The last two weeks have been complicated for “Richard Jewell.” Clint Eastwood’s dramatization of the security guard who saved lives at the Centennial Olympic Park bombing during the Atlanta Games of 1996, only to find himself targeted by the FBI and the media as a suspect, became an immediate awards season contender following its AFI Fest premiere. Instant Oscar buzz circulated around Paul Walter Hauser as the title character, while Kathy Bates has already scored a Golden Globe nomination for playing his mother.
At the same time, the movie has weathered backlash over its portrayal of Kathy Scruggs, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reporter played by Olivia Wilde, for implying that the late journalist traded sex for intel from an FBI source (Jon Hamm).
With “Jewell” opening nationwide today, Wilde recently addressed concerns about her portrayal in a series of Twitter posts, and Hauser defended the depiction today in an interview with IndieWire. “There are casualties in storytelling, just like in real-life,” he said. “I think it’s a lot more painful in real life like what happened to Richard Jewell than it is onscreen when you’re told that it’s incorrect and it’s part of a storytelling element.”
Hauser said he was surprised by the volume of criticism leveled against the movie. “The fact that the whole world is burning because of that moment on film I think is really odd,” he said. Pressed to elaborate, he described the dynamics of the scene under fire, which finds Scruggs coaxing the FBI agent into revealing that the bureau is investigating Jewell, then leaving the bar with him, presumably to have sex.
“She doesn’t say to him, ‘I will sleep with you if you want information,’” Hauser said. “Jon Hamm’s character offers up the information and she poses a sexual encounter and then Jon responds by saying, ‘Is this actually happening?’ And then she responds, ‘This is happening.’ So he’s thinking, ‘Maybe she’s just flirting with me,’ and just trying to get information off him. At no point is there the actuality of her saying, ‘I will sleep with you if you give me information.’ It’s inferred. It’s implied. And we also don’t show a post-coital scene of them bucking up all sweaty in a car or an apartment.”
Hauser added: “In the hands of a lesser filmmaker it could’ve been grimy and awkward. Instead, we insinuate it.”
The actor singled out “Foxcatcher,” Bennett Miller’s 2014 fictionalization of reclusive philanthropist and wrestling fanatic John E. du Pont, who eventually murdered David Schultz in 1996. “’Foxcatcher’ surmises that Channing Tatum’s character was bullied into a sexual relationship with John du Pont, the man who killed his brother,” Hauser said. “That’s way more offensive than what we’re doing in ‘Richard Jewell.’ If that film got all the love and nominations it did, I don’t think we should be discounted in this filmmaking climate for adding our piece of artistic license as well.”
The “Jewell” controversy accelerated after the Atlanta Journal-Constitution circulated a letter demanding that Warner Bros. add a new disclaimer to the film acknowledging its fictional components. The studio stood its ground, calling the claim “baseless” adding that the movie “focuses on the real victim, seeks to tell his story, confirm his innocence and restore his name.” On the red carpet for the Gotham Awards earlier this month, Wilde addressed the situation. “I think it’s a shame that she has been reduced to one inferred moment in the film,” she told Variety. “It’s a basic misunderstanding of feminism as pious sexlessness. It happens a lot to women; we’re expected to be one-dimensional if we are to be considered feminists. There’s a complexity to Kathy, as there is to all of us, and I really admired her.” Later, she took to Twitter with a series of posts standing up for the character.
“Contrary to a swath of recent headlines, I do not believe that Kathy ‘traded sex for tips,’” she wrote. “Nothing in my research suggested she did so, and it was never my intention to suggest she had. That would be an appalling and misogynistic dismissal of the difficult work she did. … As I understood it, was that Kathy, and the FBI agent who leaked false information to her, were in a pre-existing romantic relationship, not a transactional exchange of sex for information. I cannot speak for the creative decisions made by the filmmakers, as I did not have a say in how the film was ultimately crafted, but it’s important to me that I share my personal take on the matter.”
Asked about Wilde’s response, Hauser said, “I think Olivia handled it really well.” He noted the past year of support for her directorial debut with “Booksmart,” which was a recent Gotham nominee for breakthrough director. “I think with Olivia’s moment right now — between ‘Booksmart’ and her new films and her acting in ‘Richard Jewell’ — if this is an outfit or a dress, there’s a tiny-but-noticeable thing, a tear in the outfit, but everybody is throwing the entire presentation of it because of the tear in this thing,” he said. “It’s something that I deem small. I’m sure if you’re related to Kathy Scruggs, it’s not a small thing, but it’s also not a small thing for the Jewell family.”
However, the actor said he was wary of offending anyone who took issue with the character. “I don’t want to invalidate the opinions of those people,” he said. “I do feel bad that some people felt hurt by that moment in the film. But I’m also not going to let it derail what we’re doing for the Jewell family.”
Stay tuned for more from IndieWire’s interview with Hauser next week.