Rose McGowan Talks Peter O’Toole, Her Short Film and the Importance of Epic

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Rose McGowan is trying to blow away the old saw about American lives having no second acts. An actress—a starlet, even—since the age of fourteen, she recently looked around and realized she didn’t like the way her career was going. She had been raised a cinephile, but somehow she now found herself in a career defined in many ways by her physical attractiveness, not by her brain. So she pulled the emergency brake and jammed the steering wheel into a hard left turn, and ended up going in the exact opposite direction. She won’t say for sure that she’s given up acting, but the (now) director certainly doesn’t sound like she’s ready to leave her seat behind the camera any time soon. She spoke with us recently about her debut short, “Dawn,” which opens this weekend.

Paste Magazine: So, I really enjoyed the short.
Rose McGowan: Thank you.

Paste: Enjoyed might be the wrong word. I really thought the short was good. My first reaction after seeing the short was that I kind of wanted to put a blanket around your shoulders and give you a hug. It seems like there’s a lot of pain in this. Is that true?
McGowan: I think girls understand trauma. I had somebody ask me last night about something that happened to the girl at the end of the movie. This girl was like, “Why would she go off with this person?” I was like, “Dude, you’ve never experienced trauma.” With girls, when something traumatic happens, they tend to disassociate. You tend to float above yourself, and everything happens really fast and really slow at once.

It’s actually loosely based on my mom. She grew up in that era, and it really helped form her choices with men. It was about various things that had happened to her in her life and about the kind of mother that she had.

Paste: Wow. That had to be a pretty emotional experience then, to sort of be living some of that with her, in a proxy kind of way.
McGowan: A proxy kind of way—I like that. That’s an interesting way to look at it.

Paste: Tell me about finding your actors. Your lead actress, Tara Lynne Barr, is really fantastic.
McGowan: She’s phenomenal.

Paste: She says so much without saying anything.
McGowan: She hit more notes than I knew were there, even. I have to give it to her. Besides finding people who were really good actors, I wanted to use people that would never be on the CW network. (both laugh) Nothing against that. It’s just a very modern look and, unfortunately, that’s Hollywood’s main look.

With the guy [Reiley McClendon], I wanted somebody who looked like they could grow up into a man who could potentially swing a pickaxe on a line. When I met him, I said, “What are you doing here?” He said, “I’ve been acting for a long time, but now I’ve been on a construction crew swinging a pickaxe.” I was like, “Oh my god, I love you. You’re in.” I canceled all of the other auditions. (laughs)

I have a pet peeve when I see period pieces, and the actors are very modern. It kind of drives me crazy. There are very specific faces. Like if you look at Claudette Colbert, she wouldn’t work now. Even me to an extent—I think I would have done a lot better in the past in the studio system. Obviously, I don’t think it would have been some utopia. Things would have still been controlled. But in terms of what people liked, they liked people who were different-looking. They liked uniqueness. Now there is a much more homogenized look.

And then Tara Lynne Barr, the girl who plays Dawn, she just has this little lamb face. She’s an amazing girl.

Paste: Yes, and she’s really fantastic. I apologize that I didn’t have time to do more research on this, but is this your first venture into directing? Tell me about making a short before you make a feature. Can you tell me about that decision process?
McGowan: Well, it’s interesting. I didn’t actually see a short until about three months ago, and I directed this six months ago. So, for me, I didn’t realize that it was somewhat unusual to direct a short that is three acts. What I wanted to do was make a movie. I just happened to make one that was under a seventeen-minute time constraint, which has actually taught me a lot of discipline that I think is going to serve me well for my future. I have a very strong voice, and it’s been by my own doing in a way. I feel like I’ve been fairly muzzled for a few years.

Paste: Is that because of the Hollywood star machine? Is that what you mean?
McGowan: I would say that. Imagine if you get to go to work, and you’re writing things, and you get to have a voice. The only voice I’ve ever had is what somebody else has written for me, and it’s usually a man. I’m always seen through the eyes of a man, and it’s a very narrow view. What you’re allowed to be and do is very narrow, and when we do interviews, we’re talking about that.

I’m not saying I haven’t had some amazing experiences. Acting can be really moving and rewarding. I felt like, when I was making this, that I was in pants that actually fit me for the first time. I felt like I was in the right skin.

Frankly, I’m more nervous when I act than I’ve ever been when directing. I feel very solid. I’ve studied film for so long, and when I’ve been on sets I’ve worked in different departments. I always become the de facto member of the crew, and I always get along with everyone. I was always like a crew girl, so it has wound up serving me. It made it easy for me to start directing.

Paste: No doubt. You’re like the CEO who has done a stint in each of the major departments.
McGowan: Exactly. Exactly.

Paste: That’s fantastic, and it’s great for your longevity as a director, too.
McGowan: And I know I’m going to get tired at some point of the women in film thing, but I can’t wait until that’s not a question anymore. That would be really nice. I don’t know if that will ever not be a question, but this is such a bizarrely sexist industry.

Paste: Absolutely. Are you familiar with Anne Hubbell of Tangerine Entertainment?
McGowan: I’ve been discussing women in filmmaking at this film thing, and the other women were not that nice to me. I was like, “What?! I understand and appreciate that things aren’t fair, but we need to move past complaining about that.” I’m like, “Okay, what’s the plan of action?”

Paste: The phrase goes, stop bitching and start a revolution, right?
McGowan: Exactly! What’s the solution? Let’s figure that out and move towards it. If you’re a girl or if you’re a guy or if you’re anybody, just walk towards yourself. Be creative. Pick up a camera. Write a song. Figure out what you want and walk towards yourself. Then you’ll be rewarded.

Paste: You know, I just had a film conversation with Jessica Biel, who I think has gone through some of the same things as you. She’s starting to produce and starting to tell women’s stories. She was involved in a Sundance film last year, and the people at Sundance were like, “Wow, I didn’t realize she was that good.”
McGowan: That’s because she’s not allowed to be. People only allow you to be a certain thing. You’re really lucky if you’re one of the very few that people allow to have the sort of career where people allow you to be seen in more than one way. I never intended to be an actress, so when it came about, I didn’t understand what the hell was going on, frankly. I would just act. I didn’t understand the business. I didn’t understand anything.

Now I understand that I have the power to say no, and I’m owning it. I worked for so long and so hard that I had this sort of Irish Catholic work ethic, this sort of “put your nose to the grindstone and just keep working” thing. But then I was like, “Wait, do I even want to do this?” The answer is yes. It’s just not in the way that I thought. I’m a substantial person, and I want to do substantial things. It’s time.

Paste: And Hollywood doesn’t want to hear that from the hot chick?
McGowan: Right.

Paste: They’re just like, “Just be the hot chick.”
McGowan: Right. And two years ago, I had an agent who told me not to speak too much in meetings because I sounded too intelligent and was too intimidating to them.

Paste: Please tell me that’s not your agent anymore.
McGowan: No. And it did make me cry. I was so heartbroken. I had another agent who was a female agent, and all that she would do was talk about her superstar male clients and her diet. She talked about diet tips all day, and these were the people speaking on my behalf. It was a problem.

Paste: That is definitely a problem I want to talk about how, when you first started out, you were not trying to be an actor, and it just kind of happened. Tell me about that.
McGowan: Well, I was visiting Los Angeles. I started living there with a boyfriend, and then he died.

Paste: Wow. I’m sorry.
McGowan: That sucked, and I had nowhere to live. I was staying with a friend of his, and that friend turned out to be a major writer. He was the reason why I was discovered. Gregg Araki was his name, and he got me on The Doom Generation. He and his partner became huge writers, and they wrote Dawn for me. He just said, “It’s time.”

Paste: So it came full circle.
McGowan: I was in the film industry when I was fourteen, and I was skipping school. I was an extra in a movie, and I was doing it to get money so that I could go to my favorite gay club and go dancing on the weekends. That’s the only reason why I got involved in the film industry, but with that said, I grew up as a cinephile because of my father. We would watch Lawrence of Arabia and study things like Preston Sturges and Fritz Lang. I own the original RKO Studios letters.

I’m very astute in cinematic history, and I love that stuff. It kind of breaks my heart that people aren’t more interested in it because, if I was a gardener, I would want to know who Frederick Law Olmsted was. I would want to know who designed Central Park. But there is no curiosity. To me, it would be like fishing with a pretend rod. I don’t understand, and I also don’t understand not having a thirst for knowledge.

Paste: Especially in the field that you’re in.
McGowan: Yes, that’s the weirdest thing. I think, in most people’s fields, they generally need to know where they came from and how they got there. But, you’re able to work and maybe even be successful without having to do that in Hollywood, which is odd I think.

Paste: It does seem strange that film is the one industry where that doesn’t seem to be expected. It’s like trying to be a playwright, but you’ve never read Shakespeare.
McGowan: Right! It’s so strange to me. Just being in that industry, you are part of history. Figure it the fuck out. Know your history, because it influences the future.

Paste: I love that you mentioned Lawrence of Arabia.
McGowan: Peter O’Toole is kind of an obsession.

Paste: I’ve never met him, but I’ve always thought that he was the greatest.
McGowan: You have no idea. He is everything. My favorite picture is of me sleeping on his lap and smoking a joint. I was looking off in a very melancholic way. I’m Irish, you know. You know how we get. (both laugh)

Paste: Exactly. He’s a joking prankster, right?
McGowan: Oh yeah. He was an imp, a real rascal. When I was with him, I was the only non-family member that was there at the hand and foot print ceremony a few years ago at the Chinese Theatre. It was three years ago now. You can buy stars on the walk of fame. They can be purchased. But the hands and foot, only like 183 people get to do it. When he did his, they made his hand in the cement look gold. It was because of Lawrence of Arabia. There were all of these photographers there, and he grabs me and just gives me this huge kiss and says, “Darling, let’s run away together and start a scandal.”

Paste: (Laughs) That’s awesome! I’m actually developing a civil rights movement movie set in 1963 Birmingham, Alabama. The phrase that my collaborators are now so sick of me saying is, “The movie that we’re making is Lawrence of Arabia, but it’s on the streets of Birmingham.”
McGowan: Exactly. Go big. Go epic.

Paste: Nobody does that anymore. Who makes a big, epic film anymore?
McGowan: People makes things that aren’t epic, but they think they are. They make these movies three hours long, and I’m like, “No, douche. This movie does not need to be three hours long.”