THE FRONT RUNNER Interview: J.K. Simmons, Sara Paxton, and Director Jason Reitman Get Political

Featured Contributor; New York City, New York (@TheDivaReview)
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THE FRONT RUNNER Interview: J.K. Simmons, Sara Paxton, and Director Jason Reitman Get Political
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.
 
Stars J.K. Simmons, Sara Paxton, and director Jason Reitman explain how the past is prologue. 
 
 
J.K. Simmons
 
The Lady Miz Diva:  Unlike your director, who was only 10 years old at the time, one of your costars who’s from Australia, and another who was born in 1988, you are of an age to remember the full blast of the Gary Hart scandal.  I’m curious about your memories from that time, and what is it like for you to immerse yourself in that period, 30 years later?
 
J.K. Simmons:  Well, I learned a lot on this set, and reading Matt’s book, and Jason’s screenplay, because even though I was a grown up in 1987, I spent most of my life sort of being apolitical.  So, I didn’t really pay attention beyond the broad strokes of there was this guy, Gary Hart, that my parents and my siblings thought was going to be the next president, and that they were heavily behind -- big supporters of.  And there was this boat called Monkey Business, and then he was not going to be the next president.  And that was kind of all I knew when it was happening.
 
I learned so much about Gary Hart, about Lee Hart, about Donna Rice, and obviously, about Bill Dixon, who the name didn’t even ring a bell to me, and there’s a reason for that, which is Bill Dixon in the wake of this, walked away from Washington DC and national politics and vowed never to return, and he stayed true to that vow.  He is continuing to live a wonderful and productive and happy life with his career and his family in the upper Midwest.
 
LMD:  There’s an early scene between Dixon and a staffer trying to organise a photo shoot for People Magazine, and Dixon can’t understand why it’s necessary.  It’s odd to hear that in an age where every aspect of a public figure’s life is exploited.  
 
With this film. I spent a lot of time trying to figure where was the turning point, or the shift, between the relationship of politicians and media?  I feel like Dixon represented the clash of the way things were regarding the public’s expectations of politicians, versus the way things are now. 
 
JKS:  Yeah, I think there’s truth to that, for sure.  And I think really, to a large extent, he and Gary saw eye-to-eye on a lot of things.  Really, he’s advocating for Gary in that case, and not necessarily one hundred percent in agreement, because as the campaign manager, he’s like, ’You’re a handsome, charismatic guy, so it would help if we could get your picture in there,’ but at the same time, he has such respect for everything that Hart represents, not just politically, but philosophically, in general.  That whole idea of, ‘It’s not a popularity contest, it’s not a beauty pageant, you know?  Why would I want to be on the cover of People Magazine?’  
 
So, there was a real respect for that, and an understanding of that, and wanting to explain that to people, but at the same time, a part of him that was like, ‘You know, you would be helping me do my job, if you did a little bit of that.’
 
LMD:  While all this is happening, Dixon seems overwhelmed and devastated by everything that’s happening, and the ground shifting completely under their feet.  Did you sense of that is you are creating the character?
 
JKS:  Yeah, absolutely.  And I think most the people involved in this campaign were, to one extent or another.  And I was going to say maybe more so for the younger people, but maybe not, cos they got time to bounce back.
 
 
Jason Reitman
 
The Lady Miz Diva:  What was it about Curly/Logan/Peter Allen/P.T. Barnum that made you say, ‘This is my Gary Hart'? 
 
Jason Reitman:  It’s interesting, right, cos Hugh is an actor whose heart kind of just beats out of his chest, whether he is Logan, or P.T. Barnum.  He’s kind of an exposed emotional actor.  I was excited about the idea of him doing something like he’s never done before.  A movie where he’s playing an enigma; a character that we want to understand, but he’s not completely letting you inside. 
 
And not to mention, look, he’s an actor that every director wants to work with; he’s lovely, he’s brilliant, and he’s so hard-working.  The line that I always think of is that thing he said the first time I met him here in New York for breakfast, and he said, ”I never want to feel that I could’ve done more.”  I think that really encapsulates the guy.
 
LMD:  Is this the first time you’ve filmed a story of someone who is alive?
 
JR:  Yeah.  It’s the first film I’ve ever made about a true story.
 
LMD:  Did knowing that these people are alive and can meet you in a dark alley somewhere affect your approach as director?  What were the differences between filming THE FRONT RUNNER, and a completely fictional narrative?  
 
JR:  It’s funny, I find the connective tissue between my movies is not a visual thing, but rather an interest in grayness.  I’m interested in this kind of area between.  I just don’t believe in good and evil.  I believe that human beings are nuanced, and I’m kind of obsessed with those complexities, and that’s kind of the connective tissue between the characters in Juno, or Up in the Air, or Thank You For Smoking, or Young Adult, or The Front Runner; people trying to figure out what matters.
 
On this, there was a movie called The Candidate, the Michael Ritchie film, and immediately, it felt like that was our North Star.  There’s something about the way that movie was made; they never judge any of the characters inside, but completely puts you on the floor, inside the campaign.  I showed that movie to my co-writers, Matt Bai and Jay Carson, and immediately it was, ‘Oh yeah, this is the tone and style that we want to achieve.  
 
As far as the real people, though, I think at the end of the day, you just have to be empathetic to them, and think about them as you’re making the film.
 
LMD:  You were about 10 at the time of these events, what most surprised you in researching and structuring this story, particularly in terms of the way press and politics worked then versus now?
 
JR:  That’s a great question, and I have a lot of answers to that.  But, you know, if I was going to point to one thing -- for the purpose of being succinct -- the difference in the nature of the relationship between politicians and the press.  That pre-1987, before this moment, politicians and journalists apparently socialised together:
 
They had dinner, they had drinks, they hung out on the bus, and I think journalists had the opportunity to really get a sense of who these politicians were as people.  I think Hart really counted a lot of journalists -- a lot of smart journalists -- as his close friends.  And in this moment, one of the things that shifted, was a wall went up, and the access to politicians became zero; everything was done in a prepared statement.  
 
Politicians were starting to go through such a grueling process of preparedness that you never really got a sense that you were getting to know the person, anymore.  Which, of course, complicates this whole idea of the journalist’s job; which is to kind of let us know who these guys are.
 
Something that I didn’t know before making this movie was that prior to the 70s, candidates were basically chosen at conventions, in back rooms; and it was in the 70s that the primary system came into being.  At which point, we had all these potential candidates that we didn’t know, and it fell onto the shoulders of the journalists to go figure out who these guys were.  Of course, that relationship becomes complicated when politicians now feel that they need to hide.
 
 
Sara Paxton
 
The Lady Miz Diva:  The Gary Hart scandal hit its peak around the time you were born. 
 
Sara Paxton:  Yes, I was just an embryo. {Laughs}
 
LMD:  Tell us about your research on the scandal and Donna Rice beyond the script.
 
SP:  Well, I got the part, and I was really excited.  I was jumping up and down with my dog, we were celebrating.  {Laughs}  And then I realised as we started filming the movie, that this is a really big responsibility.  I’ve never played a real person before, and she’s alive, and she can hear me, and she can watch the performance.  It’s really intimidating. 
 
And so, the research that I did; there’s not a whole lot out there about her from that time period, so I did what I could.  At the end of the day, the thing I cared the most about was just capturing the empathy of this woman in this situation, and I use the script as my roadmap.  
 
LMD:  Did you actually meet and interact with Donna Rice, herself?
 
SP:  No, I haven’t met her.  I would really like to meet her.  I’d like to talk to her.  When we started the movie, I talked to Jason about it, and we decided that I wasn’t seeking to mimic her, or do an impersonation of Donna.  And so, I didn’t meet her, and like I said, I was just mostly focused on the empathy.
 
LMD:  What, if anything, could you relate to about what Donna Rice had gone through?   
 
SP:  I related to her right away.  I was already familiar with the story, so when I got the script, I was really curious as to how she was getting portrayed.  I was very happy with the way she was written; I thought she was written with respect and dignity, and empathy, and given the voice that she didn’t have 30 years ago.  
 
I related to her in a lot of different levels; first of all, as a woman, I related to her.  I think a lot of women can relate to a woman in that situation.  And also, I related to her because I am an actress, and I’ve been an actor for a really long time -- since I was six years old -- and when you are an actor, people always want to put you in a box; they want to pigeonhole you, and place you somewhere, and tell you who you are, and Donna was a person who was trying to avoid that her entire life. 
 
I have a line in the film where I’m like, “I did everything I was supposed to do to avoid men looking at me the way that you’re looking at me right now.”  And then, the tragedy of it is that she’s trapped in that box forever that you try to avoid.  I felt so much empathy for her and I never judged her, at all.
 
LMD:  As we established, you were a fetus when this all broke, but there are so many parallels between the Gary Hart scandal and today’s perspectives on press and politics.  Having lived in Donna Rice’s skin, immersed in this story and time period, has it affected your perspective on what is going on today, and the way that we should look at the mix of press and politics, and fame, in general?
 
SP:  I love this film because even though we were making it, there was constantly discussions and debates -- every single day.  Things are changing, every single hour things are changing.  I learned a lot about how much the media has changed, and how it really took a big turn right in that moment:  Obviously, that is so much of what the movie is about.  
 
It’s just crazy to think that people used to get their information from the newspaper hitting the stand.  You had to wait for it.  And then, in this moment in history that this movie covers, it changes again: The beginning of the 24 hour news cycle was born, and CNN was in its infancy, and everything’s changing, and was speeding up. 
 
And now, with social media, like, our president tweets, it’s constant, and I think the movie asks, ‘Are we better off?’  And I love that it makes people ponder that question, as I am doing every day now.
 
LMD:  One of the interesting things about the film is how it carefully steers clear of judgment.  There are no clear bad guys.  What judgments on the characters were you able to make based on the materials that you were given, or was it kept ambiguous for you?
 
SP:  Well, I don’t think has to be said that human beings are complicated.  We are not perfect, we all make mistakes.  That’s just the way we are.  So, I don’t think that was something that had to be said.  I think that with Gary Hart, he was a man who was ahead of his time in a lot of ways, but also behind the time.  I mean, he did not realise that the political landscape was changing right beneath his feet.  
 
Like you said, there are no classic heroes, or classic villains in this story, because there aren't in life.  Well… {Laughs}.  Look, yes, there are people that do evil things, obviously.  But we’re all human beings, we all make mistakes, basically.
 
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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