Russell Crowe is unrecognizable as Ailes and Naomi Watts as his nemesis Gretchen Carlson in 'The Loudest Voice,' the controversial series exploring the rise to power and swift fall of an abusive news pioneer who changed America: "Without Ailes, there is definitely no Trump."
Russell Crowe collapses into his makeup chair at the end of another long production day, as a trio of artists begins peeling the layers of Roger Ailes off his face. Slabs of silicone fall to the floor: First, it's cheek meat, then paper-thin slivers of his neck. Over the next hour, the Oscar winner transforms back into himself, his face considerably slimmer than the late Fox News founder's, his head still endowed with a thick coat of hair.
"By the time we reach the end, I'll have spent over 12 days of my life in this chair," says Crowe, cigarette smoke wafting through the trailer. "Twelve. Fucking. Days."
Becoming Ailes — as he has almost every day since production on the Showtime limited series The Loudest Voice began in November — takes significantly more time. Over two and a half hours, down from an initial six, he morphs into the notorious newsman, who arguably did more than any single person to create the deeply fractious political environment we're living in today.
Now, with Naomi Watts (as his courageous nemesis Gretchen Carlson), Sienna Miller (his wife of 19 years, Elizabeth Ailes) and Annabelle Wallis (his loyal executive Laurie Luhn) filling out the cast, the premium cable network is daring to wade into the culture wars of the Trump era and tell his story. Built from journalist Gabriel Sherman's 2014 book The Loudest Voice in the Room, the series will begin in the mid-1990s, when Ailes hatched his plan for a conservative competitor to CNN and MSNBC. Over seven episodes, the show will explore how Ailes rose to power as a master of news as provocative stagecraft, trouncing his rivals and happily feeding a period of partisan acrimony.
"Roger's one of those larger-than-life American figures who has so profoundly influenced our country in ways that most people don't understand," says the series' showrunner, Alex Metcalf. "Without Roger Ailes, there may be no tea party. And without Roger Ailes, there is definitely no Donald Trump."
In exploring that power — how Ailes amassed it and, later, exploited it — Loudest Voice becomes one of the first ripped-from-the-headlines tales of Trump's rise, though there are plenty more to come, including an adaptation of James Comey's tell-all from Oscar nominee Billy Ray. Even Sherman, a credited writer and producer on Loudest Voice, is shopping a Trump screenplay, set in the '70s when the Queens-born future president was muscling his way into Manhattan.
Showtime's series will debut June 30, well ahead of director Jay Roach's Ailes movie by design. The latter, coming from Lionsgate in late December, focuses primarily on Ailes' downfall, taking a vastly different view of how it happened. An early script by Charles Randolph (The Big Short) — bearing the title The End of the Leg Man — puts Megyn Kelly (played by Charlize Theron) in a central role as part of the band of women, including Carlson (Nicole Kidman), whose allegations of sexual harassment ultimately sunk the Fox News founder. Showtime's version features no such sisterhood; in fact, its writers deemed Kelly so irrelevant to their story, she isn't a character at all.
"I'm not trying to trash-talk the movie, but it seems to be predicated on the idea that there was this coterie of women who brought down Roger Ailes, which is a lie," says Metcalf. "There was Gretchen Carlson, and that was it. I'm sure the movie will be lovely … [but] we are doing our best to reflect a reality." Once tape recorders are off, several involved with the Showtime series also question the appeal of a Kelly-centric film after her ignominious exit from NBC amid a blackface scandal in 2018. (Neither Roach nor Randolph would speak for this story; Theron, for her part, has been softening the ground for a more generous interpretation of Kelly, publicly expressing "empathy" for the suddenly unemployed anchor.)
Though Ailes himself is now conveniently out of the way — he died in spring 2017, less than a year after stepping down amid those mounting harassment claims — Showtime and production company Blumhouse will have to contend with the other real people whose stories are being portrayed. Already, Luhn, without seeing so much as a frame, has sued, alleging that she's being depicted as an accomplice to Ailes' sexual abuse instead of one of his primary victims; and Loudest Voice producers suspect Luhn won't be the only one. Still, they're confident that Sherman and their team of lawyers have done their homework. "There are legal ramifications to everything," says producer Jason Blum. "You can't do what we do and think about it."
When asked about its position on the series, a spokesperson for Fox News provided a carefully curated collection of press reports documenting the cultural changes that have been made since Ailes' departure. It is, as Sherman notes, a markedly different strategy for the famously combative PR department. "There's very much an effort to be like, 'That was an Ailes era,' " he says. "Even if they look terrible, [it's] 'That's Roger and he's dead.' " But as The Loudest Voice demonstrates, separating Fox News from Ailes' legacy won't be that simple.
Sherman began banging the Roger Ailes drum long before it was fashionable.
In the early days of the Obama administration, when Fox News was raining daily hell on the new president, Sherman was a writer at New York magazine, where his editors assigned him a few stories that touched on the No. 1 cable news network. Increasingly, he found himself perplexed by the level of suspicion and nastiness he faced from Ailes' PR machine.
"Anything I touched," he says, "they'd wage war against me." The more they pushed back, the more he leaned in. One story begot another, and then another. Soon, Sherman was so consumed by his subject, he had inked a deal with Random House to write a book.
The resistance only grew fiercer. Ailes hired private investigators to have him followed and, allegedly, operatives drew up a 400-page dossier designed to smear his reputation. At one point, Sherman received a death threat at his home that he reported to the NYPD. When the book was finally published in January 2014, it was greeted with a handful of savage reviews — The New York Times critic Janet Maslin deemed it "a great wasted opportunity" — and Sherman himself was mocked as an obsessive crank on Twitter.
"The establishment [was] shitting all over it," he says, utterly convinced that Ailes played a hand not only in discrediting the book but also in quashing HBO's short-lived plan to adapt it with a producing team that included Joe Scarborough, Mika Brzezinski and Noah Oppenheim, now of NBC News. "I'd spent years on [the book] and over $100,000 of my advance on fact checking … and it just felt like the world didn't want to listen." Still, he soldiered on, cooking up 40 pages of an Ailes screenplay, albeit with fictionalized characters, in his spare time.
It would be two long years before the tables turned.
On July 6, 2016, as Sherman and his book editor wife, Jennifer Stahl, hit the tarmac at JFK after a vacation in France, he turned on his phone to a deluge of messages. Former Fox & Friends anchor Gretchen Carlson had sued Ailes for sexual harassment. An investigation by parent 21st Century Fox would soon follow. Over the next two weeks, which coincided with the Republican National Convention in Cleveland, Sherman jumped back on the Ailes beat. By July 18, he had hit "publish" on the biggest scoop of his career: Rupert Murdoch, who ran 21st Century Fox with sons Lachlan and James, had decided to remove the legendary Fox News boss.
Sherman wasn't immediately vindicated. In fact, for close to 72 hours, he dangled in the wind as Fox refused to confirm the news. Rivals began questioning his reporting. "I felt like, 'Holy shit, my career is hanging in the balance here,' " he admits now. On July 21, the company made it official: Ailes was, indeed, out.
Wasting no time, Sherman decided to gauge Hollywood's appetite, firing off those 40 pages to a pal at Blumhouse. Within minutes, Blum himself was on the line. He'd just hired Marci Wiseman and Jeremy Gold to build out a TV division for the company known for horror hits like Get Out and The Purge; and a series centered on Ailes aligned perfectly with their mandate. "We traffic in material that's not just about the monsters under your bed but the things that keep all of us awake at night," says Gold, "and there was a lot happening at Fox News to keep us awake at night."
The Blumhouse trio wasn't interested in pussyfooting around the subject, however. It would need to be real names, real drama, which posed additional challenges. In fact, an agent whom none of them will name warned them against pursuing the project if they ever wanted to work at any Fox entity again. "Of course," Blum says, "that just moved it up to the top of our priority list." Wiseman suggests that deep-seated fear didn't let up, adding: "We were then warned by several talent agencies that no [filmmaker] would talk to us because everyone was afraid of Fox."
Evidently none of them checked with Tom McCarthy, who'd taken on pedophilia in the Catholic Church for his 2016 Oscar winner Spotlight, and willingly signed on to tackle Ailes. Though he'd need to scale back his day-to-day role many months later to make room for another passion project, his involvement, along with that of Sherman and Blumhouse, spurred interest from a handful of premium outlets. No suitor was as ardent as Showtime's David Nevins, who says he immediately saw the potential for a rich character study with far-reaching implications: "A lot of the big movements of the last 20 years, both in the media and in politics, could be told through the story of Roger Ailes."
Then, on May 18, 2017, a month before the Loudest Voice writers room was set to open, Ailes was pronounced dead, following a nasty spill in his Palm Beach, Florida, home. He was 77. Both legally and dramatically, his death provided the writers with a freedom they hadn't anticipated to tell a more complete story. "To be brutally honest, once he was no longer alive, he wasn't going to sue us anymore," says Metcalf. It also meant they knew, for certain, that Ailes' story had come to an end.
Crowe was the first actor cast, drawn by "fucking good material" — and the process moved swiftly from there. Blum called Watts, Crowe lured Wallis, and so on.
The only eyebrow-raiser among them was Seth MacFarlane (as Ailes' trusted PR adviser Brian Lewis), an idea from Michael Mann, who was initially attached to direct the pilot. It's not so much MacFarlane's comparative lack of dramatic experience as it is the fortune he's made for (and from) the Fox empire. In fact, he still has two series, Family Guy and The Orville, minting money on Fox's broadcast network.
MacFarlane insists that Fox News and Fox's entertainment division (which, until the recent Disney acquisition, included studio 20th Century Fox TV) operate as entirely separate entities, which is how he's gotten away with pushing a liberal agenda on both his shows and his Twitter feed for years. "They might as well be two totally different companies," he says. "I mean, I don't really know anyone at [the entertainment] division who's had any direct dealings with them. It's like [Fox News] is this mysterious shadowy force that exists on their own out here in New York."
Still, as a courtesy, he approached Fox Corp. CEO Lachlan Murdoch, with whom he has a good rapport, before signing on; the elder Murdoch son gave MacFarlane the go-ahead he was seeking. Sherman also briefly discussed the project with Lachlan and his brother James at an Oscar party, where the trio shared a laugh. "The Murdoch children are on the right side of history here, instrumental in Ailes' ouster," he says. "I don't think they're fighting it."
Though Crowe, too, has a relationship with the Murdochs, he opted not to reach out as part of his extensive Ailes listening tour, arguing that it would be "unfair to them" because the family is portrayed in the series; he did, however, sit with Rupert's ex-wife Wendi Deng and nearly a dozen others who knew or worked for Ailes. Through a mutual friend, Crowe's been sending occasional messages to Lachlan as well. The first was a simple: "Don't worry, I'll look after you." And the second, per the actor, "was to tell him that the guy playing him [Barry Watson] is tall, slim and good-looking."
Others in the Ailes orbit, be they victims or confidants, varied in their willingness and legal ability to be helpful to the cast and crew. Sienna Miller, for instance, relied on books, speeches and whatever she could glean from a few conversations with folks who know Beth Ailes. Unlike Crowe, who tried and failed to connect with Roger's widow, Miller refrained from even attempting to make contact with a woman who many involved suspect will sue, simply because her private life with Ailes factors prominently in the series. "There was no need for me to get her involved, knowing that she was so against the idea of this being made," says the actress. "I didn't want to rub salt in the wound … and as soon as I start worrying about her and her feelings, I can't tell the story we're trying to tell."
Naomi Watts says she, too, avoided contact, citing an NDA that restricted Carlson from talking about her experience at Fox. Instead, Watts leaned on books — Sherman's and a pair from Carlson — along with a vast library of video. The most revealing moments came not from Carlson's time on air but rather from her beauty pageant past. The actress kept coming back to one performance in particular, where Carlson was playing the violin with a kind of doggedness that has come to define her. "She had this intensity and passion that felt almost otherworldly," says Watts. "And that's the woman who can take on the level of challenge she did" in meticulously building a case against Ailes that would lead to his ouster.
Late last year, Carlson blasted the Roach movie ("hard to see your own story faked") and its casting of Nicole Kidman to play her ("looks nothing like me") but had said nothing publicly about Watts or the Showtime series until now. Her assessment is considerably kinder: "I'm flattered to have an incredibly talented actress such as Naomi Watts depict my story," she says in a statement to THR, "and help continue the important conversation around sexual harassment in the workplace." Though she failed to mention him by name, Carlson has a relationship with Sherman, which worked in the project's favor. Says Metcalf, "I think Gretchen understands the value of Gabe's work, and she's supportive of journalism as opposed to storytelling."
Nearly everyone involved with Loudest Voice has leaned on Sherman, whether it be to access his Rolodex of Ailes sources or to pepper him with questions big and small. In fact, the only one who has been uninterested in utilizing him as a resource is Crowe. As of early April, the two had not had so much as a conversation, though he did read Sherman's book immediately upon signing on. "It's a little bit of art imitating life," says Sherman, who's depicted in the series, "where I'm experiencing one of the greatest actors of his generation playing Roger Ailes, and I have no relationship with him — in the same way that when I was reporting on Roger, it was from a distance because he wouldn't want to sit down with me."
In offering an explanation, Crowe is blunt to the point of dismissive. "[Gabe's] got a perspective. He's put that perspective down on paper. I've already taken it in. I don't need more of [Roger's] peccadilloes, I've got fucking 600 pages of it," says the actor. "And, in a certain way, I've got to start being on Roger's side a little bit — and even that's a journey to totally expose him and bring him down."
On a chilly afternoon in March, the final day of winter, Crowe stands in midtown Manhattan, wholly unrecognizable to the rush-hour crush. His belly is padded, his head bordering on bald. The year is 2010, or early 2011 — a cadre of producers huddled in video village isn't entirely sure — and the Fox News boss has already begun conspiring against Carlson.
"You know, she's going to guest host on The View," he tells Lewis (MacFarlane). It's the first his longtime lieutenant is hearing of it, which pleases neither of them. Ailes continues: "I think she's getting too big for her britches, doesn't appreciate what I've given her."
"Want me to call over there?" Lewis asks. "Work some magic?" He doesn't elaborate, but then he doesn't need to. He helped write the playbook.
"No, no, it's already done," says Ailes. "I called the EP. I said, 'Just allow more time in makeup, make sure you use the calmest wardrobe person you have, expect lateness and don't make things too complicated because she doesn't respond well to complicated."
The men cackle wickedly.
"Perfect," says Lewis.
"Put a stink on that pretty face," adds Ailes.
That this particular pretty face would ultimately bring down Ailes won't be revealed for a few more episodes — and never does Carlson's history of mistreatment become the dominant storyline. The writers were careful not to recast Ailes' entire career in the light of how it ended. That meant, among other things, walking a very tight line on portraying the specific instances of sexual harassment. On the one hand, they were determined not to overdo it and make Loudest Voice a posthumous prosecution of the fallen icon. On the other, they couldn't risk shortchanging the real experience of women who worked for Ailes.
On the days when the production did explore Ailes' more unseemly behavior, even its senior-most staffers say they found themselves rattled. "For three nights running, I didn't sleep," says producer Liza Chasin. She likened observing a scene between Ailes and Luhn to watching a horror movie, where you know it isn't real and yet you can't help but cover your eyes. "We're shooting this stuff, and I know that they're actors, but the realization that it had happened, that people do stuff like that, deeply disturbed me. We've all heard the stories, but, I think because of the news, ironically, we get desensitized to the trauma and the seriousness of these offenses. And it's bad. It's really bad."
The irony of this very project coming together against the backdrop of Leslie Moonves' own downfall is not lost on those involved. In fact, at least a few suspect the 2018 unraveling of Showtime parent CBS Corp.'s chairman — amid a multitude of sexual misconduct allegations — caused a delay in the production being greenlit, though network insiders deny that. According to two sources, Moonves never attempted to outright kill the Ailes project, but he is said to have expressed doubts about its commercial appeal.
That a considerable chunk of the potential audience for Loudest Voice could be turned away by the perception of liberal bias is something those in the writers room have discussed extensively. "From the very first day, we've said, 'If no Fox News viewer watches this, we've lost,' " says Metcalf, a self-professed liberal whose stepfather also happened to be a right-wing newsman. To ensure the series didn't end up a partisan screed, they tried to paint a complete picture of Ailes rather than simply declare him a monster from the opening scene — though, to be clear, that does come later.
Crowe took it a step further. For the actor, accessing Ailes' humanity was made easier by the personal conversations he was having with many from Ailes' world. "They don't give you any of the 'I communed with the devil' — that's not their experience," he says. "It was, Roger's the funniest person they knew, or he had this incredible perspective; and they all took great pains to tell me how entertaining he was." Crowe absorbed it all, letting it influence his mind-set and his portrayal. He also made a conscious decision not to speak directly with any of Ailes' victims because, he felt, that's not a viewpoint that Roger himself had.
Armed with a distinct perspective, the actor continually pushed the show's writers and directors to let Ailes' full personality come through. Some, like director Kari Skogland, who helmed three of the show's seven episodes, including the pilot, welcomed the collaboration. "The writing could easily have been interpreted to play [Ailes] as the villain, and that would have been a mistake because for us to go on the journey with this man, we have to actually be seduced by him," she says. "So Russell really beefed up the charm … and I loved that he did."
At times, the actor's input could be harder for the show's writers to stomach. "He totally challenged my point of view of Roger, and Gabe's point of view of Roger, which was hard for us," says Metcalf. "But, ultimately, really good for the show. It's way deeper and more interesting than it would have been from the slightly more singular point of view that we wrote it from."
For Sherman, the entire process has been anything but the easy victory lap that journalists often imagine when their work is optioned by Hollywood producers. The nightmares of being trailed by Ailes' private investigators have returned. "It's like Roger's back from the dead," he says, without a trace of irony.
At this point, he and his wife, who shares a writing and producing credit on the series, are just looking forward to the premiere. "In addition to the world getting to see our show, we're really ready for this chapter in our lives to be over," he says. "This is the end of the Roger Ailes Story."
This story first appeared in the April 11 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.