Christian Bale (who gained 45 pounds) and Amy Adams star in a satirical takedown of one of the most cunning figures in American politics as the director opens up about the current climate, Fox News, Bill Clinton (“one of the worst presidents”) and why he'd "choose Trump over Bush and Cheney."
It's the eve of the midterm elections, and Adam McKay is feeling optimistic about the Democrats' prospects of taking back the house.
Still, the SNL writer turned Oscar-winning filmmaker insists he is not throwing a results-viewing party with his Hollywood friends, even as I spot an assistant carrying supplies from Whole Foods into his West Hollywood offices. Instead, McKay, looking like a college professor with a corduroy jacket and scarf, says he is planning to hang out at his house with his wife, director Shira Piven (Jeremy's sister), their two daughters and his mother-in-law, and together they will "very calmly and somberly watch the results," he says.
"I will not make the mistake I made in 2016, when we had a party in New York while we were in the midst of preproduction on Succession," says McKay, referencing the HBO breakout about a ruthless media family dynasty (that looks a lot like the Murdoch clan). "I was 100 percent Bernie Sanders, but once Sanders didn't win, I was like, 'All right. Let's all be grown-ups. I now support Hillary Clinton.' And once she was running against Trump, it was the easiest choice you'd ever have to make. I was very excited because I have two daughters, and we were going to have a woman president. And I just thought, 'That's awesome!'"
Needless to say, the champagne remained corked that night — just like another party McKay attended on election night in 2004 at David Geffen's Malibu compound, when George W. Bush and Dick Cheney bested the John Kerry-John Edwards ticket en route to a second term. "Everyone you could imagine was there," says McKay. Tom Hanks, Nicole Kidman and McKay's longtime producing partner Will Ferrell included. "Once again, we're like, 'Oh, they're going to lose.' There's no way you'd reelect these guys after the disaster we just had. I remember [then-New York Times op-ed writer] Frank Rich was on the phone, and he's like, 'It's over.' And within two minutes, the entire party had cleared out."
Dejected by the results, McKay, now 50, abstained from political engagement for the next few years and turned his attention to Ferrell-fronted comedies like Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby and Step Brothers for the duo's Gary Sanchez Productions. It took more than a decade before he started thinking of Cheney as having cinematic potential. As the 2016 Oscar campaign hit the homestretch with McKay's The Big Short vying for best picture, the director came down with the flu. During a week of bed rest, he read a handful of books about the former vice president and realized he had his next protagonist — with his Big Short star Christian Bale as the monotone bureaucrat with a lust for overseas conflict.
The result is Vice, a sprawling, star-studded $60 million gamble from Annapurna Pictures that will hit theaters Christmas Day (think 200 location shots and 200 speaking parts, including five-time Oscar nominee Amy Adams as Lynne Cheney, newly minted Oscar winner Sam Rockwell as George W. Bush, Steve Carell as Donald Rumsfeld and Tyler Perry as Colin Powell).
Written by McKay, Vice chronicles the rise of Cheney from his days in the Nixon administration, where he made an alliance with a hawkish Rumsfeld, to his eight-year reign in the White House during which he ran a shadow government under Bush's nose. In typical McKay fashion, an absurdist element is woven into the more traditional dramatic narrative (Bale and Adams suddenly diving into a Shakespeare soliloquy in a bedroom scene). Everyone from Roger Ailes to the Koch brothers makes an appearance.
Against the backdrop of a polarized nation, McKay is resurrecting what he considers the most pivotal figure in modern politics, a man whose power far eclipsed the commander in chief he served ("He operated with just impunity," says the director. "There's a lot of presidents who never wielded that kind of power"), and the wife who orchestrated his ascent.
For those still trying to grasp the Trump presidency and how America got here — a place where unitary executive theory is making a comeback thanks to Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh, and John Bolton is promising to "squeeze" Iran — Vice offers that needed history lesson, with a satirical tone similar to Big Short. The ubiquitous pop-culture references (like Naomi Watts cameoing as a Fox News anchor who addresses the Vice audience directly) keep it from being a dry biopic.
Still, the film almost didn't happen. In light of Trump's 2016 victory, McKay entertained brief second thoughts about proceeding on Vice.
"I had this moment, 'Should we go ahead with this?' and then we discussed it and said, 'It's actually more relevant. This is the story of how we got here,'" he says. "In the filming and the editing of it, it was eerie how much it kept lining up with the [present] world."
The film also arrives at a time when Megan Ellison's Annapurna, which acquired the project from Paramount in 2017, has been trudging through its own chaos. Vice's executive producer Chelsea Barnard was ousted from her post as Annapurna's president of film in October, with the future of the nascent studio murky. "I love Chelsea. She gave us great notes on this movie, so I was bummed when that happened," says McKay. "Then I had that moment of, 'Oh my God. Are we going to be OK to be released?' But from my end, they just backed the movie. They were like, 'We've made the movie. We're doing it.' And their marketing department kicks butt."
Considering the subject, a certain amount of controversy is guaranteed. Hot-button moments in the film include the way Fox News is seen jingoistically encouraging the invasion of Iraq, Cheney plotting war on 9/11 before the fourth hijacked plane had crashed and especially scenes in which he condones daughter Liz (then a rising Republican apparatchik) when she comes out against gay marriage, thus choosing to safeguard her standing in the party at the expense of his other daughter, Mary, who is married to a woman.
McKay thinks he knows who else really won't like Vice. "George W. Bush is really going to hate this movie. I think there's going to be a backlash from the Bob Woodwards of the world, who went the opposite direction with the narrative. Their idea was, 'Bush is smarter than you think. He actually did a lot.' I did a lot of research on that. And boy, do I strongly disagree. I couldn't find any evidence that Bush was surprisingly competent. I just didn't see it."
Of course, given McKay's support of left-leaning candidates, there was never much chance the right-wing outrage machine would give him a pass on this one — though partisans should know that his politics are more complicated than they might assume. They may even find (limited) points of agreement. "I legitimately think Bill Clinton is one of the worst presidents in the modern age. I really do," says McKay. "I think his presidency has aged so poorly: the deregulating of the banks. His personal life [in light of] the #MeToo movement. Like, shame on all of us. I at least was at SNL making fun of him with some cold opens. But man, they let that guy off the hook. I think he killed the Democratic Party. … I would say Jeb over Bill Clinton." And perhaps even more shockingly, he says, "I would choose Trump over Bush and Cheney."
Yes, McKay continues, of the man considered a key architect of the post-9/11 wars in Afghanistan and Iraq: "Dick Cheney was the safe-cracker, the professional you brought in who knew all the ins and outs of our government. He was the ultimate gamesman. With Trump, the front door to the White House is wide open. There's deer and dogs and hyenas running around. And this guy is like an orangutan just throwing shit around. But Cheney was the grand master who finished the deal. Donald Trump has no belief system. So I would take the hyenas, the random wild animals running through the White House over Cheney any day of the week. If Cheney had stayed in office — let's say we didn't have term limits, and he was able to go another four, eight years — they would have invaded Iran."
There would be no Vice without Bale.
"He was always Plan A and there was no Plan B, C or D. He was the guy while Adam was writing it," says producer Jeremy Kleiner, who also collaborated with McKay and Bale on Big Short.
Bale, 44, and McKay already enjoyed a symbiotic working relationship from that film, a surprise box-office hit for Paramount, earning $133 million worldwide off of a $28 million budget. Big Short also marked a turn away from sillier movies and into auteur territory for McKay with his unique mix of drama and satire. And the director knew that Bale, who was nominated for a best supporting actor Oscar for playing hedge fund manager Michael Burry, was fascinated by characters who, on the surface, don't appear dynamic.
Bale admits he never would have thought of himself for the Cheney role. "It wasn't until such a mad bastard as Adam came to me and said, 'What about it?'" recalls Bale. "And I thought, 'Are you crazy?' When I realized I was starting to get sucked into it and I was really starting to get obsessed with it, I think I texted [him] something like, 'You bastard, do you not realize how bloody difficult this is going to be?'"
There's difficult. And then there's Bale difficult. The Oscar-winning actor (for 2010's The Fighter) is known for going to extreme lengths to delve into a character's physicality. He lost 60-plus pounds to star in 2004's The Machinist. For Vice, he gained 45. Even crazier, he began lifting weights. With his neck.
"I remember the day we got a bill for this crazy neck machine contraption because he thought he could get his neck more like Dick," says producer and Gary Sanchez executive Kevin Messick. "Whatever it cost, it was worth it."
In fact, Bale's commitment was contingent on his ability to physically transform into the bald and husky politician. Before shooting began in September 2017, McKay and Bale spent six months perfecting the look with the film's makeup artist Greg Cannom, a three-time Academy Award winner (most recently for The Curious Case of Benjamin Button). Much of that work took place in a nondescript storage facility in the San Fernando Valley, with Bale sitting in a tattered barber chair in the corner while he tortured Cannom with incessant notes.
"I signed off every text to Greg as 'Pain in the ass …' because I knew he felt we were ready, and I was like, 'No, we're not quite ready,'" Bale recalls. "I would get four hours every single day [in the chair] in order to sort of mentally transition into Mr. Cheney."
The transition worked so well that Messick mistook Bale for a fishing instructor the first time he saw him on set. (They were shooting a scene a few hours away from Los Angeles on the Kern River, where Cheney was teaching his daughter how to fly-fish.)
"I was waiting for Christian to emerge, and I saw this figure, like an older man, and I remember thinking, 'Who is that?'"
Based on my encounter with Bale, it is unclear whether Cheney has completely receded, even though the actor has lost the entire 45 pounds. After all, when he speaks, his cheek still remains stiff, just like Cheney's movements. But Bale notes that he wrapped shooting at 11:30 p.m. the previous night on the film Ford v. Ferrari, in which he plays a protagonist who suffered a stroke.
McKay enlisted another Big Short star, Steve Carell, to play Cheney's war-hungry cohort Rumsfeld, and that inadvertently helped lead to casting Adams. The two share the same WME agent in Michelle Bohan, and, McKay recalls, "the second Michelle said that Amy might be interested in this, I was like, 'It has to be her,' because this woman's got to kick butt, man. This woman's got to have a strength, and Amy Adams, she has this center of gravity that you would never mess with."
Perhaps in another director's hands, Lynne Cheney — a onetime chair of the National Endowment for the Humanities — could have been relegated to the background. But McKay always saw her as the impetus that drove Dick from Wyoming drunk (in the film's opening scenes) to the youngest chief of staff in U.S. history (for President Gerald Ford). Adams delved into Lynne's books (she's written more than 20, including the memoir Blue Skies, No Fences). For many in Hollywood, there is little sympathy for Lynne, a woman who mostly toed the Republican Party line by railing against everything from federal regulations to Eminem lyrics. Adams had to find her way into Lynne's psyche.
"I still feel the need to defend Lynne when people talk about her," the actress says. "For me, it was my relationship with my grandmother. My grandmother who grew up in Provo, Utah, working-class. She reminded me so much of Lynne. I would just think of her and her offering me money to rub her bunions. 'Amy, I'll give you a quarter.'"
She continues with some genuine admiration: "The thing that I sort of hooked on to, that I really valued in Lynne, was this shared ambition and this willingness to propel Dick ahead in the way that she did. To not stand behind him but beside him along the way and to be such a motivator. Also, have her own identity — it's a film about Dick, but Lynne was very accomplished. I like that she wasn't afraid to be ambitious at a time when ambition in women wasn't as encouraged."
Like Bale, Adams was required to physically transform, gaining weight to play the Wyoming matriarch. Wrinkles were applied.
"I have to compliment Christian because I like to think of myself as someone who has endurance and patience, but I paled in comparison — he did it every day," she says. "I did it for about two and a half weeks every day, and one day I said [to Bale], 'I don't know how you do this,' and he's like, 'Don't think about it.' I'm like, 'Oh yeah, just don't think about it.'"
Adams may have found a soft spot for Lynne. But could Bale do the same for the man who became synonymous with Darth Vader (thanks to McKay's own SNL-penned skits) and led America into a war that killed, by some estimates, a million people, based on false intelligence (amplified by both The New York Times and Fox News)?
"What I really wanted to make sure I did is remove any of my own politics from it," says Bale.
Naturally, I ask what his politics might be. He's not interested in sharing, which in itself is a refreshing posture in 2018. "I'm not going to give you anything like that," says Bale, "because I feel you want to just watch the character and believe in the character and not be thinking about what the actor really thinks at all."
McKay jumps in: "He actually became an advocate for Cheney."
But Bale is quick to counter that notions of pure good and pure evil are the stuff of superhero movies ("I've played a role in that," he says of his part as Batman in Christopher Nolan's Dark Knight trilogy).
"I was completely always looking for the good, for the positive, for the understandable aspect of why he would've made the decisions that he made. It was precisely to counter Adam and to counter what would be the assumed standpoint of the bunch of Hollywood liberals."
McKay is ready for the backlash. From the left, for humanizing Cheney. From the right, for denigrating him. Perhaps most surprising is that even the center already has joined the chorus. The critical tweets began once the trailer dropped in early October, like one from MSNBC's Joe Scarborough, a former Republican congressman from Florida who has rebranded himself as a moderate in the face of the Trump presidency.
"He wrote something like: 'Adam McKay is very biased,' so I was like, 'I wonder what Joe Scarborough said about the Iraq War.' Beep, beep, beep [miming Googling]. Oh, well, you know, vehement supporter of it," says McKay with a laugh. "I don't think anyone who supported the Iraq War should hold office anymore. I don't think anyone who supported the Iraq War should be a legitimate pundit on television. Like, you failed the biggest test that we had."
Though the Cheney family has remained silent about the project, they may yet materialize to challenge the accuracy of how the family operated behind closed doors. McKay notes that the film was "vetted hard," with scores of lawyers and professional fact-checkers involved. Journalist Ron Suskind, author of The One Percent Doctrine about the Bush administration's foreign policy and arguably the foremost expert on Cheney, watched an early cut and gave his blessing. McKay also hired screenwriter and former journalist Jason George to interview about 10 people in Cheney's orbit, all off the record, to ensure that the vice president's private side was depicted properly, including how much Lynne wielded her influence in the family, which now sees daughter Liz firmly ensconced in the House of Representatives.
Still, Cheney, now 77 and living in suburban Washington, remains one of the most secretive leaders in modern history. Bale never met him, not for lack of trying. The actor did a "ridiculous amount of preparation" in the hope of a meeting. He compiled more than 100 pages of notes, everything down to the names of the vice president's golden retrievers.
"I would greatly have liked to have met with him, if only to have him insult me and kick me out of his house. To me, that's honorable," Bale says. "I spoke with some [of Cheney's] friends who would say, 'Let's get Dick on the phone,' and they would call. And the phone would be ringing and I would be thinking, 'I'm about to speak with Dick Cheney,' and then it would go to voicemail. And then, unfortunately as is the case with everything, lawyers ruined it."
How the lawyers ruined it was by telling Bale that under no circumstances should he attempt to contact Cheney.
"I said, 'Wait, every real person I've ever played I've met,'" Bale explains. "And they said, 'Yes, but [with those other people] you've acquired their life rights.' I would like to be able to sit and look Cheney in the eye and say why I feel like it's justified to tell his story. And I hope I will do it one day."
Ultimately, McKay would like answers, too. Like why did Cheney choose a legislative path that began unraveling decades of what McKay sees as progress, mostly bipartisan, on domestic and foreign policy. The director notes his own upbringing by a waitress mother outside of Philadelphia in the '70s and his public school education.
"In the end, he makes me sad. He almost makes me tear up," McKay says, actually wiping back a tear from behind his glasses. "I see a guy who gave it all away. And his story is kind of America's story. I feel the same way about our country now. Cheney had it. America had it. Like we were rolling into the '70s, and poverty was at an all-time low. Income inequality was like at an all-time low. I went to Temple University, a city school. I owed $3,800 in student debt when I left. The country was working, and unions were strong. You just feel we gave it away."
McKay already is talking about finishing his American destruction trilogy that started with a soulless Wall Street in Big Short with a film about the dark overlords of industry, Republican moneymen the Koch brothers. It's a bit of a downer note to leave on, so a few days later, I check in to see how McKay's election night really went.
"We sighed in relief and then ate Indian food," he says. "No champagne. Still miles to go."
This story first appeared in the Nov. 19 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.