An Interview with Rose McGowan
by Tom Shone, reproduced from the original interview Rose gave to THE FALL
Rose McGowan is perched on a stool in a darkened studio in downtown Manhattan, her face illuminated by the laptop on the podium in front of her, fishing for images from the internet that she can use to project across her face for the series of self-portraits she is undertaking for THE FALL.
Around her lounge an assistant, a make-up artist, a photographic director, a videographer, all awaiting word. She finds an image of a wind turbine and, with a flick of the mouse, projects it onto the wall in front of her.
“They look like something out of Vlad the Impaler,” she jokes. “I like looking like about I’m about 10% in the near future at all times. I think things like parking garages, wind turbines, electrical wires, I think all these things are incredibly beautiful. Grotesque, too, but I think there’s a lot of beauty in that.”
While everyone goes into motion around her, McGowan resumes her position as the session’s subject, posing against the wall in front of the camera, which is held by an assistant, taking pictures on a timer. McGowan can see the results via a monitor that allows her to adjust the framing and composition of each shot. She changes poses, gazing into the lens, as the images of wind traverse her body and face – a quite literal defacement, a deliberate desecration of her iconicity. She calls it an “interruption”. The effect is “kind of post-industrial Joan of Arc”, I tell her after the shoot is over and the two of us have retired to the confines of the back bar of the Bowery Hotel for tea and lemonade.
“I just got fired because I spoke up”
“I’ll take it,” she says with a grin. “I wrote something called Heresy recently that was loosely based on Joan of Arc. It was about rejecting gender norms and things like that, but it was a homage to her, so maybe I unwittingly do that. My father said I was born with a sword in my hand.”
This being 2017, our modern Joan of Arc wields not a sword but a tweet and the heresy for which she is persecuted is against the high priests of Hollywood. These days, McGowan has jettisoned her reputation as a screen siren in order to embrace a role as feminist firebrand and casting-couch whistle-blower, which came after she posted a tweet in June 2015 containing a screenshot of casting notes she had received for Adam Sandler’s Netflix comedy The Do-Over. The notes read: “Wardrobe Note: Black (or dark) form fitting tank that shows off cleavage (push up bras encouraged). And form fitting leggings or jeans.” Alongside the screenshot, McGowan tweeted: “casting note that came w/script I got today. For real. Name of male star rhymes with Madam Panhandler hahahaha I die”.
She went to bed thinking nothing of it and woke the next morning to find the story had gone viral; one week later, while exiting a Q&A at Manhattan’s Lincoln Centre about her directorial debut with the short Dawn, she was fired by her agent. “You’re hilarious,” she wrote back and then tweeted: “I just got fired because I spoke up about the bullshit in Hollywood. Hahaha.” Two days later, she was on Good Morning America, blowing the whistle again, and this time drawing support from Jessica Chastain and producer Megan Ellison – “@rosemcgowan you’re a fucking badass. Fight on.”
“I kind of realised Hollywood acts as a mafia,” she says, relaxing onto the sofa, “except I realised one day that they never asked me to join. They just assumed I’d keep their secrets. Nobody goes against them for fear of reprisal. Well, I’m not afraid.”
Witty and caustic, bristling with aggro, enjoying her newfound toxicity like a moon glow, she tosses barbed one-liners into your lap and then sits back to enjoy the fireworks. Of her original tweet, she insists, “I didn’t think it was that big of a deal. That’s the thing. I’m not saying things that are earth-shattering. I’m just the only one saying them.” Since that tweet, she has fired her manager and found a new one to manage her directing career – which includes a short about AIDS awareness – recorded an album of music, launched a make-up line and is in the final throes of writing a memoir touching on her time in Hollywood, entitled Brave. Is that how she feels? “The thing with being brave is that your ankles do shake. You are scared, but you do it anyway because it’s the right thing to do.”
“There’s really nothing I miss about it”
Does she miss acting? “No. I agreed to be in a friend’s video recently and, frankly, it kind of traumatised me being in front of the camera again. It kind of gave me some PTSD, so there’s really nothing I miss about it. I turned down something last year that was with an Oscar-winning director. I was like, ‘Good for you. Good for you for being an Oscar- winning director. Congratulations. I don’t want to be part of this.’” So no regrets? She shakes her head. “Freedom, God, it feels damn good. I feel great. I love getting to use my creativity, instead of being like a couch that could speak. That’s often what I felt like when I was acting. A piece of furniture that spoke. Hollywood literally doesn’t know what to do if you don’t want to be famous. They don’t know what to do.”
Her anger towards the industry is such that you wonder why she stayed in it for so long. From a small part in 1992’s Encino Man, she spent nearly 20 years working in Hollywood, although it wasn’t as if her jadedness didn’t show: she was always cast as the girl without illusions, most at home in the depthless collage of camp.
“It’s really disturbing”
She first drew attention as the jaded glam-goth heroine of Gregg Araki’s’ cult hit The Doom Generation, sporting a Louise Brooks bob and a vampiric slash of red lipstick. She was also one of the teenage wiseacres poking holes in horror-genre conventions in Scream: “Oh, you wanna play psycho killer?” Her blend of dark, dollish glamour and wink-wink knowingness was a perfect fit for Grindhouse, Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino’s double-barrelled 2007 homage to exploitation B-movies, in which she plays a go-go dancer whose leg is replaced with a machine gun after it gets torn off by zombies.
“People say, ‘Oh, they put strong women in their films,’ but look at what they do to the women in their films, especially Tarantino. It’s really disturbing. [In Grindhouse], one girl gets her face mown by a tyre. Another girl’s vagina gets cut in half. Come on. This is like somebody telling you what they think of women. Let’s be real.”
“God could see the filth under my nails”
The bigger mystery remains her submission to a system that, in her view, is barely a notch above sex trafficking. The answer to that lies in her childhood growing up in Italy in the Children of God cult, a hippie-ish religious sect that pursued polygamous ideals under a cover of quasi-Christianity that sucked in her parents, Daniel and Terry, in the aftermath of the Vietnam War. They lived on the land of a local duke, along with up to 60 other sect members, and were forbidden newspapers, television or mirrors. As a consequence, McGowan grew up not really registering whether she was a girl or a boy. Warned never to wear nail polish because “God could see the filth under my nails”, the children were kept separate from the parents, to be used as bargaining chips in case anyone tried to escape.
She was constantly in trouble, including for setting a wall of bibles on fire with a candle. At the age of nine, after her father had got wind that the group was starting to advocate child-adult sex, he assembled McGowan, her brother and sister and his other wife, and they escaped across a cornfield at night through a storm. Arriving in the US, McGowan was struck by the vast, brightly lit supermarkets and the outfits and make-up worn on Dynasty.
“There are cults of thought everywhere”
“My people!” she thought at the time. Part of the project of her memoir has been to tease out the links between her childhood in the Children of God cult and the celebrity cult of Hollywood – one preparing her for the other, inflicting the wound the other would pretend to staunch.
“I was thrown to the wolves both times,” she says. “I was completely on display at a young age, performing for other people – you know, good public relations for the cult. ‘Don’t step out of line, little girl.’ It’s extremely similar to Hollywood. The funny thing is, I see cults everywhere, and I don’t mean just religious cults. I mean, I think if you’re obsessed with the Kardashians, you’re in a cult. If you voted for Trump, you’re in a cult. If you’re super- pro-Brexit, you’re in a cult. There are cults of thought everywhere, so when people find it strange how I grew up, I find their world equally strange.”
In 2008, at the age of 60, her father died of pulmonary fibrosis, but before he passed there was a full reckoning between the two of them and he made himself accountable for what happened. McGowan’s mother, who returned to the US some time after the rest of her family, gets irritated if McGowan speaks in public about being raised in a cult and wishes she was not writing about it. “I always thought that I got my strength from my father,” says McGowan.
“I knew how to absorb different lives”
“I realised it was my mother who has never complained, pulled up her bootstraps and marched on. She’s moved mountains. After leaving the cult, she put herself in university after being divorced, with six children at the cult’s behest. She graduated triple major, Phi Beta Kappa, and has worked her ass off and is just extremely political and very, very much pushes a hard left agenda. She’s a pretty indomitable figure. I think my dad was a lot more fear based as it turned out. I think a lot of men are.”
Strange to say, but it’s not at all hard to see the similarities between an abusive polygamous cult and Hollywood’s human traffic: both are boundary-less, unprotected environments bent on sexual objectification, in which, as the old saying has it, anything goes. At the same time, Hollywood offered sanctuary, money, travel and free rein to survival skills that would have had a hard time finding a home anywhere else. “Going undercover [after fleeing the cult] prepared me to be a shape-shifter,” she says. “I knew how to absorb different lives, and different roles and personalities. Different looks. I went to ten different schools in 11 years once we got to the States, and I would always change everything between each school – my weight, my posture, my cadence, how I moved, just to keep myself entertained, mostly.”
“It was like this brain flash”
Perhaps unsurprisingly, her directorial debut is all about the lure of false saviours. It follows a young girl growing up in the bubble-gum-perfect 1960s, whose crush on a gas-station attendant leads her away from her controlling parents and lands her in the middle of a forest at night, prey to even worse perils. One night while shooting the film, the power went out in McGowan’s house and she discovered something: “I wasn’t being distracted by music or movies. I just started thinking that day. I had the epiphany that I hated acting, and I had always hated acting. And I hated fantasy, and I’ve always hated fantasy. I was like, ‘Aha!’ It was like this brain flash. I don’t need to be this. I don’t need to do this. I don’t need to believe this.”
The two years since that realisation have been a time of profound self-assessment and discovery for her, sometimes wrenching, sometimes touching. In early 2016 she filed for divorce from her artist husband and moved back to New York. Sorting through collections of clothes going back 15 years, she noticed how out of joint everything was. “Like, one chunk would obviously belong to this character I played,” she says. “Then another chunk would belong to another character, because when you spend more hours a day being somebody other than yourself, your own tastes go sideways. Because I played so many other people for so long, I got lost.”
In New York, she’s found a community of female friends, one of whom greets her with a big, enveloping hug when we first enter the Bowery Hotel. “I still felt loneliness [without the Hollywood component] and things like that, but I’ve always been kind of alone,” she tells me. “I was like that when I was a child, and then I’m sold as a sex symbol in Hollywood, and what that does is it ostracises you from women, and it makes every man think he can touch you and own you. And I’ve lived a very solitary existence, until really only the past two and a half years. I feel like I’m this kind of wild animal that’s been socialised slightly.”
There will always be a touch of the wolf to her, one guesses. All the better for avoiding being prey. Now she’s the one prowling behind the camera. “For a long time I was stuck in other people’s worlds and other people’s visions, and I frankly usually prefer my own.” She pauses, then adds, with a glint of mischief, “There’s a day of reckoning coming.”
Article courtesy of THE FALL – magazine on sale now
Photography is by Rose McGowan for THE FALL