Through ‘The Front Runner,’ Hugh Jackman Gets To Know Elusive Politician Gary Hart

Chris Chapman

Since hanging up his claws as Wolverine in spectacular fashion with Logan, Hugh Jackman has been exploring. He returned to his first love, musical theatre, last year for the blockbusting The Greatest Showman, and now tackles perhaps the meatiest role of his career to date as 1988 Democratic presidential candidate Gary Hart. Jason Reitman’s The Front Runner follows the three weeks it took Hart’s leading campaign for the Democratic ticket to implode when reports surfaced of an extramarital affair. It was a changing point for American politics, Jackman says, but getting to know the elusive politician proved challenging.

How did you get this script?

Well, it came to me via Jason Reitman. It was the old-fashioned script to the agent, agent sends it on. Of course my inner monologue is, “Please like this. Please like this. Please like this.” Because I just love Jason’s films. I love everything about him. I love the complex characters he places at the center of all of these movies. He loves to live in the grey. As an actor, of course, that’s just a red rag to a bull.

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What did you know about Gary Hart?

I knew nothing. I was probably in the UK in 1987 on a year off, so I don’t remember much about the entire year let alone this three-week political campaign unraveling. It’s really interesting, because when I’d tell the people I was doing the movie, almost to a person they were like, “Oh yeah, Monkey Business, right?” So clearly people do know stuff, and remember it, but not hugely. I think that’s what ended up being really powerful about the story itself. The connective tissue is so strong with what’s going on today. I think it’s a previously forgotten part of politics.

Watching the movie, it feels like the halcyon days of politics, if this was the biggest scandal going.

100%. That’s particularly true when you see the relationship between Gary and the press at the beginning, or even politician to politician. Like them joking, “Have you had a good week? How was your weekend, Gary?” It was a different time in a lot of ways, and this was very much a turning point. Certainly, it was a turning point between the press and politicians, but also I think that real introduction of the politics of personality and how much we judge a leader on their private life as much as their public ideas.

Where do you begin in preparing? Gary Hart is still around. You know he will probably see the movie, and it’s a dark chapter of his life up on screen. Does that add pressure?

The darkest chapter, I would say. And no matter how redemptive the movie is, it’s still going to be very uncomfortable and difficult.

Certainly for me the stakes were as high as they’ve ever been because it’s someone’s real life. I do believe our stories—yours, mine, everybody’s—the stories we tell the world, the stories we would like to be remembered for at the end of it all, are probably the most precious thing to us. So when you’re in charge of playing someone and really at the center of telling that story it is very, very important.

I was very heartened with how Jason Reitman approached it. He has personally taken the movie to all the key players. He spoke with them all beforehand. Shown them the movie personally. Donna Rice was the first person to see the movie. He has handled it with such class.

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For me, I wanted to meet Gary and spend time with him. But the first thing I did was a mountain of research. First of all on politics and the American political system. Whoa, did I learn a lot! But also, just about the man; his history, his life, what he stood for. He’s a very enigmatic character. He’s very hard to get to know so my approach—actually before meeting Gary—was to speak quite intimately with all the people around him.

The point of view of the film is very much an outsider’s. You don’t often get inside the head of Gary himself. It’s not dissimilar to how people speak of Gary, in that you inch closer to Gary and you feel you’re just about to get to know him but you never fully get there. It’s what made it possibly the biggest challenge I’ve taken on because It’s very different from who I am as a person. I’m much more an open book. The catharsis you’d normally get in the movies of getting some definitive answer is not there in the script so we really had to embrace that unknown, the mysterious side of it. So after doing all that research, finally I felt I really wanted to know what it’s like to be around him.

What did you make of meeting him?

He was as charismatic, as intelligent, as enigmatic, as difficult to define as everyone told me. Sometime in the ‘70s, Gary was a campaign manager for George McGovern. I don’t know if there’s ever in history been someone who has occupied that role, which is logistics of the highest order, and then became a leader himself. When I went to stay with Gary, he had a long list of questions for me, like, “What do you like to drink? What do you have to eat?” It was unbelievable. I saw the campaign manager there. He picked me up when I was there. He was at the curb at the airport. The trunk door was open, ready for my bag. He was organized and on it and we had schedules. And he makes a mean martini too, by the way.

I was, yes, nervous to meet him, and very nervous the day he saw the movie. In fact, when I saw the movie for the first time, the whole time my head and my heart were thinking, “How is this going to be for Gary?” He’s an 82 year-old man, he’s just celebrated his 60th wedding anniversary, he’s very close with his family, he’s very protective of his family. And here we are portraying intimate scenes of him and his wife, which we’re totally taking a guess at. And I thought, “Oh, this must be really difficult to watch.” It was nerve-wracking.

How did he react?

First of all, he’s a complete gentleman in every sense of the word. He was very complimentary to me. He was particularly complimentary to Vera [Farmiga]. As I told you, he was very nervous about how the family would be portrayed and he often describes Lee as the strongest woman he’s ever met. Which she is. He really loved Vera’s performance and how the writers and Jason handled that. It was very clear from Jason from the beginning that there would be a focus on the female characters but that Lee would not be portrayed as a victim in any way. But to be honest, if he’d hated it he probably wouldn’t have told me [laughs].

The Front Runner
Columbia Pictures

Well he is a politician.

It was a good sign that he took my call!

You mentioned your surprise when you dug into American politics. What surprised you?

From an outsider’s point of view, particularly looking at American politics growing up, there’s just so much money. It is so slick. There are so many people. There are advisers upon advisers; 17-deep advisers. When you really start to look into it, you watch Frontline, which looked at his 1984 campaign, and it was literally him knocking on doors and a lot of people not knowing who the hell he was. Handing out leaflets in a snowy car park. To watch someone from the beginning hustle and do that sort of groundwork, and the amount of just winging it that happens, there’s big glossy ads and so much money, but things are changing and happening so fast on a campaign and you just have a whole lot of humans in there doing their best and making mistakes. Just the pressure… The time pressure, the lack of sleep, and the lack of money that people are living off. It’s really an amazing thing that it comes off at all. It’s kind of miraculous.

And the belief. When I talked with them, and watched those people who followed Gary, who really did spend years with him for no money, it was because they really believed. It was that kind of firm belief that he was going to make a better America and a better world and future, and the sacrifices they would make for that.

After going through this process, where do you fall on the politics of politics? You played a man who was overflowing with good ideas to make a better world, and he was undone. Was that right? Was it fair?

It makes me terribly sad. I think, regardless of your politics—and by the way he was a pallbearer at John McCain’s funeral just because that was the kind of person he was—he was a maverick. He was very creative. He had incredible ideas. And he had foresight. I can list from employment, to the military, to foreign policy, to education, he foresaw what was going to happen in so many areas. Even if he wasn’t president, to lose his voice to public life has been, for the world’s sake, a great loss.

On the way back to the airport after I went to meet him, we were driving back, and we were friends at that point. He turns to me and he goes, “Do you want to know my 100-day plan?” I said, “What?” He goes, “Had I been elected, do you want to know the 100-day plan?” Of course I said, “Yes!” And he told me. It took most of the trip to the airport. As everything unfolded, and he rolled it all out, I could see how different history would have been. That this would not have been just another president. This would have been a gamechanger.

Whether you agree with his politics or not, he had bold ideas. He was not interested in power for power’s sake. He’s a true civic-duty-first, principled kind of proud American who really had great ideas on how to steer America through the troubled waters it was going to face, from the Middle East, to the end of the Cold War, to the change in manufacturing, to education. Every idea was just so bold and brilliant and I just felt deeply sad; deeply, deeply sad.

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Considering the landscape today, and comparing against what you read about Gary, did you come to the conclusion that Democrats have a harder time of scandal than Republicans do? Or have standards changed across the board?

I don’t know. I’m not sure of the answer to that. I think I’d say everything has changed. What’s fascinating that comes out in the movie is, in the polls the public were saying the press had gone too far. And this is post-Watergate where, thank God, the press pried, and broke a very important story. Even post-Watergate they said press had gone too far. That this was none of our business. But the train had left the station, and there’s no doubt that that train has been hurdling ahead. It’s almost unrecognizable now.

But funny enough, I talked to Gary about this and he said he’s starting to feel optimistic that things have become so unrecognizable in many areas, and so divisive, that he thinks there’s a real opportunity for a return to first principles and a real chance to actually reframe everything. Change how we look at things. He originally said that there would have to be some kind of crisis, because he believed that out of that would come something really positive. I’m not sure what form that will take.

And I think that’s the reason I wanted to do the movie. My son just registered to vote. He’s 18. So he’s starting out, and I want him to know some of the history about politics, here and around the world. Because I wake up every morning and I go, “How the hell did we get here?” This is still unrecognizable to me. And this movie, actually, is a previously unexamined part of history. It was largely sidelined into a scandal basket, but actually it was a massive turning point in many things. And part of Gary’s desire to not talk about it was trying to preserve the sanctity of the process that he could see was being eroded.

You’ve had a fantastic few years. You got to rest your claws on Wolverine in the way you wanted to with Logan, and since then it feels like you’ve been exploring in your career. Has that been a conscious choice?

You’re 100% right. People often give the advice—and I give it to my kids all the time—to follow your gut. “Take a risk, and you’ll never feel bad if you believe in something and it doesn’t work out. If you give it your all.” And the best examples in my own life have probably been in the last two years. Certainly with Logan, it was a movie that I’d wanted to make for a long time. I’d often felt that there was a version of that character that really focused on the humanity more than the superhero abilities. I’d been that character for such a long time, and when you take that risk and you say, “This is it. This is the last one. This is my last runner in the paddock. Unless we do it this way I’m out.” When it pays off you know it’s all the sweeter.

And I’m not alone here. Many, many people have to have the courage to make something like The Greatest Showman. I’m sure there were many people second-guessing it on the opening weekend. It does feel all the sweeter when it works out. I’m really trying to walk the talk in terms of using whatever profile I have to do things I believe in, that I think are important stories to tell and that I feel a compulsion to play something from within. These films aren’t just yeses; they’re hell yeses. I do feel like things are probably way better than any script that I could have written for my life.

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Where do you go from here?

More of the same. I’m really following more of the same. I still always feel—and it’s probably why I work so hard on every project—that there is a deeper place to go. Different things to do. I must admit to you I’m very keenly feeling the pull back to stage to do a show, like a Broadway show kind of musical. I’m really feeling that pull. It’s been 15 years since I’ve done that. I’ve done plays but I haven’t done a musical on stage for 15 years. So I feel like that’s been too long.

I’m really just sort of loving the material that’s coming my way right now. Not great for someone who’s indecisive, because I find myself wanting to do them all, but I really am enjoying it.

What about bringing The Greatest Showman to the stage? Any progress?

There’s a bunch of talk. I’m not going to lie to you, I’ve heard four different possibilities. I’m involved but not in charge, if that makes sense. So I think that the people who are in charge are kind of just working through the four options. I’ve heard at least four options, from a big arena spectacular, to a more traditional West End or Broadway show, to something in Vegas, to something in a circus tent. I’ve heard lots of different things.

What I do know is, from doing the workshops which you can see online, it really works in the room. With no spectacle, with no costumes, those songs really work. When Keala Settle sings “This is Me”, I’m telling you, there’s not a dry eye in the house. Jim Gianopulos leapt from his chair, ran across the room—mid-performance—and hugged her and said, “You just booked your first motion picture.” It really works. So I feel very confident that a live version will come together.

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