Sara Paxton was sleeping moments before she found out she’d been cast in buzzy political drama The Front Runner (in theatres Friday), the based-on-true-events awards-season movie about the derailment of presidential candidate Gary Hart (Hugh Jackman)’s 1988 campaign. “They called me right away—I didn’t see that coming. Normally, [I have to wait] several days, or I just don’t expect a call,” the 30-year-old actress tells us. “I left [my audition] and was like, ‘I did the best I could do. What more can you ask for?’ So I went home and took a nap because I was exhausted.” Paxton eventually answered her ringing phone, jumping up and down with her dog, a rescue named Auggie, to celebrate the news.
The L.A.-native—who got her start in teen fare, like as a misplaced city girl in Canadian-American series Darcy’s Wild Life and as a mermaid opposite Emma Roberts in Aquamarine—was eager to work with writer-director Jason Reitman (Tully, Juno). Paxton had read for the Canadian-born filmmaker before, and was asked to audition for his latest movie. “Just the fact that he asked me to come in and read for him was so amazing. I was like, whatever happens, happens,” she says. “I admire him so much. To actually get the part and work with him is another level.”
In The Front Runner, Paxton stars as Donna Rice, a young woman accused of having an affair with Hart, flooding controversy into his campaign. We caught up with Paxton while she was in town for the film’s premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival to talk about working with Jackman and transitioning into more grown-up roles.
You used to work in Toronto. What’s it like to be back for TIFF?
The show [I filmed here] was like 15 years ago, and when you’re that age you don’t really appreciate cities and things like that. But coming back now as an adult is awesome. I haven’t been to any other film festivals, but every single person has come up to me and been like, “This is the best one because it’s for cinephiles.” Everyone in the audience at the premiere was a person who loves film and was excited to be there, and that’s really cool.
Why did you want to do The Front Runner—was it because it seemed so relevant to what’s happening politically right now?
I was born in 1988, so I don’t actually have any recollection of this story. I thought it was so fascinating and I wondered why more people weren’t aware of it. Then I got the script and when I met Donna on page, I instantly felt totally connected to her.
Donna is the kind of person, in the script, who just wants to be taken seriously. I have a line in the movie where I say, “I did everything that I was supposed to do to not have men look at me the way you’re looking at me right now.” And it just broke my heart, because as an actor, people just want to put you in these little boxes. She spent her life trying not to be put into a box, makes one mistake and she’s trapped in that box for the rest of her life—until now. Now she finally has the voice she couldn’t have then.
Have you met the real Donna?
I didn’t. I wanted to, but Jason had talked to the cast and wanted to focus on the script instead of talking to the real person [about their memories] 30 years ago. But I did hear that she saw the movie and loved it, and that made me so happy. I’ve never played a real person who’s alive—she can hear and see this—and it’s really intimidating. Knowing that she liked it meant a lot to me.
You worked alongside so many talented actors for the movie. What was that experience like?
Maybe it’s corny to say, but it’s such a dream come true for me. I feel so grateful and lucky that I got to be in this movie. Hugh is seriously one of the most genuinely nice, kind people I’ve ever met. He’s so professional and respectful, but still really fun and positive on set, and then turns around and delivers this intense, dramatic performance. I’ve met Vera [Farmiga, as Hart’s wife Lee] briefly. I didn’t get to work with her, but she’s so good in the movie. I was just like, “Wow.” And I did my chemistry read with J.K. [Simmons, campaign manager Bill Dixon] and I was so nervous because he’s an Academy Award winner and I loved Whiplash. I got there a little early to calm my nerves and I saw is car pull up and attempt to parallel park in the spot in front me and he had a hard time with it. I was ducking, like, “Oh my god, oh my god, don’t see me.” He’s really nice in real life.
You’ve been acting since you were so young. Was it hard to figure out what you wanted your career to look like as a “grown-up” actor?
Transitioning is tough. I had to take some time and say no to a lot of things and organize my priorities. I sounds like a really actor thing, but I took time to hone in on my technique, work on myself and grow up. Now, I want to play interesting characters I connect with, work on things that inspire me and be able to make people feel the same feeling I got when I loved movies a little girl.
What do you want to do next?
I just started watching Sharp Objects, and I’m a really big fan of Amy Adams. She’s somebody I look up to and aspire to be like one day as an actress. I love that she takes on so many different roles. I love darker novels, murder-mystery stories. That’s something I would like to do—or play a serial killer, something kind of crazy and totally opposite of who I am.
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