'Loudest Voice' Star Naomi Watts on Playing Gretchen Carlson: "Incredibly Current in Such a Scary Way"

Make no mistake, Showtime's The Loudest Voice has but one hero — Gretchen Carlson.

Over the course of seven episodes, the limited series dramatizes the rise and fall of her former boss, Fox News creator Roger Ailes, who arguably did more than any single person to create the deeply fractious political environment that we exist in today. In fact, showrunner Alex Metcalf goes as far as to argue that without Ailes, who is played here by Russell Crowe, there is no Donald Trump. That said, Ailes's history of sexual abuse, thrust into the spotlight in 2016 by Carlson's landmark lawsuit against him, ultimately brought about his demise. Within a year of being ousted from his perch atop the No. 1 cable news network, Ailes was pronounced dead at 77.  

When the series, based on Gabriel Sherman's book of the same name, premieres Sunday, viewers will see Crowe joined by fellow Oscar winner Naomi Watts, who portrays Carlson in the star-studded project. During a break in production earlier this spring, the actress — who was featured on the cover of The Hollywood Reporter in April alongside her fellow castmembers — spoke about her reservations in tackling the controversial story, her personal preparation process in becoming its heroine and that other Ailes project starring one of her closest friends. 

You’re presented with a lot of projects. What was it about this one that got you to yes?

In this case, I knew the story in the broader sense and, obviously, I know Russell — personally and also his incredible body of work. It was brought it to my attention by Jason Blum, who I'd worked with, and [executive producer] Tom McCarthy is my neighbor, so it felt very easy to make this decision. Then I read the script and saw what incredible writing it was, and how the story that we knew could just come alive and feel so incredibly current in such a scary way.

You're exploring a world where some people were amenable to being helpful while others had no interest in talking — and, frankly, could be litigious. What were the reservations or questions that you had?

It's definitely going to bring up tough conversations, and you always have that reservation when you know that something is going to get a big reaction in a controversial way. It makes you pause. But to me, it just felt so relevant, and to play a woman who's gone through something as horrific as this and to come out on top? It’s quite liberating as an actor to play that kind of role. It feels really juicy and vindicating as well. And again, it speaks to what we're going through currently. I mean, she really was the first.

A precursor to the #MeToo movement.

Exactly, the #MeToo Movement started after that. To take down a man as powerful as Roger is kind of extraordinary.

I’ve heard you had a three-ring binder chock full of prep material. Can you share what your preparation process entailed to become this woman?

You have to do a deep dive and find all the material you can and, luckily, the internet has made things much easier; but you don't know who that person is in the in-between moments. There are plenty of on-camera moments, and you don't want to get trapped into mimicking. You can sort of fabricate a sense of who that person is through what you see on TV, but when the camera's not there, who is she? Obviously, I'm not going to know that because I'm only seeing her when the cameras are on, so you don't want to get locked into that newscaster, journalist thing. I want to know who the essence of that woman is.

So, how do do that?

That's when I was reading the books and trying to piece together different things, and there were a few moments that were incredibly insightful for me. One of them being when she was in a pageant playing her violin, and I say that because she played it with such spirit and ferocity and discipline. I just kept going back to that.

What did you feel you learned in that moment that you wouldn’t have or couldn’t have at the anchor desk?

It was this sense of determination and discipline that I saw. She had so much passion, it was sort of otherworldly watching that, and that set her apart. That's the woman who can take on [Ailes].

What were some of the other moments that struck you and, ultimately, informed your performance?

There was one during her first year of doing the rounds as Miss America, and she did a TV [interview] where she has to explain a bizarre object. She's basically getting punked and the host of the TV show says, “Hold on one second, we'll be back in a minute.” The woman goes away and then the man goes away or vice versa and then she's left on the TV and they're like, “And we're back in three, two, one,” and she has no clue what this object is and they’re just, like, “Say anything, say what you think, talk about yourself.” And she's on-camera in total fight-or-flight mode and surviving and liberated. Anyone else would get tense and freak out. It would be like giving her cue cards but the cue card guy has got them upside down and spinning them and she's trying to get just two or three words from each card and somehow she pulls a sentence together. I mean, it is mind-boggling how she survived that moment and with such dignity, grace and charm. So, that was another insightful piece that showed me that she could rise above any challenge.

And then there was another one where she was set up on air, and I think this was toward the end of her time at Fox. They brought on a guy and she was in no way ready to do the interview, and he was actually trying to tackle her and it was very clear. She was just trying to give him the benefit of the doubt for as many questions as she threw him, and he kept going, like, “Oh, wow, Miss Universe, you're cool,” and it's clear it was a total setup, that they were trying to embarrass her on air and, basically, knock her off her perch. And, again, she dealt with it with dignity and grace — she was not going to be squashed. To me, that just tells you the size of her spirit and the way she was able to soldier on for as long as she did, to be a good sport and put up with it over and over again until they cornered her. She was backed into the corner and they wanted to get rid of her — they tried to squash her over and over — and it became about self-preservation and that's when she started getting her ducks in a row.

Did you reach out to and connect with her, too, and if so, what happened?

No, we're not allowed to. But I would love to meet her.

When you say you were not allowed to, are you referring to the NDA that she signed as part of the settlement?

Yup.

I assume you read the lawsuit?

Yeah. I read both of her books and Gabe's book as well.

Did you consult with anyone else in Carlson's world or in the Fox News world to better understand what being in Ailes' orbit entailed?

No, I felt like there was enough material. I mean, I obviously talked a lot to Gabe and got as much as I could out of him. And then the writing lends itself to a really truthful atmosphere.

What kinds of questions did you ask him? 

Just about the investigation and his world. I mean, it's pretty amazing the courage Gabe had [to tell this story.] These people are the unsung heroes. It’s extraordinary what he put up with. [Over the course of his years-long reporting on Ailes, Sherman was threatened, trailed and the recipient of death threats.]

Your friend, Nicole Kidman, is also playing Carlson in the movie version from Jay Roach. She has already come out against that portrayal, but has not said anything about yours. [Editor’s note: Following this interview, Carlson praised Watts, whom she called "an incredibly talented actress" and was "flattered" to have depict her story.] Do you anticipate similar blowback, or might she be more comfortable given Sherman’s source material?

I don't know. I can't speak to that. I'm sorry. Let's see when everything comes out how she feels.

Have you and Kidman discussed the role and your respective processes? The projects offer different ways into the story, but you both are inhabiting this character.

We haven't talked about it at length. Obviously, we have an awareness that we're both playing her. Look, I'm sure the press will make something out of it, but it makes sense that good actresses want to play good roles and the material is driven by a need to tell a truthful, powerful story.

When people watch The Loudest Voice, what do you hope they walk away with? What do you hope is revealed, whether it's specifically about Carlson or the larger world that the series is depicting?

Well, in terms of Gretchen, I think it’s an incredibly powerful story in that there are many people who could have been taken down by this level of power, and just to survive in a place that was that misogynistic is incredible. It's also an incredibly encouraging story that she was able to come out with dignity and grace.

My final question: Did you learn anything in all of this that surprised you about what happens in situations like these?

I mean, it’s shocking. I had a scene the other day where Russell and I were both cringing, like, I cannot believe that this is the kind of thing that these women had to put up with. And when you're experiencing it in a detailed way like that, you definitely feel like, “Oh God, this is shocking.” And I'm just acting here and I feel that level of discomfort and humiliation. But, at the same time, I imagined that this world existed like that. I really did.