John Lithgow on playing disgraced Fox News boss in Bombshell

Bombshell (in Australian cinemas from January 16) depicts the real-life sexual harassment scandal that brought down Roger Ailes, the once-untouchable head of Fox News.

Co-starring alongside Charlize Theron, Nicole Kidman and Margot Robbie, John Lithgow plays the disgraced and despicable Ailes. Lithgow spoke to Dominic Corry about the challenges of bringing this controversial character to life.

Few actors float between leading man (Raising Cain, Twilight Zone: The Movie) and character actor (The Crown, Interstellar) as effortlessly as the great John Lithgow. Throughout his long and varied career, the two-time Oscar nominee (for The World According to Garp and Terms of Endearment) has memorably played a number of sneering villains (Blow Out, Ricochet, Cliffhanger, Dexter), but his latest bad guy role constitutes perhaps his toughest ever assignment: late Fox News head Roger Ailes. Neo-con overlord. Propaganda nostalgist. Trump advisor. Sexual abuser.

Jay Roach’s new film Bombshell chronicles how accusations of sexual harassment and abuse, initially by Fox News hosts Gretchen Carlson (played in the movie by Nicole Kidman) and Megyn Kelly (Charlize Theron), lead to Ailes’s ouster from the right wing “news” network in mid-2016, presaging the #MeToo movement ignited by reports of sexual misconduct by Harvey Weinstein, and subsequently a raft of other media industry figures, in late 2017.

Under prosthetic make-up by the Oscar-winning Kazuhiro Tsuji (Darkest Hour, Mindhunter, Norbit), who now goes by the name Kazu Hiro, Lithgow portrays a character who comes about as close to a comic book supervillain as a real-life figure can get. But as the actor tells Flicks during an interview in Los Angeles, he knew he couldn’t simply resort to the kind of villainous theatrics he has deployed in many previous roles. This monster was a man.

“I did think there was a value to have a vulnerable and insecure side to him,” says Lithgow. “That he not just be a monster. I very badly wanted to understand what happened with this man. And what turned him into this. I always work from a core of insecurity. What are characters afraid of? My own theory is that we’re all equally insecure and we all deal with it in different ways. Look at our current president. I think in the case of a lot of tyrannical behaviour, it comes out of insecurity. Diva behaviour, for sure, comes out of insecurity. I have my own insecurities. You tap into that.”

Lithgow is almost unrecognisable under Hiro’s remarkable work, and the actor says the physical transformation assisted in helping him access the character.

“It helped me enormously. I mean, I’m very different from Roger Ailes in appearance, at least I certainly hope I am. If I ate three meals of cheeseburger platters every single day of my life, that’s what I would look like. In many ways this was a very new experience because I haven’t used a lot of prosthetics on film, hardly ever. The main comparison to make is a quite recent role playing Winston Churchill [inThe Crown] where I used no prosthetics at all. But [in Bombshell] there are six big pieces of artificial flesh, two jowls, one huge double chin and a fake nose.”

Lithgow says he was initially very skeptical about the make-up, concerned his performance would be lost.

“I said to Jay, I really don’t want to cover my face up. I see so many performances where prosthetics take away the expressiveness of a face. But I’ll indulge. I know Kazuhiro Tsuji is a genius. I will submit myself. We’ll do a day of makeup and we’ll see how it goes. And he just … I looked at myself and I was astounded by what did. It’s so real and so painstaking even achieving the colour of the skin. It’s amazing to watch it. It takes two and a half hours, but they take such time and such care and over time he’s just perfected this to the point where I only felt like Roger when it was all on. That and the fat suit.”

Alongside Kidman and Theron, Margot Robbie plays the third main character in the film, an ambitious young Fox News employee named Kayla Pospisil. Pospisil is a composite of several real women who were subjected to Ailes’s behaviour, and in the film’s most devastating scene, she meets with Ailes in his office to discuss her career. Under the guise of “auditioning” her for an on-camera role, Ailes forces Pospisil to expose her underwear.

“In that long and agonising silence where he’s just staring at Kayla when she’s hiked up her skirt, it’s one of the most unsettling moments. We knew it would be and it was our intention to make it that way, but the way I chose to play that or the way I thought about it, I’m not sure how it read, was that there were two or three things going on inside Roger.”

“He was sexually aroused, but I think at the same time he was deeply ashamed and when he says ‘Thank you, you have a great body’. The way I thought about those lines was to say of them with a kind of sadness and ruefulness. They were all scripted by [Oscar-winning screenwriter] Charles [Randolph, The Big Short]. I thought the way to not necessarily redeem Roger but to explain him a bit was to just show how ashamed he was. This was a man who could only be sexually gratified by exerting power because he had such a sense of his own unattractiveness. He sort of had a sense that he disgusted people. He’s got such enormous self-contempt, defiance, but shame, all those things cooking. And we can all relate to feelings of embarrassment and shame. I just thought that’s the best way to approach this because who cares if he’s nothing but evil?”

The behaviours that Bombshell examines, and their impact, are only just beginning to be openly acknowledged. Lithgow is proud to be part of one of the first major works to to tackle them head on.

“No film is taking you inside the office or inside the hotel room, going past the closed door and showing exactly, well, a version which seems to me an extremely authentic version of how harassment takes place. We have these words: assault, harassment, misconduct, but they’re just words. These are all human beings and they all behave in this way because of yawning insecurities they have and needs and compulsions that they wish they didn’t have. But they have, and I honestly cannot think of another play or film that really does show you graphically what it’s like. And I assume that’s what it’s like. I haven’t ever been involved in a transaction like this, but to me it feels very real. Margot leaves that room completely bewildered about what just happened. Did I just give up my innocence? Did I just give up my power over this situation? Where am I? I am completely disorientated now.”

Although Ailes is now six feet under, having died aged 77 just a few months before the first Weinstein story, less than a year after he left Fox, Lithgow allows himself to ponder what he would say to the man if they met.

“I think I would be very intimidated by him. That’s a good question and I honestly don’t have an answer. I think I would tell him I really did want to give your side of the story too. But there’s no question the heroes of this movie are not you. They are the women.”