'Richard Jewell': 4 of the Film's Stars and Their Real-Life Inspirations

7:45 PM 12/21/2019

by Katherine Schaffstall

The Clint Eastwood-directed film about the Atlanta security guard who became a prime suspect in the bombing at the 1996 Olympics, stars Paul Walter Hauser, Kathy Bates, Sam Rockwell and Olivia Wilde.

Claire Folger/Warner Bros.

Clint Eastwood's Richard Jewell tells the true story of the titular Atlanta security guard who became a prime suspect in the bombing at the 1996 Olympics before ultimately being cleared by law enforcement.

When Jewell (Paul Walter Hauser) discovered a backpack containing pipe bombs, he heroically sounded the alarm and cleared the area. The bomb later detonated, killing one person and injuring dozens of others. He was initially praised as a hero, but the FBI later identified him as one of the many suspects, which led the public to vilify Jewell, who was ultimately cleared by law enforcement.

The film is based off of the 1997 Vanity Fair article that chronicled the events of the bombing and Jewell's vilification.

Richard Jewell has generated controversy for its portrayal of Atlanta Journal-Constitution reporter Kathy Scruggs (Olivia Wilde), who was the first journalist to state that Jewell was a suspect. In the film, Wilde's Scruggs offers to trade sex for the name of the suspect with an FBI agent.

Kevin Riley, the paper's current editor in chief, said there is no evidence that this transaction ever happened. "There has never been any evidence that this is how Kathy got the story," he told The Hollywood Reporter. "This came out of the blue."

The Atlanta newspaper formally complained about Wilde's portrayal of Scruggs in a story published Dec. 9. 

"The AJC’s reporter is reduced to a sex-trading object in the film," said a letter written on behalf of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and Cox Enterprises. "Such a portrayal makes it appear that the AJC sexually exploited its staff and/or that it facilitated or condoned offering sexual gratification to sources in exchange for stories. That is entirely false and malicious, and it is extremely defamatory and damaging."

"I have an immense amount of respect for Kathy Scruggs," Wilde told THR in defense of her portrayal. "She’s no longer with us, she died very young, and I feel a certain responsibility to defend her legacy — which has now been, I think unfairly, boiled down to one element of her personality, one inferred moment in the film."

Wilde later tweeted that her comments "were lost in translation" and added, "I do not believe sex-positivity and professionalism are mutually exclusive. Kathy Scruggs was a modern, independent woman whose personal life should not detract from her accomplishments."

Warner Bros. responded to the backlash by stating, "It is unfortunate and the ultimate irony that the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, having been a part of the rush to judgment of Richard Jewell, is now trying to malign our filmmakers and cast."

During its opening weekend, the film earned an estimated $4.7 million in a near-career worst showing for Eastwood. The prolific director's only movie to have opened lower was Bronco Billy ($3.7 million) nearly 40 years ago.

Jon Hamm and Ian Gomez star in the film as FBI agents investigating Jewell, though their characters are not based on real people. 

Read on to see how Hauser, Wilde, Sam Rockwell and Kathy Bates prepared to play their real-life roles. 

  • Richard Jewell, portrayed by Paul Walter Hauser

    Warner Bros. Entertainment; DOUG COLLIER/AFP via Getty Images

    Hauser plays the titular character in Richard Jewell. The security guard was originally praised as a hero after saving many lives during the Centennial Olympic Park bombing but was soon vilified by the media when he became a suspect. Despite Jewell having his name cleared, many people continued to associate him with the crime.

    Jewell died in 2007 at the age of 44 after medical problems following a diabetes diagnosis.

    The actor spent time with Jewell's mother, Barbara "Bobi" Jewell, while filming the movie. "I was more nervous about meeting Bobi than I was Clint, because Clint and I have a certain commonality based on what we do for a living. With Bobi, our commonality was telling the story of this tragedy. I was worried, but she gave me a lot of tidbits and little nuggets of Richard that were indicative of greater truths," he admitted to THR. "My favorite moment was when she was giving me a thousand-yard stare from across Clint's office and I thought she was thinking something bad. Then I looked up at her and smiled and she goes, 'You look just like Richard. You're doing things like him that you don't even know you're doing.' And that was like the ultimate approval."

    Hauser also opened up about gaining weight for the film to look more like Jewell. Before booking the role, he gained 35 pounds for his role in I, Tonya and then dropped 13 pounds while working on Da 5 Bloods. "I booked Richard Jewell and realized I had to put all the weight back on. It's emotionally difficult for me, but I always realize how lucky I am. A lot of these guys like Chris Farley and John Candy and Chris Penn and James Gandolfini, these bigger guys, have passed away far too young," he said. "I love that I can maybe fill the void of the bigger guy, but at the same time I have to think about my future and make sure I'm here for a while."

  • Watson Bryant, portrayed by Sam Rockwell

    Warner Bros. Entertainment; AFP via Getty Images

    Rockwell portrays Jewell's lawyer Watson Bryant.

    Before being cast in the film, Rockwell was not very familiar with Jewell's story. “I just remember Muhammad Ali with the torch [at the Atlanta Olympics’ opening ceremonies] and crying like a baby at that,” Rockwell told The Los Angeles Times.

    The actor added that he didn't view the film in a political light. "I think it’s an old-fashioned melodrama about injustice," he said. "It’s like a John Grisham novel or Arthur Miller’s The Crucible or Philadelphia or A Few Good Men. They don’t really make movies like this anymore. I don’t know if they’ll make them at all in 10 years."

    Bryant, who's now in his late 60s, spoke to Style Weekly about the importance of Jewell's story being told through the film. "What I want is everybody in America to know Richard Jewell is a hero," he said. "How you portray me, I don’t give a damn. To this day, people think Richard had something to do with the bombing. People never saw the exoneration."

    Before representing Jewell in court, the lawyer knew his future client when they worked in the offices of the Small Business Administration in Atlanta.

    "I became Richard’s personal attorney. I’m the first guy he called," Bryant said. "They went totally overboard on this guy…there was a lot of fake news before fake news [was a thing]. This was a rush to judgment."

    The lawyer, who worked as a consultant on the film, explained how Rockwell worked with him on the role.

    "He would observe me and have me read lines from the script. But I can’t do what he does," said Bryant. "Each individual hair on his head is acting when he’s doing something.… I’m just a bullshitter."

    Bryant also spoke about the controversy surrounding Wilde's portrayal of Scruggs. While he said he only met the journalist a few times, he recalled liking her. "I bet if she was alive today and saw smoking-hot Olivia Wilde playing her as a go-getter reporter, I don’t think she’d have complaints," the lawyer said. "Look, it’s a Hollywood movie."

  • Barbara "Bobi" Jewell, portrayed by Kathy Bates

    Warner Bros. Entertainment; AFP via Getty Images

    Bates appears in the film as Jewell's supportive mother, Barbara "Bobi" Jewell.

    The actress prepared to play Jewell, who was in her 60s at the time of the movie and is now 83, by spending time with her. "I met Bobi when I went down to shoot in Atlanta and we spent quite a few hours together," Bates told The Los Angeles Times. "Even after all these years, it’s still really raw for her and she teared up quite a few times as she told me some anecdotes: how they were supported by their church but prevented from seeing them and how Richard was prevented from going to visit a friend when he was dying."

    She continued, "It was just devastating. You don’t realize when you throw a grenade in a foxhole like that that you’re going to have so much collateral damage."

    The actress added that she hoped the film would serve as a "cautionary tale" for viewers. "The government got it wrong and the media got it wrong, but I don’t want people to come away from this movie kicking dust on those institutions because now more than ever we need the press to be truthful with us," Bates said. "They wanted to solve the case quickly and not lose all that money on the Olympics, and Kathy Scruggs, she really wanted the right story. They were all so passionate about trying to do their jobs, and you can’t fault them for that specifically. It’s a cautionary tale. I think we all need to slow down and really think things through."

    Bates also reflected on the media's representation of Jewell and how it impacted Bobi. "What was most sad, I think, is that his vigilance saved hundreds of people [but] people thought he was weird," she told UPI. "They turned that vigilance into a weapon against him. I think that was the greatest tragedy for her."

    Bates revealed that Jewell corrected some parts of the script, including that she never called her son "sweetie" or "honey."

    "There's a line where she says, 'You're a good cop going after the bad guys, ain't ya.'" Bates said. "I thought, 'Hmmm, I don't think she'd say ain't. I think she would be correct grammatically.' [Bobi] flagged that, too."

  • Kathy Scruggs, portrayed by Olivia Wilde

    Warner Bros. Entertainment

    Wilde portrays Atlanta Journal-Constitution reporter Kathy Scruggs. Scruggs was the first person to report that Jewell was a suspect in the Centennial Olympic Park bombing. The journalist is portrayed as loud, brash and hunting for something "crimey" to report.

    In the film, Wilde's Scruggs offers to sleep with FBI agent Tom Shaw (Hamm) in exchange for information about the investigation. The agent provides Jewell's name to Scruggs then she asks if the two should get a hotel room or go back to her car. The two are never actually seen having sex, though it is implied.

    "I was asked to play the supporting role of Kathy Scruggs, who was, by all accounts, bold, smart, and fearlessly undeterred by the challenge of being a female reporter in the south in the 1990s. I cannot even contemplate the amount of sexism she may have faced in the way of duty," tweeted Wilde about portraying Scruggs, who died in 2001. "Contrary to a swath of recent headlines, I do not believe that Kathy 'traded sex for tips.' Nothing in my research suggested she did so, and it was never my intention to suggest she had. That would be an appalling and misogynistic dismissal of the difficult work she did." 

    She continued, "The perspective of the fictional dramatization of the story, as I understood it, was that Kathy, and the FBI agent who leaked false information to her, were in a pre-existing romantic relationship, not a transactional exchange of sex for information."

    Scruggs died in 2001 from a prescription drug overdose.