Warning: This interview contains spoilers for The Assistant out now..
On January 29, former Project Runway production assistant Mimi Haleyi took the stand against Harvey Weinstein in his New York City trial, accusing him of sexually assaulting her in 2006.
In her gutting testimony, Haleyi recounted how she had met Weinstein at a movie premiere in Los Angeles in 2004, and was hired to work on the Weinstein-produced TV show in New York City shortly thereafter. In July 2006, she agreed to meet Weinstein at his SoHo apartment, where he invited her to talk about potential work opportunities on other productions he was running. That’s where Haleyi said he forcibly performed oral sex on her. As a British national working in the U.S. on a tourist visa, she said she didn’t report the incident because she was afraid of the police reaction, and Weinstein’s far-reaching power.
The titular assistant, protagonist Jane (Julia Garner), is surprised when a young woman shows up unannounced, claiming her boss hired her after a chance meeting in Sun Valley, Idaho. But beyond the strange nature of the hiring, something doesn’t feel right. The new girl is being put up in a luxury hotel, while Jane, also a transplant to the city, lives in a walk-up in Queens. Shortly after her arrival, the boss is late for a meeting, and Jane’s male co-workers start making jokes about him being seen in the girl’s lobby. Jane’s suspicions — already flaring because of her boss’ equally suspicious behaviors, like having his assistant clean his couch every morning — push her to report her misgivings to an HR executive (Matthew Macfadyen), who immediately starts gaslighting her.
That vicious circle is at the crux of what makes The Assistant so powerful: The system is designed to protect the aggressors, and punish the victims.
The narrative parallels aren’t a total surprise. Green had been working on a tangentially-related movie about sexual harassment on college campuses when the New York Times published allegations of sexual harassment and misconduct against Weinstein. The news inspired Green to shift her focus, and she started interviewing former assistants and other people in the industry who had worked for Miramax, Weinstein’s former production company, and other studios.
The day after Haleyi’s harrowing testimony, I met Julia Garner and Kitty Green in a New York City film office not unlike the one in The Assistant.
Refinery29: You started working on this movie right after the New York Times and New Yorker stories about Harvey Weinstein broke. Did you ever expect that he’d be on trial when it came out?
Kitty Green: “No! There's the trial going on, plus there is the Pay Up Hollywood movement, which is the assistant's movement for better pay and better hours. The fact that that's all happening at once is just a crazy coincidence. It’s a really inspiring thing to see happen, and it’s important that we’re part of that conversation. But the trial is just horrifying, and we just hope that the survivors get the legal justice they deserve.”
You had some trouble getting the film funded, which is cruelly ironic given the subject matter. What was the feedback like?
KG: “Often we'd have women at the film companies that we were approaching wanting to do it and their male colleagues being afraid of it. It makes sense — a lot of it is definitely shining a light on a gendered system that's still in place today. People are a little afraid to really examine that and look into it because it's going on everywhere, really.”
Julia, had you ever worked as an assistant before? What did you do to prepare?
Julia Garner: “No, and that was really scary because I knew that a lot of film industry people who either [are] assistants or used to be assistants, would watch it. Kitty and I spoke to one of her friends who was an assistant at a different place, not Miramax, but somewhere with similar kind of experiences.”
KG: “There wasn't sexual harassment, but it was a toxic work environment.”
JG: “ So, we had time to prepare internally and emotionally for the part. But in terms of technical [stuff], I went to my manager's office — they're not like Jane's office at all, they're lovely — and I would take notes and I would film the assistants, like how they were answering the phones. There's an urgency in a way and a certain tone that they have for every phone call. And then also, the way that they would type emails. They would do things in a very similar way.”
KG: “It's like an urgency within the calm.”
JG: “I didn't want anybody who's an assistant or worked at an office job to say, ‘Oh, this girl clearly does not know how to answer phones and type on the computer all at the same time.’
KG: “I remember trying to teach you to use the box cutter. Remember that?
JG: “I'm making myself sound like such an actor. I never had a normal job. That is a true fact, and it's really bad. I've been acting since I was 16. I've been very fortunate, but still, the film is about the work, so I thought it had to look like she knew what she was doing. It's so much about gestures and routine and the idea is that she does this every day again and again and again.”
The movie is really tightly focused on the quiet microaggressions that women working in those environments deal with on a daily basis. What made you go in that direction rather than something more explicit?
KG: “I was getting annoyed with the media covering these bad men and not exploring the larger systemic problems. Why aren't there enough women in the film industry in the first place? Because they go into assistant roles and they're often not promoted above that level. Whereas the boys come in and get immediately promoted to coordinator and executive. I wanted to kind of focus on those broader issues of power, and who has it and how we can change that, so that we can share it, as opposed to it just belonging to a few white men.”
You don’t let the women working above Jane off the hook, but you can tell that from their perspective, their only option in order to climb the ladder was to turn a blind eye.
KG: “It's so cutthroat. The difficult thing is you don't know what people knew, so, it is really tricky to talk about without kind of upsetting a certain group. But I do think that the system is dehumanizing in the way it's sort of set up. So, you kind of have to lose a bunch of your humanity in order to climb the ladder. Jane is so filled with self-doubt, but can't really see another pathway or avenue. She’s almost forced into this position where she's going to have to go to work tomorrow and she's just going to have to suck it up and keep going. And that's the tragic thing about it and that's what needs to change.”
At the end, you get the sense that Jane is going to continue to work for her boss despite her suspicions. Does that make her complicit in some way?
JG: “If anything Jane is probably the nicest character I've ever played. She was just doing her job, and if she wasn't going to do that, then she would get fired or maybe she would try to get to work somewhere else and she wouldn't get hired, because the big guy would call. [And] she went to the HR — that's what's so tragic about that scene. She felt like she was digging herself in a deeper hole. He made her feel stupid, and at that moment she thought she was stupid. She's like, ‘What was I thinking? Why did I come here?’ That's why it's not Jane, it's everything.”
KG: “He completely ripped her argument apart and she comes out of there not knowing what's up and down and just feeling trapped. It's a really difficult position for anyone.”
JG: “The awful thing is, it's not like what he's saying is wrong. He is stating facts but they're horrible facts.”
It's gaslighting 101.
KG: “The important thing about the culture of silence is the idea that they're not communicating with each other. There's only so much that she knows and she can't prove what she knows. But this is a film that's set pre-the [most recent iteration] of the MeToo movement. I think these days people would have avenues and outlets for people to speak to about their concerns. But that didn't exist back then. We didn't even have the language around what was going on in that room.”
As a woman, it felt really visceral to watch — have you gotten very different reactions from men?
KG: “I definitely get a lot of women just being like, ‘Oh, my God, that was me.’ And they feel seen by it, which is incredible. But you also get people who are uncomfortable.I had one male friend who's a filmmaker who I sent it to and it took them three weeks to reply. I knew that they'd watched the link, you could see it on video. And then I got this kind of email saying, ‘I'm feeling very guilty because I have a few assistants that do too much for me and I'm struggling with my own feelings about it.’ And I think that's the best reaction we can have out of people.”
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.