“Have you ever been an assistant?” Julia Garner asks me, shortly before confessing that she herself has never had the opportunity to fetch coffee and make photocopies for a paltry salary. After I nod my head yes and remind her that I work in fashion, she retorts, “Oh, so you’ve probably had crazy bosses.” While that may ring somewhat true, none hold a candle to her superior in The Assistant, a #MeToo drama about a day in the life of a subordinate to a powerful entertainment executive, not-so-loosely inspired by Harvey Weinstein, now in theaters.
In the quietly impactful film, directed by Kitty Green (Casting JonBenet), Garner stars as Jane, a twenty-something aspiring film producer who steadfastly performs the aforementioned mundane tasks, despite rampant sexism and harassment in her place of employ, mostly from her direct boss. When he isn’t putting up attractive young women in nearby hotels or luring them into his orbit under the pretense of casting them in movies, he berates Jane via email and phone (and presumably in person, though we never actually see his face).
To prepare for the role, Garner shadowed her manager’s assistant and videotaped her every move, including how she picked up the phone. “Every assistant has a certain tone in their voice when they answer a phone call,” she says. “There’s an urgency — like they have five other calls and need an answer right now — but there’s a calmness too.”
When Jane timidly shares her observations with the (male) HR rep, she’s swiftly gaslighted and shut down, after being reminded how lucky she — a recent Northwestern graduate with minimal work experience — is to have this job at all (a common tactic used by employers to justify workplace abuse). Cue the evergreen line from 2006's The Devil Wears Prada: “A million girls would kill for that job.”
In an exclusive interview with InStyle, Garner talked about the new project, abuses of power, and playing prolific scammer Anna Delvey in Shonda Rhimes’ upcoming Netflix series.
Did making this movie change the way you feel about assistants?
I always knew their job was really hard. Sometimes I’ll get an email at 12:30 a.m. and I’m like, “Go to sleep!” It’s a cycle of abuse — even when male assistants gain a little bit of power, they think they can abuse the person in a lesser role, but in the next five minutes, they’re getting screamed at too. Just because people are good at their job, they don’t have the excuse to behave poorly. Even if it’s not sexual harassment, you hear about people throwing hot coffee or muffins at someone. I would make the world’s worst assistant. I’m so spacey.
The narrative centers on sexual harassment and abuse in the workplace. Is there anything in your life that has taken on that sort of significance?
Fortunately, I’ve never been abused physically, verbally, or sexually, but I’ve heard countless stories from other co-workers. As a woman, even if you haven’t had that experience, you still always have to be in check. If you see a man acting creepy and find out he has kids, ask about the kids right away. Ask what his wife does. That instantly puts up a wall. You’ve gotta be on your toes. Remind him that he has a family and can’t have his cake and eat it too.
How did the fact that there is a real-life Harvey Weinstein inform your performance?
This isn’t a strictly Weinstein movie. [Director] Kitty Green interviewed a lot of people about different cases of abuse — people who were in the industry, people who were not in the industry — and all the stories were the same. She picked the film industry for this movie because she’s in the film industry, so that spoke to her the most. That’s why I think it was important to not show the boss’s face: Bad men have had enough screen time. It’s more powerful when you don’t show anything. Then you have to imagine what’s going on, and that’s terrifying.
Have you ever met Weinstein?
I met him at a party once in Cannes. He was surrounded by a bunch of pretty girls. If the problem was just Weinstein, the problem would be fixed, but it’s so beyond him. It’s also the people who were surrounding him and were looking up to him. It’s everyone involved.
Your character dresses more modestly than other women in the film, specifically those who have one-on-one meetings with your boss.
I think it’s always best to dress professionally, but nobody wants to put a potato sack on. Most people want to look attractive when they get dressed, but you should be modest, unless you want that kind of attention. The wardrobe begs the question: Did those girls know what they were getting into or not?
I love your engagement ring. Congratulations, by the way. I read that you got married over the holidays.
Thank you! Yes, I got married and I’m in the middle of shooting something. What’s wrong with me? I’m a psycho. But my husband [Foster the People frontman Mark Foster) is a musician, and we could’ve easily had a three-year engagement, but we didn’t want that. I was like, “Let’s just go to City Hall and get it done with.” It was super nice; my parents got married there, too.
What’s next? You’re set to play Anna Delvey in Shonda Rhimes’s new Netflix show.
We’re actually in the middle of doing it right now. It’s definitely the hardest part I’ve ever done. Jane was a really hard part, obviously Ruth [in Ozark] is a very hard and very tiring, but this is on a whole other level. It’s nerve-wracking every day. I got my hair cut a few days ago because I’m wearing wigs all the time.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.