Ronan Farrow, the Hollywood Prince Who Torched the Castle
A child of entertainment royalty and an early witness to "power used for ill," the son of Woody Allen and Mia Farrow opens up about helping bring down Harvey Weinstein ("My family background made me understand abuse from an early age"), the NBC News debacle and what's next (a big HBO deal) as mom Mia reveals why she was "increasingly concerned for his safety."
Ronan Farrow is dressed in a black tuxedo jacket and blue silk pajama bottoms. Showing a bit of stubble, his blond hair mussed, he’s holding court at the bar at Mama Lion, a sleek supper club in L.A.’s Koreatown. It’s a Saturday in early December, and Farrow is among the guests of honor at a joint birthday party with his friends Shannon Woodward — the Westworld actress and Katy Perry pal — and Juliet Liu, a fellow Yale alum and the executive assistant to Universal Pictures chairman Donna Langley.
The theme is “black tie and pajamas.” Farrow, who lives in New York, won’t turn 30 for a few days, but he’s in L.A. running down sources for his next New Yorker piece. (He won’t reveal the topic.) And the trip — during which he stayed with Jon Lovett, the former Obama speechwriter and comedic co-host of the popular political podcast Pod Save America — allowed him to “have a small thing with close friends — a rare glimmer of a social life,” he says.
Just a few miles away, on the other side of the Santa Monica Freeway, a far less intimate event is unfolding: Disney’s world premiere for Star Wars: The Last Jedi. Held at the 6,300-seat Shrine Auditorium, it is the quintessential budget-busting Hollywood spectacle that for decades has served to lard on this town’s veneer of glamour and prosperity. The irony is more than topographical. It was Farrow — the golden-haired progeny of Hollywood royals Woody Allen and Mia Farrow — who took a journalistic sledgehammer to this industry’s meticulously tended facade when he (along with reporters from The New York Times) revealed decades of sexual predation by now-disgraced film mogul Harvey Weinstein. His Oct. 10 exposé for The New Yorker upended the town’s historic casting-couch culture and spurred a wave of disclosures that have toppled powerful men in Hollywood, the media and politics.
Farrow — a Rhodes scholar who graduated from Bard College at age 15 — dismisses “the silly, easy narrative about the son of Hollywood taking down the system” — though he won’t dispute the effect that his family history of alleged sexual abuse had on him personally, and professionally. His older sister, Dylan Farrow, now 32, accused their father, Woody Allen, of molesting her when she was 7. “You see early in life with that kind of a family background the way in which the most powerful men in America wield power for good and for ill,” he says. “And probably, yes, the family background made me someone who understood the abuse of power from an early age.” His mother, too, downplays the personal motivation of the stories. “It’s not a subject we discussed as a family,” says Mia Farrow, speaking for the first time about her son’s work to bring down Weinstein. “I never got the sense the Weinstein story was personal for him. He was a reporter on a huge assignment.”
Huge is a fair assessment, both in the story’s execution and its impact. Though The Times published first, on Oct. 5, Farrow’s New Yorker piece went deeper, with explicit and painful on-the-record accounts of alleged assault and rape. During nearly a year of reporting, 10 months of it at NBC News (more on that later), Farrow would interview more than 300 people. Upon publication, even as the piece shook Hollywood to its core, it catapulted the author’s own media profile. Farrow is now a hot commodity, aggressively pursued on the speaker circuit, and though he only has one short-lived TV news-hosting gig under his belt, he is being courted by a wide array of outlets. Sources say he is close to a multiyear HBO deal that will include an investigative documentary component. Meanwhile, he has joined the contributing staff of The New Yorker and is finishing a book about foreign policy, due in April from WW Norton. (During one interview in mid-December at The New Yorker‘s offices, Farrow keeps his iPhone on the table, awaiting a call from Madeleine Albright.)
Still, for all the attention, Farrow resists casting himself as the journalistic hero of the #MeToo movement. “It’s been incredibly moving to see how people have taken up the baton from the brave people who talked to me,” he says during a call from Stockholm. (He’s traveling with Lovett, to whom he’s been linked romantically, though he won’t comment except to say they have “been close in recent years.”)
“I’m here in Sweden, out seeing a show, and someone came up to me in the lobby and said, ‘Thank you for what you’ve done. Me Too.’ And that’s happened to me all over the world. That’s not about me, but about the women who came forward to me.”
Farrow’s personal reckoning with sexual abuse came in 2015 when he wrote a column for THR about Dylan’s allegations of abuse by their filmmaker father, taking aim at the culture of silence that for so long suppressed allegations of misconduct by powerful men. “I didn’t want to confront this,” he says. “I wanted to move on.” (Allen has steadfastly denied Dylan Farrow’s claims.)
At the time, Farrow was doing truth-to-power pieces for NBC News, mostly on the Today show. In his THR column, he recounted a discussion with his producer, who did not want him to ask the author of a hagiographic biography of Bill Cosby why he did not include rape and assault allegations in the book. “I’m ashamed of that interview,” wrote Farrow.
“I had to decide over the course of the previous year, as my sister was stalwart in her commitment to reiterating her allegations, what I was going to do about it,” he tells me. And so he approached his sister’s claims as a journalist. “I was cornered into looking at all the evidence and realizing, ‘Oh shit, this is credible, this is real, I can’t avoid this,’ ” he continues. “It put me in a position where I felt it would have been unethical for me to not respond. And the intensity of the backlash I got gave me some understanding of what many survivors were up against.”
The column was Farrow’s first in-depth public assessment of an issue that had torn his family apart more than two decades earlier, in 1993, when Allen sued Mia, his former muse and girlfriend, for custody of Ronan (then called Satchel) and his adopted siblings Dylan, then 7, and Moses, 15. The custody battle had been precipitated by Allen’s relationship with then-22-year-old Soon-Yi Previn — Mia’s adopted daughter with conductor Andre Previn — as well as Dylan’s accusations that Allen molested her at Mia’s home in Bridgewater, Connecticut, the previous year. Citing Allen’s “serious parental inadequacies,” a judge awarded full custody of the children to Mia.
Asked when he last spoke to his father, Ronan offers a long silence. “I don’t actually know the answer to that,” he finally says. “We have had contact over the years, but he is not someone that I keep up with regularly.” Though Ronan purportedly is Allen’s child, Mia Farrow threw his parentage into doubt when she suggested in a 2013 Vanity Fair profile that he could “possibly” be the son of Frank Sinatra, to whom she was married during the late ’60s. But Ronan won’t discuss his DNA: “Woody Allen, legally, ethically, personally was absolutely a father in our family. And of course any family affected by sexual abuse will tell you that’s a part of what makes the issue so devastating.”
As to whether Hollywood finally will turn its back on Allen, Farrow says: “It’s not for me to say what Hollywood will or won’t do. I will say that in every industry there are still powerful men facing credible allegations of wrongdoing who continue to evade accountability. As empowering a moment as this moment is, there’s still a long way to go.”
Newspaper photos from the early tabloid era of his life invariably show mother Mia, looking harried and occasionally hunted, with several children in tow. But Ronan has positive memories of his childhood and the lessons he learned from his 10 adopted siblings, most who came from disadvantaged countries and struggled with physical and developmental challenges. “My siblings were people the world left behind,” he says. “It was very difficult to be self-centered in a family of people with problems that give you instant perspective.”
His own exceptionalism was apparent early on. He was intensely bored with his schoolwork — “super nerdy” is how he describes his young self — and skipped grades at the elementary school he attended in Washington, Connecticut. He’d bring a block of tofu in his lunch box every day, and, while other children were at recess, he’d sit inside chatting with a teacher. His bedroom was a menagerie of creatures he discovered in streams or under rocks. “I loved unlocking the inner workings of things, whether it was a snail or a lizard,” he recalls. “I had aquariums of bullfrogs and mudpuppies. My poor mom had to deal with me incubating chicken eggs in my bedroom.”
His mother started driving him nearly an hour each way to take classes at Bard College when he was 11. In his final years of school, he lived in the home of a professor near campus. By 16, he had earned his degree and became an intern for Richard Holbrooke on the presidential campaign of John Kerry. Farrow was too young to have an apartment of his own, so he stayed with Diane Sawyer and Mike Nichols on “a couch in Mike’s office,” he says. (Sawyer has known Farrow since he was a child; she and Nichols had a home down the road from Mia’s in Bridgewater.) “I think Mike was really a GPS for him in so many ways,” says Sawyer. “Mike knew his mother forever. It’s wonderful to have someone who’s a witness to your mother’s life, your life and who was never advancing a cause.”
That same year, during a trip to Sudan, Ronan contracted a bone infection in his leg and would spend much of the next four years in a wheelchair and on crutches as he endured multiple operations. Nonetheless, he kept up a full schedule, including work on Capitol Hill. And in 2005, still only 18, he entered Yale Law School.
“He had to hobble in with these crutches and slide to his seat near the door,” recalls Amy Chua, who was Farrow’s thesis adviser (and later became famous as the author of the hard-core child-rearing book Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mom.) “Ronan was really young. But he was composed, extremely well liked. I thought, ‘This guy has just a core of strength.’ “
Says Farrow: “I couldn’t wear pants for several years because I had these giant metal halos holding my bones together. So I had to wear stretchy MC Hammer pants. I spoke on the Hill in the Hammer pants, and I went to my first law school classes in the Hammer pants. It ain’t great when you’re trying to live your life and date and be a normal person.”
Though Farrow makes repeated references to his own insecurity, his discipline in staying on message reveals savvy self-preservation. “When you’re under a microscope from an early age, you realize that people aren’t always going to like you,” he says. “And that’s OK. And you’re going to fail publicly, and that’s OK, too.”
Under the heading of public failure — maybe the only one — would be his short-lived afternoon show on MSNBC, Ronan Farrow Daily, which debuted in 2014. Before that, Farrow had been a regular guest on the cable network and had built a significant social media following. But he clearly wasn’t ready to carry an hour of television. “Both of the people who watched the show appreciated the show — all two of our viewers, half of them my mother,” he says, chuckling at his awkward joke.
These days, Farrow spends 18-hour days at his desk in The New Yorker‘s newsroom on the 38th floor of One World Trade Center. It’s not unusual for him to be there until 2 a.m. He claims not to have much of a social life. “My idea of a night out is actually a night in — in pajamas, with a good book or playing Mario Kart. It’s not that glamorous. I have a great circle of friends from law school and politics. When I most recently saw them, they said, ‘Where have you been for the past year?’ Because I disappeared into this story. I was in a cave.”
Farrow is a deft and humorous voice on social media — he has nearly 500,000 followers between Twitter and Instagram — but admits the “feedback loop can be toxic.” Though astute in the power dynamics of celebrity, much of his work, until recently, has focused on anonymous victims of abuse, especially in conflict zones. When I ask Farrow if he’s thought about the disparity between the media attention toward Weinstein’s victims and those he’s encountered in refugee camps in Africa and the Middle East, he becomes emotional. “As vulnerable as many of the women I spoke to about Weinstein were, the unimaginable isolation and fear of a woman in a refugee camp who has lost everything and has been raped and is about to bear a child of rape,” he says, “is one of the most bleak situations I’ve ever encountered.”
After Farrow’s show was canceled in early 2015, he stayed on as a correspondent at NBC News, working on investigative stories about worker deaths at a nuclear waste storage facility; sexual assault on college campuses; and corruption in special-interest politics — the types of stories, he recalls, that “invariably are a pain in the ass for lawyers at any media company.” Then, at a pitch meeting in the fall of 2016, the subject of Harvey Weinstein was raised.
In NBC News president Noah Oppenheim’s office in Manhattan, Farrow first proposed a multipart series exploring Hollywood’s sinister underbelly, including pedophilia, racism and sexual harassment in the movie industry. The first two were rejected. But in response to the third piece of it, Oppenheim — who had returned to the network in 2015 after several years in Los Angeles, during which time he wrote the screenplay for 2016’s Jackie — mentioned, quite casually, that Rose McGowan had tweeted about Weinstein. The actress didn’t name him, but many in Hollywood knew exactly whom she was talking about. (Weinstein has denied all allegations of nonconsensual sex.)
“It was like, ‘You’ll never get an interview,’ ” recalls Farrow. ” ‘But you should look into that.’ “
Farrow actually had met McGowan several years earlier when he was at the State Department and she was doing USO work. And by January 2017, he had persuaded her to sit for an interview. (Several months later, she would revoke consent.) By April, Farrow would come into possession of the damning 2015 NYPD audiotape of Weinstein admitting to assaulting Italian model Ambra Battilana Gutierrez. And by the summer, he would have multiple other accusers on camera (with their identities obscured), including Emily Nestor, a former desk assistant in Weinstein’s Los Angeles office. It was much further than any journalist before him managed to get with a story that had remained buried for decades.
Farrow “is a name, so he has some amount of celebrity that attaches to him,” observes Ken Auletta, the veteran New Yorker writer and one of many reporters who had tried multiple times to break the Weinstein story. “But he’s just got a great way about him. He’s a great listener, which is essential for a reporter. He doesn’t badger. He’s not judgmental. He’s careful. Maybe that’s the lawyer in him. I just think he comes off as a good human being, genuinely interested in exposing wrongdoing.”
Nestor first met Farrow in May in Beverly Hills. “I didn’t know what Ronan’s motivation was going into it, so I was on my guard,” she tells me. “I don’t want to offend you, but it’s hard to trust journalists. But he’s so earnest. He’s got an astounding amount of empathy. Of course, I didn’t trust that in the beginning. I was like, ‘This has got to be an act.’ “
It wasn’t long before Weinstein found out that NBC was working on a story about him and tried to impugn Farrow’s credibility by suggesting that his family history proved that he could not be objective. “Every journalist I spoke to laughed at the idea that there was a conflict of interest,” says Farrow. “I remember Tom Brokaw saying, ‘If that’s the best he could find on you, we’re in good shape.'”
Farrow knew Weinstein slightly, having met him several years earlier at — of all places — Charlie Rose’s annual Aspen Ideas Festival. They’d run into each other since, having what Farrow describes as “lovely cocktail party interactions.” As the reporting intensified, Farrow received threatening phone calls and noticed mysterious men stalking him. He was approached by an undercover agent for the corporate intelligence firm Black Cube (the same woman, posing as a women’s rights advocate, ingratiated herself to McGowan). It got to the point where he had to move out of his apartment near Columbus Circle.
“He shared enough of what he was uncovering for me to be increasingly concerned for his safety,” says his mother. “But he knew and I knew that it was a moral issue. He had to continue, even when that meant putting a lot on the line.”
But by August, Farrow knew he could not count on support from NBC News or from its chairman, Andrew Lack. Multiple sources tell THR that Farrow was told to stand down, though NBC has strongly disputed this and executives have stressed that Farrow did not have one accuser willing to be identified at the time. “The notion that we would try to cover for a powerful person is deeply offensive,” Oppenheim said during a town hall with employees in October. Farrow already has pushed back publicly. He told MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow, “I walked into The New Yorker with an explosively reportable piece that should have been public.” Others who were involved in the story when it was still at NBC News express skepticism.
“It doesn’t make sense to me,” says Auletta. He says the network’s determination that Farrow didn’t have the goods “doesn’t pass the Smell test — it doesn’t pass any journalistic smell test. We need to know what the fuck happened with NBC!” But if there is something more to say about the way NBC News handled the story, Farrow won’t go there — not yet, anyway.
His devastating follow-up for The New Yorker turned to Weinstein’s army of enablers, which included lawyers, agents and publicists. Among them were principal figures at CAA, Farrow’s agency at the time. In mid-September, while he was reporting the initial story, CAA partner Bryan Lourd attempted to broker a meeting between Farrow and Weinstein at Weinstein’s request because Farrow was a client of the agency. “There were a number of people who did tell me, ‘Look, you’ve got to drop this, this is causing too many speed bumps for you,'” he says. “Harvey Weinstein reveals how the most powerful men in this country have tendrils into every kind of institution. That is one reason why I switched agencies.” (In December, despite CAA’s public apology to anyone “it let down,” Farrow switched to WME.)
Asked if he views himself as an advocate on the topic of sexual abuse, he is decisive: “No. I’m a reporter, not an activist. I’m not pouring out my blood on battleships. My mandate going into the Weinstein story was never to believe all survivors; it was to listen to all survivors. I think it’s completely possible to be both a skeptical, judicious reporter and also create a space for survivors to be heard. If that reporting inspires people to activism, then it’s a job done well.”
This story first appeared in the Jan. 10 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.