To avoid another Harvey Weinstein scandal, Hollywood needs more rules
PERSPECTIVE | Guilds must take the lead in combating sexual harassment
A trained theater actor, actress Marie-Francoise Theodore was elated when she booked a role in a promising TV/film project. But as filming progressed, a male star made unwanted sexual advances toward her. Although he was married, he told Theodore that “he was still going to have other lovers.” She didn’t report his behavior.
“I felt incredibly lucky to have gotten [the role],” Theodore told me. “I didn’t want to mess it up over some married man trying to flirt with me.”
The harassment reached a head one day in between takes. After the actor said something inappropriate, she yelled, “You’re an asshole. Stop!” It was loud enough for the crew and cast to turn and stare. Embarrassed, she ran off set.
The director followed her and inquired about the outburst. Still distraught, she said, “He keeps messing with me.” The director’s response was shocking:
“Well, y’all just need to f — .”
She was speechless. “I mean, he was the director,” she explained. “What was I going to say?” Theodore chose not to report it. “Speaking up doesn’t stop it. It just labels you.”
This was before the Harvey Weinstein scandal.
Pre-Weinstein, sexual harassment and assault loomed in the shadows of the entertainment industry, like the unseen monster in a horror film: omnipresent, invoking fear.
Post-Weinstein, women are coming forward, unmasking the monsters. But fear lingers. It’s why some of the women I interviewed for this story either didn’t want to give their names or refused to publicly name the perpetrator. The incident has passed, but the fear — of being labeled a troublemaker, of losing out on future jobs, of enraging the monster — lurks. In Hollywood, fear is its own currency, an evil idol that demands that everyone — especially those deemed “powerless” — bow down in silence and submission. It’s why many will never come forward.
Another startling truth remains: Actors don’t have human resources departments to protect them. If a woman — or man — decides to report harassment, she fears the perpetrator will be protected.
Although the Screen Actors Guild and the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (SAG-AFTRA) — the labor union for TV, film and radio performers — negotiates contracts for its members, it is not legally responsible for handling harassment claims. If an actor is harassed on-set, she can contact the HR department of the production company that hired her and the perpetrator, and hope for the best. However, if she’s harassed at an industry event — which is part and parcel with being an actor — then she really has no employer to protect her.
I interviewed actors, industry leaders and representatives from SAG-AFTRA and the Writers Guild of America West (WGAW) to understand how to better combat sexual harassment and assault in Hollywood, an industry where business meet-and-greets oft happen over drinks in hilltop mansions. Although their responses varied, the general consensus was this:
Guilds must take the lead in combating sexual harassment in the industry.
The guild’s evolving roles
Until about 10 years ago, guild members who brought sexual harassment complaints to SAG-AFTRA were simply advised about their options:
- Inform the perpetrator’s employer.
- File a formal complaint with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission before the statute of limitations expired.
- File a lawsuit.
The guild now provides an extra layer of support. SAG-AFTRA will “put [the complaint] on our letterhead, transmit that allegation to the employer, which then compels the employer to actually conduct an investigation,” a SAG-AFTRA representative explained.
Tony Segall, legal counsel for WGAW, confirmed that the fear of filing applies to writers as well as actors. Segall said that “the biggest obstacle” their members must surmount to assert a claim are “the ubiquitous fears” around the potential impact to their careers.
Fear of retaliation is why model-actress Breana Helders refused to report the famous Hollywood producer who sexually assaulted her in the summer of 2009. Helders was at a party at the producer’s home when he offered to give guests a tour. As the tour ended and guests dispersed, he kissed Helders. She tried to walk away, but he pulled her dress off and threw her on a nearby bed.
“I told him to get off of me. I tried to get my dress back on,” Helders shared, but he held down her hands, made her grab his penis and masturbated. She didn’t report the assault because she didn’t want “to give him a reason to come after me.”
Fear of retaliation isn’t the only reason why actors have not spoken up. Sometimes, they fear how others will scrutinize their choices. Sarah Collette didn’t hesitate to say yes when her acting coach asked her to workshop a two-person show with him in 2009. When he said that they couldn’t rehearse at his house, where he regularly held group classes, and asked to use her place instead, she didn’t hesitate. When he wanted to rehearse the bedroom scene in her bedroom, she saw no reason to hesitate. A trusting protege, she hesitated only after he French-kissed her and fondled her breasts.
“Is this still the play? Are we doing the play?” she asked him, confused.
It took years before Collette shared her story; the shame she felt for believing him silenced her.
Changing a culture of fear and silence
The recent spate of allegations has everyone asking what can be done to make sure actors and others feel empowered enough to come forward.
While there are certainly many answers, here are three recommendations, based on my interviews.
1. There should be a safe entity within the industry to report incidents to.
Theodore believes that SAG-AFTRA should be the first line of defense for actors, and that the guild should help shield members from potential backlash and emphasize the reporting of sexual harassment as much as it does the reporting of hazardous set conditions.
For years, SAG-AFTRA has listed phone numbers on its website and member ID cards so that members can report harassment or hazardous work conditions. But in October, the guild released a public statement condemning sexual harassment and encouraged members to call its 24-hour hotline, 844-SAFER-SET, to report any sexual harassment violations.
Calls reporting harassment rose from about one or two calls a month pre-Weinstein to “closer to three, four, five — sometimes six a day,” now, according to a SAG-AFTRA representative.
Clearly the guild’s more public solicitation of stories, plus growing public support for victims, helped members feel more comfortable reporting their experiences.
2. Sexual offenders should be expelled from guilds.
“You shouldn’t be able to be part of a union if you sexually assault people,” Helders argues. “I know that people fear the union. If that’s something that they had to be afraid of, then they wouldn’t do it.”
The Producers Guild of America agrees. The major trade association for producers expelled Weinstein following the New York Times exposé, right after the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences ousted him.
It is unknown whether the other guilds — particularly SAG-AFTRA, WGAW and the Directors Guild of America — will follow suit. All three are labor unions.
SAG-AFTRA has to navigate murky waters. It needs to figure out how to interface with members who have experienced harassment, plus misbehaving members — like actor Kevin Spacey — who have been accused of harassing fellow actors and members of other guilds. Sorting through these intricacies will be neither easy nor fast.
3. Sexual predators should lose their SAG signatory status.
“I want to see people’s rights to work with [SAG-AFTRA] completely revoked if they sexually assault someone,” Helders says.
To date, the Weinstein Company is still a SAG signatory, which means that it can still produce projects with SAG-AFTRA actors. Although the company fired Weinstein in the wake of the allegations, he and his brother Bob still own a 42 percent stake, according to Forbes.
Calling for revocation — at least now — places SAG-AFTRA in a bind: wanting to protect its members and wanting to avoid potential discrimination lawsuits from companies whose employees have been accused, but not yet convicted of a crime.
Women are charting the path forward
While the guilds figure out how to support their members — SAG-AFTRA and the WGAW have formed committees, and the former has already hosted the first in a series of “town hall” meetings — two women’s organizations are making strides.
Women in Comedy is asking the comedy community to adopt “zero tolerance” policies around sexual harassment with its #nolaughingmatter campaign.
“In our community, sexual harassment is often something that is brushed off as a ‘joke’ and the lines can easily be blurred in our very niche industry,” Victoria Elena Nones, the organization’s executive director, wrote.
The campaign also invites comedy clubs and schools to “hang zero tolerance posters visibly in all rooms within their spaces” and to “create an anonymous website or phone hotline for reporting spaces or incidents.” To date, the Nerdist School, Comedysportz Philly and several others have joined the campaign.
On Dec. 1, Women in Film launched a helpline and will offer free legal aid to sexual harassment and sexual assault survivors. The services are available to “any woman (or man) in the industry who has experienced harassment,” according to Kirsten Schaffer, executive director of Women In Film, Los Angeles. A giving campaign to fund the services began Nov. 28.
As one of the most visible industries in the world grapples with how to handle the rampant harassment in its midst, the guilds have the opportunity to establish new rules that will change the culture; and while the guilds are not legally responsible for preventing sexual harassment, their moral responsibility for combating it is high. Unlike individuals, they have the collective strength and bargaining power to rival that of Hollywood’s most powerful predators. The guilds have the opportunity to create a culture in which actors and others feel comfortable to report sexual harassment and are fully supported — and not merely tolerated — in the process.