As newspaper drama The Post opens, Laura Harding talks to Steven Spielberg and stars Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks.
When Steven Spielberg recruited Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks for his new film The Post, he thought he was making a timely movie about press freedom and standing up to a government looking to muzzle journalists.
It was probably hard to predict that another issue – that of gender discrimination and the treatment of women in the workplace – would become just as pressing in the wake of the sexual harassment scandal that has rocked Hollywood.
The movie tells the story of Katharine Graham, the first female publisher of the Washington Post, and her decision in 1971 to risk criminal prosecution to publish secret government papers about the Vietnam War.
But she is constantly dismissed, ignored, talked over and patronised because she is a woman.
“The first thing that attracted me to The Post was her story, her evolution as a real person of real potential power,” Spielberg says.
“She did not really have the facility to exercise that power because she hadn’t quite found her centre of gravity. She hadn’t been able to find how to use her own voice.”
The publisher is played by Meryl Streep, who is currently using her own voice to spearhead the Time’s Up campaign against discrimination.
Leaning forward earnestly, the actress says: “What was interesting about the screenplay was it fell to a woman to hold the line for press freedom, at a time when women were excluded from any kind of leadership role in the press.
“There were no women reporters, that was very unusual.
“Our friend Nora Ephron [the writer and director of Sleepless In Seattle, You’ve Got Mail and Julie & Julia] was a brilliant woman and when she went to interview at Newsweek, she was told she was very welcome to be a researcher, copy girl or secretary, but reporters are men.”
It was, she reflects, ‘a different world’ in Katharine Graham’s day.
“So for that crucial decision to risk everything to fall to a woman who was really alone in her position, that was what interested me.”
In a time of great flux in Hollywood, putting women at the centre of films and also behind the camera is crucial to her.
“It’s important that the stories be about women and that there is parity, we are equal,” she stresses.
“Half the world is female, half the world is male. We have different tastes and we have different interests and sometimes they dovetail and sometimes they don’t.
“It just seems like the predominance of the offerings from Hollywood, and around the world, have been stories driven by men.
“So films should be made by women, but mostly they should be green-lit by women. If women were equally represented in the agencies, at the heads of studios, on the corporate boards that own the studios, the world would be a different place.”
And what about in the White House? After Oprah Winfrey blew the doors off the Golden Globes with her galvanising speech about the Time’s Up movement, in which she told little girls a new day was on the horizon, there have been calls for her to run for president.
“I think Oprah showed what a presidential candidate should talk like, what language and passion and principles they should adhere to, what rhetoric can rouse in people and how important it is to people to feel that and get that encouragement.
“That’s the voice of a leader. Whether she’s leading us to the candidate we need or whether she herself is the candidate, she sets the bar pretty high on campaign talk.”
Hanks, who stars opposite Streep as the Post’s legendary editor Ben Bradlee, agrees.
“Oprah was standing on a rock and I believe as she was speaking, out on the patio at the Hilton hotel, the pool waters actually parted and suddenly you could see the bottom and the waiters could get back and forth, take shortcuts.
“Then when she stopped, it came back together again. That was not just a galvanising moment... I think you could probably say everything shifted up to that point, then on the other side it’s the downhill slope.”
Hanks is adamant, a change must come.
“Otherwise, what a waste this has been. The only way we will see that there has been true consequence to all this is in the workplace. Will women be taking up the righteous proportions of positions of power? Who is going to green-light? Who is going to sign cheques? Who is going to do the hiring?When more women are doing that very job, the changes will be extraordinary.”
It’s been a time to face some hard truths of late, he says.
“We were in one room talking about some specific stuff – there were quite a few people in there – and the question was, ‘How many women in this room have suffered some degree of inappropriate sexual behaviour?’ One hundred per cent of them raised their hands. “It’s like the emperor’s new clothes. When it fell away, we all went ‘of course’. We are all grown ups, we know how people are.
“What is shocking is how many people seem to be in this for a type of power. That is not the same as the joy of doing it, or the remunerations, but specifically the ability to hassle people.
“That was a disappointing aspect. But truth is truth and out it comes.”
The Post (12A) is released in UK cinemas today.
Sitting in a London hotel, Hanks is dressed all in black, as he was along with countless others, at the Golden Globes awards ceremony a few days earlier. “It was a big deal. More often than not, it’s just a goofy party but I have never been in the room that was as specifically focused on one complete and involving sea change in regards to the industry. There is always politics, there is always a lot of preaching to the choir, there are always jokes... But ... this is not a joke. There is a reckoning going on and I would probably say that last week’s award show is the first of a new era. A Rubicon has been crossed.”