Hollywood's Whip-Smart Boss Ladies Spill Their Best Career Advice

The Hunger Games. Breaking Bad. Magic Mike. Chances are, you probably love — nay, are downright obsessed with — at least one of these Hollywood heavyweights. And what do all three have in common? Besides boasting cult followings and addictive stories, each have had crazy-talented women calling the shots in key behind-the-scenes roles. Namely: Producers Nina Jacobson and Melissa Bernstein, and casting director Carmen Cuba, respectively.

The trio of ladies have made names for themselves in the notoriously male-dominated entertainment industry. Just how testosterone-based is the field? A refresher: Women directed only 4.6% of the films released by the six largest studios last year and accounted for only 12% of protagonists in 2014's highest-grossing movies. In fact, the Hollywood gender bias is so evident that in May, the American Civil Liberties Union campaigned for an official investigation into the hiring practices of top networks, studios, and talent agencies.

The statistics may be sobering, but that doesn't mean there aren't brilliant women carrying the flag for females in entertainment — just look to Jacobson, Bernstein, and Cuba as proof. Ahead, we got the ladies to dish on what they really think of ass-kissers, the trick to casting strippers for Magic Mike XXL, their best career advice, and more — with some funny Walter White and Peeta stories thrown in for good measure, of course.
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Photographed by Paley Fairman.
Nina Jacobson, producer
In 2007, Jacobson founded the production company Color Force, which has produced The Hunger Games and Diary of a Wimpy Kid.
Previously, Jacobson held various studio executive positions, including the President of Walt Disney Motion Picture Group.

Tell us about your background.

"In college, I did an internship as a researcher for documentaries, which turned into a job when I graduated. Then, I went on to reading scripts and identifying good writers and good material. Then, I went to a production company and worked for [The Matrix and Die Hard producer] Joel Silver. After that, I spent most of my career working my way up as a studio executive: I worked at Universal, DreamWorks, and Disney, and then I went on my own [and founded production company Color Force]."

What does a producer's job entail?
"I identify material that I think has merit for either film or television and figure out the right buyer for it. Who wants to make that movie or TV show the soonest, the way you want to make it, and with as much certainty as you have? From there, you develop the screenplay. If it's a book adaptation, you hire a screenwriter. You hire a director, you cast the show or movie, and you duke it out with the studio about how much money you need — you have to be a little fierce, you have to have a lot of conviction.

"Then, you go into production. At that point, I'm on set every day watching at the monitor to see if we're getting what we set out to get. Meanwhile, you're trying to find other projects. So, you're juggling the seedlings, and you're harvesting, planting, growing, weeding — all at the same time."

Do you have any funny behind-the-scenes stories from The Hunger Games?
"On Catching Fire, there's a scene where Peeta proposes to Katniss on live TV. When [Josh Hutcherson] dropped down to one knee, we heard this loud rip — he split the seam of his pants, which of course, caused everybody to completely lose it."

You're producing the adaptation of the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Goldfinch. What drew you to the book and where are you in the process?
"The Goldfinch had the thing I always look for, which is the literary page-turner. But it also has substance and heft. It stays with you and it lasts. It has permanence, but it has the allure of magnetic storytelling where you get so caught up in it. Now, Peter Straughan, who adapted Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, is writing the screenplay, and I'm eagerly awaiting the delivery of it."
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Photographed by Paley Fairman.
What would impress you the most when you're interviewing someone?
"It's a balancing act. The people who impress me really want the job, but they don't seem sycophantic, and they don't seem like they're working you. You don't feel like you're being sold [because] a person is too kiss-ass. Also, having a point of view and being able to express it are the qualities I most look for."

If someone aspires to have your job, where would you tell them to start?
"For my job in particular, I would say you have to love to read and love stories, and love to lose yourself in a story. I also think it's important to not be too attached to being right. To be both strong and receptive — to be able to have a point of view, but also be able to hear a better idea."

What is the least exciting aspect of your job?
"The least exciting part is when you are on set and have to do the really ordinary things. On The Hunger Games, it was getting the cat to chase the light. You're sitting there and you can't believe you've watched that cat do something 400 times, but it hasn't been just right, so we're going to do it again."

Studies have shown that men are more confident than women in the workplace. How have you developed your confidence and what is your advice for women developing theirs?
"I would say it's still a work in progress. I think yes, maybe men cover it up better. But also, if a study asks someone after a test about how they did, the people who say they nailed it don't do as well as people who say, 'Some parts were hard for me.' You have to have a certain amount of confidence, but sometimes there's a point where confidence exceeds competence.

"So, knowing what you don't know and being at peace about that has been an important realization for me. Rather than pretending that I know exactly what to do on set, I have surrounded myself with people who know more than me. I consider that to be good business. If you're the smartest person in the room, you're in big trouble."
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Photographed by Paley Fairman.
Carmen Cuba, casting director
Cuba was the casting director for both Magic Mike films, Cinemax's The Knick, Contagion, the upcoming Matt Damon flick The Martian, and many other projects. She founded Carmen Cuba Casting, based in Los Angeles.

How did you get into casting?

“I began my professional life working as a news reporter in New Mexico. I then moved to L.A. and by sheer kismet — involving being in the right elevator at the right time — I ended up interning and then working behind the scenes on MTV’s second season of The Real World. I was offered the gig of helping to cast the London show. It was a dream job for me!”

What does a casting director's job entail?
"The short answer is that when I start on something, there is a script (or just an outline) with either a famous person attached or nobody attached and by the time I’m done, every single speaking role in the project has a corresponding actor playing it. It basically involves a lot of brainstorming, listening to pitches, lots of auditioning, helping to structure and negotiate deals, and strategizing about all of the above."

What was casting Magic Mike XXL like?
"Channing Tatum was always attached because it's based on his own real story, but then I filled every single other speaking role. Some of it was traditional auditioning, and some of it was Googling 'actors with six packs' and then bringing the ones who had the best abs in for interviews. I also did a big search in the world of WWF and interviewed lots of wrestlers. I love research and I love people’s stories, so both of these things usually find their way into my work, no matter what the project is."

What are some of your favorite Magic Mike memories?
"The group of guys bonded so quickly and really had such joy for the projects that it was contagious. Having Joe Magianello tell me about his pre-acting Captain Morgan gig (where he had to dress up as the pirate and sell shots) and Amber Heard telling me about her teenage life ditching school to see old movies in Austin, Texas, were very helpful to me in knowing they were right for their roles. Also, my Skype with Kevin Nash was sweet because he made sure I met his wife and expressed so much love and pride as he told me the story of having just seen his teenage son perform on stage. "

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Photographed by Paley Fairman.
What's your advice for people dealing with rejection in their careers?
"I tend to think that if I don’t get a job, I really wasn’t the right person for it. This is a very creative yet process-oriented business and not everyone is the right match for everything. It's usually the right thing when something doesn’t work out. I like that my approach is specific and that I won’t be a perfect fit for every single project out there. So, the ones that do work out tend to make the most of my skills."

What makes a good casting director?

"[Casting directors] should be avid readers who can understand character development and storytelling, and travelers who experience and observe and enjoy people from all walks of life. They should have an innate curiosity about humans and how they operate in the world. Having a head for numbers, a solid work ethic, and strong organizational skills is extremely important, as well."

How have you developed confidence in your career?
I came to L.A. with zero contacts. I really had no idea that I would be in this industry at all, so every job I took was something that I knew I had to work my hardest at. I still see it that way.

"I’m sure I’ve had crises in confidence along the way, but I think maybe those were more personal — I always knew I wanted to have a dynamic family life, and figuring out how to do that while progressing in my career was and still is a balancing act."

What do you think about the vast salary disparity in the industry? What will it take to close the gap?
"I think television's 'golden age' is helping in that regard — women are making more [in TV] than they have been in feature films. In the past few years, I’ve fought harder to point out when things don’t feel equitable in that regard, but I’ve also been lucky to mostly work with people who were sensitive to that in the first place."
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Photographed by Paley Fairman.
Melissa Bernstein, producer
Bernstein produced all five seasons of Breaking Bad, and also produces Rectify and Halt and Catch Fire. She is currently executive producing Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould's Better Call Saul.

How did you get into producing?
"My friend was getting her master's at USC and she and her friends were making their thesis films for graduation. They were all aspiring directors, so none of them wanted to produce. They saw me with some free time and descended. So, I got my feet wet and ultimately found it very similar to what my production life is like on set now."

Can you describe what your job involves?

"Being a producer, you are handed a script and that's the blueprint. It's your task to execute on that plan, and ideally, elevate it even further. So, you pull together the crew, and you're part of bringing on a casting director and developing the script. That means navigating logistical issues and practical problems on the ground, and making it the best it can be."

Breaking Bad was one of the most popular and beloved shows of all time. How do you follow that?
"I'm obviously incredibly proud of my association with Breaking Bad. I think so highly of the show and I think it's a wonderful standard to set for myself in terms of what a show can and should be. But I do aspire to create quality television and to develop beautiful, interesting, unique stories. I think there is a lot of room out there to do that."

What is your funniest Breaking Bad memory?
"In season two, we were trying to figure out a way to get a shot from really far above the Whites' house from the teddy bear's point of view. So, we put a camera on a balloon, and let the balloon go up. The line ended up snapping, so the balloon and the camera took off and flew across the state of New Mexico. [We eventually found] the camera and we're thinking, 'That didn't work, but at least we're going to have this great aerial footage.' We pick up the camera, and it wasn't even turned on. It was such an adventure that we were highly amused.

"Also, it would take very little to have Bryan Cranston remove his pants. That would always be an entertaining behind-the-scenes antic — he was always looking to shock, surprise, and mostly entertain his co-stars."
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Photographed by Paley Fairman.
What would impress you the most when you're interviewing someone?
"I think you want to feel like someone is paying attention and really understanding what you're getting at. Their follow-up questions usually illuminate whether they are really listening to what you're saying, or just hearing at a more superficial level. Feeling like you've connected is really important because there is so much trust that's involved in this business."

What's your best advice for people just starting out in their careers?

"The best thing is to try to listen more than you talk. Work hard, make sacrifices, and really commit to what you're doing. Make sure what you're doing moves you and inspires you, because if it doesn't, you should find something else to do."

How have you developed your confidence and what is your advice for women developing theirs?

"I do think women think a lot about how they are presenting, as opposed to men who think less about it. Maybe it becomes less of an obstacle because they're not over-thinking it. For me, my dad would really challenge why I was doing what I was doing. As a kid, that was intimidating. But I think it built up this ability to step up to the plate and to have opinions. When you put the time in to think through your perspective, that creates confidence. You really have the confidence of your convictions, because you have stress-tested them yourself."

What do you think about the vast salary disparity in the industry? What will it take to close the gap?
"I think it's shameful for people of equal talent and responsibility being paid different numbers. I think the cure for that is having it put into the light — having women hold employers accountable. I don't think it's just a matter of men and women, but people of equal experience and equal responsibility needing to be paid on par with one another. It's all about having the knowledge of what's going on, discussing it, and not having it be a dirty little secret."