Gaslit creator Robbie Pickering on Sean Penn’s Ukraine visit: ‘He is following his heart. I commend him’

Published on Apr 27, 2022 06:41 AM IST

Robbie Pickering, the creator of the new show Gaslit, talks about the show's premise and how he managed to get lead stars Sean Penn and Julia Roberts on board.

Gaslit creator Robbie Pickering talks about his lead actor Sean Penn.
Gaslit creator Robbie Pickering talks about his lead actor Sean Penn.
ByAbhimanyu Mathur

Even though almost half a century has passed since the Watergate scandal broke, America’s fascination with it continues. The latest chapter in pop culture and art’s association with the scandal is the series Gaslit. The Starz/Lionsgate series explores the scandal from the vantage point of unlikely observers. In an exclusive chat with Hindustan Times, the show’s creator Robbie Pickering spoke about the need to revisit Watergate, getting Hollywood heavyweights Sean Penn and Julia Roberts on board, and how the team reacted when their lead actor decided to venture into a conflict zone just weeks before the show was to air. Also read: Gaslit review: Julia Roberts and Sean Penn deliver masterful performances in gripping retelling of Watergate scandal

Simply put, Watergate scandal was what brought down US President Richard Nixon and exposed his abuses of power. Over the years, there have been quite a few films and series on the Watergate scandal and its aftermath. One would assume the subject matter would be quite saturated by now. So what made Robbie go for a fresh take? He responds, “I’ve always wanted to do a show or movie about this period and the people and culture around Nixon. I’ve always thought the period was more relatable than in the movies I have seen. I have grown up on films like All The President’s Men and Nixon (both on the scandal). I love them but they make the period seem distant. The heroes and villains are larger than life. But really, when you read the history, it’s kind of comical and more mundane and relatable on a human level. So, I have always had a new version of it in my head.”

Gaslit tells the story of President Nixon’s subordinates, chiefly his Attorney General John N Mitchell and his wife Martha Mitchell. It shows how Martha is the first person to raise alarm about the scandal despite her party affiliation, testing her husband’s loyalties. To play these two roles, Robbie got on board two huge Hollywood stars in Sean Penn and Julia Roberts. Robbie reveals Julia was his dream choice for the role but he expected her to say no. “I thought there’s no way Julia Roberts would want to do this,” he says with a laugh, adding, “But to my surprise, after we approached her, she wanted to. But she had only one condition--that she gets to work opposite Sean Penn. They have been friends for decades and wanted to work together. So suddenly I had Julia Roberts and Sean Penn in my show.”

But despite the marquee cast, Robbie maintains it’s an ‘underdog’ show. He explains, “I know it sounds funny but it’s not a show about superheroes or not a horror show. It’s really a political thriller but also a comedy. It’s got a strange tone and it’s unique. So even though we have these huge stars, I have never felt that. This is the first time I am realizing people around the world will be seeing it.”

Sean Penn transformed into John Mitchell for Gaslit through make-up and prosthetics.
Sean Penn transformed into John Mitchell for Gaslit through make-up and prosthetics.

Sean Penn looks nothing like John Mitchell and the actor insisted on using make-up and prosthetics to attain some likeliness to the former Attorney General. The process took five hours each morning and Robbie wasn’t in favour of it but the actor insisted. Robbie recalls, “I didn’t want him to do it. I felt people don’t really remember the people. So, you don’t have to look exactly like that and I told Sean that. But he wanted to look like John Mitchell because he had watched all this stuff on TV.” But after watching Sean act with the make-up on, Robbie’s initial nerves gave way to admiration. “I was really nervous about the prosthetics because I didn’t want it to be the ‘fat suit show’. But when I first saw Sean in the make-up, I was amazed because not only was the make-up seamless, you still had Sean’s face there. The make-up is invisible after you watch it for a minute. It has certainly gotten people talking though,” he shares.

The show’s shoot ended in late 2021. As the post-production work was underway, Robbie learnt that Sean had entered Ukraine at the height of the Russia-Ukraine crisis, weeks before the promotions were to begin. Sean, who is still in Europe, was filming a documentary on the ongoing war. “All his ADR (dubbing) was done and everything was completed thankfully,” he jokes recalling the time. Then he gets serious and adds, “I think Sean is very passionate about what he cares about and he was following his heart. I really commend him. When we were on set, he was telling me about Ukraine. And look, we are making a show about everyday heroes, who stand up. And look at the people of Ukraine. I feel it was right in line with what the show is trying to talk about.” Also read: Sean Penn joins Ukrainian refugees to Poland on foot, makes it out safely: 'Walked miles to the Polish border'

Created and executive produced by Robbie Pickering, and directed by Matt Ross, Gaslit is produced by UCP, a division of Universal Studio Group. The series also stars Dan Stevens, Betty Gilpin, Shea Whigham, Darby Camp, and Aleksandar Filimonović. It premiered in India on Lionsgate Play on April 25.


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    Abhimanyu Mathur is an entertainment journalist with Hindustan Times. He writes about cinema, TV, and OTT, churning out interviews, reviews, and good old news stories.

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