It’s not an exaggeration to say that a new sexual assault or harassment allegation emerges from Hollywood nearly every day.
The avalanche started at the beginning of October with accusations against executive producer Harvey Weinstein, and from there it snowballed on the daily: Kevin Spacey, James Toback, Louis C.K., Jeffrey Tambor, Brett Ratner and Ed Westwick are among the big names accused of sexual improprieties (by the time this article is published, there may be even more to add to the list).
Based on the frequency of these alleged occurrences — some of the accused, like Toback, have 300+ accusers with very similar stories — it’s difficult to blame the public for seeing Hollywood and the acting industry in a different light. What was once viewed as a golden, privileged sect now seems almost threatening, and the alleged abuse incredibly pervasive.
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It is clear that something must change; something fundamental in the very workings of Hollywood has to be altered. But can an industry founded on power imbalance, unhealthy studio-actor relationships and defined gender divides ever really overcome its history?
Theresa Tova, the president of ACTRA Toronto and the national treasurer of the organization, believes it’s possible. (ACTRA is the union representing Canadian actors.) It’s especially pertinent that she’s one of the women leading the charge for change in the industry as she is a four-time sexual assault survivor.
“What I’m doing right now is making sure our members have a safe space to come and talk, where their identities are protected,” said Tova over the phone. “If they want to inform the solutions that we go forward with as an industry, then I’m open. And they are coming. It’s quite something.”
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She claims that she’s heard from numerous members, mostly women (though she says some men have also made allegations). According to Tova, ACTRA has already had preliminary meetings with industry groups and is preparing for a broader meeting of stakeholders on Nov. 23 in Toronto.
“ bringing the industry together, we’re going to bring best practices from around the world,” said Tova. “The International Federation of Actors president, Ferne Downey, is coming back. We’re going to figure out what we need to do as an industry and we’ll get what we need.”
Gabrielle Carteris, president of ACTRA American equivalent SAG-AFTRA, is also organizing initiatives south of the border.
“She’s on board 100 percent,” said Tova. “These very determined leaders are saying enough is enough. We have a window of opportunity that we’ve never had before. The collective can actually affect change. We’ve done it before, when we had to fight for the rights of children on our sets, and now we’re going to fight for the rights of actors. There has to be some way that we can report it and have accountability.”
The key item on the agenda for the Nov. 23 meeting is to implement measures to combat sexual misconduct that can eventually pave the way for cultural change, a huge task.
Tova rightly says that this kind of behaviour extends far beyond Hollywood and the “casting couch” — it’s a problem that lies deep in the roots of how men and women interact in society. There have been accusations against members of the media, respected journalist Charlie Rose among them, and political figures like Al Franken. Tova credits actor Rose McGowan, among the other brave women who first came forward, for shining a light on the things that happen outside of the boundaries of a traditional workplace.
“We have really, really strong negotiated agreements with health, safety and anti-harassment policies, reporting policies and disciplines,” said Tova. “But what Rose and the other women are shining a light on is the stuff that’s happening outside … we don’t even have contracts in place with these production companies when this is happening.”
“Serial predators. Recidivists. There are too many enablers, an uneven power dynamic,” Tova lists among the existing problems facing women in the industry and in everyday life. “Women have had to put up with it for so long, we don’t even believe we have a voice. It goes back to seeing the women who’ve tried be raped through the legal system. We need to improve our disciplines here and what we do to protect these women.”
While Tova can’t provide a number for cases of sexual harassment and assault in the Canadian TV and film industry, she says it is prevalent. She’s especially worried about the younger actors just starting out, who she hasn’t heard as much from.
“The conversations and phone calls I’m having are from women who are thinking back, they’re inspired by the outing of Harvey Weinstein,” she said. “Horrible, horrible stories. ‘It happened to me too, when I was in my 20s!’ Now they’re 30, 40, 50, 60, and that’s who I’m hearing from, and I’m hearing from them a lot. I’m not hearing from the 20-year-olds, who may have the same stories. I worry about the young pups, my young babies now. So I’m reaching out, I need to know if things are happening now.”
ACTRA says the industry as a whole needs to figure out how to prevent, report and track cases of sexual misconduct, from pre-production to post-production. It also needs to create a safe space for victims to speak out without fear of retribution or harassment.
Amanda Alvaro, president of Pomp & Circumstance PR in Toronto, says the term “casting couch” is a misnomer, a minimizing term to describe the “predatory practice” of producers sexually harassing women in film. She says what we’re witnessing is nothing short of a sea change.
“The young women and men in Hollywood today have the benefit of the courage displayed by all the fearless women who came forward over the past ,” said Alvaro. “It feels like a sea change, like the dirty little secret that Hollywood shelved for decades is finally being ripped wide open. I think that the sheer volume of women who have come forward and the public outcry for change is reason to believe the practice will no longer be tolerated, let alone hidden. That doesn’t mean change will happen overnight, but the mass publicity of the accusations means that coming forward is no longer taboo. It no longer poses the risk that an accuser will be blackballed in the industry.”
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Now is the right time to make changes, while things are fresh and the industry is most malleable. The planned meetings of ACTRA and SAG-AFTRA promise to bear fruit, but until then Tova has one piece of advice for actors, experienced or not, male or female:
“The simple thing is to not take meetings alone. Do not!” she exclaimed.
Tova also encourages communication and openness and says to use the women who’ve come forward as examples and motivation. Four Canadian women, two as-yet unidentified, have come forward with accusations against Weinstein.
Mia Kirshner and Erika Rosenbaum, both part of the acting industry, have alleged sexual harassment by the disgraced movie mogul. He is currently under criminal investigation in London, New York City and Los Angeles.
“Women, if you’re in this industry, don’t be defeated,” said Tova. “There are people wanting to listen. Go to your guilds, go to your leaders. We’re working together to do this. It’s not going to be easy, but I’m hopeful.”
— With files from The Canadian Press and Victoria Ahearn
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