Julia Roberts returns to TV in Watergate-era series ‘Gaslit’

NEW YORK — Julia Roberts says she was so overjoyed at the sight of Sean Penn arriving on the set of their TV series “Gaslit,” that she nearly caused her wardrobe to malfunction.

“He came in all his hair and makeup and disguise, and I was so excited that I ran to hug him and I was running with such speed that between my body and his body, I just bounced on him, I can’t believe his head didn’t come off his costume,” Roberts said. “We were laughing so hard.”

Penn plays John Mitchell, the former attorney general under Richard Nixon. Roberts is his wife, Martha Mitchell, known as “the mouth of the south,” a talk show regular who listened in on her husband’s phone conversations and briefed reporters on gossip about Washington’s elite. Her loose lips were considered such a problem that her husband ordered security to keep her in a hotel room for 24 hours after the Watergate hotel burglary. Mitchell claimed they removed the phones and TV and she was assaulted and injected with a tranquilizer to stop her trying to leave. The ordeal was so traumatic that it led to his eventual breakup and the end of the couple’s marriage.

“Gaslit,” which debuts Sunday, isn’t just another retelling of the Watergate scandal, but instead focuses on lesser-known stories from the era, like that of Martha Mitchell. The show is based on the first season of the “Slow Burn” podcast hosted by Leon Neyfakh.

Roberts, who is also an executive producer, was interested in “the idea that we can dig into something that’s part of American history and show people things that they didn’t know at all, or thought they knew. but maybe they were bad.”

She feels protective of Mitchell’s legacy and hopes viewers see beyond the big personality’s exterior.

“She had a stutter. She was dyslexic. She had a lot of anxiety talking in front of people, which you would never see when you look at pictures of her. She’s so witty, quick and lively, and she doesn’t miss a beat. It’s impossible to believe she was nervous in front of people, and yet she really was. It really paralyzed her, and I think that’s one of the things that caused her to drink excessively before some of these performances – because they were really performances – it was really not her personality deep down.”

“Gaslit” also gives a literal voice to Maureen “Mo” Dean, the wife of White House adviser John Dean.

Maureen Dean, a striking blonde-haired woman, was a regular on camera at the Watergate hearings, sitting stoically and silently behind her husband as he testified.

Betty Gilpin plays Maureen Dean in “Gaslit” (with Dan Stevens as John) and says she’s surprised by her research on the show.

“My dad was a huge Watergate boss and was obsessed with ratings and always telling me how glued everyone was to TV. I was ready to watch this exciting series that I couldn’t take my eyes off of.” Instead, she found, “It’s the driest, most boring (thing) and drones.”

This realization gave Gilpin a window into her character and the public’s fascination with this young woman in the background on their television.

“I feel like the cameraman said to me, ‘Look at this beautiful blonde. I’m going to frame her because you have to keep the viewers.'”

The Maureen Dean seen in “Gaslit” is more than just a woman alongside her man, but an informed person with strong opinions on the administration who will not hesitate to check the ego of her husband if necessary.

“Our show is taking creative license, and it’s not, you know, an exact transcript of what happened,” said Gilpin, who also read the 1975 memoir “Mo: A Woman’s View of Watergate ” for preparing. “I wanted to honor the real Mo Dean, while taking my own license and creating a three-dimensional person.”

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