A number of years ago, I landed a gig as Penelope Cruz’s stand-in on the Rob Marshall movie Nine at Shepperton Studios. A starting-out actress, I thought it would be a great experience to be on a huge film set with so many actors whose work I admired – Sophia Loren, Nicole Kidman, Daniel Day Lewis, Kate Hudson, Judi Dench, and Marion Cotillard. Perhaps even Penelope and I would become bezzies.
In the end it wasn’t that great and I didn’t get to hang out with Ms Cruz, but I did meet Harvey Weinstein himself. I say meet but it was more of an encounter. I didn’t really know much about him at the time but soon got the impression from the mixture of excitement and trepidation on set that this was a very important guy.
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.
Jumaan worked as a stand-in for Spanish actress Penelope Cruz
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.
Why? Because 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.
Myself and fellow actors – not just women but men too – have countless stories of abuse and harassment when trying to get work. Just like the stars who are speaking out now, when I first started in the business I was naïve to it all. At that time (and people still say these things), the advice I was given about acting from people in the business, went along the lines of:
“You have to give it 100%, it’s the toughest industry out there, you have to work really hard, you have to take every opportunity as you don’t know how it could help you or where it could it lead. You have to push, you have to network, you have to put yourself out there, meet people, talk to people, make compromises and sacrifices, put your work first. 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…”
To the inexperienced young actor you can get brainwashed by this advice. It becomes a mantra you’re tied to, making you live a very miserable existence because you’re not told it depends on the situation, that it’s ok to say no sometimes, that your agent won’t sack you if you don’t want to go to an audition, or that you should only meet people in public – something even dating apps and Gumtree say!
You may roll your eyes and think it’s common sense but for many young actors, myself included, a combination of lack of life experience, believing all people are good, fear, passion and the desire to work and learn serve to create a very messed-up bullshit detector. In hindsight I completely get Romola Garai when she says in the Guardian: “If someone asked me now to go to their hotel room and a guy was in a dressing gown I’m 100% sure that I would leave and say: ‘Would you like to come down to the bar and have the meeting with me when you’re dressed’.” These experiences are not unique.
Fortunately, I was never in her position or slept with anyone for a role or even God forbid, raped, but I was 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.
Once an American director approached me about a project that sounded interesting and he seemed genuine. He wasn’t based in London, so 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. It seemed he was insinuating that I’d actually got the part without even auditioning, so I agreed to go and even my boyfriend at the time, unable to fathom the truth, encouraged me.
Actress Romola Garai
On arrival I started to get the creeps, but once again because of what I’d been told, ignored my intuition and stayed. He had male and female film students assisting him, so I felt reassured by that and he drove me around the film locations for this horror story including (yes!) to the most remote house in the middle of nowhere where he said I could stay with him alone and that I “shouldn’t go back so soon, because we have so much more to do”. I refused but didn’t want to be rude and so kept mentioning I’d booked a hotel already. I also didn’t want him to get mad in the middle of nowhere. 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.
When we finally got around to my ‘audition’, (because now he obviously wasn’t so keen on just offering me the part) we drove in his open-top car, with one of the male students on camera, to a secluded park area. So the student starts filming and this much older, unattractive director starts to direct me to kiss his neck at which point I felt completely uncomfortable 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’.
Once back in the safety of my hotel, I was very shaken up. The next day he drove me back to the coach station and said he’d let me know about the part because he was auditioning other actresses. We were never in touch again. I never told anyone what happened until years later, because I 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.
I once got a part in a show, through my then agent. The director wanted me to stay at his house to better work on the production. Because the part came through my agent I thought it would be ok, that I was protected. When I got to the shoot, I didn’t tell the all-female cast that I had stayed at this director’s house at first but I did when we all discovered he’d hired 10 female actors in the hope that he’d get to sleep with one! 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.
Another time, during a stint working in Bollywood, a director asked me to meet him to talk about a project but then said he really wanted to meet me because he fancied me, there was no project, and that in Bollywood you have to sleep your way to the top. I got out as quickly as I could.
Today I’m older and wiser and don’t find myself in many of these situations any more. I look forward to getting even older and ‘less attractive’ because then auditioning could actually be about the work. Weinstein and all the men like him, only like young, pretty, vulnerable girls. That’s why Judy and Meryl never experienced it. There’s an episode of The Graham Norton Show where Miriam Margolyes is talking about the time she worked with Arnold Schwarzenegger. She said she didn’t like him because he didn’t fancy her – “he didn’t think I mattered and I really resent that attitude” – and that is so true. 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.
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.
As George Clooney has said in his statement on Weinstein: “I suppose the argument would be that it’s not just about Hollywood, but about all of us – that every time you see someone using their power and influence to take advantage of someone without power and influence and you don’t speak up, you’re complicit.”
If the example of Weinstein serves to stop this kind of behaviour happening again, stops young actors becoming jaded and disillusioned and accepting of such treatment, then that’s good.
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.