How John Lithgow Became Roger Ailes in Bombshell

Oscar nominee John Lithgow plays late Fox News chief Roger Ailes in the absorbing sexual harassment drama, Bombshell.

John Lithgow in Bombshell
Hilary Bronwyn/Lionsgate

Bombshell is ripped from the headlines in more ways than one. Directed and co-written by Jay Roach (Recount), the movie tells the true story of what happened in 2016 when a series of women who worked at Fox News leveled horrendous charges of sexual harassment at Roger Ailes. Suddenly, the all-powerful head of the network behind the the conservative movement, and its outsized voice, in America culture would have his reckoning.

First accused by network personality Gretchen Carlson (Nicole Kidman) and then a succession of other Fox employees past and present, Ailes is under siege for a mere 16 days before he is dismissed from a job that many in the media thought he would hold until death (which came just a few months later, as it turned out). The final blow, according to the film, is the confirmation that popular Fox anchor Megyn Kelly (Charlize Theron) was also harassed by Ailes–a truth that Kelly agonizes over revealing.

Bombshell is less about politics, although your view of Ailes himself–who did untold damage to the media and political system with his distorted view of “fair and balanced”–will undoubtedly be colored by your own political leanings. The movie instead is focused on a culture of misogyny and toxic masculinity that permeated throughout one of the most important newsrooms in the world. And it’s a culture that has sadly been laid bare in nearly every other sector of business, media, politics, and art. A pivotal scene in which Ailes meets privately with a potential new reporter (Margot Robbie) and unleashes his worst impulses represents just the tip of this poisonous iceberg.

Ailes is played by the acclaimed screen and stage star John Lithgow, whose long list of film and TV credits include Footloose, 3rd Rock from the Sun, Harry and the Hendersons, Blow Out, The World According to Garp, Terms of Endearment, 2010, Dexter, Rise of the Planet of the Apes and many others. More recently, he won an Emmy for playing Winston Churchill on the first season of The Crown and has already appeared in three other films in 2019: The Tomorrow Man, Late Night, and Pet Sematary. Below is our interview about him entering a very distinct and predatory psychology in Bombshell.

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Den of Geek: What were your first thoughts when you were asked to play Roger Ailes?

John Lithgow: I was so excited. Of course it was presented to me with all the elements already in place. This was Charlize, Nicole, and Margot, (co-screenwriter) Charles Randolph and Jay Roach. Those five names and the subject, Roger Ailes, and his fall at Fox News. I just found it entirely exciting, astonished that they thought of me for it, but I thought it was just great. I was so excited to do it.

On one hand he’s a very well-known public figure, but at the same time there really isn’t a lot of footage of him that can be accessed. Were you able to find something to get a sense of his physicality and his manner?

Yes, I did find some. I tracked down a long interview he did, a media symposium for some communications school, I think at Stanford or something. And I heard his voice for the first time and I was very surprised by what a pleasant, cheerful voice it was. He is Midwestern, from Warren, Ohio. I lived in four places in Ohio growing up. One of them was Akron, right near Warren, and I knew that sound very well, but I was just startled, because like everybody, I came to think of Roger as the villain of the piece and he is that in this film.

But he was amiable. He was captivating. He was charismatic. He did not like to be seen, I think. I think he was very self-conscious about his own physical appearance. He was a man with terrible health problems and diabetes. And of course he was very overweight and he hadn’t always been. There’s a line in the film, “I didn’t always look like this,” but he didn’t want to be seen. He wanted his people to be seen and he wanted them to be gorgeous. He was almost reclusive in that sense. So it was hard to find the stuff, and you do want to find it. I knew I would never duplicate him, but you do want to see as much as you can about a person. It was the same playing Winston Churchill. I just listened and saw as much as I could.

I finally found a little bit of him just walking from a building to a car so that I could see him actually move, because he had a lot of trouble moving. He used canes and walkers and his feet killed him and he was a diabetic. So there was this lurching, hulking walk. Very difficult. And of course I wore this big fat suit. So even the effort of sitting in a chair or, God knows, getting up from a chair, all of that I had to imagine. But that little three seconds was like gold. It is quite an interesting process researching a character.

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By far the most interesting research I did was finding somebody who had worked very closely with him in the 1970s when he was young. This was a friend of mine from those days I hadn’t seen in about 25 years, 30 years. I tracked him down and just talked about Roger. That was really fascinating, because mainly I found out a much brighter and more amiable side to him. My friend Steve remembered him as just wonderful company and he spent hours with him as his business associate as a theater producer in New York, which was one of his aspirations, and also in the early years of his media consultancy. So I just heard how Roger operated and what a charmer he was and how manipulative he could be. But also most interestingly, how he could be so tough on people who he thought were too conservative or didn’t have enough empathy. That’s an interesting thing to learn about the villain of the piece.

read more: John Lithgow Regrets Not Playing the Joker 

Allison Janney plays Susan Estrich in the film, who represented him even thought she was about as far away politically from him as anyone could be. But he was apparently there for her when she was ill, so she felt she owed him.

There are so many people with stories like that, who would defend him, including some people who have interviewed me for the movie. I was on The View last week, and Abby Huntsman was one the interviewers and she was upset by the movie because she felt it was way too hard on Roger and on the women of Fox and that it didn’t give them nearly enough credit, that it was a culture that actually worked and an atmosphere in which a lot of people loved to work. So there is that side to it.

When you play a polarizing political figure like this, do you attempt to put your own politics aside?

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Yes, I did try to suspend my politics. As I put it, whenever I play a part I’m on his side, or her side if I happen to be playing a woman, and I’ve done that too. His politics are just the deep background of the story that was being told. This is a story about sexual harassment and a culture of misogyny, so that’s the aspect of him that I concentrated on and even that is contradictory.

The fact is, when he was alive, he had a wife who was completely devoted to him and defended him to the death. We got Connie Britton to play the part, who plays it with such nuance and revealed a different side to the character in the movie. There’s a little moment when she reaches down and kisses my hand when I’m feeling so defeated and embattled. That was essential to me just so that Roger, and hence the film, had a little bit more nuance and dimension.

You’re not someone who often uses a lot of makeup or prosthetics, but for this you used facial prosthetics and wore the suit. How was it for you getting immersed into that every day?

Well, I was skeptical about it initially. I wanted to argue for as little as we could possibly get away with. But Jay, who’s done an awful lot of this kind of stuff–Recount, Game Change, Trumbo–he urged me to give it a chance, mainly because of Kazu Hiro, our makeup artist, and I said “Sure.” I spent an entire day with Kazu in his studio and with a couple of his assistants. They had done a cast of my face. They had built these prosthetic pieces, just custom built for my face, and my ears and my double chin and they worked their magic and they persuaded me. I just said, “Just give me my eyes and give me my mouth. These are the things that I act with. You can do anything you want and if we can possibly keep my own hair, so I don’t have to worry about seeing the seam of a bald pate.”

You just don’t want people looking at anything but the mouth and the eyes when you’re acting. This is what I deduced in the course of this process and I was just amazed. I mean the fact that they can bring the camera up this close and it looks like entirely like human flesh blending with my own. So you don’t know what’s me and what’s that and so I become something else. It was quite an experience. I mean it was two and a half hours of sitting in a makeup chair every morning that I shot, but that was fun too.

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Did it help you also with the physicality you talked about earlier, learning his walk and so forth?

Yes. The fat suit is absolutely essential. Nothing changes your sense of yourself more than an extra 100 pounds or even the physical feeling of 100 pounds. Same with Churchill.

Bombshell Fox News Movie: Charlize Theron, Margot Robbie, Nicole Kidman

The scene you have with Margot is so uncomfortable to watch, as it should be. Is it uncomfortable to shoot, or are the actors a little bit removed from the reality because there’s the crew there and cameras and Jay and everything else?

I mean, we were acting, for sure, and Margot is a fantastic actor. I have to stress that and she’s a very courageous actor. I knew that from seeing I, Tonya and Wolf of Wall Street. I mean she’s so bold and smart. She’s got tremendous instincts as an actor. We had about a 20-minute long phone conversation with Jay before we started shooting. That was the extent of rehearsals and we read the scene, I guess, but there’s more that goes on in silence than the words in that scene. We just talked about it and I guess that session, if you can call it a rehearsal, the whole point of it was just for us to really understand each other, get on the same page, and know quite clearly what it is we were after and what we were after was something very, very disturbing.

We had this sense of the power of this scene, how the movie virtually hinges on this scene because it’s the only one of its kind in the movie and, in fact, as far as I know, it’s the only thing in entertainment and media which actually shows the physical dynamics of harassment that goes beyond the closed door. You hear in great detail descriptions of the interaction between various harassers and their victims as all this has spilled out into the public, but you don’t see it dramatized. It’s almost too much to see, and we knew that.

In fact, nothing happens. We don’t touch each other. Once this little moment of violation, this interaction between them comes to an end, we sit back down and we continue talking as if it never happened and she walks back to her office cubicle, and there’s this look on her face of “What just happened? Something has just been taken away from me and I barely knew it was happening.” That’s how harassment operates. It’s not obvious until it’s grotesque.

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What would you like people to take away from this as they watch it? The Ailes situation presaged the #MeToo movement and might well have set the climate for it to happen. Do you hope that this movie helps push the changes further along?

Yes, I mean, I think it’s a consciousness-raising movie. It’s an unsettling movie. It’s upsetting, but I think it is a movie to embolden women. It’s very much addressed to women. It’s a woman’s movie. All the important characters, everything they do is in reaction to the reality of Roger.

But it’s also a beautifully structured movie in terms of its suspense and its story being told. And it’s got the central character of Megyn Kelly, who is faced with this terrific moral dilemma, and you see her gradually reach the moment when she absolutely can’t turn her back anymore. All of those things are the stuff of a great piece of storytelling and a terrific entertainment, but it’s unsettling. It takes people through an extremely uncomfortable place and it has to, in order to really come to terms with this subject.

Bombshell is out in limited release Friday (December 13) and expands nationwide next week.

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Don Kaye is a Los Angeles-based entertainment journalist and associate editor of Den of Geek. Other current and past outlets include Syfy, United Stations Radio Networks, Fandango, MSN, RollingStone.com and many more. Read more of his work here. Follow him on Twitter @donkaye