THE FRONT RUNNER Interview: Hugh Jackman and Writers Matt Bai and Jay Carson Navigate Scandal

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THE FRONT RUNNER Interview: Hugh Jackman and Writers Matt Bai and Jay Carson Navigate Scandal
During the 1988 US Presidential campaign, one candidate seemed poised to win it all.  Possessed of all the credentials and bona fides any American would be proud of, Senator Gary Hart seemed like a dream candidate, poised to sail into the White House.  That is, until he sailed on a ship called the Monkey Business.  The Front Runner tells the surreal story of the tabloid derailing of the Gary Hart campaign, and its still-resonant effects on the relationship between politicians and press.  
 
Star Hugh Jackman, and screenwriters Matt Bai and Jay Carson talked about bringing this relevant slice of history to the screen.
 
Hugh Jackman
 
The Lady Miz Diva:  When I first saw you as Gary Hart, I have to say the wig took a lot of my interest… 
 
Hugh Jackman: {Laughs}
 
LMD: … but by the end of the film… 
 
HJ:  It took you 'til the end of the film to get over the wig? {Laughs}
 
LMD:  It was a mesmerising character.  Toward the end of the film, there’s this voiceover that begins over a dark screen, and I could swear that it had to have been stock audio of Gary Hart, himself, but the camera pans to reveal that it is actually you speaking, and I thought, 'Yeah, he nailed it.'
 
HJ:  Thank you.  Thank you.
 
LMD:  This is the first time you’ve played someone living.  Tell us about the preparation; how it’s different to playing a fictional character, and Gary Hart, in particular?
 
HJ:  It’s very frightening.  It’s a great responsibility.  I mean, you know me, I take every job very seriously, and I think when we tell stories, they can be really important, you know?  Sometimes we are the pie in the face kind of people, but sometimes we can do things that are important, and when you are actually depicting somebody’s legacy, and their life, and possibly the worst three weeks of that person’s life -- and I’m now friends with Gary -- it is very important and complex, and potentially painful for everybody involved.  
 
So, I went to meet him.  I spent hours watching video and listening to him.  I did try to get his voice; not just to imitate it, but he had a very particular way of speaking.  And actually, the thing I think I’m most proud of is when he rang me, he said, “You really got how I speak at press conferences.  I was very aware that as a politician, it’s important to be brief, to the point, and clear,” and he said, ’You got that.”
 
Honestly, in the gym every morning, I would just be listening to them, listening to him, listening to him, listening to the voice.  Not just for the sound of the voice, even though I think that came through -- and Matt Bai used to say, “Dude, I was literally listening through my cans, and I thought they were running {Gary Hart’s} speech,” which I took as a compliment.  Ah, I’m just bragging now…
 
I really needed to meet him to let him know how seriously I took him, and how much I respected him, but also, I wanted to get a sense of what it’s like being around someone that everybody would say was elusive, enigmatic, charismatic.  I’m not like that as a person; I’m pretty much what you see is what you get. 
 
And most of the characters I play are more open emotionally, but Gary’s not like that.  He’ll let you come up to him, through a certain way draws you in, but you never quite feel that you fully get to understand him.  And he had a saying, actually, back in 94, he said, “Everyone calls me cool and aloof.  I’ll make a prediction, when I win that first primary…” which he did in a landslide, “everyone will call me enigmatic, cos that’s how it works.”  So he understood it, the power of his charisma.
 
LMD:  So, how do you portray that?
 
HJ:  I had to be very restrained, and I really had to work closely with Jason.  Often, at the end of a day, you want to feel like, ‘Yeah, nailed that scene.  Got that scene.  Good.  What’s next?’  I knew I could never have the luxury of that feeling; that playing someone like Gary, I had to withdraw from the audience as much as the characters I was playing with.  Just close some things down -- open up occasionally, and close it down.  It was a kind of calibration that I’d never really had to do before.  So, Jason I really talked about a lot.
 
LMD:  There’s a scene on a plane where Hart is calming a jittery reporter as they’re going through turbulence.  Watching him be so steady and strong and calm in the moment, made me wonder what a Hart presidency would have been like, but for the exposure of what was essentially a private moment.
 
As someone who also has cameras following him around all the time, what did living in Gary Hart’s skin alter, or perhaps gave you a different philosophy on people in the public eye being held up to unreasonable standards, or held up as a role models, when they maybe shouldn’t be?
 
HJ:  The movie never tries to give you an answer of whether he should have been president or not.  Whether the press went too far or not.  It really asks you to make that decision, and the line at the end that Gary says, “Some things in public life are interesting, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they are important,” is actually almost direct to the audience.  You decide what’s important.
 
I am, by nature, very different to Gary.  I’m a very open person.  I sometimes share too much.  According to some members of my family, and my publicist, rolling her eyes over there.  Gary, by nature, is a private person -- very much like my father, they are exactly the same age.  That generation is like…  There’s many things I never asked my father, right?  I think it is really important, though, to see the difference.  
 
Yes, there is a microscope on my life in some ways, and I have come to a way of life that I am totally fine with it.  I’m totally okay.  There have been a couple of moments where it can get uncomfortable, but I often describe it as like, if I gave you the keys to a Lamborghini, and I told you there was gonna be some traffic jams, occasionally, you would take the keys every day of the week, right?  So, it feels like that for me.
 
Now, as a politician, you have no choice -- particularly post this movie -- but to feel that every aspect of your life is up for grabs.  Nothing is private, and everything is open under the guise of it’s important for us to know who we are electing.  So, I believe -- I haven’t spoken to her directly about this -- Frances McDormand does very little press.  I believe that.  She happens to be currently the person who won the Oscar for Best Actress. {Laughs
 
So, you can still do your job, and make a choice about how much of your life you want to… I’m sure Justin Bieber and people like that feel like, “Oh, dude, it’s not like that for me, at all.’ {Laughs} But, there is a sense of choice; and you can still do what you love, without opening it up, because it’s not as important as their job. 
 
In the end, yes, I promote the movie, and I understand that I will be asked questions about my life, and people will make a judgment about who I am, but all in the end is people need to just go, ‘Hm, am I going to spend 12 bucks to see this guy’s movie, or am I not?’
 
The President of the United States is in charge of your kids’ education, how the planet’s gonna look in 30 years, your taxes -- very real important things that are important to everybody.  So, I understand there’s going to be a different level.  And thank God for things like Watergate; I’m glad the press were digging.  
 
And I’m also thrilled that there’s no negative ads -- so far -- from Hollywood.  I don’t want like open an ad and see Matt Damon going, “Do not see The Front Runner.  I saw it.  It’s shit.  He’s the worst actor I’ve ever seen.  And by the way, you think he’s a nice guy; I’m going to give you four reasons why he’s not.  And by the way, can we please start giving American jobs to Americans?’  I could get absolutely killed if people start negative ads.
 
What would Ryan Reynolds say?  It would be completely over.  It would be a completely different world.
 
LMD:  You’ve just created a Jimmy Kimmel skit.
 
HJ:  {Laughs} Totally!  He’s gonna start the negative ads.  It is a good idea, actually.
 
 
Matt Bai and Jay Carson
 
Matt Bai:  Who was here before us? 
 
The Lady Miz Diva:  Hugh.
 
Matt Bai and Jay Carson: Aw, man!
 
MB: That sucks.  He’s way more interesting. 
 
JC:  And handsome…
 
MB:  And talented, though I sing better.
 
JC:  That’s a tough act to follow.
 
LMD:  In THE FRONT RUNNER, what is the exact moment that everything kicks off?  They’re sort of all these little trails all over the place that lead to the eventual blowup that ruins Gary Hart’s presidential run.  Was it when the Miami Herald reporter was turned down for an interview with Hart?  Was it a grudge?  Was it some sense of righteous indignation?  
 
After men in power being cheaters from time immemorial, what do you think was the actual point that changed everything?
 
MB:  That is a really cool question.
 
JC:  It is.
 
MB:  My instinct is to answer in a way that might sound dodgy, but that’s not my nature. {Laughs}  I think the whole point of things like this -- of scandal situations, or difficult, complex moral dilemmas, where people find themselves -- as many characters in the movie do -- caught in between difficult choices -- I think it is never one thing; it’s that it’s a series of things. 
 
It’s a series of decisions or events bouncing off each other, and that’s what makes it so complicated to unravel.  So, I think the point here is that there is no one trigger event.  Everybody’s making decisions in real time that have a reverberation on everyone else.  And so, the Herald’s decision to do surveillance, Hart’s decision to go on the boat…
 
JC: Dana Weems’ decision to call Tom Fiedler.
 
MB: Dana Weems’ phone call.  That, which nobody knew about for 20 years -- without her picking up the phone, nothing happens.  Even Hart’s decision to say, “Follow me around,” -- which was misinterpreted, and ends up becoming sort of mythologised in a way that is completely misleading, but absent him uttering that line -- people remember very differently.  All of those things collide in the moment, and that, hopefully, will make it very interesting and complicated.
 
LMD:  There’s obvious parallels between this 1987 story and scandals of today, but are there moments in the film that seem like they emphasise more of a current perspective than perhaps might’ve been at that time?  Like the Washington Post reporter explaining that she was upset about Hart being a man in power, and how that held responsibilities.  Donna Rice’s line about how she did everything she was supposed to do to make sure men didn’t look down at her.  Both those sentiments felt awfully enlightened for that period.  
 
Was there a conscious effort to have the audience acknowledge how the offences of then relate to now?
 
When Matt first called me and told me he was working on this book {on which the film is based}, not only did I not think he was crazy, I thought it was a great idea, but I may be as crazy as Matt.  He said, “Three factors led to this – bla, bla, bla, and the rise of feminism.” 
 
So, literally, for the first time, they are women on the bus who go, ‘Hey, that thing you guys have all been covering up; every campaign from the history of America until now?  That’s not okay.’  He started working on this book in 2009, or 10?  So, that’s not modern, but that’s almost 10 years ago, and that’s actually a big factor in what was driving this.  So, the perspective of women in this movie has been a part of our story from the very beginning. 
 
We’ve been asked if those scenes came in after all the Me Too stuff?  We had a version of the script that was more or less what we shot a long time ago; well before Donald Trump was elected.
 
MB:  And we were shooting before the Weinstein stuff came out.
 
JC:  Yeah, all that stuff was just there.  And it does feel like that was what women were actually starting to say in the setting, ‘Hold on a second.  That’s not okay.’
 
MB:  I can tell you I get totally what you’re saying, and it’s a fair question.
 
JC:  It’s a great question.
 
MB:  I think you’d be surprised: Donna Rice, who I’ve talked to many times in the course of the book, that was very much her view in that moment.  Whether she expressed it exactly that way, or not, that is what she says. 
 
What she says is, “I thought, ’What more do you want me to do?  I graduated Phi Beta Kappa.  I am a real person.  I have a career.  Why are they treating me like a bimbo?’”  That was real.  And I think that argument going on at the Post that you reference, again, whether the language is exactly right, that argument was going on all over.  As Jay said, I think with the rise of feminism, about what his responsibilities were?  
 
So, I think the depressing thing may be that if it feels more grounded in the moment, it’s because we haven’t worked through with any great clarity in all the time since, but I don’t think they were at all out of place in the moment.
 
This interview is cross-posted on my own site, The Diva Review. Please enjoy additional content, including exclusive photos there.
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biopicdramaHugh JackmanJ.K. SimmonsJason ReitmanJay CarsonMatt BaipoliticsSara PaxtonThe Front Runner

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