When an actress disappears from mainstream movies, one often asks, What happened to her? For Rosanna Arquette, it may be assumed that her many credits in independent films and television were selected with intention over leading roles in blockbusters, or that she simply fell off the radar. This is often what we say, or said, about such actresses who rose to fame for memorable roles, only to vanish from the larger-than-life billboards towering above tourists trying to navigate traffic on Sunset Boulevard. But now we know better. There are lists and armies and something called “the machine” at work, we have learned, to keep women from reaching their potential in Hollywood.
Arquette is recognized by most mainstream fans for her unforgettable turns in iconic films Desperately Seeking Susan (1985), in which she famously co-starred with Madonna, and Pulp Fiction (1994), Quentin Tarantino's ensemble hit. Indie fans favor her roles in art-house films, notably David Cronenberg's Crash (1996) and Luc Besson's The Big Blue (1988). In her most recent film, Max Heller's quirky Manhattan story Born Guilty, released earlier this month, Arquette plays Judith, a social worker whose life disappointments and attachment to her son have embittered her to possibility, risk-taking and romantic love. And while Arquette says that she could relate to the lead female role, because, she admits, she too is a Jewish mother who frets over her daughter, 23-year-old actor Zoë Bleu Sidel, it is impossible to imagine her being anything but a risk-taker.
Although she says her character ultimately has a paradigm shift of self-love, feeling empowered and letting go of her resentment and anger, Arquette's personality is the antithesis of Judith's. While Judith’s rediscovery is prompted by a man, Arquette knows exactly what she needs to do. And she leads us there with grace and light. “I believe in peace and redemption,” she says.
She is, of course, referring to her concerns about the effects of the #MeToo movement, in which she also has a leading role. And she's been at this for decades. In 2002, with her Flower Child Productions company, she directed and produced a prescient and, in retrospect, groundbreaking documentary, Searching for Debra Winger, which examines ageism and sexism via interviews with more than 35 women, including Winger herself, Laura Dern, Jane Fonda, Daryl Hannah, Salma Hayek, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Frances McDormand, Gywneth Paltrow, Meg Ryan, Ally Sheedy, Alfre Woodard and Arquette's younger sister, Patricia.
“I was seeing as you were getting older, less work was coming to women because of age and studios wanted someone younger. You could see it in movies, you know, a 65-year-old actor and a 25-year-old playing his wife. What is happening here?” Arquette, now 58, says of her impetus for the doc. “I also wanted to explore balancing your life with your art, your career. Something always ends up taking the back seat, either your marriage or the kids or the career. It's a juggling act. Can women have it all?”
These questions stemmed from Arquette's first film experience, a classic cautionary tale about a ballerina tragically torn between art and love. “My mom took me to see a revival of The Red Shoes when I was 4 years old. Why couldn't she dance and be in love with her guy? Why couldn't she have both? You have to give everything to your work or everything into your motherhood or everything into your marriage.”
And in Searching for Debra Winger, a darker theme emerged when its stars shared their collective experiences.
“In one scene, there's all these women gathered at a luncheon at Melanie Griffith's house and Patricia talks about being sexually harassed by someone. … And now, what we're witnessing at this time, this crazy powerful time to be alive amidst all the darkness that we are seeing everywhere, is a glimmer of hope. What we are seeing is a battle between light and dark. It really is,” Arquette declares.
Indeed, 16 years after the documentary, at least 80 women have reported crushing accounts of sexual harassment, abuse and rape at the hands of now-fallen media mogul Harvey Weinstein. Arquette was one of the first to confide in writer Ronan Farrow and also connect him with other women who were willing to speak out in his exposés in The New Yorker, published in the fall of 2017. The revelations catapulted #MeToo to a viral hashtag and critical movement, and won Farrow and The New Yorker Pulitzer Prizes for their work.
“Rosanna was, completely reasonably, terrified when we first spoke,” says Farrow, who gained Arquette's trust as she opened up to him about her own harassment. “Seeing her overcome that fear and step forward to protect other women was incredibly moving. I'm inspired by her. I'll always be grateful for her courage — we all should be.”
It turns out that many women in Hollywood, including Arquette, didn't decide to take a detour; their careers were derailed by Weinstein's threatening and highly effective tactics, allegedly including spying and feeding false and damaging stories to the media and to the men sitting in the director's chairs. Invitations somehow didn't arrive and roles that were promised disappeared or were taken away.
“For a lot of years, you just felt like, 'What is happening? Something's wrong. What did I do?' And now we really know it was the truth. It really was that,” Arquette says. “If you told someone, they'd say, 'You're paranoid, you're not on any blacklist.' But no. What has surfaced is how complicit so many people were. All of these people that just fed the machine.”
In solidarity and sisterhood, female actors are creating new spaces and opportunities for women in entertainment, fighting for equality both in front of and behind the lens. Perhaps the more important work is paving the way for survivors of assault to come forward, to be heard, and to receive care and help with recovery. Now that we have reached a tipping point, a new dialogue is being written and women are seizing freedom of expression. To this, Arquette says, “It’s going to happen whether [men] like it or not.” Then, paraphrasing a potent truism dating back to 1697, penned by English poet and playwright William Congreve, she adds: “Hell hath no fury like a woman.”
And, yes, the stories keep coming, one after another. On May 19, Arquette’s Big Blue director, Besson, was accused of rape by drugging by a 27-year-old French actress who remains unnamed. The same night, actor Asia Argento boldly took to the stage at the closing ceremony of the Cannes Film Festival, giving an impassioned speech, reportedly not cleared by festival organizers; she alleged that Weinstein raped her when she was 21 at Cannes in 1997, and that the film festival had been his “hunting ground.” She also sent a warning to men in the audience she said were still to be held accountable for their crimes against women in the industry: “We know who you are.”
In response to Argento’s speech, on the morning of May 20, Iranian-Australian journalist Rita Panahi tweeted: “That 1.05-minute speech by @AsiaArgento was more powerful than all the Hollywood virtue signalling & black dress protests.” In the thread, Arquette responded, “That’s for sure. Times up to get the conversation back to how it all started in the first place.” Echoing what Arquette told L.A. Weekly about exclusion, Panahi added, in a new thread: “Reminder: Asia Argento along with other Weinstein victims incl Rosanna Arquette, Daryl Hannah & Mira Sorvino were not invited to the last #GoldenGlobes that was supposedly devoted to #metoo #TimesUp”
The men named here are among countless male powerhouses whose behavior toward women, ranging from inappropriate to criminal, remains in question. Directors like Woody Allen, who has his accusers, and Tarantino, who has admitted to choking actresses on set, including Uma Thurman and Diane Kruger, are part of this conversation. Hollywood is rife with abuse and corruption.
And so a different type of family is emerging from the ashes, one that has typically received very little airtime. The celebrity feuds and catfights on and off the set were the stories that used to fly off the newsstands and still fuel viral gossip, but the focus is shifting in a positive direction to the alliances between actresses and female directors, producers and creatives, based on respect.
“Everyone has their own way of doing things and their own way of dealing with trauma. You can't tell anyone how to do it. I've got a lot of close friends who are getting so many tattoos on their bodies right now. I finally got it the other day because someone really close to me who's been assaulted is starting to tattoo a lot. I was like, 'Oh, this is you owning your own body.' She's saying, 'You can't brand me. Only I can brand me.' I felt that. That's what it is and it's empowering,” Arquette says. “Some people are more quiet and step back after they tell their story, and some people are out there pounding the doors to break down the barriers. There's still a lot of women who haven't spoken out yet, but they will. And I look forward to when they do. There are a lot more Weinsteins out there and their time is up.”
Activist, artist and actor Rose McGowan, the most visible and fiercely outspoken accuser of Weinstein, and a key figure in the stories that propelled the #MeToo movement, in The New Yorker and later in The New York Times, is a close friend and ally of Arquette's. Their bond is just one example of women with diverse voices working toward a common goal. McGowan spoke to Farrow about her rape and years of manipulation by Weinstein; she now is undergoing an unnerving court battle to fight drug possession charges, which she believes were trumped up by Weinstein, while continuing to define herself with her Citizen Rose docuseries on E! and a best-selling how-to memoir, Brave.
“A lot of people are afraid of Rose but she's not afraid and that's what's so great,” Arquette says. “So I honor and respect her integrity and her fearlessness.”
The respect is mutual. “Rosanna is a magical and substantial being. Her work as a performer is true, her work as an activist and supporter of women profound,” says McGowan, articulating the essence of Arquette. “She has taken her deep pain and made use of it. I am proud of her every day.”
Being political is intrinsically entwined into the Arquette family DNA. Arquette, who was born in New York City, is the eldest of five children, including actors Patricia, David and Richmond; their parents, Brenda Nowak and Lewis Arquette, were actors, and their paternal grandfather was comedian Cliff Arquette. Their mother also was an agent for change, a women's rights activist and anti-war Vietnam protester who once organized a peace march that Martin Luther King Jr. attended while they were living in Chicago. “I was on the back of a truck with him and my mom had painted 'STOP THE WAR KILL NO MORE' on my bare chest and he said, 'Put a shirt on that little girl,'” Arquette recalls.
Watching her mother fight for human rights at a young age shaped Arquette into a socially driven person, who lives the difference between giving yourself to a cause versus simply showing up for a photo op. “I am so blessed to have had a mother who was so conscious and instilled values and integrity and what is supposed to be right for humanity,” she says. “That's who she was. I remember vividly when MLK died. It was on the news and she was pounding the floor saying, 'Those motherfuckers, those motherfuckers, they killed him, they killed him.' I was 9 when that happened, seeing her in such distress.”
Whether she's fighting against sexual assault, gender discrimination, ageism or sex trafficking or fighting for the transgender community, Arquette is inspired by the same urgency to work for change on a daily basis with an innate hope and optimism that defines the way in which she envisions the #MeToo aftermath. She sees it as an opportunity for growth and a paradigm shift. She's no stranger to getting her hands dirty, marching to the beat of her own drum and leading with her heart. After all, she was a flower child at Woodstock, sliding in the mud while listening to Country Joe & the Fish's anti-war anthems. “When I was younger, I would visualize something and it would just happen.” One of those visions emboldened her to pack her bags at age 15 and hitchhike to Los Angeles to pursue her dreams.
It all comes back to her roots. “I'm glad that I grew up poor. … I'm really grateful for that. I saw struggle with my parents feeding five kids and they were artists, so I really value everything that I earn.” This, with a large dose of gratitude and self-care, keeps her grounded and able to keep showing up for herself and others. She shares a home overlooking the Pacific with her husband of four years, investment banker Todd Morgan, a partnership that balances her. She practices yoga, makes an effort to meditate for 20 minutes in the morning and reads the teachings of the 19th-century Rebbe Nachman, who encouraged speaking with God “as you would with a best friend.” This is how it feels to talk with Arquette, even for the first time. “If I look at the news first, I'm fucked. Learning how to not live in negativity is a daily practice; I try to ward that off with self-reflection, being grateful for just breathing.”
Arquette uses her platform to highlight individuals who have dedicated their lives to helping others. She wants you to know these people, to introduce you to them, like an altruistic matchmaker. People such as her longtime friend and collaborator of 15 years, Dr. Astrid Heger, executive director at the Violence Intervention Program (VIP) at USC Medical Center, a leading organization and clinic that treats more than 20,000 victims of physical and sexual abuse and neglect each year and develops programs to offer more resources and opportunities for them.
Last year, Arquette and her family joined forces to found the Alexis Arquette Family Foundation, named after their beloved transgender actress-activist sister, Alexis, who died in 2016 at age 47 from cardiac arrest stemming from complications of HIV. With Heger and VIP, the Arquettes opened the Alexis Project, a clinic in downtown Los Angeles that extends additional treatment and facilities to rape survivors and supports those affected in the LGBTQIA community. “I really want her work to be out there. She has no ego. She should be on the cover of L.A. Weekly,” Arquette says of Heger.
For her part, Heger points to Arquette's selflessness and her constant dedication.
“I work with a lot of vulnerable populations, so I end up with lots of high-profile people who say they want to help. Rosanna is the one who is always present. She's the one who says to me, 'How can I help you?' Which is what I say to everyone else. I have become a skeptic, so to have someone like Rosanna stay focused and engaged and involved in everything she does blows me away, and she has a big impact,” Heger says. “She knows the big footprints that Alexis left in advocating for the transgender community, and she is genuinely invested. She could be doing so many other things, but I don't think her interest will ever wane.
“She is an amazing friend. She is completely beautiful, utterly talented, so smart and funny — and completely unselfish and kind,” Heger continues. “You look at someone like her and expect a narcissist, but instead she is worried about me, and is a fan of mine. I don't know if I deserve that, but it's been a phenomenal experience knowing her, and I'm excited to work with her to continue to run the Alexis Project, and we have so much momentum to make it happen.”
It also was obvious to friends like Heger early on that Arquette's career had been jeopardized. “Without a doubt, she took a hit from Weinstein. This is a woman who has had two huge songs written about her, and suddenly she's in deep water,” Heger says. “But instead of feeling sorry for herself, she focuses on how fortunate she is and how she can be a voice for women who are less fortunate than her — the waitress who is being abused by her husband, [for example] — speaking up and out for others.”
Although Arquette's commitment to sexual assault advocacy began long before anyone hashtagged Tarana Burke's “Me Too,” she is quick to give credit where credit is due. “Tarana started this movement 12 years ago, and she's done a lot of work with women and girls who were raped and abused. They told their truth, their story and then they were able to achieve, so we always have to honor her.”
Arquette is acutely aware of the tremendous amount of work that needs to be done to balance out the uneven distribution of power between genders. But as with Searching for Debra Winger, she has a clear vision for the future, and it comes as no surprise that it is one of inclusiveness by encouraging men to be a part of the solution.
“I believe that how this is really going to work is to educate. Michael Kimmel has a course at Stony Brook University called 'Men and Masculinity'; he's written amazing books that teach men how to be gentlemen with integrity, how to be a man in this world and still be a more powerful man because you have grace and integrity and class and elegance and manners.”
It seems so simple, but what if everyone led with grace? The '60s are still very much alive within Arquette, but don't get her wrong — she is intensely protective of women, and believes in self-defense. “I think all girls should be able to kick ass. If someone tries to hurt them, they should be able to knock them out and run.” At the same time, she is still willing to give peace a chance. Somehow she makes this all feel possible, a cross between Mother Nature and an activist warrior.
Her thoughts on where men belong in the #MeToo era are simple yet powerful, as we struggle to find common ground and address the misconception that all men should feel shameful or walk on eggshells. She sees this shift occurring when influential men in power or with roles in the spotlight truthfully take ownership for their actions. She mentions the allegations against comic Louis C.K. “My dream would be if a guy like him, or he, could just get that what he did was so not OK and then come out and help other men heal … teach them that you don't have to be that guy. We have to make room for rehabilitation and redemption.” She is clear that she is only talking about those who admit to their mistakes. It is, in her eyes, essential to forgiveness. “You come from us — don't forget it. You once lived inside a woman,” Arquette says, pointedly.
Earlier this month, Arquette, along with Kate Bosworth, Mira Sorvino, Andra Day and Gloria Allred, was honored as part of Coalition to Abolish Slavery and Trafficking (CAST)'s #20for20 campaign commemorating the organization's 20th anniversary and 20 fearless supporters who have used their voices to spearhead and support crucial social outreach programs. “I've raised money and awareness for the work that Indian journalist Ruchira Gupta does in helping girls as young as 7 get out of brothels,” Arquette explains. “She's the one who opened my eyes to the fact that this exists in our own backyard and billions and billions of dollars are being made in sex trafficking. It's become a huge business.”
Onscreen, the award-winning actor will star in four more upcoming films this year: Puppy Love with Michael Madsen and Hopper Penn; Holy Lands, shot in Berlin with Jonathan Rhys Meyers and director Amanda Sthers; Octavio Is Dead, with Sarah Gadon and director Sook-Yin Lee; and The Etruscan Smile with Brian Cox. She also co-stars in a YouTube Red comedy series, Swipe Right, a take on Tinder dating, shot in Los Angeles with co-star and creator Carly Craig (American Housewife), due out in July.
As one of the first women to blow the whistle on Harvey Weinstein in going public with her story, Rosanna Arquette has found herself in a position of being a catalyst for change, this time within Hollywood, a role she was born to play. It is the light amid the darkness that embodies the spirit of Arquette's work and activism, urging us to grasp onto the silver lining. “It's exciting to be here now. I'm glad I got to be a kid in the Vietnam anti-war movement and I'm here this time. I mean, my mother was always for women's rights; my sister, Patricia, did an Oscars speech for equal pay for women three years ago. I'm happy to be one of the voices. One of the many millions of voices.”