When Gretchen Carlson dared to challenge Fox News’s Roger Ailes, she not only inspired other women to expose his sexual harassment — she sparked his departure. Now, in Showtime’s The Loudest Voice, Naomi Watts and Russell Crowe reveal the behind-the-scenes drama at the nation’s most-watched news network.
Everyone loves an underdog story.
There's the familiar tale of David slaying Goliath with his shepherd's sling. More recently, Lyanna Mormont, one of the smallest characters on Game of Thrones, toppled a zombie giant by stabbing him in the eye.
But here's one that really happened: three years ago, beleaguered Fox News host Gretchen Carlson took down her immensely powerful boss, Roger Ailes, amid sexual harassment accusations.
"She wasn't that blonde bimbo that Fox portrays or is capable of portraying," says Naomi Watts, who plays Carlson in Showtime's The Loudest Voice.
This seven-part limited series — which premieres June 30 and is based on Gabriel Sherman's 2014 bestseller, The Loudest Voice in the Room — chronicles the ignominious final chapter of Ailes's formidable career. He died in 2017, a year after his ouster from Fox.
As the founder of Fox News and its chief for 20 years, Ailes became one of the most dominant conservative forces in American media and politics.
By promoting programming that critics deride as partisan fear-mongering and defenders extol as straight talk, he turned Fox into the top-rated cable news network. He shaped not only the news but also the minds of voters, to the extent that many credit him with making it possible for Donald Trump to win the presidency.
"I believe in the power of television. Giving the people what they want, even if they don't know they want it," Russell Crowe, as the media chieftain, says in the first episode.
Ailes was a master manipulator within the workplace as well. He could be verbally and psychologically abusive toward anyone who crossed him, and he sexually harassed many of the women on his staff.
Ailes tried to bully Carlson into submission, but she managed to stay one step ahead of him. "He tried every weapon in his arsenal," says Sherman, a widely published journalist who interviewed more than 600 sources, including Fox News insiders, for his portrayal of Ailes.
Because the book was published before Carlson filed her lawsuit, an afterword in the paperback edition provides deeper coverage of her daring crusade — and of the many sexual harassment complaints that were subsequently lodged against Ailes.
Even so, Ailes was admired and adored by many. "We love to present these flawed protagonists," says Gary Levine, president of entertainment for Showtime Networks. He believes the story will appeal to all viewers, no matter their political beliefs, noting, "We are all living with what he has wrought."
The series begins in 1995, as Ailes leaves CNBC under a cloud. But no matter — championed by Fox tycoon Rupert Murdoch, he's already got a foothold at what will soon become Fox News.
There, he will browbeat his production team into position and start airing news shows aimed at a specific target — an audience he considers the forgotten Americans. "We'll give them a vision of the world, the way it really is and the way they want it to be," he says, firing up his staff on the eve of the network launch.
Russell Crowe plays the role with nuance, vigor and fortitude. "It's not always you get the opportunity to play a character of such complexity," says
Crowe, who submitted to hours in the makeup chair before each shoot. Silicon prosthetics on his cheeks and neck evoke the portly Ailes and his distinctive jowls. A fat suit took care of the rest. Crowe also studied Ailes's particular walk, which was attributed to poor health. He'd been diagnosed with hemophilia as a child.
"[Crowe] mastered Roger Ailes's walk, which is kind of a mix between a shuffle and a limp because of his physical disabilities," says Sherman, who served as a coexecutive producer on the series and cowrote four episodes. Crowe may be one of the most recognizable movie stars in the world, he says, but "after five minutes of watching the show, he disappears and you're just watching Roger Ailes."
Alex Metcalf, an executive producer and writer on the series, says that early on, before they'd cast the role, they were tossing names around.
Part of the challenge was to find someone who could project the necessary gravitas and serpentine psyche. "You never knew which Roger you were getting," Metcalf says, describing how Ailes could be charming and self- deprecating one moment and vitriolic or aloof the next. "The ability to turn emotionally on a dime," he says, "was a very tried and true tactic that Roger used to keep his people off balance."
Sherman says one Fox executive confided that he always tried to avoid eye contact with Ailes during meetings. "The quote was something like, 'You hope that T. rex doesn't see you,'" Sherman recalls.
Even though many aspects of Ailes are off-putting and disturbing, the producers needed an actor who could bring out his humanity — someone who could transmit to viewers the passion, brilliance and charisma it took to create Fox News and take it to the top.
There was some debate over who might fill the role. But Jeremy Gold, copresident with Marci Wiseman of Blumhouse Television, says that when head of casting Terri Taylor suggested Crowe, there was a silence at the table. And then there was a collective "Oh, my God," Gold says.
In fact, as suggested in the first episode, no matter how much he tramples over others, no matter how loud his voice gets, Crowe's cogent portrayal of Ailes just makes you itch for more. "One of the magic tricks of the first episode is that we're all rooting," Wiseman says. "No matter what color your politics are, you're rooting for Fox News to launch by the end of that first episode."
Executive producer Tom McCarthy, who directed and cowrote the Oscar-winning film Spotlight, was enlisted to cowrite the series pilot with Sherman and shape the overall arc.
He says Sherman's reporting, which took place over seven years, provided a solid blueprint. "The book was ahead of its time," he notes, referring to the heavy criticism Sherman took for his extensive use of unattributed quotes. Many sources, fearing Ailes's wrath, would only speak off the record.
Sherman himself experienced Ailes's intimidation ploys while researching his book. Ailes wasn't happy about Sherman writing a biography of him and refused to meet. The author says he was followed by private investigators and even received a death threat at one point — though he has no proof it came from Ailes's camp. It was, he reports, "one of the most difficult and stressful times in my career."
For the rest of the story, pick up a copy of emmy magazine, on newsstands now.
This article originally appeared in emmy magazine, Issue No. 6, 2019