[INTERVIEW] Felicity Jones, Armie Hammer, Justin Theroux, Cailee Spaeny & Daniel Stieplman on the personal nature of ‘ON THE BASIS OF SEX’

Armie Hammer and Felicity Jones in ON THE BASIS OF SEX. Courtesy of Focus Features.

Courtney Howard // Film Critic

The legacy of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg looms large. Her success and notoriety are well-earned through her dedication and passionate drive to make the world a more equal place for humanity. Director Mimi Leder’s biopic, ON THE BASIS OF SEX gives voice to the formidable figure’s life story in a rousing, inspiring and empowering fashion.

Screenwriter Daniel Stiepleman, who’s Martin and Ruth Bader-Ginsburg’s nephew, was tapped to bring to life the origin story in a way no one else could. At the film’s recent Los Angeles press conference, he shared that it was a daunting task to tell such a personalized origin story.

For some people Ruth is like a really divisive character. For some people she is this super hero. For me, I just wanted her to be Aunt Ruth. I don’t think another writer would have been at home as much, with the family – that what was intriguing. It was knowing who they were together became sort of the heart of how I tell the story.

I was in this privileged position where I had them as role models and it helped my marriage, my career and it helped me be a better man and a better father – realizing that was something I could share with other people. Part of the joy of this project was getting to know her – and like in a really intimate, detailed way I probably I never would have otherwise. It’s nice that we now have a very close relationship, which I’m so grateful for.  I only wish I thought of it before Uncle Martin died.

Felicity Jones was eager to take on the challenge of playing the iconic public figure – and did her due diligence researching the role.

They were enormous shoes to fill, even though she has quite small feet. It was really intimidating. I was taking on one of the most beloved – and most iconic – women in history. I definitely didn’t take it on lightly. 

When you get sent a script like this you think, what’s the best way of approaching this? I get really obsessive about playing the part and doing research. We had footage of Ruth and Marty when they were much younger. Daniel, being Justice Ginsburg’s nephew, sent us that early footage, which was really vital. 

Instead of relying on footage to guide character construction, Justin Theroux, who plays ACLU legal director Mel Wulf, went with nailing the spirit of the real life person instrumental in RBG’s career.

I was incredibly lucky, because we couldn’t track Mel Wulf down. We couldn’t find him; we didn’t know where he was, we didn’t have pictures of him. In a weird way, the pressure’s off me, once we’ve done our research trying to find him, because I’m like, “All right.” It wasn’t like I was having to mimic anyone. I was able to sort of go with what I thought the spirit of the character was, as it was scripted. I wasn’t trying to accomplish a look. We just sort of tried to make him sort of the era and also just place him within the storyline.

Cailee Spaeny, who plays the Ginsburg’s teen daughter Jane, valued that she was able to have the creative freedom to find her character on the page. It also inspired her to take on more of a personal change.

It can also be sort of nice to have kind of an outline; it kind of gives you a direction to go to and it felt nice to have Daniel on set and you had this safety net, knowing that if you were kind of going out of the lines, that someone would be there to be like, “No, actually I know this person, I’m related to this person, you know, this is actually what it was like.” I trusted the people around me to kind of move me where I needed to be.

For me, it was more the spirit of Jane. I know what it’s like to have a complicated relationship with my mother and being a young teenager, being very passionate about something, very driven, is an exciting outlet for me to get all that stuff out.

Spaeny’s own activism was ignited whilst playing the daughter of a pioneering revolutionary.

She kind of lit a fire in me when it came to just be politically aware and that was really good for me. She taught me a lot.

Felicity Jones, Cailee Spaeny and Kathy Bates in ON THE BASIS OF SEX. Courtesy of Focus Features.

Speaking to that further, Theroux was hopeful that ON THE BASIS OF SEX would affect future change, stating,

I think the job is just to sort of try and tell these kinds of stories repeatedly, accurately and truthfully. You sort of hope that consciousness, as downstream of culture, that we can affect some kind of a change. I think that’s the reason for doing it. 

Jones added,

You kind of come out going, “Wow, there is hope for all of us.” That we can affect change in the world and that if we don’t like the way things are, we can come together and speak about it and do something to change it. 

Armie Hammer, playing taxation law expert and RBG’s supportive husband Martin Ginsburg,  said mentioned that the film’s importance can be found in the fact that it’s both timely and timeless.

It’s always important to sort of exalt the stories of people who change the world for the better. You never know where the zeitgeist is going to be by the time you finish a film. We got kind of lucky, or fortunate, with this one. It feels really prescient. There was a lot of work that went into sort of the development and the production of this story. The thing about this story is that it does feel timeless. I think that if it would have come out a couple of years ago or now, it would have felt equally important, because it’s an important story to tell.

Perhaps the only opinion of ON THE BASIS OF SEX that that matters is RBG’s. Her judgment holds the final say. Stiepleman shared a good anecdote about her reaction.

She loved the film. We screened it for her and it was sort of a terrifying thing, as you can imagine. The movie ends and she stood up and stormed out of the theater as soon as the movie ended and we were all like, “What happened?” Then everyone looked at me, because I’m supposed to find out. I went up to Jane Ginsburg who was there and I said, you know, “Is she okay?  Is everything all right?” and Jane looked at me and she said, “Yeah, she had to go to the bathroom.” She could have applauded or something first. 

She loved Armie and Felicity’s portrayal, she said, and I quote “I’m just so glad it’s Felicity.” She appreciated how much work went into getting look and the feel – that someone went and found the blueprints of the apartment they lived in, in the ’60s and recreated it onscreen. The amount of detail that went into recreating their lives — she was really appreciative of. 

Her big remark when she said, “I’m just so glad it’s joyous,” I mean she said, “That’s what the ’70s was like for me, like as a feminist was, you know, we weren’t angry all the time; we weren’t depressed. We felt like the world was changing for the better and we were at the forefront of that change. It was a really optimistic time,” and she felt like Mimi had captured that onscreen.

ON THE BASIS OF SEX is now playing in select cities. It opens everywhere on January 11. Read our review here.

About author

Courtney Howard

Courtney Howard is a LAFCA, CCA, OFCS and AWFJ member, as well as a Rotten Tomatometer-approved film critic. Her work has been published on Variety, She Knows and Awards Circuit.