Rose McGowan on Her Unsettling New Music Video: 'I'm Not a Commodity'

Outspoken actor talks artistic awakening, Hollywood burnout, battling "the dickheads"

Rose McGowan plays a series of surreally stylized characters in her "RM486" video. Credit: WHOYOUARE

Rose McGowan has a lot to say, and this week, she found a new way to say it with the release of a striking new music video for her single "RM486." French electro band Punishment collaborated on the track, and video pro Jonas Åkerlund (Madonna, Lady Gaga, Metallica) directed in collaboration with stylist and "fashion activist" B. Åkerlund's WHOYOUARE.

The former Charmed star is nearly unrecognizable in the video, in which she peels layers of plaster from her body and emerges as a naked alien, then goes on to portray five more equally stylized and arresting characters. Yet McGowan says the characters are a composite portrait of herself, and depict aspects of her life ranging from "Dark Beauty" ("representative of the media perceived 'goth' period of my life") to "Green Hair Hollywood" ("the most agitated," with a mouth taped over her mouth) to "Art" (her "most powerful" and "rawest" self).

The song's title, too, is reflective of McGowan's views: It's a nod to the abortion drug RU-486, with her initials swapped in. The track bolsters McGowan's newfound status as a feminist icon, coming on the heels of her tweet this past summer about sexist notes she encountered on an Adam Sandler movie script, a move that led to her being dropped from her agency. McGowan's directorial debut, Dawn, which was nominated for a Grand Jury Prize at Sundance last year, also deals with with feminist themes.

McGowan spoke to Rolling Stone about her turn towards music, realizing that she hates acting and outlasting "the dickheads."

How did this song come about?
I decided about a year and a half ago I wanted to start fiddling around with music again and do some under my own name [after previously releasing several songs under other names]. Because I'm not in the music world at all, it took me a little while. I found these amazing musicians in Paris, an electro band called Punishment that just formed, and I told them I wanted a song to drive on Mulholland to at night. Something really astral and kind of galactic. And I was in Paris for the fashion shows and wrote it and sang it and here we are.

What was the songwriting process like?
The songwriting process took about an hour, and it starts with some Blade Runner dialogue, but then it goes into ... I wanted something really kind of uplifting. "Held my hands up to the stars/Gilded lilies driving cars/It's time to say it so I will/I can/I do/I vow to live." Which is pretty cool, as a message. And I figure, why not layer everything into everything? That's why the title is "RM486." It's a play on the abortion drug RU486, which I think is very timely with all the crap that's going on with Planned Parenthood and trying to defund them. Ugh. I just want to take their faces and smash them into the ground. Not Planned Parenthood — all the defunders and these proselytizers that are just ... Anyway, I'm off on a tangent.

So the song is a sociopolitical statement as well as a personal one.
Exactly. Everything I do is. Like the movie I directed — I directed a full feature in under 20 minutes called Dawn, and last year it was nominated for a Grand Jury Prize at Sundance and qualified for the Oscars this year, but it's all about what we do to girls, and it's a big part of my life, that platform.

Music is part of it too, but also the music's just dope.

How did you come up with the characters you play in the video?
It was just a great collaboration with the Åkerlunds' company WHOYOUARE. I was really lucky to work with Jonas Åkerlund and B. Åkerlund on this. Somehow, the costumes and pieces she put on me mirrored exactly what I had wanted to create in my mind, which was basically a commentary on the different chapters of my life, or perceived chapters if you will.

[The characters are] all favorites of mine, except for the Hollywood one where there's a mouth taped over my mouth and she's the most agitated. She's got the fuzzy green hair, and that one I find the most troubling to watch, because that equals silence. Imagine for 15 years, you go to work, and everything that comes out of your mouth is something someone wrote for you to say. It's very weird.

We did it all in one 18-hour day, which is punk. We just threw down. Sammy Mourabit is probably the most incredible makeup and prosthetics person I've ever worked with. He prepared for a week, and everybody did it for free. Just four artists, just throwing down. There was a girl who was an assistant on set, who said, "I've never seen someone physically go through what you went through." There's a thing I wear of crosses, but they were like 30 pounds of crosses; they went all the way to the ground which you can't see. The next day it was like, I had to have someone drive me home because I had so much glitter on, and glitter behind my contacts. I still find red glitter on me now and then. It is all about — I've suffered for art and movies, so why not in music.

"Imagine for 15 years, you go to work, and everything that comes out of your mouth is something someone wrote for you to say. It's very weird."

Speaking of suffering, how did you realize you "hated" acting, as you put it in a recent interview.
[Laughs] I'm pretty honest. I'm honest to a fault. I hated it because it was like a job. It was a job. It was a job that I happened to be really good at, but it wasn't one that was really satisfying to me creatively, because it was in service of other people. And I was okay being in service of other people but not when they treated me badly. It didn't make sense to keep doing that.

What's your background in, and relationship to, art and music?
My work has always been heavily influenced by art more than anything else. More than music and more than other movies, or videos certainly. My father was a fine artist, my sister works for Pace Gallery, and my other sister runs a gallery in Colorado. My other sister's a rocket scientist but also a sculptress. So art is very — the biggest theme in my family is art. And I didn't feel like an artist for a very long time, and it finally clicked that I was one, and it's been full steam ahead ever since.

How did you realize that?
It just dawned on me one night while I was stoned, to tell you the truth. I was like, "Hey, I'm not a commodity. Oh, wait, I'm an artist. Oh, OK, I got this." And then literally, it's just been full-on ever since then, with just different projects and all self-generated, and it's all been pretty great.

That must feel amazing, the whole self-generated aspect.
Absolutely. This town, Los Angeles, it makes you feel very much like a commodity that's not worth much. And that's a gross feeling to have for years and years and years. And to have that bred into your bones. Until I realized that they were all full of shit, not me.

What's different about creating art and music, compared to acting?
Well it's my voice, it's something from my mind and my heart, and not something that's sent to me in an attachment for me to say. And I got really tired of leaving my body to let something that was kind of second-class come in. Because if you're not going to develop a character who's three-dimensional then I have no interest. If you're a three-dimensional person, and have a lot of dimension to you, then why would you leave your own mind to let something else come in that's not as interesting, frankly?

I also really just want to inspire other people because, you know, I was talking to people at the Department of Education and they allocate $33 million a year to arts funding in the U.S. for schools, so if I can help make that kid in Ohio feel like there's something weird and different and that it's okay to be weird and different, then I'm down with that. Because that's what I was always like growing up: weird and different. Which I am a big fan of. You just have to suffer through the fools. It's like that Survivor show — outwit and outlast. Outlast the dickheads.

High school is the ultimate Survivor.
Try Hollywood. After that. Great fun! High school again. It's all the nerd guys pissed off that they couldn't get the hot girls, so now they're gonna punish her.

What are your influences in music and directing?
For my movie [Dawn], my influences were Edward Hopper, the original Parent Trap from 1961 and the movie The Night of the Hunter, for the stress level.

As far as musicians go, I don't know, I'm really bad at that ... It's like, what do I have here? I have Nils Frahm, an album called Spaces; I have a Tupac CD in front of me, which is hilarious, that it's a CD, and I have some records. I was listening to a lot of Marlene Dietrich last night. I bought Marlene Dietrich's record collection at auction, which is really cool. I'm not really the most integrated with music; I just like what I like. But pretty much, I just want to promote art and thought.

You did some vocals on [ex-fiancé Marilyn Manson's] Mechanical Animals, and I thought I maybe saw some common influences there in the new video.
That was really a commentary on that period: not an influence but a commentary. There's a difference. That ["Dark Beauty"] character, to me, I actually find her to be the most haunting and most beautiful and the toughest to look at in some ways for people, but I think that's what's cool about it. I mean, it was kind of more of a commentary on that time when everyone thought I was staying at home and lighting puppy dogs on fire, and in reality I was buying Martha Stewart online. Jadeite glassware! So it's more of just a commentary on society's perception rather than my actually being that.

Yeah, even now, I was struck that all these news pieces about your video called out that, "Oh, it's extremely NSFW!"
It's a piece of art! And I know, it's very annoying that they put "NSFW," because it's not. I want people to see bodies in a non-sexual manner. I was at a museum recently, and there was a sketch of a nude man, and there was a woman behind me who said, "I would never let my daughter see this!" And I turned to her and said, "Would you rather her see a man with a hard penis coming at her for the first time? Is that how you would like her to be introduced to a man's body?"

"Hollywood ... I can't. It's the number-one export of America, and this is what we're doing? It's not enough."

What did she say?
She just bugged her eyes out at me and walked away. But I was right. And maybe I put something in her head, maybe it helped, I don't know. I'd like to think so. But it's really about — it is art. The "NSFW" — ugh. It makes it kind of creepy, and there's a lot of shaming that goes on, but I won't have it; I won't tolerate it.

It's just so tired, all this stuff, but I'm fighting the good fight. Also, I want to push back against the general idea of what beauty is, because it's gotten so stale, I think. Hollywood ... I can't. It's the number-one export of America, and this is what we're doing? It's not enough. We're doing a lot of damage.

What do you want people to take away from this song?
I just want people to take away freedom. That you can be free. You can do anything you want, you can create anything you want, you can be anything you want, and it's completely okay and better to be different, in fact. I think if we're just 10 percent more artistic in our lives, great things can happen. That's all!

And can we expect more songs from you? What's next?
I have one more song that's totally different, but still me singing, and that'll probably come out in a couple months. I figure — I don't know how music stuff is done or how things are released. The way I'm approaching it is, if I have songs to release or a video to put out, I will; if I have a movie to direct, I'll do that; if I have something I'm writing, I'll write it. So I'm not a slave to any one kind of format. It's just more expression overall. I don't even know that many musicians or people in the music world, so I'd be down to collaborate with lots of people if they read this! I'm totally into it.

OK, we can put out the call. "Attn: musicians ..."
Attention, musicians! If you are dope, call me!