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Why Donna Rice Resonated With ‘Front Runner’ Scene Stealer Sara Paxton

The Front Runner
Writer: Matt Bai (screenplay and based upon the book by) and Jason Reitman and Jay Carson (Screenplay)
Director: Jason Reitman

In “the Front Runner,” big-eyed blonde Sara Paxton plays notorious other woman Donna Rice opposite Hugh Jackman’s dynamic Sen. Gary Hart. Jason Reitman’s political drama revisits the sex scandal that scrapped the promising Democratic nominee’s second presidential run in 1988, paving the way for George H. W. Bush’s election. The Hart campaign, led by J.K. Simmons’ Bill Dixon, scrambles to do damage control in the wake of the Miami Herald’s scoop on Rice’s visit to Hart’s Georgetown townhouse. In the harrowing interrogation scene that follows, Dixon grills Rice extra crispy about an affair that may or may not have occurred — and the collateral damage is done.

Paxton: “The first time we see Donna in close-up it’s like ‘Jaws.’ The whole film you know she’s coming, but when are you going to see the other woman? There’s this looming stress waiting on the edge of your seat for what you know is coming.

“I wanted to meet Donna and pick her brain. I discussed it with Jason because I knew he was meeting with Gary. We decided I didn’t want to mimic her or do any impersonation; I just wanted to portray this darkest moment of this woman’s life. Being empathetic was my main goal.

“The scene opens when the interrogation has been happening for 12 hours. J.K. Simmons’ Dixon repeats the same questions. Donna is completely beaten down and still being interrogated. We shot all those scenes in one day. My job is to express that with my exhaustion, crying for hours, mascara dried up on my face.

“What Jason wanted conveyed was the exhaustion. Imagine hour one of interrogation: a person might be defensive or talk back. By hour 12, you’re completely beaten down, ashamed, embarrassed opposite someone as intimidating as the great J.K. can be. When he looks at you that way you feel incredibly small and powerless. I wanted to leave. My first idea was to enter hot and still be angry. ‘No,’ Jason said, ‘you’re broken down.’ When Jason made the tiny click on the dial — she has no fight left in her — I didn’t really know I felt so much more emotion.

“When we started with a master, I was already sobbing. I’m not the kind of person that can flip a switch. Jason never fixed the makeup. It kept getting progressively worse, but he didn’t want to stop: he was ‘let’s go with it, let’s go with it.’

“Donna resonated with me. Being an actress people want to put you in a box, pigeon-hole you. She spent her whole life avoiding this situation and, boom, she’s trapped in it. I connected with that: ‘Why don’t you see me for who I am? Why don’t you believe me?’

“Thirty years ago the media threw her to the wolves, portraying her like a floozy. It was so painful: she’d avoided being pigeon-holed her whole life and then she’s trapped in that box for 30 years. I felt a big responsibility to get these scenes right for her, giving her the voice she lacked 30 years ago.

“These scandals are so frequent now I think unfortunately we’re numb to them. How’s the man doing? How is he? But is Donna OK? No one sees this part. This woman is just a human who had no idea — the affair was never confirmed by either of them — yet both were punished as if it did happen 100%. We have new eyes about how we see the women in these situations. Women deserve to be heard. She’s not a criminal. She didn’t deserve to be interrogated like that. No.”

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