LOS ANGELES—Is she going to be hot?
That’s the question a studio executive asked Sandra Bullock about the lead character in a project she was pitching well into her Hollywood career.
“I looked at him and I go, ‘Well, it is me, so you get what you get. You do realize that I’m pitching this for me?'” recalled Bullock in a recent interview. “He goes, ‘Yeah, but I want to know, like, what is she going to wear?'”
Things have gotten a little better since then. In “Our Brand is Crisis,” out Oct. 30, Bullock plays a role originally written for a man, and no one checked in to see whether or not the savvy political consultant character was going to be a bombshell, too.
But this is the exception. Bullock’s conversation with the studio executive remains an all too familiar scene for actresses in Hollywood, where sexist presumptions are ingrained in the culture.
Then there’s the matter of substance with roles for women. Bullock can’t remember how many times she’s had to listen to a writer try to explain how “the wife” is really the heart of the movie.
“I know what that means. That means you’re going to be underwritten and you’re just going to be the wife waking up in bed with the husband and making the coffee,” she said. “If you say that I’m the heart of the piece, I’m going to [expletive] clock you.”
That’s why Bullock and her agent started looking at roles for men. After all, male characters don’t always have to be likable. Their comedies don’t have to be of the romantic variety. And the first question from studio executives probably isn’t going to be “Is he hot?”
When Bullock read the unproduced screenplay for “Our Brand is Crisis,” she decided to call longtime friends George Clooney and producer Grant Heslov to see if there was any chance they might consider her for the lead—an amoral, Sun Tzu-quoting political consultant who’s come out of retirement for a showdown with an old rival. They said yes.
To adapt the part, they changed around some pronouns, they gave the character a woman’s name, and they added some sexual innuendos with her foe (Billy Bob Thornton). But overall, it remained as originally written.
Part of that is the strength of screenwriter Peter Straughan’s script, said Thornton. The transition from male to female was easy because it was never a type to begin with—the gender was almost incidental.
“I tend as a writer to not identify characters unless there’s a reason for it,” said Thornton. “[Straughan] wrote it as a person.”
From there, director David Gordon Green and his actors could focus on the big ideas in this satirical story about a failing Bolivian presidential candidate and the American lackeys hired to try to manipulate his image and a country for the win.
As someone whose father worked in the Pentagon, Bullock understands the allure of stories about the underbelly of politics. The do-anything candidates and unscrupulous mercenaries in “Our Brand is Crisis” are especially resonant now, she notes.
“You watch a debate and you watch these people doing their thing—even if it’s a candidate you like—you watch them just [expletive] people. You see it so clearly,” said Thornton. “When Donald Trump says, ‘First of all, I respect women, I love women.’ It’s like, you start with that? That means you don’t!”
But for Bullock, it wasn’t simply about politics.
“It’s about selling. It’s about how we as a culture have become so obsessed about what the win is for us. It’s about how lost in the win we may have gotten, even to the detriment of our own soul and to the detriment of, in this case, an entire body of people. And who would be willing to step off that carousel and sacrifice your own creature comforts for the greater good?” said Bullock.
“That had been on my mind for a couple of years and then this story came along. It was echoing what I was feeling—have we lost that? We as a people, we’re such a beautiful, strong, opinionated country. I want to see people gather together from different, diverse environments to go, ‘This is our job to help each other. Period.'”
“Our Brand is Crisis” is one of those films that seems perfectly attuned to this moment. While the producers knew they wanted to release it during the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign, they couldn’t have imagined how prescient the gender swapping choice would have been to the ongoing conversation about equal opportunities for women—from roles to wages.
“Hopefully, while I’m still alive, we get to see women just treated better. My question is, wage equality, yes, that should be obvious. But the bigger picture to me is why are we thought of as less than, in general,” said Bullock.
“I don’t know where my roads are going, but all I can say is it’s my responsibility to make it easier for someone else because so many women made it easier for me,” said Bullock, one of the highest-paid actresses in the industry. “As a group, a unified group, I hope the change is coming. And it’s not just Hollywood. It’s everywhere.”