Zoe Kazan and Carey Mulligan on She Said: ‘We wanted to honour the bravery of #MeToo survivors’
On 5 October 2017 the New York Times published an investigation that would change the world. It cited eight women, “typically in their early or middle 20s … and hoping to get a toehold in the film industry”, who had been lured to a hotel room by the producer Harvey Weinstein, purportedly for work reasons, only to find him “nearly or fully naked in front of them”. The original report by journalists Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey quoted just one celebrity: the actor Ashley Judd. But within a week Angelina Jolie, Gwyneth Paltrow and Rosanna Arquette had stepped up, and the wheels began to spin on what would become the runaway #MeToo movement.
Four years on, at the tailend of the Covid pandemic, the actors Carey Mulligan and Zoe Kazan found themselves trying to reconstruct the moment in the deserted New York Times offices: “It was like being in a room where everyone had been raptured or something, with half-eaten candy bars and people’s shoes under the desk,” says Kazan. “The newsroom was completely empty, and had been for a year and a half. All the newspapers were dated 13 March 2020, or something. It was very eerie. And I was sending videos to Jodi, walking around our set being like, ‘Here’s your newsroom, it misses you.’”
Mulligan also recalls those early days. “When we started filming, there was still a mask mandate in New York. I remember the first day of shooting: we were outside the New York Times building and I was doing lots of exits and entrances from the building, fielding phone calls on the way in and out. And it was an absolute nightmare to get a shot where you didn’t see 59 masks in each frame.”
As the stars of one of Hollywood’s earliest reckonings with a shameful episode in its own history, Mulligan and Kazan had to find out all about the two women who had exposed it. Their first port of call was the book Kantor and Twohey had written about the investigation, on which She Said is based and from which it takes its name. “But I don’t think Jodi and Megan are used to thinking of themselves as the subjects; their book is much more about the report than it is about their experience of the reporting,” says Kazan.
Director Maria Schrader and screenwriter Rebecca Lenkiewicz were determined to tell a more personal story, of two young women juggling motherhood with a nail-biting investigation that often emerged in hushed out-of-hours phone calls from different time zones. Twohey – who had earlier outed the presidential wannabe Donald Trump for his abuses of women – was emerging from a period of post-natal depression when she was drawn back to support Kantor in the investigation. “I went to Megan’s office in prep,” says Mulligan, “and she showed me a stack of random bits of paper, like backs of envelopes and gas bills, and receipts for food shopping with notes on where she had had a phone call from a source that she would scribble down.”
Mulligan and Kazan are at their homes on opposite sides of the Atlantic when we speak over Zoom. Though the film company is jittery about controlling the interview, the actors are warm with each other and generous in talking about how their own experiences fed into their performances. It’s midday in New York and Kazan apologises for eating as we talk: she has a three-week-old baby, her second child, and breast-feeding is making her ravenous. “I’m so hungry all the time my hands start shaking. I texted my mom right before this interview started with, like, can you bring me a snack?” It matters that the film is both directed and written by women, she says. “I don’t know that a man would have asked those questions about juggling parenthood, or about the experience of new motherhood.” It is indeed an important part of what makes She Said so moving, marking it out from the usual testosterone-driven journalistic scoop movies in the tradition of All the President’s Men.
Many of the questions Kazan fired at Kantor might sound trivial, she adds – “like, how does dinner get on the table and who was helping you with the childcare? – but as a parent, I understand how vital those questions are.” In an unusually testing fluke of timing, filming started on the same day that Kazan’s partner, Paul Dano, began shooting Steven Spielberg’s The Fabelmans, nearly 3,000 miles away in California. “We have an incredible nanny, but my parents also relocated for three months to New York, and came and lived with us to make it possible for me to work all the hours I was working.”
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Like Twohey, Mulligan suffered from post-natal depression after the birth of her daughter in 2015. “One of the first conversations that Megan and I had was about that, because I was similarly blindsided and really struggled,” she says. It meant she could understand how important the Weinstein investigation was to Twohey, “as something solid she could grab on to when she was feeling this is overwhelming and too much, I don’t know how to do it; it absolutely brought her back to more solid ground.”
In Mulligan’s own case, the lifeline was the obligation, “much more trivial, but sort of similar”, to do the publicity rounds for the film Suffragette – in which she starred as the radicalised young laundry worker Maud Watts. “I was still in the thick of it and very, very close to just cancelling the whole thing, because I couldn’t admit it was actually OK – that I’d be with these women who I love, telling a story that matters, and it helped me out of it. So within the first 20 minutes of Megan and I talking, we were like, ‘Oh, yeah, I know what that is. I remember saying, ‘You know, you sort of feel jealous of how happy everyone else is around you, because you just can’t access it.’ I felt so grateful to her for allowing it to be included in the film, because I do think it’s something we don’t see very often.”
But while Mulligan and Kazan, like the two journalists, chose to become involved, most of the women whose stories they were telling did not. One of the first victims to go on record was Laura Madden (played by Jennifer Ehle in the film), who said she was doing it so that her two teenage daughters wouldn’t have to go through what she had suffered. Madden was recovering from breast cancer when Kantor tracked her down. Days earlier, she had received a call from a former colleague at Weinstein’s production company, Miramax, warning her not to talk to “cockroach” journalists. She was angry but anxious, so Kantor jumped on a plane and travelled on to Cornwall, where Madden was on holiday, convalescing with her family, to coax the details out of her.
What emerged turned out to be grimly typical: Madden had been in her early 20s and living in rural Ireland when she was hired to work on the Miramax film Into the West. Asked to run an errand to Weinstein’s hotel room in Dublin one day, she found him in his dressing gown. After guaranteeing her the “dream job” of a permanent role in London, he undressed and demanded a massage.
It was very validating when someone finally wanted to do something about it. The film was the next step in that
Another former assistant who spoke up was Rowena Chiu, an Oxford graduate of British-Chinese heritage, who was hired to work in Miramax’s London office at the time of Shakespeare in Love, and had been bullied into signing a non-disclosure agreement after narrowly escaping being raped. She was so ashamed about what had happened to her that she had told nobody about the incident for more than 20 years when Kantor doorstepped her at home in California. In a scene that speaks economically and eloquently of the cost to the women of such abuses, Kantor backs, horrified, off the lawn and back into her hired car as it dawns on her that even Chiu’s husband doesn’t know: in the pursuit of a scoop, she is outing a traumatised woman to her own family.
The scene makes clear the responsibility that journalists and film-makers have towards the victims of injustice. The fact that these are real lives, not fictional constructs, is further underlined by a swerve into documentary, when a recording is played of a conversation between the model Ambra Battilana Gutierrez and Weinstein, who tries to argue her into joining him in his hotel room after groping her on a visit the previous day.
“Rebecca [the screenwriter] chose from the outset to spend time talking to the survivors, so that they were included in the process of writing the script,” says Mulligan, “So it was very clear that the intention was to honour their bravery and their stories as best as we possibly could and make sure they were comfortable with the portrayal.”
Most of them have already been to screenings, at which they have been invited to introduce themselves. “I think the most moving part of all of those evenings has been the reaction from the audience to those women. It elicits immediate standing ovations when they’re introduced.” At a Q&A after the film’s world premiere at the New York film festival last month, Ashley Judd – who plays herself in it – said, “It was very validating when someone finally wanted to listen and do something about it. And the film was the next step in that.”
Of her own experience, Mulligan says, “I’ve always been incredibly lucky”, adding, “We’re not activists, we’re actors, but you only have to open a newspaper today to see that globally things are still pretty dire for women in lots of places.
“As a woman growing up, you are armed from a very early age against anything like this; you become aware that you’re under threat in certain situations. That’s pretty universal, and I think it’s what people connect with in the film: regardless of whether someone is an actor or an assistant, the experiences are so eerily familiar. At screenings, lots of people will say, ‘Oh, well, this thing happened to me, and I’ve never really spoken about it, or I’ve only just started speaking about it in the last few years. From my very layman’s perspective, I think that’s what the #MeToo movement has done: it has allowed conversations and opened up channels of communication.”
The two actors previously worked together when Mulligan starred in Wildlife, a film which Kazan co-wrote with Dano, who also made his directorial debut with it. It was a stylish period adaptation of a Richard Ford novel, about a 1950s family that collapses after the parents decide to up sticks and move to Montana. It gave Mulligan one of the best roles of her career, according to the Guardian critic Peter Bradshaw, “giving her a chance to display maturity, wit, savvy and the emotional battle scars of life, and taking her away from the rather girlish image in which she has often been confined”.
Mulligan is well aware of this girlish image. “I feel that for a long time I was the youngest on set, and trying not to get fired. And I’m still very much trying not to get fired,” she says, ”but I also feel that now that I have been doing this a bit longer, the onus is really on me.” Last year, she won an apology from the trade magazine Variety after complaining that its review of her performance in Emerald Fennell’s Promising Young Woman was misogynist.
But it’s not just about looking out for number one: “One of the best things that happened specifically within our industry, is that actors really started looking out for each other. It’s important to keep an eye on our cast mates, and on younger people.” The industry itself has also stepped up, she points out. “Before every job, there are harassment workshops for the whole cast and crew that talk about what is and isn’t acceptable behaviour.” The first play she did post #MeToo was Girls and Boys at the Royal Court. “And, you know, it was a monologue, but I still signed a code of conduct alongside my writer and the director, and the stage crew.”
Before each job are harassment workshops for the cast and crew that talk about what is and isn’t acceptable behaviour
Mulligan is currently on a brief home break after wrapping Maestro, in which she plays opposite Bradley Cooper, as the wife of the composer Leonard Bernstein. Kazan, meanwhile, is taking a sabbatical from acting to “concentrate on writing, feeding my baby and feeding myself”. As the granddaughter of the director Elia Kazan, who has written for, been directed by, and appeared alongside many great players of the last two decades on stage and screen, she is part of a showbusiness aristocracy that goes back to less enlightened times, though with parents – the screenwriters Nicholas Kazan and Robin Swicord – “who were talking to me about consent when I was a little girl, which made it possible for me to speak up about things from a really young age.”
Weinstein remains a shadowy figure in She Said, only seen in silhouette as he is hustled in and out of the New York Times office by his lawyers – “and that’s because it’s not just about him”, adds Kazan. “The most important line in the film for me, is when Jodi says to Megan, ‘If this can happen to Hollywood actresses, who else is it happening to?’”
Her point is that, rather than monstering a single man, the film occupies the interface between people and institutions. “It shows how, when an institution like the New York Times gets behind individuals who are willing to do this kind of work, and individuals who are willing to come forward and speak the truth, change is possible. Because there’s so much more change that needs to happen, not just in our industry, but in our world.”
She Said is in cinemas from 25 November