“He almost hit that woman!” my 11-year-old daughter Daisy exclaimed, pointing at the screen.
A friend had sent me a video after reading my essay about the toxic behind-the-scenes experiences that I endured while working on “Sex and the City.” Now I was watching the clip in knowing horror as director David O. Russell yelled and cursed at Lily Tomlin in front of the crew on the set of ”I Heart Huckabees.” A woman who looked like a gaffer cowered on the floor in a squat position. Russell threw items off a desk and she shielded her face with her hands to avoid being hit. No one in the video asked if she was OK, or attempted to stop his tirade.
“I gave up my career because of that,” I told Daisy, even though I didn’t want her to know that sometimes we have to walk away from what we love because of fear.
I thought back to Season 4, Episode 2 of “Sex and the City,” when Charlotte, played by Kristin Davis, visits her gynecologist. As Davis’ stand-in ― a person who resembles the star and is hired to be on set while the crew adjusts the lights and the scene ― I had to spread my legs in a set of stirrups and hold the position until everything was ready for filming. My job required that I remain silent and compliant while working. I did as I was told, like I had for years while working on the show.
When the director and stars left for a meeting, a member of the crew duct-taped my feet to the stirrups. Others in the crew laughed, made crude comments about my body and took Polaroids. I wanted to rip the tape off and run screaming out of Silvercup Studios. Instead, I lay there knowing I had a job for another day and health insurance through the Screen Actors Guild.
When I returned to my 12′x12′ studio apartment on New York City’s Upper West Side, I buried myself in my blankets on my blow-up mattress. I felt humiliated and powerless. All I had wanted, as a semi-broke 20-something, was a steady job and to be treated fairly.
I wondered if I had brought on the behavior by smiling at the crew during the 12-hour day, which was considered a short workday in the world of television. Or did they really not like me? Or were they trying to harass me into quitting, because they wanted new blood to taunt?
As a balm after the incident, I brought my violin to set. On breaks, I practiced on whatever empty soundstage I could find. One day, a Black woman with cornrows, who was working on the show as a background extra, wandered in where I was playing. She had tears in her eyes. I asked her what was wrong.
“A crew guy asked if I was in a gang,” she told me. “Then he told me to go get him some fried chicken.”
These are just a few examples of the toxic behavior I saw, felt and experienced on set. It was just too much, and I could no longer put up with any of it. So I quit. I got a job as a cater waiter and was told to get a tux. I went to a thrift store and bought one ― a boys’ Armani ― for $50. The irony was not lost on me that my new uniform literally meant I would be dressing up as a man for a paycheck. On nights off, I took online writing classes and returned to college. I finally graduated when I was 33.
When I gave birth to Daisy a few years later, I found myself reflecting on my life. I thought about the good times I’d had on the “Sex and the City” set, like the time I sang at Amateur Night at the Apollo and Sarah Jessica Parker sent me roses with a sweet note. Or when someone on the production staff defended me after a crew guy said my nose was too big for the screen and that was why I never got a speaking part on the show. Or one late night when Kristin Davis invited me to ride home in her town car and gave me her silk butterfly dress, which I still show off to friends. Or the time some of the crew members invited me to rehearse with their blues band after a catered lunch. One of the guys even printed T-shirts for the band that read “The Sex and the City Band” on the front and “The Bitters” on the back. I still treasure the shirt today.
Over the years, especially as the Me Too movement gained traction, I thought of speaking out about what I’d experienced, but I told myself that none of it compared to what other women in the industry have been through. So I remained silent and faded into the shadows, leaving my stand-in days ― and the harassment I experienced during them ― in the past.
My violin beckoned to me as I settled down into married life and motherhood. I taught violin to preschoolers and brought both my daughters, then aged 2 and 7, to work. They became my co-teachers, handing out wooden sticks for drumming to friends and singing “Music Together.”
The art-filled space was in an old, overheated, walk-up loft in Brooklyn. When I was there, I sometimes felt like I was in a more lighthearted version of “Lord of the Flies”: There were children everywhere, some of them covered in paint and wrestling each other or making other mischief, but when they saw me or heard me singing, they rushed over, piling on with hugs and requests to play “Hot Cross Buns.” I didn’t worry about being harassed or not being cool enough to get a joke. I didn’t worry about the cruel treatment I might have to endure if I wanted to keep bringing home a paycheck.
I was finally at peace.
Seeing the reaction to my previous essay in my community and on social media, and writing this essay now, have helped me feel even more secure in my decision to come forward. Days after that earlier essay was published, Girls Write Now, a nonprofit where I mentored teens for 10 years, forwarded a letter from a woman who was trying to track me down. She wrote about how her career in showbiz mirrored mine, and how because of my story, she feels she can now share her truth with others. Beyond being incredibly humbling, it reminds me that when we tell our stories, it can change lives ― and it can change our culture.
It also reminds me that I’m not alone. Too many professionals in the film industry have dealt with harassment and abuse, and more and more of them are now speaking out about the things they have allegedly experienced on set. Hopefully more reckonings will take place, and more change can happen.
But where do we begin?
I believe the first thing we need to do is educate everyone about what toxic behavior is, why it’s wrong and how it hinders everyone from doing their best work, whether it’s on set, over Zoom or in an office.
Those in leadership positions should be required to take trainings on how to recognize and eliminate harassment and abuse, and how to treat others with respect no matter what their position is.
I was excited to read that producer Gary Foster is embarking on a mission to help change the culture on film and television sets. He and Eileen Coskey Fracchia are launching two initiatives, Humanity on Set and the LEAD Program. According to the HoS LinkedIn page, the HoS Culture and Lead programs provide “tools and resources aimed to build better leaders, deepen engagement of casts & crews, and [prove] that diverse, inclusive, and appreciative work environments result in highly productive and profitable set productions.” Foster argues that if animals have the Humane Society to uphold standards for animals on set, why shouldn’t we have a humanity code that teaches true leadership and respect for everyone, at all levels?
It’s been a long time since I stood in for the stars. Who knows where my career and my life might have gone if I hadn’t experienced what I did? But I can’t change what happened ― or how I reacted to it. Now, all these years later, I’m older and wiser and I understand that I have a choice to tell my story or not. I understand that it’s not too late to share my truth, and I hope more good comes from it.
I don’t care if I’m blackballed for speaking out against the business I once loved. I realize I have an opportunity to possibly bring about some change ― or at least start a conversation about it ― and provide a good example for my daughters. By sharing my story and discussing with them how important it is to have respect for yourself and for others, to draw boundaries and refuse to be treated in ways that you know aren’t healthy, kind or fair, I hope that if they ever find themselves in a situation similar to the one I was in, they’ll be brave and know what to do.
I’m finally standing up for myself ― and for others ― and I know my daughters couldn’t be prouder.
Heather Kristin has written for Glamour, The Independent, Salon and Slate, and has been interviewed on Latino NPR and by Oprah. She’s worked many jobs, including Park Avenue nanny, film extra, subway busker and cocktail waitress, but she’s most proud of being a Girls Write Now mentor, mommy and violinist. She’s currently writing a memoir, “The Stand-In.”