“You’re comfortable with discomfort,” Stephen Colbert said to Rose McGowan on Wednesday night, not far into their Late Show interview.
She nodded emphatically. “Yes,” she said.
The resulting segment is interesting in part because it is so uncomfortable. McGowan spends most of the conversation veering away from Colbert’s questions to talk instead about how suits are so unpleasant to wear that they torture people into acting terribly but if you really think about it no one has to wear them, and how Canadian culture doesn’t fetishize violence the way American culture does. Most of what she said is not incorrect (she’s maybe a little fuzzy on her Old Testament lore, which, yes, does come up for some reason), but for the viewing audience, it wasn’t exactly easy to follow her leaps from one idea to the next.
Colbert gamely played along with McGowan, but his in-studio audience seemed bewildered: People couldn’t figure out when to laugh or cheer. They mostly stayed quiet, but every so often, when McGowan said something particularly emphatic, there would be a burst of laughter from one person, or a scatter of fragmented applause that would quickly subside into startled silence.
It’s all uncomfortable to watch in a way that celebrity interviews, with their easy banter and weaponized charm, usually are not. Which is part of the point.
Until a few months ago, McGowan was best known for her work on the WB’s Charmed, but she’s since left acting behind to focus on working as an activist to take down Hollywood’s culture of systemic sexism. She’s been one of Harvey Weinstein’s loudest detractors, and she hasn’t been shy about speaking out against those she who feels enabled him.
Now she’s on a press tour promoting her new memoir, Brave, as well as the E! documentary series Citizen Rose that centers on her. And part of her rejection of Hollywood seems to include rejecting the traditional celebrity interview.
“I just have a different personality than you,” she added. “I don’t follow protocol. And I will talk about WHAT I WANT.”
In other words, Rose McGowan truly does not give a fuck — and it is the oddest thing to watch.
When I first watched her interview with Colbert, I found myself resenting her. I felt she was being pretentious and self-aggrandizing, and wondered if she was also possibly high. Why was she telling me incoherent stories about turning down Courage Street? Was that a metaphor? Was it literal? Who could say?
But the more I sit with the interview, the more I think my resentment is born of a knee-jerk discomfort with watching a woman reject social norms on a talk show. Talk shows are designed to be spaces where famously charming people impress us with their charm, and where women in particular are expected to behave according to a specific social code to win the goodwill of us, their audience. Rose McGowan is clearly not interested in impressing anyone. There’s a weird disconnect between the medium and her persona, and that is incredibly awkward to see.
There’s also value to it. Watching someone with the immense, polished charisma of a TV star willfully reject that charm — and the entire idea that charming an audience is necessary or even something to be sought — is like watching a high-concept art project. It’s like celebrity as Dadaism. It’s worth getting comfortable with that discomfort.