‘She was the first’: Naomi Watts on playing #MeToo pioneer Gretchen Carlson

Michael Idato

August 8, 2019

Article taken from The Sydney Morning Herald.

On July 6, 2016, Fox News presenter Gretchen Carlson filed a lawsuit against her employer, the channel’s chairman and CEO Roger Ailes, claiming sexual harassment.

In the wake of the media firestorm that followed, dozens of women spoke up to make similar accusations and Ailes was forced to resign.

And all of this a year before #MeToo became a hashtag, let alone a full-scale movement calling for cultural change.

Australian actress Naomi Watts, who is playing Carlson in the Showtime limited series The Loudest Voice, credits the 53-year-old journalist with being an early catalyst for positive change.

“She was the first, she was the pioneer and that took unbelievable courage,” Watts says.

“I cannot imagine being in her shoes, taking on the most powerful man in her industry, and working in that toxic, misogynistic environment for so many years [where] everyone just had to play ball or you were gone,” Watts adds.

“She decided to push back and say, ‘No, this is not OK. I will not be undervalued. I will not be harassed, both mentally and physically’, and she just kicked straight into self-preservation mode and figured out a way to fight back,” Watts says. “And she did it with grace and dignity and strength.”

Watts says telling Gretchen Carlson’s story is a “great privilege”.

“To see her take on that courage and take on the most powerful man in her industry … what a great story of survival,” Watts says. “And it’s a very female story, very much in the world of female empowerment, and we need to hear those and see those kinds of stories play out.

“The challenge for me was to tell that story, tell her story, responsibly and as truthfully as possible,” Watts adds. “She lost her job, she lost her career. To be pushed away and undermined and undervalued is a horrible thing to endure.”

The role places Watts in the frame with, and at odds with, a longtime friend, actor Russell Crowe, who is playing Ailes in the series.

The pair first worked together on the 1991 television miniseries Brides of Christ, and Watts says that that shared history, and the friendship that sprang from it, were pivotal in making The Loudest Voice.

“There’s never quite enough time like there used to be to rehearse and spend time talking about character, and they started a couple of months before I came on, so I was late to the party,” Watts says.

“It was nice to have that history, that foundation, that trust, especially as we’re adversarial [on-screen]. He’s playing this very powerful character and I’m playing someone who’s the recipient of abuse and it can be scary with those dynamics,” she says. “But we’re both professionals, we know what we’re doing. It’s not our first rodeo.”

Watts makes a point of acknowledging how careful Crowe was with her during the project’s difficult scenes. “Every time he put his hand on my body, he would ask permission and, you know, it was a highly concentrated set because of the nature of the story and how sensitive it was and tricky,” Watts says.

“Every step of the way there’s eye contact … are you good with this, are you good with that? Russell and I certainly have a shorthand, and we take our work very, very seriously. And Russell was dealing with, you know, those hours on end of prosthetics.”

The role is a gift, Watts says, adding that she chooses roles because she hopes they will stretch her.

“I have to find something in it for me,” she says. “If it doesn’t connect with me, how could it possibly connect with an audience? And Gretchen’s story is absolutely a story of empowerment and growth in survival, and self-preservation, and taking care of herself, and demanding to be valued.

“And I think she can speak to many women, probably all women in that way,” Watts says. “I found her story to be just kind of mind-blowingly uplifting, to fight what she went through, that the ending is good. She’s made an impact on history, something we’ll be looking back on in 10 years from now.”

But researching the role was complicated, as Carlson had signed a non-disclosure agreement, which meant Watts had to lean on the series’ source material, the book The Loudest Voice in the Room, by Gabriel Sherman, which was itself based on some 600 interviews.

Watts says she also studied Carlson’s movement from video footage, though she found more in clips of Carlson away from the newsdesk, in particular footage of her during her time competing for Miss America, speaking and playing violin.

“That violin, how she played that, what level of commitment that took, the hard work and passion and courage and ferocity … that told me a lot,” Watts says. “That gave me great insight into knowing and understanding how a woman could take on a man with that level of power. And listening to her books on audiotape to try and get the sense of her voice.

“At the same time, you don’t want to fall into mimicry,” Watts says. “This is an interpretation. This is not a documentary. We’re hoping to tell the most truthful version of the story, but I didn’t want to get into just mimicking her voice and the way she moved because it’s so important to bring the interior life to the surface. That’s the most important thing.”

In the wake of #MeToo, Watts says there has been significant change in Hollywood.

“And not necessarily one that I thought I would witness in such a dramatic way,” she says. “I thought it might happen. I hoped it would happen over time, but I’ve seen a really powerful change happening in front of the camera, and behind the camera in the last couple of years. That’s the heartening side of this story.

“Out of the #MeToo movement came the #TimesUp movement and voices are being heard, and that’s just very encouraging,” she says.

“It was time,” she adds. “I’ve seen female driven stories now getting financed which they weren’t before. I’ve seen more female directors being hired and the same goes for writers and other technicians in our industry. That’s the good part of this story that’s come to light.”

Script developed by Never Enough Design