How to Play an Attorney: Michael B. Jordan and More Reveal Prep Secrets

10:00 AM 11/23/2019

by Rebecca Ford

Lawyers sometimes get a bad rap, but a handful of top actors — including Laura Dern, Allison Janney and Mark Ruffalo — portray legal eagles who fought for their clients, the environment and the rights of the innocent.

JAKE GILES NETTER

  • Laura Dern, 'Marriage Story'

    WILSON WEBB/Netflix; Inset; Santiago Felipe/Getty Images

    Noah Baumbach's Marriage Story, which stars Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson as a couple going through an ugly divorce, has among its key players a trio of divorce lawyers, played by Alan Alda, Ray Liotta and Laura Dern.

    The characters were fictional, but the actors did their own research to get into the roles. Liotta tried to meet with famed Hollywood lawyer Marty Singer, but the busy attorney got called away. "Some emergency came up — who knows what actor did what, that he had to protect," Liotta tells THR. Dern, however, was able to meet with several lawyers, including Laura Wasser, whose clients include Ryan Reynolds, Heidi Klum, Ashton Kutcher, Christina Aguilera and Johnny Depp. "She's one of the great powerhouses in her industry," says Dern. "I think that despite the intent of protecting families — and I think Laura is an example of this — despite the empathy, the business of divorce is the business of winning for your team."

    Production designer Jade Healy also visited Wasser's offices in Century City when she was working on the design of the lawyer's corporate space in the film.

  • Allison Janney, 'Bombshell'

    Hilary B. Gayle/Lionsgate; Inset; Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images

    In 2017, Allison Janney transformed into Tonya Harding's acerbic mother in I, Tonya — and won an Oscar for her work. In Bombshell, Lionsgate's drama following the Fox News women who called out former news chief Roger Ailes for sexual harassment, she takes on another real-life person: attorney Susan Estrich, his legal counsel. Estrich, who currently teaches at the University of Southern California, became friends with Ailes on the 1988 campaign trail for George H. W. Bush, and chose to represent him in his legal battles. Working for him was seen as contradictory to her reputation as a feminist legal scholar (she was the first female president of the Harvard Law Review), and she took some flack for it.

    Janney captures not only her presence with her work, but also Estrich's unique voice and accent.

  • Michael B. Jordan, 'Just Mercy'

    Inset: Amanda Edwards/WireImage

    In Warner Bros.' Just Mercy, Michael B. Jordan plays Bryan Stevenson, the founder of the Equal Justice Initiative, a human rights organization in Montgomery, Alabama. Stevenson has spent most of his career helping wrongly convicted men, some of whom were on death row. In the film, which is based on Stevenson's book Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption, Stevenson takes on the case of Walter McMillian (played by Jamie Foxx), a man wrongfully imprisoned for the murder of a white woman.

    "He's an incredible human being," says Jordan of the attorney. "The thing we were most concerned about on this film was doing justice to Bryan and his story. It wasn't that we thought it was impossible, but it was on our minds in every scene and every moment of the journey. There's a Hollywood version of this film, and there's a real version of this film. Every decision we made along the way was to serve the aspiration of being the latter."

  • Mark Ruffalo, 'Dark Waters'

    Inset: VILHELM STOKSTAD/AFP via Getty Images

    In Focus' Dark Waters, directed by Todd Haynes, Mark Ruffalo trades in the Hulk suit to play a different kind of superhero — attorney Robert Bilott. Bilott started out working for big corporations, but then uncovered and exposed Teflon manufacturer DuPont's decades-long history of polluting by dumping the chemical PFOA. Ruffalo, who is an environmental activist, not only stars as Bilott but produced the legal thriller as well.

    The actor has an even deeper connection to the story — he revealed at a Q&A that his uncle worked at DuPont and died of cancer. "He was one of the guys who was taking PFOA and dumping it in the Ohio River," said Ruffalo. "That was 20 years ago. My dad said, 'When I'm watching the movie now, I realize that he died from handling those chemicals.' "

    This story first appeared in a November standalone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.