At 44 years old, actress Alanna Ubach has spent the last three decades honing her skills as a professional scene-stealer. There was her five-season starring run on Bravo’s Girlfriend’s Guide to Divorce, but also her brief turns as Marsha Brady’s closeted best friend in The Brady Bunch Movie, Elle Woods’s most boisterous sorority sister in Legally Blonde (a role she will reprise for the upcoming third film in the series), and the ribald single mother Suze in HBO’s Euphoria. (Think of Amy Poehler’s “cool mom” from Mean Girls, says the actress, but make it tragic.) But it’s the ripped-from-the-headlines drama Bombshell that makes for her most standout work of 2019.
Based on the 2016 ouster of former Fox News chief Roger Ailes amid a wave of sexual-misconduct accusations, Bombshell is stacked with famous faces. Nicole Kidman and Charlize Theron play Gretchen Carlson and Megyn Kelly, respectively, and then there’s Ashley Greene as Abby Huntsman, Alice Eve as Ainsley Earhardt, and Marc Evan Jackson as Chris Wallace. But, true to form, it’s Ubach’s Jeanine Pirro that will make your eyes go wide. The actress practically transforms into a walking declarative sentence for the part, demanding the women of Fox pledge fealty to Ailes, her words hitting harder than the heinous prints on her dresses.
Considering Pirro’s whole broadcast shtick exists at a level so hyperbolic as to approach self-parody, Ubach says she had to be careful not to push her depiction of the infotainment anchor into sketch-comedy territory. But how, specifically, did she prepare to become President Donald Trump’s favorite TV judge? The actress spoke to Vulture before Bombshell’s premiere about channeling the verve of a Fox News lifer, what Jeanine Pirro looks like when she has indigestion, and what she thinks the Ailes ally would do if the two women ever met on the street.
I didn’t realize you were playing Judge Jeanine in this movie, but as soon as I saw you appear onscreen I knew who you were.
It’s funny. I sometimes think to myself, I wonder if she’ll ever watch this film, or if Megyn Kelly will watch the film. I often wonder what it would be like to run into Jeanine. She’d probably sock me in the face. “That’s for the nuances!”
How was it filming inside a re-created Fox News?
Two and a half weeks on a set like this, it was very serious, because the stakes are so high. It was very different than most sets I’ve worked on. I kept pinching myself the whole time, because it was one bucket-list check after another.
How did you come to the part?
It was an audition. I was in Washington, D.C., and I got a call from my manager saying, “Oh, you have an audition for the new Charles Randolph movie directed by Jay Roach.” And I thought, “Oh, well I guess I have 24 hours to get my Jeanine Pirro act together.” I had no idea who she was, but I Googled her and I thought two things: Patricia Heaton better be unavailable, and I need a spray tan. So, I went and got the eggshell pantyhose, the false eyelashes. That was all very important. Then I went to Marshall’s and went on a Republican shopping spree. Putting her together was the fun part, and I thought, “Well, if I don’t get this role, at least I know I have a Halloween outfit.”
Looking back, was it a good thing that you had so little time and therefore couldn’t overthink it, or would you have felt more confident going into the audition with more prep?
If I had more time to rehearse, she probably would have come across as an SNL character. I had to audition for this twice, because I think when I walked in, I was too much of a character. I was really concentrating on her voice, and they had me do a news broadcast that I was able to Google, so I just copied it verbatim. Jay Roach called me a couple of days later and said, “I’m going to bring you back.” It’s a very delicate procedure with this character, because we don’t want to go the SNL route. That’s when we’ll get in trouble.
So how did the second audition change?
When I went on the second audition, I thought, Okay, I’m going to get rid of it all. I’m going to get rid of the false eyelashes. I’m going to get rid of all of the eye makeup. Who is she on a Sunday at the supermarket? So I ended up going to Banana Republic and I asked the salesperson, [yelling] “Do you know Jeanine Pirro?!” He was like, “Yes I do,” and I said, “I have to look like her on an off day.” He goes, “Well, I’m sure she’s a golfer.” So we went around to get some white jeans, a button down with little elephants printed on the front, these sensible flats. I think that’s pretty much what convinced them. I also sent an email to Jay Roach and I said, “Listen, I know what it’s like to be a petite brunette constantly having to prove herself in the midst of all of these models, these Barbie dolls in Los Angeles.” I mean, they make me feel like a biological mishap. I know that mentality, that insecurity. It’s their personas that the public appreciates on a daily basis, but to actually peel the layers back and see who this woman is behind closed doors. What does she look like when she gets her mail? Who is she when she has indigestion? You know, who is the stinky, smelly Jeanine Pirro? And that’s the woman I had to discover. What goes on internally with a person who is defending a predator?
She’s described as the founding member of Team Roger in this movie, for her loyalty to him.
Of course, and she’s an a Trumpista to boot! These women fascinate me, but the only logical answer I can give is that it was a generational thing. She was a lot older than the other women who decided to bring Roger Ailes to justice. I’m 44 and she was, I believe, in her 60s when all of this went down. This is a woman who was a teenager in the ’60s, a Lebanese Catholic. Her mother was a department-store model and her father was a hardworking Lebanese immigrant, and they lived in upstate New York and she went to Catholic school. I thought she must have felt marginalized from the time she was a kid. Growing up in upstate New York in the 1960s, I’m sure she was going to Catholic school surrounded by a bunch of Irish and Italians, and she probably always felt out of place.
So, you know, that insecurity, and then also the fact that she was a petite brunette. I thought, I can certainly relate to that, the insecurity of being short and having a little too much hair on your head, maybe a unibrow. She’s obscenely ambitious, and I’m thinking she just had so much to prove, and finally here comes Roger Ailes, who is the hand that makes her rich and famous and gives her everything she wants as far as validation is concerned. Why wouldn’t she defend him? He’s almost like a father figure.
So how, as Jeanine, did you find something defensible in Roger Ailes?The audition scene was the scene with Charlize Theron as Megan Kelly and I’m putting her in her place. I thought, “What would I defend?” And the immigration problem at the border that we have, I didn’t sleep for four days when those kids were getting separated at the border. I didn’t eat for two. My husband was like, “You have to see a therapist.” I just couldn’t believe this was happening, and I thought, “Oh, that’s what I’ll use. I’ll make Roger Ailes[’s allegations] that for her,” and that drove me throughout the entirety of shooting. Otherwise, I wouldn’t defend a man like that to save my life.
With something like this, where we know the people onscreen and we know the outcome, do you play an antagonist like Jeanine Pirro objectively or do you set out to play her as a villain, because we know for a fact she was on the wrong side of history with Ailes?
If you’re going to go swimming, you might as well get wet. That’s my mentality when it comes to building a character. You have to understand every single side of her, and — look, is this a woman that would be a best friend of mine? Would I spend Thanksgiving with Jeanine Pirro? Absolutely not. But I certainly understood aspects of her, and it’s so much fun to play someone that’s villainized. When I watch Anthony Hopkins play Hannibal Lecter, he looks like he was having such a good time! These are the roles that I’ve always wanted to play.