Olivia Wilde plays real-life journalist Kathy Scruggs, who is portrayed trading sex for a scoop in Clint Eastwood's Richard Jewell

By Ale Russian
December 03, 2019 04:35 PM

Olivia Wilde is standing by her portrayal of a journalist who gets a big scoop in Clint Eastwood’s controversial film, Richard Jewell.

The drama, based on a true story, suggests that the real-life journalist Kathy Scruggs — who has since died — had sex with an FBI agent in order to obtain information about Jewell being a suspect in the 1996 Atlanta Olympics bombing. But Kevin Riley, editor at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution where Scruggs worked, recently told PEOPLE there’s “no evidence” to support the implication.

At the Gotham Awards in New York City on Monday night, Wilde, 35, defended the movie and said the criticism surrounding her character is unfounded.

“I have an immense amount of respect for Kathy Scruggs,” Wilde told The Hollywood Reporter on the red carpet. “She’s no longer with us, she died very young, and I feel a certain responsibility to defend her legacy — which has now been, I think unfairly, boiled down to one element of her personality, one inferred moment in the film.”

Scruggs broke the initial story that Jewell — a security guard at Centennial Olympic Park, heralded as a hero for discovering the explosive and alerting police before it detonated — was a suspect in the attack, which killed one and injured over a hundred people.

Olivia Wilde
| Credit: Theo Wargo/Getty

According to The Hollywood Reporter, Eastwood’s drama includes a scene where the fictionalized Scruggs offers to sleep with a federal agent Tom Shaw, played by Jon Hamm. After Shaw gives Jewell’s name to Scruggs, he then asks if they should go to a hotel or leave together, reports the outlet. “While they are never actually seen doing so, it is implied that they do sleep together,” states THR.

Wilde argues that critics are sexualizing her character, and feels that’s due to her Scruggs’ gender.

“I think people have a hard time accepting sexuality in female characters without allowing it to entirely define that character,” Wilde said. “We don’t do that to men, we don’t do that to James Bond — we don’t say James Bond isn’t a real spy because he gets his information sometimes by sleeping with women as sources.”

She continued, “This is very specific to female characters, we’ve seen it over and over again, and I think that Kathy Scruggs is an incredibly dynamic, nuanced, dogged, intrepid reporter. By no means was I intending to suggest that as a female reporter, she needed to use her sexuality. I come from a long line of journalists — my mom’s been a journalist for 35 years — there’s no way I would want to suggest that.”

“I do think it’s interesting that when audiences recognize sexuality within a character, they immediately, when it’s a woman, allow it to define her, and I think we should stop doing that and allow for nuance,” Wilde added. “It’s sort of a misunderstanding of feminism to expect women to become pious and sexless.”

Sam Rockwell and Paul Walter Hauser in Richard Jewell
| Credit: Claire Folger/Warner Bros

Riley, who didn’t work at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution at the same time as Scruggs, still sees the portrayal as harmful to a journalist he said everyone regarded as “a really great reporter who was just tireless in terms of developing her sources.”

“To persist in this idea that a female journalist only gets a big story this way is not only obviously completely untrue and insulting to all the women, frankly everybody in this profession but especially women, it’s just concerning” he added to PEOPLE. “I have trouble imagining why that storyline would need to be invented in order to get the powerful messages of what happened in this situation across.”

Richard Jewell will be released in theaters on Dec. 13.