Julia Roberts and Sean Penn Have Been Waiting for a Show Like ‘Gaslit’

Some collaborations are worth the wait. For the first time in their formidable careers, Oscar-winning pals Julia Roberts and Sean Penn starred opposite each other as married couple Martha Mitchell and John N. Mitchell in Starz’s new Watergate drama, Gaslit. The pair walked the red carpet arm in arm at Monday night’s premiere at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, telling VF that working together made the experience of bringing the ’70s scandal to a modern audience that much more meaningful. “It’s the together part,” Roberts exclusively told VF on the Gaslit red carpet. “That’s the real key for me.”

“There is literally no Martha without John—the good, the bad, the sad of that statement,” she continued. “And so to have my sandbox partner be this guy, it was a dream come true.”

Sean Penn and Julia Roberts

Theo Wargo/Getty Images for STARZ

Penn echoed the sentiment, telling VF that he and Roberts had been waiting years to collaborate. “We’d known each other for a very long time, and some projects had come close,” Penn told VF “Then we got to do something that was this rich the first time out.”

Patrick Walker and Patton Oswalt

ANGELA WEISS/AFP via Getty Images

Gaslit takes a fresh look at the Watergate scandal, centering key players whose voices have historically been sidelined—people like Martha Mitchell and Frank Wills, the Black security guard who helped catch the Watergate intruders. “People know about the Watergate scandal, but they don’t know who did it,” said Patrick Walker, who portrays Wills in the series. “They don’t know it was a Black man. A lot of people don’t know the inside story.”

Like Walker, many of Gaslit‘s actors were shocked to learn more of the facts as they shot the series. “[Gaslit has] the same tension and paranoia of All the President’s Men, The Parallax View, Three Days of the Condor—but being closer to what the history was, it’s actually sillier and dumber,” said comedian Patton Oswalt, who plays Richard Nixon crony Chuck Colson. “The actual stuff was so inept and clumsy. It was that embarrassing. This felt like a bunch of dudes scribbling on a napkin in a Wendy’s going, ‘So this is how we subvert democracy, I guess.’”

Roberts, too, said her understanding of Watergate was turned on its head after getting involved in the series. “I think I learned everything,” Roberts said, after diving into Mitchell. “I was the school of Alan Pakula’s Watergate, All the President’s Men. That was really the sum of my parts, so this was a brave new world for me.”

Marine Ireland

Jamie McCarthy

Diving in meant going beyond the usual cast of characters associated with Watergate and highlighting new perspectives like that of Judy Hoback, the accountant who served as a crucial investigative source on Watergate. She’s played in Gaslit by Tony nominee Marine Ireland. “You never learn her name in All the President’s Men,” says Ireland of Hoback, who was only known as “the bookkeeper” in the seminal ’70s film. “Judy, she’s an American hero.”

Betty Gilpin—who stars on the series as Mo Kane Dean, the savvy wife of Watergate whistleblower John Dean, portrayed by Dan Stevens—spoke to VF about the importance of telling well-worn stories from a different point of view. “I think that in American cinema and television, in particular, we like to pretend we’re telling the full story of a national error or mistake or evil, but only tell it through the eyes of the heroes that fixed it all, and thereby kind of excuse ourselves from accountability,” said Gilpin. “I think that this is a really honest look at what happened and the voices that were silenced in real time. Martha Mitchell was telling the truth from the jump, and Frank Wills, who was the security guard who discovered the Watergate break-in, he changed the course of history, and I never knew his name before the series.”

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