A London actress has urged society to not overlook what happens at “the bottom” of the ladder in the wake of the Harvey Weinstein scandal that has highlighted the sleazy-side of Hollywood and made victims of some of its biggest stars.
Weinstein was fired Sunday as co-chairman of the company he founded with his brother Bob amid a wildfire of sexual harassment claims that has worsened every day since and now includes several allegations of rape and investigations by both US and UK police. A spokesperson for the 65-year-old has said the “allegations of non-consensual sex are unequivocally denied.”
The avalanche of claims was set-loose by a New York Times scoop that disentombed the industry’s rotten underbelly, that was, until this week - often whispered about, but seldom spoken of aloud.
Tinseltown’s shine was smeared further still by denouncements from its A-list, including Meryl Streep, who exclusively told HuffPost Weinstein’s behaviour was “disgraceful” and “inexcusable”.
In an interview on Thursday night actor Emma Thompson widened the scope of the Weinstein scandal saying the “predator” was just the top of an “iceberg” and his behaviour was “endemic” of the Hollywood system, and mirrored in society.
The Oscar-winner lamented that women had been subjected to “belittling, bullying and interference” since “time immemorial”.
“So what we need to start talking about is the crisis in masculinity, the crisis of extreme masculinity, which is this sort of behaviour, and the fact that it is not only ok but that it is also represented by the most powerful man in the world at the moment,” she said, in a much lauded interview.
Lesser-known actress, Jumaan Short, furthered Thompson’s narrative in a blog for HuffPost UK on Friday where she urged the acting community - and society as a whole - not to be blinkered by the made-in-Hollywood scandal, saying the ‘casting couch’ mentality was in-action to the very outskirts of the industry.
“The ‘casting couch’, as many articles are now stating is the norm, is accepted, is nothing new and has been going on for years. Yet while people are complaining about what is happening at the top of the ladder in the industry, not enough are talking about what happens at the bottom.” Actress Jumaan Short
Short continued: “Myself and fellow actors - not just women but men too - have countless stories of abuse and harassment when trying to get work.”
The Londoner, working as a stand-in for Penelope Cruz on movie Nine, detailed how even in such a lowly position, she hadn’t failed to register on Weinstein’s sexual radar - while waiting to use a portaloo:
The first thing that struck me about him was that he’s a big man. Tall, broad, so he stands out. Coupled with his powerful position I can see how he could be intimidating. One day, when I wasn’t needed on set I went to use one of the mobile toilets. On my way out there was Harvey. Don’t get me wrong, he wasn’t following me, he must have been on his way somewhere, maybe to the toilets too, but I was surprised to see him in front of me, and then he spoke!
Now it was unusual to be spoken to by anybody ‘of any position’ on set (stand-ins were barely noticed), so I was taken aback by this large famous figure talking to me outside the Portaloo. He asked who I was, which was even weirder and so I mumbled nervously and with embarrassment, ‘I’m just Penelope’s stand in’. He then asked me if I wanted to go out with him, but I felt so awkward and couldn’t believe my ears, that I rushed off pretending I didn’t even hear and, after a couple of days, if I remember correctly he was gone.
Perhaps you’re feeling disappointed that this isn’t one of the more shocking stories that have appeared in recent days like Ambra Battaliana’s or Ashley Judd’s and that the headline has misled you, but perhaps if I hadn’t been so frightened, or the circumstances had been different, I might have found myself in one such awkward position. I don’t know whether anyone else on the set of Nine had similar encounters with Weinstein but there were lots of beautiful, young, Italian female dancers there - it being a musical - who may have had their own experiences. Since that time, out in the acting world I’ve consistently heard rumours and stories about him all tallying with the exposes that are now appearing. That’s why no one I know was surprised when the story broke.
Short goes on to state that, along with her fellow actors - not just women but men too - “have countless stories of abuse and harassment when trying to get work” and how advice on how to advance in the industry included how to deal with uncomfortable sexual advances.
In part of the advice, she was told: “You’ll meet horrible people, because you know that’s how the industry is, it’s really competitive, there are thousands of actors just like you and you’re not an English rose so you have to work harder and people will treat you like shit and if someone wants to go out with you, make out like you’ll sleep with them, but then don’t, cos you have to be polite and lovely to everyone or you’ll get sacked or you won’t work at all, in fact you’ll never work again, it’ll be over, so make sure this is really what you want to do.”
Short said she was never “put in a position” or had slept with anyone for a role, “or even, God forbid” been raped, but said she had been “promised fame and fortune by numerous film folk with the gift of the gab”.
“In the end, I could always smell the rat and left as fast as I could,” she said.
Short recalled how an American director had “insisted I go and stay where he was because he said ‘we’d need a couple of days to discuss things’ and that all the locations were there”, only for him to drive her to “the most remote house in the middle of nowhere where he said I could stay with him alone”.
“The two of us were alone in this empty house, I was frightened, all kinds of thoughts came into my head, we were in the countryside. No one would hear me scream. No one would rescue me,” she wrote in her blog.
Later, as part of an audition, Short said, the “much older, unattractive” director urged her to “kiss his neck” while she was being filmed, something she felt “completely uncomfortable” with and resisted.
“But he kept telling me to kiss him, and I didn’t. I just held back tears as the camera rolled. It’s hard for me to admit this, but I even remember thinking, ‘I must be a bad actress if I can’t do this’.”
Short never got the part and never spoke of the incident, as she felt “so stupid and humiliated for getting myself in that situation”.
“It’s understandable, then, why when it comes to Weinstein these famous actresses wouldn’t want to say they went to Harvey’s hotel room, because apart from the fear their careers would be ruined by speaking out, in general people assume the worst - that you did sleep with him. They judge, you feel ashamed, they think how could you be so stupid, when you were completely innocent.”
On another occasion, Short recalled how a director wanted her to stay at his house, which she did because she had got the job on his show through her then agent. Arriving on set Short did not reveal she had stayed over to the cast, but did when she “discovered he’d hired 10 female actors in the hope that he’d get to sleep with one!”
Short: “When I refused him, he actually uttered the clichéd words, ‘I’ll make sure you never work again’, and never gave me the final payment.”
In Bollywood, director’s motives were even more transparent: Short said a director asked her to meet to discuss a project, but then admitted “he fancies me”, there was no job, and that “in Bollywood you have to sleep your way to the top”.
Short said now that she is “older and wider” she has learned to avoid “these situations” and said she looks forward to getting “even older and less attractive because then auditioning could actually be about the work”.
“Some men in the business, and even male actors, if they don’t fancy you won’t want to work with you, won’t hire you, don’t even want to talk to you. It’s like you’re not worthy,” Short said.
“My stories are just the tip of the iceberg. There are many that are worse, and naturally not all the men I meet in the business are like Weinstein. I’m not even remotely famous, but even now as I write this, I feel some fear about speaking out. You don’t want to be seen as a ‘troublemaker’ or ‘difficult to work with’. Even now the brainwashing is affecting me.
“But it’s important that the alleged actions of Weinstein and men like him are not accepted as the norm, and we must speak out not just about the people at the top, but about the people at the bottom so things can change.”
Jumaan Short is an actor and filmmaker who feels passionately about the stories and rights of women and girls. Her short film MOTHER about a mother/daughter relationship which she wrote and co-starred in alongside Miriam Margolyes, can be seen at film festivals and will soon be available to view on Film Doo.