‘Gaslit’ Creator Reveals Julia Roberts Wouldn’t Join the Watergate Drama Without Sean Penn

·3-min read

The story of the Watergate scandal under President Richard Nixon has been told time and time again but never from this perspective. Starz’s “Gaslit” is told from the perspective of Martha Mitchell, the wife of Nixon’s Attorney General, John N. Mitchell. She was also the first person to publicly speak out about Nixon’s involvement in Watergate.

“I’ve always written southern conservative women. It’s my favorite thing, because I’m writing the church ladies I grew up with and I love them and I hate them,” creator Robbie Pickering told Variety at the world premiere at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City on Monday. “I had the world’s most worn-out VHS copy of ‘Steel Magnolias.’ Julia Roberts as Shelby!”

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Roberts was at the top of the list to play Martha and Pickering admitted he “couldn’t believe” she agreed. Then came the part of John Mitchell.

“I didn’t ever think we’d get her but her one requirement was that she act with Sean Penn. You didn’t have to twist my arm, but I didn’t say yes right away — I had to eat dinner with him,” he said. “I was so nervous I showed up in this leather jacket that I shouldn’t have been wearing. But I was like, ‘Sean Penn is a tough guy! I have to look cool.'”

Though Pickering was familiar with Penn’s political stances, he had no interest in discussing that, since the show is more about the relationships and the human dynamics.

Starz - Credit: Hilary Bronwyn Gayle
Starz - Credit: Hilary Bronwyn Gayle

Hilary Bronwyn Gayle

“He never even mentioned politics. We talked about marriage a lot,” Pickering said. “One of the first thing he noted about John Mitchell was he famously smoked this pipe and Sean told this really great tory about how his dad also smoked a pipe. When Sean’s mom wasn’t there, his dad couldn’t figure out which stem went with which pipe. It was this very cool, intimate story about marriage and these little ways that marriage affects you. I was just blown away bit it. I was also blown away by Sean’s dad had this thing in common with this villain from history. It links all of us. We all have these human things we do. I put that in that pipe stem thing in the show.”

Once Penn and Roberts were on set together, everyone could see their chemistry.

“They know each other so well, they have a very deep love for each other,” Pickering added. “You’re really seeing two people who know each other — they’ve known each other for decades.”

As for why now was the right time to adapt Slate’s “Slow Burn” podcast, there are many reasons.

“We’ve been through kind of a comically dangerous administration. I think in a lot of ways the Trump administration is like in inheritor of the Nixon one — there are a lot of people who are Nixon adjacent,” Pickering explained. “I think it’s important for people to understand that Trump isn’t Trump without a bunch of people around him who are willing to, for whatever reason, be complicit with what he’s doing. They empower him and they do it for their own reasons. They’re not all sociopaths, they’re very relatable reasons for doing this.”

Ultimately, “Martha’s story needed to be heard,” he said. “Let’s to do right by her.”

“Gaslit” premieres on Starz on Sunday, April 24.

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