The true story follows Hart from his start as the overwhelming presidential “front-runner” in the 1988 election, to his exit from the race due to rumors of an extramarital affair with a young woman by the name of Donna Rice, played by actress Sara Paxton. The Knockturnal had the opportunity to sit down with Paxton to discuss how she came to know the story of Gary Hart, how she prepared for the role of Donna, and the film’s influence on politics and media.
“A couple years ago, I was listening to this podcast called RadioLab,” she recalled, “and they were doing an episode on Donna Rice, and Gary Hart, and the whole scandal, and I’m driving and I was like, ‘Wow, this is so fascinating. This is a fascinating story. How come more people don’t know about this? Why is this the first time I’m hearing about this?’ And then the year after that I got the script for The Front Runner, and I was really excited because I was like, ‘Oh, I know this story already. I’m familiar.’”
On portraying a living person, Paxton was concerned with authentically presenting her character on-screen. “I was curious about it when I read it because 30 years ago she was kind of portrayed as this one dimensional person, kind of a caricature, and so I was mostly concerned with capturing the empathy of this woman in this situation. When I got the role and I was researching, and I was trying to find as much information as I could find on her, it was kinda tough because there’s not really a lot out there. This is a really big responsibility, it’s a big deal that she’s alive, she’s a real person, she can hear what I’m saying, watch my performance, and what if I don’t get it right? What if it’s not accurate and she doesn’t like it,” she worried.
“But to hear that she saw the movie and loves the movie is just such a relief. [Our director] Jason showed her the movie, and I heard that she loved it, and that she was really happy with my portrayal of Donna. And so that’s just like the most gratifying thing because she’s the critic that I was the most nervous about. The character was written with such respect, and dignity, and empathy, and I felt like she had the voice that she didn’t have, couldn’t have 30 years ago.”
“What I really like about this movie is that it really does put you in the place of these characters,” Paxton shared. “That scene when you’re going down the escalator, and there’s the feeding frenzy at the bottom, I found my heart actually pounding, wow. What did this woman go through in that era, in that time? We still have frenzied reporters out there and everything, but now it’s in a different place, on the internet as well.”
Having been born in 1988 Paxton relied on prior research and news to gain the context needed for her performance. “Before I was even cognizant of the news, it was already similar to what it is now. It was already the 24 hour news cycle. It was already moving really quickly, and that time CNN was in its infancy, I think. To think that this story was such a big deal, and at the time, it wasn’t so groundbreaking. Now, our president uses Twitter. Things have changed so much. It is crazy to think about. I don’t know if we’re better off or worse off.”
Where some audience members may want to watch The Front Runner and pass judgment on Hart or compare it to the current state of politics and media, Paxton feels that the film’s job isn’t so much to decide as to inform. “It’s not making a call on these things, but when you watch the movie, you’re forced to ask the questions. It asks the questions and you’re forced to think about it, and deal with it, and discuss.”