When I greeted Paul Johansson at the entrance of BuzzFeed’s Los Angeles office in late April, I was nervous. Before me stood a man I’d watched on television for nine years as Dan Scott, the ultimate father-from-hell, on One Tree Hill.
The 51-year-old actor — who played Mad Men’s Ferg Donnelly, the ad man who sexually harassed Joan Harris to the point that she quit the ad agency in the show’s final season — had just arrived for a photo shoot that centered on the fact that he has played so many assholes throughout his acting career.
I led Johansson and his publicist, Cheryl McLean, into BuzzFeed’s photo studio, joined by three of my female colleagues. While I looked over my questions for the actor, my co-workers helped me with what I consider the hardest part of the interview: making small talk. Little did I know, it was Johansson who would make things more uncomfortable than I ever could’ve imagined.
“Why are you so tan?” Johansson asked one of my colleagues.
“I was outside playing tennis all weekend,” she answered.
“I play tennis,” he said. “I’m not very good though.”
“I could probably beat you,” she replied.
“This is what we refer to as flirting where I am from,” he responded blithely. “I’ll find your weak spot.”
“I don’t have any,” she responded.
“My serve is pretty strong,” he said. “I’ll serve the ball right down your throat.”
My head snapped up. I was so alarmed, I’d nearly missed his next words, which involved him telling my co-worker that he wanted to take her into his cave (apparently a reference to Canada, where he’s from), where he’d put her on her back.
What did he just say? I mumbled to another colleague, who was standing beside me. None of Johansson’s comments up until that point had been recorded, as the camera hadn’t began rolling. I felt uncomfortable but was focusing on getting the shoot done. Without hesitation, I sat down next to Johansson with my laptop, explaining to him the process of creating reaction GIFs — at which point he slung his arm around my back.
Then, in the middle of the shoot — for which we asked Johansson to act out reactions to so-called dicks in the workplace — the actor made another comment, one we did capture on camera. “I’m not shy,” he said to my colleagues and me under the hot fluorescent lights inside the studio. I laughed at his improvisation, which admittedly was pretty funny. Then he said, a little too casually, “I’m sweating like a rapist,” wiping his forehead and the sides of his face, seemingly not paying attention to the camera that was recording those very words.
It took me a second to register what I’d just heard. Still, none of us in the room objected or expressed our discomfort. Instead, I forced myself to laugh before proceeding. After all, it was just the culmination of about three comments from Johansson that would’ve been inappropriate in an ad agency in the early 1970s, like the one his misogynistic character works at on Mad Men. But this is hardly 1970. It’s 2015, and we work at BuzzFeed — far from the time or place where I would’ve expected his remarks.
As I led Johansson out of the office, without a recording device as the interview had ended, he gestured at the various partitions throughout the space. “Oh yeah, that’s where we have our meetings and stuff,” I explained.
With his hand on my back for the second time, he asked, “Do you ever take people in there and make out with them?”
I felt my skin crawl but forced a smile. “Well, those are glass windows, so no.”
Nearly three weeks after my interview with Johansson, I realize that his initial comment alone should have been a red flag for me to stop the shoot, or at the very least, say something to his publicist. But I didn’t. I went forward with it. I even published the first segment of our interview.
During the very awkward and inappropriate interview, I thought only of making sure my questions elicited some good answers. Sure, it was uncomfortable. And yes, I was irritated with a man who should definitely know better, but I brushed off his comments like I would have ignored a creep on the subway. In the end, I concluded the interview with some admittedly great content, a real treat for anyone who’d watched One Tree Hill. But now I am asking myself: at what cost?
I know far worse things have been said and done than what Johansson said and did that day. But his conduct is common in a Hollywood culture that puts young women in positions where they can be easily manipulated or harassed by older men. What’s worse, that culture also discourages those women from speaking out and continues to reward the men accused of committing such offenses, as recent events have indicated.
Last week, I emailed Johansson’s publicist with a request to speak to him about how he acted toward me, and what he was thinking. I received a response 20 hours later: a letter from Johansson’s lawyer (an excerpt of which can be seen at the bottom of this post) claiming that the actor “never acted inappropriate towards [me], or any of [my] colleagues at the BuzzFeed offices.”
In the letter, Johansson’s lawyer, Andrew B. Brettler, defends some of his client’s remarks, and denies others. Brettler does not deny that his client said he would serve tennis balls down my colleague’s throat, but says, “There is nothing sexual or inappropriate about that statement,” adding that categorizing it as such “is absurd.” Brettler also says that Johansson’s cave remark and his “sweating like a rapist” comment — neither of which the actor denies saying in the letter — “were both purposely taken out of context.” Johansson saying he’s “sweating like a rapist” is, however, recorded, despite the fact that Brettler says “there is no recording that substantiates any of [my] defamatory claims.” In the letter, Brettler also says Johansson never touched me “in an inappropriate or sexual manner.”
In the immediate aftermath of my interview with Johansson, I’d shrugged off one of my colleague’s suggestions to write about the experience and told myself that this was bound to happen one day. Every journalist has had a negative experience with an interviewee at some point in her career, and this was mine, right?
It worries me that I felt this way. It worries me that it took a conversation with my editor to make me realize that I should have been pissed. If I were a man, Johansson would not have said those things in front of me, let alone to me.
I think a part of me was in disbelief. It’s not every day that you meet an actor from a show you watched and quoted like the Bible all throughout high school. And it’s certainly not every day said actor makes suggestive comments to you and your co-workers. I guess I felt blindsided and embarrassed, and thought that maybe if I laughed and spoke over his comments, it’d be like they were never uttered.
But my interview with Johansson isn’t the first time a man has made me feel embarrassed and powerless. This happens every time I walk through Hollywood, and l think to myself, Maybe if I maintain a blank expression and walk a little faster, the man on the street will stop staring and hollering at me.
A few years ago, my best friend and I were trying to explain to her boyfriend how it feels to be catcalled and objectified by men, how defenseless we feel in that moment, why it’s degrading, why “just walking away” doesn’t make us feel better, and how the only way to win is by screaming, swearing, and “out-crazying” them.
Yes, men will say things to make women feel uncomfortable, but silence won’t make it stop. Silence won’t help women win, but that’s exactly how the older women in my life taught me to react. They told me not to respond and certainly not to yell back because of safety concerns or some other reason. But by silently enduring catcallers, I am essentially watching a part of my humanity be taken away from me.
Catcalling and sexual harassment happens when men see women as slightly less than human — as if we exist purely for someone else’s enjoyment, as if we exist just for someone else to watch us squirm. Yelling back, or writing about it, reclaims that humanity and reminds them that women are human — and more importantly, it reminds me that I am human. I only wish men like Johansson would see that.