Saga of the City
When Gretchen Carlson dared to challenge Fox News’s Roger Ailes, she not only inspired other women to expose his sexual harassment — she sparked his departure. Now, in Showtime’s The Loudest Voice, Naomi Watts and Russell Crowe reveal the behind-the-scenes drama at the nation’s most-watched news network.
Everyone loves an underdog story.
There's the familiar tale of David slaying Goliath with his shepherd's sling. More recently, Lyanna Mormont, one of the smallest characters on Game of Thrones, toppled a zombie giant by stabbing him in the eye.
But here's one that really happened: three years ago, beleaguered Fox News host Gretchen Carlson took down her immensely powerful boss, Roger Ailes, amid sexual harassment accusations.
"She wasn't that blonde bimbo that Fox portrays or is capable of portraying," says Naomi Watts, who plays Carlson in Showtime's The Loudest Voice.
This seven-part limited series — which premieres June 30 and is based on Gabriel Sherman's 2014 bestseller, The Loudest Voice in the Room — chronicles the ignominious final chapter of Ailes's formidable career. He died in 2017, a year after his ouster from Fox.
As the founder of Fox News and its chief for 20 years, Ailes became one of the most dominant conservative forces in American media and politics.
By promoting programming that critics deride as partisan fear-mongering and defenders extol as straight talk, he turned Fox into the top-rated cable news network. He shaped not only the news but also the minds of voters, to the extent that many credit him with making it possible for Donald Trump to win the presidency.
"I believe in the power of television. Giving the people what they want, even if they don't know they want it," Russell Crowe, as the media chieftain, says in the first episode.
Ailes was a master manipulator within the workplace as well. He could be verbally and psychologically abusive toward anyone who crossed him, and he sexually harassed many of the women on his staff.
Ailes tried to bully Carlson into submission, but she managed to stay one step ahead of him. "He tried every weapon in his arsenal," says Sherman, a widely published journalist who interviewed more than 600 sources, including Fox News insiders, for his portrayal of Ailes.
Because the book was published before Carlson filed her lawsuit, an afterword in the paperback edition provides deeper coverage of her daring crusade — and of the many sexual harassment complaints that were subsequently lodged against Ailes.
Even so, Ailes was admired and adored by many. "We love to present these flawed protagonists," says Gary Levine, president of entertainment for Showtime Networks. He believes the story will appeal to all viewers, no matter their political beliefs, noting, "We are all living with what he has wrought."
The series begins in 1995, as Ailes leaves CNBC under a cloud. But no matter — championed by Fox tycoon Rupert Murdoch, he's already got a foothold at what will soon become Fox News.
There, he will browbeat his production team into position and start airing news shows aimed at a specific target — an audience he considers the forgotten Americans. "We'll give them a vision of the world, the way it really is and the way they want it to be," he says, firing up his staff on the eve of the network launch.
Russell Crowe plays the role with nuance, vigor and fortitude. "It's not always you get the opportunity to play a character of such complexity," says
Crowe, who submitted to hours in the makeup chair before each shoot. Silicon prosthetics on his cheeks and neck evoke the portly Ailes and his distinctive jowls. A fat suit took care of the rest. Crowe also studied Ailes's particular walk, which was attributed to poor health. He'd been diagnosed with hemophilia as a child.
"[Crowe] mastered Roger Ailes's walk, which is kind of a mix between a shuffle and a limp because of his physical disabilities," says Sherman, who served as a coexecutive producer on the series and cowrote four episodes. Crowe may be one of the most recognizable movie stars in the world, he says, but "after five minutes of watching the show, he disappears and you're just watching Roger Ailes."
Alex Metcalf, an executive producer and writer on the series, says that early on, before they'd cast the role, they were tossing names around.
Part of the challenge was to find someone who could project the necessary gravitas and serpentine psyche. "You never knew which Roger you were getting," Metcalf says, describing how Ailes could be charming and self- deprecating one moment and vitriolic or aloof the next. "The ability to turn emotionally on a dime," he says, "was a very tried and true tactic that Roger used to keep his people off balance."
Sherman says one Fox executive confided that he always tried to avoid eye contact with Ailes during meetings. "The quote was something like, 'You hope that T. rex doesn't see you,'" Sherman recalls.
Even though many aspects of Ailes are off-putting and disturbing, the producers needed an actor who could bring out his humanity — someone who could transmit to viewers the passion, brilliance and charisma it took to create Fox News and take it to the top.
There was some debate over who might fill the role. But Jeremy Gold, copresident with Marci Wiseman of Blumhouse Television, says that when head of casting Terri Taylor suggested Crowe, there was a silence at the table. And then there was a collective "Oh, my God," Gold says.
In fact, as suggested in the first episode, no matter how much he tramples over others, no matter how loud his voice gets, Crowe's cogent portrayal of Ailes just makes you itch for more. "One of the magic tricks of the first episode is that we're all rooting," Wiseman says. "No matter what color your politics are, you're rooting for Fox News to launch by the end of that first episode."
Executive producer Tom McCarthy, who directed and cowrote the Oscar-winning film Spotlight, was enlisted to cowrite the series pilot with Sherman and shape the overall arc.
He says Sherman's reporting, which took place over seven years, provided a solid blueprint. "The book was ahead of its time," he notes, referring to the heavy criticism Sherman took for his extensive use of unattributed quotes. Many sources, fearing Ailes's wrath, would only speak off the record.
Sherman himself experienced Ailes's intimidation ploys while researching his book. Ailes wasn't happy about Sherman writing a biography of him and refused to meet. The author says he was followed by private investigators and even received a death threat at one point — though he has no proof it came from Ailes's camp. It was, he reports, "one of the most difficult and stressful times in my career."
Blumhouse Television says several agents they approached warned them that "Filmmakers would be opposed to signing up for the project if we moved forward, because they didn't want to go up against Fox," Wiseman and Gold noted in an email. That, they added, "motivated us even more to find an A-list team."
(The executive-producing team ultimately comprised Crowe; McCarthy; Metcalf; Jason Blum, Wiseman and Gold for Blumhouse Television; Liza Chasin of 3dot Productions; Kari Skogland; and Padraic McKinley. The series is a coproduction of Showtime and Blumhouse Television.)
A significant portion of Sherman's book is devoted to Ailes's life and career before Fox, providing insight into his blue-collar, hard-scrabble upbringing in Ohio. His domineering and abusive dad once told him to jump off the top bunk into his arms, and then he stepped back. "Don't ever trust anybody," he said as his son lay on the floor.
Ailes later became a producer on The Mike Douglas Show, where he grasped television's power to engage the emotions. He went on to work as a media consultant for political candidates including Richard Nixon, whom he helped put in the White House.
"We don't flash back to anything. But we do reference all of that," Metcalf says, explaining that they decided the series would work best if it hewed closely to Ailes's years at Fox, when he built up the network by installing opinion-oriented show hosts like Bill O'Reilly and Sean Hannity.
He further boosted the Fox audience by installing smart, attractive blonde hosts, like Megyn Kelly and Carlson, and unleashing other flashy gimmicks.
Since Watts's primary similarity to Carlson is her blonde hair, the makeup artists tried a prosthetic to make her nose look more like Carlson's. But it affected the sound of her voice. "We lifted my eyebrow and really arched it," Watts says, describing another effort to make her look more like the former Miss America.
She also donned a wig, traded her British accent for a Minnesota dialect, and caked on the mascara and lip gloss. "I never wear that much makeup," Watts says with a laugh.
She also ferreted for clues that would help her get under Carlson's public veneer. Before working for Fox News, where she prominently cohosted Fox & Friends for seven years, Carlson was an accomplished violinist and a Stanford graduate. "She didn't ever completely fit the mold of the Fox world and wasn't super right-wing, from the books I've read," says Watts, who found several clips that impressed her.
One was a chat-show appearance in which Carlson adroitly maintains her composure and good nature while all sorts of pranks are pulled on her.
In another, from the Miss America pageant, it's apparent that her impressive violin technique was a huge selling point. "I saw unbelievable discipline and passion and focus and courage," Watts says. "All of those things had to live inside this woman so that she could slay a man like Roger Ailes, with all of the power that he had."
"Her version of Gretchen brought a blowtorch of focus every day," Crowe says. He's known Watts for decades — he used to crash on her sofa when he was first getting established in the Los Angeles film world — so he was thrilled at this chance to collaborate.
"There were some uncomfortable things we had to do together in this show," he says, "but trust and mutual respect make those things less uncomfortable."
Similarly, Watts says Crowe kept her on her toes. "He's a powerhouse. His voice. His sense of power. It's scary being in a scene with someone in that part who is really thriving in it," she says, referring in particular to when Ailes humiliates Carlson, making fun of her looks and age.
"There were many scenes where it was so hard being in that situation," Watts says. "Where you're being yelled at and masterfully manipulated." She emerged from the scenes thinking, "I can't imagine going through that for years."
At one point, Ailes demoted Carlson to a less notable show at a sleepier timeslot. Carlson kept her cool and used her phone recorder during meetings to capture his sexually suggestive remarks.
Here's a sample, according to Sherman: "I think you and I should have had a sexual relationship a long time ago, and then you'd be good and better and I'd be good and better." Watts observes, "I guess she was scared of him. But not scared enough to be squashed in the process. She was not going to be pushed out with no reason."
The series features an entire tableau of female characters who variously aided, abetted, protected or were victimized by Ailes. Sienna Miller, as Ailes's wife, Elizabeth ("Beth"), appears throughout. A former NBC news producer and Ailes's staunchest supporter, she remained loyal to her husband even after his death.
"How she's represented is proportionate to the impact she had on his life," McCarthy says. That includes a period, depicted in the series, when they bought a small newspaper in New York's Putnam County, established her as the publisher and proceeded to irk members of the community with the conservative slant they imposed on it.
Miller also underwent prosthetics, dramatically altering her nose, among other things. She and Crowe spent hours side-by-side in the makeup room. "She really morphed in a quite profound way. She's quite unrecognizable as Sienna Miller," says Metcalf, who was struck by the point of view that Miller brought to her character. "There's this childlike yet ambitious woman there."
Aleksa Palladino plays Judy Laterza, Ailes's longtime and steadfast executive assistant. "I think we developed the same unspoken language that Roger and Judy had," Crowe says.
Annabelle Wallis portrays Laurie Luhn, a Fox employee who engaged in a quid pro quo sexual relationship with Ailes for more than two decades and received a substantial settlement from Fox for her silence. Two years ago, Luhn revealed in an interview that Ailes had asked her to recruit other women for sex with him.
Concerned about how the series will present her, she sued the production without seeing it. In episode one, at least, the Luhn character appears conflicted or ambivalent about her relationship with Ailes.
Other pivotal players include Simon McBurney as Rupert Murdoch and, in a less conventional casting choice, Seth MacFarlane as Brian Lewis, Ailes's trusted PR adviser. The creator of such Fox programs as Family Guy and The Orville (and an accomplished comic actor), MacFarlane has criticized Fox News in the past.
He was eager to play this role, explaining, "I'm always up for projects I've never done before, that are out of my comfort zone." Lewis, for a long time, was enthralled with Ailes and would conspire with him to use PR as a weapon — against his enemies, to promote his point of view and even to help negotiate better contracts.
Over time, though, Lewis began to see himself as "effectively a PR bounty hunter for hire," MacFarlane says. "What happens to Lewis," the actor explains, "is his conscience begins to get the better of him," around the same time that Ailes was reportedly growing more paranoid.
"And he starts to see the unraveling of Ailes and becomes aware of what this organization is doing and that they've veered so far from any duty to the truth that it's hard for him to reconcile his own part in it.
"That side of it was a little easier to lock into, obviously, because of my own politics," MacFarlane says with a chuckle, adding that he feels the series is both worthwhile and "a very measured look at the inner workings of the network."
Sherman adds that The Loudest Voice is in many ways like watching an extended family that Ailes formed around himself.
"And so," he says, "while the stakes are very high — it's about national politics and the way Ailes transformed news in America — at the heart of it, it's a very intimate story of these very close-knit characters. You don't have to be a news junkie to get pulled in. It's a very human story at its heart."
Go behind the scenes of emmy's cover shoot with Naomi Watts at TelevisionAcademy.com/cover.
This article originally appeared in emmy magazine, Issue No. 6, 2019
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