Hugh Jackman on the Political Sex Scandal That Changed America
Jackman and ‘The Front Runner’ director Jason Reitman on the sex scandal that doomed a presidential hopeful, changed politics, and got us to finally think: What about the woman?
On a late night in the spring of 1987, three journalists confronted politician Gary Hart in a back alley outside his Washington, D.C. townhouse. It changed the course of American history.
Hart, a magnetic and idealistic senator from Colorado, was the vaunted front-runner for the 1988 Democratic presidential nomination. When rumors began swirling about his extra-marital affairs, he challenged the press to “follow me around... it will be boring.” It was not.
The journalists had been on an all-night stakeout, capturing evidence of Hart’s affair with a young woman named Donna Rice, whom he met on a yacht named—you can’t make this up—Monkey Business. Their decision to run with the story despite Hart’s impassioned, altruistic insistence that the tawdry details of a politician’s personal life are of no consequence to voters torpedoed his presidential chances, with the ensuing media frenzy suffocating every other talking point surrounding his candidacy.
As depicted in the new drama The Front Runner, directed by Jason Reitman, starring Hugh Jackman, and opening in limited release on Election Day, Hart’s downfall also marked a seismic cultural shift. It completely upended the church-and-state separation of political and tabloid journalism. Previously delineated concepts like privacy, publicity, celebrity, political ideals, character flaws, and character blurred into a chaotic whirlpool that has only grown more powerful, more confusing, and arguably more upsetting in the decades that followed.
Reitman, who was only 10 when all this was happening, first heard Gary Hart’s story in a Radiolab interview with Matthew Bai, who wrote a book about the 1988 election called All the Truth Is Out. “It sounded like a movie,” he says. “The next president of the United States is in an alleyway in the middle of the night with three journalists. No one’s ever been in this position before. It sounded like a thriller.”
Reitman’s catalog has always delved into topical issues surrounding a particular cultural moment—Thank You For Smoking, Up in the Air, Juno, Casual—but this is the first time he’s made a film about a real person. That the film is being released on Election Day is no coincidence, either. Its themes and the questions it raises couldn’t be more timely. (Imagine: The idea that an affair or inappropriate sexual conduct could derail the campaign of a future president of the United States.)
Reitman tells the story from a dozen different perspectives, from the journalists and campaign managers to Hart’s wife and Rice herself—but the truth remains that this is Hart’s story. It’s Jackman’s megawatt celebrity that leads the film’s cast down the red carpet. As such, when Hart pleads for privacy, he is assigned a certain magnitude of empathy.
When we interview Reitman and Jackman, we push the pair on that fact. Public figures’ affairs and scandals are now covered with rabid glee by the media but, in the end, do little to harm the careers of the famous men involved, while women are often persecuted in the public eye. We suggest that the more prudent story to tell in The Front Runner is that of Donna Rice, who had her entire life taken away from her when she was named.
What follows is, we think, a really considered conversation with Reitman and Jackman on that point: the responsibility of giving appropriate weight to female stories. (Rice’s story is told in The Front Runner, in a supporting role, and Rice herself thanked Reitman for telling it with empathy.) We also gauged Jackman’s take on which parts of a public figure’s private life should matter to the press—if only we had spoken after the Kushner news hit—and talked about how the film resonates today.
Everything we watch these days is seen through the lens of the administration we’re living through. How much of that did you think about when making the movie?
Jason: Matt Bai started writing a book about him a decade ago. We wrote the screenplay in 2015, so this was pre-election. In fact, the script had been written and we were just finishing Tully, the last night or the second-to-last night of shooting on election night. We were in Brooklyn on election night. I remember it was spooky as hell. They were lighting up Manhattan red. I remember we were just kind of sitting there in Bushwick shooting and from whatever angle we had a point of view of the city. It was trippy.
I remember that. It was eerie.
Jason: But you’re right, there’s no way to think of this movie not in 2018. But I think it goes broader than the White House. It’s the question we’re asking in general right now, which is what is relevant? Who are these people really? Who were they really as human beings? The Hart story in 1987 is one week in which you have this great test case. You have a guy who is a great candidate. He has great ideas. He’s prescient beyond all imagination. But he’s a flawed human being who made mistakes, and who did not think his private life was relevant at just the moment when the country was starting to say, no, we do think it’s relevant.
You’re both public figures. Have you considered those questions about how much of your personal life you need to divulge in order to be a relevant public person, and how much we are entitled to the truth about that private life?
Hugh: There is a lens to a certain degree, but a completely different lens than what a politician is under. You look at someone like Frances McDormand, who I believe does very little press and won an Oscar last year. I don’t really know if I know anything about Judi Dench’s private life…
Jason: Oh, if only you did!
Hugh: It doesn’t matter to me, and she’s one of my favorite actors. It’s impossible as a politician. I always say, for me fame, if I was going to give you the keys to a Ferrari and tell you that there’s going to be some traffic jams, you would take the keys every day of the week. That’s sort of how it feels. I’m also, as opposed to Gary, naturally quite an open person. If you ask me a question, 99 times out of 100 I’ll probably answer more than you want to hear.
Gary was certainly not that way.
Hugh: He was by nature a very private person, as well as in a job where there was incredible inspection on every aspect of his life. He was very protective of his family, and also protective of his system, what he called the sanctity of the process. He really firmly believed that if we veer too much into this politics of personality and become entertainers, that it was going to sully the process. And we actually would not get to choose the best leader because we would focus on what was interesting and not what’s important. So it’s fundamentally different.
That’s interesting, given how much people conflate the celebrity of Hollywood with the celebrity of Washington these days.
Hugh: I was thinking this morning coming here, seeing all these negative ads because of all the elections going on. Imagine if you turn on the TV at 8 o’clock in the morning and Matt Damon’s looking down the barrel and going, “The Front Runner sucks. I’ve seen it. And by the way I know you think he’s a nice guy. He’s not. I’ve seen him at a party do blah blah blah. And can I just bring up the point that everyone is thinking about but no one is addressing: Why are we giving American jobs to an Australian?” Thank god there’s no negative ads!
Jason: I’m so taking out negative ads.
I think the fact that the film is coming out on Election Day certainly invites perhaps even more scrutiny about its relevance today. Is that something you were thinking about?
Jason: I hope that no one ever thought that we had some message in the movie, because I don’t believe in that.
Hugh: There’s no heroes and villains in the piece. There are 12 storylines you follow in this movie. It’s one of those things when I first read it and working with [Jason] was how well-handled the female characters are. You really start to understand what this whole thing was like from Donna Rice’s point of view, who was the first person you showed the film to. The campaign worker Irene Kelly, who Molly Ephraim plays so brilliantly. You just get so many different perspectives of this. I think in the end you’re left with: there’s a bunch of humans here.
You mention heroes and villains. I think especially now—with people protesting to support sexual assault survivors in the wake of accusations against Brett Kavanaugh, for instance—there’s a warranted desire to see stories like this where the man is the villain and the woman is the hero. This is a story in which a woman’s life is never going to be the same, in a way that we’re realizing now with the women who have stepped forward. How much of that were you thinking about in your telling of the Gary Hart story?
Jason: Look, now more than ever, telling women’s stories is very important. From moment one on The Front Runner, that was central. What kind of burden is put on the shoulders of women during a scandal? Whether you are Lee Hart, whose husband had an affair, whether you’re Donna Rice and your life is about to be stripped from your hands. Her life was basically stolen from her. Or frankly, if you’re the one woman at The Washington Post or the one woman on the campaign trail and you are forced to come speak for your entire gender. It’s complicated. I think just as the movie was meant to come from a dozen different points of view, we also needed to explore points of view of different women in this story, depending on where they work, depending on what their age was, depending on their proximity to their scandal itself. We tried to do that with as much humanity as possible.
Jason: That is a very dismissive “mhmm.”
It wasn’t meant to sound that way. Like you said, there are moments given to Molly Ephraim and Vera Farmiga and Ari Graynor and Sara Paxton [who play Irene Kelly, Lee Hart, Ann Devroy, and Donna Rice, respectively]. There is an argument that maybe there is a film to be made about those people as well, but the central story here is Gary’s.
Jason: Oh, that’s funny. I feel like we just made the movie about all those people. What always interested I think both of us is that this is a movie from the outside looking in. This is a movie of 12 people trying to figure out an enigma between them. In fact, the first half of the film is all told through everyone else’s eyes. You meet these people at the Post, you meet these people at the Herald, you meet these people on the campaign team. You meet these family members. It is strangely over their shoulders that we’re watching this film, with an enigma at the center that we’re trying to understand. So from a point of view, perspective I think is exactly what we were trying to do.
Hugh, while playing Gary, how much of an understanding of what he did were you trying to get to? Did you come to a conclusion about whether or not he did what he was accused of? Did knowing that matter?
Hugh: No. I don’t think it mattered in the end. Which in some ways goes against what you learn in acting school 101, which is in every aspect you make a choice. It’s not something I asked Gary. It’s not something I felt was important in the end. I wanted to know who he was as a person.
Often to the public, a celebrity is an idea. You’re not Hugh Jackman, you’re “Hugh Jackman the Hollywood Celebrity.” And beneath that, there’s a person who has their own ideas and values and messes and all that comes along with being human. What is that tension like? Gary expresses it a lot during the film, where he hates the idea that he has to be a public person when he just wants to talk about policy and politics.
Hugh: When X-Men came out, I had a publicist come up to me in an interview and say, “You move your hands too much and you talk too much. As a movie star, you keep your hands still and you keep things back. You gotta keep some mystery.” And I remember as she was talking, being like, “Alright this is finished.” I said to her, “This is not going to work out with us.” She said, “What do you mean?” I said, “You may be right, but I don’t think you understand how much I love and how much energy I put in to pretending to be someone else on screen. I really enjoy doing that, whether it’s on stage or on film. That is an art form I dedicate my life to. I have zero interest in dedicating my own life to creating another character.”
Jason: I just want to go back to one thing you brought up earlier.
About the argument for telling more of Donna’s story?
Jason: I’ve been thinking about it ever since you asked me about Donna’s story. About making a movie about Donna. It’s interesting because, for me, she’s the person who I had the most empathy for in this story. She’s the person who had her life stolen from her, probably more than anybody else. That felt accurate as I got to know her and talk to her on the phone. I would tell people I’m doing doing the Gary Hart story. They’d go, “Oh! Monkey Business, right? What was her name? Follow me around.” It would happen in that order. They would say those three things. “What was her name?” And that really stuck with me.
They couldn’t remember her name.
Jason: “Who is this woman? What were those days like?” And I could see the picture that people had of this person in their head, a girl on a boat. And as I learned more about her and as I talked to her, she was really educated. She was like any other woman who had aspirations and goals except they were stolen from her. So we tried to create a movie in which the first half of the movie you don’t get to meet her. And you’re like, oh yeah, the girl on the boat. And the second half of the movie you finally meet her but you are confronted with her in the moment in which she has finally lost everything. You as the audience have to sit there for a second and judge yourself for, oh, that’s right, I kind of went in thinking this is who this girl is going to be and now I’m forced to have empathy for her and think of her as a human being who has been alive these last 30 years, trying to endure this story. It’s the reason why I was kind of happy she was the first person to see the film of all the people we portrayed in it.
That’s interesting. She was the first one you showed it to?
Jason: I don’t want to speak for her. She has her own thoughts. She liked the film. The first thing she said was how good Hugh is as an actor. But then she also talked about how she’s been looking for a sense of empathy for 30 years and she felt the movie had a sense of empathy for her. And she was particularly moved by Sara and the decency that Sara showed her in her performance. I’ve been thinking about your question ever since you asked it, because it’s an important one and I wanted to make sure I gave it a real answer.