Sean Young on Surviving Hollywood’s Many Toxic Men
The “Blade Runner” actress and ’80s icon opens up about being gaslit by some of the most powerful and influential men in movie history, and her recent comeback.
In the 1980s, you couldn’t miss Sean Young. The statuesque, husky-voiced star proved an imposing screen presence, whether in fatigues in Stripes, as Blade Runner’s icy replicant Rachael, or receiving back-of-the-limo oral from a young Kevin Costner in No Way Out. It was with 1988’s The Boost, portraying a woman hopelessly addicted to cocaine and her man, that things began to unravel. Young’s co-star, James Woods, filed a lawsuit against her alleging harassment and stalking (he was ultimately forced to pay her legal fees). She landed the role of Vicki Vale in Batman, only to break her arm during pre-production after being bucked from a horse and get promptly replaced. Warren Beatty axed her as the female lead of Dick Tracy after, Young alleges, she rebuffed his advances (Beatty denies this). And then there was her “audition” for the role of Catwoman on The Joan Rivers Show, replete with homemade costume.
Young subsequently received Hollywood’s scarlet letter: She was branded as “difficult” and soon found herself blacklisted. The ordeal eventually drove Young to alcoholism, culminating in her being ejected from the DGA Awards for heckling Julian Schnabel. But Young, who’s since won her battle with the bottle, maintains that she was the victim of gaslighting and that her career was sabotaged by a handful of powerful, terribly vindictive men.
Thankfully, Young, now 61, is more prolific than ever. She’s appeared in 10 films in the last three years, most of them low-budget indies. The latest is Rain Beau’s End, where she steals every scene she’s in as the wise confidante/best friend to a woman who, along with her wife, is struggling to raise a son who is genetically prone to violence.
“Choosing shows that are fun to work on with characters that you like, at any age, you get to continue on,” she says. “And I think that’s significant in the long run. Plus, I have a feeling that there’s going to be some lucky situation that I’m perfect for.”
Young—who calls films “shows,” by the way—is now ready to tell her side of the story.
I gotta ask, how have you been faring during the pandemic?
Truthfully, a lot of people may not understand that actors are always dealing with unemployment, and trying to make good use of your time is not anything new to me. I tend to be a bit of a hermit anyway. But the way it impacted me was, I would go to tap-dancing class at the Broadway Dance Center and that shut down, and then the gym closed—the Manhattan Plaza Health Club over on 43rd Street. It was just like having your whole routine wiped away. And the COVID did make me gain weight. I’m about 20 pounds overweight right now. But… I think that happened to a lot of people.
Your new film, Rain Beau’s End, struck me as a lovely tribute to lesbian parents.
Oh, definitely. And I don’t even know if it’s a “tribute,” it just happened to be the case. I don’t think it parked its car on gay parents. She was a mayor and had a lot of stuff going on. I thought it was really clever how you don’t see their son.
It was an interesting flourish. You know, I’ve been following your career for pretty much my whole life. And I always admired how nervous you made men.
And for no reason I can explain.
I think it was a pretty sexist time in Hollywood and it seemed, at least to me, like a lot of men weren’t used to a woman as strong-willed as you.
And I don’t even think I’m that strong-willed. What I always thought was: I’m a gay man trapped in a woman’s body. [Laughs] Guys would say or do things and I would look at them like, “Are you nuts? Get a grip!” I never thought of myself as being particularly female. But yes, I think I did make men nervous—and for no particular reason. I sort of felt like one of the guys.
To prepare for this interview I watched a number of your old David Letterman and Bill Maher appearances, and it was amazing how you would knock Letterman off his feet. There was that interview where you flaunted your armpit hair and he almost malfunctioned.
He was intimidated. David’s much more insecure than he lets on. He’s a great guy, though. In my opinion, it’s much more common for show business to attract very insecure people. People who need approval. It’s not really known for attracting honest, down-to-earth, salt-of-the-earth folks, unless they’re on the crew. I feel I was always down to earth and straightforward with people, and I didn’t realize until later that that may have been perceived as offensive. That was not my intention. I only got offensive later because I started getting pissed off, like, “This is serious. This is my career. You don’t just blacklist me.” It’s terrible.
I will believe Sean Young over James Woods a hundred out of a hundred times.
That’s what I thought at the time, but I didn’t end up being correct about that.
It was an insane story that he’d concocted, involving leaving a disfigured doll outside of his doorstep and other things.
It’s so stupid. In my view, I was like, “No one is gonna believe this.” And I won the lawsuit. He not only paid for my legal fees, but I had a liability clause in my insurance for my home, and I ended up getting paid by them too.
Why did he become so vindictive?
Well, I think his girlfriend had a lot to do with it. She was no prize. I think she got really jealous, and maybe he was trying to prove that his heart hadn’t been sacrificed in the show. Who knows. The lesson I learned from that is, as a rational person I will never understand an irrational, crazy person. Because you can’t. It’s irrational so it makes no sense. For the longest time, I was dealing with this lawsuit and thinking, “Why is he doing this?” I couldn’t wrap my head around it. It was so nutty and stupid, and a waste not only of my time but not good for himself. Why take all the attention off this movie [The Boost] and put it on this? I couldn’t understand it, and then what I realized is, “Oh, rational people won’t be able to understand irrational people.”
From what I’ve read about it, it sounds like he was trying to destroy you.
Oh, and he did. He actually was successful in destroying my studio career, but I was given more chances. I just got fed up. I remember, I got hired by an agent and he grilled me for an hour about James Woods, and I was like, “Oh, fuck.” So I have to walk in every time now and explain why I’m not crazy? I don’t see this guy having to explain anything, so what the fuck is your problem? I lost some enthusiasm, which I gained back in a different venue—smaller independent pictures. After I overcame my ego being bruised, because I did want to keep being a significant actress—and that eventually just died—I thought, well, it doesn’t really matter that I get to do great movies or lesser movies, what matters is that the audience will be able to see me all the way through. People will be watching Blade Runner forever, and then they’ll ask themselves, “Who’s that actress? Oh, what else did she do?” and they’ll be able to find stuff I’ve done in my 20s, 30s, 40s, 50s, and 60s—and maybe even my 70s. You never know.
I wanted to ask you about Blade Runner, because the “love scene” in that film between your character and Harrison Ford’s is incredibly aggressive and uncomfortable to watch. It almost starts out like it’s going to be an assault. He pushes you, blocks the door, shoves you across the room, and then the saxophone kicks in and there’s kissing.
Well, honestly, Ridley [Scott] wanted me to date him. He tried very hard in the beginning of the show to date him, and I never would. I was like, nah. And then he started dating the actress who played Zhora, Joanna Cassidy, and I felt relieved. And then we do this scene, and I think it was Ridley. I think Ridley was like, fuck you. I was thinking, “Why did this have to be like that? What was the point of that?” and I think it was Ridley’s none-too-subtle message that he was getting even with me.
You rejected him and he didn’t take it well.
I don’t think so, no. He never hired me again, and that was weird. What the fuck? You hire Russell Crowe a gazillion times and you’re not gonna hire me again? And I was very nice to Ridley over the years. I never badmouthed him. It didn’t occur to me until later that I guess I’d offended him.
Was the final insult by Ridley giving you that 30-second hologram cameo in Blade Runner 2049?
Wasn’t that so full of shit? And there was nothing I could do about it. It was very clear that they knew that the audience would be upset that I wasn’t in it, but they didn’t want me to bitch about that publicly. So, they paid me some money, made me sign a non-disclosure agreement, and gave me 30 seconds. And I was like, fine. They did give my son Quinn a job on 2049 in visual arts, and I said all was forgiven. He’s got great skills.
Speaking of ’80s Hollywood, I had a talk with Dennis Quaid once who told me that cocaine was everywhere on film sets back then.
Those were the ’80s!
Is that a weird environment for a young, beautiful woman like yourself to navigate?
You know what’s weird? I remember working on Stripes, and there was a lot of coke on that show. And the thing is, once you get invited into someone’s room and there’s a lot of people there doing coke and they offer you some and you don’t do it—I would smoke some weed medicinally for my PMS but wouldn’t touch the other stuff—you don’t get invited back, because drug addicts want you to be an addict along with them. They don’t want you watching them being an addict. And I would make people self-conscious because I wasn’t interested. I got offered so many drugs! Oh my god…
I read that you had a difficult time working on Wall Street.
Oh god, what a bastard [Oliver Stone] was. Michael Douglas was wonderful but Oliver and Charlie [Sheen] were awful. And Charlie was on a lot of coke on that show, and that’s what coke does to you.
He apparently wrote the word “cunt” on a piece of tape and stuck it on your back?
Yes. And then Michael tore it off without me knowing what it said. I said, “What was that?” and he said, “Forget it.” Then the art dealer—the guy who brought in all the paintings that were on the wall—was there guarding the paintings, and he told me what Charlie had done. I spoke with Charlie the next day and said, “Your dad was a pro. Writing ‘cunt’ on a piece of tape and sticking it to my back? Not pro. It’s just stupid. What are you doing?”
And Oliver Stone apparently had your role reduced and then dropped you at a bus station?
I’ll tell you the whole story. Oliver’s put Daryl [Hannah] in this white dress that she ends up wearing in the big party scene, and Daryl let me hang out in her trailer. Daryl didn’t want to wear the dress because it’s backless, and I look at Oliver and say, “Oliver, why would you want her to wear a dress she doesn’t feel comfortable in?” He says, “Could you excuse us for a minute?” and I get up and leave the trailer. So we’re doing the rehearsal and he takes my only line in the scene—Bud’s talking about racehorses and I turn to him and say, “These are jumping horses, dear, these aren’t racehorses,” like a big snob—and he gives my line to Daryl. And I go up Oliver and say, “I don’t understand? I have no lines now. What’s the point of me being in this scene?” And he goes, “You’re right. You’re fired.” I went to the trailer, got my stuff, and then they told me to get in this car. And this driver, who I thought was going to take me back to Manhattan, drops me off at the bus station. I just thought, “OK. If this is how you get your rocks off.”
There’s a lovely interview between you and the late Carl Reiner from 2009 where he vouches for you, saying that your reputation as difficult was unearned, that you were in fact a pleasure to work with, and that a famous director had smeared you in the industry and that lie had stuck to you. Was it Warren Beatty?
Warren was definitely one of them. Steven Spielberg was another. And Tim Burton didn’t have a sense of humor when I wanted to go for the part of Catwoman. This should have been funny, saying, “Who’s in the limo?” and then going onto the Warner Bros. lot dressed as Catwoman. But they didn’t see it that way.
And you’d been cast as Vicki Vale in the first Batman and then lost the part.
I broke my arm. They did spring the horse-riding thing on me, and I fell and had an accident. Could they have kept me on the show and shot around my arm? They probably could have. I think [producer] Jon Peters had this hard-on for Kim Basinger, and he saw an opportunity to exit me, and he did. And no one ended up being very happy with that choice. But it is what it is. I had an accident and then got walked to the door.
What happened with Spielberg? I remember reading that you’d nearly landed the role of Marion Ravenwood in Raiders of the Lost Ark.
I did. He didn’t mistreat me. I saw him at a New Year’s Eve party that Jerry Belson had up by the Mulholland area, and Steven was there. I said to him, “You misled me! I thought I was going to get the part.” And this really offended him. He was all, “I did not mislead you! I did not!” I was like, “Whoa, calm down. I didn’t mean it like you were a bad guy or anything, I just really thought I was going to get the part. You flew me back to California twice.” Very sensitive. And you have to remember, he did that to Bill Hurt. Steven wanted Bill in Jurassic Park, and Bill didn’t want to do it, and that was not what he wanted to hear. Steven has enough power to cancel you. He canceled Megan Fox.
Was Warren Beatty the worst of the bunch?
No… I think the sleazy or difficult part is that he probably thought he was treating me really well. You know what I’m saying? It’s not just Warren—it’s across the board. Ever since the movie business began, women have been treated as a commodity. There was always someone grabbing you, and I just ignored it. I mean, have you taken a look at Harvey Weinstein? How the fuck is he gonna get laid unless he has power? Never. I’m sure it was the greatest relief for his wife when all this happened because she had a doorway she could walk through and not look back. Can you imagine marrying that guy and having kid with him?
You gave a great fuck you line to Harvey Weinstein.
“I really wouldn’t be pulling that thing out because it’s really not pretty. Put that little thing away.” And you have to remember, someone that gross, think of who they really are inside. I think his game plan was: “Be as powerful as possible so I can get laid.” That’s as simple as most of these plans are for people. It doesn’t get a lot deeper than that.
The Carl Reiner talk was lovely because it got to how you’d been misrepresented.
I think so. Because at a certain point, everyone was grilling me. They’d say, “Just put this behind you.” And I’d say, “I’d be happy to but every time I go into an interview or audition, I get asked over and over again to defend myself. I just said, fuck it. I’m not doing this anymore. I’ve already explained it 80 million times.” And then I started getting affected by it. I started drinking too much. If you need to have a half a bottle of wine before you go to a ceremony or awards show, something’s wrong. I didn’t want to deal with these people, and I didn’t have the skill set at the time. I can do it now, but I just felt like I was a spectacle that was being looked at and sized up.
This term wasn’t really acknowledged back then, but it sounds like gaslighting to me.
Definitely. I remember, I had an audition with Barbra Streisand for The Mirror Has Two Faces. I’m at her place up in Malibu and she’s grilling me about Warren Beatty. And I go, “What is your point? I’m not sure where this conversation is going,” and she goes, “I think it’s disgusting that you spoke to the press.” I said, “Wait a minute—you think it’s disgusting that I talked about a guy harassing me at work, and you think it’s worse than him harassing me?” She said, “Well, I was with Warren a long time ago.” And I thought, “Am I the only actress that hasn’t fucked Warren Beatty?” I just remember being stunned.
You’re so hilarious in Ace Ventura. That film came at a time when all these smears about you were being spread, so how did that role happen?
Morgan Creek wanted someone else and Jim Carrey wanted me. And he fought for me. And I got the part. He’s the only leading man who ever did that for me. Jim came in and said, “No, no, no. Whatever you’re hearing is bullshit. She’s great.”
Good on Jim. One of the things I like about Rain Beau’s End is, because of your experience and how you’ve been through and seen it all, you’re so perfect as the Zen guide to your friend.
I remember I loved making the movie. The producer found me in a hotel in L.A. because I was there doing something, called up, I met him, he told me the story, and he wanted this non-binding letter of interest. I said, OK. Signed it. Two years later, he said, “I’ve got the money, we’re going, are you available?” That’s how it should work.
You have this line you tell your friend in the film, “Do for you. Because when you do for others, the pain isn’t worth it.” Did it take you some time to reach that understanding of yourself?
Yeah. But it helped going to co-dependent meetings. In co-dependence, you admit that you’re powerless over others. I spent a good two decades really focused on my husband, Bob, and allowed myself to go crazy. And one day I thought, “I don’t need to do that.” And I just stopped. Nobody else can fill the hole that’s in you. You’ve got to fill your own hole. I didn’t know that in the beginning.