The Cost of Telling a #MeToo Story in Australia

Yael Stone in New York on Thursday.CreditCeleste Sloman for The New York Times
Yael Stone in New York on Thursday. Credit Celeste Sloman for The New York Times

Yael Stone is scared.

We are in New York City, at a ramen place near her apartment in Astoria, Queens, and Ms. Stone, who stars in “Orange Is the New Black,” has barely touched her soup. She tells me she hasn’t been sleeping for the better part of a year.

It’s not just her 6-month-old baby who’s keeping her up, but her decision to come forward for the first time and speak to me about her experiences with Geoffrey Rush, one of the most powerful actors in her native Australia.

Most women who go public with #MeToo stories are fearful for obvious reasons. There is the pain of reliving traumatic experiences. There is the rage of not being believed. And there is sometimes the discomfort of admitting, as Ms. Stone readily does, that she didn’t say “no” and at times even encouraged some of his behavior. She did so, she says, out of fear of offending a mentor and friend.

But Ms. Stone isn’t just afraid of the emotional consequences of talking about her allegations against Mr. Rush, her onetime hero, including that he danced naked in front of her in their dressing room, used a mirror to watch her while she showered and sent her occasionally erotic text messages while she was 25 years old and starring opposite Mr. Rush, then 59, on stage in “The Diary of a Madman” in 2010 and 2011.

She is worried that Australia’s defamation laws will drag her into a legal and financial quagmire.

In the United States, the legal burden is on the person who claims to have been defamed: He or she must prove that the allegations are false. In Australia, in the area of libel law, it’s the opposite. The burden is on the publisher to prove that the allegations against the plaintiff are true. In addition, public figures who sue for libel in the United States must prove that the publisher acted with reckless disregard of the truth, even if the statements prove false.

Mr. Rush said in a statement that Ms. Stone’s allegations “are incorrect and in some instances have been taken completely out of context.” But, he added, “clearly Yael has been upset on occasion by the spirited enthusiasm I generally bring to my work. I sincerely and deeply regret if I have caused her any distress. This, most certainly, has never been my intention.”

“I know I have truth on my side,” Ms. Stone told me during a phone call last week. And yet, “you can see in all of my communications with you that there’s an element of terror.”

The same power dynamics present in #MeToo stories, she said, “are reflected in a legal system that favors the person with a good deal more money and a good deal more influence and power.”

Australia’s defamation laws help explain why the #MeToo movement, while managing to take down some of the most powerful men in the entertainment and media industry in the United States, has not taken off there.

“Australia is the only Western democracy without an explicit constitutional protection for freedom of speech,” Matt Collins, a defamation lawyer and the president of the Victorian Bar, told me. “People say that Sydney is the libel capital of the world,” he added.

The upshot: Not only is it easier for a plaintiff to win a defamation suit in Australia, but people are far less likely to blow the whistle on misconduct, knowing what the legal (and therefore financial) consequences might be. Indeed, if a law firm had not volunteered to represent Ms. Stone pro bono, she said, there is no way she would have been able to come forward.

But that financial support goes only so far. Crucially, if the actress is sued and loses, she will be personally responsible for the damages. That Ms. Stone is willing to take such a risk indicates how strongly she feels about the matter.

“I think the fact that she’s speaking about this now is incredibly courageous,” said Brenna Hobson, who was the general manager of the company that produced “Diary of a Madman” and has known Mr. Rush for more than two decades.

“The use of defamation cases against women with sexual harassment complaints is having a huge chilling effect,” said Kate Jenkins, the Australian government’s sex discrimination commissioner. “Women I speak to all over the country are absolutely adamant that they cannot complain because it risks absolutely everything for them.”

An Australian filmmaker named Sophie Mathisen put it more bluntly: “The question in our current context is not, Do you want to come forward and speak on behalf of other women? The question is, Do you want to come forward and set yourself on fire publicly?”

Woman on Fire

For the past year in Australia, the particular woman on fire has been an actress named Eryn Jean Norvill — someone who never wanted to come forward at all.

In late 2017, two front-page articles in The Daily Telegraph reported on Geoffrey Rush’s “inappropriate behavior” during a 2015-16 production of “King Lear” by the Sydney Theater Company. The paper, which memorably dubbed Mr. Rush “King Leer,” didn’t name the young actress who claimed he had harassed her.

Mr. Rush adamantly denied the allegation and accused the paper of making “false, pejorative and demeaning claims.” He sued the publisher, Rupert Murdoch’s Nationwide News, and the articles were removed from the paper’s website.

When Nationwide News submitted its defense, it identified the actress as Ms. Norvill, who played Cordelia opposite Mr. Rush, and her name became a matter of public record. And so for the past several months, Ms. Norvill has been in the headlines as a leading witness in the case, despite the fact that she had complained to the theater company about Mr. Rush’s behavior informally and confidentially.

“What mattered to The Daily Telegraph here was their front page. She didn’t matter,” David Marr, a journalist for The Guardian, told me.

Still, we have learned much from Ms. Norvill’s testimony. She said that she felt variously “trapped,” “frightened,” “shocked” and “confused” during the play’s run. She claimed Mr. Rush “deliberately” touched her breast onstage, sent her suggestive text messages, called her “yummy” and more. “I was at the bottom of the rung in terms of hierarchy and Geoffrey was definitely at the top,” she told the court. “I wanted to be a part of his world and we were also playing father and daughter. I felt as though if I was to speak or reprimand his behavior, I would jeopardize the relationship, that tenderness, the closeness that is needed in those two roles.”

“I had the least power,” she said. “What was I supposed to do?”

‘Strange Intimacies in the Dressing Room’

For most Americans, Geoffrey Rush is the guy who teaches Colin Firth not to stutter in “The King’s Speech.” In Australia, he is a theater-industry kingpin, capable of making a career. He was long the president of the Australian equivalent of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and he was named Australian of the Year in 2012.

Yael Stone worshiped him. She said, “He has managed to draw a long bow between his training at Lecoq as a clown all the way through to understanding the internal workings of someone like David Helfgott, for which he won the Academy Award for ‘Shine.’” Even now, she calls him a “national treasure.”

In 2010, Ms. Stone was offered the role of a lifetime: to play opposite Mr. Rush in “The Diary of a Madman,” to run first in Sydney and then at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in New York.

“It was the biggest break I had ever had,” she said. “This wasn’t a steppingstone. It was a leap across the river.”

But things were “weird” from the start of their intensive two-week rehearsal process. Ms. Stone confided in a number of family members and friends who were close to her at the time, and several of them told me in interviews that they remembered many details of her account. Three people who worked on the play also confirmed many aspects of her story.

First there were the texts. They were both affectionate and flirtatious, flowery and yet occasionally vulgar, and would come until the wee hours of the night. Ms. Stone showed a number to me but asked me not to quote from them. Part of her discomfort is probably because, as she put it, she “enthusiastically and willingly” bantered back.

“I was so flattered that someone like that would spend their time texting me into the very early hours of the morning,” she said. “Gradually the text messages became more sexual in nature, but always encased in this very highfalutin intellectual language.”

“I’m embarrassed by the ways I participated,” Ms. Stone told me. “I certainly wouldn’t engage as the person I am now in the way I did when I was 25.”

It wasn’t just the texts. There were, she says, “strange intimacies in the dressing room.” Sometimes he would ask her to remove his contact lenses, say, or take off his sweaty costume at intermission. When she would sleep between matinee and evening performances in the cramped space underneath their makeup desks he would join her uninvited.

Then there was the day he held a mirror above her shower.

The shared dressing room had two shower cubicles next to each other. After the show one evening, Ms. Stone said, “I remember I looked up to see there was a small shaving mirror over the top of the partition between the showers and he was using it to look down at my naked body. I believe that it was meant with a playful intention, but the effect was that I felt there was nowhere for me to feel safe and unobserved.”

“I saw it,” another person who worked on the play and asked to remain anonymous told me about the mirror incident. “It was very close quarters and I had a direct view of the showers. After the show that night, I heard Yael scream and tell him to stop.”

“I certainly talked about it with Yael afterward. It was one instance of her feeling psychologically and physically intimidated by him,” the person said.

Ms. Stone herself does not remember screaming. Indeed, she laughed at the idea that she would have risked upsetting Mr. Rush in any way. “I said some words to the effect of, ‘Bugger off, Geoffrey.’ I was walking a very delicate line where I needed to manage these uncomfortable moments but never, never offend him.”

“There was no part of my brain considering speaking to anyone in any official capacity. This was a huge star,” she said. “What were they going to do? Fire Geoffrey and keep me?”

Ms. Hobson, the general manager, said the play’s director, Neil Armfield, knew that something had transpired. “What I did know at the time was that Neil Armfield had spoken to Geoffrey about not walking in on Yael in the shower,” she told me from Scotland.

Mr. Armfield says he knew nothing of that particular incident, but wrote in a response to me, “I was aware that Yael had felt some discomfort in sharing the dressing room with Geoffrey. I offered that Yael should move to another dressing room but my memory is that she declined.”

A similar dynamic played out, Ms. Stone said, when Mr. Rush danced before her in a “playful, clownish manner” while he was “totally naked” one evening while she was removing her makeup. She found a way to respond with “an attitude of, ‘Oh, you’re a very naughty boy.’”

“I didn’t want him to think I was no fun, that I was one of those people who couldn’t take a joke,” Ms. Stone said.

A person who witnessed the incident recalled, as Ms. Stone did, that it straddled a familiar line. “It was, I suppose, again that line between comical and obscene,” the person said.

When, later, at an awards show connected to the play Mr. Rush touched Ms. Stone’s back “in a very sensual manner” that was “unwanted and sustained” — a significant enough violation that he wrote to her and apologized the next day, calling it “uncalled-for but had to” — she made nothing of it.

In a year of Hollywood horror stories, Ms. Stone’s experience does not rank among the worst. But it took its toll. “My level of anxiety was very high,” she said. She told the man she was dating at the time that she was scared to go out with Mr. Rush after the show “because I was nervous about what was expected of me.”

Others noticed Ms. Stone’s anxiety. “The play for me was tainted with a certain discomfort because of the dynamic between Geoffrey and Yael — not knowing what exactly was going on or how to respond,” said another person who worked on the show and asked not to be named.

Ms. Stone has been keeping a diary since she was 12, and her entries from the time confirm her memories. On Jan. 21, 2011, she wrote of a “new friend who fascinates and delights me (with equal parts revulsion and horror).” By February, she had written, “I’ve never hated acting so much.”

Losing Friends

Last month, nearly a year since Mr. Rush filed suit against Nationwide News, the court finished hearing arguments in the defamation case. The judge is supposed to deliver his decision in the new year.

Back when the case began, Ms. Stone said she “swore I would never come forward. My intention was to keep it private.”

Instead of going public, Ms. Stone wrote the actor an email on December 11, 2017. Subject line: “Challenging times.”

The email is self-aware and generous. “I’m sure that this moment is extremely challenging and my thoughts these last few weeks have come to you many times. I hope you are ok. I worry about you, about Jane and the kids,” it begins, and then goes on to tell him that she was made uncomfortable by him during the play.

“In the name of years of friendship I wanted to share with you what I have always been afraid to say,” she wrote. “I hope it’s possible for you to receive this in the spirit that it is meant. With a view toward healing.”

She never heard back.

Now, she said, “I feel a responsibility to speak, but I know it will cost me friendships.” She hates the idea of hurting a mentor, someone who even helped her get a visa to work in the United States by writing a letter on her behalf.

“If Geoffrey had written back and said I’m sorry and offered to work with me to inspire positive change in our industry, it may have transformed both of our lives for the better,” she said. “I despair that I am now in this situation.” And yet, Ms. Stone adds, “I do believe it’s a matter of significance to the public.”

“I also understand it might be confusing and look strange that I maintained a friendship with someone for so long who treated me in a way that made me feel uncomfortable. But there is the reality of professional influence and the reality of a complicated friendship, which ultimately was corroded by a sexual dynamic. But it was still a friendship.”

Ms. Stone remains sympathetic to Mr. Rush, in a way. “The current system is built around the very famous and talented such that there is a lot of yes. There is not a lot of no. And that can encourage certain behaviors and that can happen incrementally over time to the point where a person may have not heard the word no in a long time. And it might not be their fault,” she said. “We need compassion for that confusion.”

Again and again, she returned in our conversations to the themes of compassion and change.

“The possibility of redemption must always be on the table,” she said. “Not all #MeToo stories are the same. Each dynamic is different. For some, a criminal process is essential. In my case, I’m not interested in punishment. I am looking to change my industry and to work toward healing and growth.”

That healing, however, is only possible when the truth is recognized — when inappropriate behavior is not waved away because the rehearsal room is somehow unique as a “place of play and experiment,” as the director, Mr. Armfield, said on Australia’s “Q and A” television program in October.

Some things are straightforward.

“I’ve been in that particular dressing room in Sydney on many occasions with many wonderfully talented actors and many wonderfully talented clowns,” Ms. Stone told me. “And people have made me belly laugh till I couldn’t breathe. Never once has someone needed to show me their penis to do that.”

Bari Weiss is a staff editor and writer for the Opinion section.

Read Geoffrey Rush’s Full Statement Here. Geoffrey Rush responds to Yael Stone’s allegations.

Deja una respuesta

Tu dirección de correo electrónico no será publicada. Los campos obligatorios están marcados con *