Rose The Riveting
Known for years as a movie star, Rose McGowan has recently taken on a new role: feminist troublemaker. Here, she opens up about Hollywood’s “macho crap,” being the daughter of a cult leader, and how she plans to shatter the patriarchy.
Interview by Amber Tamblyn
A lot has happened since Rose McGowan first graced the cover of BUST 10 years ago. Back then, McGowan was riding a new wave of notoriety in the wake of her career switch from indie-film “It” girl—in flicks like Jawbreaker, Going All The Way, and The Doom Generation—to TV titan as the witchy star of the popular WB series Charmed. In the years since Charmed ended in 2006, she made a memorable appearance in 2007's Grindhouse before her résumé grew to include directing with the short film Dawn, in 2014. Captivating on screen and off, McGowan could possibly attribute some of her strong personal magnetism to her unusual upbringing—until age nine, she lived on an Italian commune inside a cult led by her father, called Children of God.
In June 2015, however, McGowan transitioned from beloved Hollywood babe to feminist badass in the eyes of women everywhere, when she tweeted to over 600k followers a photo of some casting notes she’d received for an Adam Sandler project which read: “Please make sure to read the attached script before coming in so you understand the context of the scenes. Wardrobe note: Black (or dark) form-fitting tank that shows off cleavage (push-up bras encouraged). And formfitting leggings or jeans. Nothing white.” Beneath the photo, McGowan captioned: “Casting note that came w/script I got today. For real. Name of male star rhymes with Madam Panhandler hahahaha I die.” And while feminists everywhere cheered this rare example of an actress calling out Hollywood’s casual sexism, not everyone was pleased. A week later, McGowan tweeted, “I just got fired by my wussy acting agent because I spoke up about the bullshit in Hollywood. Hahaha. #douchebags #awesome #BRINGIT.”
Even in 2015, the consequences for calling out sexism at work were swift and severe for McGowan. But at this juncture, where many others would cut their losses and try to make nice, McGowan doubled down. Two days later, she went on Good Morning America to discuss, “the systemic abuse of women in Hollywood,” and quit acting, after almost 25 years in the industry, to focus on writing, directing, and speaking out for women’s rights on and off social media alongside the hashtag #RoseArmy. Just this past month, McGowan continued to use her powerful voice on Twitter to shine a light on the entertainment industry’s abuse of women by sharing a painful story about being raped by a Hollywood studio executive when she was younger.
In short: She’s not staying silent any longer, and she’s done with masquerading as a sex object. Being encouraged to wear push-up bras and revealing clothing to get a job is not exclusive to Hollywood; it is the spoken and unspoken law for women at every level, in every profession. Be prettier. Smile more. Don’t raise your voice. Don’t wear that outfit. Don’t be so angry. Keep your ideas to yourself, or if you have ideas, figure out how to make a man in charge feel like they’re his ideas. Be a muse, not a matriarch. Don’t make a stink. Don’t fight back. Stay in your lane. Do as you’re told. McGowan has broken every one of these rules in her tenure as an actor, activist, and businesswoman—and she has no plans to stop anytime soon.
I was one of the people whose attention McGowan caught in the wake of “CastingGate,” so I reached out through a mutual friend to give her my support. It wasn’t long before a strong friendship was born between us, and we began texting and talking almost daily. She came and supported my directorial debut at the Los Angeles Film Festival this past June, and we joined forces for a fundraiser in New York to unseat the judge in the Brock Turner rape case. In the time I’ve known her, McGowan has tirelessly proven herself to be a voice for the voiceless, a blazing fire for the matchless, and a beating heart for the broken.
I contacted the 43-year-old artist in Italy, where she’s working on a record of what she calls “galactic hypnotic” music, one of the many creative swords she wields that makes her so damn fascinating. Rose McGowan is not a breath of fresh air. She’s a fresh tornado—an army of many in a single body, ready to pulverize the patriarchy.
It’s so interesting to me that you were on the cover of BUST 10 years ago. I feel like you have always been that rebel, that person who was not going to take shit from anybody. But maybe you hid it more then because you were an actor and you were more vulnerable.
I think that’s a perception that is not necessarily true. But I have had a hell of a life, and acting is probably the least interesting part of it. My history was intertwined with [acting]. In Italy, I was born on a commune, and I was trained from an early age to perform on the street for money.
Obviously, your acting was the reason people began to know who you were. And I think people should know what it’s truly like to be in the mind of a woman who acts.
Nobody ever talks about it.
Exactly, no one ever really talks about it. But you’re a rare example of someone who speaks every type of truth. So what I want to know is, in the years that you did act—when it mattered and it was a thing you did a lot—was there a moment when you realized you had more to offer the world, and you didn’t know how to do that?
I always knew. There was never a moment when I did not think that what I was doing was beneath me. The content, the people I was working with—with a few exceptions—it was beneath me. People never talk about something being beneath them, but what I consider art was not in any way reflected in the world around me. I was perceived as this strange version of a movie star who wasn’t playing the role. Like, there’s a role—the smart, thinking actress—that’s assigned to you by the media. But I was literally just too beautiful. Nobody would listen to me.
Yeah, you were a sex symbol. But I also think of you as a feminist guru.
I am. I am the daughter of a fucking cult leader.
You are the daughter of a cult leader—that is true. But what’s so powerful about you, too, is that you use language and attitude in a way that is extremely unusual for a mainstream celebrity. So, was there a certain breaking point that you reached as an actress that made you say, “Fuck this, I am done”?
For me, it was on Tarantino’s [Grindhouse] set—it’s wasn’t him, he was a cherry. It was all of it. The thing was, there was never really an Option B. And then there was a point when I was wondering, How do I get out of this? On those two [Grindhouse] films, where there was heaping amounts of macho crap going down, I was like, Why am I subjugating myself for some dickhead’s benefit so they can get their rocks off? This is not fun. This abuse is not fun. All of the women who support this system are not fun. I don’t want to live this way. This means nothing to me. I have dealt with systematic hatred; was held up as an example of what to hate. I was cast in [films about] people’s Madonna/whore issues. It’s not my fucking problem that you have a problem with your mommy. Get over it.
Yeah! I mean, I remember when I was 12 or 13, going on an audition for a movie that had a famous director involved. I wasn’t even through puberty yet, but I remember wearing this really cute, red, Betsey Johnson dress that I had bought with my soap opera money. I loved it so much, and I went on this audition, and the scene was, this older man is in bed with a little girl and the cops bust in on him, and I was playing the girl...
Oh, lucky you!
...and I remember the director commenting, in the audition room, on my body—because I was wearing this little slinky dress. He literally said to me, “Well, I can see you’re starting to get breasts, and you probably have a little pubic hair, don’t you? So you’re that perfect age.” I left and I got in the car with my dad, and I leaned the seat back and I lay there feeling sick. I didn’t understand what had happened or why it made me feel like shit, but I felt like shit. I told my dad what had happened, and he was so angry. He drove out of there and was, like, “No way, fuck this.” My dad [Russ Tamblyn] was a child actor, so he was maybe exposed to some form of that. He was so angry, he called my agent. I’ve never told that story before, but it was extremely upsetting.
It’s casual, deep misogyny.
Yes, absolutely. It was the moment when I went from being a cute little actress to suddenly thinking, My body now matters and people have no problem saying that. And for the rest of my life, I have dealt with variations of, “Oh, she would be a huge movie star if she lost 15 pounds.” What did you do, after you had that moment?
Ugh, look at the contents of [Grindhouse], see what happens to women, and draw your own conclusions. I just checked out. Basically, I would astrally project out of my body. I read a book about astral projection when I was nine, and I was constantly trying to do it. I think in some ways, I’ve mastered that—I just hover above and watch while my body is doing something else. The problem was, I got so good at being out of my body, I didn’t protect myself while I was in it. There was nobody protecting me. You had your dad, and I had my father. But after [my father] saw my first movie [The Doom Generation], he asked me what it felt like being a whore.
“I was cast in films about people’s Madonna/whore issues. It’s not my fucking problem that you have a problem with your mommy. Get over it.”
Wow. Are you still close with your dad at all?
He died, actually. My father was a very difficult and interesting human. He was the finest artist I’ve ever known. I’ve never met anyone as naturally gifted as that man was. But he also suffered from being a very handsome, manic-depressive man with a God-complex. I’ve never lived within the confines of society and its structures, so they don’t really apply to me. I never was good at being a celebrity. I probably could have been a huge star had I given two fucks. But for me, it was like, Oh, I have to play the role of an actress, and then play the movie? OK, cool, let’s go. And then, unfortunately, I got very lost while I was doing Charmed. For my kind of brain, that was like hell, to be honest. I know people have a lot of affection for that show, but for how I like to live my life and for how my brain works... my hair was falling out. I was sick all the time. I gained 10 to 15 pounds. Acting felt like a punishment. It wasn’t exciting for me to be outside of my own body and mind, because my mind interested me a lot more than what was on the page. Most people go to a job and they still have the luxury of having their own thoughts, whereas I was professionally paid to not be me. I hated that. I resented that.
Lets talk about your directing. I imagine being a director really allows you to put your own vision into it. Ninety-eight percent of the directors I’ve worked with over 25 years have been men, and even as a little girl, I learned how to make my ideas the male director’s ideas, to make them feel like they thought of it.
Oh, I didn’t do that. They just blatantly stole ideas from me, and not just directors. Like, any guy that I was with was like, “You’re my muse.” And I was like, “You’re a thief. I’m not your muse, motherfucker, you’re a fucking thief.”
Did you feel that way at the time or did it creep up on you?
I was resentful. It pissed me off. I couldn’t figure out why someone would do that. I was like, “Oh, but wait, I wrote that. But wait, that’s my song. Oh, but wait....” We’re taught that the greatest role in life that a girl can get is to be someone’s muse. [Makes gagging noises.] Vomit. And that’s what I would be thinking on set, every fucking time. So I have a line on the inside of my mouth where I just gnaw the fuck out of it to hide my fucking rage at the incompetence, the pettiness, and the abuse. But I knew the structure of it all, and I knew that there was no way to speak up for myself, so I just kept my nose to the grindstone. But a very smart person once told me, “Just because you can handle a lot, doesn’t mean that you have to.” And that’s the thing that took the weight off my back. So now, I want to push back and to teach others how to, also.
There’s this sense that people, especially men, love to tell women like you that they need to be less angry and more happy.
They can shut the fuck up. I don’t care what they tell me. I hear that shit every moment of every day. It doesn’t interest me. Because frankly, their brains cannot comprehend the scale and level of my thought—the field that I play in is not available to them. They have not done the work to get there. They have not done what it takes to be me.
“A very smart person once told me, ‘Just because you can handle a lot, doesn’t mean that you have to.’”
I brought it up because I think it’s something that affects all women. We’re all told that we should be less of one thing, more of another.
Yeah, like, a tankini is too much coverage, and a bikini is too small. Fuck. That. I’m not interested in that. Recently, I walked into a 7-11, and some guy working there says, “You’re going to walk in here and not smile or say hello? In my house?” And I was like, “Excuse me?” And he was like, “You’re a woman, you say hello!” And I was like, “No, I don’t say hello. Asshole.” I don’t. I do what I want. I don’t have to smile. And guess what? You have fucking earned my anger. This anger is because of people like you, and you are not unique. Men come up to me all the time, thinking they’re going to be unique and not kiss my ass, that they’re going harass me instead. And I’m like, “You are one in a long line of basics. You are all the same.” I have met more people than most will in 10 or 20 lifetimes. And I have lived a global existence that none of these people have, so they don’t get to touch me. Just because you write for a magazine, or you write for a blog and you’re from Chicago but you’re moving to New York... no. Sit. Down. Don’t come at me.
[laughing] I love it. So, tell me about your transition into directing.
It started with the writers of [my 2014 short film] Dawn, Josh Miller and Mark Fortin, who were both long-term friends of mine. They just said, “It’s time.” And I said, “You’re right.” Three months later, I was shooting. And now I just sold a show that I wrote and will be directing for Amazon—Children of God.
I’m working completely outside the system right now. I won’t work with agents or managers. They brainwash you into thinking you need them. But I just employ someone to fill the gaps that I need filled, instead of giving somebody 10 percent of my income and hoping they can remotely understand what I’m doing and are able to sell that. Though the idea of me being “sold” to anyone or anything is stomach turning. So I refuse to sell or buy anybody to anybody. The Amazon thing came about because the head of Amazon Studios followed me on Twitter. I followed him back, and that’s how it happened. It wasn’t based on someone saying, “Oh, you really ought to read this script!” It wasn’t somebody doing the typical song and dance. Actors are not empowered. But if you’ve survived as an actor for a certain amount of time, you are a businessperson—act like it. Figure it out. You are your own CEO, so act like one.
That’s very true. I swear, I could sit and listen to
Well, soon you can! I’m launching a digital platform [called] #RoseArmy. One of the features will be a live feed where I sit in and just converse. Like, “In five easy steps, you, too, can be living a better and more informed life, instead of being an asshole who hurts animals, women, and children—you fucking dick. Just shut up and listen.” #RoseArmy is an army of thought.
Tell me more. What exactly are you talking about when you say you want to build a #RoseArmy?
#RoseArmy is a growing group of likeminded individuals who are pro-thought, pro-intellect, and pro-art. If a man can plant a flag in the ground and say, “These are my borders, these are my laws, these are my rigid, narrow rules within which you have to live,” well, then I can create a virtual world that rejects those beliefs. We all can. #RoseArmy members believe in pushing boundaries and fighting for justice. The site, rosearmy.com, is being built now, and it’ll become clearer what I’m doing and why once it’s launched. I realized there was no one publicly advocating for thought. What I want is for every being in the world to be 10 percent more conscious in their lives. I want people to think differently, and I want them to do better. I want to dismantle the status quo and I want to shatter the patriarchy. It is not working for society, and it is especially not working for women. I want us to be equal. I will not rest until it is so. I believe an army of thought will bring about the systemic change we so need. And it starts with us. So let’s go.
One more question. Is there something you want to say to people who read this magazine who may be feeling lost, cornered, violated, or stuck?
Yes. While you’re enduring crap, arm yourself. Prepare yourself for your new life, the life you’re really meant to live. I don’t mean with a gun, I mean with knowledge. Learn everything you can about the various things that interest you. Be brave. Leap and the net will appear. Your life can be bigger than you imagine.
Interview by Amber Tamblyn
Photos by Jill Greenberg // Styling by Cannon @ Judy Casey // Nails by Mabelyne Martin
Makeup by Alex Byrne @ EXCLUSIVE ARTISTS MANAGEMENT
This article originally appeared in the December/January 2017 print edition of BUST Magazine. Subscribe today!
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