One of the most iconic images of Rose McGowan was taken at the MTV Video Music Awards in 1998. The sultry actress, who was dating rocker Marilyn Manson at the time, caused an uproar when she walked down the red carpet in a see-through chain-mesh dress with her backside hanging out in full view. Seventeen years on and McGowan couldn't be more different. She walks in unnoticed at the trendy Standard Hotel in New York City, which is buzzing thanks to Fashion Week. Her long dark locks have been replaced with a messy boy cut and she's wearing a simple white shirt, black jeans, trainers and a backpack. She looks more like a cool art student than a famous Hollywood starlet.
Born in Florence, Italy to hippy parents, McGowan moved to the United States when she was 10 and later ended up in Los Angeles, where she was discovered by a Hollywood agent at 17. She made her debut on the big screen in the film The Doom Generation, which quickly garnered her an Independent Spirit Award nomination. Soon she was starring in high-profile films directed by the likes of Wes Craven and Quentin Tarantino, and appearing on the cover of Rolling Stone. By the mid 1990s she became a part of American pop culture thanks to her starring role in the popular TV series Charmed. A few years later, after sustaining several injuries on movie sets, McGowan decided to take a break from Hollywood and disappeared from the big screen altogether. The period that followed was one that she has referred to publicly as “traumatic and life changing”.
When she finally re-emerged last year, she came armed with a new hairstyle and career that saw her move behind the camera to direct her first short film, Dawn, which was shown at the Sundance Film Festival last year to critical acclaim. She's currently working on her first full-length feature film, The Pines, while advocating for women's rights and equality in Hollywood.
Acting has never been your passion, so how did you end up in Hollywood?
A lot of my family ended up working in the medical field and I wanted to be a forensic pathologist when I was young. My first job at 13 was moving bodies at a funeral home in Seattle. I always say I learned set design during this time because I set up viewings for the families.
I was actually discovered on a street corner – the story is so LA! I was standing right in front of the gym and I was crying because my boyfriend had died. This woman was watching me, then asked me if I wanted to be an actress. I just ignored her but they kept approaching me, so eventually I met with her and a director. I had no money – I was emancipated from my parents by the age of 15 – so I thought, why not try it?
You starred in your first film at 19. What was it like growing up in the public eye?
I grew up very early. I would say I was a fully formed adult by the age of three. I had seven brothers and sisters and I pretty much raised them. When it came to all those typical teenage experiences, mine actually happened in the films I worked on. My prom, for example, was in the movie Jawbreaker – I had to go insane during a prom scene with the entire crowd throwing things at me. My high school experience was summed up by Doom Generation and Scream; Charmed was my college years. These normal life markers happened for me in the movies rather than real life. It was totally screwed up.
Is that what drove you to take a break from it all?
It came to a point where the image Hollywood projected of me was so stereotypical and reductive, I no longer knew myself. I felt I was being mis-sold as a commodity and not a person. It was even more strange to me because I was raised largely without mirrors, in a gender neutral environment. Then all of a sudden the world realised I had breasts and it got really creepy. There was one point in my career when I was so heavily retouched in every photo that I completely forgot what I looked like. It messed with my brain heavily. At the same time I was getting very injured by bad directors – I had three surgeries and paid US$700,000 in medical bills. It was a tough time, but it took all of these bad things happening to force me to extricate myself from it all.
Why come back as a director all these years later?
One night the power went out in my house and I had an epiphany. I knew I hated acting even though I'm a good actor. I've always brought 150 percent to everything that I've done, but there were so many people I worked with that weren't giving the same back to me. I realised that I was an artist and that I had something to say. I understand the power of media very well and I knew that I wanted to shape and change people's minds and perceptions. Going behind the camera was like finally wearing pants that fit me. I loved everything about filmmaking minus being in front of the camera. I was always uncomfortable on sets and couldn't understand why. I was fed this idea that being an actress was everyone's dream except that it wasn't mine.
Directing, on the other hand, comes so naturally for me. I love creating and having a voice. My personality hasn't changed – I've just opened my mouth and spoken. I didn't have a platform for that before.
Tell us more about your first short-length film, Dawn. We read it was conceived in Hong Kong.
Yes, I owe everything to Hong Kong! I was visiting and I met this woman who was a producer for Ridley Scott's company. I was telling her about the movie I wanted to make and she said, let's do it. Originally I wanted to do a Flannery O'Connor piece but I lost the rights. I had my four locations already and the last line of the movie, so I said let's go from there. A friend of mine wrote the script and we went for it. The story is very much a parallel to my own life and experiences.
The film has been referred to as a feminist piece – is this the message you wanted to convey?
I don't think I'd classify it as feminist. I'm simply showing what happens to girls in society. It's set in the early 1960s, which was an interesting time for women. They were raised by 1950s mothers but then the 1960s happens and the sexual revolution arrives. It's all about free love, but in reality who does it benefit? Who have women been trained to please? It's always men. This sort of thing still happens today but in very different ways. There's so much damage done to women and girls on a daily basis and I wanted to explore this. The film is also educating people. I recommend watching it twice because it has lots of layers. Nothing in there is an accident.
Were you surprised when it was nominated at Sundance?
For a director it's the hardest thing to achieve. You campaign for Oscars and buy people off but not for Sundance. Every article was saying how surprised [they were that] I had it in me. But why? If a guy who'd done lots of action films did this, would they be that surprised too?
Recently you took to Twitter to express your views on sexism in the industry and caused quite an uproar. Overnight you've become a spokesperson for women in Hollywood – how do you feel about that?
Ah, the tweet heard around the world! I think it was good, though it didn't do much for my career. The day after I was walking out of the Lincoln Center screening of Dawn, which should have been a high point of my career until I got an email that my agency was firing me! By this point I thought I may as well be a spokesperson for women – if no one else is doing it I might as well be one.
Some people have called me anti-men, but why does wanting equality have anything to do with hat ing men? It's a reductive way to think. In terms of things I want to achieve, there's a lot happening. I want to launch guidelines for Hollywood to follow and I'd like to get DC involved in this. There's so much criminal activity in Hollywood that needs to stop. It's like the police policing themselves – it's not gonna work.
I also want to use my films as a platform to give people a voice. I'm currently directing my first full-length film called The Pines. It's about a woman who's really lost and finds herself in the end. She's taken in by a family of healers and discovers her own strength. I have the script and am doing major rewrites right now. I'd love Ellen Page or someone like her to star in it. It needs a very strong actress.
On a completely different note, we also heard about your beauty line ...
Yes! I have a skincare line, which I've been formulating for nine years. I've turned down five beauty campaigns in the past few years because you have to sign non-compete clauses and I knew I wanted to launch something. It's called The Only, and it's one product that you can use under your eyes, [and on your] face and body. It's actually made from water taken from a volcanic lake in Eastern Washington State, which has 23 minerals. The Native Americans call it healing waters and I found it through the military, which has had a research facility there since World War II. They'd send injured soldiers there to heal their skin.
Anyhow, I took a scientist there to check it out and we have finally stabilised the formula. It has no petrochemicals and is completely natural. We plan to launch it in six months and it will feature a wash, lotion and six different moisturisers. For me it was important to position it between a pharmacy brand and high-end cosmetic lines. I really want all women to be able to use it, so we'll only charge around US$40 per item. A woman gets paid 77 cents to the dollar, so I wanted to give women a break.
What would you say is your proudest achievement to date?
Surviving as a woman in this world, and finding my way as an artist and finding my voice. I've now found my calling. I want to encourage people to think deeper about things, and realise that it's OK to be different. I want to have affected enough change to break people's minds, so that they can go and have a different experience. I want them to feel how great it can be. It's possible to live a different life, a better life, for anyone, whether you're a man or woman.
PHOTOGRAPHY MIKE RUIZ
STYLING CANNON AT JUDY CASEY
MARKET EDITOR ERIN MCSHERRY
STYLING ASSISTANTS IZZY RUIZ AND EVA ROBERTS FOR THE CANNON MEDIA GROUP
MAKE-UP JON LIECKFELT