For his movie The Front Runner, Jason Reitman needed an actor who could capture the all-American charisma of Gary Hart, the charming Colorado senator who at one point was all but guaranteed to win the 1988 Democratic nomination for president. The director found it in an Aussie: Hugh Jackman.
“If I woke up tomorrow and it was like, ‘They switched the law so we can elect Hugh president,’ [I’d say], yeah, yeah,” Reitman tells EW with a laugh during the SCAD Savannah Film Festival in late October. “That seems like the right step forward. I’m in.”
The Front Runner — out Nov. 6, on Election Day — follows Hart for nearly a month in 1987, from when he first announced his presidential candidacy to when allegations of his extramarital affairs torpedoed his political aspirations. (Ah, the days when alleged sexual impropriety could have such an effect.) The result is a taut, timely drama about power, gender, and how much information we really need to know about our elected officials.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Jason, you first heard about this story on a Radiolab episode about Gary Hart. What was it about him that made you say, “This is a movie”?
JASON REITMAN: I’m like anyone: I wake up in the morning, I look around me, and I go, “How the heck did we get here in 2018?” We’re all looking for stories that give us perspective. When I heard the Hart scandal story, I just thought, here was a thread to pull on. Here were all these seeds that led us into the conversations that we have all the time today about gender politics, about the line between public and private lives, our relationship between candidates and journalists.
HUGH JACKMAN: It’s an amazing story about something that I really knew nothing about. I think even if you’re a political science major, it could be seen as a blip. But actually, it is incredibly relevant. I’m Australian; I was backpacking in 1987 and I don’t remember much of the entire year, to be honest. [Laughs] But certainly for me it starts to make sense, particularly in terms of press, politics, and our lens on politicians.
Gary Hart is someone who is historically private and closed off. How do you approach playing someone who is so internal like that?
JACKMAN: I spoke to almost everyone who worked with him quite intensely. Everyone described him as very mysterious, mercurial, enigmatic. These are all very exciting descriptions and also slightly terrifying when you’re playing him. Because as an actor—me, anyway—you wanna know: What makes a person tick? What are the things in their way? What are their conflicts? He was a very interesting, incredibly intelligent mix of contradictions in a way. So that, to me, was a challenge I hadn’t faced. And then, of course, I went and met Gary himself and his family and spent time with him, ’cause I wanted to understand what it was like to be around him.
Has Gary seen the movie?
REITMAN: Yeah, he has. You cannot imagine how terrifying it is to make a movie and then bring it to the person the movie’s about. Particularly, you know, if I said to you, “I’m gonna make a movie about your life. Let me pick the worst week.” [Laughs] It’s really scary! So I sat outside, a ball of nerves, and he finally walked out and we went for hot chocolates, which [is an] odd but true detail. One of the first things that happened was he asked his wife, “Do I really talk like that?” And [his wife] Lee said, “Darling, that’s exactly how you speak.”
How much were you thinking about the current political climate?
REITMAN: Again, we start our days the same way everyone else does. You wake up, you check your phone, and you’re like, “F—.” Right? [Laughs] But this was a script that was written in 2015. It was written before the current administration. So this was a moving target for us and something we were talking about all of the time.
JACKMAN: The #MeToo movement was sort of starting while we were filming. But from the moment I read the movie, what I loved about it was the way it saw things from so many different points of view—in particular, from the women’s point of view. I love the way that Jason [and writers Matt Bai and Jay Carson] wrote and dealt with the character of Donna Rice. Before we started, I thought, “This is an important movie to make. This is gonna start some really great conversations.” It’s not telling you how to think. It’s not giving you any answers. It never tries to, deliberately. It’s like, no, we’re starting conversations, okay? We’re not trying to divide. We’re not trying to tell you anything. And I just stayed true to that.