'On the Basis of Sex' Team Explains Why Ruth Bader Ginsburg "Is Not a Superhero"

Emma McIntyre/Getty Images for AFI
From left: Armie Hammer, Felicity Jones and Justin Theroux

After directing and producing critically acclaimed television like 'The Leftovers,' Mimi Leder is back behind the camera with her first film to receive a theatrical release since 2000's 'Pay It Forward.'

Hours before the premiere of Ruth Bader Ginsburg biopic On the Basis of Sex — which opened AFI Fest — the filmmakers learned that the 85-year-old Supreme Court Justice who inspired their movie had just broken three ribs. “To wake up to that was a little bit of a shock, as you can imagine, but she’s doing fine,” said her nephew Daniel Stiepleman, the movie’s writer and executive producer. “The last I heard, she was up and working — of course, because what else would she do — and cracking jokes.”

During her 25 years on the Supreme Court, Ginsburg has become iconic to women and progressives, inspiring — in 2018 alone — an action figure, an album, books, countless clothing sales and the documentary RBG, Magnolia Pictures’ top-performing box office release to date ($14 million; RBG was backed by On the Basis of Sex co-financier Participant Media). The justice is a survivor of colon and pancreatic cancer, and her injury this week underscored one of the film’s main takeaways: despite her historic accomplishments, she is a mere mortal.

On the Basis of Sex is an origins story, but Ruth Bader Ginsburg is not a superhero,” said director Mimi Leder mid-introduction inside TCL Chinese Theatre Thursday night. “She’s a woman. She’s a woman who, like countless generations of women before her and since, withstood the subtle slights and overt discrimination of a culture. And she’s a woman who changed that culture with her intelligence, and her eloquence, and the support of a good man. Ruth Bader Ginsburg made the country more equal, and more free for women and men alike.”

On the red carpet, Armie Hammer — who met Ginsburg while researching his role as Martin, her deferential spouse of 56 years —called the justice “a grounded, normal person who did supernatural things” and retains “a twinkle in her eye” about her late love, who died in 2010. “He set the bar a little high” as far as husbands go, Hammer told The Hollywood Reporter of his onscreen alter ego. “It just highlighted all the ways I needed to improve.”

Decades after the Ginsburgs served as co-counsel in the 1972 appeals case tracked in the film — which set a new precedent for national gender policy — Martin Ginsburg spearheaded the word-of-mouth campaign that got President Bill Clinton’s attention when he needed to make his first Supreme Court pick.

Fellow cast members present included Justin Theroux, Cailee Spaeny, Sam Waterston, Stephen Root, Chris Mulkey, Gary Werntz and — in Leder’s words — “a gift from the gods, the incomparable Felicity Jones,” the Oscar-nominated Brit (The Theory of Everything) starring as Brooklyn-born Ginsburg (she has a cameo).

“I did everything I could to inhabit and become this woman, whatever it took,” Jones told THR. “Accessing it physically through her voice, through looking at hundreds and hundreds of images of her, video footage, and using all of that in order to portray the essence of this woman. She’s a fighter, she never gives up, and she has deep-rooted beliefs that she has stuck by her entire career.”

Jones, Leder and Spaeny shared with THR vivid recollections from a fateful week in October 2017 on the Montreal set. “In the middle of filming, the Harvey Weinstein stuff came out, and that was — I think it really hit us all in the gut,” said recent Pacific Rim Uprising and Bad Times at the El Royale veteran Spaeny, cast here as Ginsburg’s activist teenage daughter. “We’d have dinners and talk about it almost every night. So that really sparked a huge fire under us to get this story out there.”

Added Leder, “The importance of making the movie was always with us, to honor [Ginsburg] and do a story that she would love and that the world would love. And we realized when the MeToo movement broke how even more important the film was.” (The two-time ER Emmy winner will next helm and executive produce The Morning Show, Apple’s dramatic series with Jennifer Aniston, Reese Witherspoon, and Steve Carell.)  

Premiere night doubled as a homecoming for Leder, the first woman to graduate from the AFI Conservatory and one of 200 women celebrated in an Audi-sponsored light installation that greeted guests as they walked toward the after party at the Roosevelt Hotel (last year, Audi established a full AFI Conservatory scholarship for female directors). Also on hand for the festivities were Focus Features president Robert Walak and chairman Peter Kujawski, Participant Media’s Jonathan King and David Linde, Universal Pictures chairman Donna Langley, model Corinne Foxx and Crazy Rich Asians matriarch Lisa Lu.

With On the Basis of Sex, producer Robert Cort — who began developing the story with screenwriter Daniel Stiepleman before it landed on the 2014 Black List — revealed to THR, “We were looking hard for a woman director” because “this was a story that emotionally, no matter how much men understand it,” would benefit from someone who could deeply relate to Ginsburg (Leder is also a Jewish New Yorker who has broken glass ceilings and collaborated professionally with her husband while they raised children). “When you look at women directors who do really great character work and also can tell a story with some degree of tension, that’s a small list…especially [when you] add to that someone who’s lived through a lot of those experiences.”

The film arrives in theaters Dec. 25.