Over the years, television maestro Ryan Murphy has brought some of the most compelling female characters to our screens: Rachel Berry in Glee. The Chanels in Scream Queens. All the astonishing iterations of Jessica Lange in American Horror Story. Now his shows celebrate the women who work behind the camera, too. Earlier this year, Ryan created the Half Foundation, whose mission is to ensure that women — as well as minorities — make up at least 50 percent of the directors on his shows. Billie Lourd, who plays Chanel No. 3 on Scream Queens, recently caught up with the visionary to talk about the foundation, feminism, and the power of females on set. Is his mission working? As it turns out, the end result is even better for everyone involved than he’d imagined.
Ryan Murphy: Your mother, Carrie Fisher, is known for portraying the iconic Princess Leia in the original Star Wars trilogy, and she is also a huge feminist. What advice did she give you when you were starting acting?
Billie Lourd: She told me to be true, and kind, and confident in yourself. She raised me to not think of men and women as different. She raised me without gender. It’s kind of the reason she named me Billie. It’s not about being a strong woman — it’s about being a strong person. She once told me, “I never sat you down with a credo. It was more about leading by example.”
RM: You come from a family of rule-breakers. You grew up realizing that you can create your own rules. I love that about you. I didn’t have the same experience growing up.
BL: You’re the number one rule-breaker now! I noticed the effects of the Half Foundation before I realized it was happening: There were more female directors coming around. I ended up Googling it and realizing what you had done.
RM: I’m really proud of it. I think that, like a lot of good things, it came from a moment of shame for me. We were doing an episode of The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story; the female director we had lined up fell through, so I was like, “I’m just going to do it.” I thought, You know, this isn’t right. Why don’t I have a stable of women who can fill in? I should have that. In television and the movie business, the people who are promoted and the people who are mentored always look like the white guys.
BL: It’s so true. And even if a woman director does her thing, it’s like they never come back. It’s like, “Oh, great, she got her directing job. Now she’s done.”
RM: I was embarrassed of myself. What’s the point of having any power if you can’t use it? I met with the head of Fox and said, “I want half of all my crews to be women.” What has it been like for you when the set is 50 percent women?
BL: It feels totally different. When you walk onto any set, it’s usually primarily men. Which can be weird, especially when you’re doing something emotionally challenging. This year, when I made out with John Stamos — which was a dream, thank you for that — I walked in and half the people were women. And that was a really, really nice feeling, and it made me more comfortable. The great thing about women directors is that they’re not only involved in the performances — they can gauge where we all are personally and know how to direct us better because of that.
RM: I just think people do better work when you feel a part of the world. In Scream Queens, the cast is 80 percent women. I find that women are much more comfortable showing their emotion and inviting you into their emotional landscape. Writing female characters is a no-brainer because that’s the world I want to live in. I’m not interested in anything but emotionally driven stories; that’s why almost all of my work is exclusively anchored by women. That’s where my heart goes. Hollywood is stuck in this weird time warp, and I feel like these women and men who love women above all else are rising up right now and taking some of the power back.