When Annabelle Wallis took on the role of former Fox News staffer Laurie Luhn in “The Loudest Voice,” her ultimate goal was to tell Luhn’s truth.
The Showtime limited series, based on a biography by Gabriel Sherman, details the rise and fall of Fox News chairman and CEO Roger Ailes, and provides a horrifying look at the alleged physical and mental abuse Luhn endured for more than 20 years. In a harrowing scene from Episode 3 of the series, which aired on Sunday, Luhn (Wallis), dressed in lingerie, is commanded to dance for Ailes (Russell Crowe) as he sits in a chair and films her with a handheld camera.
“Who protects you, Laurie?” he ominously asks her, to which she responds, “You do.”
“Who’s always protected you?”
He then thrusts her head into his crotch and moans in pleasure as the camera rolls on.
The next scene shows Ailes arriving home to his wife Beth (Sienna Miller), who knew he’d be late thanks to a call from his longtime assistant Judy (Aleksa Palladino). And it seems at least one of these women was aware of his sickening behavior.
“That might have been one of the most painful things for a lot of the victims that I spoke to on the phone,” Wallis told HuffPost last month, “the betrayal of women to women. They were far more hurt by what we are able to do to each other — the turning of backs on each other in a time of need.”
Luhn first shared her story in 2016 in an extensive interview with Sherman for New York magazine, after former “Fox & Friends” host Gretchen Carlson filed her own lawsuit against Ailes.
Luhn said she met a 50-year-old Ailes in her late 20s while he was working on the George H.W. Bush’s presidential campaign in Washington. Desperate for money at that time, she approached him about a job and, soon enough, the abuse and blackmail began. He eventually brought her on as a booker during the launch of Fox News in 1996 and Luhn said she was “psychologically tortured” into performing sexual acts on Ailes, becoming his “whore” for decades. Ten women publicly came forward with their own personal accounts against Ailes, including former Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly, and at least 20 women privately accused him of some form of workplace harassment.
Ailes died on May 18, 2017, at the age of 77 amid an onslaught of sexual harassment and sexism accusations.
“I was programmed,” Luhn told Sherman, “... sometimes the Stockholm syndrome with Roger slips back, and I am still a little girl trying to impress Daddy Roger.”
At first, Luhn wasn’t thrilled that Showtime was adapting her story for the screen. She filed a $750 million lawsuit against the network in January, claiming her portrayal would show her enabling Ailes’ sexual harassment of women. But after reaching an agreement, she dropped the suit in June. Wallis said “The Loudest Voice” shines a light not only on Luhn’s experience and Ailes’ “horrible truths,” but the way he influenced the media culture we ingest today.
Below, the English actress further discusses playing Luhn and opens up about how women need to band together to fight injustice amid the Me Too and Time’s Up movements.
Were you able to speak to Laurie Luhn at all? I know it was complicated with a potential lawsuit and such, but were you able to personally hear her story?
Gabriel Sherman has six to eight hours of interviews with her that she agreed to. I had hours to just sit with her, to hear her attempt to understand what had happened in her life, to hear how she still had respect for Roger — just so many conflicting emotions around what her journey was. I really felt I got to be embedded within what she went through. And knowing that she was nervous about us making the show, I wanted to remain respectful to her. She’s been through enough, you know? So I tried to tread lightly and I tried to be respectful of her, first and foremost.
Her story is heartbreaking. Did you and Russell Crowe talk out the complexities of the situation before shooting?
Russell actually fought for me to get the part. We worked together on “The Mummy” before and he knew that he felt safe, he knew that I could deliver, I think, and that would put the pressure off of him. And I’m able to go into those moments and then step away and have a laugh and shake it off my body. I might have been the right actress for it because I could leave it at the door. I could imagine for anyone who’s more porous than I am in these moments would find that really difficult. I’m not going to say I didn’t find it difficult; it was harrowing stuff. But we worked very well together to establish trust and I really wanted to go for it, and he felt safe with me going there because I don’t think it’s a comfortable place for him to be in either.
Did you talk to Russell at all about his feelings on portraying Roger Ailes, and the responsibility tied to that?
We had many conversations about it. In order to survive in the role, you have to find a humanity in the character because you can’t live in it for six months knowing the truth of it. As an actor you want to give to the character and his downfall, and all these different sides. He’s a compelling, compelling man in what he had the ability to create: this news network that is still No. 1 in this country. So the weird lure toward a man like that, and the women who were lured around him — whether they worked with him or were in a relationship with him — it was fascinating. I think it mustn’t have been easy at all for Russell — I think he struggled with the ugly sides. You have to bring that to screen and that’s not at all fun to do every day for months.
Did you know a lot about Roger Ailes and the secrets surrounding him before hearing about this role?
I was obviously aware of what Roger had created, [but] I think I underestimated the amount that he’s affected my life. I’m a product of a conditioning in the media or the way we receive information of a world that he created. It was very interesting to uncover a lot of the horrible truths about some of his behavior, but also just how much he’s created that I participate in, be it the way I receive information.
You grew up in the U.K., yet you’re still aware of his part in the larger media landscape.
We live in such an age of globalization, in extremes. The sharing of information from America to the U.K. is so seamless, but also it seems that we are two countries living in a very charged political time and people are feeling quite passionate about a mindset they grew up with or one they want to understand better. There’s just so much information and so many different opinions that we’re moving away from each other. And I do think we’re in the age of quite irresponsible journalism — anybody can say anything and your facts don’t need to be checked. From the highest levels, you can get away with misinformation and that is very worrying. It’s a confusing time and people don’t know where to look for the truth, and that’s led to both sides of the pond. There is right and there is wrong, there is good and there is bad, there is judgement. Perhaps there’s a revealing of a rot that was always there that now we’re privy to and now that it’s out, we’ll make moves to really get rid of it.
Yes, there’s a growth of information thanks to social media and the internet, but, like you said, with that comes misinformation as well.
There’s almost a cowardice when speaking the truth on social media in that you are a faceless person, so you can throw something out there just to get a reaction from someone. But would you speak the same way if that person were in front of you? Would you speak the same way if you felt a human connection to the other person, which perhaps would lead to more empathy and understanding?
I think Twitter is an important place. Everyone should be heard … but there’s something quite weak about it in its strength, you know? It’s complicated.
“There’s something very powerful in this visual age -- seeing [her story] in its entirety, in all its brutality.”
We saw both the strength and weakness of social media during the start of the Me Too and Time’s Up movements, both of which your storyline in “The Loudest Voice” relates to. How was it for you to portray a real-life person who faced not only horrendous sexual abuse by Ailes, but intense media attention afterward?
I think it was important to tell the truth. When I got these scripts, the most reverent Me Too conversations were happening and I thought, “How best do you service the movement than being able to portray someone who went through it? And give her a platform to speak.” Even if you agree with her or not, you’re allowing [her story to be told] and also the ugly truths behind a conversation. There’s something very powerful in this visual age ― seeing [her story] in its entirety, in all its brutality. You return to the empathy and remember we are having a conversation about humanity and what we are able to do to each other. The more and more we move into this age where we isolate ourselves through the means of social media, through the means of disconnection, we disconnect from our humanity and I think that is the greatest threat to us all.
So, in playing Laurie, my biggest hope was that it was cathartic for someone who had been through it and perhaps hasn’t been able to speak. Or who was able to watch someone go through a harrowing time and maybe help them give a voice to their own pain, or perhaps more of his victims that we don’t know of get a chance to feel a catharsis around the unraveling of this world he created for a lot of women. It’s trying to remind people that there’s a through line to us all and that if you take a beat you understand every single person. I just tried to remain in the humanity of that. That was important to me.
You mentioned portraying the truth of the situation, which comes down to a powerful man taking advantage of a woman in the workplace, sexually assaulting her and then promising her promotions ― using blackmail to keep her quiet. It couldn’t have been easy to get into that mindset.
Yeah. [Pause]. It was really hard because you understand what it’s like to be a woman in a man’s world and fight hard for your place, and take pride in your place of work. But some people aren’t given the tools to feel confident enough in their intellect or their ability to get to a place of power, and for me that really makes me wonder about the importance of instilling in children very early on that backbone, so when you come up against that you can speak up and speak out. I’m so fortunate that I was brought up in a family where it was very instilled in me that men and women are equal and that you should never feel uncomfortable. But as I grow older and the more conversations I have, there are a lot of people who don’t think that. So, it’s important to be compassionate toward people who don’t have the tools to get out of those situations and fall foul to compromising their integrity for another thing that they’re conditioned into, which is perhaps the American Dream.
Roger built Laurie’s career at Fox, he gave her the promotions. She must of thought she owed him so much, she must have been convinced she was indebted to him. There’s a lot of pressure there. If someone tells you they might get you there faster [by putting you in compromising situations], perhaps you would do it. Hopefully not.
Women were falling prey to evil men like Harvey Weinstein and Ailes, yet no one felt confident enough to talk about what was happening behind closed doors. Now, with more stories being told, more women understand the signs of a predator and are aware of their worth. And it’s amazing that a storyline like Laurie’s can be broadcast on television to add to those conversations.
The women on this show definitely paved part of the path for the time that we’re in where we’re able to have a very honest, relevant discussion about a mentality and inequality that’s outdated, and lead by example to change. It’s wonderful to be part of something that is trying to be brave in challenging the status quo. Those are the types of things you relish as an actor: finding something socially conscious that is trying to unearth a conversation that’s been buried by protocol and really give it light. I think that’s the only way to get rid of it. I hope that it moves people into making their own decisions about what they choose to do in the workplace or how they treat women, or anyone.
You mentioned that Fox News is still thriving, and it’s thriving now under a woman, Suzanne Scott. Does the show touch on that at all, the fallout after Ailes’ resignation, his death and the network’s status now?
No, we end with his death. And I haven’t seen the last episode, but there’s a montage of what’s happening now. There’s definitely an homage to the world, even in his passing, he’s still very much a part of. It’s a good reminder for an audience because I think a lot of people don’t know about these masterminds behind these huge conglomerate companies and sources of information.
Secrets lie behind all businesses; most people just don’t know what’s going on behind closed doors.
That’s Roger Ailes’ point precisely: They don’t want to know the truth, they just want to feel like they’re being informed. I think that’s one of his famous quotes. He remained a shadow figure in a world where nobody asked questions about who created it, where it came from. He knew they wouldn’t. So it’s quite nice to see it from this angle of, “Oh my god. What have I been stewing in?” The moral question it asks us all is how much of his world are we participating in? Be it the divide that we are either on one side or the other of, or participating in a narrative that perhaps isn’t the healthiest ― even without the rise of information and the way we want to receive it. Twitter is a source of news where we have soundbites and we’re all participating in that.
What was the most eye-opening thing you learned from being a part of this show?
I was really moved by a lot of women’s honesty about how upsetting it was that we as women aren’t for each other as much as we should be. That shines a light back on us ― as victims, as perpetrators, as equals to men in the cycle of all that. I found that quite moving. I’ve just been meditating on that and trying to be for women. That’s what I wanted when portraying Laurie Luhn, I wanted women to feel for her because a lot of women look at her and there’s judgment. Let’s just be for each other. I don’t want to be a part of a divisive conversation; we’re in a divisive world, we’re in a divisive political time. If we want to have equality, we also have to look at our side of the street as women and how we contribute to that [divisiveness]. In order to change it, we have to band together a bit more.
This interview has been edited and condensed.