Rose McGowan: time difference

She’s reluctant to be associated too closely with #MeToo but Rose McGowan has done more than anyone to expose Hollywood’s dark underbelly with her revelations about Harvey Weinstein

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It’s 2am in Hollywood and while stars consider one last Wakanda Forever Cocktail at the Vanity Fair Oscars after party, it’s 10am in London and one-time Tinseltown bombshell Rose McGowan is already staring down a new day.

McGowan believes there has been a cultural shift in the film industry in the past 12 months

She’s had a good night’s sleep, dropping off while reading a novel –The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah. A story of bravery, courage, fear and love in a time of war, its themes are not unfamiliar in McGowan’s own book, Brave. Part memoir, part manifesto, the book lifted the veil of secrecy over Hollywood when it was released a year ago and included details of her alleged rape by disgraced Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein.

“I really don’t pay any attention to what’s going on in Hollywood,” she tells Big Issue North. “My book compares the cult I grew up in to the cult of Hollywood and I have left both behind for a reason.”

She’s referring to the infamous Children of God into which she was born, in 1973 in a barn in Tuscany, where her father ran the Italian chapter of the cult, also known as the Family. Daniel McGowan covertly defected in the late seventies and headed for the US – with a young Rose, her siblings, and one of his wives in tow. Rose’s mother was initially left behind.

She was raised with a European sensibility and in that sense feels more at home in London, where she’s currently staying.

“I am hoping I might be able to stick around. I’ve had a really tough last couple of years in America and I just wanted a change of scenery – somewhere that was really cultural and loved books and loved learning.” And if we break away from Europe, she says wryly: “I’ll have to find somewhere else to move. Somewhere more European. Somewhere that wants to be.”

McGowan does believe there has been a cultural shift in the film industry in the past 12 months, however.

“I’ve heard from a lot of people that things are a lot safer on sets now, and that they’re getting listened to in the writers room for the first time, and that there’s just been this kind of big sweeping change. Hollywood isn’t one for self-reflection particularly but I do think there’s been a reset button that’s been pushed there, and in the world.”

In October 2017, when the New York Times first exposed decades of pay-offs of sexual harassment accusers by studio head Weinstein, details of McGowan’s story were included but she declined to comment. She had been working on Brave, which detailed the devastating abuse in a hotel room during the Sundance Film Festival in 1997, when Hollywood newcomer McGowan was just 23.

“It took me three years to write the book, so it preceded all of last year and all of that stuff. What’s changed for me since writing the book is just healing. There was a lot of trauma involved in
the last year.”

Her abuser is referred to as the Monster in the book and she says it’s not OK to use his name now, when asked if she believes he will be brought to justice.  “I don’t really know. I hope so. I hope there’s justice for everyone who does evil in this world, now or later,” she says, before adding: “I was hoping to talk more about the book… It was part of the book but not a huge part and that was a misconception, I think. It’s about so much more.”

Brave details McGowan’s turbulent life as an outsider, runaway, captive, starlet, celebrity and, finally, herself. She urges readers to be brave and take control of their lives too. In April she’s beginning a short UK tour where she’ll tell stories from the book and answer questions.

She says Brave is a “call to arms” that she believes has worked. “The people who read my book, I get messages from them all the time. I think it’s been quite life changing for people, from what they’ve said. It just kind of adjusts the glasses.”

One of the lesser-reported details of McGowan’s book is that she was a homeless runaway at age 13. She was committed to rehab by her mum after being caught high on acid although, she says, it was her first ever hit. She escaped and crisscrossed the West Coast from her home in Oregon before settling with her dad in Seattle after a year on the streets, during which she remembers being permanently wet and starving.

She says the experience made her compassionate. “I always consider others and I consider their plight and what they’re going through. It gave me a lot of empathy – anyone can be there.”

But it has left long-term damage too. “The lasting impact of homelessness has been that rock-bottom fear that I’ll be there again and I fight that every day.” That fear motivated her to stay in some horrible situations throughout her life – abusive and controlling relationships that she felt were her only means of survival. “It’s something you have to continue to fight and be on guard for – that you’re not making decisions that are fear-based, that you are going to be taken care of and you are going to be OK. But it is really scary as a single woman out in the world.”

The string of abusive relationships began with her father, who could be charming but had unmanaged depression and unpredictable rages, often targeted at his teenage daughter. He sowed the seeds for her eating disorder by telling her she was ugly and a whore, daily. At age 15, when he told her she had to pay him $300 a month in rent for the cupboard he made her sleep in, she began working as a film extra. It was her introduction to life on the screen and her introduction to abuse in the film industry – she was assaulted by a man in his forties.

From there she moved to Hollywood where an agent she met told her to divorce her parents and change her name on account of sounding like an “Irish scrub girl”. She stood her ground on her name, the first in a long list of acts of defiance against the industry that would eventually find her blacklisted. She did file for emancipation, but ran headfirst into a relationship with a man in his twenties who lived in his dead mother’s mansion. He was controlling and jealous and told her she was fat. She developed an eating disorder, working out for up to six hours a day and allowing herself to eat once every three days. She had no money and couldn’t drive but eventually escaped by selling her boyfriend’s mum’s Steinway piano for $1,500 – not realising it was worth $20,000.

Later she would have a five-and-a-half year relationship with director Robert Rodriguez, characterised, she writes, by the title of the film he cast her in – Planet Terror (2007). The film was half of the two-part Grindhouse feature, the sister film Death Proof made by Quentin Tarantino, who McGowan exposes for his misogynistic behaviour, as has Uma Thurman since.

Her boyfriend terrorised her at home and on set where, knowing her history, he forced her to do a scene in which Tarantino tries to rape her – a plot device she says should be shut down. He also forced her into gruelling and near impossible physical stunts. Her body, she writes, has never been the same since. The final nail in the coffin was hammered when Rodriguez sold the film to Weinstein, forcing McGowan into promoting the film with him.

Today McGowan is in a relationship with non-binary supermodel Rain Dove, which she says is “wonderful” and “very healthy”.

“I recognised one day that it wasn’t me. That all these people that were telling me that I was a certain thing, that it was really them,” she says of breaking a cycle of abusive relationships. “I started realising that it was not my shame to bear. And I started realising that I was a free person and a free mind and a free thinker, and that’s what I wanted for the world.”

McGowan’s Hollywood career began when she was spotted by a producer and landed the leading role in dark indie comedy The Doom Generation (1995). She details instances of sexual harassment and assault during this film – one during an audition when she was asked to “test for chemistry” by lying on top of a male co-star who had an erection, another where a male co-star squirted water from a bottle up her skirt while filming a car scene. She says the latter was dismissed as childish teasing by director Greg Araki, a claim he denies and which McGowan says is gaslighting. Does she think the #MeToo movement has been successful in highlighting this level of sexual misconduct?

“This isn’t what my book is about,” she insists. “But I think it’s really helped people see that there’s nuance here… that it’s not black and white. There’s different levels of privation, different levels of wrong and different levels of right, and we all know what those really are.”

She expresses disappointment that the female producer of The Doom Generation didn’t protect her and calls for women to be allies in these male environments. It was a female agent who would later send her into her meeting with Weinstein, a known predator in the industry though unknown to McGowan, and who told her to look at the rape as good for her career in the long run.

She went on to film slasher-flick Scream (1996). In the grisly garage door scene McGowan says she’s proud that her character Tatum Riley has one of the most memorable on-screen deaths but fires shots at the horror genre, which she says numbs audiences to violence against women.

When she attended Sundance in 1997, she writes, she was the “belle of the ball”, with two films and a short film screening. It was after the screening of Going All The Way, in which McGowan shot a topless scene, that she was summoned to the fateful meeting with Weinstein, who had been in attendance.

She writes: “As a street kid I had known how to be on guard for trolls. It just never occurred to me that the head troll would be in Hollywood.”

McGowan in cult horror Scream (1996)

McGowan immediately left Hollywood and wanted to press charges but was told she had no chance of beating him and that her career would be over. She was terrified of being homeless. Her lawyer got her a $100,000 pay-off, which she says brought no solace and she largely gave it away. And Weinstein began to blacklist her – telling industry people she was bad news.

Away from Hollywood McGowan began dating Marilyn Manson, who she says showed her real kindness when she needed it, recognising the irony since the public perception of him at the time was that he was Satanic. She accompanied him to the 1998 MTV Music Awards wearing the infamous “naked dress”, which, as with shaving her head in 2015, she says was a statement against the relentless sexualisation and objectification of her in Hollywood – an extreme example of what many women experience in their daily lives, she tells Big Issue North. But the backlash was so extreme that it reactivated her eating disorder.

The “bad girl” image she was branded with in Hollywood, with its Madonna/whore complex, exposed her to slut shaming and later victim blaming.

“Being tough and strong comes at a cost. I’m a very sensitive person and it’s hard to do what I do. It’s not easy to put yourself out there over and over. You just have to keep going. That’s all you can do.”

She has often felt like retreating from public life in the last 12 months. “I felt like going off and living in a desert in California and never talking to anybody again. Maybe that’s where I’ll write my next book.”

In 2017 Manson echoed a common reaction to #MeToo – that it was alienating men. “If I look at her the wrong way, I’m going to be accused of something wrong,” he worried aloud in an interview. But McGowan does not want to be a mouthpiece for that movement and doesn’t give an opinion on her ex’s comments.

“#MeToo is not really my thing. It wasn’t my movement. My movement is to see if I can make people 10 per cent smarter. That was a random goal that I had and one that I think I achieved. All the questions about #MeToo are kind of falling a little bit on deaf ears, to tell you the truth.”

Through her social media McGowan offers an alternative hashtag, #RoseArmy.

“My book is about freedom. Freedom for the individual. How to be more of an individual instead of less of one. And I hope people realise it’s not about #MeToo… I don’t have a problem with it. It’s just I always say I am a Me Too, I’m not #MeToo. It’s something that came about after I did all of my stuff – really quickly, and on the heels of it, but it was after. That was, in some ways, a media creation that made it seem like there’s always women with pitchforks in the street and that’s not how it is.”

McGowan experienced many more years of injustices against women in Hollywood after accepting a part in Charmed, a long-running TV show about the Halliwell witch sisters, in 2001. Despite it being a female-led show, McGowan describes it as one of the most misogynistic environments she worked in, where she was screamed at, belittled and trapped into a contract.

In 2015 she shared a script note on Twitter telling her to wear form-fitting and revealing clothing to an audition to star alongside Adam Sandler. She was subsequently dropped by her agent and revealed that too. It was the unexpected public reaction that made her realise she should press ahead with her campaign.

She writes: “I’d been an activist for gay rights for years, just not an activist for women specifically.”

Yet now McGowan says she isn’t one to talk to about feminism.

“I’m more of a humanist. I would say if you believe in equal pay for women and equal rights, then congratulations, you too are a feminist. That’s really all it means to me… I’m pro both sides. If we can get people to recognise that we’re actually human before we’re a gender I think we might actually heal.”

On Hollywood culture she says now: “I don’t think it’s just a women’s rights issue. I think men get hurt on an incredible scale and oftentimes they come round and hurt others… I think it’s a human rights issue.”

And although her book takes aim specifically at Hollywood, she says it is just a symptom of a wider problem.

“It was my life, so I use Hollywood and how women are treated there, and how men are treated there to some extent, to illustrate how we’re treated in the world.”

McGowan believes there are cults wherever there is group-thought. After contributing to what she believes is a “cultural reset” in Hollywood, where will she point her arrow next? Religion perhaps? Or the beauty industry?

“I think I’m just going to continue on my path of trying to get people to be smarter, whatever form that takes, whatever industry that takes… It really is just to see if I can continue to push the social needle, and continue the call for treating each other like humans, with respect.”

Brave is out in paperback on 5 March (HQ, £9.99). Rose McGowan visits Chester Storyhouse, 26 April, and The Lowry, Salford, 5 May 

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