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Willa Fitzgerald on her Watergate thriller 18½: ‘We live in a very different political atmosphere’

These are scandalous times but hope can be drawn from history, says Reacher and The Fall of the House of Usher star Willa Fitzgerald

The Watergate break-ins took place in June 1972. In retrospect, the prototype of political scandals now seems pretty tame 50 years on.

Outrageous, shameful behaviour from our leaders became routine. That was just how President Trump, and his British tribute act Boris Johnson, did business. The president complicit in orchestrating a break-in to a rival’s HQ to wiretap their phones? That would be one of the least serious offences Trump committed during his time in office. Compared to inciting a mob to riot through the offices of government, what’s the big deal?

“I know, and that’s the shocking thing,” says US actress Willa Fitzgerald, best known for her breakout role as Roscoe in Reacher, this year’s punchy TV adaptation of Lee Child’s detective novels. “We clearly live in a very different political atmosphere in which things that would have been absolutely decried in the Seventies are now just treated as: ‘well, you know, it happens’.

“In looking back, I think what a lot of people are searching for is a sense of comfort. This terrible thing happened that shook everyone’s faith in the highest office in the country, and yet, we all banded together, we persevered through and democracy prevailed.

“There’s a hope of being able to understand where we’re going. But I don’t necessarily know if that’s true – we’re living through it right now – and I think the future is a lot less clear.”

Trump may have lost his re-election – and Johnson is haemorrhaging ministers while Fitzgerald is speaking to The Big Issue – but what of their legacy? In the US, the overturning of Roe vs Wade has put human rights back decades and the ongoing January 6 hearings are a constant reminder of divisions that exist in the country. Will replacing Johnson be a healing process or will it reopen old wounds?

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Fitzgerald’s new film fits in perfectly with such tortured times. In 18½ she plays Connie, a Nixon staffer who comes across a missing recording that implicates the president in Watergate and would have brought his downfall about sooner.

“She’s become disillusioned with her side of the political spectrum,” Fitzgerald says. “Having to switch one’s ideology is fundamentally a really fraught experience.”

The lost 18-and-a-half-minute gap is real, supposedly accidentally deleted by Nixon’s secretary, but the film is fiction, a darkly comic caper that transforms into a madcap, down the rabbit hole farce. Very on brand for 2022.

18½ is permeated by a spiralling sense of paranoia. Connie teams up with a reporter to break the story but their attempts to listen to the recording are repeatedly thwarted – either by awful luck, or a series of kooky conspirators determined to protect the cover-up at all costs.

Suspicions of surveillance are no longer the reserve of people trying to blow the whistle. All of us are being observed, monitored and having information harvested constantly.

“I think that we are certainly living in a moment where it’s impossible to opt out unless you fully opt out,” Fitzgerald says. She explains how levels of paranoia have increased after Roe vs Wade and what that might mean for women – especially in southern states – who might have their search his- tory recorded. Many are encouraging women to delete period-tracking apps.

“Being someone who’s in a public-facing role as an actor, I can’t really opt out,” Fitzgerald continues. “So I think I’ve made my peace with that lack of anonymity for me personally.” Besides her own social media accounts, Fitzgerald also has one for her dogs, Duck and Goose. “They are my solace in these dark political days,” she says.

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So what is supposed to have been on that deleted tape?

“No one knows. That’s why I think [writer] Daniel Moya and [writer and director] Dan Mirvish did a really great job of inventing what was on the tape. What’s interesting about the movie is that the whole thing kind of goes off the rails by midway through. You think it’s going to be one thing and then it becomes something totally different. By the time you’re listening to the tape it’s the backdrop, the soundscape, for this crazy scene that’s happening concurrently. It underscores the ridiculousness of this situation.

“That does a really great job of not prescribing to the audience what they need to take away, and what they need to think about Watergate – or think about the current moment we’re in.”

Next up for Fitzgerald is horror maestro Mike Flanagan’s adaptation of The Fall of the House of Usher.

“I don’t really know what I’m allowed to say,” she says about the much-anticipated series. “I am very excited for it to come out. Not sure when that’s happening, either. But it’s such a great creative team and I’m so so happy to be part of the Mike Flanagan universe.

“He is a prolific creator and continues to make shows that are so complicated and so maximalist in a way that is just amazing to me. The amount of stuff in his brain is truly incredible. And I think that The Fall of the House of Usher is going to be really cool.”

But alas, Fitzgerald confirms Roscoe won’t be returning for the second series of Reacher.

“No, I am not coming back. It’s bittersweet. I love that whole team and I will be cheering them along from the sidelines.”

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