This week, Lionsgate’s Bombshell is releasing to a limited number of theaters for a special screening before expanding nationwide on the 20th. The film tells the story of the Fox News sexual harassment scandal, particularly the downfall and removal of Roger Ailes, from the perspective of three key women: Megyn Kelly (Charlize Theron, who also produced), Gretchen Carlson (Nicole Kidman) and Kayla Pospisil, a composite of a few real people and fictionalized to protect their identities, played by Margot Robbie.
The goal of the movie wasn’t to completely vilify and paint Roger Ailes as an absolute monster. Instead, it smartly focused on the ways in which powerful men use their charm and manipulative abilities on subordinates to create a culture of complicity and silence. John Lithgow, who plays Ailes, is fantastic in the role, at turns combative and predatory, supportive and playing the victim. A complicated man creates a complicated character, so I sat down with Lithgow to discuss what it was like playing one of the most reviled men in our modern era and how toxic cultures take root – and I might even have brought up Footloose and Harry and the Hendersons at the end.
Note: This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity, but is otherwise untouched. TW: sexual assault/harassment
One thing I was struck by was it told the story in such a subtle way. How harassment and creating cultures of complicity and silence start with tiny little things. When you stepped into this role, did you find that it changed your way of thinking or made you realize, ‘Oh, wow, I’ve seen these things happen before but it didn’t occur to me this is what it was?’
John Lithgow: To me, the script spoke to me in the same way the movie spoke to you. It told the story in exactly those ways. Without being laborious or too expository or too polemical, it told exactly that story, that harassment grows out of a culture that grows very, very slowly. Almost unnoticeably. Little remarks that are just so much in passing. The man who has said the remark has no idea how it has injured the woman. Little moments like, “You should be wearing a shorter skirt.” Little things like that. It builds into a critical mass, and as I say, that’s how it struck me when I read the script. And that’s all the credit to writer Charles Randolph, it tells the story in such a way so that it just creeps up on you. The way it gradually dawned on Megyn Kelly, for example.
As a woman, I and other women have had to come to a reckoning in understanding that sometimes, we’ve also been complicit without realizing it.
JL: But, in a sense, had to be.
JL: I mean, that’s how social intercourse goes in a culture like that. I thought it was brilliant to place that scene right up front with Nazanin Boniadi’s character and Brian d’Arcy James’ character, so you saw an extreme version of that dynamic, but you heard her internal thoughts reacting to [the harassment from a man who has power over her]: Oh, God, here it comes. How am I going to deal with this? It was just brilliant and I remember reading those words in the script.
I know that a few people, like Charlize [Theron] and Jay [Roach] spoke with a few people for research, some of which are still at Fox – Kayla being a composite character to protect their identities. Did you also get to speak to anyone and get their stories firsthand?
JL: No, but I did track down a friend of mine from the 1970s. I hadn’t spoken to him in 25, 30 years, a man named Steven Rosenfield, who had been Roger Ailes’ business partner when Ailes was attempting to be a New York theater producer in the ’70s. It’s a little sideline – not many people know it – but he did attempt to produce theater. He actually produced the hit off-Broadway production of The Hot l Baltimore by Lanford Wilson, and Steve was with him through that whole period. He even worked with him in the early years of Ailes’ career as a political media consultant. So I got Steve on the phone and had a 40-minute long conversation about his experiences and his memories of Roger. To me, that was absolutely the most valuable research I could do, far beyond reading about Ailes or seeing video or hearing audio, all of which were pretty hard to find because he didn’t like being seen or heard himself.
Steve told me about this man who, in fact, was fabulous company. He had a fabulous sense of humor, he was capable of laughing for fifteen seconds straight. It was a very edgy and ironic sense of humor. Most remarkably, Steve told me about how tough Ailes could be on his own clients, his own political candidates, for being too conservative and having not enough empathy. To me, that was just astonishing to hear and I rushed to the set to tell Jay Roach about it because here was a different Roger than the conventional wisdom about him. The sort of two-dimensional story that’s been told about him. Steve was as appalled as anyone [when it all came out], the same way Beth Ailes was appalled when she heard irrefutable evidence of Roger’s secret life and his compulsions and the duplicity of people around him. But, in fact, two sides of one person’s nature is something all of us share and the most fascinating thing for an actor to attack.
Right. These men stay in power for so long because they have a side that can be gracious and generous and sets people up with jobs – look at Harvey Weinstein. Ailes was the king of his domain handing out favors and building this loyalty. Did you find in playing him that you were surprised to find any sympathy for Ailes or the people around him that were complicit?
JL: You know, all of us had the experience of finding just as many people who were loyal to Roger as who hated or feared him. And the movie portrays that – Judge Pirro and all these people who wore those t-shirts in support of Roger to protect him from this “assault,” to stand united on Roger’s side. It is true that a lot of women felt he made their careers. What he claims in that last scene – “I gave these people careers and made them money. I did nothing to hurt them.” – there are still people who would agree with that.
It’s so complicated. I acknowledge and embrace the fact that Roger was a malevolent force and created a really poisonous culture at Fox, but what I tried to do, and what the film tries to do, is make an audience very uncomfortable by demonstrating sympathy with the devil. It’s like, “Ooh, wow, I shouldn’t like this man.” Even in that signature scene between me and Margot, you saw in the first half of that scene how charming and seductive and encouraging Roger was, the way an excellent mentor would be. And then it slowly turns, right before your very eyes. That scene demonstrates how a woman can find herself trapped. The look Margot has on her face in the scene right after, where she walks through the office with a disoriented look on her face and she says to Kate McKinnon’s character, “Something weird just happened…” And that’s how it operates: “Oh, no. I think I’ve gotten myself involved in something here, and I’m not sure how I feel about it or where I stand.”
So many women I know, myself included, often don’t realize until after the fact that you’ve been assaulted or violated or sexually harassed because you’re confused in the moment, and you’re not sure. You feel deeply uncomfortable and you know it’s wrong, but you can’t always articulate why. Especially if that man is in a position of power over you or it’s done insidiously. It’s important to show Roger Ailes wasn’t just a monster, to show how charming and seductive these men can be and that’s how they come into power.
JL: I, myself, in playing the part, was interested in exactly that. Something fascinated me about the character, which is when you’re doing something that is that appalling, I’d hope that surely there is something in you that feels shame and remorse, even while it’s happening. I tried to express that, as well. There again looking for the two sides of the character so that he’s simply not the black hat villain of the piece.
There was that one loaded line in the flashback with Megyn Kelly where he said, “Men do bad things, and we don’t feel bad about it.” Do you think, from the people you spoke with, that there was an awareness, or remorse or regret, for the things he had done?
JL: I think so. I just think there must be some element of that in his thinking. Besides the fact that line is such a seductive line, he’s trying to persuade her to do bad things and have no remorse or guilt about it, either. God knows he was an extraordinary manipulator. After all, he created Fox News, which is a news organization that has a very, very strong editorial point of view and is constantly proselytizing politically. It’s a reflection of Roger, he was a manipulative man and he created a manipulative kind of journalism.
What struck me was that the movie portrayed the Murdoch sons as often being in opposition to him. That dynamic was quite interesting, because you have to wonder, with Roger gone, where does Fox News go?
JL: I go back to what I learned from my friend Steve Rosenfield. I mean, there was a point at which Roger was against Trump. And yet, he began to realize, “Trump is gonna be great for us. Trump is gonna be our bread and butter, red meat for our audience.” So he let whatever politics he had shift in that direction. I find it very interesting, that connection between Roger, the manipulator of women, and Roger, the manipulator of television audiences.
Switching topics for a moment – speaking of complicated men – I have to tell you that you were essentially the villain of my childhood. One of my earliest movie memories was Reverend Shaw Moore from Footloose–
JL: Oh, yes!
My sisters and I watched that so often my mom actually borrowed a VCR and recorded it on a VHS tape. And Harry and the Hendersons, you broke my heart when you sent Harry away. So I had to tell you that because I realized you’ve been part of my childhood –
JL: Nightmares? Traumas?
JL: But I remind you, Reverend Moore finally came around and let the kids dance, persuaded by his wife, played by Dianne Wiest. And as for George Henderson, he smacked Harry in the face in order to save his life – so I wasn’t all bad!
Honestly, I truly think Reverend Moore might be the first character to ever teach me that there’s usually more going on with a person than you realize, and rarely is someone purely evil or bad.
JL: You know, you couldn’t have said a better thing. But I have to tell you one last story! When I was on Third Rock from the Sun, there was this big, burly fellow who appeared in a single scene role as the strongman at a circus. And he took me aside at one point and said, “I gotta tell you. I come from a little town in Louisiana where my daddy was the Baptist minister. Footloose came to town and I saw you in Footloose, and you were my daddy. I took my daddy to that movie the next night without telling him anything about it, and I have to tell you” – by this time, tears were actually streaming down his face – “because of that performance, I was the first of six kids who got to go to his high school prom dance.” So you see, Reverend Moore wasn’t all bad!
Bombshell is in theaters nationwide on December 20th. Get tickets here.