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Natalie Portman on Pay Disparity, Sexual Harassment and What’s Next for Time’s Up

Natalie Portman made headlines when she called out the Hollywood Foreign Press Association onstage at the 2018 Golden Globes for nominating an all-male lineup in the best director category. The awards bypassed eligible contenders such as Greta Gerwig and Dee Rees.

Flanked by America Ferrera and social justice activists, Portman also used the show’s red carpet as a platform for protest on behalf of the Time’s Up movement: The carpet was transformed into a sea of black gowns in a show of solidarity with sexual-harassment survivors.

Time’s Up was founded on Jan. 1, just days before the Golden Globes. Nine months later, the anti-sexual harassment group’s legal defense fund has raised over $22 million and has helped more than 3,500 women across all industries — not just in the entertainment business.

“I had been feeling, of course, very upset about all of the allegations that were coming to light in our own industry and feeling like I wanted to do something, but not knowing what to do,” Portman says. The Oscar winner, who was invited by her agent to participate in the group, joined a slew of A-listers working to prevent workplace harassment, including founding signatories Jennifer Aniston, Shonda Rhimes, Meryl Streep, and Reese Witherspoon. Portman describes the first meeting as a collective feeling of women in the industry wanting to turn their anger into positive action. “Many of the people in the room had suffered these kinds of experiences.”

Time’s Up, which protects women from sexual harassment and assault, has been at the forefront of many #MeToo events this past year, including staging a national walkout to support Brett Kavanaugh accuser Christine Blasey Ford and calling on CBS to fire Leslie Moonves without an exit package after more than a dozen women brought allegations of abuse against the media mogul.

Here, Portman talks to Variety about why she’s involved with Time’s Up, moving forward, and more…

What specifically has Time’s Up and the Me Too movement done to help shed a light on sexual harassment over the past year?

Time’s Up was able to take this mass unveiling that Tarana Burke inspired and that these women and men who started coming forward inspired and saying we need to have a larger conversation about the workplace, and about making the workplace fair, safe, equitable for all people. And not just for women, but for people of color, for people with disabilities, for people from the LGBTQ+ community, so that anyone who might be marginalized or harassed for being other feels safe, has an ability to earn a living in an environment that they deserve…All people who have been harassed and abused in the workplace have lost careers, have lost opportunities, and have lost money for years and years and years. Shifting the conversation to that and talking about that is what we’re hoping to do.

Have you ever been sexually harassed?

Yes, absolutely. I cannot claim to have any experience on the level of the assault that some women have. I have not experienced sexual assault, but I’ve been…yes, I’ve been harassed on a regular basis — I mean, to the point where it’s like you can brush it off because you’re used to it. I think so many of these stories coming forward made me even realize that I had been harassed. Because at first I said, “No, this hasn’t happened to me,” and then hearing some of these stories, I was like, “Oh. That’s happened to me.” I didn’t even recognize it as abuse or harassment because it was regular.

Do you care to come forward about any specific experiences?

No. Every story that has happened to me has, on the most part, been relatively minor compared to the things that come forward. And the salaciousness of the stories has its own dark side that I think we also need to talk about where journalists have been harassing many of these men and women who have been rumored to be victims of this kind of abuse, and that’s also like a second kind of victimization, that people should come forward when they are ready to come forward, when they want to come forward because, of course, now everything is for profit, unfortunately, and so these stories sell very well and we have to be wary of that too. I’m very happy to be part of a movement that’s also shedding light on how widespread this is in every industry and offering this legal defense fund, which is helping women in lower income professions have the legal aid, so restaurant workers, prison workers, military, military officials can get the kind of legal recourse that they need.

Right. It’s not just Hollywood focused. Time’s Up is working in so many different industries because sexual harassment is pervasive everywhere.

Absolutely. And it was the most moving thing — what brought us together was getting this collective letter from farm workers that America Ferrera was the first one to say, “We’ve had this incredibly moving letter from a group of farm worker women. We need to respond.” And they inspired us to come together, and they showed us the power of their voices collectively. We really are learning from them and are inspired from them.

What do you think about this new wave of feminism that’s swept Hollywood — do you think it won’t just be a moment, but that we really are at a tipping point?

I think that it’s made it okay for us to talk about it. I think there was a feeling before that like, “You’re so lucky, you can’t complain. You’re so lucky. You get to do what you love for a job. You get paid well. You’re in the lime light. You’re not allowed to complain.” And then we started feeling that when we talked together, there was this outrageous coincidence of experience that so many of us had been regularly paid less than male co-stars, that had been treated poorly, that hadn’t had the opportunity to even spend time together…It’s been sort of this domino effect that every woman that has had the courage to speak up has inspired the next woman. And then all of a sudden, it’s a regular thing that it’s okay now to say that you weren’t paid fairly, even if you were paid a lot. That it’s okay…and it’s okay to call out someone that you’ve worked with, whereas it was sort of, you were supposed to be polite about it, and we weren’t supposed to talk poorly of anyone you worked with. And now it’s like, “You know what? If they behave badly, we should say something because it’s going to hurt the next person.”

The system in our industry will never change if these bold women do not come out like Emmy Rossum, who has come out and said she’s not getting paid what her male counterpart is getting paid.

Absolutely. And there’s different issues for different people depending on your circumstances, in terms of whether you’re like a day player or you’re a big movie star or you’re a woman of color or you’re a queer woman or you’re transgender. There are many different issues that we’re all learning about now because we’re gathering, and we’re talking to each other, and so even if I felt that I was being harassed or discriminated in a certain way, I had no idea what my sister was encountering on a daily basis. And so it’s really been an incredible phenomenon and feeling just to gather and really get to share experiences because so many of them are similar and so many experiences are very different.

Have you experienced pay disparity, knowing that your co-star is getting paid more than you are?

Absolutely.

Did it happen on “Star Wars?”

I don’t know. Well that’s the thing, is a lot of times you don’t know, which is the Lilly Ledbetter story. It’s not public news what people are getting paid, and so, it really depends on either agents being able to give you an insight, or your co-stars being allies and sharing that information because I think that’s across the board in every industry — the problem is that you don’t know what anyone else is making usually, and by the time you find out, it may be too late to have any sort of recourse.

Now, because of this open conversation, agents and managers are trying to find out salaries to make sure their female clients are getting paid equal to their male co-stars. 

And I think that producers, and studios, and networks, and agents, and managers, they all need to. They’re the ones who hold the information, and so, they’re the ones who can make sure that it’s fair. And there’s a lot of myths around it, too. I mean, pay is so oddly kind of determined in actor salaries — precedents and all that kind of stuff that doesn’t totally make sense.

Let’s talk about another kind of disparity — you touched on this when you took the stage at this year’s Golden Globes. How can there so few opportunities for female directors and female crew members?

I think that one of the things that was eye-opening about Times Up and hearing stories of harassment and abuse in the workplace was that it made me realize that one of the reasons there aren’t women in the workplace is because they’re experiencing this kind of abuse and either have been pushed out forcibly or have opted out because they were so disgusted by the situation, as anyone would be. If you experienced that in a workplace, it would be natural to say, “I’m going to go find something else. I’m going to go live on an island and do something different.” And both scenarios, I think there was this myth that I believed about women opting out of the workplace to have families and things like that. And it didn’t totally make sense because when you look at professions like, my father’s a gynecologist, and gynecologists are almost all females now. That’s one of the most time intensive jobs. You can get called any hour of the night, and it’s all women. So it doesn’t totally make sense that just because women want to have families or something, they can’t have these really hard, long-hour movie jobs. And if you look at hair and makeup or costume on a film, it’s almost entirely women, so those women are okay having families and traveling, but women in the camera department are not? It doesn’t make sense.

Have you witnessed progress when it comes to creating more opportunities for women behind the camera?

I think hopefully the pressure will be on now to hire. You’re seeing it a lot in TV already…not as much in film, but I think a little bit in film, to hire women as directors, as cinematographers, as editors, as composers — these jobs that are typically held by men. As you know, 50% of the movie tickets are sold to women, and yet, Hollywood always seems to be amazed when suddenly “Wonder Woman” comes along…I guess years ago they could say, “Well, you know, the movies that women direct haven’t made as much money as the blockbusters that men write.” They can’t say that now.

You just made your directorial debut with “A Tale of Love and Darkness.” Now you’ve joined the ranks of female directors, is directing something you want to do more of?

Yeah, I love directing. It really was an incredible experience, and made me realize a lot of things about myself…I had all of this opinion and decision-making and ability that I wasn’t aware of until I was forced to make decisions on a regular basis. It was really an incredible experience.

If you could deliver any message to the next generation of young women, what would it be?

I would say that the next generation of women should definitely spend time together. It’s only something we recently started doing as women in this industry, and it has completely changed everything. And it’s such a different feeling to walk into a room, and have a bunch of friends in that room, and to be able to prop each other up. That’s been absolutely incredible and kind of new for us.

What women have inspired you, whether it’s people in Hollywood or just in your own personal life?

Well, of course, my mom..And then I’ve gotten so many incredible experiences of spending time with women through Times Up. It’s been really exciting to get to be around women like Shonda Rhimes and Reese Witherspoon and Jane Fonda, America Ferrera, I mean literally every single person. They’ve been leaders and inspiring leadership and inspiring real comradery. It’s been an incredible process to get to spend time with them.

How much more work do you think Time’s Up needs to do? The job is not done, correct?

Unfortunately, I think this is a long road, but it’s an incredible change that’s already happened…This conversation has become front and center of every conversation, which is incredible. And it’s also very, very upsetting that so many people have been hurt by this kind of behavior, and I think we need to start talking about what we’re going to do for those people…Let’s talk about what about generations of women and sometimes men who have been completely pushed out of careers, who have lost decades of work and decades of income and decades of creative expression because of this. What’s the restitution for them? What can we do to bring them back, to see their art, to experience what they have to offer? These [predators] have already got enough attention, like, just stop, go away. Let’s focus on the dozens of female directors that haven’t gotten to have their voices, female writers who haven’t gotten to express themselves or have their work be expressed, and actresses and all of these people who have not had the opportunities that they deserve.

A lot of people in Hollywood are publicly expressing their support for Prof. Christine Blasey Ford. How do you feel about this? (*Note: this interview was conducted before Judge Brett Kavanuagh was confirmed to the Supreme Court.)

We are talking about every industry, and we’re talking about people in positions of power who can abuse that power. And if someone is going to be in the most powerful court in the land making decisions over women’s futures, women’s rights, women’s bodies, which the court has historically seen it as their right to do, to legislate over women’s bodies, then there should definitely be consideration — a legal claim and a harassment claim and an assault claim against this man. I think that — I hope that things have changed since Anita Hill’s testimony, that there will be more listening and more respect for women’s experience.

And how about our President and the allegations against him that have just been kind of swept to the side?

It’s not my president.

This interview was conducted by Variety co-editor in-chief, Claudia Eller.

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that Time’s Up has helped more than 34,000 women across all industries. The correct amount is 3,500.

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