On sets, I saw women constantly pressured to exploit their sexuality and then chastised as sluts for doing so. Women in technical jobs were almost nonexistent, and when they were there, they were constantly being tested to see if they really knew what they were doing. You felt alone, in a sea of men. I noticed my own tendency to want to be “one of the boys,” to distance myself from the humiliation of being a woman on a film set, where there were so few of us. Then came the photo shoots in which you were treated like a model with no other function than to sell your sexuality, regardless of the nature of the film you were promoting.
I’ve often wondered how I would have behaved in the meeting with Harvey Weinstein had I been more ambitious as an actor. I was sitting in front of a man who wielded enormous power. If you were interested in being in movies directed by interesting filmmakers, he wasn’t someone you wanted to alienate. How would one have left that meeting, or those hotel rooms, which have been described by others, with that relationship intact, when he displayed such entitlement and was famous for such anger? I was purely lucky that I didn’t care.
Shortly afterward, I started writing and directing short films. I had no idea, until then, how little respect I had been shown as an actor. Now there were no assistant directors trying to cajole me into sitting on their laps, no groups of men standing around to assess how I looked in a particular piece of clothing. I could decide what I felt was important to say, how to film a woman, without her sexuality being a central focus without context. In my mid-20s, I made my first feature film, “Away From Her.”
While working on “Away From Her,” I had the privilege of working with Julie Christie, who, while maintaining her vision for her character, was deeply committed to collaboration and could shift her performance on a dime when given direction. It was an amazing gift for a director, still learning the ropes. I realized that in the past, whether I’d known it or not, some part of me had been afraid of direction. I vowed to go back to acting with my newfound understanding of collaboration. I would be more pliable. I was excited to give my whole, unfettered self to a director, the way Julie Christie had done for me.
But I had forgotten a key ingredient of the acting process. Most directors are insensitive men. And while I’ve met quite a few humane, kind, sensitive male directors and producers in my life, sadly they are the exception and not the rule. This industry doesn’t tend to attract the most gentle and principled among us. I had two experiences in the same year in which I went into a film as an actor with an open heart and was humiliated, violated, dismissed and then, in one instance, called overly sensitive when I complained. One producer, when I mentioned I didn’t feel a rape scene was being handled sensitively, barked that Dakota Fanning had done a rape scene when she was 12 — “And she’s fine!” A debatable conjecture, surely.
I’m not naming names in all of these instances. And that invites criticism for some reason. Which is funny, because when women do name names, they are criticized for that, too. There’s no one right way to do any of this. In your own time, on your own terms, is a notion I cling to, when it comes to talking about experiences of powerlessness.
I haven’t acted for almost 10 years now. Lately I’ve thought of trying to rediscover what once made it seem worthwhile. It’s a beautiful job, after all, built on empathy and human connection, and it seems strange to turn your back on something you did for so long. But for a long time, I felt that it wasn’t worth it to me to open my heart and make myself so vulnerable in an industry that makes its disdain for women evident everywhere I turn.
Several years ago, I approached a couple of successful female actors in Hollywood about an idea I had for a comedy project: We would write, direct and star in a short film about the craziest, worst experience we’d ever had on a set. We told our stories to one another, thinking they would be hysterically funny. We were full of zeal for this project. But the stories, when we told them, left us in tears and bewildered at how casually we had taken these horror stories and tried to make them into comedy. They were stories of assault. When they were spoken out loud, it was impossible to reframe them any other way. This is how we’d normalized the trauma, tried to integrate it, by making comedy out of it. We abandoned the film, but not the project of unearthing the weight of these stories, which we’d previously hidden from ourselves.
Harvey Weinstein may be the central-casting version of a Hollywood predator, but he was just one festering pustule in a diseased industry. The only thing that shocked most people in the film industry about the Harvey Weinstein story was that suddenly, for some reason, people seemed to care. That knowledge alone allowed a lot of us to breathe for the first time in ages.
Here is an unsettling problem that I am left with now: Like so many, I knew about him. And not just from my comparatively tame meeting with him. For years, I heard the horrible stories that are now chilling so many people to their core. Like so many, I didn’t know what to do with all of it. I’ve grown up in this industry, surrounded by predatory behavior, and the idea of making people care about it seemed as distant an ambition as pulling the sun out of the sky.
I want to believe that the intense wave of disgust at this sort of behavior will lead to real change. I have to think that many people in high places will be a little more careful. But I hope that when this moment of noisy sisterhood dissipates, it doesn’t end with a woman in a courtroom, being made to look crazy, as these stories so often do.
I hope that the ways in which women are degraded, both obvious and subtle, begin to seem like a thing of the past.
For that to happen, I think we need to look at what scares us the most. We need to look at ourselves. What have we been willing to accept, out of fear, helplessness, a sense that things can’t be changed? What else are we turning a blind eye to, in all aspects of our lives? What else have we accepted that, somewhere within us, we know is deeply unacceptable? And what now will we do about it?