With the aid of a belly pad, bald cap and prosthetic jowls, the Oscar winner transformed into the late Fox News founder Roger Ailes, who sits at the center of the limited series. Over the course of seven episodes, the project, based on Gabriel Sherman’s book of the same name, dramatizes Ailes’ rise and fall, with the media titan ultimately brought down amid a flurry of sexual harassment allegations beginning with those of Gretchen Carlson (played by Naomi Watts).
At the end of another long production day this spring, Crowe invited The Hollywood Reporter — as part of its April cover story — into his makeup trailer. As pieces of Ailes were peeled off of his face, he spoke candidly about his own process, as well as the Ailes he came to understand and the toll it took (and didn’t take) on him.
So, this project comes to you, and you …
Have no interest in it whatsoever.
To me, it was like, I don’t want to celebrate that in any form, even though he was a towering figure. Politically, I’m a vastly different from Roger. But I read the scripts and they were magnificent. And I’ve made jokes about this for 20, 30 years, but I call it respecting the gods of film. If you read something and it truly touches you and it gives you goosebumps, then that’s your fucking job, mate. And if there’s something else you read that comes with a massive check and a pedigreed director and this and that but it leaves you cold? You walk away.
Sure, if you have the confidence and wherewithal to. There are plenty of people who won’t or can’t walk away.
There are plenty of people who will take that job, but I don’t mind being the last of the old blokes.
One of the things that this show does early on is showcase how Ailes’ impact extends far beyond Fox News…
Yeah, there were these moments [where you really saw that.] Like, there was only one person who calls the Florida election in 2000, and that’s Roger Ailes. He just freakin’ stood there with the wind blowing at him and everything saying no, and he went, “Say yes.” And everybody knew or believed that if Fox is saying something, they must know, or they wouldn’t say it.
In terms of becoming this man, and more specifically finding his humanity, what was that process for you?
The humanity I found very easily, I have to say. When you start talking to people — the people who were really connected to him — they don’t give you any of the, “I communed with the devil.” That’s not their experience. It’s Roger’s the funniest person they knew and he had this incredible perspective on this or that. Everywhere I went to talk to people, they took great pains to tell me how entertaining he was, too.
What kinds of people did you approach?
People that he worked with, people that he knew in different parts of life.
I assume that includes the Murdochs, who are people you know.
I didn’t think it was fair of me to call them.
Because they’re part of the show [as characters]. The only things that I passed onto Lachlan through a friend that he’s in touch with was, one, “Don’t worry, I’ll look after you.” And the second was just a message to tell him that the guy playing him [Barry Watson] is tall, slim and good looking. [Laughs.]
Was there anyone who you tried to connect with on that listening tour who rebuffed you?
I tried to reach out to Beth [Ailes, Roger’s widow], but Beth didn’t respond.
Did you reach out to or sit down with any of the women who were victims?
No, I didn’t.
Because I have transcripts of conversations that they’ve had and I was also able to listen to recordings as well, so I can get some understanding. But in a funny way, and I don’t mean to be callous about it, that’s not the bit that he knows about. He doesn’t understand it from that perspective or see it from that perspective.
Had you ever met Roger when he was alive?
I must have at one point, or at the very least been in the same room. But I have no memory of any handshake or anything like that.
So, when you’re hearing all of these stories that are positive, how does that impact the guy you want to play?
It makes it more interesting, because now, it’s like, “Oh, I’ve got to lift that off the ground while the other things are still in play.” I’ve also got to take a natural competitiveness. I’ve got to take the aging process. I’ve got to take how his health affected him over time and where his health would’ve put him mentally as well. I’ve gotta take what his success created. There are all these different elements, including what happens when you build such a mountain, and how you keep your view unobscured. There are a lot of gradual things that happened to him that you’ve got to find a way of communicating, which includes, potentially, early onset Alzheimer’s, the effect of prostate cancer, living with hemophilia. It just became a really rich collection of things. So the fact that people were prepared to speak so positively about their experience with him just made it even more interesting to me.
Had he been alive during this process, what would you have wanted to ask him?
I think there would be two potentials with me having a conversation with Roger. One is the entertainment-based conversation, and we’re just talking about the function of what we do and why it can be really special and who has amused us or given us great pleasure over time. That would be a great conversation. But the one where we would start talking about the difference between truth and truth-related, that conversation probably wouldn’t go so well. I’ve always resented that cynical aspect of media because I’ve had to live with it, you know? And there’s a fellow at the moment [Trump] who’s using the phrase “fake news.” But the unfortunate thing is that there isn’t a journalist of my age who is not culpable in that. No matter who they are, if they didn’t engage in it, they stood by and watched what happened while articles were decided based on a photograph or somebody’s preference of the way the world should be.
I assume you start by reading Gabe Sherman’s book, which serves as the source material for this project?
Oh, yeah. As soon as it’s decided I’m doing it, that’s what I read. But I also read Roger’s books and the books about Roger, going back to Joe McGinnis’ The Selling of the President and then You Are The Message, which is fucking hilarious. It’s him talking about how other people should present themselves or how things should be staged. And there’s a lot of information in there, and it’s been a great resource.
One of the things that has come up in my conversations with folks like showrunner Alex Metcalf is how important it was to you to reveal more of that humanity and to make sure the Roger you portray isn’t a one-dimensional monster. Is that fair to say?
It’s not about what’s important to me, it’s about what’s apparent, because that’s the thing that you’re playing. And if I had those conversations and it was apparent that it was something else, I’d be doing something else. You read about him [in his childhood] and Roger was the guy who used to play piano and sing. He was that dude. He was also a cross-country runner — and a fucking good one — and he was already a hemophiliac. So, he’s always been this guy. He never lets that stuff close his life down.
While you’ve read Gabe’s book, you haven’t leaned on him as a resource in the way that your castmates have. How come?
He’s got a perspective. He’s put that perspective down on paper. I’ve already taken it in. I’ve got to start, in a certain way, being on Roger’s side a little bit, and even that is a journey to totally expose him and bring him down.
So, I’ve gotta find my own reasons for why he thought he could do shit as well and see what around him enables him to cross those Rubicon in the way that he did. Some of that is generational. Some of that is where he began. And some of that is the aphrodisiac of his job.
When all is said and done, what do you hope is revealed about this guy? What is a viewer supposed to take away and learn?
Look, I’ve been very open about this stuff with different directors and with Alex [Metcalf, the series’ showrunner,] and the other writers. It’s like, this can’t be pre-decided, you know what I mean? It’s living history, so we’ve got a certain responsibility. And sometimes you fall into the trap of, when you know the outcome, bending everything to the outcome. But nobody in the course of this knew the outcome, so you’ve gotta clean your own slate a little bit and be very fresh about how you see things. What I want people to get out of it is that I want it to be new because they don’t really know. They know the name and they know the [politics] but they don’t know the man. They don’t know his history and how it all went — most don’t even know what he looks or sounds like.
How much did you know about him going in?
I knew nothing, really. Knew the name. Knew the position. Had seen [Fox News] rise and knew he was responsible for it, but I didn’t really know any detail. And I knew he had a comeuppance.
Speaking of, one of the show’s producers, Liza Chasen, talked a bit about the toll certain scenes that depict the harassment your character engages in took on her, leaving her unable to sleep for stretches of production. How do you prepare for those scenes, and what kind of toll do they take on you?
In a broad statement, it’s a very difficult job for lots of different reasons.
In ways that surprised you?
No, you know it going in. And this is gonna sound silly, but if you’re a smart actor, you don’t dwell on that shit. You just get on with on the job and you deal with it as it comes to you. I find that the weight of it should never really be fully thought about until after the fact, when you go, “That was a big one.”
Have you gotten to that point with this project, and if so what has it looked like?
I don’t know yet. I haven’t got there. There’s not an air valve on this one, you know what I mean? It’s very intense. I’ve got a large weight of dialogue. I’m probably delivering six pages a day, and it requires a [tremendous amount of] discipline. And then there’s a discipline of skincare, too, which [has entailed] weekend steam showers and face masks and all that.
Is that a whole new world for you?
Well, not really. I’m an actor, mate. [Laughs.] I’ve been wearing makeup since I was a kid. And I’ve done prosthetic pieces before, but this is a big job for sure. It’s also a big emotional responsibility because the people around you need to know that they can always talk to you and not him.
You’ve said, during press for past projects, that you are not an actor who takes a character or the weight of a character home with you. Assume that remains the case here?
But you do, as anybody does who cares about their job would. And I have to take it home with me because I’ve got fucking 24 pages of dialogue to learn every shooting week. So, it’s here, it’s my home life, it’s all consuming for the period of time. And I’m probably talking to people a little sharper than I should be at the moment, but that’s got to do with a level of exhaustion, too.
I’m hoping we can talk about the physical transformation.
By the time we get to the end [of production], it’s gonna be over 12 days of my life [cumulatively in the makeup chair]. Twelve fucking days.
That’s incredible. Do you walk out of this makeup trailer as a different person?
I’m a fucking actor, mate. No, I wait until somebody says, “Action.” [Laughs.]