Reading Group Guide
This reading group guide for The Actress includes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author Amy Sohn. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.
Maddy Freed is a young actress who will do almost anything to be able to work. At the Mile’s End Film Festival, her starring role in the small independent film I Used to Know Her attracts the attention of Hollywood super-manager Bridget Ostrow. Soon Maddy is catapulted from her hipster life in Brooklyn with her long-term director boyfriend, Dan, to film festivals in Europe, high-profile meetings with legendary directors, and a starring role in the much-anticipated film Husbandry opposite Steven Weller, one of the biggest movie stars on the planet. Maddy quickly finds herself thrust into the spotlight and falling madly in love with Steven, and before she knows it, they are married in a secret and romantic ceremony.
Back in Los Angeles, Maddy’s new role as Steven Weller’s wife sets her career into high gear as plum roles and opportunities seem to fall into her lap. Maddy and Steven grace magazine covers as Hollywood’s number-one power couple, but their fairytale life isn’t as perfect as the paparazzi photos would lead the public to believe. The whispers about Steven’s sexuality grow louder by the day as an alleged lover comes out of the woodwork seeking money and fame; behind the closed doors of their palatial mansion, Maddy and Steven’s marriage begins to crumble under the pressure. As Maddy’s star rises, she becomes increasingly aware of how little she truly knows about the man she loves—and increasingly uncertain of who she is. But with her own success intertwined with her husband’s, she isn’t sure just how many questions to ask herself, including the most important: Is my marriage real?
Topics & Questions for Discussion
1. The Actress is primarily the story of Maddy Freed, a young actress who ascends from obscurity to become one of Hollywood’s leading ladies—a feat that would have been impossible to achieve without her marriage to blockbuster movie star Steven Weller. Discuss Maddy’s journey throughout the novel. How is the novel a story of Maddy’s move toward independence, and how is it a story of becoming trapped by her choices? How does being Steven’s wife impact and develop Maddy’s sense of self? What does it mean to be “Steven Weller’s wife”?
2. Were you surprised at how prevalent homophobia is in Hollywood as depicted by the novel? Why are producers so fearful of the rumors of homosexuality that surround Steven, and why does his team go to such measures to tamp down rumors of his dalliances with other men? What does the gossip about Steven’s sexuality indicate about perceptions of masculinity on the screen and what audiences want from movies?
3. What lies does Maddy have to tell herself in order to ignore the rumors that Steven is gay? What other lies does she have to tell herself to be happy in Hollywood? Do you think that she believes the lies she tells herself? What would you do about your marriage if you found yourself in Maddy’s shoes?
4. How are New York and Los Angeles depicted in the novel? How are the people Maddy meets in each city different, and where does she feel the most comfortable? How does Los Angeles change her, and how do her relationships with her New York friends evolve after she moves to Los Angeles?
5. From the start of their relationship, the paparazzi and the media are an omnipresent reality in Maddy’s life with Steven. Why is it so important that they maintain an image of a being a happily married couple when they are anything but? How does the pressure to maintain the façade of the perfect wife impact Maddy and her relationship with Steven? Think in particular about Maddy’s appearance on Harry, when she confronts the tabloid story about Steven’s sexuality head-on.
6. Discuss the major films that Maddy shoots over the course of the novel: I Used to Know Her, Husbandry, The Hall Surprise, and Pinhole. What is Maddy’s relationship with Steven like during the production of each of these films? How do the plots and themes of each film reflect her mental state and romantic feelings toward her boyfriend or husband?
7. Steven appears extremely knowledgeable about art and he surrounds himself with the finest of everything. Why is it so important for Steven to live among beautiful things? How does he mold Maddy into another object to place on a pedestal and admire? How does Maddy’s refusal to stay silent about the issues in their marriage disrupt Steven’s desire for a perfect-looking life, and how does it reveal who he truly is?
8. Bridget and Steven are wealthy beyond measure, and yet both are always striving for more: more starring roles, more money, and more power. Why are they driven to achieve so much, despite all their accomplishments? Is it merely money, or do you think they are attempting to fill some sort of void in their lives? What makes Steven’s bond with Bridget different from his bond with Maddy?
9. Maddy’s father looms large in her life and her memories, and it pains her deeply that he passed away before he was able to see I Used to Know Her. How does Maddy’s grief for her father impact her relationship with Steven? How is her father similar to Steven, and how is he different?
10. How does Steven use Maddy’s paranoia about his cheating and his sexuality to convince her that she is mentally ill and she needs to seek therapy? Do you think Maddy truly needs psychiatric help, or are Steven’s seemingly altruistic actions merely a means for him to control her further?
11. Maddy begins the novel as a screenwriter when she co-writes I Used to Know Her with Dan. By the end of the novel, she is a writer once again when she options Lane Cromwell’s life rights and writes Pinhole. How is being a writer central to Maddy’s character, and what does writing do for her self-confidence and independence?
12. Do you think that Steven ever truly loves Maddy, or is he acting as if he’s in love with her to preserve his reputation? Do you believe his sexuality can be separated from his love? Do you think that Maddy ever truly loves Steven, or was she just caught in the whirlwind that comes with being on his arm?
13. Were you surprised by the revelations about Steven’s sexuality that emerge by the end of the novel? Why does he decide not to make his announcement at the Oscars? Do you think that Steven will ever go public with who he truly is?
14. Maddy is clearly “the actress” referred to by the book’s title. What do you think is the greatest role in her career so far—Ellie in Husbandry, the role for which she was nominated for an Oscar; Lane Cromwell in Pinhole, the role that she crafted for herself based on her passions; or that of Steven Weller’s wife? What does she mean when she says, “You could say that Steven Weller made me the actress I am today”?
Enhance Your Book Club
1. Cast the movie version of The Actress! Who would play Maddy, and who would play Steven?
2. Steven recommends that Maddy begin her Henry James education with the novel The Portrait of a Lady. Read The Portrait of a Lady and discuss it as compared to The Actress, particularly the similarities between Maddy and Isabel Archer, and Steven and Gilbert Osmond.
3. Bring copies of Hollywood gossip magazines like People and Us Weekly to your next book club meeting, or visit websites like TMZ.com or RadarOnline.com. Try to guess which stories are true and which stories might be planted by publicists and rival agents. Discuss the narratives the magazines craft about single celebrities, male and female, and how they are similar to or different from each other.
4. Host an awards show party for the Golden Globes, Oscars, or Emmys. Get dressed up in gowns and jewels, drink champagne, and place your bets on which actors and films will win the prized statuettes!
A Conversation with Amy Sohn
1. After writing so many novels set in New York City, what made you decide to write a book set primarily in Hollywood?
I loved writing about Brooklyn, where all or part of my first four novels were set, but it was time to get out of the borough. I have always been both drawn to and repulsed by Hollywood, where I’ve traveled at least once a year for the past decade or so. I was excited by the idea of plumbing the depths of a Hollywood marriage. Hollywood marriages are over-the-top, with high stakes, but like any marriage, they are also an intimate, complicated dance between two people. One of my favorite writers is Nathanael West, who wrote the extremely dark Hollywood novel The Day of the Locust. The town is a rich setting for novels about materialism—and manipulation—and The Actress is about both of those things.
2. What research did you have to do to make the world of movies, paparazzi, agents, and film festivals so believable?
I had already been to a bunch of film festivals and had been a theater actress from age twelve to twenty-three—so some of my research was already done. For extra help, I called friends in representation, development, production, PR, and entertainment law. I watched a lot of movies, DVD commentaries, and DVD extras. I read Hollywood biographies, nonfiction books, and old issues of Vanity Fair. I also asked my own manager/literary agent a hundred questions about agenting and managing. The manager-client relationship is symbiotic and also very codependent—both ways. Thankfully, I have much better relationships with my talent representatives than Maddy does with Bridget by the end of the novel.
3. Did you have any real-life celebrities in mind when writing about Maddy and Steven? (If you can’t say, what attracted you to writing about a relationship between a young actress and a much older star with secrets to hide?)
I’ve always been an avid follower of what’s going on in Hollywood, but these characters are their own inventions. The book will certainly be accessible to readers who may not be as obsessed with Hollywood gossip as I am. I was attracted to the idea of writing Maddy and Steven because I have always been intrigued by May-December relationships—a woman of innocence matched with a man of worldliness and wisdom. It’s such a great recipe for hot sex, but it’s also made more complex when the woman tries to assert her own ideas in the company of a powerful, narcissistic man. It’s a well-told narrative, particularly in film: a talented woman whose husband feels competitive with her even though he may have begun the marriage wanting the best for her. In case you are wondering, I have seen every version of A Star Is Born. I am also a fan of Inside Daisy Clover starring Natalie Wood, Robert Redford, and Christopher Plummer. It’s such a bleak view of Hollywood at a time when the studio system exerted a frightening level of control over young stars’ lives.
4. Do you like to read Hollywood gossip? Why do you think we are so drawn to magazines like People and Us Weekly and TV shows like E! News and Access Hollywood? How do paparazzi photos and constant celebrity coverage impact how we watch films and view movie stars?
I love Hollywood gossip. We both admire and revile celebrities. We admire them for being more beautiful and fabulous than we are, and revile them for the same reason. When we’re struggling in our own relationships, we look to celebrity marriages to console us. Their dramas are often so ugly and jarring that we can tell ourselves they’re worse off than we are. At the same time, the acting-out is something we wish we could do. We get to live out our own desire for torrid extramarital affairs, Caribbean vacations, naked yacht sunbathing, and hot younger men, merely by flipping through the pages of a celeb-focused magazine.
5. How did your experience as a dating and relationship columnist influence the storyline of the novel?
Having chronicled some of the bleaker aspects of my own single life in New York Press for many years, and other people’s, in New York, I learned early on not to judge people for their romantic problems. I learned that very few people act rationally when it comes to the heart. Maddy is often headstrong and foolish, and as you see her jump into this new relationship, throwing caution to the wind, you feel protective of her but probably remember some time when you did the same thing. A twentysomething in love cannot listen to advice from anyone.
6. Talk about the works of fiction and film that influenced you in writing The Actress, in particular Henry James’s The Portrait of a Lady and Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s short story “The Yellow Wallpaper.”
Since my first year of Brown when I read Gilman in an English class called (no joke) “Gender and Genre,” I’ve been intrigued by narratives of women and madness. I wanted Maddy’s relationship with Steven to touch on this. Untrustworthy people are extremely skilled at convincing their partners that “it’s all in your head.” They are master manipulators and I believe they are born with this skill. Steven is more old-fashioned than Maddy; he and Dan are very different types of partners for her. And because he’s older and more powerful, he’s able to say things to her that Dan wouldn’t.
As for Henry James, I am a crazed Portrait fan. The themes of the novel are so immediate and so modern. I read it for the first time in my thirties, on vacation with my husband, and I remember sitting next to him on an airplane and screaming, “Oh my God, noooo!” It is totally compelling to watch a character get duped—because of her own hubris. James never makes Isabel out to be a rube. Her problems are of her own making. He understands that very blind and headstrong, twentysomething mentality. The epigraph of my novel speaks to this. We go into love with these “noble” ideas about what we give the other person. It’s always a warning sign when you’re feeling ennobled—a sign that you’re about to get into trouble.
7. You yourself were once an actress. What attracted you to acting, and how did your acting experiences impact the novel?
I was not nearly as gifted an actress as Maddy is, but on the New York theater circuit, I got to experience the humiliation of constant rejection. Maddy has an MFA and takes great pride in it, and I wanted to play with how she might feel once she moves to L.A. to be with Steven and experiences a different kind of audition circuit. Film versus theater, commerce versus art, lowbrow versus highbrow, breast implants versus natural bodies—these are all dichotomies that seem clear to her at the beginning, but that later become more muddied as she changes.
8. Which scene or character was the most fun for you to write, and which scene or character was the most difficult?
I loved writing Bridget, who is both an amalgam of 1980s women executives and a product of my imagination. It’s great fun to write a character who manipulates other people, and I loved the Bridget-Steven scenes, where she exerts power over him. I also liked the idea of writing about an underrepresented minority in Hollywood whose personal taste happens to be extremely mainstream. Some of the most important women in 1980s Hollywood had an eye toward mass entertainment. Not all women are “political” filmmakers just because they are women.
The ending of the book was tricky, because I had to find a resolution that made sense for Maddy and Steven that at the same time felt true to modern divorce. Modern marriages, as opposed to Victorian-era marriages, provide a unique challenge to novelists because prenups, postnups, family law, and different mores have changed the stakes and the fallout. I knew that Maddy and Steven would have to remain in each other’s lives, but that’s a kind of prison, too—to have to keep seeing the person you would like to erase.
9. Do you think there are a lot of closeted actors and actresses working in Hollywood and hiding who they are from the public today? If so, why do you think this is the case in a town considered by many to be so liberal?
Statistically, it’s likely—but I believe that will change dramatically over the next ten years and even more so over the next twenty-five. With the advancement of marriage equality and evolving views around homosexuality, the American public can now buy a gay actor in a straight role, just as it can buy Sean Penn as Harvey Milk. The filmmaking machine is lagging behind public consciousness, but it’s lagging behind public consciousness on many other levels, too, by feeding us action sequences disguised as films, by offering bland and meaningless roles for women, by moving away from an emphasis on writing and character. There is real stagnation in commercial entertainment. Soon a new, younger generation will take the reins of power in Hollywood—they will become the studio chiefs and heads of development—and we’ll see major motion picture stars who are openly gay, lesbian, and bisexual. It will be interesting to see how those performers change and shape content.
10. Where do you think Maddy ends up ten years after the conclusion of the novel? What about Steven—do you think that he would ever reveal the truth about his sexuality?
I hope that she can find love again, but that’s for the reader to imagine. As for Steven, I wrote a draft in which Steven came out, but it didn’t feel authentic to his character. Steven is the last of a particular generation, one that became famous in Hollywood in the 1980s and 1990s. He grew up in a nation that had radically different ideas around homosexuality, so it’s no easy feat for him to shake those ideas. He always felt this need to invent himself as someone different from who he was—more cultured, more political, more literate. He has invented a self for himself that has very little relation to his real self, and he’s afraid his real self cannot be loved.
With that said, it’s amazing what awareness of mortality does to people. It makes people file for divorce, get pregnant, start living as a different gender, email exes to rekindle old romances, and it makes some people come out of the closet past the age when they are eligible to join AARP.
11. What are you working on next? Do you think you’ll return to Hollywood and the world of film as a setting, or even to the characters in The Actress?
I have just begun thinking about a period novel that deals with women’s psyches and relationships. The Actress is definitely a “way we live now” book, but as I developed Maddy Freed as a character, I became passionate about exploring women’s lives and minds. I am interested in the way women’s experience over history has been defined by social strictures. As a mother of a daughter, I feel a mission to keep telling women’s stories and keep giving them voices in my fiction.