It took two and-a-half hours, every day of Bombshell’s shoot, for Charlize Theron to transform into Megyn Kelly; but deciding to take on the role in the first place took much longer. “I loved this script so much, and I didn’t want to fuck the movie up,” she says. The project came to her Denver and Delilah company for her to produce, and she was concerned she might exert her influence unduly and claim the role over an actor that deserved it more. “I was trying to talk myself out it. I tend to second-guess myself. I didn’t want to stand in the way of this story.”
There was an ideological distance, too, giving her pause. Kelly’s views are far removed from Theron’s own. Even after Kelly’s tenure at the conservative Fox News, during the period she was on NBC, she caused controversy by defending blackface, and succeeded in offending gay people, fat people and Jane Fonda—the latter with questions about plastic surgery, sparking a running feud. She also committed a segment of her news magazine show Sunday Night with Megyn Kelly to Alex Jones, the supplement salesman and hawker of poisonous Sandy Hook conspiracy theories.
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For Theron, though, the story Bombshell was telling ultimately won out. “I had to realize that, even through all this stuff, this was a person that did something really incredible, and I couldn’t throw the baby out with the bathwater. It took a while, and it’s a really scary thing as an actor, because I know that my capability lives and breathes in removing myself from these preconceived notions. She was part of a moment in history that will always be remembered. It doesn’t negate other things for me, but I had to remove that from the conversation of what this was.”
By comparison, her time spent in the makeup chair was a breeze, especially considering the uncannily accurate end result. It should have taken four hours plus to pull off, but the production couldn’t spare that kind of time, especially since the makeup team was also engaged in transforming Nicole Kidman into Gretchen Carlson, John Lithgow into Roger Ailes, and a sweeping ensemble into frighteningly realistic versions of the Fox News players circa 2016.
Kelly’s eyes were the hardest part. They were also the key. As much as actors recoil at even the suggestion of concealing their eyes with contact lenses—and there would be contact lenses—there was no way for Theron to become Kelly without adjusting the shape of her eyelids. “Whenever we applied everything but the eyelids,” says Theron, “it never, ever felt right. I looked like a young Glenn Close. It was bizarre.”
In the end, Kazu Hiro, the Oscar-winning makeup designer behind Gary Oldman’s transformation into Winston Churchill, crafted eight facial prosthetics that would completely transform Theron’s appearance. There was very little left to do after the fact. Some color correction on skin tone. A touch of digital softening around the edges of the prosthetics. “You can’t do that if you need to do it a lot,” Theron notes. “It’s impossible, because the face becomes so soft that you can tell immediately. The quality of Kazu’s work was just so phenomenal.”
When Charlize Theron looked in the mirror after Hiro had done his job, the face she saw staring back at her was Megyn Kelly’s.
It is a choking evening in Los Angeles. As wildfires in the hills blanket the city in smoke, 400 people are gathered inside a vintage movie house on Wilshire Blvd. to screen Bombshell. Many more can’t even make it through the door. While the movie tells its fast-paced, incendiary narrative about the sexual harassment allegations levelled against the former Fox News chief Roger Ailes, its principal cast, Charlize Theron, Nicole Kidman and Margot Robbie, are collected backstage ahead of their Q&A. There’s a buzz of anticipation in the air. In a small, Lynchian holding room behind the screen, fitted with a red velvet curtain and checkerboard flooring, Kidman flinches at the harshness of the halogen strip light in the ceiling. She has Robbie switch it off as she locates a smaller, warmer, desktop lamp. “That’s better,” she says. “Now we’re at home.”
It’s a take-charge moment that is appropriately reflective of her role in Bombshell. In the Jay Roach film, based on a script by Charles Randolph, Kidman plays Gretchen Carlson, the Fox News anchor who ignited the touch-paper on a litany of sexual harassment allegations that would lead to the explosive ousting of Ailes from the Fox newsroom.
Carlson was not the first to allege wrongdoing by Ailes—earlier, isolated stories had been swept away—but her profile helped ensure that her breaking of ranks became the catalyst for a movement that would, in less than a month, send two men marching from the building.
As more than a dozen women joined the public chorus against Ailes, star anchor Bill O’Reilly defended his boss for being a “target” as a “famous, powerful or wealthy person”. Still more women accused O’Reilly of a range of inappropriate behavior, including sexual harassment. O’Reilly denies the allegations against him, though investigations by The New York Times uncovered a total of six settlements with his accusers.
Kidman’s turn as Carlson is only one part of an ensemble film that is led by Theron’s dramatic transformation into Kelly, whose career at Fox News was ascending when Carlson’s allegations broke. Kelly made her own allegation against Ailes less than two weeks later; Ailes limped on for two more days before resigning.
When he finally did, 21st Century Fox Executive Chairman Rupert Murdoch issued a statement that made no mention of the allegations against him, and instead praised Ailes for his “remarkable contribution to our company and our country”. Ailes went on to advise Donald Trump’s presidential campaign—as well as Murdoch and 21st Century Fox—before his death in May 2017. According to end cards on Bombshell, the remuneration paid to the women at the center of these accusations against Ailes and O’Reilly stands at $50m. The men’s own settlement packages with Fox totaled $65m.
Bombshell also follows Margot Robbie, who plays Kayla, a fictional new hire at Fox News that catches Ailes’ eye. Her story is based on countless hours of research by Randolph and reflects an amalgam of several Ailes accusers. The movie, Robbie says, is “a political thriller, but it’s not so much about politics. It’s ultimately about people, coming together to take down a very powerful person who is abusing that power. That’s a very satisfying thing to watch.”
Lithgow delivers a terrifying turn as Ailes, and the film’s cast is rounded out by Jennifer Morrison, Alice Eve, Kate McKinnon, Allison Janney, Connie Britton and many more recognizable names. “We didn’t have to convince a lot of people,” notes Theron. “The material and the subject really spoke to them. It was really easy; people wanted to do it. I’ve never had that kind of good will. You felt like, Shit, let’s figure this out.”
“When Charlize says, ‘Babe, you’ve got to be in this; show up or I’ll kill you,’ you go, ‘OK, I’m there,’” Kidman laughs.
“I have read a Charles Randolph script before,” says Robbie, who had a scene-stealing cameo in Adam McKay’s The Big Short, which Randolph wrote. “When I got this, I knew it would be good. He and Jay research every aspect of the subject, but at the same time, they are still purely focused on human interaction and behavior. I started reading the script as an actor, knowing I was probably going to do it because it would be a fantastic role. But I finished the script wanting to do it just as a person. As a human being living right now, I had to do this, because it was important.”
“So much of what we’re doing now is about joining forces and working together,” Kidman says. “If we do that as women, we’re so much stronger. Standing there, talking to all these crazy-talented actresses, it was like, Let’s mark the moment in history, because that’s what this is.”
The downfall of Ailes occurred more than a year before the explosive allegations in The Times and The New Yorker against Harvey Weinstein in October 2017, which kickstarted the Time’s Up and #MeToo movements. And though Theron hadn’t necessarily been looking to tell stories about sexual harassment, it was ground she had walked before. In 2005, she starred in Niki Caro’s North Country, which tracked a sexual harassment lawsuit in a mining community in 1988. “These issues have been a part of my life for as long as I can remember,” she says. “But I was naïve in thinking that struggle wasn’t there anymore. I figured, after those landmark cases, that people in power were taking more responsibility. That there was a law behind it. It was legislated. I think that is the thing we still all have to reconcile with, because it’s very much there, and if anything, you could argue it’s the same, or worse.”
Randolph’s untitled draft (he had toyed with the title ‘The End of the Leg Man’) came to Theron through Annapurna, who were initially onboard to finance and release Bombshell. “For all of us at Denver and Delilah, it was a no-brainer that we wanted to make the film,” she says. But even the act of bringing Theron aboard to produce felt like something impossible a decade earlier, the cast agrees. The streaming services’ voracious appetite for content has brought forth more stories about women, and their success, they say, on streaming and in cinema, is more undeniable than ever. “People can’t hide behind misinformation,” Theron insists. “The facts are out there. We know that 2017 was a way more lucrative year for female stories than it was for male stories. Being a part of that time right now in telling stories, it’s fucking great.”
All three of Bombshell’s principal cast now produce as well as act, helping to deliver award-winning film and television, like I, Tonya (Robbie) and Big Little Lies (Kidman). “When I started, those were called vanity deals,” Theron notes. “It was a crazy concept. I get my name on a movie, I get the check, and I don’t do anything? ‘Yes, because you’re an actor and you have no other abilities.’ That’s definitely changed now. People like Margot Robbie can step in and start actually producing, because a lot of that groundwork has been laid. When I was starting out, that wasn’t possible.”
“How great is that?” Kidman smiles. “When Margot produced I, Tonya, she didn’t know anything other than, ‘Oh, I can do that.’ It wasn’t even a part of the conversation when I was starting out. There was no possibility of it. So, to have the strength to come out of the gate like that… You just go, ‘Yes! Take the baton and run!’ It’s so exciting, because that’s what you’re passing it on for. You go, ‘And pass it on to the next! Create your destinies, take some power back, have some control, and by God, let’s see what you can do.’”
Theron’s name, as well as the subject matter, were the magnets that attracted the ensemble, but there were still roadblocks to come on Bombshell’s path to the screen. Though it had come to Denver and Delilah as a project ready to shoot at Annapurna, the ground shook two months out from production. “We were asked to bring in a financial partner to alleviate some of the budget for them,” Theron recalls. She went to Aaron Gilbert and BRON Studios, who she says told her, “We’ll come in. We really like this.” And then, with two weeks until cameras rolled, Annapurna fell out completely. “Aaron was willing to pick everything up within 24 hours,” adds Theron.
By that point, Theron had committed to playing Kelly. Roach was aboard, and it was her conversations with him that tipped her over the edge of playing the part. “That was the first moment where, because of what he was saying about how he saw the project, it excited me as an actor. I knew, for Jay I would go there.” They had begun talking while Theron was developing the project and bringing him on as Bombshell’s director was “kismet”, Theron says. “I felt safe with him. I felt like I got excited about making this movie.”
When she made Tully with Jason Reitman, she had heard the complaints of some critics about a male director helming a film about a mother’s bond with her night nanny. “Everybody was like, ‘It’s quintessentially a woman’s story, why would you make it with a guy?’” she recalls. “It’s hard to explain to people how Jason feels about that topic. To me, it proves something that I want the world not to forget: men are just as invested in wanting a safe world for us. We need to get rid of the few bad apples, but in general, I feel like men don’t want this for their daughters, or for their wives. There’s an empathy there.”
She’s committed, she says, to providing more opportunities to female directors. “But as a producer, sometimes you have to trust that little voice inside, and something inside me said that Jay was the person to make this film with. I knew that we would, behind the camera, have more female producers, and our head of departments would be more female.” The overall balance “was definitely more female than it was male”.
Randolph’s script simply resonated when she read it. “To me, as a woman, that is already really touching, because I want to believe men are interested in this stuff, just as much as we are. This concept that only women would want to tell these stories is really disproved by Charles taking this on, which wasn’t an easy task. The amount of research that he had to put into this was phenomenal. I really believe that you can’t isolate this in trying to find the answers; in trying to actually create the change that we all need and want. So, it started with Charles, which I had no power over, and I’m just grateful that he had the balls to do it. No pun intended.”
“I think it’s an important film for men,” notes Robbie. “This is not a female movie; it’s for men and women. The most important thing, perhaps, is that men for a moment might be in that office with Kayla and might understand a slice of what it feels like to be sexually harassed at work, if they haven’t experienced it in their own lives.”
That the first major motion picture dealing with the fallout from high-profile cases of sexual harassment in the media would come to tell the story of the women at Fox News is also significant. The cast is aware that people will bring to the theater their own baggage—in many cases, those ideological disagreements with the stances Kelly, Carlson and others have taken in their careers in conservative media. And they’re aware of the journey the film has to travel for that baggage to be divorced from what the women say happened to them when they worked in the Fox newsroom. “If it doesn’t do that, then what’s the point of the film?” Kidman asks, rhetorically. “Because this really is a bipartisan issue. It has to be. Hopefully the movie makes that clear.”
“This crime doesn’t discriminate,” insists Robbie. “There are very powerful people abusing that power on every side.”
Bombshell’s uncanny valley-skirting illusion—the actor playing Bill O’Reilly is so convincing it feels as though it might be O’Reilly himself (it isn’t)—is made ever more convincing when its cast is cut against real footage from the Fox News archive. This includes Megyn Kelly’s run-in with Donald Trump at a Republican primary debate, after which the future President told CNN, “There was blood coming out of her eyes, blood coming out of her wherever.” There’s footage, too, of misogynist comments made by Gretchen Carlson’s fellow Fox & Friends anchors, with Kidman spliced effortlessly onto the sofa. A supercut on YouTube of the original footage captures the regularity of such comments when Carlson served on the show.
Theron hasn’t met Kelly—“out of choice, though I am assuming that she would even want to speak to me,” Theron laughs—and neither has Kidman met Carlson. In the latter case, that’s because Carlson signed a $20m settlement agreement with Fox News, which came with a non-disclosure agreement barring her from speaking about her time at the channel. These agreements are common when accusations of workplace malfeasance are mediated—a condition of many employment contracts—and the financial payments that come with them are often the subject of disparaging comments against accusers. But they also serve to silence victims from sharing their experiences publicly. At the start of this month, Carlson told AP she wanted to be released from her gag order. “It would be nice to be able to tell my full story,” she said.
Research for the film involved speaking to people who were at Fox News as the allegations were breaking. “I felt like I had access to a lot of sources—that we can’t talk about—which told me we were on the right path,” Theron says. “We realized we had a lot of stuff wrong initially, based on the editorial pieces that were written as more information was coming in. It was important because the narrative changed. Things became a lot clearer to us. There was a lot out there that, I think, people wanted the narrative to be. And you would believe it, until you heard women say, ‘That’s not who did it; this is what happened…’”
It did mean those conversations included Ailes’ victims. Roach mentioned the breaking of NDAs in an earlier Q&A, Theron says, “and there was panic. Everybody got this email, like, ‘Don’t do that, it’s dangerous ground.’ Then, two weeks later, the NBC NDA story was breaking, and everybody, including Megyn Kelly, was saying, ‘We’re going to have to remove these gag orders on women if we want to get to the bottom of these stories.’ Gretchen, she keeps fighting. It is so in the zeitgeist right now, and it’s what people are talking about.”
“These things happen in waves in our culture,” Kidman notes. “The waves rise, and you start getting stories and films made on the subject. I worked for almost two decades for UN Women, which was all about eradicating violence against women. When we started, you would talk and you’d only sort of be heard; not really. But suddenly, there’s this tide and people are willing to listen and to change.”
“It was part of Roger Ailes’ toolkit to isolate women,” says Robbie. “To pit them against each other. I think that, ultimately, what took him down was the women unifying.”
When Kelly finally came forward, the die was cast. Bombshell deals with the journey it took to get her there. “She was in negotiation for a lot of money, and she was a superstar there,” Theron reflects. “On top of that, there was a moral dilemma she had, because she liked [Ailes]. There wasn’t a part of her that felt like she could not be truthful about that. That makes for a very conflicting story, and one that people are not necessarily ready to hear. We want to believe that they’re villains, and the fact that she was de-villainizing him in the way she talked about him, I think, was so important to getting to the real crux of what this is all about. Because until we fully understand it, we won’t be able to resolve it.”
For Kidman, tapping into why Carlson took her first steps to right this wrong required understanding her life. She started with footage of her on-air appearances, and there was a lot of it. “But equally, she’s got to have had her shield up,” Kidman says. “And when you try to break it down behind that shield, what is this persona that says, ‘Bring it on, I’m going to fight them all?’”
Her answer was to find a common ground with Carlson through family. Carlson said, of watching her kids as their mother was being dragged in the press for the allegations she had made, “They got it. Both my son and my daughter have become more courageous in their lives, and the impact that me coming forward has [had] on them has probably been the most important thing I’ve done in my life so far.”
“You can’t portray a woman who has done this as a mother if the children aren’t there,” Kidman says. “She would have been so frightened for their future, for how this would have affected them. You can’t define this woman without that.”
There was a bittersweet tinge to Carlson’s story that Kidman also needed to show. As she stacks her dishwasher and checks her phone, the question for Carlson becomes, “What now?” Says Kidman, of how she imagined the immediate aftermath for Gretchen Carlson: “There’s not really much going on, and the future isn’t bright. That’s frightening, and it’s sad and real. But she survived.” Indeed, Carlson’s activism in support of victims of sexual harassment, regardless of any other views she may hold, has never ceased, and she has published books and documentaries in support of victims. She became the chairwoman of the Miss America pageant—she herself is a former winner—and spearheaded a contentious abolition of the pageant’s swimsuit competition.
Kidman thought of her own kids as she read the scene in which Robbie’s Kayla is called into Ailes’ office. Kayla is excited, with lofty ambitions toward becoming an on-screen anchor, only to have Ailes demand her ‘loyalty’ through euphemistic, and increasingly more direct, sexual advances. “You go, ‘I don’t ever want this to happen to my daughter,’” Kidman says. “I don’t want it to happen to my wife, to my sister, to me. I don’t want this to happen. That response definitely comes through Kayla’s character.”
It is one of the movie’s most uncompromising, uncomfortable scenes, as the realization slowly dawns on Kayla that she is being asked to give something she should never have to sacrifice. As the rest of the film maintains a heady pace, and at times a surprisingly upbeat tone, this sequence descends like an icy silence, stopping the audience dead in its tracks.
“In some cases, sexual harassment happens in a gray area,” notes Robbie. Indeed, the movie details Carlson’s struggle, with her legal team, to class much of the inappropriate behavior she had witnessed as evidence of legally challengeable sexual harassment. “Someone may not immediately feel like Kayla in that situation. ‘He didn’t touch me. What do I call this thing that just happened to me?’ Someone as smart as Roger Ailes could manipulate the position of power to force a victim to start rationalizing, to start explaining, to start excusing. That’s, I think, the reason it goes on as long as it does in some cases.”
Robbie says that the character, a conservative Christian who believes deeply in the values espoused by the network, comes from Randolph’s own upbringing. “His family watched Fox News religiously, and the lines about them having the logo burned into their TV screens come from that,” she says. “He very much understood Kayla, and I could talk to him about her a lot. I also had to wrap my head around this young, millennial, but extremely conservative point of view. Twitter was a great source for that, because there are a number of young, Christian conservative women who are very vocal on social media. It was fascinating, and it was frightening.”
As with Theron, the issue of sexual harassment has never been far away for Robbie, she says. “This story takes place at Fox News, but it’s a backdrop for something that happens in so many places, in so many industries, all over the world. I’ve had these conversations all my life, about things like this happening to women, and I know I’ve had those conversations even more in the past two years since the #MeToo movement started. So, there’s a lot of research that has gone into the film, but also, I guess, interactions in my life, where I can absolutely understand.”
She hopes the movie will continue a conversation that gets louder by the day. That conversation, she says, “has helped us start defining, and pointing to situations and saying, ‘That was not OK.’ Something like this is a powerful thing.”
“And just being believed,” adds Kidman. “Not being made to question, ‘Was this my fault?’ No, there’s protocol, and the protocol is, don’t abuse your position of power, you’re not allowed to touch someone physically, or sabotage them because they wouldn’t do something that you wanted sexually or emotionally. Those things are not OK.”
Everybody has a different impression of the world Bombshell leaves to pick up the pieces at the end of its story. Carlson’s settlement agreement impelled 21st Century Fox to issue a statement of apology, expressing regret “for the fact that Gretchen was not treated with the respect and dignity that she and all of our colleagues deserve.” Yet, as Ailes and O’Reilly’s settlements outpaced that of their accusers by $15m, Fox News itself continues make profits in the billions annually. How impactful can any of these settlement figures have been on making real, systemic change when they would barely dent a balance sheet?
The question mark was important for Theron, who says they were many arguments about how to wrap up the movie’s narrative. “People are brave enough to tell these stories if they feel, at the end, victorious; that there has been a moment of victory,” she says. “But it’s not that easy with this story. I really fought very hard—along with Jay and Charles—to have an ending that felt authentic to how things are today. Yes, what these women did was heroic. But at the same time, they didn’t change everything overnight. That systemic problem is there and it’s going to take years for us to undo that power struggle. But that doesn’t mean it’s impossible.”
Another end card on the movie notes that the women that accused Ailes were among the first to bring down a such a powerful public figure, but they have not been the last—a statement that seems especially self-reflective for a movie industry that has dealt with its own rotting bushel of bad apples. Kidman sees the optimism of that card, just as she sees the optimism of Carlson’s response to her legal team when they tell her, “You will be muzzled, Gretchen.” She replies: “Maybe.”
“Maybe she’ll be muzzled,” repeats Kidman. “Nothing’s changed, but at the same time things are changing. Women aren’t as muzzled as they once were.”
A responsible company, says Theron, “would want to be transparent. Any therapist will tell you silence is the most dangerous thing. Here we are, legally implementing it on women. I’m so impressed by women coming forward who are openly breaking their NDAs and saying, ‘Come after me, I have nothing.’ One woman was literally like, ‘I don’t even have a TV. This is how much I’ve lost.’ It’s heartbreaking to even fathom that women have to get pushed that far.”
But, adds Robbie, “Women always find a way. It may take a while, but we find a way.”
“There’s hope in that,” Kidman says. The fires are still being fought.