TV’s Most Welcome Trend: The Rise of Actress-Producers Like Julia Roberts and Reese Witherspoon

Emmy Wrap Up: Powerful actresses are recognizing their own value, making waves with TV sensations like “Gaslit” and “The Morning Show”

Julia Roberts Reese Witherspoon
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The Emmy best actress races are becoming increasingly competitive as big-name stars participate in creating shows, reclaiming the power to be leading ladies carrying an increasingly complex narrative. Take Julia Roberts and her role as the Washington socialite turned whistleblower Martha Mitchell in Starz’ limited-series Emmy contender “Gaslit.”

With Mitchell, the actress-producer explores a woman of contradictions: a stylish hostess who tipsily goes over the edge into drug and alcohol abuse; a political player on the arm of Richard Nixon’s Attorney General John Mitchell (Sean Penn), whose marriage crumbles under the weight of an administration in crisis; and a traumatized wife and mother experiencing PTSD after repeatedly being roughly thrown under the bus by the powerful white men in the room.

What Roberts and her fellow producers have done here is to take the familiar narrative of the White House burglars first exposed by Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, and flip it on its head by putting a key female player at the center. With Roberts as the volcanic, voluble Martha, we’re female-gazing at a moment in American history that brought down a president, a scuffle that couldn’t be more resonant as we binge-watch the current Congressional hearings.

This marks a signpost of change: actresses recognizing their own value and self-validating. Often, it allows them the freedom to break away from typecasting. For me, this is a welcome change. I’ve always been partial to Roberts’ darker roles that bring out the sweet-and-sour-heart inside her. The star’s thorny side informs her best performances, more “Closer” than “Pretty Woman.” 

Among the drama-series titles, Emmy contender Laura Linney has a co-executive producer credit on Netflix’s “Ozark,” and carried executive producer credits for two previous shows, “Tales of the City” and “The Big C.” Jessica Chastain and her Freckle Films shingle, which launched in 2017, produced the intimate HBO miniseries “Scenes From a Marriage,” casting herself opposite her Julliard friend and colleague Oscar Isaac in an adaptation of the Ingmar Bergman classic.

On the comedy side, producer-actress and Emmy winner Pamela Adlon shaped the arc of her lead character, cool mom Sam Fox, in FX’s “Better Things.” Not only did she step into the executive producer’s chair, she expanded control over her brand as showrunner. Among a younger generation, Elle Fanning has an executive producer credit in addition to her leading roles in two Hulu series, “The Great,” playing a Russian queen who learned how to wield her power over time, and the fact-based miniseries “The Girl From Plainville.”

Adlon and Fanning are both potential Emmy nominees in a tight Comedy Actress competition led by “Hacks” star Jean Smart, who has not adopted a producer title but has seen a renaissance in her longstanding career. Additionally, Best Actress in a Comedy winner Rachel Brosnahan (“The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel”) has ceded control to the wildly successful creator Amy Sherman-Palladino, who has a long track record of nurturing strong female characters that connect with modern audiences.

In the past five plus years, we’ve seen this change in progress. Time and again, producer-actress and all-around alpha Reese Witherspoon has gotten nominations for strong female parts she often sourced from her popular book group. With actress Nicole Kidman also producing, their show “Big Little Lies” was a conversation starter and won Outstanding Limited Series in 2017, with Witherspoon and Kidman both garnering lead actress nominations and Kidman winning. “The Morning Show” and “Little Fires Everywhere,” among others, followed. Validation? In 2021, she sold her production company, Hello Sunshine, for $900 million.

Similarly, Kerry Washington joined Witherspoon with an executive produce credit in the Emmy nominated “Little Fires Everywhere” after getting her feet wet as a producer of ABC’s “Scandal,” for which she was nominated for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama series. Kate Winslet created a strong bridge from her Oscar-winning screen career to an Emmy for the title tough cop role in HBO’s “Mare of Easttown.” That was her first adventure in executive producing for a TV miniseries – and she scored big by playing against her English Rose image.

This sea change in the position of actresses with clout has not only improved the quality of the shows they carry, it’s opened doors for behind-the-screen talent and up-and-coming actresses. Producer-actress pioneers Witherspoon, Roberts and the like aren’t waiting for someone to bring them the perfect part like the prince with his impractical glass slipper; in both drama and comedy, they’re identifying challenging roles, manifesting them on screen, diving into the Emmy pool and making waves.