(JTA) — When the New York Times journalist Jodi Kantor was reporting the 2017 Harvey Weinstein sexual assault story that earned her a Pulitzer prize, the powerful Hollywood producer and his team tried to influence her by using something they had in common: They are both Jewish.
“Weinstein put [Jewishness] on the table and seemed to expect that I was going to have some sort of tribal loyalty to him,” Kantor told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency on a video call from the New York Times newsroom. “And that was just not going to be the case.”
Now, that exchange has been immortalized in “She Said,” a new film adaptation of the nonfiction book of the same name by Kantor and her collaborator Megan Twohey that details their investigation into Weinstein’s conduct, which helped launch the #MeToo movement.
The film, directed by Maria Schrader with stars Zoe Kazan as Kantor and Carey Mulligan as Twohey, is an understated thriller that has drawn comparisons to “All the President’s Men” — and multiple subtle but powerful Jewish-themed subplots reveal the way Kantor’s Jewishness arose during and at times intersected with the investigation.
In one scene, the Kantor character notes that a Jewish member of Weinstein’s team tried to appeal to her “Jew to Jew.” In another, Kantor shares a moving moment with Weinstein’s longtime accountant, the child of Holocaust survivors, as they discuss the importance of speaking up about wrongdoing.
Kantor, 47, grew up between New York and New Jersey, the first grandchild of Holocaust survivors — born “almost 30 years to the day after my grandparents were liberated,” she notes. She calls her grandmother Hana Kantor, a 99-year-old Holocaust survivor, her “lodestar.” Kantor — who doesn’t often speak publicly about her personal life, including her Jewish background, which involved some education in Jewish schools — led a segment for CBS in May 2021 on her grandmother and their relationship. Before her journalism career, she spent a year in Israel on a Dorot Fellowship, working with Israeli and Palestinian organizations. She’s now a “proud member” of a Reform synagogue in Brooklyn.
Kantor spoke with JTA about the film’s Jewish threads, the portrayal of the New York Times newsroom and what Zoe Kazan’s performance captures about journalism.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.
JTA: How did you feel having Zoe Kazan, who is not Jewish, play you? Kazan has played some notably Jewish characters before, for example in the HBO miniseries “The Plot Against America.”
JK: I feel Zoe’s performance is so sensitive and so layered. What I really appreciate about her performance is that she captures so many of the emotions I was feeling under the surface in the investigation. You know, when you’re a reporter and especially a reporter handling that sensitive a story, it’s your responsibility to present a really smooth professional exterior to the world. At the end of the investigation, I had the job of reading Harvey Weinstein some of the allegations and really confronting him. And in dealing with the victims, I wanted to be a rock for them and it was my job to get them to believe in the investigation. And so on the one hand, you have that smooth, professional exterior, but then below that, of course you’re feeling all the feelings. You’re feeling the power of the material, you’re feeling the urgency of getting the story, you’re feeling the fear that Weinstein could hurt somebody else. You’re feeling the loss that these women are expressing, including over their careers. And so I think Zoe’s performance just communicates that so beautifully.
What Zoe says about the character is that there are elements of me, there are elements of herself, and then there are elements of pure invention because she’s an artist, and that’s what she does.
I think the screenplay gets at a small but significant line of Jewish sub-drama that ran through the investigation. It went like this: Harvey Weinstein and his representatives were constantly trying to approach me as a Jew. And they’ve done this more recently, as well. There have been times when Harvey Weinstein was trying to approach me “Jew to Jew,” like almost in a tone of “you and I are the same, we understand each other.” We found dossiers later that they had compiled on me and it was clear that they knew that I was the grandchild of Holocaust survivors, and they tried to sort of deploy that. So speaking of keeping things under the surface, I privately thought that was offensive, that he was citing that. But your job as a reporter is to be completely professional. And I wasn’t looking to get into a fight with Weinstein. I just wanted to find out the truth and I actually wanted to be fair to the guy. Anyway, even as he was approaching me “Jew to Jew” in private, he was hiring Black Cube — sort of Israeli private intelligence agents — to try to dupe me. And they actually sent an agent to me, and she posed as a women’s rights advocate. And she was intimating that they were going to pay me a lot of money to appear at a conference in London. Luckily I shooed her away.
To some degree I can’t explain why private Israeli intelligence agents were hired to try to dupe the Hebrew speaking, yeshiva-educated, granddaughter of Holocaust survivors. But it’s not my job to explain that! It’s their job to explain why they did that.
Then the theme reappeared with Irwin Reiter, Weinstein’s accountant of 30 years, who kind of became the Deep Throat of the investigation. I quickly figured out that Irwin and I were from the same small world. He was the child of survivors, and had also spent his summers at bungalow colonies in the Catskills just down the road from mine. I don’t bring up the Holocaust a lot. It’s a sacred matter for me, and I didn’t do it lightly. But once I discovered that we did in fact have this really powerful connection in our backgrounds, I did gently sound it with him – I felt that was sincere and real. Because he was making such a critical decision: Weinstein’s accountant of 30 years is still working for the guy by day and he’s meeting with me at night. And I felt like I did need to go to that place with him, saying, “Okay, Irwin, we both know that there are people who talk and there are people who don’t. And we both grew up around that mix of people and what do we think is the difference? And also if you know if you have the chance to act and intervene in a bad situation, are you going to take it?”
We didn’t talk a lot about it, because I raised it and he didn’t want to fully engage. But I always felt like that was under the surface of our conversations, and he made a very brave decision to help us.
That was a very powerful scene in the film, and it felt like a turning point in the movie that kind of got at the ethical core of what was motivating your character. Was that a scene that was important to you personally to include in the film?
What Megan and I want people to know overall is that a small number of brave sources can make an extraordinary difference. When you really look at the number of people who gave us the essential information about Weinstein, it’s a small conference room’s worth of people. Most of them are incredibly brave women, some of whom are depicted, I think, quite beautifully in the film. But there was also Irwin, Weinstein’s accountant of all these years, among them. It’s Megan and my job to build people’s confidence in telling the truth. And as we become custodians of this story for the long term, one of the things we really want people to know is that a tiny group of brave sources, sometimes one source, can make a massive difference. Look at the impact that these people had all around the world.
Did you feel the film captured the New York Times newsroom? There’s a kind of great reverence to the toughness and professionalism in the newspaper business that really came through.
Megan and I are so grateful for the sincerity and professionalism with which the journalism is displayed. There are a lot of on screen depictions of journalists in which we’re depicted as manipulative or doing things for the wrong reasons or sleeping with our sources!
We [as journalists] feel incredible drama in what we do every day. And we’re so grateful to the filmmakers for finding it and sharing it with people. And I know the New York Times can look intimidating or remote as an institution. I hope people really consider this an invitation into the building and into our meetings, and into our way of working and our value system.
And we’re also proud that it’s a vision of a really female New York Times, which was not traditionally the case at this institution for a long time. This is a book and a movie about women as narrators.
There have been comparisons made between this movie and “All the President’s Men.” One of the striking differences is that those journalists are two male bachelors running around D.C. And this film has scenes of motherhood, of the Shabbat table, of making lunches. What was it like seeing your personal lives reflected on screen?
It’s really true that the Weinstein investigation was kind of born in the crucible of motherhood and Megan and my attempt to combine work with parenting. On the one hand, it’s the most everyday thing in the world, but on the other hand, you don’t see it actually portrayed on screen that much. We’re really honored by the way that throughout the film you see motherhood and work mixing, I think in a way that is so natural despite our obviously pretty stressful circumstances.
I started out alone on the Weinstein investigation, and I called Megan because movie stars were telling me their secrets but they were very reluctant to go on the record. So I had gone some way in persuading and engaging them, but I was looking to make the absolute strongest case for them. So I called Megan. We had both done years of reporting on women and children. Mine involved the workplace more and hers involved sex crimes more, which is part of why everything melded together so well eventually. I wanted to talk to her about what she had said to female victims in the past. But when I reached her, I could hear that something was wrong. And she had just had a baby, and I had had postpartum depression myself. So we talked about it and I gave her the name of my doctor, who I had seen. Then she got treatment. And she not only gave very good advice on that [initial] phone call, but she joined me in the investigation.
I think the theme is responsibility. Our relationship was forged in a sense of shared responsibility, primarily for the work – once we began to understand the truths about Weinstein, we couldn’t allow ourselves to fail. But also Megan was learning to shoulder the responsibility of being a parent, and I had two kids. And so we started this joint dialogue that was mostly about work, but also about motherhood. And I think throughout the film and throughout the real investigation, we felt those themes melding. It’s totally true that my daughter Tali was asking me about what I was doing. It’s very hard to keep secrets from your kid in a New York City apartment, even though I didn’t tell her everything. And Megan and I would go from discussing really critical matters with the investigation to talking about her daughter’s evolving nap schedule. It really felt like we had to get the story and get home to the kids.
And also, we were reporting on our own cohort. A lot of Weinstein victims were and are women in their 40s. And so even though we were very professional with this and we tried to be very professional with the sources, there was an aspect of looking in the mirror. For example, with Laura Madden, who was so brave about going on the record, it was conversations with her own teenage daughters that helped her make her decision.
We didn’t write about this in our book because it was hard to mix the motherhood stuff with this sort of serious reporter-detective story and all the important facts. And we didn’t want to talk about ourselves too much in the book. But the filmmakers captured something that I think is very true. It feels particular to us but also universal. When Zoe [Kazan] is pushing a stroller and taking a phone call at the same time, I suspect lots of people will identify with that. And what I also really like is the grace and dignity with which that’s portrayed.
It must have been surreal, seeing a Hollywood movie about your investigation of Hollywood.
I think part of the power of the film is that it returns the Weinstein investigation to the producer’s medium, but on vastly different terms, with the women in charge. Megan and I are particularly moved by the portrayals of Zelda Perkins, Laura Madden and Rowena Chiu — these former Weinstein assistants are in many ways at the core of the story. They’re everyday people who made the incredibly brave decision to help us, in spite of everything from breast cancer to legal barriers.
Working with the filmmakers was really interesting. They were really committed to the integrity of the story, and they asked a ton of questions, both large and small. Ranging from the really big things about the investigation to these tiny details. Like in the scene where we go to Gwyneth Paltrow’s house and Megan and I discover we’re practically wearing the same dress — those were the actual white dresses that we wore that day. We had to send them in an envelope to the costume department, and they copied the dresses in Zoe and Carey’s sizes and that’s what they’re wearing. There was a strand of extreme fidelity, but they needed some artistic license because it’s a movie. And the movie plays out in the key of emotion.