“Bombshell” offers two familiar faces in its retelling of the downfall of Fox News founder Roger Ailes — Charlize Theron as Megyn Kelly and Nicole Kidman as Gretchen Carlson. According to director Jay Roach, however, some onscreen fiction was needed in order to portray the true story of the wave of sexual harassment allegations that led to Ailes’ 2016 resignation. Roach, writer Charles Randolph, Theron, Kidman, and Margot Robbie spoke about making the film, due out December 20 from Lionsgate, during an early screening Sunday night, one of the first public showings of the movie.
“We had an obligation to really capture it authentically,” said Roach, who also directed the 2016 election drama “Game Change,” during the Q&A. “One of the things I have done in my other contemporary history films is go deep into actually interviewing real people, not just for authenticity … but also in details you get.”
The result of those interviews and research? The fictional character of Kayla, played by Robbie — a Fox News-newcomer whose ambition is exploited by Ailes, providing audiences with a look into the former chairman’s playbook. Kayla eagerly set up a meeting with Ailes (John Lithgow) with the hopes of being promoted to Anchor. Among the details culled from interviews with former Fox staffers was the alleged frequent command of Ailes for women journalists to “stand up and give me a twirl” so he could inspect their bodies for what he says is appropriateness for appearing on “a visual medium.” In Kayla’s case, that built into a heavy-breathing Ailes telling her to lift up her dress more and more until her underwear is exposed.
But even if Kayla didn’t exist, her experience reflects much of the background gathered for the project. Some of the people interviewed by Roach and screenwriter Randolph (“The Big Short”) violated non-disclosure agreements by sharing details with the filmmakers, they said.
“We’re not revealing the people we talk to. We’re trying to protect them,” Roach said. “We had heard that the Murdochs were responsible for giving Megyn the names of the women who had reported over the decades … we talked to some real people. What really happened was it was the weather lady who was still working at Fox when we started the movie and was undercover, almost like a whistleblower. But [Janice Dean] slipped the names to Megyn and Megyn did help get them to come forward.”
Robbie said her experience preparing for this role was a unique one. “Usually, it starts with the character, but for this one it started with the script. It started with the content and the messaging and what in film was trying to achieve that I appreciated so much and knew I wanted to be a part of,” she said. “I never expected to go on such a journey with [Kayla]. She’s so incredibly real to me. … It was an incredible privilege to get to tell those women’s story through her.”
Following the screening, much of the early reactions centered around Theron’s stunning transformation into Kelly, portraying the anchor’s public battle with then-candidate Donald Trump and her complicated experience at Fox after Carlson sued Ailes for sexual harassment. In the film, Kelly is shown struggling with reconciling Ailes’ own harassment of her with her belief that he helped to further her career.
“I’m interested in people who are complicated and flawed and make mistakes. I think there were things about her that were, in the beginning, very often pointing to me. And when I really looked at her longer and deeper, I realized I had a lot in common,” Theron said. “The thing that Jay and I spoke about the most was that it was very important to me that we set out on a road of whatever the greater truth is and stayed on that road and that we never veered and tried to make her sympathetic or to try and persuade people to like her or to think that she was a hero or a good person, that we just told the truth of what her story was.”
For Kidman, the process of preparing to play Carlson was an education. Unlike Kelly, who famously pressed Trump about his treatment of women on the campaign trail, Carlson was less familiar to many people unless they were devoted Fox News viewers. “I sort of investigated it more,” she said said. “I consider myself well-rounded and up to date, aware particularly of these issues, but my knowledge of Gretchen Carlson was pretty minimal.”