How Julia Roberts and Sean Penn Created the Spark of ‘Gaslit’

Their marriage is like Watergate,” Gaslit creator Robbie Pickering says of John and Martha Mitchell, played by Sean Penn and Julia Roberts in his retelling of the Nixon administration scandal. John Mitchell, the president’s attorney general, became infamous after Watergate, but even prior to that he and Martha were notorious around Washington as a hurricane of a couple. “Their marriage was fun to watch and fun to be in but also horrible,” Pickering says, comparing it to the thrill felt by all the president’s men. “Fascism is fucking fun for a while! That’s why people do it!”

Courtesy Hilary Bronwyn Gayle/STARZ ENTERTAINMENT.

Gaslit takes a fresh approach to Watergate by focusing on two couples, the second being John and Maureen Dean, played by Dan Stevens and Betty Gilpin. “We’re going into the show assuming nobody cares about Watergate, nobody’s nostalgic for it,” Pickering says. “I designed the show with Watergate as a backdrop showing the trajectory of these two relationships.”

Courtesy Hilary Bronwyn Gayle/STARZ ENTERTAINMENT.

This scene from the first episode of Gaslit is the audience’s introduction to the Mitchells. John has walked in on Martha giving an unauthorized interview that he quickly clocks is an effort to undermine first lady Pat Nixon. Pickering believes that Martha, who eventually spoke out against the Nixon administration, was driven by “a fundamental jealousy of the hold Nixon had on her husband.” But the scene also shows the hold she had on John. “You see the side of John Mitchell where he worships his wife and he hates her,” Pickering says. “It’s just such a juicy, funny, sad, tragic, romantic thing.”

Courtesy Hilary Bronwyn Gayle/STARZ ENTERTAINMENT.


Capturing Martha’s early ’70s fame was a challenge that could only be solved through casting. Pickering says of Roberts, “You have this shorthand of a person who has been one of the most famous actresses in the world for 30 years.”


Martha has been giving an interview to the Ladies’ Home Journal, part of an unofficial press campaign that the Nixon administration has wildly mixed feelings about. “Think of Martha like every conservative Fox News celebrity rolled into one,” Pickering says. “She was more famous than Nixon. They wanted her out doing press for them, but she was such a loose cannon they tried to tightly control it.”


Despite the heavy prosthetics, Penn’s rapport with Roberts emerges as the scene turns sexual. “They had wanted to work together for decades,” Pickering says of the stars. “You’re witnessing real chemistry onscreen between them, and the real warmth that Sean does feel for Julia.”


The Mitchells’ envy of the Nixons is made clear here in this scene. “It’s a source of drama between them, which means it’s a source of both cruel games and sexual games,” Pickering says. “It serves this dual function of being corrosive in their relationship but also fueling it in a way.”


“I think that both of the Mitchells had a pretty ruddy sense of humor,” Pickering says. “Reading all I have about Martha, I don’t doubt that she made jokes about Pat Nixon’s lack of proficiency pleasing her husband.”


The revelation that Mitchell’s bodyguard is still in the room sets the tone for Gaslit’s humorous, human-focused view of the past. “I don’t want another solemn story about great men and great women of history,” Pickering says. “I want something fun that I can relate to, which is tragic and funny and sad.”

Gaslit — 101 Final Script

MARTHA The Bay of Pigs was a misunderstanding. This is an encroachment.

MITCHELL For fuck’s sake.

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