Game Change, the Jay Roach-directed HBO film based on the book of the same name by journalists John Heilemann and Mark Halperin, documents how the nomination of then-Governor of Alaska Sarah Palin as the Republican vice-presidential candidate affected the 2008 presidential race. In the film, French actress Melissa Farman, who's best known for playing young Danielle Rousseau on Lost, portrays Bristol Palin, Sarah's controversial pregnant teenage daughter. With Game Change premiering Saturday at 9 p.m. ET, Complex spoke to Farman about taking on the role, the criticism Bristol had to endure, watching Julianne Moore transform into Sarah Palin, and how non-Americans viewed the political soap opera.
Interview by Justin Monroe (@40yardsplash)
What research did you do to play Bristol Palin (right)?
I go to USC and I’m an English Lit/Political Science major, so I had read Game Change for a class; when I read the script it was kind of funny to see it come to life like that right away. There's a lot of footage of Bristol from the campaign because the media focused on her so much, she became such a symbol for the Republican campaign and for the controversies. So there was a lot of footage on her evolving in the media and then there’s obviously the reality show, Sarah Palin's Alaska, where we saw all the home dynamics, that came out in 2010. I was lucky in that way, there was a lot of material.
In what ways did you identify with Bristol, who was a teenager thrust into the spotlight as the subject of controversy?
I really related in the sense that it’s tough enough being in high school, you're an awkward teenager, and then you're pregnant, and then suddenly you are the center of a huge political controversy and you have to become a spokesperson for an abstinence campaign. So many things were hitting her at once and I think it’s really easy to relate to that vulnerability. It’s a tough awakening, in terms of coming of age, definitely.
It's not like Palin or her family saw any of this coming and could prepare for it.
Absolutely. It was sudden, and, you know, they were in Alaska; Bristol didn’t grow up in Washington D.C. where she was always surrounded by the buzz of it all. The nomination was kind of a shock, and the family was going through a lot at that point. Not only had she discovered she was pregnant but her brother was in Iraq and she just… I think it was definitely a growing experience for her. It’s just interesting to see how that situation with the media has evolved over the years, like her building a tougher shell.
The Internet, social media, and the 24-hour news cycle certainly exacerbated things for Bristol, as everyone from grown talk show hosts to jealous schoolgirls was talking about her.
It’s funny, I was actually a part of a Creative Coalition's Be A S.T.A.R. [Show Tolerance And Respect] campaign that was against bullying in high school, middle school, and primary school. Bristol’s situation was on a heightened, kind of tenfold level. She wasn’t just being bullied by peers on the Internet; that criticism she had to deal with was on an international scale. She was considered newsworthy by adults. It’s not like she is a politician herself and was ready for this. She’s the child of a politician who is dealing with her own drama and got thrust into it. You definitely have to grow, whether for better or for worse, a very tough skin.
The fact that she became a spokesperson for the abstinence campaign, I think was her way of, you know, obviously playing a huge political role, in terms of the message that was being sent out through pregnancy, but it was also a way for her to grow into honing her position in the media and not just as a victim.
One of the things that is most impressive about the film is Julianne Moore’s (right) portrayal of Sarah Palin. She is so physically and vocally spot-on that you can almost forget this is an actress you're watching. What was it like for you observing that transformation on set?
It was really amazing. I grew up looking up to Julianne Moore. She's one of the reasons I started acting. I grew up in Paris and I started doing theater at a very young age, 'cause I was very shy and uncoordinated, so my mom threw me on stage. [Laughs.] As a kid, my mother would make me watch all these films and my mom loved Julianne Moore, so I grew up with her and she was a great inspiration.
I would be on set every day and I would just watch her. Seeing her transform and seeing her commitment to her work, and how kind she was to everyone on set was just a really valuable lesson. Her commitment is admirable, and she's someone who's at the top of her career and she just keeps growing and pushing herself.
As someone with an international perspective, how did you perceive Sarah Palin and the celebritizing of American politicians?
The logo for Game Change is "Politics will never be the same," and I think you can see that today. On an international level, what the 2008 election really showed was kind of like the coming of age of personal politics, where people’s personal appeal, just like celebrities, became a political venue more so than policy. I mean, it’s always been like that, but I think [that exploded with] the advent of YouTube and all these different venues for young people.
In France, we always say, “The political is personal.” We are always on strike every day and we are much more a country, whereas in America I think the personal is political. The 2008 campaign roll out really showed that politicians' personal lives became the very center of the political sphere. Sarah Palin was a game changer in the sense that she was being groomed from being a person into a politician into being a celebrity. You know, politics is entertainment.
How did you feel about the possibility that someone who so clearly knew very little about issues, international diplomacy, and even basic history and geography could be one death removed from the U.S. presidency?
I mean, I don’t want to… The film definitely tries to tell a balanced story and it tries to show a character who has going through a lot of personal turmoil and is dealing with the situation that is tough on her and is dealing with it pretty well. I think Julianne Moore said in an interview that she actually had a lot of admiration for Sarah Palin, in the sense that she thought that Sarah was going through a huge crisis and that she was dealing with a lot of things in a pretty hands-on fashion. For me to answer that question is very partisan and I don’t want to paint my judgment, but I think any politician should know enough about international politics in order to be on the international scene, but that’s as far as I am going to go.
Fair enough. Is the celebrity of candidates as important in France as it is in the U.S. today?
[French President Nicolas] Sarkozy is married to [singer, actress, and former model] Carla Bruni. We have the equivalent of People magazine in France and people are criticizing [Sarkozy] for that, but at the same time I think the politics in France have changed as well.
The media still does not get involved in the personal lives of politicians the way it does in the United States or the United Kingdom at all. But I think when the Dominique Strauss-Kahn [sexual assault] scandal happened in New York that really kind of gave an existential crisis for the media in France. Most Europeans usually look down upon the fact that there is such a mingling of the personal and political tension in the lives of these public figures, and when the scandal happened the French media all of a sudden was like, “Well, should we start looking more into the personal lives of our politicians? Is that just as important?" We are starting to see a shift in the media. It's a ball that is starting to roll.
Is it as much of a popularity contest in France?
[Stephen] Colbert does a very good job portraying a popularity contest in America with all these super PACs [political action committees] today. In France, political campaigns have a set budget, and so it is a popularity contest, but there’s a limit. Right now in the United States you are definitely seeing popularity campaigns be kind of hyperbolic in the sense that there’s so much attention drawn to the discrepancies between the different campaigns because some have more money than others, some have much more media following.
It’s scary that politics have become such an image industry.
In France, we have subsidized news channels, and so it’s just a different level. Politics is always going to be about a popularity campaign, because we are choosing one person over others. Obviously that’s a question of like liking or disliking people. I don't want to say it's more extreme in the U.S. but I guess it's just more tempered in France. But politics are always going to be politics.
It seems to me that the physical attractiveness of politicians like Sarah Palin and Barack Obama has become very important, just like it is in the world of celebrities, where an actor or musician's weight fluctuations are news fodder. Do you think that an unattractive person could be elected president now?
Um, wow! It's kind of funny. I don’t know if you look on YouTube but they have these videos where you have international congregations and you have all the different presidents coming up on the podium and then you have Sarkozy coming up and they put him on a little ledge because he's shorter than everyone else. [Laughs.] I'm not going to say that he is an unattractive guy but I don’t think Sarkozy is… I mean, he has a really hot wife. [Laughs.]
An overweight candidate, if it's limiting his health, then maybe that might be used against him but I don’t think that’s as much of an issue. Of course they probably have their teeth whitened and everything but I don’t think that’s as much of an issue in France as it is in the United States. The candidates we are looking at right now in the Republican primaries, obviously some are more attractive than others but some [unattractive ones] are doing pretty well. I guess I don’t know how to like respond to that question. But it’s scary that politics have become such an image industry and that there are times that you think it would be impossible [for an unattractive but qualified candidate to be elected].
Hopefully I am mistaken about the importance of physical appeal in politics.
No, no, I think that it’s true. Our politicians have to get groomed, whether it's, as Game Change shows, in fashion or makeup or in policy points.
Interview by Justin Monroe (@40yardsplash)