We spoke to the star of the Ruth Bader Ginsburg biopic, On the Basis of Sex, about anger, feminism and playing an icon.
RD: As a Brit, how much did you know about Ruth and her work before you became attached to the project?
FJ: I actually didn’t know a great deal about her. The first time I heard about her was from my mother, who had been listening to a radio programme. She said to me, 'I’ve been hearing about this extraordinary woman in the US', and then about a year later I received the script. I read it in one sitting and [taking the project] was such an absolute no brainer.
It’s such a wonderful story but also at the centre of it was this woman who kept having doors slammed in her face and had to overcome so much adversity. There was such a kind of fighter punk spirit in her that meant I just had to do it.
Ruth is such an icon. But when you met her, what humanised her for you?
I think it was the vulnerability with which she set out. The image of her we know now, as an 85-year-old woman, is one that’s very strong and has been turned into all sorts of cultural iconography, but when she was starting out I was fascinated by the question of how someone becomes that person. What are the stresses and strains and pushes and pulls on them that mean they can succeed? And who was this woman in her twenties and thirties? What was it that defined her?
I think it was the level of injustice that she experienced, which made her think this shouldn’t be like this, we need to change this, which then consequently meant that it could be much better for many other people.
Her shyness was also very intriguing. She's not an incredible extrovert. You imagine that bombastic person who is shouting from the tower tops, but her message is very careful, very judicious. She thinks keenly before she speaks, she knows how effective and how powerful language is and she has an incredible mind. All of those things are just wonderful to play.
Did you relate to Ruth's moments of vulnerability?
I definitely understood her fight and her push. When I'm reading scripts and feeling like it's lazy writing, where characters are given motivations that don't quite scan for me. Particularly in the early days where there wasn't the same attention on female characters as there is now.
One also has to be very circumspect in the way that you do that because there’s a traditional idea of a hysterical woman that’s been in our history for many many years, and there’s still a hangover of that. There’s a certain feeling that you shouldn’t speak too much in a working environment and that what you say has to be incredible otherwise you won’t be listened to next time. It's almost like things you say have to go through this filter before it comes out. And recently I’ve been not doing that, which has been far more fun. All those things Ruth had to navigate I still think we’re navigating now.
Apparently the monologue you deliver towards the end of the film is the longest a woman has ever performed on screen…
It is one of the longest. To have a woman occupy the screen for that long is a novel thing. I think there are many things in this film that we’re not used to seeing which are quite revolutionary. Particularly the ending, where this woman triumphs professionally and gets to walk off into the sunset with her relationship intact. We don’t see that very often. Usually, the heroine has to die or sacrifice her relationship in order to be able to deal with her success, but this is about how men and women can work together to make that better landscape for women.
So I think it on the surface it’s an easy watch, but within it, there’s a great sort of revolution.
The film was in production around the time that #MeToo really came to the fore. Did that affect the atmosphere on set?
It definitely gave more force to the words that we were saying, particularly my final speech, having monitored and watched and seen these revelations come through.
I think it just showed us how important the message of the film was and just how much inequality there had been and how much abuse had been in the industry as well. I hope that with the greater transparency which technology has given us, we will see a changing industry.
Something many women will relate to in the film is the lengths Ruth was forced to go to conceal her anger, even though that was such a motivator for her.
Oh, anger was an enormous drive [for Ruth], and I think she harnessed that anger. Now she can be outspoken because she’s built on that reputation and she can be much more herself, but in the early days she had to be much more careful about her anger.
When I listened to early recordings of her, I could see how she manipulated her anger and had to suppress it. Occasionally it comes out in certain comments when she’s listening to these nonsensical judges saying absolute tosh about the perception of men and women, but she was very moderate and still is in many ways.
Ruth likes to bring people together and find the middle way and find a way of bringing people onside, which was how she was able to make sure these laws were immovable. She argued it very gradually and very carefully which obviously seems quite old fashioned in our times where we like really quick change. But her patience is quite extraordinary.
"I think women’s issues are not just women’s issues and men have to be able to deal with that"
It's so tricky [for women] to keep in anger and I don’t like it that when it comes out, it’s something you then have to worry about. I’m so over self-censorship.
That’s why it’s so important that men have to adapt. I think women’s issues are not just women’s issues and men have to be able to deal with that, they have to be able to respond to women in a way where we can be expressive and not be threatened about it. And I think Marty [Ginsburg, played by Armie Hammer] is such a revelation as a masculine [role] model because he’s not threatened by his wife’s success, and time and time again we have heard these old stories of women being successful professionally and men not being able to bear it.
It gives you hope that men and women can be successful on their own terms.
You got married last year, congratulations. Did learning about Ruth and Marty's relationship affect your approach to married life at all?
I think it just gives you enormous confidence, seeing the template of someone like Ruth and Marty.
Both Armie and I have very equal relationships with our partners, all four of us are very in love with what we do, work is a huge part of our identities, and I think when people see the film they'll see there’s hope that two strong people can exist in a marriage.
And as we're speaking on Valentine's Day, what's your favourite romantic film?
I love A Room with A View. I’m a real Merchant Ivory fan so that’s one that I come to time and time again. I love the Italian backdrop and I’m a big fan of Helena Bonham Carter so it’s all the things I love in one film
On the Basis of Sex is in cinemas now
Loading up next...