How Harvey Weinstein’s Real-Life Survivors Made ‘She Said’ Come to Life
Five years after allegations surfaced against Harvey Weinstein, the bombshell investigation that exposed the movie titan to be a serial sexual abuser is getting the Hollywood treatment — and his victims are helping filmmakers tell the story. “She Said,” based on the book by New York Times investigative journalists Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey, who first reported on Weinstein’s history of sexual harassment and assault in depth, hits theaters this weekend. The film doesn’t just center on the two reporters. It’s also about the women who came forward to expose Weinstein’s abuse across decades, igniting the hashtag #MeToo, blazing a cultural and societal fire of truth-telling and knocking down systemic abuses of power in the workplace. The Universal-distributed movie includes an unprecedented level of participation from these same women, many of whom advised the filmmakers and some of whom act on-screen.
When “She Said” premieres Nov. 18, Weinstein will be sitting in a downtown Los Angeles courtroom, facing seven new charges of sexual assault. The trial is the second criminal case against the disgraced producer, who is serving a 23-year sentence after being convicted in 2020 in New York of rape and sexual assault. The notion of Weinstein imprisoned while his accusers are the subject of a major motion picture almost feels like the kind of dramatic twist that could have sprung from a Hollywood script. In court this month, the judge even instructed jurors not to watch the trailer for “She Said.”
But while Weinstein’s fall from power may be at the center of the film, his face never flickers across the screen. That was a major creative choice.
“The decision to give the perpetrator less voice and screen time is the game changer,” says Zelda Perkins, a former employee at Miramax, the company Weinstein and his brother, Bob, founded in 1979. Perkins signed a binding NDA with Weinstein in 1998 and has since become a leading activist against the misuse of these nondisclosure agreements. “Most drama tends to focus on the perpetrator and their violence or perversions, so to have Weinstein minimized here was a big change, and one I hope is taken on board and done more.”
Perkins, who is portrayed in the movie by Samantha Morton, is one voice in a chorus of more than 100 women who have accused Weinstein of sexual harassment, assault or abuse over the years. Only a few of these women’s stories will be showcased in “She Said,” which stars Carey Mulligan and Zoe Kazan as the two journalists whose investigation is at the center of the film.
Rowena Chiu, another Weinstein survivor, provided the film with crucial input. Both she and her husband are characters in “She Said,” and advised the creative team on the accuracy of their storylines. Chiu, who is on the witness list to testify in Weinstein’s current trial, was Perkins’ Miramax co-worker in the ’90s. After she accused the movie mogul of attempted rape at the Venice Film Festival, she and Perkins ended up signing an NDA, in hopes of creating a safer environment at Miramax. Instead of inspiring change, the agreement only ensured their silence. Like many other women, Chiu is grateful for “She Said,” yet notes the complexities around telling survivors’ stories. For starters, the film gives the journalists, not the accusers, the most screen time.
“I would love to think that the movie will be a game changer for survivors, but I fear we will have to continue to fight hard to have our stories heard and represented,” Chiu says. “For many complex reasons, I think that society continues to find a journalist’s voice far more palatable than a survivor’s voice.”
The team behind “She Said” was careful to ensure creative liberties were not taken in the theatrical retelling. “We consulted everyone,” says screenwriter Rebecca Lenkiewicz, who worked closely with Kantor and Twohey when adapting their book. “Everything we use was in the book, but if somebody didn’t want to go further and did not want to be named in the film, we respected that.”
The writer spent time with some of the women who inspired characters in the film, including Chiu, Perkins and Laura Madden, who was the first woman to agree to go on the record for The New York Times and is played by Jennifer Ehle in the film.
“I had many reservations,” Madden says of participating in the movie. “From the early days of speaking to Jodi for the original article and then for her book and now the film, I have felt very complicated all along because it’s deeply painful to have to let go of something you have kept silent about for decades. This experience that happened in my early 20s has not been the defining event of my life, and yet, I sometimes feel as though the film distills it down to this one awful event. The flip side is that I also feel incredibly lucky to have had the opportunity to do something positive out of the ashes of Weinstein’s assault.”
Lenkiewicz says that while accuracy was paramount, “there is an ounce of artistic license because it’s a film, but nothing more than an ounce.” She adds: “You don’t need to change the traumatic, horrific truth that happened.”
Gwyneth Paltrow, who appeared in several Weinstein movies and won an Oscar for her performance in “Shakespeare in Love,” accused the producer of sexual harassment and became a key source in the New York Times investigation. She helped convince other women to come forward. Paltrow plays herself in “She Said,” lending her voice to a phone-call scene, and Lenkiewicz says Paltrow was eager to be part of the film. “We all felt it would be best to have Gwyneth on the phone, rather than on the screen,” the screenwriter says. “There was never a draft with her on-screen. Emotionally, we felt it would be very effective.”
Rose McGowan, who reached a settlement with Weinstein after she alleged he raped her in 1997 at the Sundance Film Festival, did not participate in the film, though the original script had a role for her and she had planned to play herself, production sources tell Variety. Ultimately, another actor portrays McGowan’s voice, which is overheard on a phone call in the movie. (McGowan declined to comment when contacted by Variety.)
“Rose didn’t want to be in the film, and we respected that,” Lenkiewicz says. “Of course, her bravery speaking out and her courage made the story possible.”
The survivors did not have any say in casting but were available as a resource for the performers who played them. Perkins reached out to Morton of her own volition and ended up meeting with the actor. “She was as keen as I, and we spent some time talking to each other in detail about our own individual experiences in the industry and at the hands of abusers,” Perkins says. “Sam was very exacting in terms of detail and how I felt in the scene she portrays, but not to impersonate me. She created her own very powerful interpretation.”
Chiu knew she didn’t have control over who would play her, but she wanted to ensure that her casting was an authentic representation. “I was worried about being ‘whitewashed,’ so I specifically asked to be played by a Chinese actress and moreover, a British-Chinese actress, as opposed to an Asian American actress, because I felt that cultural heritage was such a significant element of my story, and I very much wanted to be portrayed accurately,” Chiu says.
Ashley Judd, who first alluded to sexual harassment by Weinstein in a 2015 Variety interview that did not name him, went on the record in The New York Times’ 2017 report and plays herself in the film, appearing on-camera as a key character who enables the reporters to break the bombshell story. “Ashley was very supportive in giving more information and adjusting the script a bit with certain details,” Lenkiewicz says. “She was incredibly involved.”
“She Said” also cast real-life survivors of Weinstein who auditioned for various roles but did not play themselves. Katherine Kendall and Sarah Ann Masse are both actors who came forward with allegations against Weinstein in 2017, becoming prominent voices in the fight against sexual harassment. Their own stories aren’t included in “She Said,” but in the film, Masse plays a journalist in the Times newsroom, and Kendall plays an executive who meets with the journalists for an off-the-record conversation and points them in the right direction to help their reporting. On set, both women say they were able to engage in productive conversations with creative executives about effectively incorporating survivors, both on-screen and behind the scenes.
“I felt connected to the story no matter what,” Kendall says, even though her own experience is not part of the script. “I was speaking to Jodi Kantor in my real life, days away from going on the record with her, while it’s being played out in the movie. If the movie had gone on for five more days, I would’ve been a character.”
Masse has founded Hire Survivors Hollywood, an organization that encourages studios and networks to employ people who report assaults. When “She Said” was first announced, Masse cold-called Universal, hoping to provide consultation on behalf of survivors, but never considered the possibility of auditioning for the film. After she was cast, she was elated to learn that executive producer Dede Gardner of Plan B Entertainment had always planned to incorporate Weinstein survivors in the movie.
“When casting for the film began, I felt it was my duty to advocate for the inclusion of survivors on this project,” Masse says. “I never pitched myself as an actor for the film. I simply gave them some ideas and hoped they’d consider them.” Masse wants Universal’s commitment to hiring survivors to create a positive domino effect in the industry. “I know that when I take meetings and do panels or consultations, I’ll be able to point to ‘She Said’ as a big-budget film that wasn’t afraid to do things the right way,” she says.
All of the women who participated experienced a range of emotions when screening the film for the first time. “Ultimately, I feel like it’s extremely cathartic,” Kendall says, adding, “I’m feeling very victorious for all of us.”
“I hope that anyone in the audience who thinks that a few hours of predatory titillation is harmless will understand the decades of damage they cause to their targets,” Madden says. “And that perhaps there will be more empathy for women and men who suffer at the hands of predators and abusers.”
Lenkiewicz hopes the movie brings comfort to those who suffer sexual harassment around the world. “The brilliance and resilience of the journalists was incredible, but the beating heart was the voice of the survivors and their agreement to be on the record,” Lenkiewicz says. “Having been silenced for years, nothing is going to be fixed by a film. But I hope that a lot of young women feel supported when they see the film, and I hope that it’s healing for anyone who has been subjected to abuse. It’s not all darkness — there is strength in solidarity with women being shoulder to shoulder rather than standing alone.”
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