‘Bombshell’s’ Charlize Theron and John Lithgow reflect on the film’s indelible impact
In a season accented by portrayals of beloved icons such as Judy Garland and Fred Rogers (brought to life by Oscar nominees Renée Zellweger and Tom Hanks to boot), Bombshell had the unique task of chronicling the downfall of cable news’s most predatory figure at the hands of his polarizing onscreen protégé.
The film’s producer and Oscar-nominated lead actress Charlize Theron—who plays ex–Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly—and Ailes’s alter ego, actor John Lithgow, joined Fortune on Jan. 12 for a live Q&A event in Los Angeles to discusws Kelly’s long-awaited response to their hot-button film, their Oscar-nominated makeup effects, and how Bombshell may portend a permanent shift in how we portray, and work to fight, sexual harassment.
On Jan. 9, Megyn Kelly responded to Bombshell via a 30-minute, self-produced YouTube video wherein she discussed the film with her husband, Douglas Brunt, and three former Fox employees who’d been harassed by Roger Ailes. What did you think of the piece?
Charlize Theron: I thought it was very sincere. They are the real women who experienced Bombshell. Whatever your political persuasion, and how you feel about Fox News, there’s something really emotional about seeing them so open about something that’s deeply affected them, and will for the rest of their lives.
Many of the Fox News employees harassed by Ailes haven’t worked in TV since.
Theron: And that’s what’s so heart-wrenching. They were ambitious, good at their jobs, and may never work in broadcast again. This tells us how devastating workplace sexual harassment can be for women, in addition to the emotional scars of the actual abuse. [Former O’Reilly Factor contributor] Juliet Huddy has said she even lost her house—she lost literally everything. Devastating.
John, as the man playing the villain at the heart of this story, how have you felt about the overall reaction to the film? How did it feel, especially as one of Hollywood’s most established good guys, to play Roger Ailes?
John Lithgow: The reaction has been what we hoped, which is the acknowledgement that it’s important this movie was made at all. And it likely wouldn’t have been without Charlize! As for playing Roger, it was important to show different facets of the character. In researching him, we found many people who defended Roger and were loyal and devoted to him.
And likely many of those people never witnessed nor experienced his abuse.
Lithgow: Right—they never saw that side. He was powerful and charismatic. I had a driver in New York who’d driven and done security for him. He adored Roger, who was so generous that he left something for him in his will! It was important to bring those details into the movie. But overall, it was easy for me to embrace the role of the villain. Every good story needs one, and I’m really good at villains. (Laughs)
Theron: It’s powerful to see the seductive techniques predators use. We think of them as “bad guys,” but a lot of these women, including Megyn, faced a moral dilemma in that they really liked Roger. She was honest about the fact that he did contribute a lot to her career. She trusted him and he invested in her, similar to what we’ve heard about Harvey Weinstein. But at some point, you realize the danger of that seduction; the guy in the powerful position who makes you feel good, that there’s value to the relationship—and then he abuses it.
Despite various gripes Megyn and her interviewees said they had with the film, they lauded Bombshell for its portrayal how of it feels to be harassed. Charlize, is the nuance of the moral dilemma you described the reason why these scenes often don’t feel real?
Theron: I think so. For the first time—maybe ever—we’re having honest conversations about what sexual harassment really looks like. For so long it lived in a “black and white” box. Now we’re talking about the nuance and gray areas; that victims often don’t do the “right thing” in the moment, but that doesn’t erase that the abuse took place. Until we fully engage how complicated this is, and that harassment looks, feels, and sounds different for every person, we’ll never rectify it for future generations.
Oscar-nominated makeup and special effects artist Kazu Hiro was the architect of both of your incredible physical transformations. To what degree is he the unsung hero of Bombshell?
Theron: He is. He built all the prosthetics for me, John, Nicole [Kidman], Richard Kind, who played Rudy Giuliani, and others. Close to 30 pieces I think? And he was brought out of retirement to do it.
So no pressure.
Theron: (Laughs) “Exactly. It felt really cool that I pulled him out of retirement. Then I heard [actor] Gary Oldman also pulled him out of retirement for The Darkest Hour. I think he was pulling a Cher thing like, “This is my final tour!” And then it wasn’t his final tour. (Laughs) But he’s just so good. He’s an artist; a sculptor. There were moments I’d look in the mirror, and I couldn’t see where my skin ended and the prosthetics began. We totally nerded out. I’d walk in and see John shaking his face, saying, “Look, my jowls move when I shake!”
Lithgow: Like a turkey. (Laughs) It was fun because, as actors, we’re so used to being vain. Charlize looked beautiful, though. In watching the Megyn Kelly piece, I was reminded of the miracle job Kazu did. The two of you were indistinguishable.
What do you remember about Kazu’s initial assessment of you?
Theron: He’d spent time with photos of me first. Then when we met, he did an internal nose cast—when putty is placed inside your nostrils—because he wanted to build two little plastic pieces that’d be inserted to widen my nostrils. So we started with that. It was very intimate. (Laughs) “You need to wax in there because the putty gets stuck in your nasal hairs.” I didn’t even know you could wax in there!
It’s L.A.— you can wax everywhere.
Theron: Apparently you can. So that’s how we met—with me getting a nasal-cavity mold.
Lithgow: Talk about a “meet cute.” (Laughs) My other great partner was Colleen Atwood, who was more than just a costume designer for me; she was a body designer. We had long fittings for my fat suit, and I’m happy to say I look very different in the film than I do in real life.
How much did the fat suit weigh?
Lithgow: It was quite light. She gave me the choice of a suit that weighed the same as actual flesh. “Yes, I must do that!” Then I thought better and didn’t do that, thank God. It was very comfortable and I felt very light on my feet. Unzipping and taking it off each day was the best diet ever.
You’re nearly wrapped on what has been an exhaustive promotional tour for this film. What are you most heartened by in how the discourse about harassment and gender equity is evolving?
Lithgow: It’s quite a significant thing for Megyn to have done that video piece. It was supportive of the film. I would hate the experience of sitting in a theater and watching an actor pretend to be me; it’d be impossible to be objective. It was important to see her and those women do such a courageous thing.
Theron: The most touching part of this experience has been realizing all the male allies we have out there. We need you guys! I’ve met many men who haven’t had a harassment experience themselves but say, “That could be my daughter or my mother.” That’s how we’re interconnected on this issue, I think.
There’s also been a growing, broader acknowledgment that predatory behavior exists in all circles and affects women and men.
Theron: Exactly. It happens to all of us.
John, as a male actor who’s worked in Hollywood since the early 1970s, to what degree are you feeling a shift in how women are treated?
Lithgow: In the movie business’s first dozen years in the early 20th century, women were in charge as screenwriters, directors, and scenario writers. People didn’t know the juggernaut Hollywood would become. When it turned into that, it became a totally male-run operation. I think a shift is finally happening again, thank God, after all these years. I definitely feel it. The first woman director I ever worked with, 40 years into my career, was on [Showtime’s] Dexter [a decade ago]—a wonderful Brit named S.J. Clarkson. Since then, I’ve worked with about 10 or 12. That’s an enormous change. Now it’s very noticeable when there’s a gender imbalance in a production. The Bombshell set atmosphere was incredible.
Theron: We had a male writer, Charles Randolph, and director, Jay Roach, but mostly female producers.
Lithgow: And Charlize was always there. She’s a great producer, always watching from the other room.
Theron: I didn’t want to get fired! (Laughs)
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