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Ten Minutes With: Sharon Lawrence

05/04/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Each year, women from all over the world travel to Los Angeles in the hopes of fulfilling their creative ambitions, and in 1992, Sharon Lawrence was one of them. Unlike most, the Charlotte, North Carolina-born actress made it. Since then, the four-time Emmy nominated Lawrence--who played A.D.A. Sylvia Acosta on NYPD Blue and other television credits include Grey's Anatomy, Curb Your Enthusiasm and The Mentalist--has become Chair of the Women in Film Foundation (WIFF), a non-profit organization that aims to increase the opportunities for women to succeed in Hollywood.

From a cell phone across town, Lawrence took a few minutes to speak with Fabio Periera about WIFF's work and the 25th anniversary of the Film Finishing Fund, a WIFF project supported by Netflix, which provides cash and in-kind services to films by, for and about women.

Fabio Periera: In your experience, do you think there are institutional barriers that prevent women from succeeding creatively in Hollywood?
Sharon Lawrence: I'm not so sure that there are institutional barriers (but) clearly (there is a) need for (more) opportunities in the creative (areas of the entertainment business). All you have to do is look at the (statistics from the Celluloid Closet's) Dr. Martha Lauzen. The (number) of female directors and writers hasn't changed that much since 2006.

FP: Why do you think there have traditionally been fewer creative opportunities open to women in Hollywood?
SL: I think that film is a medium that requires real networking and connections. No film is made in a vacuum and (the situation evolved) because the majority of the studio world tended to be dominated by men. That's changing in large part because of groups like the Women in Film Foundation. (We provide) opportunities for women to gain knowledge in (their) craft and build alliances with people who can greenlight a film.

(The Film Finishing Fund) is run by people who can see the images that women reflect and understand that we who produce content are looking for a large variety of content. We have opened the door (for) potential (filmmakers and) the film finishing fund (plays) a part to help move films to the next level. One of great gratifications in having Netflix involved, in addition to providing grant money, that it gives our filmmakers the chance to devleop meaningful relationships in distribution as well.

FP: How does WIFF feel about the fact that Kathryn Bigelow's Oscar nomination for The Hurt Locker is only the fourth in history?
SL: WIFF celebrates Kathryn Bigelow's Oscar nomination and her historic Director's Guild Award with the belief that our 25-year commitment to help women finish their films has provided the same inspiration that Kathryn's success has to all female filmmakers. As Kathryn herself said in the LA Times-"If "The Hurt Locker' can make the impossible seem possible to somebody, it's pretty overwhelming and gratifying. At least we're heading in the right direction." I couldn't have said it better myself.

FP: How did you get involved with the Women in Film Foundation?
SL: I met a woman really inspired me, Joan Hyler. She (was) the first female vice president at William Morris and she later became my manger. I saw her speak (about the Fund) at the Crystal+Lucy Awards and I was so impressed by the goals, stated ambitions, and the generous spirit that that group embodied. I come from Broadway stage (where) there was less of an overt effort to create networks and mentorship (programs) for women because in the stage world it wasn't as necessary. Witnessing what (the Women in Film Foundation Fund) did that day inspired me to get in touch with her and become involved in the organization.

FP: How did Netflix become involved with the Film Finishing Fund?
SL: (Netflix Vice President) Cindy Holland got her first job through the Women in Film office and became Ffiends with myself and the other women at the Fund. Through personal connections, she was made aware of the fund. Ted Sarandos, (the Chief Creative Officer at Netflix) is a great supporter of Women in Film and has worked diligently to expand outreach in front of and behind the scenes. He sees the value in what our program provides. We could not do this without those two people at Netflix.

FP: Tell me about how the Film Finishing Fund works.
SL: First of all, I want to stress that the Film Finishing Fund is not solely available to women filmmakers. It is a program to support any filmmaker who creates content that reflects meaningfully on the lives of women and their role in society. Last year, the Fund received 150 submissions which were evaluated by respected industry professionals like Oscar nominee Marion Rosenberg (Revolutionary Road), Emmy nominee Cathy Wincher Sola (Taking Chance), Stephanie Austin Thaler (Terminator 2: Judgement Day) and academics (like) Betsy Pollack, the Head of Physical Production at the American Film Institute.

FP: Can you tell me about some of the successful projects the Film Finishing Fund has supported?
SL: Our first Academy Award winner was Maya Lin: A Strong Clear Vision (1994), a documentary film about creating a Vietnam memorial in Washington, DC. It was a powerful, emotional and patriotic film that allowed our outreach to extend beyond a film that was a a "woman's story," so to speak. Most recently, we (supported the Oscar-winning short film) Freeheld (2007) and that was the first (project) I saw through the complete process--through selection, then through the Oscar campaign which we supported through screenings and our mailing list to spread the word and to witness their wonderful achievement. It was especially sweet because we'd spent time with the producer and director, Cynthia Wade and Vanessa Roth (before the film won). Every year before the Oscars, we have a lovely party for the female nominees, sponsored by Perrier Jouet, and we were able to spend time with Cynthia and Vanessa right before they won.

This year's grant winners have such an interesting range. But one that I feel affection for is What's On Your Plate (2009). It was made by two eleven year old girls and their mother and follows the journey of where their food comes from.

FP: Was there a particular time in your own career when you felt that being a woman held you back?
SL: Well, because I'm an actress as opposed to an executive, so I can only ever be considered for female roles. (Laughs.) I never felt I didn't get a job because I was a woman. I do know that as a woman and as an actor I recognize that there are fewer roles for actresses and the window of earning is shorter at the higher levels, probably at any level. I'm aware that those roles are made available by decision makers who are not valuing female characters in those stories.

I think I've invested in this endeavor because of the pleasure I get from that and my interest in supporting other women to have that same experience. If we can help women make their films, we can help create a community that is ultimately supportive and send a strong message that we're here for the women who are graduating from film school and that they can come here and work.

FP: What are some of the difficulties women face when they come to work in a creative role?
SL: We have interviews with women that describe what it's like to be a mother and nursing a newborn while making a blockbuster film. (Click here to read the interviews.) Lara Ziskin, who produced Spiderman, tells a story in our Legacy Interview Series that she was at one point running between studio meetings and the set and had to pull over on the side of the freeway and pump her break milk because she had to make sure someone could feed her baby while she was making this blockbuster. Those are the kinds of stories that we hear all the time and Debbie Allen (whose credits include Amistad) who can tell the same story from the director's chair.

FP: Do these incidents occur because there aren't facilities to help women while they are working?
SL: It's not (that someone is) denying women the facilities. It's about (accommodating) the reality of being a woman.

FP: What do you think needs to be done to increase creative opportunities for women?
SL: The sheer number of female characters (needs to increase). (Nationwide), diversity is growing but if you take a look at film, the number of (roles for) male characters in films is close to 70 percent, including action films.

Television, where I have the most experience, has a much broader base of opportunity for women because of Lifetime, Oxygen, and OWN. The CW does certainly skew more towards women. Lifetime's Drop Dead Diva has embraced a plus size character without marginalizing her. But there are still few roles for African-American and Asian-Americans (on television) In the overall, lags behind the (diversity of) the country.

FP: Do you think the fact that there are niche broadcasters like BET and Lifetime means other studios and networks feel they don't have to create further opportunities for programming diversity?
SL: I think the fact that we will all be watching television on distribution models that have yet to be understood, like Hulu and Slingbox, means that siloing will be broken down more and more. Networks won't be wise or ultimately satisfied with limiting their programming base based on a particular belief that their broadcast strategy can ignore any segment of their audience. For example, women in their 40's, 50's and 60's are still very powerful markets to advertise to. As long as that's the case, there will be an opportunity for good programming. And the projects that the Women in Film Foundation supports will help to make sure that the women and men who want to see meaningful content will have that opportunity.