'On the Basis of Sex': 6 of the Film's Stars and Their Real-Life Inspirations

8:30 AM 12/24/2018

by Christi Carras

The biopic explores Ruth Bader Ginsburg's journey to becoming a Supreme Court justice.

Armie Hammer as Marty Ginsburg and Felicity Jones as Ruth Bader Ginsburg
Armie Hammer as Marty Ginsburg and Felicity Jones as Ruth Bader Ginsburg
Courtesy of Focus Features

All rise for Ruth Bader Ginsburg. On the Basis of Sex details the Supreme Court justice's early days studying and practicing law amid sexism and discrimination, and an A-list cast is primed to bring each key player's role in Ginsburg's journey to the big screen.

With The Theory of Everything and Rogue One's Felicity Jones at the lead, the Focus Features film, directed by Mimi Leder, delves into the 1971 Reed v. Reed case, in which Ginsburg argued for equal protection under the law for men and women. And in doing so, the project also highlights the unequal treatment Ginsburg received as a woman pursuing justice. 

In anticipation of the biopic, which hits theaters Dec. 25, The Hollywood Reporter breaks down who's playing whom.

  • Ruth Bader Ginsburg, portrayed by Felicity Jones

    Jonathan Wenk / Focus Features; Michael Loccisano/Getty Images

    Before Bill Clinton appointed Ginsburg as the second-ever female Supreme Court justice, Ginsburg had to break several barriers on her path to America's most coveted bench. As a student, Ginsburg was one of few women invited to study law at Harvard University. There, Ginsburg reportedly faced gender-based discrimination, and she ultimately transferred to Columbia Law School when her husband, Marty Ginsburg, moved to New York City. By the end of her time at Columbia, Ginsburg graduated at the top of her class. 

    By the 1970s, Ginsburg had become the first woman to be published in multiple major law reviews and co-founded the first law journal advocating for women's rights, as well as the Women's Rights Project at the American Civil Liberties Union. Recently, Ginsburg's legacy has moved into the Hollywood spotlight with the success of the CNN documentary RBG. "I did see myself as kind of a kindergarten teacher in those days," Ginsburg told NBC's Today, looking back on her early days as a judge. "The judges didn't think sex discrimination existed."

    Jones, who scored a best actress Oscar nomination in 2015 for The Theory of Everything and recently starred in Disney's Rogue One, takes on the feminist role, portraying Ginsburg in the early days of her law education and career.

    "I kept thinking of her in the vein of Rocky — in a boxing movie — because she is such a fighter," Jones told MTV. "She gets knocked down, but she gets right back up again, so that was my inspiration when I'd go into work."

  • Marty Ginsburg, portrayed by Armie Hammer

    Jonathan Wenk / Focus Features; Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

    A lawyer himself, Marty Ginsburg met Ruth Bader while they both pursued their undergraduate degrees at Cornell University. As her husband, he joined Ruth Bader Ginsburg at Harvard Law School. While Ruth Bader Ginsburg achieved Harvard Law Review, Marty Ginsburg came up short, though he still went on to gain success in his own right.

    Marty Ginsburg worked for the Weil, Gotshal & Manges firm and taught law at New York University, Stanford University, University of Chicago, Georgetown University, Harvard and Columbia. At home, he split homemaking and child-care responsibilities with his wife, allowing time for both to pursue their individual careers and take care of their family. The film sees Marty Ginsburg support his wife in bringing the first gender-based discrimination case to the Supreme Court, "on the basis of sex."

    Fresh off a successful 2018 Oscars season, the Call Me by Your Name star portrays Marty Ginsburg opposite Jones' Ruth Bader Ginsburg. "You've been ready for this your whole life," Marty tells Ruth in the trailer. "So go in there, and let the judges see the Ruth Ginsburg I know."

  • Mel Wulf, portrayed by Justin Theroux

    Justin Theroux as Mel Wulf
    Justin Theroux as Mel Wulf
    Jonathan Wenk / Focus Features

    Wulf was the legal director of the ACLU when Ginsburg founded the Women's Rights Project. Like Ginsburg, Wulf attended Columbia's law school. In addition to his efforts with the ACLU, Wulf was a constitutional lawyer in New York.  While working with law pertaining to the handling of intellectual property, Wulf's practicing credits included multiple Supreme Court cases, including Healy v. James, Bigelow v. Virginia and Haig v. Agee.

    Mel's relationship with Ruth in the trailer is contentious. "You will lose, and when you do, you will set the women's movement back 10 years," he says. To which Jones' Ruth replies, "You don't get to tell me when to quit."

    Theroux, recently seen in Netflix's Maniac, tackles the controversial role.

  • Dorothy Kenyon, portrayed by Kathy Bates

    Kathy Bates as Dorothy Kenyon
    Kathy Bates as Dorothy Kenyon
    Jonathan Wenk / Focus Features

    A partner in crime — or more accurately, in law — to Ginsburg, Kenyon graduated from NYU's law school in 1917. In addition to practicing as a clerk and lawyer working to better the world, Kenyon was a vocal advocate for women's rights, supporting various then-radical stances on topics like birth control, Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal, the labor movement and women's suffrage. 

    A feminist and suffragette, Kenyon ran a legal committee focusing on better treatment under the law for stigmatized women, like sex workers. She served on the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women, as well as joined the Women's Liberation Movement later in life. Ginsburg granted Kenyon co-authorship on the Reed v. Reed brief for her dedication to women's empowerment. 

    Bates, who most recently reprised her Coven role in the eighth season of Ryan Murphy's anthology series, American Horror Story, aligns with Jones as two progressive women in the film. "What did you say your name was?" Bates asks an invigorated Ruth in the trailer. 

    "Ruth Bader Ginsburg," she replies, cementing their friendship.

  • Erwin Griswold, portrayed by Sam Waterston

    Sam Waterston
    Sam Waterston

    For more than 60 years, Griswold had a law career that involved serving as president of the American Bar Foundation and an appellate attorney arguing several cases before the Supreme Court, becoming Solicitor General of the United States under two presidents, and presiding as dean of Harvard's law school for more than 20 years. 

    Despite his decorated résumé, Griswold never made it to the Supreme Court bench, though he was considered as a potential candidate many times. His history may offer insight into his antagonistic role in the trailer, in which Griswold challenges Ginsburg's pursuit of equal rights.

    "They think gender equality is a civil right?" a provoked Griswold sneers in a scene. "Let's put this idea to bed, once and for all."

    Law & Order veteran Waterston returns to court to play the role, while he currently stars alongside Lily Tomlin and Jane Fonda in Netflix's Grace and Frankie

  • Jane and James Ginsburg, portrayed by Cailee Spaeny and Callum Shoniker

    Cailee Spaeny as Jane Ginsburg
    Cailee Spaeny as Jane Ginsburg
    Jonathan Wenk / Focus Features

    Following in her parents' footsteps, Jane Ginsburg received a law degree from Harvard and went on to become a professor of literary and artistic property law at Columbia. She was later elected to the British Academy.

    Spaeny's Jane Ginsburg plays a small role in the film, as the young daughter to 1970s Ruth Bader Ginsburg, but she occupies a significant moment in the trailer. "I know this case disrupted our lives," Ruth says to her daughter, to which Jane replies, "Who is it for, if not for me?"

    An even younger Ginsburg, James, is also featured in the film, played by Shoniker. Though James Ginsburg did attend law school for one year at the University of Chicago, he eventually went on to become a music producer.