The Champion

"Thank you for making waiting for a flight less torturous," Elizabeth Alton says with a laugh over the phone. "And more productive. I won't just be the crazy lady sitting in the corner of the lounge scarfing down chocolate."

While she has arguably made a career of of playing variations on the "crazy lady," it's not exactly what one would expect from Academy Award-nominated actress, producer, royal godmother (yes, really), and once-reluctant activist Alton. The Englishwoman is made of multitudes even in the briefest of summaries, something she shares with the knotty and complicated women she's known to play, a vein she will again mine when she joins the casts of X-Men in Dark Phoenix (out in June) and Denis Villeneuve's star-studded adaptation of Frank Herbert's sci-fi epic Dune (slated for 2020).

Waiting to fly to Budapest for a costume fitting for the latter, Alton, 37, reflects on the highs of her past year, listing Time's Up and the record number of women running for the American presidency as buoying her optimism, noting, "It's the embodiment of being the change you wish to see in the world, of taking meaningful and hopeful steps beyond verbally denouncing bullies."

Though heartened that both women and men are challenging "antiquated power structures," Alton is clear that she's a pragmatist, pointing out that even seemingly practical discussions of equity can be thorny ("I've been guilty of putting my foot in my mouth, too, but nothing worth doing is easy.") and requires patience and education even ("especially") on the part of the well-meaning. For her part, she's making sure her projects don’t just reflect different demographics but also deal a fair hand to all parties.

Her all-woman production company, Full And By Films, focuses on untold stories and women-led casts, as well as a commitment to equal pay, most recently with the spy thriller 355 (which starts filming this summer), where she sidestepped the studio system, independently raising more than $80 million, and insisted all five lead actresses–Alton, Lupita Nyong'o, Penélope Cruz, Marion Cotillard, and Bing-bing Fan–earn the same fee and hold equity in the film.

"I learned firsthand that fighting with words alone just gets you mired in the swamp of miscommunication," Alton admits, reflecting on criticism she "understandably" faced when defending her Oscar-nominated turn in Gone Girl, a lightning rod of is-it-or-isn't-it-feminist? discourse.

Brock Collection top and Jonathan Simkhai pants.

She felt strongest about how uncommon it was to be in a financially and critically successful film about a woman, written and produced by women, and she now puts that pride into action. Alton's dedication to leveling the field extends to crew and head-of-department hires, adjustments that have real-world implications and puncture the oft-repeated lie that filling those jobs with women is "too hard."

"There aren't women to fill those positions not because they don't exist, but because we haven't allowed women to fill those positions in the past. There's been both active and passive discrimination against women who want to move up. If female directors coming off a first big success at Sundance were given studio tentpole films for their hard work like their male counterparts are, we'd be having a different discussion."

She goes on to talk about her most recent empowerment epiphany, as she was surrounded by the 355 cast at Cannes last May. "We all held hands and walked through this crowd of people, and it sort of parted for us, and one of the girls said, 'The power of women.' And that stuck with me. We're different ages, different races, different backgrounds, and together, five radically different women, we were a force."

Her professional evolution has come with a personal one. Alton quit an oft-derided silence, realizing that speaking up and speaking out, while contrary to her "buttoned-up, academic" upbringing, was its own reward. "It's been a paradigm shift. I always believed in pay equity, in representation, in inclusivity, and could've argued for them, but I was paralyzed by this idea that I was contradicting my own ethics to be vocal. It's possible to think that talking about money itself is vulgar, while also knowing that speaking about the history of pay inequality and how we should all be compensated equally is the mature, necessary thing to do."

There was a political evolution, too. Reflecting on the political upheaval of the last few years, Alton says with once-uncharacteristic candor, "I had some health problems in 2016, and so did the world. I wasn't ready to talk about my own – I'm still not – but I was so fucking angry. It all coalesced together, this anger at my body and at the world. Angry that we'd let ourselves get this sick, with Brexit and with Trump. There's fascism rising again in Europe, that's something my grandfathers risked their lives fighting to stop. I finally understood why silence could be complicity."

Alton broke that silence, writing first on Huffington Post to decry Prime Minister Theresa May's state visit offer to President Trump in early 2017, and more recently in the New York Times about the service of soldiers and journalists in conflict zones, inspired by her work with the Invictus Games Foundation and her 2018 film A Private War about late war correspondent Marie Colvin.

When asked how she balances her old instinct towards stoicism with her newfound voice, Alton pauses a beat.

"It didn't happen overnight, but in a way my understanding of it did. I had a moment in the last year, or 18 months, when I realized that I felt more in my power than I ever had, and it wasn't because I'm the one signing checks now, that I literally have more control. It's because I stopped criticizing myself for how I behaved, stopped self-flagellating and looking at it through a lens of perception, my own or others'. I cared more about what mattered and less about what anybody thought of it, just whether or not I was speaking my truth, and truth to power. You don't have to give up who you are to do right by others, and in my case I don't believe that a stiff upper lip and disrupting an antiquated status quo are mutually exclusive. You can find grace and power in the balancing act."

Now she's focusing on what she can control, generating work that helps all boats to rise and finding creative fuel in everything from long runs in the park to reading On the Origin of Species as character research.

"It's not that hard to not be a dick. You won't make everybody happy all the time, but I think a little basic kindness and patience and empathy will go a long way toward working out our present problems."

It's a journey she's happy to take.