Rowena Chiu didn’t think anything would change. For decades, Miramax Films co-founder Harvey Weinstein had successfully dodged the consequences for his misdeeds, which included numerous allegations of rape and sexual harassment.
When news of Weinstein’s behavior broke in a bombastic piece in the New York Times in 2017, Chiu watched with cautious interest. In 1998, she had been working as Weinstein’s assistant when he tried to rape her during a business trip to the Venice Film Festival. Later, her friend and colleague Zelda Perkins confronted the studio and threatened legal action. Instead, lawyers pressured them into signing non-disclosure agreements. Weinstein, meanwhile, continued to abuse women as he rose to power in Hollywood thanks to critically acclaimed films like Shakespeare in Love.
Weinstein would escape unharmed, she told her husband before the 2017 article was published. A slap on the wrist and he would go back to business as usual.
“I was cynical about the whole thing — I certainly never imagined where we are today,” Chiu said during a phone interview with The Chronicle from her Palo Alto home.
This time, however, was different.
“She Said,” a new film from director Maria Schrader opening Friday, November 18, documents the experiences of Chiu and other of Weinstein’s abuse survivors through the work of two New York Times reporters. Megan Twohey and Jodi Kantor (played by Carey Mulligan and Zoe Kazan, respectively) spent months following up leads and sources, including Chiu, before releasing the October 2017 revelation of the Hollywood magnate’s crimes.
Her reporting, which led to the 2019 book titled She Said, helped launch the #MeToo movement and ongoing conversations about sexual assault and harassment against women. Five years after the first Times story, Weinstein was convicted at a trial and is serving 23 years in prison. He is currently on trial in Los Angeles County for sexual assault and rape, where Chiu is expected to testify against him. He also faces charges of indecent assault in the UK.
Chiu revealed that she and Perkins, who were years away from the attack, were appalled by the detailed reports from multiple accusers that unfolded in quick succession after the Times article was published.
“We knew Harvey was a terrible person, but the level of his aggression … was really shocking,” Chiu said.
In the film, Chiu is portrayed by Angela Yeoh, who joined her for the interview and called from Los Angeles. Actress Ashley Chiu also played the former assistant in scenes that retell the aftermath of the 1998 attack.
Yeoh, a former journalist who worked for BBC World Service and the Wall Street Journal, said she approached the role by hiring a reporter and interviewed Chiu before filming.
“To be given the chance to be a part of a film that would hopefully move a conversation forward — I felt a great responsibility playing a real-life survivor,” Yeoh told The Chronicle.
“She Said” follows the toil of Twohey and Kantor. Chiu’s presence in the film is brief but crucial. The importance of her contribution to the case is felt even in one scene from which she is absent: Kantor shows up unannounced at Chiu’s then home in Mountain View while the former assistant was in London. However, Kantor’s visit leaves her husband reeling from the information she shares with him.
However, Kantor and Twohey weren’t the only reporters to call. New Yorker Ronan Farrow had also followed her “intensely” in the summer of 2017, Chiu recalled, but she didn’t want to participate — partly because of the NDA she signed. At the time, many victims thought it best to remain silent; After all, it was usually about a woman’s reputation and credibility, not the attackers who thrived in a system designed to protect her.
The film’s version distorts the timeline a bit, Chiu said. She only agreed to speak to Kantor in 2019 after meeting at actress Gwyneth Paltrow’s home. The conversations at Paltrow’s house eventually formed the final chapter of the book, She Said.
Chiu said Kantor and Twohey’s work slowly opened a door for her. She broke that NDA long ago — in October 2019, she wrote an op-ed about her experience for The New York Times, outlining in sobering detail the power imbalances between her and Weinstein. As a woman of color, Chiu wrote, she was subject not only to the whims of a man in power, but to an industry that actively ignored or condoned his behavior.
“Harvey may not have created this imbalance, but he and many others have knowingly or unknowingly capitalized on it to abuse women of color,” Chiu wrote.
Yeoh told The Chronicle that’s why it’s so important to give Chiu a voice as the only non-white victim featured in the film.
“Seeing the representation of a global majority female at a certain age — that’s something I don’t see enough of,” Yeoh said. “I had to honor the truth and make her words right.”
In the years since Weinstein’s fall, Hollywood has made numerous changes, including sensitivity training and on-set intimacy coordinators. The #MeToo movement has also brought change beyond the entertainment industry as more survivors feel freed to speak out about abuse in other sectors such as academia and the tech world.
While Chiu said such changes are welcome, focusing on the corporate world is not enough. Hotel workers, nail technicians and restaurant waiters all deserve the same change.
“The movement is broader and we hope it will reach out to women who are being oppressed not only in the workplace but also in the home,” she said.
And while Chiu said it’s hard to see countless abuse stories popping up in the press and on social media, she was also encouraged.
“It’s devastating because you see how widespread #MeToo is,” she added. “But it’s also encouraging because we see that this is a universal problem and that we are making universal efforts to reverse it.”
“She said” (R) opens in theaters on Friday November 18th.