Media Missteps in the #MeToo Age: Why "No Comment" Is No Longer an Option

Hollywood Publicists' New Challenge -Time's Up Era-Illustration by Nicholas Dehghani-H 2018
Illustration by Nicholas Dehghani

Flubs over Weinstein and Woody are putting stars like Greta Gerwig and Matt Damon on the hot seat and creating complex, nuanced new rules for what to say (and not say) on the red carpet and beyond. Warns one crisis PR guru: "You can't wing it."

When Greta Gerwig made her way into the press room after winning a Golden Globe for Lady Bird on Jan. 7, her victory lap was interrupted by a difficult but predictable question: Did she regret having worked with Woody Allen, who directed her in the 2012 movie To Rome With Love?

Granted, that kind of sharp-edged question might not have been thrown at a Hollywood award winner in the past, but this year it was obvious that the Time's Up movement was going to dominate the Globes ceremony. In December, Dylan Farrow had written an op-ed in the Los Angeles Times explicitly calling out Gerwig, along with Kate Winslet and Blake Lively, for their praise of her father, whom Farrow has long insisted molested her when she was young. (Allen has denied the allegations.)

Farrow noted that Gerwig had fumbled a question on the subject in a November interview on public radio's Fresh Air. And just two days before the Globes, the issue gained fresh currency when The Washington Post published a widely circulated piece in which author Richard Morgan said he had analyzed Allen's voluminous archives and found them brimming with evidence of an obsession with young girls. Weeks earlier, Ellen Page, Gerwig's co-star in To Rome With Love, had posted on Facebook that working with Allen was the "biggest regret" of her career.

Yet Gerwig still wasn't ready for the question at the Globes. "You know, it's something that I've thought deeply about and I care deeply about, and I haven't had an opportunity to have an in-depth discussion where I come down on one side or the other," she stammered. The dodge did not go unnoticed in press reports.

Gerwig's fumble — she felt compelled to do a follow-up interview with The New York Times the next day in which she praised Farrow and said of Allen, "I will not work for him again" — is another sign of Hollywood's new reality. For those who have been associated with alleged perpetrators — and even those who haven't — evading questions about sexual misconduct and the Time's Up movement no longer is possible.

"Everyone should presume that every time they stand in front of a camera, microphone or iPhone, this is going to be asked about, and they should have a concise and thoughtful response," says Terry Press, pres­ident of CBS Films. Press adds that any publicist who doesn't explain this reality and plan for possible questions is providing "very poor client service."

Kelly Bush Novak, CEO of the ID public relations firm, agrees. "A lot of publicists think you can sidestep it and say, 'I'm here to talk about my movie,' but those days are over," says Bush Novak. She points out that some of the hard questions are originating not with reporters but rather with stars calling people out on social media. Those challenges not only beg for a response but make it much easier for journalists who might normally avoid a difficult topic to ask about it instead.

Coming up with the right answer can be daunting. "The trial in the court of public opinion in the age of social media is something to behold," says one talent rep whose client has drawn ire for a shaky answer to a Time's Up question. A publicist with a client who had the same experience adds that online critics can be implacable: "It's like, you can't even be honest."

Matt Damon is a vivid example of what can go wrong when a question isn't answered well. Normally at ease when talking with reporters, Damon got into trouble in October when he was promoting Suburbicon and offered a muddled explanation of what he knew about Harvey Weinstein and when he knew it.

Things got worse when he told Rolling Stone critic Peter Travers in December that "there's … a difference between, you know, patting someone on the butt and rape or child molestation." Though he said all such behavior had to be "confronted and eradicated without question," Damon nonetheless got pulverized. (I would note that I've repeatedly said what seems obvious — that there is a continuum of conduct — in TV and radio interviews without any pushback.)

CBS Films' Press notes that Damon faced undeserved condemnation because he had not framed his answers with care. "Nobody in Hollywood thinks for one minute that Matt Damon is abusive or inappropriate," she says. "He is a completely upstanding, honorable person. He got into a situation where he answered truthfully but without consideration." (Damon's reps declined comment, but the actor apologized for wading in to the debate in a Jan. 16 interview on ABC. "I really wish I'd listened a lot more before I weighed in on this," Damon told Kathie Lee Gifford. "I don’t want to further anybody’s pain with anything that I do or say. So for that I am really sorry.")

More recently, actor David Krumholtz, who appears in Woody Allen's new Wonder Wheel, also faced blowback and seemed to display a learning curve in real time. On the day the Post ran its piece on Allen's archives, Krumholtz tweeted that working with the director was "one of my most heartbreaking mistakes." He was quickly attacked on Twitter by some who felt the statement rang hollow given how recently he had worked with Allen. And he didn't handle the criticism with grace. "Easy to scrutinize me, eh?" he tweeted back at one point. "Go fuck yourself. And also, eat shit." 

But the next day, when Krumholtz appeared on a panel before the Television Critics Association to promote his new CBS show, Living Biblically, he came prepared with a lengthier and more nuanced statement explaining that Allen had been a childhood idol but that he is now "ashamed" of the decision to work with him.

After Gerwig and Krumholtz corrected course, others who are likely to face questions about Allen also seem to have understood that silence will no longer be an option. On Jan. 10, Mira Sorvino, who won an Oscar for Allen's Mighty Aphrodite and herself has alleged abuse by Weinstein, wrote an emotional open letter of apology to Farrow. Days later, Rebecca Hall and Timothee Chalamet donated their wages from Allen's upcoming film, A Rainy Day in New York, to the Time's Up legal defense fund. 

A communications executive at one studio says the fault for earlier missteps in some cases lies with publicists who failed to anticipate hard questions. "They come from an arrogant place where people want access to their clients," he says. While they may be good at picking and choosing among media requests, "they're not prepared to defend a position or head off a problem."

Crisis PR guru Michael Sitrick insists that it's often star clients who fail to think ahead about how they should handle the press. "Some people think it looks easy," he says. "They think, 'I can wing it.' You can't wing it." He says his firm prepares clients facing hard questions "the way a lawyer would prepare a client to testify."

As with every issue in Hollywood right now, gender parity affects this debate as well. After the Globes, some wondered why Gerwig was questioned about Allen but Justin Timberlake and Ewan McGregor weren't. Following the ceremony, Girls actor and activist Benjamin O'Keefe tweeted, "Not one dude Golden Globes Winner talked about the #MeToo movement in his speech. Knowing this industry their publicists probably told them it would be better for them."

Male or female, Bush Novak says that some clients fail to answer questions gracefully simply because they are nervous or lack confidence. "A lot of people think they need to be an expert" to address political issues, she says. "They say, 'I'm not going to talk about that.' But if we're really going to make change, everybody should think about what they stand for. Get educated and talk about it and take a position."

This story first appeared in the Jan. 17 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.