Rose McGowan: ‘I am not defined by my rapist. I’ve talked about him quite enough’

The actor on #MeToo, Harvey Weinstein and why Sinéad O’Connor was ‘100% right’

Before I meet Rose McGowan, I spend a lot of time wondering which Rose McGowan I am going to meet.

The steely Rose McGowan who faced down her alleged rapist Harvey Weinstein in 1997, won a $100,000 settlement from him, and later outed him to the New York Times. Or the quirky starlet best known for her performances in Scream and the long-running television show Charmed. Or the punk who turned up to the 1998 MTV music awards with her then-boyfriend Marilyn Manson, dressed in what was later described as "a dress that had no business being called a dress".

Or the lonely outsider who spent her early years in the Italian chapter of the Children of God cult, and who became a homeless runaway at the age of 13. Or the fearless teenager who legally emancipated herself from her parents at 15. Or the spiky, testy activist whose Twitter feed is a rolling torrent of indignation, rage and pointed barbs.

A lot of people when they read things that I say in print, they think there's a hardness to the way I speak. I'm easy to cry, I'm easy to laugh, I'm pretty much easy for all emotion

The Rose McGowan I finally encounter on a Saturday afternoon in a Dublin hotel is, at first, entirely preoccupied by a couch.


She has spotted it in an interiors magazine, and she really wants it. “I’m just going to look at this orange couch for a minute,” she says, shunting up to make room for me, and showing me the couch, which is very orange and very expensive-looking. She has a bad habit of buying furniture she has nowhere to put. “I can’t help myself. Italians do have great taste. They are a funny mix of a retrograde mentality and great taste.”

I tell her I have been immersing myself in her head all week, listening to the audio version of her book, and Planet 9, her French electro-pop inspired album on Spotify. “I’m sorry,” she says. “It must feel strange to meet someone after you do that.”

She thinks that she comes across as softer in person than in print. “A lot of people when they read things that I say in print, they think there’s a hardness to the way I speak. If you actually listen to the book you’re like, ‘Oh, this person sounds like a human.’”

I tell her the voice that has been in my car all week strikes me as a potent mix of vulnerability, strength and razor-sharp, black wit.

“I think that would be an apt description of me. I’m easy to cry, I’m easy to laugh, I’m pretty much easy for all emotion, I suppose. If I do get really mad, then watch out, but it takes an unimaginable amount of shit for me to get mad.”

We’ll come back in a moment to the “unimaginable amount of shit” that, famously, catapulted her to the forefront of the #MeToo movement in 2017.

McGowan's book is called Brave. Its publisher, Harper Collins, describes it as a "memoir-manifesto", but she likes to think of it as a self-help book, her attempt to deprogramme society. It is an intense and almost relentlessly distressing read, from her childhood in the cult in Italy – where she would be beaten for not embracing God – to her relationships with a succession of domineering and sometimes abusive men, to her relationship with her father, which could be categorised as one of benign neglect, interspersed with periods of pure neglect.

While waiting to meet her, I scribbled a note to myself to ask her whether, to her, “brave” means the same thing as “fearless”. In the end, I don’t need to ask. She is unusually frank about her fears and vulnerabilities, opening up about them in a way that makes them seem more like strengths.

Safety, I think, is something I don't know, and I've never known. The fear will always be there.  It's a rock-bottom, late-at-night fear

One of the things her childhood has left her with is an abiding fear of homelessness.

“It’s a pretty brutal experience to be that young and to be that scared.  Safety, I think, is something I don’t know, and I’ve never known. The fear will always be there. It’s a rock-bottom, late-at-night fear. It’s the hamster wheel in your head that goes around and around at three in the morning.”

Brave to her now means “being scared and doing it anyway. But you have to go through the fear. There is no shortcut. You have to go to the ugliness and the fear.”

It was while watching Dawn, her visually gorgeous, thematically chilling 18-minute directorial debut released in 2014, that I thought I finally understood the thread running through her book, her activism, her Twitter stream, and even her music. What she is trying to say, I concluded, is that we need to make space for women to be angry, and we need make it okay for women to ask questions, and make a fuss.

“Politeness kills. It really does. Dawn is a study of what happens when you send a girl out into the world with her hands tied behind her back with politeness. And what can happen. But also, you know, it’s a metaphor for what happened to me in Hollywood.”

It doesn’t take long for us to get to it.

I don’t ask her to go over the details of her alleged assault again – not when she has cried publicly doing so (and been “made fun of for it”); not when it is recounted in distressing detail in the book, in a chapter called Death of Self.

This is the brief version: at the 1997 Sundance Film Festival, Harvey Weinstein – whom she refers to only as “the Monster” – invited the up-and-coming actor McGowan to his hotel room for a meeting. Just a few hours before, he had sat directly behind her at the premiere of her film Going All the Way, in which she appeared topless. Later, she wondered whether the meeting was set up “while we were watching the movie”.

Afterwards, she would remember how the restaurant host and two male assistants refused to meet her eye as they directed her to his suite. Her first impression of him was not flattering: “He reminded me of a melted pineapple,” she writes.

She would later learn that other actresses were warned about what could happen if you got called to his suite, “but I didn’t know the rumblings and the secrets, the gossip and the warning signs.” She thought the conversation went well, if a little “banal”.

When she got up to leave, she writes, he pushed her into his jacuzzi room and, she claims, removed her clothes, sat her on the side of the jacuzzi, and orally raped her. “I don’t know how to get out of this situation, so I remember the When Harry Met Sally movie with its big fake orgasm scene. I moan loudly, over and over and over, tears falling down my face, mingling with the sweat of the room.”

Weinstein – whose trial for separate charges of forcibly performing oral sex on a production assistant in 2006, and raping a woman in a Manhattan hotel room in 2013, is due to begin in June – has denied all allegations of non-consensual sex. But in 1997, he paid McGowan a settlement of $100,000. She discovered in 2017 that there was no confidentiality clause attached.

It was reported by the New Yorker that Weinstein had hired former Mossad agents to befriend McGowan and find out what she was planning to reveal in her book

Before #MeToo broke, McGowan had already publicly alleged that she had been raped by a Hollywood producer. After other women came forward with allegations of abuse, she named Weinstein. She has since said she was the one who tipped off the New York Times. “So you started it really?” I ask.

“I did start it. It wasn’t ‘really’. I actually did start it,” she says. “I called the woman at an organisation called UltraViolet, which is a very strong feminist organisation. And I said, ‘He’s coming for me, I need help. It’s time to go to the media.’”

This is not hyperbole: it was later reported by Ronan Farrow in the New Yorker that Weinstein had hired a group of former Mossad agents to befriend her, and find out what she was planning to reveal in her book.

She had been writing Brave for three years, but, before she could go public, “I needed society to be ready. I needed it to be awake enough to allow it to hear the story. And Trump helped with that.”

So, in a way, Trump was the catalyst? “I don’t think he was the catalyst. I was the catalyst. Or me being raped was the catalyst, depending on how you look at it. No, he was the foil. He really showed to people in black-and-white ways, this is what [misogyny] is. This is what women and so many others have been talking about for so long.”

I ask her how she thinks the history books will describe #MeToo. She doesn't think "movement" is the right word: it makes it seem like there's some figurehead. "Tarana Burke, the activist, started the hashtag as a way for men and women to communicate with each other about something horrible that happened to them. I think they'll look on #MeToo as a time a button got pushed on a social reset."

I had chalked it up to my first sexual experience, but now, looking back, this person was a 35-year-old male and I'd just turned 15

Since #MeToo, women all over the world have been having conversations with themselves and with others, revisiting distressing experiences through the prism of harassment or assault.

“Even for me, it wasn’t until about a month after the articles came out, that I reviewed a situation that had happened in my own life with someone else, and I thought ‘Oh my God, that was child molestation’. I had chalked it up to my first sexual experience, but now, looking back, this person was a 35-year-old male and I’d just turned 15.”

During our interview, she doesn’t say who that person was, but she previously told Farrow that there is another “very famous” Hollywood predator she is not yet ready to unmask.

Her book describes how Weinstein's behaviour "even in 1997 . . . was an open secret in the industry". She recounts an incident that happened just after his alleged assault on her, when she encountered a male co-star, whom she later revealed on Twitter to be Ben Affleck. "I am shaking and my eyes fill with tears; I say where I've just come from and my co-star says, 'Goddamn it. I told him to stop doing that.'"

Affleck has never responded to this claim. Now, she thinks he was probably “being a ‘good guy’” in his own mind. “I’m not against Ben Affleck. It’s just there was this much common knowledge and people dealt with it in that way. But he probably thought he was dealing with it by telling him not to do it. And in that way he is a good guy; but I say, be better.”

Does she think there are more Weinsteins still to be unmasked?

“I don’t know. I mean, I know a lot about a lot of people, but it’s not my story to tell. We have to wait . . . It’s really hard to say, but as far as executives go, I would say he was the big baddie.”

If a Michael Jackson song comes on, I'm sure my feet would tap away to it. But I'll try to remember his victims while my feet are tapping

Michael Jackson was the first poster she had on her bedroom wall, and the first album she owned was Thriller. Does she think the art can ever be separated from the alleged wrongdoing of the artist? "I'm not going to lie. If a Michael Jackson song comes on, I'm sure my feet would tap away to it. But I'll try to remember his victims while my feet are tapping. I wish I didn't love Rosemary's Baby so much, but I do. Picasso wasn't a hoot either. I think we can just have a cultural reset and say, from this moment forward we need to be better."

I ask her if I could ask one or two questions directly about the “big baddie”. For the first time in our interview, she shows a flash of that McGowan steel.

“I’d rather not talk about the Monster. I’m bored. My book is not about him. I really want to get that across. I don’t want to keep talking about him. I am an individual who is not defined by the person who raped me. I’ve talked about him quite enough.”

She thinks that growing up in a cult has given her the ability to see how cult-like conditioning is used to enable abuse elsewhere: in Hollywood, in the Catholic Church. "I do wonder how people can be so complicit. Because it's not just the predator; it's also the machine around them. There are so many levels of cults. People who grew up Catholic would probably think how I grew up was weird, and I think how they grew up was weird."

I tell her that the sections in the book where she talks about how the media marginalises and ridicules women who make them uncomfortable remind me of the reaction to Sinéad O’Connor tearing up a picture of the Pope in 1992.

“She was right,” McGowan says immediately. “She was 100 per cent right and she got destroyed. I remember watching that Saturday Night Live and I remember thinking like ‘YES!’ And then she got destroyed. She had obviously been hurt badly and deeply traumatised, and retraumatised. It’s a crying shame. She was not ‘ahead of her time’ – she was exactly where she was supposed to be. Other people were just not as fast as her. In some ways, I feel it’s the same with me. I’m not ahead of my time: I’m right on schedule. It’s everyone else who needs to catch up.”

McGowan thinks both she and O’Connor were victims of a societal frustration with women who are seen to set outside of their allocated role. “Oh God, yeah,” she says. “Don’t step outside your lines, particularly if you’re beautiful. You are betraying someone’s desire to masturbate over you. You are betraying somebody who once thought you were hot . . . I don’t want your semen. Deal with it.

"It's not only men; it's women too. I mean, Germaine Greer comes for me all the time. What's that about? Maybe she's jealous. I can't figure it out. I never really got much into her work, so I have no clue."

Women, she says, “can be the most sexist and the biggest enemies of each other. It’s the same exact sexism that men have; they just happen to have a vagina while they’re being sexist. It’s sexism and it’s ugly and it’s coarse and it’s stupid and retrograde and it needs to stop. And that is the exact same spiel I would give to somebody who is a sexist male.”

Recently, she tells me, she was molested "getting a massage by a woman in Australia of all things. I was so frozen and rooted. This woman was massaging my breasts. I thought, 'This is maybe what they do in Australia.' And afterwards my friend was like, 'What did you do?" And I said, 'I gave her a big tip.'"

McGowan’s acting career started when she was spotted standing on the street in LA, crying over a boyfriend who had been murdered. She never sought fame out, and she never really enjoyed being an actress. “As an actress, the highest thing you can aspire to is to be a muse for a rock star.”

McGowan had that role for several years in the 1990s as the partner of Marilyn Manson, or "Manson" as she calls him. In the book, she has mostly good things to say about his kindness towards her, and their surprisingly normal-sounding life together ("Manson was painting watercolours of my Boston terriers, while I was ordering glassware from Martha Stewart's online store") even though it ended badly, with him going on Howard Stern to "trash me badly".

But, she says, “what if it’s really your intellectual property that’s been stolen? What if it’s not you being a muse, but being a partner who is giving time and intellectual thought and lyrics or screenplays or whatever it might be?”

Did that happen to her? “Of course. Of course it did. Everybody would be like, ‘You’re his muse.’ But it always rankled. It makes it sound like you sit there at the window looking winsomely out at the garden while someone paints you. Fuck that.”

For the purposes of clarity, I ask her if it's Manson we're talking about. "He's not the only one. No, that would be pretty much all of them." She also had a relationship with the director Robert Rodriguez, referred to in the book as RR, and was married for a time to the artist Davey Detail.

So was it the case that they were attracted to her strengths and her power but they wanted to turn her into this passive thing? “No,” she drawls, deadpan. “I think they just want to siphon off [my] imagination and creativity and use it for themselves. It’s that literal. It’s been happening throughout history. I think women should understand that they don’t have to be the muse, they can be the Einstein.”

I had an agent who told me that I talk too much in meetings, and that I was intimidating the men

Even as a muse, she was busy upsetting people’s vision of what the beautiful Hollywood actress should be.

“Oh yeah, I’ve always been upsetting people.” She laughs. “I’ve always upset the status quo even from a very early age. I’ve been making people uncomfortable since 1973.” She laughs again, remembering how angry her father used to get when, even at five, she refused to gaze up at him with worshipful eyes.

One of her moments of discomfort was when she turned up at the MTV Music Awards in 1998 in a dress that was, depending on where you read about it, constructed entirely from fishnet, beading or chain mail. The reason for the confusion was that there was so little of it.

In the book, she writes that it was a reaction to Hollywood’s objectification of women. “I thought: You know what? Fuck you. You want to objectify me? You want to see a body? I’ll fucking show you a body. And so I did. Wearing the ‘naked dress’, as I call it, was a big middle finger to pretty much everybody.”

To me, she says: "It was like in the movie Gladiator when Russell Crowe comes into the ring and says, 'Are you not entertained?' That's what I was doing it for. 'Is this not what you want?' But that's not how they saw it. People are too stupid."

McGowan is a sometimes bewildering mix of strength and fragility; with both a desire to shock and a desire to please. She is, all at once, brittle and funny and guarded and warm. Midway through our allotted hour, the door opens and a mortified-looking hotel porter comes in. He is looking for a tripod someone forgot during a photoshoot earlier. McGowan jumps up, and immediately starts hunting down behind the couch for him. “Nope, it’s not here,” she says, and she sounds genuinely sorry.

Later, we talk about how women in Hollywood can either be clever or beautiful. “But you can’t be both. I had an agent who told me that I talk too much in meetings, and that I was intimidating the men. So I thought maybe I’ll just bring a thesaurus and a dictionary with me next time and we can thumb through it together.”

In fact, what she actually did after that comment was go somewhere on her own and cry. “It’s just so soul-destroying, trying to keep any modicum of who you are in that town.”

The last few years have taken a lot of out of her – personally, financially, career-wise, even health-wise. “It cost me physically. Brutally. My hair was falling out last year, there was a lump on the top of my back, of muscles spasming. I was crying walking down the street just because I was in so much physical pain.”

Writing the book “was pretty traumatising for me. I was calling on a lot of ghosts. I was so mad at my dad when I wrote it that I couldn’t visit his grave for three years. I was writing about being 14 and waiting to murder him – sitting in the closet actually plotting his death – and I got really mad again.”

Now, she is at peace with his memory. One of the book’s few redemptive moments comes with the description of McGowan and four of her five siblings all lying on his bed with him as the decision was made to switch off life support. “Five out of six of us ran away before the age of 14, and all of us were surrounding him on his deathbed. And devastated by it.”

She believes he had undiagnosed bipolar disorder. “He would swing wildly from being great to being a monster, from being sunshine to being Hades. When you opened the door you had no idea if you were going to get hugged or thrown down the stairs.”

I'm both really melancholy and really happy at the same time. They coexist

How is her relationship with her mother now? “Nobody’s really supposed to talk about the cult in our family, so I broke a cardinal rule. I was really careful when I wrote my book to keep it on my side of the street . . . It’s not an easy relationship, no. I’m sure they wish none of this would have happened.”

As we finish up, I ask her when she has been happiest. The question seems to stump her. Five seconds pass before she answers.

“I’ve always been fairly . . .” she begins eventually, and then stops. “I’m both really melancholy and really happy at the same time. They coexist. I’ve had bursts of happiness, but it’s never been any steady period. That’s just been the hand I was dealt.”

Is she happy now? “I have fears right now, and I have some stressors. The financial stress is real. But overall, I’m in a pretty peaceful place right now.”

She thinks for a moment. "The only thing I own outright in my life right now are a Porsche and eight plots in a cemetery called Sleepy Hollow in Washington State. After my dad died, I went crazy and bought a quarter of a cemetery. So I will always have a place to go."

Rose McGowan will be at the National Concert Hall in Dublin on April 27th. Her book, Brave, is out now in paperback.

Jennifer O'Connell

Jennifer O'Connell

Jennifer O’Connell is Opinion Editor with The Irish Times