As Hollywood realigns itself in the wake of Me Too, new questions are being asked about the ethics of power within the industry — including a movement examining the treatment of Hollywood’s assistants. Last year, a survey called #PayUpHollywood, conducted by TV writers Liz Alper and Deirdre Mangan, and media consultant Jamarah Hayner, revealed that nightmare assistant stories weren’t exactly rare. In an industry that lacks standards for how assistants’ roles are defined, let alone compensated, several survey respondents reported going without health care and having to file for unemployment between seasons of shows they worked on. The more we learned, the more it seemed like Hollywood’s classic entry-level job was actually a built-in barrier to success for people without a means of independent support.
We wanted to hear more. As part of our new series, Anonymous in Hollywood, Vulture recently spoke to a few former assistants in entertainment who shared their experiences working in the industry.
A phone assistant for a film producer
It’s a 14-hour day. You get in at 6 a.m. and you leave at 8 p.m. — there’s no variation on that. There is no overtime. You’re a salaried worker, which is I guess how it’s legal. My dad helped me break it down so it’s basically minimum wage.
I was a phone assistant, and when I started, everyone was like, “I’m so sorry you got this job.” He expects there to be four or five phone calls being made simultaneously, and he will scream and scream if that’s not happening. You can’t really get up; there are no real breaks. Every production job I’ve ever had, there’s not really a break. You are at the beck and call of everyone else.
No one ever gets trained in that office because he’s constantly firing people, or people quit with no notice. You’re supposed to warn him about meetings and phone calls an hour out, half an hour out, 15 minutes out, with emails, texts, or by telling him directly in the office. One day, he had this meeting with two big writers and he was out of the office, so I was sending him emails and texts. He has four numbers on this sheet we have, and I was calling all of them. He just blew it off, and then he screamed at me and fired me. He would accuse me of not sending emails or texts, but I talked to the IT guy and he told me, “No, I can see him opening them.”
I got physically ill from working there. Every half an hour I’d get diarrhea and have to run to the bathroom because I was so afraid. I was there for three whole days before I got fired. The other assistants were really nice to me, because we had to be. The assistant with the most “authority” had been there about three months. There were people who got fired in less than a week. Less than a day. When I got fired, one of the other assistants texted me, “This isn’t you, it’s him.” We were all in this together.
You’re never gonna move up — that became really clear to me right away. But there’s always something being dangled in front of you. When I went to film school, we learned you start at the bottom and you work your way to the top. Now, the friends I have who are successful were never assistants, and I’m like, “Well what the fuck was I doing? Was this all a lie?” Sometimes people are really lucky, or really good, and other times they’re just really rich and can do whatever they want to do.
I’m in therapy four days a week and my therapist says I seem to have a fear of getting another job. But it’s not that. I’m afraid of being taken advantage of again, I’m afraid of working for the wrong people again. I don’t know if I’m gonna take another film job.
A personal assistant for a TV news anchor
I was a personal assistant for a news anchor who is a garbage human. I once pulled an all-nighter rewriting a speech for him to give at Yale only for him to inform me the next day that he expected me to drive him from NYC to New Haven. In the car, he decided to give me an in-depth performance review about all my flaws. Including, by the way, how oddly “robotic” I was in that I didn’t seem to show enough emotions for a woman. Meanwhile, I was attempting to not drive us both into oncoming traffic. Once we arrived, he informed me that I would have to find my own way home. (This was a Tuesday and I was expected at work the next day.) After frantically calling my Yale friends to find a place to sleep for the night, he mentioned that he’d changed his mind. I could ride with him back to NYC that night. But I had to take the subway at 1 a.m. from the Upper West Side to Bushwick. I don’t understand how a man can treat a person who has access to all of his bank accounts, emails, and Viagra prescriptions so poorly.
A touring agent assistant
I did his phone and scheduling and the “work” of it was dealing with contracts. Most agents in that space just negotiate deal terms. I was responsible for making sure people got paid at the end of the night. Very high stakes and anxiety-inducing. A performer is making $500,000 for an hour of work and I’m doing all the contract work and making sure all the terms are accounted for while making just above minimum wage.
At orientation, they told us we would work one hour of overtime a day and we’re required to take an hour for lunch. Meanwhile, we’re all eating lunch at our desks (this is in NYC — L.A. actually takes the hour) and staying until the work is done. After all, you’re trying to prove yourself, so you’re going to shows until all hours of the night, scouting and not getting paid for any of it. One year we were supposed to be out at 1 p.m. for a holiday and my boss didn’t know, so I messaged him to say I was leaving. Then I went to the bathroom. While I was sitting on the toilet I heard him shouting, asking everyone where I was. He stormed into the bathroom to yell at me and I had to explain that I was done for the day, and I was going to finish shitting and go home. He was very unhappy about it. I got yelled at mid-shit. After that, I had to ask to go to the bathroom and was sometimes told no. I was 25, and life was terrible.
It’s funny, all this time later I still feel guilty telling you this. Like I’m betraying my former boss and the company’s trust. I’m years out of it and am doing very well. But that’s what they do to you. They make you feel a debt to them. Like they’re doing you a favor. Like you’ll never work in this town again if you say something. That’s why I never spoke up. I was a terrified little brown boy making terrible money. If there was going to be mass action, it would have to be fueled by people of color. And I wasn’t brave enough.
An assistant at a top-tier agency
Like most, I worked my way up from the mailroom at a top-tier agency. I started at $30,000. I worked my ass off to be “promoted” to an agent’s desk. Everything was fine for a while. My boss was the one who helped me find an apartment. She gave me a raise so I could afford rent, showered me with unwarranted gifts, and sent me out to some really great shows, events, and screenings.
And then, she snapped. It was like a switch flipped, and to this day I don’t know what caused it. She started fabricating things in her head. Once, she called HR to complain that I was making her feel fat. She’d make me interrupt agent meetings to bring in a lunch that she refused to eat, solely so her colleagues could remark on how little she ate during the day.
She once berated me for telling her I was unable to DVR shows on Netflix. It remains the only time I was truly afraid of violence in the workplace. I distinctly remember having to put my hands up to protect my face because I had fallen back onto her couch and she was towering over me. Not one person intervened, despite her office having glass walls.
My favorite, though, was when, in an attempt to get me fired, she fabricated a story about how I cursed out and hung up on the company’s CEO. I relayed all of this to HR, who told me that “’it’s part of the job.”
I wasn’t fired from the company, but I was sent back to the mailroom. My raise was taken away, and I lost all enthusiasm. HR then called me in to ask why I wasn’t working as hard as the first time I was in the mailroom.
The sickest part of it was the effect it had on my mental health afterward. I hated myself because I felt like I was weak for not being able to stick it out. Hollywood preys on young people too afraid to say anything. There’s a constant fear that if you make any noise, you’ll be barred from the industry for life. They know this, and they use it to their advantage.
My boss told me she’d never give me a recommendation and that I should go back to school and learn how to conduct myself in an office setting. She also said that nobody had ever been fired from her desk who didn’t come back to praise her for teaching them how to be a professional. I’m happy to report that I am the first.
A writer’s PA on a TV show
I have many horrifying assistant tales, but when I was hired as a writer’s PA on one show, an executive producer forced me to become her personal assistant (while keeping the same title and pay, of course). I planned one of her kid’s birthday parties, bought makeup bags as party favors for the girls, and booked her other kid’s travel. Then the writer’s assistant left and I filled in while still being the assistant and making a writer’s PA’s negligible salary: $750 a week with a 50-hour minimum, no benefits. When I went on to become a de facto assistant and writer’s assistant, I wasn’t allowed to ask for more. It was presented as an expansion of writer’s PA duties. My boss made me go across town to get her salads for lunch and ice for her cocktails. One time, she threw out the salad when I handed it to her and sent me out for a second ice trip to find “actually good ice.”