Hollywood Doesn't Need 'Difficult' Men To Make Great TV"Crazy Ex-Girlfriend's" Vella Lovell pushes back on what old-school male actors see as the "norm."
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This week a New York Times interview with the “Arrested Development” cast went viral after matriarch Jessica Walter opened up about how her co-star Jeffrey Tambor (who was also present during the interview) used to verbally abuse her on set. In a stunning, but wholly unsurprising, turn of events, her other male co-stars jumped in … on behalf of Tambor. Jason Bateman suggested that Tambor’s behavior occurred in part because the cast was like a “family,” suggesting that the entertainment industry was simply a “breeding ground for atypical behavior and certain people have certain processes.”
The backlash was swift, and Bateman and co-star Tony Hale have since publicly apologized for not supporting Walter during the interview. And the conversation raised a few questions: Are all sets truly “breeding grounds for atypical behavior,” including verbal assaults? Is that simply the cost of creating art?
To find out, we asked Vella Lovell, a 32-year-old actress who has spent her fair share of time on TV sets ― specifically the set of “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend,” a CW show on which she has played Heather over the last few years. Lovell isn’t part of Hollywood’s old boys club, though she is certainly part of Hollywood. Much of her career has been spent on sets run by and/or dominated by women ― “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend,” “Younger,” “Girls.” She’s been working for years, but is also young enough to imagine that her work culture could be different than what Bateman described.
“It maybe has been the norm,” she told HuffPost over the phone while doing her grocery shopping, reacting to Bateman’s characterization of the industry she’s a part of, “but as tides are turning, it’s kind of like, if there’s an alternative, what are we doing?”
When you first read that New York Times interview, what was your reaction?
It seemed like the women [Jessica Walter and Alia Shawkat] didn’t get to talk a lot. It seemed like the guys kind of took over the interview and I think that’s part of the problem. It didn’t seem like [Walter] felt heard ― just from that article. So that says to me that it’s not an equal playing field … I think that can happen a lot with women and men in creative fields ― women can end up feeling a little silenced.
From your perspective, does the set dynamic that Jason Bateman described as typical of the entertainment industry ring true to you? Is that something you’ve experienced ― verbal altercations that might cross a line into feeling abusive?
The set I’ve spent the most time on is “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend,” and it’s run all by women. Honestly, I’ve never experienced that, so I would have to say no. But I also think that all the women on set set a precedent. And I think it’s up to the people at the top to set that vibe and example of what is acceptable and what’s not.
I will say, just being in the theater and on sets, the more power someone has, the more things are dictated by them. Whoever the number-one person is on the set kind of sets the tone. It’s their behavior and their moral center that dictates how the set is gonna be. So for us, because it’s Rachel [Bloom] and because she’s a creator, the respect is kind of implied.
But I think that [verbal abuse] can happen, especially with the older men generation. They’re used to a certain amount of power and respect. And so because they’re the person in power, I do think the younger actors ― even if it’s just younger in your career ― you end up looking up to them as the norm. Does that make sense? I think that’s maybe what [Jason Bateman] is saying [in The New York Times piece], that it’s become the norm.
Let me read you exactly what Bateman said to Sopan Deb. He said: “Again, not to belittle it or excuse it or anything, but in the entertainment industry it is incredibly common to have people who are, in quotes, ‘difficult.’… And what you learn is context. And you learn about character and you learn about work habits, work ethics, and you start to understand. Because it’s a very amorphous process, this sort of [expletive] that we do, you know, making up fake life. It’s a weird thing, and it is a breeding ground for atypical behavior and certain people have certain processes.”
OK, Emma, if you could see me right now, I’m just shaking my head. I just feel like what’s been the “norm,” isn’t actually acceptable. And I have met, in my short time on sets, too many people who are kind and respectful and inclusive for that to be acceptable. And that’s the thing ― it maybe has been the norm, but as tides are turning, it’s kind of like, if there’s an alternative, what are we doing?
There are too many incredibly talented creative people that are also kind. I’ve met so many of those people. And you meet them, and then you’re like, so why then do I need to be verbally abused to get a great performance? Do those things actually go hand in hand? And I don’t think they need to.
I think it’s probably true that someone with [Jeffrey Tambor’s] stature comes on set and dictates how people will be treated. As a younger actor, you’re just like, sure … and then that behavior becomes the norm. But it’s just not OK.
I loved that Alia Shawkat pointed that out in the middle of the interview. “But that doesn’t mean it’s acceptable,” she said in response to Bateman. “And the point is that things are changing, and people need to respect each other differently.”
Right? But you hear that [argument] with all of the things that are happening [with Me Too]. With Dustin Hoffman, they’re like, no but this is normal. And it’s like… but why? Why does it have to be? And I think it’s been an accepted exchange ― that for an amazing performance, you put up with bad behavior. But I don’t think that means it’s right or that it’s how every set is at all.
Right. From what you’ve said it sounds like that hasn’t been your experience, and you’ve been working on a network TV show that’s been on for three years.
Yeah. And guest-starring on other sets. On the “Younger” set, because Sutton Foster’s number one, everyone is happy to be there and grateful. People set the tone. And so it depends who the power players are on set.
If you were to experience some sort of verbal abuse on a set, who would you go to to talk about that?
Well it depends what your role is. If you’re a guest star and you came on set and someone yelled at you, you have less authority than if someone came on to your show. But definitely the producers, the showrunner, the ADs [assistant directors] ― there are so many people there to protect you and make sure that things are OK.
If you weren’t getting the answers from your set, I guess you could go to your union rep. But I think usually your producers would want to help you. But then again, it depends on what the situation is. And I honestly feel that since a year ago, or whenever the [Me Too] stuff started coming out, people are more responsive.
So you feel like there’s been a shift that you’ve witnessed in the last seven months of this national dialogue around sexual harassment and assault?
Yeah. Because people know that it’s not just going into a vacuum. There is room for dialogue now because of the platform that’s happening.
The calculation that you spoke of ― this idea that you put up with horrible behavior because someone’s talented. Do you think that same latitude is offered to women and people of color?
I don’t know. I don’t think it’s just exclusive to white men. I think it’s dependent on the person. And sometimes because people are talented and genius, their behavior gets excused and they get into positions of power and no one is calling them out. It’s a lot about power, so it can happen across the board. Obviously it’s mostly white men, because that’s usually who’s in power.
Also, the entertainment industry is so relationship-based. There is a casualness built in, which seems to allow people more easily to brush potentially violating behaviors off as just joking around.
Yeah, I think that’s where that fine line is that gets really tricky. If you’re with a group of people for a long time who are creative artists, hopefully there is an understood sense of respect for each other and honor. And so some of those boundaries go down because you all trust each other, and you think a joke is a joke, and ultimately everyone is on the same page. And that’s best-case scenario: You all trust each other, you’re all there for each other, and then amazing creative things can happen. And people’s impulses are free and accepted.
But then there’s that fine line, where someone, it can be just one person, doesn’t hold that respect and crosses a boundary. And then the lines get really blurry and confusing. And it’s so complicated because everyone wants that creative freedom. But respect has to be the baseline. One person thinks that they can do or say something that isn’t said with love or respect, and then all of a sudden you’re like, “I don’t feel safe anymore.”
It’s such a fine line and I think it has to do with checking your privilege and actually respecting each other. I think that’s what’s underneath everything.
This interview has been edited and condensed.