• Interviews

Whitney Cummings Talks About Getting Inside a Victim

“How do you respond when the great Howard Gordon (Homeland, 24) says, ‘We’ve a role for you,’ then describes the character as, ‘A mess who makes terrible decisions with men and is not a funny comedian…?’”

So asks comedian Whitney Cummings of the packed theater in West Hollywood at the THR Live event, pausing with perfect timing so the audience’s laughter won’t drown out her next words.

The circumstances faced by her character on Fox’s Accused moved the women’s activist deeply.

As one of only 11.3% of stand-up comedians who are women, Cummings jumped at the chance to portray a comedian and rape victim on the show. Her character, Brenda, is one of the “wanna-be’s” that make up entertainment’s mass of yearning talent that lies outside the spotlight. However, Cummings admits that she found herself unexpectedly having an initially strong judgmental reaction to her character.

In a field where meetings are taken in hotel rooms, and with the very person who might be the one to change your luck; where people agree to easy sex and meanwhile imbibe whatever is at hand to dull the pain; and then when one of those discardables stands up and says, “Me too,” society’s take is often to dismiss her. She deserved it. Why didn’t she walk away? She’d had sex with him before. She was drunk …  along with a host of other judgments that dimmish the victim’s claims.

It’s true that #MeToo has made some difference, but there is still a long way to go. The word “rape” is still taboo: news media refers to “sexual assault.” For an actor to examine the topic through the lens of an unsympathetic character might well mean that the audience would be unlikely to root for her. Whitney found herself conflicted, “Reading the script broke my heart. It also pissed me off. Those are two reactions from a myriad of reasons that made me want to do the show.

“I found myself judging my character, Brenda. She has a drinking problem. She’s what many would consider a promiscuous, ‘slutty’ type. She’s desperate and reckless. She’s feral, has a lot of trauma and is cringey and annoying. The question is, if somebody’s all of those things, do they deserve to be treated as less? It prompts all these uncomfortable questions.”

The comedian rattles off the list of incontrovertible truths that might influence how this particular woman saying “rape” might be responded to. “She had slept with him before – why would this encounter that she called rape, be different? She wanted something from him career-wise. What did she think was going to happen by being there?”

She reverts to her first response on reading the script. “I read it going, ‘Just leave the room!’ And my immediate counter-reaction: ‘Oh my God, did I just think that?’ That judgement made me want to do the show, because I wanted to shed my own internalized misogyny, or whatever biases I come from or have.”

For the woman who created 2 Broke Girls and Whitney, (she also starred in the latter), one might say she has a “life experience degree” in the inner workings – both good and bad – of the entertainment industry.

“In the episode I did, (Episode 7: Brenda’s Story), my character is assaulted brutally. She goes to the DA for justice. Brenda represents a type that is specifically preyed on because she is powerless. We wanted to ensure no one could claim the rape was a drunken ‘mixed signals’ kind of thing,” asserts the 40-year-old of the moment that results in the court case seen in the episode that reflects the framing so many rape victims face. According to RAINN (The Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network), one out of every six American women has been a victim of rape or attempted rape. So getting the audience to examine the rights of even an unsympathetic victim has relevance.

Cummings continues, “To avoid any mis-framing, we got granular logistically. An intimacy coordinator worked with us to find something in the sexual assault scene that clarified that this wasn’t a miscommunication. The action we settled on was irrefutably dehumanizing, it indicated that the perpetrator does it in a serial way. She was given no choice.

“There was a little back-and-forth whether the FCC would allow it. The director, Julie Herbert, was so supportive. The actor, Zeke Thompson, who played the part, was brave to portray what he did. It makes me cringe to even say it. It’s almost like a fishhook. We wanted to show the sociopathic move that looked very rehearsed, so that she is haunted. What resonates is that he does this to others too. She made the decision the cycle would stop with her.”

As a consequence, Cummings says she ended up loving her character.

“It’s not just comedians and actors who deal with powerlessness and rape,” she says. “It happens to a lot of people who aren’t able to just walk off a job. I did a lot of research about women who work on farms, assembly lines; they can’t just walk away. They’re not paid a lot. It’s often their bosses (who are the perpetrators.) These women don’t have a lot of options. We wanted to ensure that it would be relatable to every field. The more specific you are, the more universal it is. I’m in a business where there’s a lot of that kind of behavior.”

Whitney had starred with Chris D’Elia from 2011 – 2013 in Whitney. When she was made aware of the sexual allegations against him, she issued a statement on her Twitter feed which included the words: “This abuse of power is enabled by silence. Now that I’m aware, I won’t be silent.” She adds, “Girls should be able to be a fan of a comedian they admire without becoming a sexual target.”

The native of Washington D.C. now reflects, “I was unfortunately in a situation where I had to speak up about a predator I’d worked with. It was devastating. It wrecked me. I wasn’t even a quarter as courageous as Brenda. (But that experience) made me feel enough anger to get an ‘in’ on what she was going through. I’ve been through a little bit of it in different iterations. (To respond publicly) means you could lose everything you’ve worked for. Yet (Brenda) had the courage to seek justice. To her it was: I know this is going to ruin my life even if it is a horrible life. This is going to stop here.

“After reading the script, I was changed. I decided, if I could give my all to this, I might have that impact on someone else. That would be the greatest honor.”