From director Jason Reitman and based on the book All the Truth is Out by Matt Bai, the real-life story of The Front Runner follows the rise and fall of politician Gary Hart (Hugh Jackman), the charismatic senator who was considered the front runner for the 1988 Democratic presidential nomination, until his campaign was derailed by the story of an extramarital relationship with Donna Rice (Sara Paxton). As tabloid journalism found its voice in politics, no amount of smarts, idealism and excitement could keep Hart’s race going, and the questions surrounding his personal life affected all of those around him. The film also stars Vera Farmiga, J.K. Simmons, Alfred Molina, Kevin Pollak, Ari Graynor, Molly Ephraim, Tommy Dewey and Steve Zissis, among others.
During this 1-on-1 phone interview with Collider, actress Sara Paxton talked about why she wanted to be a part of The Front Runner, her admiration for director Jason Reitman, why the way Donna Rice is represented in the film was important to her, and how much she could identify with this woman at the center of a media and political circus. She also talked about working on Twin Peaks: The Return, the unusual audition process and the experience of being directed by David Lynch, as well as what she’ll be doing next and some of the directors she hopes to work with.
Collider: How did you come to be a part of this? Was this was something where you had to go through a whole audition process?
SARA PAXTON: Yeah. It’s funny because, a couple of years ago, I was driving in my car and listening to this podcast, called Radiolab, and they were doing a story on Gary Hart and Donna Rice, and I was so fascinated. I just couldn’t believe that this wasn’t being talked about more. I thought, “Why don’t I already know about this?” And then, a year later, I got the script, and I was gonna go in and audition and read for Jason [Reitman]. I was so excited because I was already familiar with the story, and then I read the script and loved it, and I loved their portrayal of Donna. She was written with respect, dignity, and such empathy. I was very excited to not only read for Jason, who I admire so much, but also to go in and give my portrayal of that version of Donna.
I really did appreciate the care with which she is represented. Was that something that was really important to you, as far as making sure that she never became some kind of villain?
PAXTON: Absolutely, 100%. Luckily, that’s how she was already. She was not written as a villain. That was very important to Jason, and Matt Bai and Jay Carson, the co-writers, and it was important to me. Thirty years ago, she was portrayed as this caricature that was a one-dimensional human being, and I feel like this film gives her the voice that she didn’t have, 30 years ago. This is the first time a story like this had broken. There was no protocol. There was no procedure for this kind of thing. I just wanted to focus on capturing the empathy of a woman in that situation.
Do you feel like she also would have had more support if #MeToo and Time’s Up had been around then?
PAXTON: Gosh, it’s such an interesting to think about, considering what’s going on, right now, in this very moment. I’ve thought about that a lot, and I hope so. I would like to think that. I think that, right now, we have a chance to prove ourselves.
When you read the script and really started to dig into who she Donna Rice is, did you immediately find ways that you could identify with her?
PAXTON: I related to her, right away. That’s why I was so excited and so eager to get in there and read. I felt for her, so much. I think that a lot of women can relate to her, in this situation. I also related to her because I’m an actor and I’ve been doing this for a really long time, and when you’re an actor, people are always trying to typecast you and put you in a box and tell you who you are. Donna was a person who was living her life, always trying to avoid being placed in that box. I have a line in the film where I say, “I did everything that I was supposed to do, to make sure that men don’t look at me the way that you are looking at me, right now.” Then, she ended up trapped in that box, for 30 years.
In an instant, she went from being this educated woman with goals for herself, to who she is in relation to this man. It’s tragic to watch how her identity is taken from her.
PAXTON: You’re right, and I was excited to play that because this was the first situation of its kind, but I feel like it seems to be so common now. It was certainly not the last. I feel like the questions are always about the man, and I’m always left wondering what’s happening with the women. To see what happened with Donna, and to have this empathy for her and to see the situation, it was eye opening and tragic. I just felt for her, so much.
Did you personally get to meet with her or talk to her, at all?
PAXTON: I didn’t meet her. I would love to meet her. When we started the movie, I spoke with Jason about it because I had questions and I knew he was meeting with Gary a lot. We decided together that I wasn’t seeking to mimic her or do an impersonation. The core of it and what I was trying to do was to have empathy for this woman, so that’s what I focused on, and I used the script as my road map.
What do you think she was thinking and feeling while she was going through all this, and what do you think she would have wanted, if somebody had actually asked her?
PAXTON: Really, only Donna can truly answer that question. I think this film is very important to her because she’s been wanting people to know that she’s not that one-dimensional caricature that she was portrayed as, 30 years ago. There’s so much more to her. She wants people to know that she was an intelligent, educated, ambitious woman with agency. I think that what she wants people to know is conveyed in this film, and she is finally given the voice that she did not have, all those years ago.
How did you find the experience of working with Jason Reitman on this, throughout the shoot? What was it like to be on this set?
PAXTON: It’s interesting because I’m not in the first whole half of the movie, and it’s a whole different world with the chaos and the campaign. When I saw it, I was chuckling about certain jokes, and it was very fast-paced and fun. For my scenes, the tone takes a shift and it’s much more somber and intense, in a different way. I can’t speak to the experience with the campaign stuff, but my experience with Jason is that he was really so supportive and kind, and he really took his time with things and cared so much about getting the best from his actors. He really fosters an environment of kindness and safety, which I think is really important.
You also got to do an episode of Twin Peaks: The Return. Had you been a fan of the original series, or what it all new to you?
PAXTON: I was a fan, yes. I had seen Twin Peaks, but I was a huge fan of David Lynch I loved Blue Velvet, and Mulholland Drive is one of my favorite movies, of all time. I’ve been pretty lucky, the past two years, getting to work with a list of my heroes, but it was a really cool experience to be directed by David Lynch. The audition had no dialogue. I just had to go in and talk about something, on camera. I was freaking out because, when you have dialogue, at least you know what you’re supposed to do. No one ever asks you to go in and be yourself, so I was like, “Oh, my god, what the hell am I gonna talk about?!” On my way to the audition, I got into a fight with a friend of mine, over the phone, so I was annoyed when I went in, and I just started talking about it. I just rambled on, forever, and they were like, “We got it, and it’s going to David.” I was like, “Okay, I’m never gonna hear anything again.” But I did, and working with him was another dream come true.