Veanne Cox of ‘Erin Brockovich’ fame hit the red carpet to promote her role in ‘Radium Girls,’ and discuss women’s rights.
It takes extreme bravery to face giant corporations. The all-powerful entities that control industry inevitably grow so strong that seldom anyone challenges their beliefs or practices. Whether it was the Pacific Gas and Electric Company’s poisoning of a small California town’s water supply or the deadly industrial fire at the Triangle Shirtwaist factory here in New York, many giant corporations have some sort of grave malfeasance in their past. It seems to be an integral part of the capitalist system—ensure profitability at all costs.
Radium Girls tells the story of one such extreme malfeasance, in which female factory workers at several radium factories had contracted radiation poisoning as a result of painting watch-dials with radium-stricken self-luminous paint. They were instructed by the corporation that the material was harmless and needed to point the paintbrush by licking it to create a fine paintbrush tip. Some would even paint their teeth, faces, and fingernails with the material, not knowing that they were poisoning themselves with deadly radiation. It would take years and years of litigation before a decision was passed down that put the fault squarely on the United States Radium Corporation. It took dozens of experts years to explain to the United States government that what had transpired was illegal, including Veanne Cox’s character Dr. Katherine Drinker, whose testimony helped the girls in court. Ms. Cox took the time to talk to the Knockturnal as she hit the carpet at the Tribeca premiere to discuss working on the film, the similarities to Erin Brockovich and fighting for women’s rights. Check out what else she had to say below.
The Knockturnal: What can you tell me about your character? There’s a lot to discover unless people are very intimately aware of the case.
Veanne Cox: She was Harvard professor, back in 1920. So that was really unique.
The Knockturnal: Being a Harvard professor today is still huge.
Veanne Cox: Yeah, exactly and probably really scary. I haven’t seen the movie yet, but in terms of speaking up like she did, it must have been terrifying. She really makes difference in terms of standing up in the trial and saying this is what science says. She says, “this is what I know” they asked me if I remember correctly, they ask me why I did it, and I say “I couldn’t stand by any longer and let this happen, because the science says that this is what happens when people do what these girls are doing.” I just told the directors that I was in this movie Erin Brockovich like 20 years ago and it’s kind of like these girls are early Erin Brockovich. They’re standing up for their plight. And saying this can’t happen. This can’t happen! And it’s just wonderful. I mean it couldn’t happen at a better time in terms of women standing up for themselves. We’ll take change and embrace our power. I mean what these girls went through, oh my God.
The Knockturnal: I mean going through radium radiation without knowing about it? That’s beyond horrific.
Veanne Cox: Yes, and we’re still oppressed so it’s good to have markers like this. In terms of film taking control and showing what can go wrong. Erin Brockovich was an incredible movie that did that and people still watch it over and over again. Only this is even worse. This is also a period piece, which makes it all the more delicious.
The Knockturnal: It’s very interesting because you play this female professor from Harvard, so obviously, your character has a lot more weight that even this patriarchy that she’s fighting against can’t deny. And yet she’s still put down for simply being a woman.
Veanne Cox: Oh my God, I know.
The Knockturnal: I can only imagine how it felt to finally have that moment to rejoice in saying, “we won, now sit down boys, let me tell you how it is”
Veanne Cox: Well I’m not sure I will tell you that my character in the movie says that. I don’t think she celebrates what she’s doing, I think she’s terrified. She is so scared to stand up and speak the truth. But she does it, and I think from what I understand, it made a difference. Not for her, but the whole case, and the girls standing up for themselves. So no, I don’t think there was any moment where she’s like, “yeah, yay me. She was terrified for her job, she was terrified for her life. You know I’m sure all of that went through her mind, when she decided to take the stand. Because she didn’t go there to take the stand, she went compelled to find out what was happening.
The Knockturnal: Right, as a woman of science, a woman of truth.
Veanne Cox: Yes, exactly. It’s just so interesting and wonderful. I was very happy to be part of it, I love Lydia [Dean Pilcher] and Ginny [Mohler]. They were incredible co-directors, it’s just wonderful.
The Knockturnal: It’s interesting to see the dynamic between them. Lydia’s the more experienced of the two on sets. She’s had an Academy Award nomination, Emmy nominations and so much more. Her list goes on and on of esteemed accolades. And Ginny has always been more like a historian. She’s the one who really uncovered the actual story itself. I was wondering, how did that sort of relationship come to fruition on set?
Veanne Cox: It was a joy to be on the set, and they worked together beautifully when one would take over and say this, this, this, and the other person would come and say that, that, that. Then Lydia would come in, Ginny would be directing, Lydia would be directing and they would confer about something. What the best possible scenario would be, what they wanted to try, and their ideas—it was real collaboration. It was absolutely lovely. It was really, really fantastic. It’s actually quite rare.
Radium Girls premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival on April 27.