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Making Watergate Thriller '18 1/2' Was an 'Alice in Wonderland' Experience

Willa Fitzgerald plays a disillusioned patriot in the darkly comic movie.

Close-up of Willa Fitzgerald in 18 1/2
Willa Fitzgerald stars as Connie, a transcriptionist with a secret.
Elle Schneider/Waterbug Eater Films

Watergate is having a moment. Wherever you look, someone wants to tell you about the break-in and cover-up that brought down Richard Nixon's presidency. Maybe you've caught Gaslit on Starz -- itself an adaptation of Slate's Slow Burn podcast, which recounted untold stories from the scandal for a new audience in 2017. Coming soon to HBO there's The White House Plumbers, which'll focus on the men who masterminded the break-in. And on the big screen there's 18 1/2, the darkly comic thriller from Dan Mirvish, which takes the real-life facts and weaves them into conspiratorial fiction.

For Willa Fitzgerald, star of 18 1/2, it's no surprise that Watergate is everywhere right now. The darkly comic thriller, which focuses on the search for a missing section of Nixon's White House recordings, is rooted in 1970s paranoia, but it feels just as evocative of today's political climate. Why is there an appetite for stories about conspiracy, cover-ups and high-level misconduct right now? It doesn't take an investigative journalist to connect the dots.

Read more: Stylish, Kooky '18 1/2' Finds the Weird in Watergate

For Fitzgerald, who plays Roscoe Conklin in Amazon's Reacher and who was recently seen in The Goldfinch, the resonance with 21st century politics is part of the script's "holistic appeal." She plays Connie, a hard-working transcriptionist who becomes an unlikely whistleblower when she gets her hands on a tape containing the notorious lost 18 and a half minutes of Nixon's White House tapes. 

Her comments have been lightly edited for clarity.

Sullivan Jones plays a revolutionary leader addressing two hippy followers in 18 1/2

Meeting the hippies and revolutionaries of the Silver Sands motel was disorienting for the characters and the actors.

Kerri McConnell/Waterbug Eater Films

"It's always really fun to play in a period. And I think that 1970s, and Connie in particular, to me just felt so rife with, I don't know, crossovers with the current moment that we're in," Fitzgerald said, speaking on a Zoom call. "I also kind of loved that it was such an interesting telling of this particular story. And such an interesting story to be telling in the context of, obviously, a scandal that we all know a lot about, that has so many political parallels to things that we've experienced in recent years." 

But despite the big political themes, 18 1/2 tells a story on a smaller, more personal scale. And at the heart of it is Connie's relationship with Paul, played by John Magaro, a journalist who wants to get his hands on the recording.

"I love working with John, he was fantastic," Fitzgerald said. There's a tense dynamic between the two characters, who are thrown together by circumstances and forced into a situation that demands trust and intimacy from a near-stranger. Describing the relationship between the characters, Fitzgerald summed it up neatly: "They both need the other one. And they both are suspicious of each other, for different reasons."

Fitzgerald said she and Magaro shot the first scenes of the movie separately, establishing that balance, before meeting the rest of the characters. "We'd spent a week and a half together -- which when you're shooting feels like, you know, two months," she said. So when these two all-too-real characters step into the movie's wider world -- the mysterious Silver Sands motel, with its quirky manager and guests -- it was as much of a shock for the actors as for the characters.

"It really felt like Alice in Wonderland at times," she said. "We had this whole new cast of characters who came into the motel where we were all staying. And and it was really like, 'Oh, whoa, what's this movie now?'" She describes it as an "art meets life" moment: The two actors were introduced, given some time to get a sense of each other and then dropped in a strange new situation, just like their characters. "It was such a fun and disorienting shift for John and I to be moving into that world together." 

John Magaro and Willa Fitzgerald laugh awkwardly in 18 1/2

"Everyone is constantly trying to suss out what's happening and who is who," Fitzgerald said.

Elle Schneider/Waterbug Eater Films

There's an atmosphere of unreality in 18 1/2 that feels larger than the Watergate scandal. For Fitzgerald, it reminds her of the suspicion and mistrust we all feel when we meet new people or move to a new town. "Everything's a little bit weird and a little bit strange and a little bit creepy ... everyone is constantly trying to suss out what's happening and who is who." The Watergate scandal, with its layers of secrecy and strange-but-true details, is the perfect backdrop to create that tension, she added.

It's also the perfect backdrop for a movie about wider political dissatisfaction and suspicion. For the character of Connie, who Fitzgerald says most likely identifies as "a patriot" before the film starts, the Watergate scandal brings down more than just the president. It destroys her faith in the administration she's built her life and work around.  

"I think that what is kind of beautiful about that element of the story is, it's an intimate look at someone becoming disillusioned with something that she used to feel strongly about," Fitzgerald said. "That's a hard thing for people to go through, because politics are also ideology. And so to leave behind a political affiliation is to leave behind a whole set of ideology, which is how people live their lives."

18 1/2 opens May 27 in Los Angeles, New York, and Omaha, Nebraska. It'll screen throughout North America starting June 3.