By Tyler Aquilina
January 12, 2020 at 11:00 AM EST
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Ty Johnson/Bleecker Street

In a cold, gray film production company office in New York City, Jane (played by Ozark’s Julia Garner), an assistant, picks up the phone. Her boss, an executive, is on the line. He lays into her for taking a phone call from his wife earlier that day, berating her and threatening to fire her. When he hangs up, Jane tearfully begins composing an email apologizing for her actions, emphasizing how lucky she feels to have her job.

On Jan. 31, the film The Assistant will hit theaters, bringing its portrait of life at the bottom of the Hollywood food chain to audiences. Jane is never sexually harassed or assaulted in the film; the abuse she suffers is of a different variety. She cleans her boss’s (casting) couch, attempts to placate his irate wife, unpacks his erectile dysfunction pills, chaperones another young woman to a hotel to meet with him. Her boss (who never appears on screen) screams at her over the phone, reminds her how expendable she is, and keeps her waiting at the office late into the night.

Certain details – and the voice we hear on the phone – not-so-subtly suggest Harvey Weinstein, the disgraced mogul whose accusers helped spark the #MeToo movement. But writer-director Kitty Green says the film is after something bigger. She interviewed numerous assistants from the film industry before writing her script, and the more people she talked to, the more a portrait of a broken system began to emerge.

“The shocking thing was, these stories were so similar no matter where they’d worked or who they’d worked for,” Green tells EW. “I realized that there was a lot there to talk about, which wasn’t focused on these predatory men, but instead on the system that keeps these men in place and keeps women out.”

That system has been at work in Hollywood for decades, perpetuating a vicious cycle of abuse that, like the stories that emerged in the wake of #MeToo, has long been an open secret in the business. (Indeed, Weinstein’s vicious temper and aggressive managerial style were already infamous long before the sexual abuse scandal broke.) A dozen real-life assistants told EW of an industry with little regard for entry-level employees’ time, health (physical and mental), and general well-being. Assistant jobs, highly coveted for the entrée they offer to the business, typically require grueling hours, abysmally low wages, and subjecting oneself to bosses’ every whim. Assistants must often perform personal tasks and errands during and outside of work hours; many also endure verbal and emotional abuse, from passive-aggressive behavior to screaming fits to death threats over minor mistakes, on a regular basis. Asked why this culture persists in Hollywood, most reply with some version of “Because it’s the way it’s always been.”

“There’s this mentality of you should be fine with being abused, essentially, and if you’re not, then you’re not cut out for this business,” says Lindsay Grossman, 27, who spent a year as a talent agency assistant and another as a TV showrunner’s assistant.

Among the stories current and former assistants told EW:

  • Doug, 26, was an assistant at a major agency from 2016 to 2018. For the first several months, he often worked 16-hour weekdays, plus seven hours on Saturdays and Sundays, making $11.15 an hour, just above minimum wage at the time. Describing how his boss, an agent, treated him, Doug repeatedly used the word “torture.” He says the agent would constantly curse at him and throw objects at the partition between their desks. Beyond that, “I was always the scapegoat for anything,” Doug says. “He would not answer my emails, texts, or phone calls, and then when things would come up he would be like, ‘Why did you never tell me about this?’” Once, when Doug pointed out he had repeatedly done so, his boss replied, “Getting my attention is one of the great challenges of your job.” The experience drove Doug to see a therapist; he says he suffered symptoms of PTSD — “severe anxiety, insomnia, self-destructive behavior, hostility, and paranoia.”
  • Grossman and Rachel, 24, worked in low-level roles at two different agencies. They both say assistants were instructed never to leave their desks, even to use the bathroom, so as not to miss a single phone call. Rachel says a fellow assistant was stricken with a bladder infection “because she was asked not to leave her desk for 10 hours.” Those who did miss a call from a client, she adds, were often sent back to the mailroom.
  • After leaving the agency, Rachel went on to work as an assistant on a TV show; when she brought coffee to a studio executive in a meeting, she says, “He pointed out my body and was like, ‘Wow, it’s a real 1950s situation. You guys must be having a real Don Draper experience here.’” Her coworkers, she says, did nothing. “Afterwards, they were kind of flippantly like, ‘Oh, that was weird, huh?’”

“Almost every assistant I’ve ever talked to was much like me in the beginning,” says Steve, 43, who started his first assistant job as a fresh-faced college dropout in 1999. “They’re really excited by it all, and the opportunity to learn. You just kind of wait for them – is it gonna take two years, is it gonna take five years before they’re broken?”

But some are working to break the cycle. In October, screenwriters John August (Aladdin) and Craig Mazin (Chernobyl), both former assistants and hosts of industry-focused podcast Scriptnotes, devoted a full episode to the subject of assistant pay. August later co-hosted a town hall on the issue and has written extensively about it on his blog. (He declined EW’s request for comment.)

That same month, TV writer and Writers Guild of America board member Liz Alper launched the #PayUpHollywood movement on Twitter, asking assistants to share their stories using the hashtag. A flood of replies followed: One user wrote that they turned down an assistant job because it paid less than their unemployment check. “Was making $500/wk. Became homeless and had to sleep in my car. I then got a $50 raise a week,” another wrote.

Deirdre Mangan, a writer for The CW’s Roswell, New Mexico, quickly joined Alper in her efforts, along with media consultant Jamarah Hayner. Together, they’ve spearheaded a campaign advocating for fair pay and better working conditions. According to Mangan, those conditions have scarcely changed since she herself was an assistant almost a decade ago. “We treat them like indentured servants,” Mangan says. “And it gets couched under this bulls— about paying your dues.” What has changed, she says, is that “there’s been a wave of protests and people becoming activists. People feel empowered by other people speaking truth to power.”

Something else has changed, too. Not long ago, one could live comfortably in Los Angeles on assistants’ wages; August notes he “could afford to live alone in a 1-bedroom apartment in West Hollywood” as an assistant in 1994, on an estimated $550 or less per week. One would also usually hold such a job for a relatively short time before being promoted. (Hollywood titans who had their starts as assistants include Lucasfilm president Kathleen Kennedy and DreamWorks co-founder Jeffrey Katzenberg.)

But no longer. A #PayUpHollywood survey of more than 1,500 assistants, released in December, found 64 percent of respondents make $50,000 or less per year. (Investopedia calculates a $50,000 or greater yearly income is needed to live comfortably in L.A. without roommates.) What’s more, the majority of respondents were between 25 and 34 years old, and about 47 percent have been assistants for more than three years. For supposed stepping-stone jobs to careers in entertainment, several assistants tell EW, advancement opportunities and actual mentorship are frustratingly lacking.

“My very first PA [production assistant] job, they told me I was the best writers’ PA they’d ever worked with, and the one piece of advice they would give me was ‘Don’t be too good,’” says Joe, 31, who spent five years in similar jobs. “‘Don’t actually try your best, because people will only see you as an assistant.’ And it was true.”

For people of color, the barriers are even steeper. Higher-ups in the industry are almost all-white, and three non-white assistants tell EW advancement opportunities often seem remote. Sarah, 25, a woman of color and a studio executive assistant, says she was repeatedly told her position was “not promotable.” Lobbying her bosses for a promotion, she says, was like “talking into a black hole.” She had been actively seeking other opportunities for several months when she was finally promoted in December.

Many non-white candidates cannot even afford to take assistant jobs, shut out by the stubbornly low pay. (Respondents in the #PayUp survey were overwhelmingly white.) The jobs’ physically demanding nature also tends to exclude candidates with disabilities. The industry has thus persistently suppressed diversity, with a disproportionately white, wealthy, non-disabled workforce at all levels of the business.

“Hollywood is a rich kids’ industry,” says Roger, a 25-year-old assistant at a major studio, who is black and comes from a working-class background. “And social events are part of your job. You have to hobnob with richer people and act like you belong. I’m always aware of the class distinction.” Roger, who says he averages a 50- to 55-hour workweek, is considering a second job to cover his expenses, which include approximately $40,000 in student loan debt.

The strain is not only financial, however, as assistants’ horror stories indicate. Over 92 percent of #PayUp survey respondents said their job caused an increase in anxiety, 66 percent reported an increase in depression, and over 23 percent reported an increase in substance abuse.

“It can break you. It can really make you suffer,” Mangan says. “As a person who’s dealt with depression and anxiety issues, the years of being an assistant didn’t help. They hurt. It was paralyzing at times.”

And should an assistant appear “difficult” or “ungrateful” to their employer, countless starry-eyed young people are eager to take their place. Like Jane, assistants are often reminded that they can be quickly and easily replaced – yet another impetus to endure mistreatment without protest.

“You’re always going to be incentivized to take it,” Roger says. “It’s always in the back of your head: ‘How am I going to interact with this person in the future?’”

One of The Assistant’s most powerful scenes sees Garner’s character voicing concerns about her boss’s shady interactions with young women to a human resources manager (played by Succession’s Matthew Macfadyen). According to real-life assistants, HR personnel often make poor confidants. At Doug’s agency, he says, HR called an assistants-only meeting in the thick of the #MeToo movement to address employees’ concerns. “[In the meeting], things were said like, ‘I developed shingles out of stress,’ ‘I’ve been told I’m worthless,’ ‘I’ve been fired 10 times and then expected to show up to work the next day,’” he says. “And when we were done, the HR reps looked at us and said, ‘Thank you so much for your time, our doors are always open to you.’ It’s hard to see them as your allies.”

With the increased attention brought to assistants’ plight, it seems real change is beginning to manifest. In December, Verve talent agency increased wages to $18.50 for assistants and $20 for “experienced assistants” among other changes, including a shorter workday. Though most assistants have no union, writers’ assistants and script coordinators (a position just above assistants on the totem pole) joined forces to unionize in 2018, establishing minimum scale pay, protections, and benefits. Mangan says #PayUpHollywood will soon publish a list of best practices, to give employers an idea of what better working conditions for assistants should look like.

Still, many assistants remain doubtful. “I don’t know that it ever will really change,” Doug says of agencies’ abusive culture. “I don’t know what the alternative even looks like,” another executive assistant says with a rueful laugh.

“If we want women in power, the entire system needs to be completely stripped apart and rebuilt,” Green says. “Because it really is preventing women getting their foot in the door from the very bottom.”

Maybe, just maybe, The Assistant can help jump-start that process. “Powerful people come out of [the movie] a little shell-shocked,” Green says with a laugh. “I’ve seen people come out going, ‘Wow, okay. I’m gonna start treating everyone better. I’m gonna buy my assistant lunch tomorrow.’ Just the idea that you start thinking about the system and how it works, and these people who for so long have been invisible, I think that matters a lot.”

NOTE: Except where full names are given, all names in this article have been changed to protect individuals’ identities.

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