Jay Roach attacks the McCarthy blacklist with Trumbo

FILM by Jorge Ignacio Castillo


RPL Film Theatre
January 14-17

There are no second acts in American lives, unless you’re Jay Roach. Best known as the director who shepherded the Austin Powers saga or as the man who discovered Robert De Niro’s funny bone in Meet the Parents, Roach has evolved into a full-fledged political filmmaker.

First as hired gun for HBO and now on his own right with Trumbo, Roach has become a leading raconteur of the highs and (many) lows of politics in America. Recount reviewed the tragic circumstances surrounding the ascension of George W. Bush; in Game Change, Roach documented the scenario that allowed the noxious, inept Sarah Palin to become a Republican vice-presidential candidate.

In Trumbo, Roach depicts blacklisted scriptwriter Dalton Trumbo (Bryan Cranston) as a man who out-maneuvered a hostile political environment to do good for his colleagues — a message that resonates given the toxic, proto-fascist bog that is Republican-dominated Washington today. The film is considered a likely Oscar nominee, as is Cranston and Helen Mirren as Trumbo’s nemesis, gossip maven Hedda Hopper.

You guessed it: I talked to Roach at the last Toronto Film Festival (is there a better place to knock off a year’s worth of actor and director interviews?). Utterly comfortable with himself, Roach is even willing to soothe a bumbling journalist (I’d lost my tape recorder briefly and was kind of flustered). “I worked in a radio station when I was in college covering public affairs,” he said. “I like journalists.”

How did you approach making a biopic without falling on the usual tropes?

I treated it as the story of a man who happened to be a historical figure. I love his writings — letters, screenplays — and I could feel his humanity. I connected with him and I wanted a strong point of view from his perspective. Everything in the film was designed around that, every casting choice. The guy we cast as John Wayne (David James Elliott) didn’t play John Wayne, the icon. He was John Wayne, as Trumbo saw him.

It’s also a story about writers.

Scriptwriters in particular. In Hollywood, the director is the king, at least in feature films. I’ve never felt comfortable with that. I believe writers are always undervalued and, in the case of the Hollywood Ten, they were the first ones to be targeted because they were considered expendable.

Are you comfortable with being called a “political director”?

I don’t complain about it, but I see these stories as people stories. In the case of Trumbo, I see it as an American story, bipartisanism, that affects all of us. If one side succeeds at exploiting fear to expunge undesirable elements out of an industry, that’s bad for all of us. Bad ideas become contagious in fearful times. In 1947, we had been through two world wars, a great depression, the rise of fascism, totalitarian communism; no one knew what was going on. Trumbo and his friends chose affiliation because they were pursuing fairness. Trumbo was not a dogmatic follower, he was an iconoclast. I don’t see his story as political but about a man trying to navigate the confusing realities of American life.

You often make films with real-life references. How do you prevent actors from taking the caricature road?

I’ve never gone for an impersonation. My objective is that 30 seconds into a performance, you lose yourself in the portrayal and stop thinking about the match. You only should care about the human being and what it’s up against.

With an ensemble that includes (among others) Bryan Cranston, Helen Mirren, John Goodman and Michael Stuhlbarg, do you expect actors to adapt to your directorial style, or you adapt to them?

My goal is to make sure that whatever each individual needs to do its very best work, me, the crew and the rest of the cast are able to provide it. Sometimes there are clashes when one person’s approach may not be compatible, and we talk it through during rehearsal.

Did you put yourself in the position of your characters? Would you have named names?

We like to think we would do the noble thing, but if your livelihood is threatened — like Edward G. Robinson’s — maybe the answer is not that clear. I run through that scenario in my mind all the time. I certainly wouldn’t do it without hesitation. Robinson, however, couldn’t hide behind a pseudonym. He could only work as Edward G. Robinson.