For years, those around filmmaker Nick Stewart have been unsettled by his videos, which depict a misanthropic ladies' man named "Nick." Now several actresses have come forward to talk about his disturbing practice of getting physical in bizarre scenes — as well as off-screen — without consent.
Actress Madison Willow had just turned 18 last November. She'd arrived in Los Angeles from her hometown of Rochester, New York, three months earlier and already she'd experienced the first blush of success, as one of her initial gigs — a BuzzFeed video — quickly racked up several million views. Now, shortly after Thanksgiving, the 5-foot-6, blue-eyed blonde had landed another small part in what'd been billed to her as a comedy of manners. This one may have been unpaid and non-union, but like many young actors she wanted to build her reel.
Casting breakdowns put out for Cinema Aficionado, about a young filmmaker attempting to bed his way to Hollywood success, had positioned it as a "satirical / dark humor / uncanny / strange comedy television series set to be pitched to FX / comedy central for distribution." The breakdowns sought females between 15 and 21 of various ethnicities. One role was envisioned as "utterly shameless" and "more admiring than any loved one imaginable" while another's description began, "a thousand squats later you're not at all for fitness as you're simply one that craves a workout regimen that makes you happy."
[An excerpt from the sizzle reel for Cinema Aficionado, a project Stewart worked on in 2016. The video appeared on his Facebook page.]
Nick Stewart, the self-styled auteur, contacted Willow for his project through a notice he'd posted to Backstage.com, a clearinghouse for mostly low-budget projects, telling her he was "booking people off their pictures." In short order, she found herself at what turned out to be his Canoga Park apartment in the western San Fernando Valley shooting a talky, intimate and ostensibly humorous scene of a lustful pair getting physical — played by Willow and Stewart himself — but which, she claims, soon went off the rails.
"I'd be reading the script before we'd shoot a scene and he'd start touching my legs and my butt and kissing me," she tells The Hollywood Reporter. "It was inappropriate and I asked him to stop. He would turn to the one cameraman on this tiny shoot and go, Let's start filming." She explains she left early and didn't return follow-up requests to continue shooting. Several weeks later, a sizzle reel for Cinema Aficionado appeared online, Willow cross-cut with a number of other women in sexually suggestive scenarios, the tone solely salacious, not at all playful. "I was really weirded out — again."
Willow isn't the only one to have been unsettled by Stewart. Several other women have come forward to THR to question his behavior, which they find concerning. Stewart did not respond to repeated requests for comment.
[An excerpt of a video clip posted to Stewart's Facebook page.]
Vera Vanguard, another actress who also appeared in Cinema Aficionado, shot a scene (in which she played a top film critic) with Stewart at his home in January after he contacted her through LA Casting. "He gave me the impression that this was a comedy so I played my role way over-the-top, but when I saw it — it's out of the stratosphere how strange it was," she said, adding that the shoot took place in an apartment that Stewart shared with his mother and at least a half-dozen cats."It was unhinged. He's getting some sort of revenge on women, whether he's conscious of it or not."
According to actress Janet Lopez, Stewart contacted her in April about a role in another of his projects, Ruby and Camilla, which she ultimately declined. "I thought it was weird because he uses his own full name in the script for his character but not for what would've been mine — the woman refers to him as 'Nick Stewart' repeatedly — so if someone were to see the footage, they could think it was a real-life situation," she said. "They wouldn't necessarily know I'm playing a role."
The script, obtained by THR, depicts the characters Ruby and Camilla as amorous, eagerly submissive women in turn interacting with Stewart's character. It notably foregoes standardized neutral stage direction for second-person exposition and identifiers, a "YOU" standing in for "STEWART."
A performer who requested anonymity notes that she too was told she'd be acting under a fictional moniker while Stewart retained his own name — referred to as Nick — in a script when the pair spoke about a role, which she ultimately opted against. "It was supposed to imply that I was fucking him," she says. "There was choking involved, and he was saying he planned to submit it to Comedy Central. I was like, 'This isn't funny.'"
Stewart, now 22, enrolled in 2011 at Columbia College Hollywood, a small film school in the Valley neighborhood of Tarzana. Classmates say that he acquired a reputation for an erratic, dramatic personality and a seemingly singular focus on creating controversial films whose abiding interest was sexual violence and consent. These same classmates also say these films were executed with an unclear sensibility that traded in a questionable irony and frequently left them troubled instead of intrigued, uneasily asking themselves whether the projects were merely satirical inquiries into dark themes or else more earnestly conceived indulgences.
"Some people thought he was doing things to get attention, others thought he was making a statement, others thought it was nothing serious and just a joke — including some girls who slept with him," says classmate David Moore of Stewart, with whom he'd discuss directors like Hitchcock and Kubrick. "After a while, people agreed: 'Fuck this guy.'"
Adds another classmate, Ryan Brennan: "He enjoyed making people feel uncomfortable. The humor in his work was him trying to soften things. People eventually started to stay away from him because he came across as disturbed."
According to classmates, Stewart eventually left the school due to an issue stemming from at least one of his projects. (Columbia College would only say that he attended and did not graduate.) Explains a third individual who knew him well during this period, and wouldn't speak on the record, fearing for her safety, "He likes that he's making people upset. There's a sadistic streak with him."
[An excerpt of a video clip posted to Stewart's Facebook page, in which an actress monologues a defense against his critics.]
In early 2016 Stewart enrolled in an introductory improv class at comedy training ground The Second City, where he soon gained a reputation for relentlessly suggesting material others felt inappropriate. "Any time the teacher called for suggestions Stewart would call out 'pedophiles!' or 'rapists!'" says one female attendee, who declined to be identified. "For a solo scene he got a chair and tied a noose for an auto-erotic asphyxiation, which he played very flat — not at all jokey. We'd wonder, 'Is he doing this on purpose? Does he think we think this is funny?' It was unclear whether he thought he was trying to be subversive or acting out fantasies or maybe both."
The Second City declined to comment.
Stewart's once active internet presence has mostly evaporated — his Vimeo videos and Blogspot account have been deleted, his Twitter account taken down. Attempts to reach him by phone and Facebook were unsuccessful. Email inquiries resulted in a notice of non-delivery indicating his Gmail account had been disconnected after THR began contacting him. All that remains is his Facebook page.
Stewart's multimedia output there, which remains public, is both emblematic of his era and individual to his taste. There are jump-cuts and word graphics in the vlogging style. The acting style is hammy, manic. He mostly sticks to a pop-punk score. His sensibility is millennial: relentlessly optimistic if debt-laden, confessional but knowingly built on artifice, ironic yet vulnerable.
In the way of the young, he wears his influences on his sleeves — sometimes literally. (The tousle-haired Stewart favors an ensemble of shades, blazer, dress shirt and loosened tie seemingly meant to mark him as an extra in the film version of amoral-young-L.A.-denizens fable Less Than Zero.) He's the kind of dude who is quick to broadcast that he's read difficult literature: Gravity's Rainbow is "masochistic," Infinite Jest "hilarious," Ulysses "ambitious," the infamously sexually outré Lolita his "favorite novel of all time."
Stewart also documents a typically unglamorous on-the-make Hollywood aspirant's run through the city's service sector economy, logging stints as a Togo's sandwich artist and a Mel's Diner waiter, a bartender at a Woodland Hills bowling alley and an employee at a branch of CVS. An unending stream of credit card offers allows him to ante up for nights at glitzy spots like Katsuya. "Good evening credit card #14!!" he posted on Facebook on March 11, 2016. "“The best cards are the ones with no interest. Let's go on some dates & continue pursuing a college education!"
On the surface of things — the job as a server, the film school background, the Hollywood dream, the headshot-ready look, the constant optimistic hustle — Stewart seems to have much in common with other young bachelors in town looking to get credits (and action with the ladies) and have his ego otherwise affirmed. A prototypical Angeleno of a certain demographic, his Facebook posts rotate between Trump criticism and fitness bragging that, in his inimitable fashion, is anything but humble: "I was walking towards the swinging doors at the gym & instantly felt frightened by this big guy getting closer to me," he wrote one day, "& just realized it was my reflection, me getting bigger everyday. #fuckcarbs."
He occasionally has referred to "the character of Nick Stewart," and some of his more provocative videos and posts are at times framed as iconoclastic riffs on issues of sexual consent ranging from rape to pedophilia. Regardless, many of those who've interacted with him and his material don't interpret it as a young mixed-media auteur's arguably clumsy attempts at addressing controversial topics. Instead, they see him and his behavior as evidence of a threat.
In at least one instance, on Dec. 30, 2016, Stewart streamed his shoot with a Hispanic actress on Facebook Live. For approximately 45 minutes they good-naturedly collaborate on a love scene in a bedroom while a cameraman films them. They consult a script on an iPad between takes, at times laughing, and at the end of their time together she offers to give him a lift. The woman is aware of the second camera, apparently a phone, repositioning it at one point during their session together. But at the beginning of the footage she inquires, concerned, whether the session is being broadcast live, and he explains that it's merely a video recording; furthermore, he jokes he doesn't "have any friends" who'd watch it anyway. The footage, subsequently screened by THR, has accumulated more than 1,000 views since it was livestreamed.
Stewart appears fully aware of the criticism and has incorporated it into his oeuvre. Nine days earlier, in a short bedroom scene posted to Facebook, he outsourced his response to a blonde actress playing an aroused paramour given a monologue repeatedly interrupted by his own stand-in's amorous intentions. "Some people think you're, like, scary or sociopathic or something but I think you just want to look cool or you're different but superior," she says, continuing: "I don't care about you kissing girls. I mean, your acting is in character, it's not you. To be a genius like yourself, you have to have these spurs of madness but it's the madness that makes you a genius. … You're ahead of your time!"
In a post the following month, structured as a rambling essay in the second-person, he posits a "theory" that "you're an attention whore with nothing to lose," going on to ponder "your rather peculiar aspiration to portray multiple misanthropic characters with a nihilistic sense of humor through social media & sardonic blogs." He added, "maybe it's a mask you wear when you're sitting alone."
On Aug. 24, Stewart's close friend Sean Stanley — who observed in a Facebook Messenger chat that Stewart would "never openly admit how exciting" he found THR's inquiry into his conduct — articulated a proxy defense, noting that "being unprofessional is NOT a crime. It's offensive to people who are really getting harmed in actually sketchy situations making films. This has NEVER been the case with Nick. The worst you can say is he's a terrible filmmaker that doesn't know what he's doing. He has NEVER assaulted ANYONE and it's a disgusting thing to even say that."
Willow still puzzles over Stewart's motivation. "I don't think it's just that he wants to use the casting process to get girls, because he wouldn't do all this just for that — it's so elaborate," she says. On Aug. 9, Stewart resurfaced a brief clip on his Facebook page of her enthusiastic entrance into his apartment alongside him, as if on a date, devoid of the context that she's playing a character. "There's more going on, which I initially didn't understand. He wants this image out there that he can get girls. I hadn't realized that there was more behind the scenes."