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Truth: Interview with Cate Blanchett, Topher Grace and James Vanderbilt

Image © Sony Pictures

London Calling discusses James Vanderbilt's directorial debut Truth with Cate Blanchett, Topher Grace and Vanderbilt himself.

Cate Blanchett, Topher Grace and James Vanderbilt speak to London Calling about their new film Truth – a gripping drama depicting the scandal that almost decided the 2004 US presidential election, but instead cost the journalists their jobs.

In 2004, two months before the presidential election, 60 Minutes broke a story destined to swing a tight outcome. Dan Rather presented evidence that George Bush lied about his military past – there was surely no turning back. However, when right-wing bloggers tore apart a key document’s authenticity, Rather and producer Mary Mapes soon lost their jobs. Bush was re-elected.

Mapes and her team otherwise corroborated that Bush not only abused family connections to shirk Vietnam duties, but for months went AWOL from his cushy National Guard post. So why did the conversation shift to the journalists involved? That’s the fervent question of Truth, a taut drama written and directed by James Vanderbilt, with an all-star cast: Cate Blanchett as Mapes and Robert Redford as Rather, alongside Topher Grace, Elisabeth Moss and Dennis Quaid playing researchers.

“I couldn’t believe this firebrand,” Blanchett remembers of meeting Mapes. “This ball of energy – incredible, amazingly intelligent, curious and hilarious.” The two-time Oscar winner channels these qualities into an electrifying portrayal of Mapes as a gutsy professional who’ll go behind bars to protect a source, but also a jittery journalist when her misjudgement is a national scandal.

Adapted from Mapes’ memoir, Truth orbits around Blanchett’s performance and her depiction of a living person. Did this affect the Australian actress? “I’ve never seen my job, whether playing Blanche DuBois or Mary Mapes, as asking for an audience’s sympathy. Everyone’s flawed – Mary’s the first person to say that about herself. I’m flawed. I’m sure you have flaws.” She laughs. “The job is to find what makes them tick, and then play them in the freight train that is this story.”

The “freight train” Blanchett refers to is Vanderbilt’s script. Already the acclaimed screenwriter of Zodiac and The Amazing Spider-Man, Vanderbilt knew his directorial debut would be Truth. “About 10 years ago,” he recalls, “I started to think about it seriously, and part of that was working with David Fincher.” During this period, he witnessed writing buddies allowed to direct once, but never again. “That’s what made me really want to do this film, because I had this feeling of: if I only get one shot at the plate, what do I want to take a swing at?”

Not that anyone would guess Vanderbilt is a first-time director. To prepare, he brought a notepad to two-hour lunches with filmmakers he admired. For years, he accumulated experience on sets as a producer for movies he’d written. “I got into producing primarily because I realised that they’re less likely to fire you as the writer if they know you’re still going to be there the next day. It was almost a weird self-preservation.”

Vanderbilt acknowledges casting Redford conjures up memories of All the President’s Men, widely regarded as the greatest portrayal of news reporting in cinema. Topher Grace agrees. “To do that with Robert Redford,” the actor grins, “it was amazing to do a journalistic thriller, but also have the character that gets the paranoid point of view.” He plays Mike Smith, a 60 Minutes researcher sent chasing sources and placing phone calls.

Grace opted not to meet Smith beforehand. “I had a bad experience in the past,” he admits. “It coloured my performance in a way that wasn’t helpful.” Instead, he and Smith exchanged messages once filming was over. “I emailed with him afterwards and apologised that he’ll forever be kind of linked with me – the guy from That ‘70s Show.”

In contrast, Blanchett chatted at length beforehand with Mapes. What did they discuss? “Stupid, irrelevant things an audience will never know. Like, ’What’s inside your handbag?’ We were Skyping and she showed me her friend’s dog that she was babysitting.”

On more pressing details, the actress essentially became the journalist, quizzing Mapes on her life, career and being a successful outsider in the industry. “Certainly the brief intense period she was putting this story together and the subsequent demise.” Did she have this type of access for I’m Not There? “I couldn’t reach Bob Dylan. I’ve never met him.”

As for why Truth is released now and not, say, closer to its 2004 setting, Blanchett explains the themes are universal. “In the same way that All the President’s Men isn’t about the Washington Post or Nixon, this is not about CBS or Bush. It’s about the atmosphere and lengths to which people will go to get a story.” She adds, “The only reason to re-examine something that happened in the past is if it has contemporary relevance. In the wake of this scandal – which is a very particular pocket of American media history – it’s gone unexamined.”

Vanderbilt supports this notion. He wrote Truth a decade ago (“the first draft is not that different from the film you saw”) but held back after early reactions obsessed over the topicality. “People were perceiving the film to be about President Bush because he was still in office. I kept saying it’s not about Bush; it’s about journalism.”

A film school grad, Vanderbilt’s dream was to write scripts. “I was surrounded by all these students who looked at screenwriting as a stepping stone to directing. I immediately didn’t like that.” He was told directing is an expansion of screenwriting. “It’s a complete lie. Screenwriting is sitting in a room alone and making stuff up. Directing is standing in a giant room with 100 people starting at you all the time and asking questions.” Fittingly, he once considered journalism “It’s a noble profession. It’s giving information. It’s telling stories. It’s the same sort of thing.”

Even so, cinema and the news world hold their own unique spheres of celebrity. Grace felt it when sitting next to the real Dan Rather at a screening. “I think he was crying at one point. To watch it with him was crazy.”

According to Blanchett, Mapes isn’t bitter. “She alternated between rage and despair.” the actress reckons. “Journalists aren’t in the legal profession. Their job is to ask the questions. She felt the questions were getting lost. But she’s moved on. Still, the resultant wound of your reputation being decimated and your career being destroyed… the wound’s still there. I think the wound’s still there for CBS.”

Interestingly, CBS – Mapes’ employer for 15 years until the incident – refuses to run adverts for Truth. “I think it’s curious,” Blanchett says out of politeness.

Grace hopes viewers leave cinemas pondering the shifting media landscape. “If the news makes money, are you getting the truth if certain stories make more money?” Similarly, Vanderbilt recognises the Killian documents moment stemmed from the pressure of 24-hour news. “This story was the first time the internet really rose up and changed a news story and the trajectory of it, and started the backlash – which is something now we deal with every day.”

For Blanchett, the film industry faces a parallel battle with the online world. She mentions “supposedly creative organisations” whose casting decisions are influenced by Instragram followers. “But when I was starting out, if an actress wore a certain dress, she’d get a lot of photographs taken and would be more castable.” She adds, “I’m not full of despair. But it certainly has changed enormously since I was first involved.”

Still, with Truth, Blanchett delivers a performance up there with her memorable turns in Carol and Blue Jasmine. It doesn’t matter if she’s not on Instagram. Who else could have played the role, apart from perhaps Mapes herself? Flourishing with Vanderbilt’s dialogue and direction, the actress clearly appreciates the opportunity.

“I played Elizabeth I, and then I got sent a swath of scripts – leading parts – which were basically telling the same story in different costumes,” she recalls. “So when a director asks you to do something that they haven’t seen you do before and they’re prepared to take a risk on you, I don’t care whether I’ve got three lines or a 30-page monologue. You’ll do that for that director.”


Truth is out at UK cinemas on 4 March 2016.