Rosemarie DeWitt stands by her man in Kill the Messenger, the dramatic thriller directed by Michael Cuesta from a screenplay by Peter Landesman based on the true story of Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative journalist Gary Webb (Jeremy Renner). DeWitt plays Webb’s steadfast wife, Sue, who remains by his side as he becomes the target of an increasingly vicious smear campaign to discredit him after he uncovers a link between U.S. intelligence and Central American cocaine smuggling. Opening October 10th, the film features an impressive ensemble cast that includes Michael K. Williams, Ray Liotta, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Oliver Platt and Michael Sheen.
At our recent roundtable interview, DeWitt spoke about her research for the role, how playing a real-life person influenced her approach to the character, meeting the real Sue Webb and learning how she kept the family together as her husband spiraled down, what appealed to her about working with Renner, what she learned about journalists and their passion for getting to the truth of their story, her new film Men, Women & Children directed by Jason Reitman, and her upcoming projects: Joe Swanberg’s Digging for Fire, Sam Raimi’s remake of Poltergeist with Sam Rockwell, and a small part in the TV mini-series Olive Kitteridge. Check out the interview after the jump:
Did you listen to a lot of Stand By Your Man before you started this movie?
ROSEMARIE DEWITT: That’s all I listened to. I was lucky to sit down with Sue Webb before we started shooting. She was a big part of the process. She was really open with me, with our director, and she shared a lot of home movies with us.
It must have been tough.
DEWITT: Yeah, it was tough. The toughest part of the shooting maybe was sitting down with her, because it became very clear to me that this is a compelling story. The scope is epic, and it’s a story that I think a lot of people will be interested in, especially if they’ve never heard of it before. When the postscript on the movie comes up, this is the family that lived in the aftermath of that and is still living in that. My hope is that they feel it’s portrayed well, and that maybe there’s some healing in the fact that now that all the controversy has quieted down, we hear the true story and it’s not buried on page 40. When I met her, any preconceived ideas that I had about playing her from the script went out the window because she has this very quiet strength. In all the home movies, Gary and the kids were front and center, and she was behind the camera, pretty much with no exceptions, maybe saying a line or telling one of the kids to be careful around the edge of the pool. It was driven home to me in every variation of the conversations we had how her family was her main concern and how keeping her family together was the main priority, even after Gary messed up a couple times. Then ultimately, she had to choose her children’s safety because he spiraled down.
What was your reaction when you first read the script? What appealed to you about the character and the story?
DEWITT: It didn’t start that way. What appealed to me was I thought it was such a great role for Jeremy. I was like, “Wow, this is a really exciting fit for him.” I thought it would be cool to play a real-life person. The thing that was most intriguing to me was that I didn’t know the story. I didn’t remember it. I didn’t remember anything coming out during the Lewinsky-Clinton scandal. Then, I was Googling it and I got into it. The more I started thinking about it, I was like, “Yeah, I’d like to go do some scene work with Jeremy Renner.” Then it just fell into place. I was a new mother myself. I was very much in mama bear mode. It felt like this was a time to do that.
Did it change your opinion about journalists? Did it give you more of a sense that they’re people with families and they deal with problems in marriages, too?
DEWITT: It struck me with the way any person who’s passionate and gives so much of their time to anything, okay great, that happens, and then maybe you have something to show for all your work. I’m astonished by how much journalists stay with the story, try to get to the truth of the story, maybe give years of their life to it, maybe go over to Syria, maybe lose their life. Then, the next day, it’s a new story. We’re onto the next thing. It’s kind of crazy to me. I never thought of it that way before and the marriages that fall apart because of the time apart. In this case, it wasn’t time apart or anything like that. It was after he was discredited and his reputation was ruined and he couldn’t work again. The thing is he was a great husband and a great dad, but he was also a great reporter, and without that part of himself, he couldn’t continue. That was eye-opening for anybody. I don’t think you have to be an actor to find that compelling.
Did being a new mother inform how you played someone who was trying to protect her family?
DEWITT: For me, there are a lot of things you can imagine as an actor, and then there are things that you know in your bones and in your cells once they happen to you. Something happens the day you leave the hospital. You would throw yourself in front of a bus for this person that you just met. So that was really helpful. Sometimes I feel like why is she so inactive, why is she not yelling at him in front of the kids? It’s because the kids are more important. She says at one point to Lucas Hedges’ character, who’s so beautiful in the movie in that garage scene, to go to his room because that’s the only way she can protect him. The real Sue Webb is not a big, flashy person.
Did you talk to Sue about the incident in Ohio? Did she want to talk about that or not?
DEWITT: I tread very lightly with everything and I let her lead, because this is someone’s real life, and I wouldn’t want someone to ask me questions that were too personal to answer. But she was very open and she told us. In a weird way, I got everything I needed to know. Truthfully, and I say this very respectful of the movie that we made, we did shoot a lot of family stuff that didn’t make it into the movie, that got pushed out. It was like it got sidelined because the story is so big, and the context that the audience needs to understand is so big, and there’s so much exposition that needs to happen. It felt fitting because in a way that’s what ended up happening there in their story, that this kept gaining momentum and power. I saw the screening and I was like, “Oh wow, what happened to all the Sue stuff?” I hope she’s going to be okay, but I do know the story that we’re telling and I feel like it’s appropriate. I hope she’s happy with it.
Is this the first real-life person you’ve played?
DEWITT: I think so. I’ve played a lot of people where someone will say, “This is based on my sister and such and such happened.” But I don’t think I ever played someone who this is their name and this is their address and this is what they looked like.
How did that change your approach to the character? I know you spent time with Sue, but what was your mindset?
DEWITT: I feel like for me usually most of my time is spent with the script and in my own imagination, working around, digging around what’s relevant for me and what connects to what the character is going through. In this, it was starting with Sue and reading. There were some transcripts of her being interviewed by Peter Landesman who wrote the script. They talked a lot and they made that. It was very private, but they said, “Can the actors read it?” It was more just going to the source material and taking it all off her and that was it, because it didn’t feel right to put as much of any of my own spin on it. When I met her, there was a beautiful simplicity to her, and at times I’d be like, “I wonder what she would do if she was standing in this story? I think she would just hover and wait and see.” There’s a moment where her son confronts her husband about the affairs and he starts becoming a man there, and I don’t think she was going to get in the way of that, which is tricky. That’s not my personality at all. I’m a Jersey girl.
From your conversations with Sue, was there anything that informed your performance that maybe wasn’t in the script?
DEWITT: If anything, it was some taking away. She had read the script and she said, “You know, they have her cursing a lot.” They were trying to show that she was a good match and a collaborator with Gary and a life partner to him, which they were. They were together since they were very young. They grew into adulthood together. He grew into a journalist with her. But she was like, “I don’t curse like a sailor. Can you try to get that out of the movie?” And I was like, “I’ll do my best.” And we did.
How was it working with Jeremy? Did you know each other before? What did you discover about him?
DEWITT: I didn’t know him before. We had a lot of mutual friends in common so we had some people to talk about. He’s the way really good actors are, which is very open. When people talk about chemistry or this or that, I feel like if you’re open, it’s like your skin is very sensitive or porous. It’s about connecting. He’s very easy to connect with. It’s funny, everyone yesterday was saying, “It must be so intense. He’s so intense.” I was like, “I have to tell you, he’s a goof. He’s a goofball.” It was very lovely and light in a way on set. Then, we’d go, “Okay, now we have to go into this. Your character is starting to get a little paranoid.”
What was the goofiest moment?
DEWITT: Yesterday, I was in the middle of doing an audition, and he just came in and started doing it with me, saying inappropriate things.
I loved your line where you say, “You dragged me all the way out here to California where there are all these shiny people.” Is that something that was already in the script or was that something you came up with?
DEWITT: No, that was in the script. Peter had some very specific lines. Again, I don’t know if Sue really said that. You straddled this weird thing where you’re like, “What does Sue really do and say?” You have to make it theatrical in a movie.
Did you ever feel that way when you came out here to California from New Jersey?
DEWITT: That there were all these shiny people? I have the reverse. You go to New York, and people say New Yorkers are so rude, and I think they’re so nice. They might yell at you, but it’s nice. The other day I had some heels on because I was on an audition, and I fell off the sidewalk just a little bit. I tripped off it. A guy came up in a car and said, “What are you doing?!” I was like, “Just falling off the sidewalk over here, but thank you. Have a nice day.” So, I don’t know if they’re shiny, happy people.
What are some of the projects you have coming up next that you’re excited for people to know about?
DEWITT: We’re going to Toronto in two weeks for Jason Reitman’s Men, Women & Children which I also saw the other day. I’m very excited about it. I think he did an incredible job with it. It could have gone a lot of different ways because the subject matter is intense, and I felt like he was very delicate with it. It’s very much about sex and intimacy and love during this internet age that we’re living in. We also redid Poltergeist with Sam Rockwell, which is also a very good story at its heart. That was so much fun. There was a lot to bite into there. Jeremy and Sam are really good friends if that explains anything to you. Then, I did a small part in Olive Kitteridge, which I’m excited to see. And then, there’s a movie I just did with Joe Swanberg, which is totally the opposite. It’s called Digging for Fire with Jake Johnson, Orlando Bloom, Chris Messina and a bunch of people. That was a lot of fun and it’s totally different. You talk about the script. “Was that your line?” And then, you do it with Joe Swanberg, and everything is your line because it’s all improvised.
How was it working with Sam Raimi?
DEWITT: Oh great, and the funny thing is I didn’t meet him until last week when we were doing additional photography. I thought he was a ghost of Poltergeist, because he came a lot, and every day they’d be like, “Did you see Sam? He was here this morning.” And I’d go, “I didn’t see him. He was here?” Then, it would happen again two weeks later and two weeks later, and I started thinking he wasn’t real. But he is real. I met him last week and he was lovely.