an influential blog. “That includes race, gender, sexuality, physical abilities and body type, which is one that usually gets left out of the conversation.”
Meantime, Hollywood horror stories about sizeism abound. Carrie Fisher said in 2015 that she had been pressured to lose around 16 kilograms before appearing in Star Wars: The Force Awakens. After auditioning to play a character named the Blob in X-Men Origins: Wolverine, David Harbour (Stranger Things) was told he was too fat for the role. Macdonald, who grew up in Australia and moved to Los Angeles seven years ago to pursue acting, said she had observed stares at her midsection during auditions.
“At first you want to slap them,” she said. “But I got used to it pretty quickly. I know they are just doing their jobs. You can’t take it personally.”
She continued, “Because I don’t look like most lead actresses look, I was told that I shouldn’t even come to America. That I shouldn’t even try! I think that’s ridiculous. I’m a realist – yes, I know, darn, I’m unlikely to have a love scene with Chris Hemsworth anytime soon, if ever. But I also believe that persistence and hard work pays off.”
Macdonald offered a sweet smile. It was mid-July, and we were having lunch at one of Hollywood’s hipper hotels, Mama Shelter. She was warm, greeting me with a hug, and oscillated between confident and a bit nervous in our time together. (Giveaway: fidgety fingers.) There was no trace of her Patti Cake$ character, a young New Jersey woman who audaciously raps, spars with her mother (Bridget Everett) and has multiple boyfriends – “a cross between Mae West and Biggie Smalls,” as the film’s writer-director, Geremy Jasper, described the character in a phone interview.
Jasper, a first-time feature filmmaker, cast Macdonald based on her photo. A Patti Cake$ producer had suggested her after seeing one of her few films, a 2013 thriller called The East.
“I looked at that photo, and I just knew instantly,” Jasper said. “I wanted Patti to be pretty. I based her on some of my family members who are bigger women. And I find Danielle incredibly beautiful.”
Patti Cake$ is a portrait of a self-assured young woman, but the film has some painful scenes related to weight. In one sequence, which takes place at night outside a ramshackle New Jersey gas station, Patti gets into a rap battle with some boys, who taunt her as “Dumbo.”
The scene was difficult to shoot because the actor cast as the main instigator, McCaul Lombardi, could not bring himself to hurl the insults at Macdonald. She ended up coaxing him through it.
“I told him, ‘Look, it’s fine – words are just words,'” she recalled. “In truth, it was a little more complicated for me than I was letting on. In real life, I never let that kind of stuff bother me. But I had to let it affect me in that moment, at least a little, because my character was absorbing it.”
Film festival crowds reacted to Macdonald’s acting with euphoria. She got a rousing standing ovation at Cannes. (Her suitcase, by the way, ended up arriving just as she was leaving to go home.) “All but staggering,”critic Todd McCarthy wrote in The Hollywood Reporter in January, when Patti Cake$ premiered at the Sundance Film Festival and Fox Searchlight paid US$10.5 million for distribution rights.
After Sundance, Macdonald returned to Los Angeles to find agents clamouring to represent her. She signed with Creative Artists Agency, which helped Macdonald land the starring role in Dumplin’, an independently financed adaptation of Julie Murphy’s novel about an overweight teenager who enters a beauty contest. (Jennifer Aniston plays her mum.) Macdonald will also play the lead in White Girl Problems, a Lionsgate comedy about a social media star who goes to rehab for shopping addiction.
“This is only the beginning for her,” said Chris Columbus, a Patti Cake$ producer. (He knows a thing or two about raw talent, having directed the first two Harry Potter movies.)
Growing up in Sydney’s Northern Beaches suburbs, Macdonald participated in sports (water polo, swimming, gymnastics). Then, at about 12 years old, she started weekend dance, singing and acting classes. “At first, I stood in back and never said a word,” she said. “One day, I finally answered a question, and my teacher said, ‘Hooray! She can talk!'”
Not long afterward, she found reruns of Alias, the ABC action drama starring Jennifer Garner as a spy.
“It was the first time I had seen a truly kick-ass female character,” Macdonald said. “Ever since then, I was unable to see myself as anything other than an actress.”
The New York Times