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The Lucifer Effect: How Hollywood's Disease Has Spread
Hannah Smith , October 20th, 2017 09:27

Hannah Smith explains how tomorrow’s filmmakers are corrupted by the Hollywood system before they enter the gates, mimicking behaviours they would otherwise deplore because they want to be part of the club

We’re all familiar with the phrase “Fake it till you make it”, and “dress for the job you want, not the one you’ve been hired for.” It’s natural behaviour, even encouraged, to emulate those in positions of power in order to be accepted or hired. But cutthroat or over subscribed careers can attract mimickers like no other. Follow any unknown director or actor on social media and you might have been baffled by the apparent disconnect between their ‘real life’ and the one they project, full of ‘meetings’, ‘rehearsals’ and ‘film shoots’. Of course we’re all guilty of bigging up our every day life on social media in this day and age but the upcoming filmmaker uses social media as their first line of attack to ‘fake it till they make it’ like no other. #actorslife.

But there is a more sinister edge to this behaviour when the group you’re emulating and trying to penetrate is rife with systemic abusive behaviour. In Philip Zimbardo’s book The Lucifer Effect he discusses the nature of peer pressure and the desire to be ‘cool’, alongside the fear of rejection and how simply being part of a group can lead to people acting counter to their characters.

Of course Zimbardo’s research was conducted in far more extreme environments than a Hollywood studio but it offers interesting insights into why otherwise decent, moral humans turn a blind eye or even participate in abusive behaviour. It’s clear for anyone who can put two and two together that Harvey Weinstein is not the only perpetrator of abuse in Hollywood. The complicit silences have already begun to be acknowledged, and in some cases the double standards have started to be called out. But Hollywood seems fairly happy to throw Harvey under the bus so business can carry on as normal. But it isn’t just Hollywood with the problem and in many ways Hollywood is the harder arm of the industry to expose, even in the wake of the Weinstein scandal. Despite nearly all of the London Theatre industry, and the media surrounding it, knowing about years of abuse by a very well known Hollywood figure, no one dare to name him, not least his male victims. Until everyone is named, it’s hard to name any because the balance of power is still skewed heavily in the favour of the perpetrators.

Which is why now is exactly the time for us to start looking at the perpetrators coming up the ranks. The up and coming filmmakers who desperately want to be part of the club, a club that is so infected with sexual power it has spread it’s disease all the way down to the very bottom of the rung. And it starts in film school. Agents often send their talent to audition for student films. Although the filmmaker is training, it is an established and respected mode of getting an actor work, especially in the early days of their career. Actors gain vital experience in front of the camera and have an opportunity to meet the directors and producers of tomorrow; making connections that could be extremely useful in the future. We’re all basically looking for the Scorsese to our DiCaprio.

This is unfortunately often the first place an actor learns just how tipped against them the power balance is. If there’s something you are not willing to do, there will always be another actor willing to step in and take your place for free, as one young actress learned. “The (student) Director tricked us about what the film was about and tried to pressurise the other actor and I into improvising sex on his coat, ‘the bed’, whilst he filmed it, even making kissing sounds to encourage us to kiss. When I told him there was no way I would do that he asked if I was a virgin.” Both actors left the project and were replaced by two others who were willing to do it.

Tricking actors into doing things they wouldn’t necessarily have agreed to beforehand is a common tactic of the student filmmaker, but the most shocking examples I heard involved children. One eight year old actress (now an adult), newly signed to a children’s acting agency went with her mother to an audition for a student film they were told was called Row. After performing a monologue about tidying a messy bedroom the youngster was sent out of the room whilst the director explained to her mother that the film was actually called Raw and was about a paedophile who rapes and kills the girl, before killing himself. When they registered the mothers shock about the content she was told to reconsider by reading the script. In one scene the man would be masturbating whilst watching her daughter out of a window.

Another actor aged twelve was invited alongside her fifteen-year-old sister to audition for a student film they were told was a fairy tale. The twelve year old was bought into the room first and was asked to eat an apple like she was having sex with it. The director turned the camera on and the twelve year old laughed. They told her to try again, insisting it needed to be sensual. “I just ate a bite as I would normally, thinking how weird it was asking a 12 year old to do that. I ended up laughing a lot just at the mention of sex, and I think they just gave up asking me to do anything sexual. As I was leaving my sister was called in, I tried to give her a look that said, “let’s get out of here” but she didn’t notice. I peered into the small window at the door to see what was going on and was surprised to see that she was really trying to make an effort in the audition, to their encouragement. Her face was bright red from embarrassment and as she walked out she looked like she was about to cry.”

But it isn’t just children who are vulnerable to this behaviour, even the seasoned actress can be lured into situations that make them uncomfortable on unpaid student films. A nineteen-year-old student director slapped one actress across the face. He had read that Dustin Hoffman had once slapped Meryl Streep before a take and he asked her how she would react if he slapped her. She explicitly asked him not to do it and he did it anyway, much to her shock and the shock of his fellow students who witnessed it. “It didn’t particularly hurt much, but I thought what a shame that he is taking inspiration from an actor slapping his co-star without consent.”

Plenty of actresses told me about being tricked into auditioning for content they would never consider, even more told me about doing things that made them feel extremely uncomfortable because they felt if they said no, they would lose the work. One actress recounted how she was asked by her new agent to go to an audition because she had said she was okay with nudity when she signed with them. She meant she would be okay with nudity if it was necessary for the story and for a big production but didn’t feel able to tell her new agent she wouldn’t do it. When she turned up it was a room full of men and she was expected to strip in front of them whilst they took photos. Newly out of drama training she didn’t have the confidence to ask if the photos would be deleted. To this day she has no idea what happened to them.

All of this begs the question, where is the supervision? Where is the protection to ensure that the actors working for free on student films are not being exploited? Surely the film schools have a responsibility to the actors and volunteers working on their student’s productions? At the very least you might expect the lecturers to point out when a script has gone too far, or the cast seems to be exploitative or blatantly sexist, but by all accounts it doesn’t seem as if they do. Earlier this year a student filmmaker accused me of sabotaging the reputation of his film school when I pointed out how blatantly sexist his casting call was in a comment on the casting in a Facebook group. The casting was for four characters, two male who both had names and character descriptions like “fairly outspoken, outgoing guy” etc. and two females who were listed as Girl 1, has sex with Matt, Girl 2, Rick’s friend. They weren’t extras because underneath he had written that he would also need six extras. My comment started a discussion with other actresses and actors who had also been offended but there were still plenty of actresses applying for the job of either girl. Later the filmmaker messaged me privately accusing me of being unprofessional for “making an irrelevant comment on a casting post”, “sabotaging the casting call and the reputation of his film school” and wanting to be “an internet star with a top comment”. He then explained to me, an actor, that there are actors still out there trying to get opportunities and filmmakers like him trying to make opportunities for them in order to get better opportunities for everyone in the future.

It’s not in the future that we need to be making better opportunities, it’s right now buddy. Ask yourself why you’re writing female characters that don’t need a character description in 2017? The answer is simply, no one is giving him any reason to think he should. Not his teachers and certainly not the industry he is trying to get into. And whilst I do understand his defensive reaction - he’s young and he’s inexperienced - he’s also in a position of power and even the young and inexperienced soon get drunk on it.

But if the fresh out of drama school actor is hoping the uncomfortable auditions, blatant sexism and requests for nudity might stop when they are working for the next wrung up, the film school graduate, they will be sadly disappointed. As one actress said to me, “If I were to look only for jobs that didn’t in some way sexually reduce me or discriminate against me, I would find very few.”

In all accounts, the further up the wrung you go, the more people you come across who can exploit you. Enter the casting director. The stories here range from being asked to do an audition in the lap of a casting director, to castings at their houses and even being asked out before being told if you got the part or not. “I suppose the only power an actor has in such an overpopulated industry is to say no; whilst that leaves you feeling proud of yourself, it almost always leads to discrimination and loss of work. As I got older, I got less willing to accept poor behaviour in general from casting directors, and whenever I made a point of calling them out, I wouldn’t be seen by them again.” And then it is the smaller fish that feeds the monster, things like pressure to lose weight. I recently heard that an actress friend of mine was sent to a boot camp to lose weight for a short film by a director without a profile. I don’t know whose idea it was and it may well have been her suggestion, but best case scenario he was complicit enough to not only agree that she should lose weight, but to pay for it for a short film with a very small budget.

Intimidation on set is another recurring theme with the up and coming director. One friend had so many examples of being belittled by male co-stars whilst the director(s) capitulated that I couldn’t possibly write them all here. My own experience of being belittled was by a director whose modus operandi is to recruit actors by befriending them. Then when he behaves in ways on set and postproduction that feel vindictive, all done with a friendly smile, you don’t quite know if you’re imagining it.

Which is the problem with all of this; so much of it is blurred behind a cloud of normality. When every single door you knock on has something a bit odd and uncomfortable behind it, how do you know what abuse even looks like anymore? According to Zimbardo’s research into the Lucifer Effect, “Good people can be induced, seduced and initiated into behaving in evil ways. They can also be led to act in irrational, stupid, self-destructive, antisocial and mindless ways when they are immersed in ‘total situations’ that impact human nature in ways that challenge our sense of the stability and consistency of individual personality, of character, and of morality.” In short, it’s not a few bad apples but the bad that is possible inside of all of us, given the right conditions, that keeps systemic abuse alive. It’s time the industry acknowledged that by the time an actor has got to Weinstein’s hotel room, they’ve already been behind a lot of bad doors. And with each knock we’re hoping to find change, not another bloody man in a bathrobe.

No men came forward with stories when I reached out to various acting communities for this article

Hannah Smith is an actor, freelance writer and director who writes about art, humanity and the nature of creativity here