US-based Gold Coast filmmaker Kathleen Simmonds has taken on the story of Jeffrey Epstein’s sex trafficking ring in a brand new docu-series.
Gold Coaster Kathleen Simmonds is an actress, filmmaker and reformed corporate lawyer currently based in New York.
A passionate advocate for women, Kathleen’s focus as a filmmaker is to put women front and centre while highlighting women’s issues and amplifying their voices.
Her recent docu-series ‘Surviving Jeffrey Epstein’ investigates the sexual abuse charges against the New York financier and tells the story of eight survivors of the shocking sex-trafficking operation. The docu-series aired simultaneously in the USA and Australia on 10 August, exactly one year after Epstein was found dead in his Manhattan Jail Cell.
We caught up with Kathleen to chat about the docu-series, find out what it is about women’s stories that pull her focus and to see what other projects she has in the pipeline.
Congratulations on the release of your new docu-series ‘Surviving Jeffrey Epstein’ which has just aired on the Lifetime Channel in the USA and on Channel 9 in Australia. I wondered what it was about this story in particular that interested you?
Thank you so much! We are very proud of the series. In terms of what interested me, first and foremost, I always consider the team when choosing a project. I have been extremely lucky to work with the Directors of ‘Surviving Jeffrey Epstein’ Annie Sundberg and Ricki Stern as well as the production company Bungalow Media + Entertainment for a few years now, so it always feels like a family when we work together. I was also particularly drawn to this series because I knew that we weren’t just going to be focusing on the details of what Epstein did, but more importantly, would be providing a platform that honours the survivors, amplifies their voices and empowers other women to speak out and heal. It really is a story of hope and overcoming adversity.
A development that arose from the show’s release was that on the weekend the series aired in the US, the RAINN National Sexual Assault Hotline experienced a 34% increase in usage. This demonstrates the powerful impact of documentary filmmaking and one of the many reasons why I love working on docs.
Could you tell us a little bit about the creation of the series and how long it took? Also, what the response has been like to the series?
The journey of this show was definitely full of twists and turns. We had already started production when Epstein died in a New York prison in August 2019. That obviously changed the way our Directors approached victims and how the victims wanted to tell their story. Then COVID-19 hit the US and we shut down entirely, which halted a lot of our plans. And amongst all of that, a month before the series’ premiere, Ghislane Maxwell was arrested! So Episode 4 is actually very different to what we originally intended.
That last month was a race to basically tell the story in real time, but it was worth it to feel like there might actually be some justice for the survivors. I think the response has been great so far. We reveal pieces of information that no one has ever heard before, introduce new people into the narrative and really dive into the complicated web of Epstein’s sex-trafficking operation. So far, the reviews have been really positive, but we didn’t make it for the critics. We were just incredibly humbled by the women who were brave enough to share their stories with us and to trust us with how we were going to show those stories on screen. Doing this for them and the many other women who feel like they can now come forward is the most important and satisfying thing.
I wondered if you could tell us a little bit about your background and your connection to the Gold Coast? Your bio says you are an actress, filmmaker and reformed corporate Lawyer. Did you study on the Gold Coast and when/why did you move to New York City?
I grew up on the GC! Isn’t there a saying – you can take the girl out of the GC, but you can’t take the GC out of the girl? I went to Trinity Lutheran College and then Griffith University for law school. My Mum still lives on the Coast, and many of my close friends – so I miss it a lot. The short story is that I practiced corporate law for six years in Brisbane, then had a quarter life crisis, quit my job, blew up my life, packed two suitcases and got on a plane to New York City. I have just passed my seven year anniversary in the USA. During that time I got my Masters in Acting and have been invited by Ellen Burstyn and Al Pacino to become a Lifetime Member of The Actors Studio in NY and LA. I continue working as an actress in both the US and Australia, but underlying everything is my role as a storyteller. For me, the form doesn’t matter. If I am telling a story as an actor or filmmaker, the most important thing is that I am telling it as truthfully as possible.
As a filmmaker you focus on films which have women’s issues and stories at their centre. What is it about women’s stories that pull your focus?
I think that has been true for me not just as an actress and filmmaker, but all of my life. For example, when I graduated law school, my honours thesis was on reforming surrogacy laws in Australia. And when I practiced law, my pro bono focus was on providing advice to homeless youth and helping with micro-finance loans for women. I’ve also realised over the years that I don’t do well at something unless I am invested on an emotional level and that I lose interest if I feel like female stories aren’t being depicted accurately.
The projects that I am most proud of have women front and centre and in power. I made a comedy series with two close friends (and an all-female production team) called ‘Woe is She’ which shines a light on the daily work of living with and overcoming depression as a woman in a big city. I went to the Oscars with a short documentary on diversity in Hollywood which was a response to the #metoo and #oscarsowhite movements. We also have a documentary on Netflix called ‘Reversing Roe’ about the US abortion law crisis which was nominated for two Emmy’s last year. So I think whether I mean to or not, I am definitely focused on and gravitate towards projects which empower women and amplify their voices.
How have things been for you during COVID-19?
Like most people, I have definitely been through some ups and downs emotionally. New York was a very tough place to be during the thick of it. Added to that is everything that is going on politically here. 2020 has certainly been a tough year and a lot of people are suffering. But work-wise I have been very lucky. I made a short film, shot an international commercial for an Australian brand from my boyfriend’s apartment, and delivered two Network shows. So I’d say it’s been pretty productive on a personal level.
Do you have any other projects coming up we need to keep an eye out for?
I do! I am currently writing a narrative TV show with my friend Jessica Damouni (an incredibly talented Aussie actress living in LA – check her out) and later this year another documentary I worked on called ‘Roswell: The First Witness’ will be released on the History Channel. Other than that, I am auditioning again because things have started to open back up in the US, so watch this space.