Rose McGowan on leaving Hollywood behind and being an outsider in the wake of #MeToo

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Anna Fielding
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Rose McGowan has always been an outsider. Now she finds it’s the best place for an activist to be.     

There used to be a lot of different Roses. Smiling in the dress. Standing in the heels. Flicking the long hair that curled just at the ends. Roses stretched to nine metres high in multiple multiplexes. Roses appearing on TV screens in living rooms around the world. A million Roses on the arm of a million Marilyn Mansons, frozen in a million magazines. Roses who were digitised into bytes and bits and replicated around the world. All the Roses who weren’t really Rose. Witch Rose. Bitch Rose. Machine-gun-for-a-leg Rose.

But there was another woman, a real woman, behind the endless shiny images. A Rose who felt she was being broken into a million tiny pixels. She’d come through many difficulties growing up, including a period of homelessness, but her experiences with the film producer Harvey Weinstein are what she cites throughout her book Brave as causing the most lasting, painful damage. Eventually, she decided to take a chance. She spoke out. In the earliest days of the #MeToo movement, in October 2017, her voice was one of the first to accuse Weinstein of rape.

Me Too Harvey Weinstein

Rose McGowan was one of the first women to speak out against Harvey Weinstein 

Post-Weinstein, McGowan says, she was blacklisted by Hollywood and locked out of good roles. Now she’s made a decision to move away, not from fame – which tends to stick to a person – but from being a movie star, which takes effort to maintain. She uses her celebrity these days to support victims, to attack Donald Trump, to push against power structures at all levels. If there are hard truths that need to be heard, Rose McGowan will be there to tell them – starting with her 891,000 Twitter followers.

She’s also finding something approaching a normal life, having relocated to London in 2018. Before and after the interview she hangs outside the Stylist office smoking on the steps, like any employee with a nicotine habit (she only started in the last year, purely a stress reaction to a year on the #MeToo rollercoaster, “and I know there are healthier ways of dealing with it”). 

She also leaves the interview alone, heading off to have dinner at a friend’s house – again sounding more like a colleague describing after-work plans. But this way of being is new to her. “You know, for a long time in my life I had people who I would pay to keep other people away from me and that’s a very strange thing and it doesn’t exactly lend itself towards integrating with society in any meaningful way,” she says. “I’m at a really interesting place in my life where I’m getting to integrate for the first time, but it’s baby steps.”

McGowan’s appeal as an actor took in her talent and her prettiness, but even at her most conformist, she always offered something a little different. She was a Hollywood princess for the alternative kids. Her writing has a similar punk spirit and as an activist she’s discovered a natural fit for her outsider nature. The rebel has a cause.

You talk a lot about being an outsider, even as a child – “weirdo” is the word you use a lot in the book. Would you still see yourself that way?

I do still see myself as an outsider. I don’t know what being an insider would feel like, but I know I’ve never been one. I’ve always kind of felt like I watched the world from outside this bubble, looking in. And part of that, I’m sure has to do with being raised the way I was raised. [Rose was born into the Children of God cult, famous for coercing both adults and children into sex. Rose’s father left with his children when she was five, but Rose’s mother remained.]

You’ve gone through quite a lot, not just in the last couple of years, where it’s been more visible – including being homeless for a period as a teenager. What kind of effect do you think that has had on you?

The fact of being homeless is something that doesn’t really leave one. The rock-bottom fear for me, throughout my life, is that it would happen again. And I made decisions based on that fear. I’ve had to unlearn that. It doesn’t mean I’m at a particularly stable place financially or anything like that, where it couldn’t happen, it just means I had to finally let that go and I would be able to support myself and survive no matter what. Because that fear gnaws at you. The fear of being hungry, it gnaws at you.

Why do you think people don’t call out abusers?

Fear again. Fear of being the one to stick their neck out. But somebody has to do the right thing. Somebody has to call time on it. And that’s what I did.

And that’s been difficult for you.

I feel that 2018 almost killed me. It was not good for the mental health. But I knew that the dominos would fall.

What made you think last year was the right time to do it?

Trump. Trump helped a lot in a weird way. Because he taught people what sexism was in black and white. He taught people what racism was in black and white. He taught people good versus bad.

There’s been a lot that’s been stolen from me. My career. Different careers that might have happened. Different opportunities that other people would have had if they had not encountered a bad man. I’ve just had to make peace with that.

McGowan leading the charge at the Detroit Women’s Convention

What would be your advice to other people who have encountered a bad man?

To understand that it’s their shame and not yours. It sucks having to start over. It sucks having to be robbed of something that you love because of someone else’s selfishness and someone else’s aberrant mind. But understanding that it’s not your shame is most important.

You’ve also described yourself as “not saccharine” and “a bit of a badass”. Are those qualities useful in your activism?

Those qualities are essential to it. Because being an outsider and being strong are the heaviest ammunition that I’ve got. And understanding that most people think it’s very strange that I grew up in a cult, but I think it’s strange how they live in a cult, one that they’re not fully aware that they’re in. And, because it’s a more watered-down version of the intense version that I got, I can see where their strength gets taken away before it even has time to really root. In some ways growing up wild and outside the norm, it gives you this superpower. But I see so much strength in so many other people too and I think they’re only getting stronger and it really heartens me. 

There’s been a real change in a lot of the messages I receive from people, whereas at the beginning of 2018 it was a lot more fear-based and by the end there were a lot of people realising that they are strong and they are survivors. I’ve seen a real shift. They’re definitely supporting each other more, I see that a lot and I’m pleased because we have to have solidarity for this to work, for this momentum to not stop, for us to heal. They say you’re only as sick as your secrets, so if your secrets are being told then we get rid of that illness collectively.

In September you said on Good Morning Britain that you saw your role as “inspiring others to stand up and be different”.

Standing up and being counted, standing up and being different and realising that it’s not a negative to be different. That each of us is different, but so many people are afraid of being different. They’re told from such an early age, from the second they go to school, that they have to conform and I disagree with that entirely – I don’t think that’s our job as humans, to be conformist. I think our job is to be who we’re meant to be.

Why do you think we’re taught to conform?

It’s to make it easier in the short term, to make you mind your manners, to make you not cause discomfort to others, but those are only uncomfortable to others who are scared. And if you too don’t want to be scared or live your life as a fear-based person, you are going to ruffle feathers. It’s like when you clean out your closet, you make a mess at first, but then it gets clean.

There’s something about schooling: I was home-schooled a lot and then I went to some regular schools and I really noticed the conforming aspect of school. I think people just wanted their day to be easier, but it has a really deleterious effect over the long haul. And it keeps people small and I, for one, don’t want to be small and I don’t know many people who do. But I know a lot of people who don’t know how they can be different. I think, slowly, sometimes at the end of their life they realise they were different all along. It’s OK to be an outsider. It’s OK to be a weirdo. It’s OK to think differently. There’s an awful lot of us, the ones who are different. And maybe more people would be better off being like us.

As a teenager you moved between your aunt in Oregon, where you were bullied at school, and your father’s home in Colorado, where you were very popular at school. You say in the book, “I came to the conclusion that other people’s reactions were useless to me.” Do you still think that?

I think that’s what saved me in Hollywood, from being affected by fame, having my head turned by it, thinking I was all that and a bag of chips. There’s something about fame specifically that does that to people. They do think they’re oftentimes better than others. And I see myself as just a man of the people. 

That started very young when I realised that other people’s opinions of me had no bearing on my actual life. It sucks. Everybody would rather be liked than disliked. I wanted people to like me for a very long time. It does get lonely, it definitely does, but that’s also something we can survive. I think if you know in your core that you are good and you are right, then you can hold on to that. Sometimes it’s cold comfort. Sometimes it’s all you have.

Would you describe yourself as polarising?

That’s something I’ve dealt with my entire life. There’s something about me that I think holds up a mirror to a lot of other people and a lot of times they don’t like what they see and I understand that I can make people uncomfortable just by existing.

It’s exhausting, it’s definitely puzzling and not necessarily fun. I’ve had to make peace with people disliking me. They don’t know me. I know if they spend five minutes with me I could probably change their mind.

You say the last year has been difficult in terms of your mental health. You do seem to drive yourself beyond what is physically and mentally good for you – you carried on doing stunts in the 2007 film Planet Terror with quite severe nerve damage. Do you see a pattern?

Yes. I feel like I have 50 whips at my back and I’m the one holding those whips. I don’t know why. I think of that saying, ‘God doesn’t give you more than you can handle’, but fuck, I’ve handled an awful lot. But then so many of us have. I figure I can’t be that different from other people.

Brave by Rose McGowan (£9.99, HQ) is out in paperback now

Images: Getty