The Watergate scandal is an iconic moment from the 1970s. The story has been told so many times it almost feels like it’s not worth telling. However, the upcoming Starz drama, Gaslit, takes on this well-worn point in American history from a different angle.
Thanks to material from the first season of the podcast Slow Burn, Gaslit has unearthed a truly new way to tell the Watergate story. The lesser-known characters involved aren’t instantly recognizable — for the most part. Still, Gaslit stars Julia Roberts and Sean Penn took an all-in approach. Penn especially looks almost unrecognizable in his quest to portray his character.
‘Gaslit’ casts the infamous Watergate scandal in a new light
Slate‘s Slow Burn series on Watergate instantly turned the podcast into a must-listen. It lays out the framework that Gaslit draws on, centering on Arkansan socialite Martha Mitchell and her husband, President Richard Nixon’s Attorney General John N. Mitchell.
Martha, despite being a dedicated Republican, comes across information that leads her to become the initial, largely forgotten Watergate whistleblower. This choice, to do the right thing, leads to immense social pressure as well as major conflicts in her marriage. Martha sticks to her story, becoming only more insistent while the White House and her husband initially deny her claims.
The show premieres on Starz on April 24, 2022. Roberts was the first to be cast, taking on Martha in a chameleonic performance. After her hiring, Vanity Fair reports that she insisted on her personal friend Sean Penn playing John. The resulting performance, and most obviously his appearance, are head-turning.
Sean Penn insisted on mirroring John Mitchell’s real-life look at any cost
Once Roberts convinced Gaslit creator Robbie Pickering to cast Penn, the tone of the show started to fall into place. Pickering and Penn dove into researching how to portray the beleaguered Attorney General. All signs pointed to the man being beloved by those close to him, full of warmth, and a source of constant jokes.
But Penn wanted to take things a step further than a light makeup job. He insisted on going the full prosthetic route, making a transformation not unlike Christian Bale’s unrecognizable turn as former Vice President Dick Cheney in Vice. The look is successful; Penn disappears into the prosthetics, which look natural in previews for Gaslit.
It comes at a time when actors have made a habit of undergoing visual transformations when playing real-life characters. Renee Zellweger plays convicted murderer Pam Hupp in the NBC series The Thing About Pam. She makes heavy use of prosthetics and a fatsuit to alter her face and weight. More in line with Gaslit‘s subject matter, Clive Owen also opted to wear prosthetics for American Crime Story: Impeachment last year, as Vulture reports.
The creator and cast of ‘Gaslit’ prioritize accuracy despite portraying a lesser-known angle on Watergate
The fascinating aspect of Gaslit, as with Slow Burn, is the way it leans into the personal lives of the people orbiting the early days of the Watergate scandal. The Mitchells are the main focus, but even the supporting figures are seen from the angle of their romantic lives, according to Deadline.
Betty Gilpin plays former stewardess Mo Dean, who meets White House Counsel John Dean — played by Dan Stevens, a late replacement for the beleaguered actor Armie Hammer — seemingly moments before the Watergate scandal erupts around him. There is pressure on him to become the fall guy for the whole thing, and Dean is not about to let that happen.
While many of these names receive only marginal attention in modern Watergate coverage, they were all major focuses of gossip, eventually making headline fodder for newspapers at the time.
Pickering carefully cast actors willing to dive into these characters as fully-formed, real people rather than blank slates to play around with. From early looks at the show, it seems he succeeded.