SXSW Interview – Tommy O’Haver and Michael Chernus – The Most Hated Woman in America
I sat down to talk with director/writer Tommy O’Haver (An American Crime) and actor Michael Chernus (Orange is the New Black, Manhattan) about their upcoming Netflix film, The Most Hated Woman in America, which screened at SXSW. We discussed the casting and the separation of church and state.
Sarah: Why did you want to make another movie about a true story
Tommy: I had done An American Crime, it was seven years ago and we had just premiered at Sundance, and it wasn’t long after that that Elizabeth Banks and Max Handelman, the producers on The Most Hated Woman in America, had seen the film and they came to me and my writing partner, Irene Turner, with this story and said, “Hey, would you be interested in this?” And I read the story and said, “Absolutely.” It was a great story, and the true crime element was a big part of that. The true crime [story] is pretty remarkable, but it also just had an amazing character at the center. When I start writing something with Irene, a lot of the time it starts with that question of why did this person do what they did. It’s an exploration of a character, and she was a very complicated character. There is this whole cast of characters around her that started to take shape as well. They were equally fascinating.
S: How did you put the cast together, specifically Michael [Chernus]?
T: It started with Melissa Leo because I had seen her…It was really after The Fighter. I had seen her in The Fighter and thought, “Wow, she would make a great Madalyn Murray O’Hair.” We sent her the script immediately after that. She and I sat down for a lunch and hit it off, and she signed on. She stuck with us because it took a while to put this together. Michael and I met for a lunch in my neighborhood in Venice, and hit it off at that lunch. We ended up talking for a couple of hours, and when we started to finally move towards production, we called Michael back up, and said, “Hey we are actually making the movie now. Would you be interested.” Thank god he said yes.
Sarah: Did you take any offense to be cast as the not-so-smart (dumber) of the two brothers?
T: Definitely we played that up in the movie, but you [Michael] did some serious research on him.
Michael: I did. I really love Jon Garth Murray, and in the film…
S: He is not the favored one.
M: Yeah, he is not the favored one, for sure. Although he has this incredible, close, very co-dependent relationship with his mother, and, in truth, he was quite bright, very socially awkward and did speak with a speech impediment. And I also think, in part, due to his mother’s fame and infamy, he had a real hard time in school and was always sort of picked on. He was not the most socially-adept human being, but I think he was like Madalyn really smart actually. He was just not as capable in certain practical situations. No, I didn’t really take any offense at all. Playing interesting characters is the greatest part of being an actor for me. I’m not interested in playing pretty people or very one-dimensional characters. I think it is really fun to play really weird, out-of-the-box, complicated people.
T: And it was great because we had written him a little bit, at least in some of the drafts, where he was just the awkward goofball off to the side, and she was just constantly berating him, which I did think she did in real life, but you had come to me before you started shooting and you had done all of this research, and I think I had sent you some videos as well. It was just amazing to have actors bring these people to life in a much more fully rounded way than they were on the page. You actually really care for Garth. God, he is such a little sweetheart, the poor guy.
S: Can you talk a little about how Sally Kirkland came to be a part of this film?
T: She was on a list that Kerry Barden (casting director) had put together, and Melissa Leo called me up and said, “I heard that Sally wants to play the role and she said she would even be willing to come in and read.” Sally and Melissa had done a couple of readings in New York together and were pretty good friends. And specifically, Sally and Melissa had always wanted to work in a movie together. When they told me that I thought just go for it. Let them have at it.
S: Right now, religion has come back up, not that it ever went away, but it is more of an issue right now with the presidency. Madalyn wasn’t the most liked person, but she fought for religious freedom or freedom of beliefs. Can you speak on this film being released now? It is such good timing for it come out.
T: When Kim Davis, that clerk, I believe in Kentucky, who refused to marry gay couples because it was against her religion, and she really dug her feet in. Madalyn would have a heyday with this if she was around. And now with this Betsy DeVos, I think Madalyn would be having a heyday with her, too. It’s always there. It’s an issue that will always be with us, and sometimes it flares up and sometimes it goes away, but there is a clear division of beliefs in this country over this issue.
M: And there is a dangerous, even more than in Madalyn’s time, the influence that specifically the religious right has over political appointments, the election, over policy. There’s a movement, I don’t know if I have it right, the Johnson Act, the legislation that keeps non-profits from having a political mission statement or being able to have political stances or give to political campaigns.
T: I just read about that, too. You are absolutely right.
M: Churches in this country are under tax code non-profit organizations.
T: Trump said he wants to…
M: Trump says he wants to take it away, so that churches and religious organizations have a political voice. I think that is total garbage. I think it is really dangerous for religion of any kind, not just Christianity, to be involved in political decisions in this country, political policy. I just think that’s a really dangerous road to go down.