Home » Rosanna Arquette: A Pursuit of Gender Equality in Entertainment

Rosanna Arquette: A Pursuit of Gender Equality in Entertainment

by Marnie Goodfriend
Actress, activist, director, producer, and mother are just a few titles to describe peaceful disruptor, Rosanna Arquette. Here is her story.

Rosanna continues to work behind and in front of the camera as executive director of Coercion, a new drama based on the life of sex trafficking survivor Rebecca Bender, written and to be directed by Susannah Grant for Showtime. She is also reprising her role as Cherie in The L Word: Generation Q and has her hands full producing other female-led stories.

Rosanna spoke to NonGirly about attending peace marches with her mother and confronting racism as a teenager. She also spoke about how powerful female executives calling the shots in Tinseltown is causing a paradigm shift and why girls who don’t fit in are her kind of girls. 


Growing up in a family of artists and activists, what were some of your likes and interests? 

I grew up in a very creative atmosphere with music, art, dance, and theatre all around. So, my interest was always in the arts. For a time when I was little, I wanted to be a teacher for kids with Downs Syndrome. But I loved acting and always dreamt of being an actress. 

What were some things you played with as a kid? Did you make up stories and perform them?  

We made up stories constantly. When we lived in a commune in Virginia, we saw Fiddler on the Roof, and all the kids whose parents were actors, musicians, or artists recreated “Anatevka every day after school. I loved dolls, playing doll-house, and Barbies. I had a Chrissie doll where you could pull her hair to make it shorter or longer, and another doll called Velvet. Loved that one, too. I had Incredible Edibles where you could make your own creepy crawly candy. Now, edibles are very different!

You were also exposed to activism at an early age. How did that influence you as a child?

That’s such a gift my parents gave me. There were some negative things too that we experienced in our childhoods, but the gift was that of giving back and activism. My mom, in particular, brought us to peace marches in the anti-Vietnam War movement. We lived in Chicago, where my sister was born, and my mom was a big part of the Rainbow Coalition —a community kitchen where people worked​​ the women’s movement and marches. Getting arrested for civil disobedience was part of me growing up. I’ve carried that on in my life.

When did you move to Los Angeles?

So, we lived in Los Angeles from when I was 9 to 11. Then we moved to Virginia until I was 14. I lived in New Jersey for a while with (another) family because I couldn’t handle the school system in Virginia; it was incredibly racist. I remember my first day of school there, I got on the school bus that picked us up on the side of the road of the commune. I saw these kids in the back of the bus, and they looked nice, so we sat back there. When I was getting off the bus, the bus driver leaned over and said, “Hey, you’re a little n lover, aren’t you?” They became my friends, and so right there I was like, “What is that?” I told my mom and she said, “That is racism.” It was so uncomfortable and horrible. I ended up getting kicked out of school at 14 because I wrote Black Power on my fist and then moved to New Jersey.

What was one of your first auditions?

I did a musical based on the theatre technique of Ovid’s Metamorphosis. Arnold Weinstein wrote the book, and a guy named Tony Greco wrote the music. It was at this little theater on Melrose Place, which now is some jean store. A casting director named Gina Haven saw me in that musical when I was 17. Then I auditioned for Leo Pen, Sean Penn’s dad, for a TV mini-series called The Dark Secret of Harvest Home with Bette Davis, and I got it. 

So, you got to LA and hit the ground running.

I hit the ground running. Wait, before that, on my 18th birthday, I got a TV movie called Having Babies 2 that I played a small role in, which got me my SAG card. And then I started working for years and years.

You created and directed the 2002 documentary Searching for Debra Winger which explores the challenges female actors face with work/life balance and finding choice roles. What was your intent behind the film? 

I was hitting this time of, “Are they putting women out to pasture at 40? What’s happening here?” Through the years, I have met so many wonderful women and other actresses. I always loved other people’s work. And I love interviewing people. I wanted to talk about balancing life with art, life with work, and with motherhood. How does it all come together? I remember being in the parking lot of Fred Segal’s in West Hollywood, and I had called Jane Fonda whom I met when I was 20. She and her husband, Tom Hayden, were friends of mine. So, I asked her, if I was going to do a documentary, would she be part of it and she said yes. From there, I called other actresses and asked if they wanted to be involved. Everybody said yes because I had these incredible women on board. And it’s called Searching for Debra Winger because Debra was always a rebel and says what she feels; that’s what I love about her. She was always a women’s advocate and walked the walk. She did piss people off along the way, but she stuck to her conviction.

The film critic Roger Ebert was the only male you interviewed in the documentary. He said, “Studio executives greenlight projects based on the taste of adolescent boys and young men who tend to favor comedies laced with bathroom humor and action films. Neither of these genres offer substantial roles for women, especially older women.” How much has changed since then?

We’re starting to see more women in powerful roles, and I’m really happy about that. I love seeing Viola Davis and such great actors do great things. I think it’s slowly starting to shift, but we have to stay on it. It’s going to take more women in power, more female heads of studios, more women telling the stories women want to hear. We’re the moviegoing audience. 

There’s the #MeToo movement, which I was a part of when I came out about Harvey Weinstein’s despicable crimes against women in the industry. And in that time, what that did was elevate Tarana Burke’s trauma work that she’s been doing for years. It brought everything to the forefront with what’s going on in the last few years since George Floyd’s horrendous, brutal murder and the Black Lives Matter movement. It really came together in that week telling the stories that represent America and the world, which is not just about a bunch of white people and male-dominated directors and stories so, even though we’re not here yet, it’s an exciting time right now. We’re seeing women taking the reins and starting to tell the stories. We need more of that. 

So, there needs to be a balance of women on the executive side and the creatives.

I think more women in creative jobs are making those decisions. We need more women running studios. The great, powerful creative men know that, so they will hire good women to do that job. I was lucky because years ago, I did a movie with Madonna called Desperately Seeking Susan with Orion Pictures and producer Mike Medavoy. He had hired Barbara Boyle as a female executive and she made the decision to do the film, which was actually read by his stepdaughter Melissa Goddard and she said, “Make that movie.” I thought that was great. It was a female director, female writer, about women, produced by women and starring women. And that was groundbreaking at that time. 

How often do we see that today?

Not as much as we should. It shouldn’t be such a big deal that there’s a movie or TV show that’s directed and produced and run by women and has strong female characters. It should be normalized, and once we get to where it’s not shocking anywhere, we’ll be in a better place. But then, my friend Victoria Mahoney has partnered with Ava DuVernay to work on a project together. When I hear those stories, it’s exciting. They’re definitely going to be doing great things. I’m fired up for that.

Do you feel people are becoming a little more complacent about the #MeToo movement or what next?

The world blew up with COVID and isolation. Women had to leave the workforce because they’re not able to take care of their children – they don’t have childcare. They’re working two jobs and their kids are online on a computer that keeps breaking down. It’s just been a horrible time for women.

What do you think needs to happen in the industry for it to be more inclusive and develop more relevant, well-rounded roles for women? 

Blow it all up and start from scratch. Hand the baton over to women. Get women in power so they can make decisions to get things done. We’re seeing the patriarchy rear its ugly head since the #MeToo movement; now they want to take away abortion rights. But movies and music used to be the entities that save us and get us out of trauma and pain. You could escape into somebody’s album or their lyrics, watch an incredible piece of art that moves you, and leads you to create your own. In all this isolation with COVID, everyone’s just trying to survive. I think everyone’s doing their private work within themselves to get to that place to create great art that helps or changes the world or changes one person’s mind about something so that they can look at the world differently in a way that helps humanity.  

I’m in an exciting time working on a project with a woman named Rebecca Bender, who was trafficked off of a college campus. I brought it to Gail Lyon, who’s a wonderful producer who did Erin Brockovich, and Susannah Grant wrote that film, so she brought her in and we sold it to Showtime. Amy Israel was the executive who led that meeting and made the decision to make this extraordinary work. We’re going to be shooting next month but it took 9 years. Ultimately, of course, she had a boss to go to but, had it not been for Amy Israel getting it (the project) in that room and for the other female executives in the room, it probably wouldn’t be here. 

Your advice for girls getting into the entertainment industry.

I don’t know if I’m one to give advice. Take a self-defense course. I’m not saying that lightly. I am the mother of someone who will be 27 in October. So, I would say to every mother with a daughter, get them in a self-defense class. I wholeheartedly believe in that. You want them to be able to protect themselves in a (dangerous) situation. We’re nearing the 4-year anniversary of Ronan Farrow’s The New Yorker story of what happened with Harvey Weinstein in our industry, and we saw it before with Bill Cosby. Sexual harassment is a huge, huge issue and has been in the past. I think men, especially now, are changing their behavior. A lot of men would say “it was the time.” This has changed, where younger men are more respectful, we hope. There are laws in place now; California has worked with equal rights advocates in San Francisco to pass legislation where it’s illegal to do that in work situations where you will be held accountable. 

Do you think that there’s a trickle-down effect from the entertainment industry into other industries?

A lot of people think this is just about male-bashing men. If you’re thinking of it that way, then you’re guilty of that kind of behavior. But if you’re saying “Wow, yeah, I participated in some shady behavior and am changing that now.” That’s what I always believed in. We talk about redemption and forgiveness and learning how to change that behavior. Now we’re learning how to treat women with respect. We have to find a way for men to know that no, it is not okay to intimidate somebody because you want to f* them. A vulnerable new person who really needs the job and is in a position where they have to be flirty to get the job. And if they don’t do that, their lives will be destroyed. I made the choice not to do that and I was lucky to get out of there where I did not get in a dangerous rape situation like many of my friends had happened to them. And it still didn’t matter. Their lives and careers were still destroyed afterward. 

How can we encourage more young girls to pursue creative jobs like writing, directing and producing films and television? 

I know a lot of young girls who have been sexually assaulted and I always feel like turning your pain into art works. It’s always been the message. Some people are not ready to go there or talk about it. But even if they write and don’t show it to anybody, it’s for themselves, or they share it with one other person, those moments are really important. In some way freedom for trauma victims. I just know that those are the stories that I’m interested in. There are so many stories out there that need to be told and need to be heard and seen. Creativity is a magical force. And if you have the ability to tap into that, especially when people write what they know, it can be transferred and put out there in ways that affect other people’s lives. 

Your daughter Zoë is multi-talented, she is a creative spirit actor, model, artist, fine artist, poet, writer. What have you taught her about following her passion?

The most important thing for me as a mother has always been honesty. Tell the truth. And she came into the world with her own rhythm, her own way of doing it. It was 50-hour labor and posterior and the hardest birth you could possibly do, and I was determined to do it without drugs. She’s a force to be reckoned with. Truthfully, I’m having to learn from her a lot too. I need to remember that my way may not be the way that’s right for her. And so, my work as a mother is to just kind of step out of the way. I think I’ve done as much as I can to guide her into a certain place as best I can. 

What would you say to girls that don’t feel like they fit in?

Those are the most interesting girls. The girls that don’t fit in are the girls for me that have been my friends. I didn’t fit in. And I was not into being part of a clique or any of that. I was always the outsider looking in. But also, I just was not into wanting. I think I didn’t ever feel like I fit in. And I still don’t. And I think that to me, all my friends are the people that just don’t care about fitting in or think about fitting in or want to fit in. They’re the people that are the most interesting. So, those girls out there who don’t fit in, more power to you. Find your own truth, light, and path. What is fitting in, anyway? What is the in? 

If you weren’t in the entertainment industry, what do you think you’d be doing?

What a great question. I’ve never thought of and never answered before because my life has been all about being around creative people. If I weren’t in the entertainment industry, I would be doing way more activism. I would work more closely with Dr. Astrid Heger at the Violence Intervention Program and maybe go to school to become a trauma therapist for kids. 

What are some upcoming projects you’re working on?

I’m producing a television show with Gail Lyon, Susanna Grant, and Rebecca Bender called Coercion on Showtime and a small indie film that I’ll direct, and working on getting other projects and shows off the ground.

At NonGirly, we find Rosanna Arquette to be an amazing role model for young girls who don’t fit the mold and aim to pursue their true calling. Find here more stories about inspirational women that are changing the world!

Photo courtesy of Bridger Scott Photography

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