For months, someone has been cold-calling actresses in the U.S. pretending to be British filmmaker Hugh Welchman. The calls begin with promising job offers, but quickly descend into coercion and sexual harassment.
In early September, British filmmaker Hugh Welchman began receiving a series of bizarre and angry messages under his Instagram posts. They all came from one actress.
An Oscar winner in 2007 for the animated short Peter and the Wolf, but perhaps best-known as the co-director of 2017’s Vincent van Gogh biographical drama Loving Vincent — considered the first fully painted feature (and a runner-up to Coco at the Academy Awards) — Welchman didn’t know the woman at all. Yet the messages implied some sort of unsolicited relationship, describing him as a “predator.” Beneath a post in which he discussed his wife, the actress responded by saying “if only” she knew what he’d done to her on Skype.
Welchman, based in the Polish city of Sopot where he’s established his Breakthru Films production company, had no idea what the woman was talking about, so he deleted the messages and blocked her. But there was more to come. A week or so later, his manager David Neumann forwarded an email from another actress claiming that she had either been contacted by Welchman, in which case his reps needed to know what he was up to, or someone purporting to be him.
As it turned out, this wasn’t the first time his manager had heard about this. A different actress emailed in late May to say that she had been phoned by a man claiming to be the filmmaker, but she could tell that it was a hoax. Thinking this was just a one-off, Neumann didn’t feel the need to trouble his client at the time.
Feeling rather disturbed by what he’d heard, on Sept. 22 Welchman posted a video on Instagram warning about a “conman creep pretending to be me,” urging anyone who had been contacted to report it to authorities. As he pointed out, he “would never cold call any actors, actresses or crew.”
Then the messages steadily started flowing in, mostly from women in LA and New York, with one in Texas. Welchman started putting together a database of the victims, detailing the experiences they’d had with the imposter.
As it currently stands, there are 13 who have come forward, the earliest call dating back to May 2020, the most recent taking place mid October. There may be many more out there. The calls may still be going on.
But this isn’t simply a case of identity theft. And unlike similar sounding phone scams, such as the notorious Hollywood Con Queen, there’s no apparent financial profiteering involved – the motive here appears to be purely sexual.
Choosing to steal the identity of Welchman — a Poland-based British filmmaker specializing in animation — may seem an odd choice for a predator preying on U.S. actresses. But it lends support to the entire scam: Welchman is not an instantly recognizable name or someone a friend would likely know, yet he is one that, via a quick search online, comes with impressive industry credentials. “It’s someone obscure enough that it could be believable, and it’s someone who has won an Oscar, so again, it shows he’s a person in power,” says LA-based Canadian stand-up comedian and actress Kaitlin Mamie, who first received a call — from a withheld number — on Sept. 16.
Clearly adept at manipulation, the charlatan uses the classic lure of a potential film role (and with an Academy Award-winning director) to push his targets into deeply uncomfortable and personal conversations, often spending hours on the line each time. On several occasions he’s coerced the women to move to a video call, where at least three have exposed themselves for him. Thankfully his requests to actually meet up with his targets — at the least those that Welchman knows about — have been rejected. The LAPD has now assigned a detective to the case.
“Obviously it’s distressing for me as it’s my identity,” says Welchman, who filed a report with both the British police and FBI’s identity theft website (although is yet to hear back from either). “But it’s much more distressing for the women who he’s trying to dominate and exploit.”
Introducing himself at first as just “Hugh,” the caller told Mamie that she’d been recommended by Mike Clattenburg, creator of Canadian mockumentary series The Trailer Park Boys. Although she just had a minor role in the show, and felt slightly mismatched, his reference put her at ease.
From there he explained to Mamie that he was the celebrated filmmaker Hugh Welchman. She didn’t know the name, but he told her to watch the Loving Vincent trailer on her computer while he stayed on the line, describing how it was uniquely made using a vast team of artists over five years (all information readily available online) and how it had been hugely successful in Europe. “At this point I had no reason to believe this guy is not who he says he is,” she says.
Claiming that he had studied meditation, he then asked Mamie if she’d do some “energy work” with him to help “break down the walls.” As someone who practiced meditation herself, it didn’t seem too crazy, so she did as he said, lying down on the bed in the bedroom where she was taking the call (ushering her husband away in the process — “in my mind it was still a legitimate thing.”)
At this point the call took a decidedly creepy turn.
As he had Mamie breathing deeply in and out, the imposter started making personal comments, stating that there was “anxiety inside” her, that it had been a “really hard eight months” for her and that there “were tears” in her eyes, demanding a yes or no answer each time. Asking if she was single, she said she was married. “But you’re unhappy in your marriage, yes?” “There have been times in the last few months where you’ve thought about the marriage ending, yes?” It was getting deeply unpleasant.
Then he moved to the “energy” in the room. “Can you feel my energy, yes? Where can you feel my energy? My energy is stronger than your energy, yes? Can you feel that, yes?”
Mamie pulled the plug, telling the man that she felt uncomfortable and wanted to stop. “That’s good, that’s part of it all,” he responded. “I wanted to listen to your inner voice. That’s what the film is about.” She felt not great, but better. When he called back a short while later, she said in future he should go through her agent. The imposter hung up.
Mamie’s experience with the imposter fits into a specific pattern he seems to follow.
In his intro he’ll drop an industry name he knows the actress is somehow connected to, clearly having gleaned the information from IMDbPro or a personal website (the actresses’ phone numbers are another matter — while some are readily available on casting sites, others say they’re still perplexed as to how he tracked them down).
For New York-based Kyle Ocasio — whom he called on Sept. 14 — the reference was film editor Sonia Gonzalez-Martinez, a friend and someone she’d worked with on a web series. In the case of LA-based Alexis Capozzi — called on October 8 — he said she’d been recommended for the role by her former acting tutor Stan Kirsch.
This time there was an issue: Kirsch had died nine months earlier. Was he aware? “Yes,” he said, quickly adding that the reason he’d taken so long to reach out was because he “had just got funding.” Seizing an opportunity, he used the passing of Kirsch and its clear emotional impact on Capozzi as a manipulation tool (in a later call he said he’d rung again because he’d “been thinking about Stan” who had wanted him to “reach out and make sure everything was ok.”)
Early in the conversation he aggressively insists his target watch the trailer for Loving Vincent and — sometimes — the 2007 biopic La Vie En Rose (on which the real Welchman served as visual effects supervisor), clearly aiming to establish credibility.
But of the new project and role, there’s scant and conflicting information, with the predator getting irritable should he be asked to provide it. In one call, it was a remake of Loving Vincent, in another it was a coming-of-age story. One consistent factor is that it’s being shot in Italy and France, with him telling the actresses that they’ll have to respond “yes, sir” and “no, sir” on set, “because that’s culturally appropriate.” Domination and control is a key element throughout the call. At one point he asked Ocasio if she would “accept his total authority,” while he told Capozzi that she was “talking too much — I like to control the conversation.”
One of the more peculiar aspects of each conversation is a backstory he insists on providing. The real Hugh Welchman is from the south-east English county of Berkshire. Not only does the imposter regularly claim to have been born and raised in India, but he says his first language is Sanskrit, which hasn’t been considered a living language for well over a millennium. One actress thought this was perhaps part of the manipulation, to “make him sound smarter than you.”
Then there’s the accent. Mamie said when she found videos of Welchman speaking online afterwards, her caller did actually sound very similar (“but much scarier or dominating”). However, all the others have said it was clearly an American accent they heard (as was the case in a recording THR listened to).
“Maybe because I’m American he thought, fuck it, she’ll never know,” says Ocasio, who adds that — having heard Welchman since — the real filmmaker sounds much more masculine, whereas the imposter sounded “like a creepy yoga teacher.”
The meditation work comes up in each call, with the charlatan insisting his target be lying down, then asking repeat questions about where they can “feel” his energy. Many say they didn’t know how to respond, so just made up something – stomach, chest, back — that sounded neutral. During the energy work he begins asking personal questions about relationships and happiness, pushing the emotional needle to find a potential weak spot. On several occasions, he’s turned the violation up several deeply unpleasant notches, telling the women that he thinks they’ve been raped or molested.
For Capozzi, having already dismissed a few warning signs, being told by a stranger on the phone that she’d been raped was the reality check she needed. “I just had this kind of visceral reaction,” she says.
Insisting that no, she hadn’t been sexually assaulted (to which he attempted to deflect it back – “well why do I feel that’s what happened to you?”) and realizing that she was being manipulated on a call that was getting “far too sexual in nature,” she looked to shut it down. She said thanks, but she was done with the energy work.
He fought back. He needed his actresses to be “open and willing” to try different things, he claimed, and would look elsewhere. Eventually, with Capozzi having reined back the power in the conversation, explaining that it sounded like they wouldn’t be able to work together, he hung up.
Usually, this would signal the end to all interaction with the imposter, but he repeatedly called Capozzi back. Later that day. The following day. And on five occasions on Oct. 14. By this time, Capozzi had long since tracked down the real Welchman and filed a report with the LAPD, with an officer suggesting she gather more information. So she began recording him, stringing him on to gather as many clues as she could. Among his repeat insistences was that they talk via Skype, getting angry when Capozzi refused (she had been hoping the police would provide her with a special account to assist in the investigation, to no avail).
Others, however, have agreed to video calls.
One, asking to remain anonymous, said that when they did connect on Skype, his camera wouldn’t switch on – this “broken camera” is a consistent theme: nobody has seen the imposter’s face. Quickly moving onto the new film, he said that the actress would have to be comfortable with customs in Europe, where they’re “not as prudish about nudity.” She said fine, so long as the project called for it, at which point he requested she show him one of her bikinis, then go off-screen, change into it and come back. This was enough. She refused.
According to Welchman, as many as four of the women who contacted him said they went further, exposing themselves on video for the conman. None of these victims wished to discuss their experience with to THR.
Whatever evidence the LAPD is looking at to track the sexual predator is unknown (while THR has the officer’s name and a report number, calls and emails haven’t been answered, although it's understood he has last spoke to one of the women only days ago). But the information gathered by Capozzi and Welchman offers a few pointers.
Despite claiming to be working in Europe, it’s almost certain he’s making the call from the U.S. Many of them have been made at times that would be deeply antisocial across the Atlantic, with his excuse — when asked — usually that he’s “working overnight” and has to make calls to India.
When pushed by Capozzi about his apparent last meeting with her late tutor, he said it had been in LA (to prove he was making it up she even fabricated a figure called Pete, who he said he’d also spoken to).
While almost all of the calls blocked the incoming number, on one occasion he used a U.S. number that couldn’t be tracked online and appears to be a generic IP number. He also revealed an email address and Skype account during the same conversation, via his repeated attempts to start a video call. Both of which — as yet — haven’t led anywhere, but are now with the police.
As for the imposter’s filmmaking credentials, Welchman — now working on a hand-painted animated adaptation of Wladyslaw Reymont's Nobel Prize-winning novel The Peasants — isn’t convinced. “To me he sounds like he’s not connected to the business,” he says.
And although he clearly read up enough about Loving Vincent to rattle off a few lines (most of the women noted that it sounded like he was reading from a script), there are some vital pieces missing. When Capozzi asked how she could actually watch the entire film, he had no idea, suggesting YouTube.
Regarding the actresses, there are few areas of correlation that appear to link them. None of them knew each other before the call. Ages range from early 20s to mid 40s. Despite a number being predominantly comics, there seems to be little else there to connect the dots.
But it has left many feeling deeply freaked out, violated and often ashamed at what happened. Even those who ended the conversation long before it could move to Skype have said it has affected them for weeks after, impacting their levels of trust. For those who went further, it’s obviously far worse (some have been too ashamed to tell their husbands).
One crucial connecting factor working to the predator’s advantage right now is that all of the women contacted aren’t just actresses looking for work in a tough industry, but are doing so during a time of intense crisis when jobs are scarce. Many claim they felt red flags very early on in the call, but ignored them, only adding to their sense of shame afterwards.
“Everybody’s really vulnerable, especially in the acting industry here in LA, where it’s kind of shut down right now,” says Mamie.
“He’s the perfect conman,” adds Capozzi. “He’s preying on a vulnerable industry at the most vulnerable time. He knows what he’s doing and he’s been doing it for months.”
And as far as the evidence suggests, he’s still doing it.
Article by: Alex Ritman for the Hollywood Reporter.