The Starz limited drama series Gaslit, created by Robbie Pickering and helmed by Matt Ross, tells the story of the Watergate scandal through the eyes of some of the lesser-known key players, most notably Martha Mitchell (Julia Roberts), the outspoken socialite wife of John Mitchell, the former attorney general and chairman of Richard Nixon’s campaign (Sean Penn). While her cruel husband enjoys courting the media and giving interviews, everything start to fall apart for Martha, and the distinction between the truth and lies becomes increasingly hazy.
Shea Whigham, who plays G. Gordon Liddy, the former FBI agent who oversaw the infamous espionage operation, spoke with one of the major online publications in a one-on-one interview about the daunting task of portraying the historical figure, what ultimately inspired him to take on this role, how he found the human in Liddy, working with a talented cast and production team, and what he enjoyed most about the entire experience. He also discussed his involvement with the Fast & Furious franchise and his plans to return for Perry Mason’s Season 2.
Question: What was your reaction when this project was offered to you and you were given the chance to play G. Gordon Liddy? You were attracted by the potential right away, weren’t you? Were you anticipating tackling such a challenge? You were interested yet wanted to know more. Have you noticed yourself in the mirror and wondered if you resemble him?
Shea Whiteham To be quite honest, considering the challenge of dealing with someone like Liddy is a little frightening. Can I do this? was my initial thought because I knew what it would take to try to get there. Am I up to the task? Can I get in somehow? All of those things begin to take hold. Then you have the chance to reteam with Sean Penn and Julia Roberts, and you get the chance to work for the first time with (director) Matt Ross, who directed Captain Fantastic, my favourite movie of that year. After that, I tried to tell the narrative of a real human person by taking some time and working with him. Is he devout? Yes, there are instances where he did the right thing by remaining anonymous. Only he refrained from doing it. I so reasoned, “Okay, I can respect that.” He has five children and has been married for 53 years; he is a family man. The remainder begins to take shape after I said, “Okay, let me hang on to that.”
What was it like to really get on set and bring it to life after you decided you could do it? When did it start to seem like everything was coming together?
WHIGHAM: I don’t want to be flippant in my response, but I don’t think you ever will. You may feel on top of the world at times and may not at others, but that’s good. I came to realise that there is some beauty in the fact that things may not always feel wonderful. Liddy is a rigid character to play since it is just how he is. His rigidity is what makes him famous. But I can’t take a rigid stance since I’m the actor. You have to discover the human and the tranquilly there. You play the truth, and through that, Coen Brothers-style lightheartedness and humour emerge. How far am I willing to go for the cause? I kept questioning myself. How much do I want Richard Nixon, the king, to acknowledge me? It means everything, is the answer.
The majority of people at least know about Watergate and Nixon, but unless you’re a political historian, I assume that most people are unaware of certain aspects. What about this particular tale most surprised you? What did you learn from these scripts and working on this project that you wish you had known before?
WHIGHAM: I was unaware of Martha. I was unaware of Martha’s gaslighting technique or the level to which she was penetrated. She would speak with journalists at all hours of the night. I was unaware of everything. I was aware of Martha Mitchell’s reputation as the loudmouth from the South, but I was unaware of its full scope. When I first saw Julia Roberts and Sean Penn together, I couldn’t believe how enamoured I was with their love, despite its beauty and ugliness.
It’s amazing how everyone in this, whether they are completely altered or can still be recognised, feels, looks, and behaves a little bit differently because of how they are living their personalities. How did it feel to work alongside and be surrounded by so many other actors who were portraying these genuine people while still putting forth their own efforts, just like you were doing with your character?
It’s the finest, says WHIGHAM. Matt wanted to get it properly, so he hired the best, because when everything comes together like this, no expense is spared. In every department, we had the very best. You begin to think, “Okay, we have a shot,” when everything comes together. You can never predict the outcome. I’ve worked on [projects] that I thought would be the best thing I’ve ever accomplished, but they failed, and I’ve also experienced the polar opposite. This gave me the impression that Julia was acting in a way that was beyond what was expected of her. The same thing happened to Sean, Dan (Stevens), and Betty (Gilpin). I didn’t sit and pass judgement on Liddy, but I thought we were uncovering some fascinating information. The best is that.
After playing Liddy, how do you feel about him now? Did that make you feel differently about him, or do you feel like you now have a better understanding of who he was?
WHIGHAM: That’s a fascinating development. Every character I play has a quality that I tend to love. To everything, you must bring yourself. Simply being in there with him and making discoveries was thrilling. I told Matt at the beginning, “If I’m going to take this on, I want to make sure we treat him fairly. I want to avoid bringing any baggage. On him, I’m starting from scratch, and together, we’ll construct it. I adored that a lot.
It goes without saying that it would be boring to play him as just one thing. Even if you don’t like someone at all, it’s much more interesting to play with their complexities and subtleties and even to somewhat humanise them. You really can’t sum up any of these folks in just one manner since they are all such fascinating individuals.
WHIGHAM: I believe you are correct. That is absolutely accurate in my opinion. They are intriguing.
Without Nixon as a corporeal figure, this is essentially a show about him. What about this method of telling the Watergate tale particularly caught your attention?
WHIGHAM: I was in Europe when Matt called to ask me about this. “I’m not interested in a retelling,” I replied. That was done by all the President’s Men. I would not handle that. He then said, “Me neither,” I said, “I don’t want to make a documentary. There is a tonne of tape on that. Since the entire thing was entertaining, we really wanted to uncover fresh perspectives and ensure that it was engaging. Many people are unaware of how poorly we handled the situation, how many times we had to enter, or how Martha became involved. That seemed intriguing to me. Then it became a matter of always telling the truth and avoiding being exposed as someone who was trying to be amusing or winking at the camera. All of it is already working for Liddy. What truly drew me to it was finding the human in it.
What was it like portraying Liddy, a character who seemed to have no room for doubt in his beliefs? Is doing that more comfortable and liberating simply because you are aware of his beliefs and how they underpin everything he does?
WHIGHAM: Without a doubt. He is committed to the mission and is aware of what he wants, which might assist you ground your performance. When a person has the kind of strict knowledge that Liddy possesses, strangely, wild things might result from that. I’ve discovered that there is freedom in that. You would assume the contrary. But you need to put in all that effort to understand what he would accomplish and what he stands for. That cannot be reversed. The results can’t be played first since then it won’t matter.
With a TV series, you have showrunner Robbie Pickering in addition to director Matt Ross, unlike with a movie where you only work on set with the director. What’s it like to be in that kind of a connection with the two of them and to spend every day working on set with them?
WHIGHAM: I agree. Quite a bit of my work was completed with Matt. When it comes to telling a story on television and in movies as well, I rank him right up there with (director) Tim Van Patten. Robbie had also written an extremely well-written script. He had completed his job and research on it. Before we even began, it was on the page. Once you have it, you may, if you like, take it somewhere new. You can see what percolates up and the study and putting it on his feet once it is tight and there. Matt made a lot of that possible for me. It was significant that Liddy was found.
We first learned a little more about Perry Mason Season 2 in January, including what to expect from it and the cast’s upcoming additions. Have any scripts been given to you to read? When you go back to that show and that character, what are you most looking forward to?
WHIGHAM: We did film late yesterday night, though. About half of the second season has already passed. I adore telling historical fiction. I adore tales. Perry Mason is set in 1933. Perry is once more in trouble and needs to find a way out. I’m hoping Strickland can guide him through that.
Perry Mason is such a gorgeous show to look at. I could get lost gazing at the settings and the wardrobe.
WHIGHAM: I agree. It’s intriguing, you can shoot the living daylights out of it, it’s enjoyable, and it is gorgeous to look at, but if you don’t have a compelling plot and an A-plus cast, none of that matters. Similarly, even with an A-plus cast, you won’t be engaged if the characters don’t feel real and visceral. What you’re saying, in my opinion, is that you can practically taste Perry Mason and that era.
Yeah. I adore that even though I’m from Los Angeles, I’ve never seen the city appear like it does in Perry Mason.
WHIGHAM: That’s Tim Van Patten, the director. Tim Van Patten, who I work with, spent an entire year conducting research to try to uncover locations that, even if you’re from [Los Angeles], you’ve never seen on screen before. Tim is all of that.
Was it mentioned to you that you might return when you shot your first Fast & Furious movie? Were you astonished when they brought you back? Were you startled when they asked you to return a third time?
WHIGHAM: I never cease to be shocked. Oh, yes, my God. You know, Paul [Walker] had my stuff. After Paul’s death, I was unsure of what might transpire. It was quite emotional to even be asked for the small amount that I dropped in and did since they were gracious enough to invite me back as a tribute to Paul.
I adore the way that franchise never seems to forget everyone. Whatever the character is, it doesn’t matter.
WHIGHAM: I agree. Justin Lin is that. It’s no secret that I’ve had a lot of good fortune. I’m not just pretending to be a nice man. I’ve had good luck with the filmmakers I’ve worked with, and I put Justin Lin with Tim Van Patten, Cary Fukunaga, and Damien Chazelle. Right there, he is. They love movies. They understand film. They adore movies. They adore how Francis Ford Coppola and Sidney Lumet always cast the same cast of performers in their movies. Lin acts in this manner. The fact that he keeps drawing people back is the greatest compliment, in my opinion.
Starz broadcasts Gaslit on Sunday evenings.
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