Even with everything that I know, and everything that I’ve heard and read, I’m shocked.
It’s a weekday afternoon in Los Angeles and we’ve come to the acting studio of legendary coach Margie Haber to see her teach and to talk to some of her students about sexual harassment in Hollywood.
We’re trying to establish what’s actually changed as a result of the #MeToo and Time’s Up movements, which have focused a lot on big stars but not so much on those just starting out.
Margie, who has taught Brad Pitt and Halle Berry among others, is in her early 70s and larger than life.
She teaches “creation” and “connection” rather than acting, she says, and appears to me to also be life coaching her students who are trying to make it in a brutally competitive industry.
In LA, “every single person is an actor”, student Teresa Michelle Lee says.
“Every single person. Like the coffee person, anyone you meet you’re like: ‘Oh what’re you doing here?’ Umm, ‘I’m an actor’, “she says.
What is the #MeToo campaign?
Thousands of women are taking to social media to share their stories of sexual harassment using the #MeToo hashtag.
Lee is one of several in the class who agree to speak with us about their experiences in an industry where they’re innately vulnerable.
With so many young actors competing for the same jobs, they’re in a weak position to fend off unwanted sexual advances, if they want the work.
Lee has barely settled herself in Margie’s director’s chair to talk to me when she’s in tears, outlining the humiliation she’s experienced, tolerating Hollywood’s many flaws because, “it doesn’t feel like I could do anything else that could make me happy, you know?”
She’s never spoken publicly before about the harassment she’s dealt with. Now, with the support of her teacher and peers, something’s changed.
“It’s making me stronger, to not feel so alone and … stupid. How did I go through all these things and not ever talk about it?” Lee says.
“Because I was so embarrassed, and … [I thought], ‘Why did that happen to me?’ And, ‘Maybe I shouldn’t be doing this because why are these things happening to me all of the time?’
“I really encourage everyone in talking about it, it’s really helped me,” she said, sobbing.
Margie Haber hugs her young student, saying: “When you leave here today, you can go … ‘I outed myself and not only did I survive, but I helped others’.”
The Weinstein effect
Stories of Hollywood sexual assaults quickly expanded to include American media bosses and British politicians and there’s one striking theme.
Student Danice Cabanela is also emotional as she describes the abuse she’s suffered simply attending auditions and working in film and TV.
“I still love [the industry] now,” she says.
“It’s the constant grind of struggle in LA. There’s so much rejection but, we have to remind ourselves how much we love it every day.”
That’s in spite of her tears as she describes life as a young actress under duress.
“Charming, always charming, that’s kind of how they get you. But also, it is manipulative, under the charm. It’s scary,” she says.
“There are times in my life where I feel like I don’t have any options because I am afraid to out myself [as someone] who is not willing to go there.
“It’s been challenging for me to talk about these things as well, but to be vulnerable I think is incredibly important.
“And that we keep going and that we keep fighting for change, and creating change together.”
Fellow student Chastity Dotson lays out the kinds of things that go on, describing an incident in which she was filming a sex scene, when the male actor unexpectedly removed his boxer shorts.
“The lead actor was also the producer and we had a love scene,” she says.
“He took off his boxers underneath the covers, and he was naked underneath there, but he was also the producer, and he was also a man in power.”
She says that now that this kind of behaviour is being called out, the dynamic has changed.
“I would assume now in this time, he probably wouldn’t do that anymore.”
‘If they can come out, so can I’
Veteran coach Margie Haber admits she knew some men were harassing both male and female actors, but she says the stories are now being corroborated, which has made people feel they’ll be believed rather than penalised.
“In the old days I think it happened, but I don’t think people knew it happened to each other so, if you can imagine if you don’t know this happened to anybody else why would I be the one to share it?” she says.
“There were maybe two or three courageous people who came out recently and that gives a sense of, ‘well if they can do it I can do it’, and I think what happened is that everyone became more empathetic and people started believing it.”
Those who told their stories in the early days of the #MeToo movement are still digesting the fallout from going public, and the fact that outing big stars has changed the balance of power for other women.
Writers Jessica Teich and Anna Graham Hunter have something in common, in that they both revealed experiences they’d had when they were young women in the 1980s.
Graham Hunter, who is now a career coach, worked as an intern on Death of a Salesman with Dustin Hoffman, who has apologised to her after she detailed the harassment in an article in the Hollywood Reporter.
“He said in a room full of his entourage, because they were always around, ‘I’ll have a hard boiled egg and a soft boiled clitoris’, and so yeah, it was very funny to everyone else except for me,” she said of one of the encounters that happened when she was taking his breakfast order, aged 17.
Teich has alleged Oscar winner Richard Dreyfuss harassed her when she was working with him on a TV project.
“I didn’t know the extreme power differential between us and there was really no-one to tell. So, I never told anyone,” she says.
“We had to travel together to do research. He used to tell me he would spend the night listening at the wall to my movements next door.
“He would sidle up to me in meetings and say nasty dirty things to me. His brother, who was also a writer in the project, would stick his tongue in my ear. Just kind of all these uninvited intimacies.
“In fact, I got into his movie trailer at one point to work on the script and he exposed himself to me.”
Dreyfuss has denied that last allegation, but has apologised for his broader behaviour, in a qualified way.
“I think that is one of the most troubling aspects is that there is no sense that the person on the other side of all this sexual aggression is not reciprocating and not responding. And the fact that he never really realised that, even to the end of his statement, he said ‘but I thought we were friends’,” she says.
“Also, it troubles me that there is no apology in so many of these public admissions of guilt.
“The man is always apologising to himself really and his colleagues and sometimes his family. But there are never apologies directed to his victims.
“Very rarely do they even use the words ‘I’m sorry’.
“There is really never a moment where he turns his attention to me and … wonders what it must have felt like for me.”
Women debate what deserves to be called out
You would think all of the above would turn young people off being actors.
That’s not the case for Australian Emily Coupe, who has been working to launch her career in LA after working on the Australian series Offspring.
She’s faced some challenging moments.
“Even in the past two-three weeks someone asked me if I want to buy a role: ‘If you put down $30-$40,000, you can buy a lead in this feature.’ And I was like, ‘No’, I am not going to do that,” she says.
But, encouragingly, the young Australian says she hasn’t been sexually harassed.
As some question whether #MeToo has gone too far, the women too, are grappling with new social guidelines that aren’t spelled out.
“I can also see how it is tricky for guys because how does a guy show a girl that they are interested without making a kind of move,” Coupe says.
“Empathy, that’s how!” replies Graham Hunter.
“I think men that don’t know the difference between flirting and sexual harassment aren’t operating with empathy. Pay attention to the person you are talking to – otherwise you are just bulldozing because you want something.”
Coupe has something broader to add.
“Another thing that we could be doing in society in general is the way men are raised, because I feel like they’re raised to bulldoze and get what they want,” she says.
“And if we change the whole structure of how men are, encourage them to be more emotional and have more empathy … that could change everything.”
Back at Margie Haber’s acting studio, student Chastity Dotson also reflects on the debate about what deserves calling out.
“It probably will go too far for a while because it went too far in the opposite direction for so long,” she says.
“So if there is some collateral damage and people taking ownership of what happened to them, I think it’s fine, so what?
“People are speaking out. Some people are maybe speaking out too much. Some people are having to take the fall, but a lot of the time, there is some justice there.”