When Alyssa Milano was 15 years old, she gave Ryan White — a young hemophiliac who contracted HIV when he was 13 through a blood transfusion — a friendship bracelet and a kiss on the cheek on The Phil Donahue Show, to show people that HIV wasn’t communicable through casual contact. “I was on Who’s the Boss? and it was the height of the frenzy of being a teen icon and also the height of the stigma around HIV/AIDS,” Milano said over the phone. “People think I get trolled now, you should’ve seen how I was trolled as a 15-year-old that kissed a little boy that had AIDS: Letters saying that I was disgusting, that I definitely had this disease. That moment where I felt empowered to shape and frame a narrative for a disease really empowered me to be the person that I am today. There was never a separation between celebrity and influence.”
Milano has returned to the political spotlight again, ever since sending a viral tweet igniting the #MeToo movement in Hollywood last October, and most recently, as a background fixture sitting behind Dr. Christine Blasey Ford during her testimony to the Senate Judiciary Committee. She spoke on the steps of the Supreme Court afterward, about her own experience with sexual assault. The day the Senate voted to confirm Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court by a vote of 50–48, she went back to focusing her efforts on the upcoming midterm elections as a co-chair of Health Care Voter. “I had an option of either going back to bed and lying in the fetal position for a few hours, or getting myself dressed and picking up my mom, and picking up my best friend Danielle and going to a phone-bank for Katie Hill in District California 25,” Milano said. “And that’s what we did. We got dressed and we went and phone-banked for the closest candidate where that seat is flippable in California.”
Amid all of this, she’s still working as an actor, currently starring as Coralee, a southern socialite deeply invested in climbing the ranks of Georgia’s elite, on Netflix’s Insatiable, a show that received its own share of controversy after the trailer dropped. In a phone conversation, we discussed the fusion between celebrity and activism, from the #MeToo movement to Rose McGowan to how she dealt with an instance of sexual harassment on the set of Insatiable.
What it was like being in the room for the testimony of Dr. Ford and Brett Kavanaugh?
Just to paint a picture for you, the room was really small — I don’t know if you could tell how small it was on TV — but I was in the third row behind her, and I would say even between her and that third row is only about six feet. I had a full view of the Judiciary Committee. I was struck by like, “Okay, so they were so concerned with the optics of having a bunch of white Republican men asking her about her sexual assault, that they felt that they needed to bring in outside counsel who was a woman.” And that to me was more sexist. When she spoke, they didn’t have to be on their toes or engage in any way; it allowed them to be totally disconnected. They didn’t have to look into her eyes. They didn’t have to believe her, because they were looking at their phones, or talking to their staff, or whatever. And it was really upsetting.
There were a number of people there that decided that they did not want to hear Kavanaugh speak. They couldn’t stomach it, and I get it, but for me, no matter how hard it was, I felt like in order to give an intelligent recap of the process, I had to be there. Senator Gillibrand left and said, “You should take my seat.” And I took her seat, which was obviously right behind Kavanaugh. It was very bizarre, almost like a film noir version of what the morning was like. When he came into the room, it felt as though they were unleashing a caged animal. You could really feel the energy shift. And from that moment I knew that things were going to be a lot more uncomfortable than we could’ve ever imagined.
Were you surprised when the Senate voted to confirm him?
I wish I could say I was shocked, but nothing really shocks me anymore. I’ve fought for 15 years as a UNICEF ambassador, and I feel like I’ve been on a two-year field visit within my own country. And we’re talking all issues: We’re talking water in Flint. This has been a really rough five years. I’m not letting Obama off the hook either. This has not been easy.
You’ve been working on sets since childhood, and with the resurgence of the #MeToo movement from last year, how do you feel like being in the workplace has changed since then?
A lot of people are speaking out more about the need for different perspectives in storytelling, and really giving diversity a position in shaping and framing of stories. That’s very different. We will see the results of that slowly, because the conversations are being had now. But I’ll tell you, three weeks after I sent out that initial tweet and we were in the height of #MeToo, an actress on my show was sexually harassed by another actor, and I had to walk with her to the producer. We got onto the phone, and we went to the studio. These old habits are hard to break. These are things that are going to continue to come up, and we have to sort of deal with them as they come up.
This happened on Insatiable?
One of the actresses — it was not one of the regulars — came over to me and said “So-and-so just made a really inappropriate comment to me and I don’t feel comfortable going to the producer by myself, will you come with me?” And I said, “Of course.” That’s what we need to see a lot more happen in businesses and corporations. Why would we expect anyone to go into human resources by themselves or [to] their boss? So I’m hoping that there will be some sort of protocol where you can have a buddy system or if that person doesn’t feel comfortable talking to them that someone else will go in on her behalf and say, “I witnessed this or someone told me about this.” And we need protection for whistleblowers.
Was there a conversation afterwards? Did something happen?
The only steps I was involved with was telling the producer and then going to the studio. And then after that her agent got involved and she was well protected.
But the only reason why it’s a story is because it was just on the heels [of me] sending out a tweet that echoed through the world. Just the irony of that.
Was the person who did it a regular on the show or was it a crew member?
Hollywood places a lot of value on beauty generally, but especially for women. How do you feel like that’s affected you as an actor and a person through the years?
I don’t think it’s just Hollywood. Just open Instagram. We’re all living in these fantasy worlds that people don’t age or people don’t gain weight, or you’re supposed to bounce back to your size 2 after your babies and every magazine cover is some sort of anti-age product.
Part of the reason why I loved Insatiable so much is because my entire career I’ve been listening to people say to me, “Oh, save your money because once you’re past 40, forget it. You’ll be the mother, or the wife that stays at home.” And here I was given this gift of Coralee, who is certainly not a wallflower, embodies everything that a mother and wife is but does so in such a wonderfully smart, funny, flamboyant, over-the-top way. And I would have never, never gotten that part in my 20s. Because in my 20s it was all about being the girl next door or the girlfriend or the young ingenue. Whatever it was.
I’m really grateful to be able to be over 40 and exploring not only new, creative ways of doing what I do, but also not giving a fuck anymore. I don’t care if I alienate half my audience. I feel like I need to sleep at night with myself. So if that means Trump supporters are not going to download Insatiable, I’m going to have to deal with that. And if people are still giving me the opportunity to work regardless of my political views and my outspoken activism, then I’m blessed. And by the way, I need those jobs to fund my activism.
Did the controversy around Insatiable surprise you?
The trailer surprised me. That was a very interesting way to go for Netflix because it was not indicative of what the show was at all. I mean I’m an activist; I get the backlash. I would have participated in the backlash had I not been on that show. But being on the show and knowing that there was 13 hours of issue-based entertainment that was a satirical look at all these things that you’re actually asking me about, like beauty, systemic sexism, sexuality and gender identity that I knew the show was about. I just wish that the trailer had dropped later so that it was like, here is the trailer and then you can watch the show the next day so you know that this is not really what the show is about.
Honestly — and this might not be what people want to hear that did protest so hard against the show — I personally feel like the protest helped because it created this hype around it so that people had to say, “Oh, I need to check this out and make sure it’s as bad as I think it is for 90 seconds.” And once people gave it an opportunity and realized that it was so much more, I mean the show was huge for Netflix, we got picked up within a month.
The Charmed reboot premiered recently. Did you get a chance to watch it? I know that your co-star Holly Marie Combs has been very outspoken against it.
We were all incredibly hurt by the way in which it went down and how we were not included in the process from the beginning, and yet once the backlash happened, they realized they needed to include us. That to us felt like, No, that’s too little too late. So it was hurtful for all of us — Holly and I in particular, because remember Shannen was only on the show for three years and Rose was on the show for five years. Holly and I were on the show for eight years. It was basically our entire 20s and it meant everything to us. It really did.
It’s hard for us to see something that we loved so dearly then be taken from us in a way that had absolutely nothing to do with anything that we had done and created. Because honestly the only reason why the show is able to have a reboot is because of the relationships we created. It’s a hurtful situation for sure but no, I did not watch it. I don’t think I could.
Would you ever appear on the show if they asked you?
That ship has sailed. If in the beginning they had come to me and said, “We’re thinking about doing this reboot and we’re going to take a different angle at it, but obviously we would love your involvement.” Then yeah, I probably would have. But at this point, to be an afterthought at something that we were so, not only committed to, but such an important part of, it’s really hard.
Have you spoken with Rose McGowan at all since the Weinstein revelations?
I have not. Well, I spoke to her after the Weinstein revelations and then she had gone on Nightline and said that I was fake or a liar or something like that because my husband worked at CAA and that CAA was responsible for Harvey. I don’t really know what that was, but ever since that night she has blocked me on Twitter and that was my only access to her, so I have not spoken to her.
Would you want to?
Oh sure. I talk to Shannen all the time. I have a very open warm heart. And it seems like Rose is hurting. So if I could ever help her in any way to heal, and even if that means whatever part in this she feels that my husband and I had, I’m more than happy to talk to her.
Do your politics affect what roles you choose?
I’m trying to think. So there is an instance right now that is concerning for me as far as a job, and that is that we shoot Insatiable in Georgia. This voter suppression that is going on right now and this inability for Brian Kemp to process 58,000 registrations that are predominantly filled out by people of color. The fact that a bus filled with elderly black people was pulled over on its way to go vote. If this man is elected I am going to have a very hard time going back to Insatiable and feeding their economy with my industry, and I would also hope that the 20 other productions that are in Georgia would also find it to be very difficult to go back there and feed their economy with such blatant voter suppression. And by the way, Stacey Abrams is probably the best candidate in the entire country in any race.
When does production start?
We don’t have a start date yet. They keep us telling us spring. It would be enough time to move it. I actually emailed the showrunner this morning, just expressing my concern.
I feel emotionally invested. My kids were enrolled in school in Buckhead while I was shooting the first season of Insatiable. And that’s why it’s so hard for me because if my efforts weren’t made there, it would probably be a lot easier for me to be like, “Oh well, whatever. This is always a red state.” But what’s going on there is criminal. For me, personally, I don’t think there’s any fucking way if that election is stolen, that I can go back and shoot and feed the economy of Georgia.
The interview has been edited and condensed.