“Gaslit” kicks off Sunday night on Starz, showcasing lesser known stories from those around the Watergate scandal, including outspoken whistleblower Martha Mitchell, the wife of Richard Nixon’s attorney general-turned-campaign manager John Mitchell.
The drama, starring Julia Roberts as Martha and Sean Penn as John, comes from executive producer Robbie Pickering (“Mr. Robot”), who told TheWrap he had been wanting to do a story set in the Nixon era for quite some time.
“I always wanted to do a show about the culture around Nixon, and nobody was really interested for many, many years,” Pickering said. “[For] about 10 or 12 years, I tried to pitch a show like that. Then, just when I’m going to give up, the podcast ‘Slow Burn’ comes along and really centers [on] Martha Mitchell, who I knew about.
“She’s really tangential and sidelined in a lot of the histories of the period and it kind of gave me the springboard I needed in Hollywood to get this project going,” he continued. “And centering it on Martha was just such a great idea for Leon [Neyfakh] to do in the podcast, and for our show, and centering it on the relationship between John and Martha was the way to do it.”
To paint the dramatic portrait of Martha — who at the time was well-known for being outspoken and was one of the first whistleblowers around Watergate calling out what she said were “dirty tricks” in political campaigns — Pickering said he thought about people he met while growing up in Texas.
“Martha’s based on a lot of church ladies I grew up with and a lot of them were big, brash ladies and then you get them alone, and they talk about how much they wish their husbands still loved them or something like that,” Pickering said. “Just these sad things from these women who seemed invincible in church and then in public.”
Martha’s “kind of her superpower and her super weakness,” Pickering said, “was … she couldn’t shut up about the truth. And she’s just one of those people who, always honest, always speaking the truth as loud as she can, even when it’s inconvenient, and even when it’s obnoxious, and even when it’s unnecessary.”
A starring vehicle for Roberts and Penn, Pickering said Roberts was actually the first actor on board for the project.
“We sent it to Julia and she said, ‘I’ll do it if Sean will do it,’ because they’d always wanted to be in something together. And boom, we got that. And if you’ve got Julia [Roberts] and Sean Penn, it’s like, people want to act with them because they’re legends and they’re not only legends, they’re still writing their legend.”
“Gaslit” also stars Dan Stevens as White House counsel John Dean, Betty Gilpin as Mo Dean, Shea Whigham as G. Gordon Liddy and Darby Camp as Marty Mitchell.
“Gaslit” airs Sunday nights at 8 p.m. ET/PT on Starz.