the industry

Art Doesn’t Need Tyrants

Scott Rudin’s downfall is an opportunity to change Hollywood.

Tavi Gevinson on the set of This Is Our Youth. Photo: Brigitte Lacombe
Tavi Gevinson on the set of This Is Our Youth. Photo: Brigitte Lacombe

Scott Rudin cast me in my first Broadway play, Kenneth Lonergan’s This Is Our Youth, when I was a senior in high school in 2014. I had been in one movie, and although I’d loved theater as a kid, stage acting seemed like something you had to go to college for. I decided not to audition, but then my agents told me the request came directly from Scott. I didn’t know who he was, but I learned that he was important, powerful, had an EGOT, and allegedly threw phones at his assistants. If he wanted me to audition, it meant that I was valuable in some way. I put myself on tape, flew to New York with my dad for a callback on the production’s dime, met with the director, and finally got the part. When I found out, I jumped on my bed, high on a sense of potential. Rehearsals started two weeks before graduation, for which members of the production each gave me a book that had changed their life. Scott’s contribution was a DVD of the movie Twentieth Century, about a controlling Broadway producer.

Throughout the production, my interactions with Scott were minimal. We had a small rift because CBS Sunday Morning wanted to profile me around the show and shoot it in my childhood home, which was at that point still just my home. My family didn’t want that, and CBS said there would then be no profile. My dad and I remember that Scott said there would then be no show, and it wasn’t clear if this was a financial projection or a threat. He wrote me a long, eloquent email that made PR feel important to selling tickets, yes, but also to spreading the gospel around what we do. “It isn’t simply that you are a good advertisement for the play — and that’s not at all how I see this, and is in fact somewhat demeaning to you and the whole enterprise … It’s not simply parading you up and down a town square — it’s who you are and how you message the thing we’re doing that counts for a great deal, and that’s why it matters.” He said that this amount of press was normal for Broadway actors in his shows — “Denzel, Daniel Craig, Glenn Close.” Denzel? Mentioned on a first-name basis in an email to ME?! Despite my frustration, I was flattered. Mostly, my parents were not about to threaten my job or challenge a powerful producer.

I did the profile and folded this experience into running jokes with friends about the surreality of having any kind of firsthand experience of a famously mercurial showbiz personality. Toward the end of the run, I received an email from my aunt, who worked at the Library of Congress, that included a document she had found in Harold Prince’s archives: a letter to the theater legend’s secretary from 1971. “I am doing a report on Mr. Prince for my English class and would like very much to interview him. The only problem is that I have school Monday to Friday. I was thinking of interviewing Mr. Prince over my Christmas vacation, or possibly Nov. 20, because I am off from school because of Thanksgiving. It is very important that I set the interview, so please contact me as soon as possible. Thank you very much for your cooperation. Sincerely yours, Scott Rudin.” What chutzpah! I had a copy framed and mailed to him as a gift. He said it had “shades of Tavi.”

This Is Our Youth changed my life — in every possible way, I felt, and all for the better. It moved me to New York, gave me a community, fulfilled me creatively in a way I’d never before experienced, and granted me a theater career. I have since acted in several shows on and Off Broadway, including Ivo van Hove’s production of The Crucible, which Scott also produced.

Shortly after TIOY, I made friends with one of Scott’s former assistants, who regaled me with accounts of Scott’s insults and absurd demands like he was doing a comedy routine. So he’s rude to all of us! I thought, not accounting for the difference between being pressured to do a TV interview and being called a “waste of skin.” I heard more stories about him bullying people up and down the theater hierarchy. Separately from Scott, I heard of directors bullying actors, agents bullying each other, lawyers bullying everyone. Without a more thoughtful look at the power structure, I conceived of the entertainment industry as one big abuse stew, spooned out to everyone in equal-enough measure — with a few powerful exceptions, on whom the rest of us relied.

It was during the first play that the Sony hack leaked Scott’s emails that featured racist jokes, and I kept going to work, where no one talked about it except as further confirmation that we were employed by a jerk. Scott seemingly did not face consequences from his own production company, and there was no public fallout. He was a producer, not a household name, so the industry and the wider public didn’t seem to care. I rationalized that there were probably lots of powerful, horrible people providing the scaffolding for my passion and my ability to make a living off it. It was in this same spirit that I consulted Scott for professional advice over the years, like which manager he thought I should hire, or his ideas for possible angel investors for my online publication, Rookie. I told myself I was just an artist, just a writer, just an actor. And in fact, the more I could reap the benefits of having access to someone so savvy, the more I could channel my gifts into making important art that might even challenge the system he represented.

It was also in this spirit that I rolled my eyes at members of Hollywood feigning shock when the first reports on Harvey Weinstein’s serial sexual violence were published in 2017. In the early months of the industry’s reckoning with Me Too, I was relieved and thrilled that so many violent people were being held accountable, while suspicious of the institutions and powerful figures suddenly showing concern. Days after the first Weinstein stories, I attended an ELLE Women in Hollywood event where a red-carpet reporter chirpily asked me, “What’s your Me Too moment?” — as though it were a favorite movie or a pop of color. Nobody was used to speaking about the unspoken things, and doing so looked and felt absurd in an industry where abusive behavior was standard practice.

In this suspicion, my fear of truly contending with the abusers who shaped my life was allowed to morph into a reactionary sort of nihilism. The social-media pile-ons, the rushed company statements, the commodification of a social movement, the cynical blend of celebrity culture and individualism in the obsessions over what would happen to individual abusers’ careers and legacies — all of this corruption and hypocrisy made it easy to dismiss public fallouts as mere performance. If you are appalled at Weinstein, I thought, you should be appalled by all of Hollywood. If you are disgusted by the Golden Globes and the Oscars celebrating rapists, you should reconsider your expectations of the Golden Globes and the Oscars as humanitarian awards. If you think you can purify cinematic history by extracting and discarding the influence of Roman Polanski, wait till you hear about D.W. Griffith and Leni Riefenstahl.

I wanted justice and accountability, but focusing on corruption and hypocrisy allowed me to resist emotional investment — the better to maintain neutrality around any of the dozens of people who financed and produced the shows I was in, most of whom I only knew as names in the front of a Playbill. Occasionally, my friends and I wondered if an exposé would come out about Scott, and then we noted the factors working against such a thing: that the public cares more about sexual abuse, that he’s known as a bully but not a criminal, that his stock is way higher than Weinstein’s was when his own actions caught up with him, that the worst stories were probably about people who were “below the line” and therefore would not inspire such outrage, and that, in theater especially, he is too big to fail. Too many people needed him. And he had such good taste, championing young talent that more corporate producers probably overlooked. Sometimes these were my predictions around how the industry and audiences would react; sometimes they were my own justifications. Sometimes we said stuff like “He was always nice to me” and “He’s an equal-opportunity asshole” in the same breath.

Two weeks ago, the exposé came out. A cover story in The Hollywood Reporter detailed Scott allegedly smashing a computer monitor on one assistant’s hand, sending him to the emergency room. One HR person went to the ER for a panic attack. A handful of stories detail allegations of verbal, emotional, and physical abuse. The cover featured the word “BULLY,” but reading the story, I felt like this word was insufficient for describing various forms of abuse and made it all too easy to equate assistants’ experiences with those like mine. Following the story, a communications director, David Graham-Caso, alleged on Twitter and to Variety that Scott abused and berated his brother, Kevin, for the eight months Kevin worked for Scott. He developed anxiety and PTSD, had a subsequent abusive relationship (as many survivors of abuse do), and, last year, took his own life. And now, Vulture has published a report based on the accounts of 33 former assistants and interns, detailing their experiences.

Actor friends and I traded theories on what would happen next and waited for statements from Scott’s current collaborators. Both Hollywood and theater were largely silent. We weighed our sense of responsibility with our fears of missing out on future jobs and of what the theater industry would look like without Scott’s producing power, particularly after a year of mass unemployment. Some of us got together to write an open letter, feeling better protected from his possible retaliation in numbers, but it was hard to imagine any kind of centralized action or demands. Then, last weekend, Scott announced he was “stepping back” from “active participation” in his current theater productions and “taking steps” to address his behavior. This week, he announced that he was doing the same with his film and streaming projects, including five upcoming A24 projects. The stars of his upcoming production of The Music Man issued statements in support of Scott’s exit from the production and of those who made allegations.

Some have noted that Scott’s statement feels vague and incomplete. It is not clear what “active participation” entails or if his company is still involved in these projects. It also still disturbed me that two industries that pride themselves on bringing us all closer to our humanity were reticent in the face of an issue of workplace safety and abuse of power. At the same time, I had this fear that if you tugged at the Scott Rudin thread, both industries would unravel — so many people are implicated that for any of us to assume moral righteousness would be hypocritical. Although there’s a difference between knowing about specific allegations of violence and not doing anything about them, versus knowing someone is a bully and working with him anyway, it felt ridiculous to disavow his work now.

But now that people have taken the risk of going on the record, it is an opportunity to change how these industries work; to show people with similar stories of abuse that they won’t be met with a void if they share them, and to show abusers that their actions aren’t without consequence. I wanted to believe that actors like myself speaking out don’t make a difference — we are not the ones with hiring and firing power. But we do have the power to evolve our industry’s consensus around what is socially acceptable and therefore profitable. We can change consensus through boycotts and by voicing public support for victims of abuse. This gives victims and potential victims leverage, and hopefully it deters potential abusers.

Earlier this year, I published writing about a different kind of abuse by different people. The power of saying what happened out loud and being met with support brought more relief than I had ever imagined possible. Oxygen reached corners of my brain that had been working overtime to find a way to live with what had happened in silence. The support upended the feeling that I was weak or delusional simply for carrying knowledge of what happened while the guilty lived their lives without facing consequences. I can now see that when I had rolled my eyes at some outrage cycles over other cases of abuse, I was trying to not only squash feelings of complicity but to keep my own trauma underground. I don’t mean to read my experience into those of Scott’s assistants; everyone has their own unique needs and ideas of justice. I share this because it means that I know firsthand how impactful public support for stories of abuse can be.

Some actor friends have noted the privilege required to speak out and get blacklisted by Scott or other decision-makers in his loyalty network. But there’s a difference between being literally unable to afford something financially and then being unable to “afford” it because one hopes to be as successful as possible. For me to act like I can’t afford to support those coming forward would be to act out of careerism and call it powerlessness. And while I understand those who feel they are not in a position to jeopardize their projects, I am wary of a logic that insists change can only happen if people in privileged positions enact it; then, change might not happen at all. Change happens because people with nothing to lose and who the system has rejected act out of necessity and integrity. And because people who do have something to lose decide to disrupt the capitalist cycle that keeps them invested in violent abusers. All of us together take risks and make sacrifices and create power in numbers.

This brings me back to “But he was nice to me.” This refrain just underscores the efficacy of respecting people’s humanity only so long as their loyalty is advantageous. It also underscores the scarcity and fear that Hollywood and theater function on. Many of us contractors do not have job security and learn that it would not be in our “best interests” to challenge those who could employ us. We’re taught that we’re expendable and that there is always someone willing to do our job, and for free. Last summer, groups like the Broadway Advocacy Coalition and We See You, White American Theater started conversations to address American theater’s foundational and ongoing legacy of racism, anti-Blackness, and white supremacy, demonstrating what becomes possible when we do away with scarcity mentality and fear of retaliation. I appreciated this upending of our industry’s myth that artists should only ever be grateful and of the way this logic is used to secure silence.

A twin to the “He was nice to me” argument is the “But he has such good taste” argument. I am one of thousands of artists whose work constitutes Scott’s “good taste,” and I don’t want it to be used to justify behavior that traumatized other artists so thoroughly that some of them left the industry. I would also love to stop treating violence and abuse as inevitable to successful art and entertainment. There are plenty of strong examples to the contrary, even if it feels like the treat-people-like-garbage, produce-a-hit formula is tried and true. More likely, it’s just what many people have been forced to accept, and it’s been glamorized for as long as the industry has been able to produce movies like Twentieth Century. Instead of accepting that young college graduates sign up to work for someone they know will abuse them because they think that it’s a rite of passage, our industry should reconsider the disturbing fact that one of its leading forms of currency is the capacity to tolerate abuse. Scott is not entirely anomalous, but his case is a profound opportunity for anyone who wants their field to stop attracting personalities who supposedly push people out of moving cars, to stop exploiting people who feel they deserve to be treated so terribly, and to stop literally training them in the art of intimidation.

I don’t know what could or should happen next, but I know that meeting already-published stories with support creates a better environment for more to come out. It also better positions those pursuing justice through the legal system. Actors’ Equity Association and Time’s Up have demanded that Scott release his employees from their NDAs; other entertainment unions can do the same. And if theater institutions want to change the conditions that make scarcity not just a mind-set but a material reality, addressing our unequal payment structure is one place to start.

Both Hollywood and theater are skilled enough at convincing audiences that they are ancient empires with immovable traditions and norms. They’re not. They are industries. They have always had to adapt, whether to new forms of technology or audience’s appetites. The casting couch used to be standard practice; now I think it would be rare. I can focus on my industries’ corruption and hypocrisy, or I can remember that previous change came about because people said the unspoken things and were met with support.

Tavi Gevinson: Art Doesn’t Need Tyrants