Watching the first 30 minutes of Bombshell is essentially a loop of, Is that the real Megyn Kelly? playing in your head until you start to feel gaslit by Fox News. (Been there, done that!) That's because Charlize Theron, who plays the Fox News anchor that eventually helps colleague Gretchen Carlson (Nicole Kidman) take down then-Fox News Chairman & CEO Roger Ailes after years of sexually harassing women at the network, so brilliantly captures the essence of Kelly—her hand movements, her voice, the way she walks, her refusal to label herself as a feminist. While the real Megyn Kelly may have had nothing to do with the film, it sure as hell appears like she did, and that's what makes it so impressive.
Director Jay Roach secured Bombshell's stars—Theron as Kelly, Kidman as Carlson, and Margot Robbie as the fictional Kayla Pospisil, an amalgamation of a number of women who experienced Ailes's harassment—as well as Kate McKinnon, who plays a closeted lesbian employed at the network, before the movie was even greenlit. (Theron is also a producer.) Assembling the rest of the actors in the ensemble, including Allison Janney, Rob Delaney, Robin Weigart, Mark Duplass, Brigette Lundy-Paine, Liv Hewson, Connie Britton, and Bree Condon, was the task of casting director Allison Jones and her team. As the audience is introduced to each, it's clear that selection required an extraordinary amount of work and attention to detail.
"People think we just have a list of actors we can call in, but it's like writing and re-writing. You have to arrive at the right choice, and it takes a long time to do that," explains Jones, who developed the iconic casts of The Fresh Prince of Bel Air (1990-1992), Arrested Development (2004-2019), and Bridesmaids (2011). "We were so consumed with the idea that it was such an important project, so we wanted to make sure we got all of those little parts right."
In based-on-real-life films like Bombshell, the casting process isn't just about whether an actor can pass for a person based on their looks—it's about who can become him or her. Jones and her team spent three months setting up casting sessions, making deals, re-reading the script, and taping the auditions even once the film was already in production. (Normally casting takes place in pre-production two or three months before shooting actually begins.) They spent hours watching YouTube videos of Fox hosts like Geraldo Rivera (Tony Plana) and Sean Hannity (Spencer Garrett) to truly capture the essence of the network. To know the toxic environment Ailes created is to know the people who were working in it.
"We did this with truly great respect for the people at Fox. We may not agree with them politically, but they're all humans trying to make a living and we really wanted to make them look as good as they could," says Jones. "When you watch those people everyday spouting the stuff that they do...we realized how good these people are at their jobs. How do they do that? How do they write it? How do they yell like that?"
It was a learning experience for Jones and her casting associate Ben Harris, who met while selecting the actors for The Office. Neither of them had previously watched Fox. Their goal was to cast people who emulated the vibe the audience sees from their living room. And while an actor's energy is essential to embodying a real person, it's makeup that can seal the deal. Jones and Harris say they underestimated just how incredible the makeup would be—specifically for Charlize Theron as Kelly, Richard Kind as Rudy Giuliani, and John Lithgow as Roger Ailes.
When Carlson went public with her sexual harassment claims against Ailes in 2016, the Fox News exec didn't receive quite the same amount of attention Harvey Weinstein would a year later. Bombshell's on-screen portrayal is an opportunity to do justice to Ailes's victims and their horrifying stories. That made his casting all the more significant. The most hauntingly memorable scene in the film, in which Ailes (Lithgow) penetrates Pospisil (Robbie) with his eyes, was an all-too-familiar experience for women watching on set. Some even cried. That's when Jones and her team knew they did their jobs well.
"With the John Lithgow–level [actor]... we didn't care if we had a name or not on that role—we just wanted somebody who could become Roger Ailes," says Jones. "[Other actors] who read [for the part] may have looked more like him, but they would not have those acting chops to do a realistic Roger Ailes. With all due respect, he was playing a creepy guy."
At the end of the day, Jones feels like her team's casting work helped shed light on an important subject, which wouldn't have been possible without Roach's support and compassion for the actors handling such a sensitive topic. As Jones perfectly puts it, "It's a movie that really opens people's eyes...if they're willing to open them."
Bombshell is currently playing in theaters everywhere.
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