Rose McGowan: 'I won't be free of Harvey Weinstein until he's dead – or I am'

The actor has been battling for justice since the Hollywood producer attacked her more than 20 years ago. She talks about how that fight cost her motherhood and her career – but helped spark a movement

Wow, has it been a huge week.” Rose McGowan is speaking on the phone from New York, vivid, unguarded, persuasive, so much more campaigner than celebrity. On Monday, Harvey Weinstein was found guilty of rape and sexual assault. McGowan was not in court, and her accusation of rape against Weinstein will never be brought, as a civil or criminal case. One of the stunning side notes of this scandal is the impact of having a statute of limitations in cases of sexual violence: more than 100 women have made chillingly similar allegations against Weinstein, yet only a handful of them were recent enough for charges to be pressed.

McGowan woke up an hour after the verdict was delivered, to a “raft of messages on my phone. And I thought: ‘He must be guilty because otherwise nobody would have texted me.’ The week before the trial, I got very little contact.” This has been McGowan’s reality since 1997, when Weinstein assaulted her at the Sundance film festival: she had pariah status, peppered periodically in gossip columns with insinuations about her character. Weinstein, as many of his victims attested, could freeze out an adversary so comprehensively that their phone would never ring again. “Everybody expected him to get off, including me,” says McGowan. “In my experience with this stuff, his defences were so strong. The two cases that were chosen to prosecute had never been successfully prosecuted in a court of law [because his accusers had continued to have contact with him after his attacks]. And also, I’m just a woman. We expect to get absolutely nothing. We’re so used to being dumped on that why would anybody believe us?”

So the result came as a physical shock? “I felt like I had about 500,000lb lifted off my shoulders. I knew that I was operating at a very high anxiety level, really for the last three years, and to have that burden lifted, it felt like my cells were dissolving.”

The story of Weinstein’s systematic assaults – “His whole movie factory,” McGowan says, “was in fact a rape factory. That was his priority every day: his appointment diary had to have someone for him to meet and rape” – broke on 5 October 2017, with a New York Times investigation that revealed multiple payoffs to women claiming sexual harassment, over decades. Five days later, the New Yorker published the accounts of a number of women, the result of a 10-month investigation. But the pace of that unfolding drama masked a much less hurried narrative in which everyone around the mogul knew about his behaviour. There was a surreal quality to the facts as they came to light, known knowns pouring out, surprising only in their multitude, his associates feigning astonishment. “I got a message on Twitter,” McGowan says wryly. It said: “I am 16, I work in a coffee shop in Sydney, Australia, and I’d heard about it.”

McGowan speaks to the media as Harvey Weinstein arrives at court in New York City on 6 January this year.
McGowan speaks to the media as Harvey Weinstein arrives at court in New York City on 6 January this year. Photograph: VIEW press#478422#51B ED/Corbis via Getty Images

A lot was riding on this case: that statute of limitations – which doesn’t apply to sexual violence in the UK – meant that, for many of Weinstein’s victims, “this was a representative thing. I could feel this collective holding of breath. It’s really great to be able to exhale.” McGowan pauses to consider the ludicrousness of this system. “Let’s say you got molested at five as a child; you had seven years to bring a case against your abuser. You tell me what child is all of a sudden ready to do that. This system is completely rigged.”

In this razzle-dazzle Hollywood case, there was another factor – the sheer collective willingness to turn a blind eye, which had made Weinstein seem unassailable. And that is before you consider the structural factors protecting a rich rapist: it took 105 on-the-record accusations before this case came to court. “It’s pretty mind-boggling,” McGowan says. “I wonder, what if we were Latino, what if we were black, would it have taken 300? This is so messed up – to get to sit across from your rapist and point at them and say: ‘This is who did this to me.’ Even to be able to tell your truth – never happens.” McGowan really had no hope of seeing Weinstein brought to justice. “I’ve witnessed his power for so long.” He was hugely well connected politically, a major donor to Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, whose daughter interned for him. Even today, McGowan says: “I still have a hard time believing that he’s going to end up in jail, because he’s in hospital now.” (He was admitted with heart problems, right after the verdict.)

Over the past three years, Weinstein has sought strenuously to appear frail, coming to court on a Zimmer frame. “Bill Cosby did the same thing,” McGowan says. “What’s left for an old man to do but to try and shrink themselves, so they’re not as scary as at they were at their peak?” Weinstein’s people put out the word that he was having panic attacks, a breakdown. “We’re not shocked – it’s so par for the course,” McGowan says. “He’s having panic attacks? Welcome to the club. Nightmares? Welcome to the club. He did this. I know that, because I was there.” His appeal for pity may make strategic sense in a legal arena, but leaves a foul taste in the mouth when set against the pattern of pitiless behaviour that McGowan describes so sharply, and which marks the careers of so many women. “He was like a heat-seeking missile. You have these beautiful kids that flood into Hollywood; most of them are damaged before they get there. And suddenly they’re being told these rules don’t really exist: ‘Everybody says yes to this.’ Then you add fear into the mix: ‘You don’t want to end up like Rose.’ It’s funny being a walking warning.”

McGowan and the Founder of #MeToo campaign Tarana Burke on stage at the Women’s Convention in Detroit, October 2017.
McGowan and the Founder of #MeToo campaign Tarana Burke on stage at the Women’s Convention in Detroit, October 2017. Photograph: AFP Contributor/AFP via Getty Images

If you rebuffed Weinstein, it was almost the least of your worries, to be kicked back into obscurity, although, as McGowan says: “It’s a tragedy. I just did a podcast, and [through archive clips] I got to hear myself act for the first time in a long time. I was like: ‘Damn, I was really good.’ Annabella Sciorra, Mira Sorvino: who knows what they would have done? The world has been deprived; we’ve been deprived. Imagine everything you’ve worked towards has been destroyed.”

Yet McGowan was also systematically discredited, “confounded and confused” by the way she was routinely slated in the press. “It got to the point, if I said to someone, ‘I want a tuna sandwich,’ you’d see this look: ‘Oh my God, it’s that crazy lady.’ It’s kind of like Mrs Rochester – we only have Mr Rochester’s word for the fact that she was crazy.” This persistent, deliberate erosion of normal regard created its own feedback loop: “You’re constantly gaslit and you also have active trauma, so you do sometimes short-circuit.”

All this predates her memoir, Brave, which was published in 2018, despite nefarious sabotage attempts that remain baffling to hear about. Drones skimmed past her windowsill and the headlights were removed from her car; 125 pages of the manuscript were stolen and an investigation agent posed as her friend in order to facilitate the spying operation. “The fact that my rapist read my manuscript before anybody else, and the fact that he was in my thoughts and my head, it was so violating and so disturbing. It’s so big what they did.”

This is the meat of the Rico (Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organisations) case she is bringing against Weinstein for criminal conspiracy. “This is what brought down the mafia in America. I hope the Rico goes through, and that will become a benchmark for a little girl in the town that gets raped by the football captain, and the coach and the mayor enter this conspiracy of silence; she’d be able to look at a case that had been won. It will help those situations greatly.”

McGowan’s part in exposing Weinstein has already brought her into a number of lawsuits. “The money is astronomical; I had to sell my house. Luckily, I’m getting pro bono help, but to simply defend yourself or sue someone who’s done you grievous wrong, the amount of money you have to have to even get one letter written – how could a normal person do this?” She carried on because: “I knew I had to push societal change forward, no matter the cost, but it almost killed me. Which is what they wanted.”

‘I wonder if we can get people to see women and girls as being human’ … McGowan.
‘I wonder if we can get people to see women and girls as being human’ … McGowan. Photograph: Sarah Lee/The Guardian

These aren’t simply florid phrases: there are countless unsettling details to her 20-plus years spent battling the man famously described as the person Oscar winners have thanked more often than Steven Spielberg, less often than God. On the rare occasions that she takes a flight, which is the only time she can’t use a pseudonym, she has her wallet stolen. An expert witness in Weinstein’s trial, Dr Barbara Ziv, who gave evidence as to why a victim might stay friendly even after an attack, was later hit by a car. You find yourself trying to shake these thoughts from your head: scepticism is far preferable to the sheer melodrama, the vast nexus of collaboration and corruption it implies. Realistically, though, McGowan points out: “Lysette Anthony was one of his victims,” and that was in the late 80s. Serial abusers, with decades of crime and cover-up, are by nature melodramatic; then their own excesses discredit their victims.

A friend of McGowan’s sent her a cartoon this week – Joan of Arc, on fire, lighting a cigarette from the flames, saying: “This reminds me of you.” Warrior and rebel, she has also had her life defined by this injustice. “If I had had a child, I couldn’t have taken Harvey Weinstein down, so I had to forego that so I could keep on fighting. I had to basically have no dependants. It’s been very calculated.” Yet the attempt to snuff out her creative life has failed. As Mike Leigh reminded her recently: “Rose, it’s world cinema – it’s not Hollywood cinema.” She’s writing a screenplay called Night Walk; she has a big art project coming up, Planet 9.

McGowan is uninterested in playing out her victory in Hollywood, and not just because of the producers she ran into, Oscar winners, who said: “My friends and I all really hate you because we can’t have fun any more,” an airy reference to the entire #MeToo movement as one great buzzkill. Also because sexual violence is in the DNA of the place. “One of the worst rape cases was Hal Roach; [in 1937] he bussed out 100 to 150 actresses, telling them they were all going to get their first role, and they were taken out to the middle of nowhere and raped by all these movie theatre owners. One of the girls went to the police. That was the first record of the first mass rape in Hollywood. And it was kind of built on that.”

McGowan with the actor Asia Argento on an International Women’s Day march in Rome, 2018.
McGowan with the actor Asia Argento on an International Women’s Day march in Rome, 2018. Photograph: Alberto Pizzoli/AFP via Getty Images

As soon as her lease is up in a couple of months, McGowan will leave New York and most likely move to London, where she has lived before. “It was really quite instrumental to my healing. The arts community, the people, the friendships, great things happened for me there, even during all the craziness, it was just gentler. America is pretty savage.”

In New York, Weinstein was convicted of a criminal sex act in the first degree and rape in the third degree. Even while McGowan wonders what kind of sentence he will get on 11 March – she is hoping for five years, though that is “so pathetic and minuscule compared to the damage he’s done” – it seems probable that he will serve his time one way or another. He is facing two further criminal cases in Los Angeles – “they’re different kinds of cases and there’s a precedent for them” – and of course he arrives in the dock a convicted rapist. “It all counts, it all matters; every nail in the coffin is another nail in the coffin.”

The #MeToo movement could never have been snuffed out, even had Weinstein escaped justice, since “I don’t think you can get that genie back in the bottle”. McGowan’s question was always: “I wonder if we can get people to see women and girls as being human and not just being dismissed. And I think that’s happened. I’ve noticed so much, even being in the writers’ room and being listened to.” But she doesn’t necessarily see culture as having turned a corner. Hollywood is smart: “When they did the black dress thing [the Time’s Up red-carpet protest of 2018], and each actress took an activist as their date, that neutralised those activists.”

And there is a new misogyny on the rise: Weinstein’s attorney, Donna Rotunno, recently remarked to the New York Times that she would never have been assaulted because she would “never have put [herself] in that situation”, to which McGowan responds: “She was dog-whistling to Incels and the alt-right. A lot of what she says is meant to appeal to that group. The media give her a pass and print what she says, and will talk to me and say ‘What do you think?’, as though they can’t comment themselves.” Journalists were a huge part of why this story was never told and, more generally, “corporate feminism sucks”.

This week represents, for McGowan, a “triumph of the will, a triumph of the system, a triumph of the jury”. But she won’t play Pollyanna to this spectacle. “I probably am not going to be free of him until he’s dead or I’m dead.”

• This article was amended on 29 February 2020 to correct a quoted reference to allegations made against Harvey Weinstein by Lysette Anthony.


Zoe Williams

The GuardianTramp

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