I am one of the countless women that filmmaker James Toback has harassed.
In 2003, James Toback approached me at a Kinko’s on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. I was 23-years-old and what I wanted more than anything in the world was to be an actress. I was 23-years-old, and I had moved to New York City the year before from Cleveland, Ohio and I would go to auditions, and no one ever paid attention to me.
But on this October day in 2003, I was xeroxing pages of a script for an audition, and James Toback approached me and asked me if I was an actress. He was heavy and goateed with small beady eyes hidden behind dark glasses, and his movements were slow and creaky. His black jacket did little to conceal his girth and the black cane he rested his weight against seemed frail and capricious.
Toback saw me xeroxing pages of a script and asked me if I was an actress and I said yes even though I was an “aspiring actress” and really, I was just a 23-year-old girl from Cleveland, Ohio who was mostly a waitress and so badly wanted to be an actress.
Toback asked me if I had ever heard of the movie “Two Girls and a Guy”, which I had. He just happened to have the DVD in the pocket of his jacket so he pulled it out to show me that he was both the writer and the director of this film and also he pulled out an academy card with his name on it, and that proved he was A Big Deal.
Toback then told me he saw me doing some xeroxing and felt connected to me and that was how he knew he would like to cast me in a movie because he only cast women in his movies that he saw and then felt instantly connected to.
A few days later we had dinner together at Elaine’s, an Italian restaurant on the Upper East Side that no longer exists but used to be a place where people who were A Big Deal would eat dinner. In between mouthfuls of spaghetti and red sauce, Toback told me of his illustrious career as a filmmaker which dated back to the 1970’s. He told me about the movies he’d made which starred actors like Robert Downey Jr and Warren Beatty.
With sauce on his face and pieces of pasta dangling from his goatee, Toback told me he needed to masturbate seven times a day to feel steady in the world, as if the act of ejaculating tuned his equilibrium like strings on a guitar. He asked me what I was afraid of and I told him I was nervous he wanted to sleep with me and never intended to cast me in his film. He scoffed and dismissed my fears as he twisted another forkful of spaghetti into his cavernous mouth.
I went out to dinner with Toback several more times, and each time he would allude to a type of connection he would need to experience with his actresses in order to effectively work with him. He never defined what exactly this connection was but my fear of what it could mean made me feel sick to my stomach. I hated spending time with him, but I maintained the pretense that I enjoyed his company because I was an aspiring actress and I wanted to be a real actress. At these dinners, he would ask me questions about my sex life, and I would talk a little about my boyfriend at the time but never in detail. He pressed me for more, but I would deflect so he would return to talking about himself. He said he had a wife and also a girlfriend who was an undergrad at NYU.
In 2003 James Toback was a 60-year-old man who had made dozens of movies that starred actors like Robert Downey, Jr. and Warren Beatty and I was a 23-year-old woman who wanted to believe I was being discovered. James would tell me about all the actresses he’d slept with like Heather Graham and Neve Campbell. He told me that he and Neve Campbell spent 24 hours together in a hotel room having sex and conceiving the movie, “When Will I Be Loved” which came out in 2004 to very little acclaim.
Months passed, and in between the periodic dinners, I would get phone calls from Toback with updates about the movie I was going to be in. He told me it would star Chris Rock, and I was to play his girlfriend, but I was also going to be involved with Robert Downey Jr, so it was a bit of a love triangle.
One night after dinner at Sarabeth’s on the Upper West Side, Toback told me he needed to experience a real connection with me so I was to accompany him to a hotel room. I was scared, and I didn’t want to go but I did. I told myself he wouldn’t hurt me and if I could just get through this part then I was going to be in a movie and I would be a successful actress. I knew I wasn’t willing to sleep with him, but I didn’t know what it was he wanted from me. Maybe just someone to talk to, and I knew I could endure that. I would power through this evening because the outcome would be so worth it.
There is an unspoken understanding in the entertainment industry that if you are truly committed to finding success you will do whatever what it takes. When you’re a woman, this means making sacrifices. Whenever I was with Toback, I sacrificed my comfort. I never not for one moment enjoyed spending time with him, but I did it over and over again because I understood that if I stepped aside there would be someone else standing in my place, watching him slurp down bowls of pasta and listening to him brag about the frequency with which he jerked himself off. I was lucky to be there. I was privileged to be at his table. He had chosen me and my life was going to change for the better. If I could just grit my teeth and pretend I was happy to be there (I was an actress after all) it would all be more than worth it.
Toback took me to a hotel and paid $600 in cash at the front desk. He led me to a suite and asked me to take off my clothes. I didn’t want to so I protested, but he looked at me with judging scorn and asked how I would ever be able to trust him as a director if I was going to be modest now. He explained that when he made the movie, there would be scenes where I’d be expected to undress. He needed to know that he could work with me.
I took my clothes off and James Toback and I stood staring at my naked body in the large paneled mirrors that lined one wall of the hotel room. He commented on my slight “French European” upper body in contrast to my sturdier “Eastern European” hips and thighs and promised to let the camera linger on the narrower angles that started at my waistline and traveled north.
I sat naked in a plush upholstered armchair. It was chilly from the winter night air that seeped in through the half-open window. I kept my arms crossed over my chest because I was scared and self-conscious and cold.
Toback sat across from me on an upholstered sofa. He seemed to sink into the couch as he sat there, his commodious paunch splayed out on the cushions beneath him. He talked of orgies and gambling and conquests of pasts, dropping names and sometimes waxing nostalgia for former lovers who had faded away like tea stains on linen. I didn’t know what to believe, and I still don’t. It all seemed so unlikely, but then again, I was 23-years-old, and I was naked and shivering in a hotel armchair sitting across from the writer of “Bugsy.”
Then he walked over to me and placed his meaty hands on the sturdy arms of the chair I sat in. He kneeled and stared at me with the focus of a laser beam and proceeded to rub his groin area up and down against my right leg. I sat there for a moment holding still as he began to grunt and his hot breath hit my face. “Are you trying to get off?” I asked, genuinely confused. “Absolutely,” he answered, holding my gaze. This was the moment he’d been alluding to for months over conversations at Elaine’s where he knew everyone but introduced me to no one. I had sat there silently while he spoke about needing a connection, not quite understanding that this is what he meant.
I bolted upright, threw on my clothes, and hurried out the door.
A year and a half later I had just moved into an apartment with two female roommates. The first week of living together one of my new roommates asked me if I had ever heard of the filmmaker James Toback. Lauren, a dancer, had been approached by him earlier that day. He had told her he felt a connection to her and wanted to take her out to dinner that night and discuss her possible role in an upcoming film. I convinced her to cancel dinner and when she mentioned my name on the phone to him, he swore to her I was lying. Thankfully, she believed me and never saw him again. Neither did I, but I have seen his name on movie posters plastered on the sides of concrete buildings and every time it takes me back to that hotel room and I feel engulfed in shame.
I’m grateful that Lauren didn’t have dinner with him that night but I’m convinced that there are many, many other women just like me who did. I have already seen many of them start to speak up on Twitter and Facebook. My hope is that by sharing my story there may be other women out there who read this and know that if they are approached by Toback in a café, in a park, on the subway, or in a Kinko’s, that the answer is no when he asks them to dinner. He doesn’t want to cast us in his movies, and even if he did it is reprehensible of him to use his status as a filmmaker to coerce and harass women. The time for being silent is over.