January 18, 2020

Fox News’ Sexual Harassment Scandal Explodes in ‘Bombshell’

Photo of Charlize Theron and Jay Roach: Hilary Bronwyn Gayle/Lionsgate

As explosive and impactful as its title suggests, “Bombshell” tells the timely story of the women who exposed the toxic culture at Fox News and brought down their abusive boss, Roger Ailes. Starring Charlize Theron as Megyn Kelly, Nicole Kidman as Gretchen Carlson, John Lithgow as Ailes and Margot Robbie as the fictional Kayla Pospisil, the docudrama was directed and produced by Emmy-winner Jay Roach (“Trumbo, “Recount,” “Game Change”) from a script by Charles Randolph (“The Big Short”).

“It’s probably seen as a #MeToo story but it happened a year before the news came out about Harvey Weinstein,” Roach told the Journal. “These women spoke up in the summer of 2016. The Harvey Weinstein news broke in the fall of 2017. By the time we made the film in 2018, there were other stories and more women were speaking up and it was a much bigger conversation.”

Roach was intrigued when Theron, also a producer on the film, brought him the script in February 2018. “When these women spoke up, especially at a conservative organization where a lot of women resisted the idea of being called feminists, it seemed like a remarkable and compelling story. They were unlikely underdogs to take on such a powerful guy in a place like this at a time like this,” he said. “For me, the most important part of the story was that these are issues that people across the political divide could agree on. Women should be safe at work. The problem is nonpartisan and the solutions are nonpartisan and I thought the film would be a useful part of that conversation.”

Randolph and Roach did extensive research to ensure accuracy, replicating the Fox newsroom and studio based on photos from the time and detailed descriptions of Ailes’ office from former staffers. They re-created news stories to run on monitors and interviewed multiple women whose experiences at Fox News inform Robbie’s sexually harassed character. “We acknowledge that we take license, but we also acknowledge that we have a huge obligation to try to get it right,” Roach said. “People who were at Fox who’ve seen the film described it as so authentic that it was almost traumatic for them, so I think we got some of it right.”  

“Bombshell’s” stars already have been nominated for Golden Globe (Theron, Robbie) and Screen Actors Guild awards (Theron, Robbie, Kidman and the ensemble cast). Roach welcomes the attention because “it gets people talking about sexual harassment. Anything that can expand that conversation is a good thing,” he said, noting that he hopes it gives men a new perspective on the issue. “We can remain part of the problem or become part of the solution.”

Roach first established himself with the “Austin Powers” trilogy and “Fockers” films and doesn’t rule out making more comedies. “But there’s something almost compulsive in me now to tell stories about issues that are relevant and trying to answer the questions or be part of the conversation about how we go forward as a civilization,” he said. 

“People who were at Fox who’ve seen the film described it as so authentic that it was almost traumatic for them, so I think we got some of it right.”
— Jay Roach  

An Albuquerque, N.M., native, he was an economics major and pre-law at Stanford University when he began taking photographs for the newspaper and making documentaries, which led him to shift gears and apply to USC film school. His numerous accolades include four Emmys, two each for “Game Change” and “Recount.”

Raised Southern Baptist, Roach converted to Judaism before he married Bangles singer-guitarist Susanna Hoffs. They met at an arranged dinner in 1991 and married two years later in Chicago, with her maternal grandfather, Rabbi Ralph Simon, officiating. “He was an incredible storyteller, a great guy to be around. I felt instantly close to him and his daughter Tamar, Susanna’s mother,” Roach said. “He couldn’t conduct the ceremony unless I was Jewish. The more I talked to them about conversion, the more I was drawn to the idea.”

Through his studies and preparation with the help of Tamar Hoffs, Roach discovered “so much of the spiritual and ethical philosophy of Judaism was in line with what I believe, such as the emphasis on education and family and the ability for anyone in the world to get to a righteous place by being a good person. The inclusiveness of the Jewish faith is really meaningful,” he said. “The deeper I got into it, the more moving the process became. It was a very meaningful rite of passage, definitely life-changing.”

Although he “didn’t become that stereotypically zealous convert, I definitely consider myself to be part of my wife’s Jewish family,” Roach said, noting that he is more appreciative of Judaism because he chose it. His family, which includes two sons, isn’t affiliated with a synagogue, “but we honor a lot of the traditions and Susanna’s mother is a great influence on that. We do seders and a lot of family observance.”

For his next directorial effort, Roach will continue in the historical docudrama genre with a television project about the deadly confrontation between unarmed students protesting the Vietnam War and National Guard soldiers at Kent State University in May 1970. Four students died and nine others were injured. 

“It was an incredible turning point in our history. We had tried to do it as a feature film, but I realized the series was an opportunity to get deeper into the characters and the contributing factors,” Roach said, noting the subject’s modern relevance. “It’s a very upsetting and compelling story. It was a time when we were actively dividing into tribes and attacking each other and it shows how language can become deadly. I was 13 when it happened, and it was definitely a turning point in my own consciousness.”

Roach hopes that like “Bombshell,” it will raise questions and encourage understanding. “Figuring out how to be a useful part of the conversation is what motivates me,” he said.

“Bombshell” is now in select theaters, opening wider Dec. 20.