By Tyler Aquilina
January 22, 2020 at 10:30 AM EST
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For a movie about Hollywood, The Assistant (playing at the Sundance Film Festival this month and in select theaters Jan. 31) conspicuously lacks for glitz and glamour. It follows the daily grind of its title character, Jane (played by recent Emmy winner Julia Garner), who works for a high-profile film executive in Manhattan. Her job entails punishing hours (before sunrise to well after sundown), demeaning tasks (cleaning up after slovenly superiors, fielding calls from the executive’s incensed wife), and daily emotional abuse (her boss viciously upbraids her over the phone, then tepidly apologizes via email to keep her on the hook).

Meanwhile, there are ever-present signs of her boss’s predatory relationships with young women (see the exclusive clip above). That boss remains unnamed and unseen throughout The Assistant, but shrewdly chosen details (hotel rendezvous, an invitation to the White House, suggestive syringes) point to disgraced mogul Harvey Weinstein. It’s no coincidence: writer-director Kitty Green (Netflix’s Casting JonBenet) was researching a potential project about power and consent on college campuses when the Weinstein scandal broke in October 2017. As dozens of women came forward accusing the Miramax founder of sexual harassment or assault, Green quickly shifted her focus.

“I started [interviewing] people that worked at The Weinstein Company and Miramax,” Green tells EW. “And then I was speaking to people who worked for agencies and for studios, people that worked for men who are still in power. The shocking thing was, these stories were so similar no matter where they’d worked or who they’d worked for.”

Those stories gave Green a “blueprint for how this film,” her first narrative feature, “would unfold.” She determined not to focus on abusive men; instead, she would explore the Hollywood system “that keeps these men in place, and keeps women out.” To Green, that meant closely following an assistant’s mundane daily rhythms and tasks to illustrate the job’s demoralizing nature. Accordingly, many scenes simply observe Jane as she makes copies, unpacks boxes, and handles phone calls.

“Focusing on the routine was very important to me,” Green says. “I wanted people to be able to emotionally identify with her and be in her shoes. And in order to do that, you kind of have to live the day with her, do every task, and see what she does from sunrise to sunset.”

Jane has other, more eyebrow-raising duties too: wiping down her boss’s couch, for instance, or shepherding the new (female) assistant to a hotel to meet with him. The specter of sexual abuse haunts the office and the movie, raising thorny questions about complicity and Hollywood’s longstanding culture of silence on the issue.

“When I would say to people, ‘I’m working on a film about assistants to a predatory boss,’ everyone would say immediately, ‘Oh, the enablers.’ And that felt like such a negative word, or like these people were evil in some sense,” Green says. “A lot of it became about being clear about how little people knew about what they were a part of.”

Bleecker Street

Green’s approach required a very particular type of performance from Garner. “It was kind of like a silent movie, in a way,” the Ozark star says. “You have to make sure that whatever you’re thinking comes across through your eyes. And not just your face, because you can’t have [Jane’s] coworkers read her face. But you have to have the audience read her face, so you’re just gonna do it in the eyes.” When Jane is outwardly emotional, therefore, the only sign is her eyes filling with tears.

Garner was eager to tackle the challenge of such a restrained style, but nervous about the authenticity required. (“I would be the worst assistant in the world. I can barely write an email, I’m so bad at everything with a computer,” she says.) She prepared for the role by watching assistants at her manager’s office, taking videos of them typing and answering phones.

“I would write down everything, what they do, and how they look, and how they act,” Garner says. “All of them answer [the phone] the same way. It’s always very calm, but there’s a forcefulness because they have to get things done. So there was that kind of fire in them, but calmness, too.”

She also worked closely with Green to build her performance, spending two weeks discussing the character and talking to real assistants with the director. Working with an actor in this way was new to erstwhile documentarian Green. But actress and director say their collaboration was, in contrast to the dismal workplace on screen, a wonderful experience.

“Working with Kitty was a dream. You feel so protected,” Garner says. “When you have such a sense of trust, you get a sense of, I like to say, director and actor telepathy. That’s always the best, is when they’re about to come up to you, and they’re like, ‘Can you…’ And then you’re like, ‘Oh, I know what you want.'”

With The Assistant now about to hit theaters, Green and Garner hope it will resonate with viewers both inside and outside the film industry. Green says a portion of the movie’s profits will go to the New York Women’s Foundation, a nonprofit dedicated to aiding women in the workplace and beyond.

“There’s so many different workplaces where people are getting abused,” Garner says, “and that’s why the film is important. It’s not just about Hollywood and the Hollywood work environment. It’s about abuse in general.”

“What was so frustrating to me in reading the media coverage [of the #MeToo movement], was how much it was centered around these predatory men, who are just the worst of the worst,” Green adds. “Until there’s sort of a shift around gender, and gendered labor, and what tasks women should be assigned, and what tasks men should, nothing’s going to change. Until we change the thinking around what women are able to achieve, we’re really, really stuck.”

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