‘Bombshell’: Director Jay Roach and John Lithgow on Exploring the Toxic Culture at Fox News and the ‘Monster’ in Roger Ailes
“Bombshell” is a female-driven drama about combating sexual harassment and abuse at a company that is hardly synonymous with feminism, Fox News. This unlikely setting for a #MeToo revolt is exactly what attracted director Jay Roach to this story of how Gretchen Carlson (Nicole Kidman) and Megyn Kelly (Charlize Theron) brought down media titan Roger Ailes (John Lithgow). As he explained to Entertainment Voice, Roach was interested in exploring the power dynamics in a conservative work environment. He also wanted to speak to a certain audience that usually is not very keen on watching films about sexual harassment and abuse in the workplace. But there was more to it than that.
“I’m always interested in situations where you want to go into a culture and figure out what makes it work, and also, especially, what makes it not work, and in this case, not work in a horrible away,” said the director. “I think, especially in the area of sexual harassment, as men, we don’t understand how that goes. If you’re on the outside of it and you haven’t experienced it, I don’t think you have an appreciation — at least, I speak for myself — of what a horrible, suppressive thing it is to go up against an ego-centric, male-centric abusive person. Roger Ailes, almost in a screenwriting 101 way, is an excellent villain, and a horrible person that real people had to go up against. And the fact that these women took him on seemed incredibly compelling. It’s definitely an underdog story.”
Roach went to praise the woman who brought him the script in the first place, Theron, who, in addition to delivering a phenomenal performance, served as a co-producer. “She’s an incredibly hard-working, passionate person, who, even when she wasn’t on camera, was on set, being a great producer and creative force.”
Lithgow, who also sat down with Entertainment Voice, was attracted to “Bombshell” for a lot of the reasons one would expect, including the chance to work again with Roach, a script penned by Oscar-winner Charles Randolph, as well as the opportunity to perform with some of the biggest female names in Hollywood. But Ailes himself was also appealing to the Emmy and Tony winning-actor. “I thought it was very exciting to play Roger as just a character, a man full of so many different facets and contradictions and conflicts.”
“I watched a lot of videos, as much as I could find of him,” Lithgow recalled when asked about his preparation process. “I spent a lot of time with Colleen Atwood, our costumer, creating Roger’s body. He was a small man, but he was a fat man. I’m a tall man, but a thin man. We probably weighed about the same. And working with Kazu Hiro, the makeup artist, putting together all those physical elements, that was a great support system.”
But the physical transformation was just one part of it, as Lithgow had to get into the headspace of this man who was a monster to many, yet loved by his family, friends, and even some colleagues. “For an actor and a character actor, it is just wonderful when a character shifts so boldly from one emotion to another, even in a scene — his crazy irrational temper, his paranoia, the way he wielded power, and yet his insecurity and vulnerability, and in my mind, his own sense of guilt and shame at his compulsions, which I do believe grew with him as he grew older.”
Lithgow praised Randolph for adding those little touches, such as a moment in which Ailes knocks on some glass to make sure it’s bulletproof. “All these things are true,” he said with a little laugh. He also discussed an emotional scene in which Roger says goodbye to his young son at a train station, a scene that was cut from the final film. “I think that was just one element too many of showing his sympathetic side.”
But the Ailes scene that stands out the most after watching “Bombshell” is the one in which Roger abuses his power over an ambitious young Fox employee, Kayla (Margot Robbie). Although the worst part of it, his manipulating her into performing a transactional sex act on him, isn’t even shown, what we do see, him having her put herself on disply, is haunting enough.
“The kind of abuse you do witness is the kind of sexual harassment that is just meant to humiliate and demean a person,” said Roach. “If you read about it, you might say, ‘What did he make her do? He had her stand up, turn around and lift her skirt up. Okay, that’s bad, but it’s not rape, it’s not violence.’ And yet, when you’re in that room and she’s experiencing it, it’s so devastating. You can tell it’s so soul-crushing. It’s probably much more common than some of the more extreme versions of abuse that women face.”
“We’re actors,” explained Lithgow. “We knew what we we’re doing and what we we’re after. Our intention was to make it very uncomfortable for the audience. Almost excruciating. And for us to make it that way, it was bound to feel that way in playing the scene. My own feeling was, it was an important scene to express Roger’s insecurity, his fragility. To my mind, he was a man in the grip of a compulsion that he wished he didn’t have.”
Roach continued to discuss the importance of putting the audience in that room with Kayla and Roger. “It’s like a horror film. Especially because he’s such a good monster, and such a deadly monster, in a way. He could kill her career. He’s just ogling her and forcing her to cross a line that she never thought she’d cross.”
“The way I usually approach villains, and I’ve played a lot of them, is as a character that does terrible things,” continued Lithgow.” But you also got glimpses of how he wished he hadn’t done them, or wished he wasn’t compelled to do them. To me, that makes it much more interesting.”
One of the more memorable villains Lithgow portrayed was the Trinity Killer, a terrifying role he played throughout season four of “Dexter.” Although Ailes isn’t exactly a serial killer, the actor found parallels between the two roles, as they’re both men ruled by inner demons. “My whole thing with the Trinity Killer was, he had a terrifying compulsion to kill and to kill in threes, and to reenact a trauma. A trauma is a source of tremendous pain, and he deals with this pain by committing hideous murder. Surely this is a man who wished he didn’t have that compulsion, wished almost that he would be stopped… To me, that’s a really interesting thing to play. It does strange things to an audience’s mind, I know that. I felt it myself watching ‘Bombshell’ for the first time. That scene was like [gasps], ‘Oh my god. This is terrible.’”
Lithgow went on to compliment his scene partner. “Margot plays it so beautifully… She’s such a good and smart actress. It was wonderful to work with her on it.”
In addition to his excellent acting, Lithgow underwent a remarkable physical transformation to play Ailes that required long hours in the makeup chair. Ever the artist, he found a creative way to pass the time, writing humorous poems about the current presidential administration that he turned into what recently became a bestselling book, “Dumpty: The Age of Trump in Verse.” The longest poem is a ten-pager about the week following the 2018 midterm elections, “Seven Days in November.”
“I wrote that entire poem sitting in the makeup chair for ‘Bombshell,’ two and a half hours every session for my 17 shooting days,” he recounted. “I couldn’t move my head, of course, because they were putting my makeup on. I couldn’t wear my glasses. I would just sit there with a little cardboard box on my lap with my pen and my poetry book and a magnifying glass, and every three minutes I would write down a rhymed couplet that I had been carefully thinking about. The last day of shooting, I read the whole epic poem to my two makeup artists.”
How did the the actor feel about being a part of a film that deals with #MeToo? “It made me feel really good. You want to do good work all the time and work with good people and create really good stuff, but it always adds one extra element of good when you feel that you’re addressing issues of the time.”
He continued, “I’ve had a few experiences like that in my career, like acting in ‘The World According to Garp,’ years ago, playing a transgender woman, or doing ‘Love Is Strange,’ a wonderful little movie I did five years ago with Alfred Molina playing an old gay couple who finally get to marry after being together for 40 years. Little moments like that, where you take controversial and complicated issues and turn them into a story with characters that you really relate to, so you can see how people are genuinely dealing with these things in real life, not just as a newspaper story.”
A lot of people have issues with Fox News, and we see some of this in a scene in which Gretchen is called out by an irate woman in a grocery story. What would Roach say to those who would say that she and the other women portrayed are not deserving of our sympathy because of where they worked?
“I have sensed that reaction, and I will just say, a big part of the very deliberate choice to make a story set at Fox News was to point out how nonpartisan this issue is. It doesn’t matter where you work or what your politics are, you deserve to be safe at work… I hope people will look past their prejudices about them and just look at them as women up against this male-centric abuse and try to see what you have in common with them, in terms of caring about these issues.”
“Bombshell” opens Dec. 13 in Los Angeles and New York, Dec. 20 nationwide.