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“The Environment Was Very Toxic”: Nudity, a Graphic Photo and the Untold Story of Why Ruth Wilson Left ‘The Affair’

The actress shocked fans of her Showtime drama when she suddenly left the role that earned her a Golden Globe, then said she wasn't allowed to say why. We finally have our answer.

In the summer of 2018, actress Ruth Wilson stunned fans and the television industry at large when she abruptly left The Affair, the Emmy-nominated Showtime drama in which she starred, with no explanation.

Days after her departure, the actress embarked on an awkward press tour for an upcoming film. Asked repeatedly about her mysterious exit from the show, she would only drop baiting hints. “It isn’t about pay parity, and it wasn’t about other jobs, [but] I’m not really allowed to talk about it,” she told The New York Times in August 2018, urging the reporter to contact showrunner Sarah Treem: “There is a much bigger story.”

That bigger story, it turns out, is much like the Rashomon-style narrative of the show itself, which explored different character perspectives on the same events and let the audience decide who might be the unreliable narrator. The Hollywood Reporter interviewed many of those involved in Wilson’s exit and the events that precipitated it. Many say Wilson, who is restrained by an NDA, had long wanted to leave the show because of ongoing frustrations with the nudity required of her, friction with Treem over the direction of her character, and what she ultimately felt was a “hostile work environment,” later the subject of a previously unreported 2017 investigation by Showtime parent company CBS.

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While Wilson was said to have understood that signing on to an adult drama at Showtime called The Affair would likely involve some disrobing, she ultimately took issue with the frequency and nature of certain nude scenes. Sources, many of whom declined to speak on the record, say Wilson was often asked to be unclothed in scenes where there seemed to be no clear creative rationale for the nudity other than for it to be “titillating,” as one person involved with the production puts it. Another source overheard Wilson ask on set, referring to a male co-star, “Why do you need to see me and not more of him?” Wilson had, of course, signed a nudity waiver when she tested for the pilot, but a SAG-AFTRA spokesperson notes that performers must still “provide meaningful consent and be treated with respect and dignity during production.” Sources say Wilson expressed her concerns repeatedly only to receive push-back and be labeled “difficult.”

Those insiders add that Wilson felt Treem, in particular, pressured her to perform such scenes. “There was a culture problem at the show from the very beginning and a tone-deafness from Sarah Treem about recognizing the position she was putting actors in,” says one source with firsthand knowledge of the production. “Over and over again, I witnessed Sarah Treem try to cajole actors to get naked even if they were uncomfortable or not contractually obligated to.” According to this individual, that coaxing took the form of pressuring actresses by telling them, “Everyone is waiting for you,” or “You look beautiful,” to ease any insecurities they may have had. “It’s things you would think would be coming out of a man’s mouth from the 1950s,” says the source. “The environment was very toxic.”

Treem, however, denies she ever pressured performers. “I would never say those things to an actor. That’s not who I am. I am not a manipulative person, and I’ve always been a feminist,” she says, noting that she “did everything I could think of to make [Wilson] feel comfortable with these scenes.” Treem says that her accommodations for the actress included cutting certain scenes the actress was uncomfortable with, storyboarding scenes ahead of time and showing her cuts of scenes for her to approve before they aired.

“I have devoted my entire professional life to writing about and speaking to women’s issues, women’s causes, women’s empowerment and creating strong, complex roles for women in theater and in Hollywood, on- and offscreen,” says Treem. “It’s what I think about, what I care about, it’s what drives my life and work. The reason I even created The Affair was to illuminate how the female experience of moving through the world is so different from the male one, it’s like speaking a second language. The idea that I would ever cultivate an unsafe environment or harass a woman on one of my shows is utterly ridiculous and lacks a grounding in reality.”

Still, insiders cite a number of issues that created discomfort with some of the cast and crew. For example, “There sometimes were people there who didn’t need to be, or the monitor was in plain view,” explains one. Another on-set source reveals that there was a complaint raised after a monitor was left on during an on-location shoot that made a sex scene visible to someone not involved with the production. Insiders attribute many of these issues to the fact that Showtime did not begin employing an intimacy coordinator, an on-set job that’s become more common in the #MeToo era, until the show’s final season.

In one instance in the second season, Wilson declined to shoot an aggressive sex scene that involved her being pushed up against a tree at a yoga retreat by co-star Dominic West. “It was rapey,” says a source. “Ruth was very unamused by it.” Treem says that it was written to be a consensual sex scene but that Wilson didn’t agree with the character’s choice. Instead, a body double stepped in for part of it. (Separately, Wilson’s body double sued Showtime in 2017, saying she was fired after confronting a male assistant director for describing her on a call sheet as “Alison Sexytime Double.” The case was settled.)

Wilson’s opportunity to extricate herself from the show ultimately came about after a chance meeting Sept. 20, 2016, between Jeffrey Reiner, an executive producer and frequent director on the The Affair, and Girls creator Lena Dunham. After shooting on location in Montauk, New York, Dunham, producer Jenni Konner and other Girls cast and crewmembers headed to 668 The Gig Shack for lobster rolls and ran into crewmembers from The Affair. What happened next so disturbed Konner that she described the events in a detailed blind item on her and Dunham’s since-shuttered website Lenny Letter.

As recounted in Konner’s post, “a producer/director” on “another TV show that shoots nearby” struck up a conversation with Dunham in which he praised her comfort with nudity in explicit terms. “You would show anything. Even your asshole,” he said, according to Konner’s piece. Lamenting how difficult it was to get some of the actors on The Affair to shoot nude scenes, Reiner — who “seemed very drunk,” according to Konner’s post and other sources who were there — then allegedly asked Dunham if she would have dinner alone with Wilson the next night to persuade her to “show her tits, or at least some vag,” before he went on to “critique and crudely evaluate the bodies of all the women on his show.” At one point, Reiner pulled out his phone to show Dunham a graphic photo of “a mutual friend with a cock next to her face,” as Konner described it. Sources say that the image was of Affair actress Maura Tierney and a nude male actor working as a body double for actor Josh Stamberg. Reiner declined to comment.

Cleta Ellington, an assistant director on The Affair and a longtime associate of Reiner’s, has a different version of events. “The 2016 Montauk conversation described in Jenni Konner’s September 2016 Lenny Letter did not happen as portrayed by Konner,” says Ellington, who claims that she was the only other active participant in the interaction between Dunham and Reiner. “While this quick, funny conversation took a few explicit twists and turns, Lena was the provocateur in the conversation,” says the AD, who first worked with Reiner in 2006 on the NBC series Friday Night Lights. “Yes, we did discuss nudity, body doubles, the ins and outs of filming sex scenes, what the various networks expected, and even shared a nude picture of male genitalia after Lena accused The Affair of not showing equal male nudity. But our candid conversation did not once ever pause in discomfort. I feel the Lenny Letter, which inexplicably erased me from the conversation, was a clickbait smear against a trusted colleague.” Dunham and Konner did not respond to requests for comment.

Though they differ on the details surrounding the encounter, both accounts agree that Reiner showed Dunham a photo of a nude actor on his phone from a scene shot on a closed set, an image that sources say was taken off either a monitor or a computer. Ellington defends Reiner’s possession of the photo, explaining that he had to send it to Stamberg for approval of his body double and that it had already aired on TV. (Why Reiner still had it on his phone a year after the airdate is unclear.) Still, a SAG-AFTRA spokesperson says, if true, the conduct is “outrageous and reprehensible,” and that it would “violate the terms of our agreement.”

Reiner and Dunham’s encounter left multiple members of the Affair cast and crew troubled. Treem, who had been in L.A. at the time, heard about the incident and flew out to set within a matter of days. But even so, insiders say there were no repercussions at first. Notes one: “The initial reaction from Sarah, which was then supported by Showtime, was to rally the troops around the director.”

It wasn’t until Konner’s account published on Lenny Letter two weeks later that Reiner met with HR, though sources say no action was taken at the time. Meanwhile, Showtime president and CEO David Nevins called Peter Benedek at UTA, the agency that then represented Dunham and Konner. Accounts diverge on what was said on the call. One insider says Nevins asked if Benedek could ask the pair to quiet down about the incident, which the agent then relayed to them. But another source familiar with the call maintains that Nevins was simply trying to defuse what had become a tense situation. Both Benedek and Nevins declined to comment.

Shortly after the Lenny Letter item posted, Treem sent a cast- and crew-wide email about sexual harassment without explicitly addressing the incident. “In conversations with Jeff [Reiner] and Michele [Giordano, a co-executive producer], we on the management side of this ship just want to state what should be obvious: We have a zero tolerance policy on sexual harassment and assault,” she wrote in the email obtained by THR, suggesting that everyone should heed the advice her preschooler was given at his Montessori school and yell, “Please respect my body” should anyone feel uncomfortable. “This is a sexy industry and we are creating a show with a lot of sexual content … But we want to keep that sexy, sexy stuff onscreen. Offscreen, we want to make sure you feel safe and protected while you’re working with us.”

Although the showrunner had intended to calm cast and crew with the email, it was not well received by those who felt the Reiner incident wasn’t being properly addressed or that their discomfort on set wasn’t being taken seriously. But according to Treem, only the network executives were permitted to address the situation. “I asked Showtime if we could shut down production for weeks. I asked for sensitivity training. I asked for Jeff Reiner to address the cast and crew,” Treem tells THR. “I was told that Showtime had to be the one to handle it.”

In the wake of the turmoil, some of the actors, including Wilson and Tierney, were said to have expressed discomfort about continuing to work with Reiner, who was expected to return to the show in the upcoming fourth season. In February 2017, months before the #MeToo movement would launch with the October 2017 allegations against Harvey Weinstein, sources say Wilson raised a complaint with Showtime alleging a hostile work environment. Sometime after, Showtime parent CBS opened an internal investigation. “When confronted with a report of inappropriate behavior involving anyone within our offices or productions, we immediately initiate a process overseen by our compliance team in the case of our own shows, or in the case of series we license from others, we collaborate closely with the relevant production studio,” a Showtime rep says in a statement. “In the instances that THR is referencing, appropriate and decisive action was taken.”

However, Showtime declines to say how it responded immediately and decisively. The Affair, the fifth and final season of which finished airing in November, without Wilson, is the third Showtime series — along with SMILF and The Chi — to generate complaints of alleged misconduct in the past year. (Though The Affair was a Showtime production, SMILF was produced by ABC Studios and The Chi was produced by Fox 21.) SMILF creator Frankie Shaw continues to work with Showtime as a writer on a drama in development based on Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar after an investigation into the writer-star’s alleged misconduct on the series, including claims — which Shaw denies — of separating writers by race and mishandling a sex scene. Parent CBS also continues to reel from the harassment claims against ousted chairman and CEO Leslie Moonves, who has been accused of presiding for years over a culture that was unfavorable to women.

While the Affair investigation was underway, a source says Reiner was told that he could stay on the show but that he would no longer be permitted to direct episodes featuring Wilson. Frustrated, Reiner told his representatives that if he couldn’t choose the episodes he wanted to direct, he would not continue on the show. Reiner departed The Affair after the third season.

Even while the investigation was pending, a source says there was a dialogue between Reiner’s team and Showtime executives, including Nevins — whom Reiner has known since their days producing Friday Night Lights together — about finding another job for him at the network. According to the individual, the exec helped Reiner get a meeting with the executive producers of another Showtime drama, I’m Dying Up Here. Though the director ultimately wasn’t brought on that show, he was hired to direct a September episode of Shameless, another Showtime series but one that’s produced by Warner Bros. Television. The hiring came two months after CBS’ internal investigation concluded in July, at which time a source says Reiner was told he needed to take an online anti-harassment and management training course.

“Jeffrey getting shuffled onto another show put a permanent wedge between the actors and producers because there was just no trust that this was being dealt with in a serious manner,” says one source who worked on The Affair. While Reiner hasn’t worked on a Showtime-produced show since, he’s gone on to direct multiple episodes of Bravo’s Dirty John and the upcoming Hulu series High Fidelity. (Both companies say they weren’t aware of any previous investigations.)

Meanwhile, the incident between Reiner and Dunham gave Wilson the leverage she needed to negotiate her exit from The Affair. She shot her fourth and final season’s entire arc ahead of the rest of the filming, and a source says a condition for Wilson returning was that Treem would not be allowed on set with her.

Though Wilson has stated that she had no control over how her storyline ended, she apparently did have some say over her character’s fate. When Treem wrote a script for the fourth season in which Wilson’s character fights off an attempted rape before being violently murdered, the actress objected. Insiders say Showtime executives Nevins and Gary Levine intervened and told Treem on a conference call that she needed to remove the violent sexual assault. According to sources familiar with the call, the showrunner fought to keep it in, arguing that it addressed the character’s complex psychological issues. In the end, Wilson’s character was violently murdered by her married boyfriend, but there was no sexual assault. Still, it’s a far cry from Wilson’s dream ending for her character, which she has said is that she’d “walk into the sunset with her son and with no man.”

Ultimately, in this Rashomon-like retelling of The Affair‘s behind-the-scenes drama, the only person who can conclusively answer why Wilson left the series is the actress herself — but Kurosawa never had to contend with an NDA.

Note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly included that sources said Wilson was given a substantial payment with her exit when that payment is said to be compensation for the filming of her fourth and final season.

This story first appeared in the Dec. 19 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.