I had one of the most surreal nights of my life a couple of weeks ago. A friend of mine invited me to attend an event for emerging actors – a space to collaborate, network and support other artists doing the work we all have chosen to devote our lives to. We were promised an evening of exciting new work, raw and vulnerable comedy performances and “endless networking”. Instead, we were met with Hollywood’s most notorious alleged serial rapist, Harvey Weinstein. More daunting than that, though, was that we were met with a room full of artists who prioritised the comfort of a suspected abuser over the safety of the community they claimed to uplift.
Weinstein sat in a plush booth reserved for industry elites, surrounded by a cadre of beautiful women, men in business suits and bodyguards. He wasn’t hiding; he had no reason to hide. He was a welcome guest.
At first I couldn’t believe it was him. I couldn’t imagine a world in which this man would be allowed into a space for young actors. The room seemed casual, as though nothing was wrong, and so rather than trust my own instincts I tried to push it out of my mind. I appealed to the authority of the crowd and I sat in silence.
The show started, no one mentioned it, and a few acts went by. Then a comedian named Kelly Bachman, who I’m now fortunate enough to consider a friend, took to the stage. In a clip of her act that has since been distributed widely, she said she would address the “elephant in the room”. Immediately the room swelled with a chorus of boos.
I looked around for the source of the sound, but it was impossible to pinpoint, because it was coming from all directions. As I scanned the dark bar I saw the bartenders, event organisers and MC all booing. At that moment, rather than be outraged at what was happening, I immediately began questioning myself. Surely there was no way that they were booing Bachman – they must have been booing the monster in the room. I must have been confused, I told myself. I must have misunderstood. I must be wrong. I stayed silent.
I assured myself that the organisers would say something before the next performer. That Weinstein would be removed. That this room would make things right. But instead, they rushed into the next act. On and on it went, each act followed by a smattering of applause and a moment or two of transition from the MC. As the show continued I found myself staring blankly, the sounds of the performers and the room around me became a wash of white noise. Why was no one doing anything?
I looked around, and saw Weinstein laughing. As a smile stretched across his face all I could think of was the faces of the abusers I’ve encountered in my own life. The times when I felt so alienated from my own body and experiences that the ability to raise my voice and speak out wasn’t even a question. All I wanted was for someone to speak out. Someone to confirm that I wasn’t crazy – that this was wrong.
It struck me that if I was feeling this way then other people must be feeling the same. So I made a promise to myself that if no one else said anything by the intermission, I would. The intermission came, and I spoke up. I walked up to his table and asked him for his name. I wanted him to say it, I wanted to know absolutely. He didn’t answer. I repeated, “What’s your name?” Then he said the only thing he would say to me that night: “What’s your name?”
I said “I’m Zoe. What’s your name?”
His bodyguards started telling me that it was none of my business, that I didn’t have any right to ask that question. They stood and started pushing me to leave. That’s when I started calling out to the room: “Nobody’s going to say anything?”, an act that was captured in a video that it seems the whole internet has seen by now. I was quickly removed from the space by Weinstein’s men. About 15 people followed me, including Bachman and the comedian Amber Rollo, but more than 50 people stayed in that bar for the rest of the show, accommodating a man accused by more than 80 women of serial abuse – allegations he of course denies.
I didn’t speak out because I expected Weinstein to feel shame, or change in any way. I did it because I couldn’t imagine a world in which all of the survivors of rape and assault in that room had to go home feeling unseen and unsafe in the very spaces that are supposed to empower them, while Weinstein got to go home having had a nice night out with his friends.
Before I spoke out I sat in that room, paralysed with fear for an hour and a half, feeling completely alone. I was surrounded by people with more industry connections than me, people with more money and power and tools at their disposal than I could imagine. And who was I to speak up? Just an audience member. Just some scrappy kid with no community in the city to speak of, barely out of acting school.
It’s no secret that acting is a competitive business, and there’s nothing inherently wrong with that. It was drilled into me very early in my acting career that actors are replaceable. The number of times that I’ve heard some iteration of the sentence “there’s a million people just like you who would be happy to do what you’re doing the moment you mess up” is uncountable. Usually acting teachers tell you this to ensure that you memorise your lines and show up to your jobs on time; however, this disposability makes young artists a vulnerable crowd.
I still vividly remember sitting in my college bedroom two years ago, an aspiring actor, reading the accounts of the women I admired so much in the film industry explain the way this man terrorised them – how he made them feel so alone.
Those with power have the ability to dangle your dreams in front of you, with the threat of punishment looming the moment you step out of line. That fear of losing the opportunity to pursue your dream is what keeps us quiet and compliant. It perpetuates a culture of silence that allows the powerful to systematically prey on young actors in the first place. Weinstein’s alleged abuse has often been referred to as “an open secret”, known but never voiced. What was remarkable to me was how quickly that same culture of fear and silence replicated itself in this small bar – or maybe it didn’t need to replicate itself, maybe it never left.
It is so easy to become tempered by our fear, and to feel like we don’t have the authority to raise our voice. But our passivity is poison. If we are not speaking up, then we are complicit.