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Trump in Cannes: Hot-Button Film About His Early Years

It’s fitting that one of U.S. history’s most polarizing figures should be the unwitting subject of the most-highly-anticipated movie at this year’s Cannes Film Festival.

“The Apprentice” chronicles the rise of real estate newbie Donald Trump in the 1970s to the self-professed mogul he would become in the ’80s. As he gears up for this year’s national election, while currently embroiled in the salacious trial surrounding his alleged payoff to adult film actress Stormy Daniels in an alleged attempt at election-rigging, the film received a prolonged standing ovation.

Stateside, Trump’s campaign spokesperson Steven Cheung has vowed legal action against the filmmakers, calling the film “pure fiction which sensationalizes lies that have long been debunked.”

During the official Cannes press conference May 21 following the screening, Iranian-Danish director Ali Abbasi was asked whether he feared finding himself in the eye-line of Trump’s wrath and a possible  lawsuit. He responded, “Everybody talks about him suing a lot of people; they don’t talk about his success rate.”

Abbasi continued, “This is really not a movie about Donald Trump, it’s really a movie about a system and the way power runs through the system. Roy Cohn (the late, morally bankrupt lawyer/fixer) was an expert in utilizing that system; he taught Donald Trump.”

Starring Golden Globe-nominated actor Sebastian Stan (“Pam & Tommy”), who turns in a remarkably eerie performance as “The Donald,” and Golden Globe-winning actor Jeremy Strong (“Succession”) as Cohn, “The Apprentice” marks the first English-speaking film directed by Abbasi. Also in the cast are Golden Globe nominee Maria Baklova (“Borat”) as Ivana Trump and Martin Donovan (Tenet) as Donald’s father, Fred Trump.

Abbasi’s most recent work, “Holy Spider,” earned the film’s star Zar Amir Ebrahimi a best actress award at the 2022 Cannes Festival.  (She was also honored by the Golden Globe Awards/Variety magazine’s Breakthrough Award at Le Majestic Hotel’s Barrière Beach last year).

There are some genuinely shocking moments during “The Apprentice,” one of which depicts a rape scene revealing Ivana Trump as an unwilling participant in a sexual encounter with her then-husband Donald, and another in which he is undergoing liposuction. Ivana, who was married to Trump from 1977-1990, famously alleged during their 1990 divorce that she had indeed been raped by Donald, though she later withdrew the accusation.

For Stan, the film provided his most ambitious role to date. And playing such a well-known figure would be a challenge for any actor. “I found a (gossip columnist) Rona Barrett one-hour interview (with Trump) online and I watched it incessantly. But I also had to distance myself from a lot of the stuff we know [about him] from today and go back to the time we were focusing on. There was a lot to see and a lot of interviews he gave during that time.

“The preparation was a 24/7 immersion process of basically living with him to some extent in my headphones, on my phone and on YouTube. Basically, everywhere I was — including the bathroom — I was listening to him.” He shrugs. “I don’t know how else to do it except for 100 percent.” The all-encompassing process paid off; his reviews for the role have been uniformly positive.

Abassi discusses the complexity involved in portraying such a transformative iteration of Trump, whom he believes has taken on many personas. “The man, the character, the legend, the politician. If you look at his developments in every decade, it’s a different person, and you have to pick that moment in time which fits to this moment in time and adapt that,” he says.  “For Sebastian it was crazy. There are a million ways of doing this guy and 999 hundred thousand people would end up on ‘Saturday Night Live’ and I don’t feel we’re there,” he says, glancing at Stan next to him. “I don’t know how we didn’t get there because it’s so easy to find that essence but you find yourself on the other side of that invisible line.”

Asked whether Trump would enjoy the film, Abassi stated, “I don’t necessarily think this is a movie he would dislike. I don’t think he’d necessarily like it, but I think he would be surprised.” He deadpans, “I would offer to go and meet him and have a chat.”

For myriad reasons, it’s unsurprising that this movie has generated the most buzz at Cannes. And for Trump, amid legal threats and epic tantrums over the movie, ultimately, is there really any such thing as bad publicity?