In the video for “RM486” — the first song Rose McGowan has released under her own name — the actress, director, and now musician transmogrifies into five distinct figures representing aspects of her life. The “dark beauty” embodies those early days in her career as a diet-goth icon. The “green hair Hollywood” reflects McGowan’s agitated state as a mouthpiece for a vision other than her own. The “needles” are her “armor.” The “red glitter bomb” is her determination. But the stark-white, alien-looking figure represents her purest form: the Artist. After the Jonas Åkerlund–directed clip’s release earlier this week, McGowan — who recently admitted that she “hated acting” — described the video as her “speaking to the world in [her] words, for the very first time.” Curious to know more about this new phase in her life and career, Vulture caught up with McGowan for some heavy talk about the war against women, making art that matters, and moving to New York.
What’s the significance of the number 486 in “RM486”?
Well, RM obviously stands for my name, but it’s a play on the abortion drug RU486. It’s twofold. I wanted something that sounded really astral and galactic that kind of matched the tone of the song and where I was coming from with the song, but also, doing interviews, it’s obviously an entry to talk about women’s rights. RU486 is a famously controversial drug, but it’s not about that specifically. Eight or nine months ago they voted down equal pay for women, now they’re trying to defund Planned Parenthood. There is actually a war going on against women, and it doesn’t sit right with me, and it shouldn’t sit right with you or anybody.
Would you say you’re moving your political eye away from Hollywood and toward the music world?
No. It’s just generalized. Hollywood is certainly a microcosm and a reflection of the world at large, in its own way. It’s America’s No. 1 export, and we do a lot of damage with the typical tropes and how women are perceived on film. But no, I have no beef with music just yet. I haven’t been doing it long enough.
You’ve released music under different names in the past, but it seemed like you were doing it in a non-serious, almost jokey way.
It wasn’t a joke. It was just under different names. I’ve spent the last seven years disengaging from the public in a meaningful way. I did not like being sold as a misunderstood commodity, so I never really bothered engaging with people in a real way, and obviously Twitter wasn’t around, so it’s not like you could do it yourself. The only time you speak to the public is if you’re interviewed, and the questions were usually about something a man directed you in. So it’s just a different conversation that I can have now.
What are some of the names you’ve released your music under?
Why would I tell you that?
So people can listen to it.
No, it’s a secret. You have to listen to the future. I’ve realized through my career I’m kind of a Cindy Sherman that speaks — in movies, anyway. Now, with this, I’m conducting my own version of a long-range experiment. It’s basically like my life has been a weird version of performance art.
Did you compose the music on “RM486”? What was the creative process like?
I have like five other careers that people don’t know about, one of which is photography. I shot this electro band called Punishment, they’re out of Paris, and I shot them for their album cover, and I told them that I wanted to do music and I’m trying to find someone to make music with. And they said, “Well, what kind of music do you want?” and I said something really otherworldly and propulsive and progressive. So they sent me a track, and I went to Paris, and in between fashion shows, wrote the song on the way to the recording. I recorded it in a closet in a little apartment in Paris. It was awesome. It was really funny. I had about an hour between fashion shows. I wrote some of the lyrics in Los Angeles, but the Blade Runner stuff, I came up with that in Paris.
You said you have careers that a lot of people don’t know about. Like what?
Well, I’m a businesswoman, I invest in a lot of different businesses. I also have a skin-care line that I formulated over the last nine years that’s going to be coming out soon, and it’s very, very different from anything that’s been sold out there before, of course, it has to be. It’s a very special product, and it’s about giving women a break, because if you’re a white woman, you makes 77 cents to a man’s dollar. If you’re a black woman, and doing well, it’s 66 cents. If you’re a black lesbian, you’re at 46 cents. Yet we still pay the same taxes, way more for self-care. I’m always looking for ways in life to give women a break.
It’s rare to speak with a celebrity who isn’t chaperoned by a publicist, who speaks quite so candidly about social justice. Does that ever feel daunting?
It is daunting at times. Sometimes my ankles shake a little bit, but I stand tall. People say, “Where were you when you were doing acting?” Well, I was doing the same thing. I just didn’t have Twitter or an outlet for my voice. I’ve been an activist my whole life. My family are highly political people. They’re involved in politics, and they’re involved in a good fight. I came up that way, and I obviously have a platform or sorts, so why not use it? People are so afraid of what their publicists tell them to do or not do, and I just don’t understand that. You’re a free human being. Do what you want, say what you want. Nothing bad will happen to you, and if it does, people are going to hate on you anyway, so you might as well say something. Also, I get really bored of reading other people’s insipid articles. I don’t actually even bother because they’re usually quite dull. I don’t need spoon-fed bullshit coming at me through the media. I need somebody real.
Who do you think those people are — the “real ones” you admire and you think more people should be paying attention to?
It’s the Kim Gordons and the Kathleen Hannas. These are all really incredible women, and artists who are important across the board. Maybe I’ll inspire other artists and actors to say stuff, because I know they feel stuff. We’re just — and believe me, I was one of them — so coached, and told not to rock the boat. Why? Someone the other day in L.A. I overheard say, “You better watch out, she’s going out with such-and-such person.” Why? Watch out for what? What are they going to do? That whole town is based on fear, of publicists, especially. I work with only people now who are dope, really. I just won’t work with people now that are trying to put me in Us Weekly. I don’t want it, and I won’t have it. In fact, I just turned down this Us interview, and it felt really good because as an actor, you would totally have to do that. I don’t want to be a part of that anymore. It’s not who I am, it’s not what I represent, and I don’t want to be for mass consumption at the goddamn nail salon. I’m at a place in my life where I’m only doing things that interest me.
It sounds like you had an epiphany that led you to say, “Screw this.” When did that happen?
It was a little under two years ago. I was sitting at my house and the power went out, and it dawned on me that the problem was that I was just in the wrong career, and that I was, in fact, an artist — and not the misunderstood one they made me out to be. I know amazing people in Los Angeles, but a lot of the people in the business that I’ve met so far have looked at me like I’m speaking Swahili, which is really boring. It’s really boring when people stare at you like you’re this oddball. The thing is, what if I’m right? What if being an artist is what it’s about, and the commodity part comes second, not first. It’s important. I realized I was an artist, and within three months I directed my first film, Dawn, which was nominated for a Grand Jury Prize at Sundance and qualifies for an Oscar this year. I’m set to direct a couple more features into next year. I’m really excited about my life right now, and where things are going. I think if you just come out there with some truths, the world will respond.
Did it feel good to have that validation at Sundance, or did you not care?
It was so overwhelming at that point. I think getting into Sundance as a director, frankly, is better than winning an Oscar. In some ways, it’s more legitimate. Most of the press coverage of me was so shocked, like, “We didn’t know she had this in her.” All the condescending stuff you could imagine. But after they got done with the condescending stuff, it was very well-received. As it should be. I made a very strong film, and I put a lot of thought into this. I also did the set design. That’s another one of my careers [that people don’t know about].
What made you want to move to New York City?
I just get business done faster here, and honestly, the first night I was here, I was at this place and somebody turned to me, just looked at me, and asked me what book I was reading. I almost passed out with joy that somebody actually asked me what book I was reading. I can’t say that has ever happened in Los Angeles, God bless them. It could be said that I was just around the wrong people, that’s a fact. But I also have friends there who are definitely members of the tribe I want to be in, but the business of it, I think people are storming their gates and doubling down on this Mad Men–era bullshit instead of actually addressing what’s going on. The Hollywood that I see onscreen, with the exception of some indie films, is not reflecting the world that I see. I don’t know about you, but I don’t think Fantastic Four is reflective of a culture that I want to be a part of.
Going forward, do you plan on toggling between music and film?
For me it’s like, if I have time do some songs and put them out, I shall do some songs and put them out. If I feel like directing a movie, I’m going to direct a movie. If I feel like doing photography, that’s what I’m going to do. I’ve worked really hard in the trenches for years to get to a point, and believe me, this is the most financially unsafe way to do this, but it’s just what I have to do. I can’t be of service to somebody else’s muse anymore. I can’t do it.
Do you have more music coming out soon?
I do. It’s a slower song, just with piano and viola. It’s really beautiful. There’s no Auto-Tune on my voice because I believe in hearing raw emotions. Maybe I’ll do an Edith Piaf cover. I’m kind of doing whatever I want, which is pretty cool.
Are you happy with the response to your music so far?
Very much so. The people I know and the people I want to know are the people who appreciate it and get it, that want something different with both thought and entertainment. It doesn’t have to be one or the other, and that’s what I want to put together. Pop songs can still say something.
Swinging back to women’s rights: Women are constantly asked about motherhood, while men are not. Have you experienced that hypocrisy?
As soon as I got married to my husband [Davey Detail], who is a visual artist, I was immediately asked, “So when are you having kids?” To my knowledge, my husband was never asked that. And that’s where this conversation will stop. It doesn’t interest me as a topic because it’s nobody’s business, and that’s pretty much easy to shut down for women. When people are saying something that’s offensive or wrong — and women get that on a daily basis, reinforced by society and the media — I think it’s up to us to offer chiropractic adjustments for the mind. I do it hard and fast.