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How Ruth Bader Ginsburg Got Her Cameo in “On the Basis of Sex”

The biopic's director explains the Notorious RBG's appearance at the end of the movie.
Felicity Jones as Ruth Bader Ginsburg in "On the Basis of Sex." Photograph by Jonathan Wenk / Focus Features.

After showing viewers how a whip-smart young lawyer from Brooklyn becomes the Notorious RBG, On the Basis of Sex—the star-studded biopic about Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg—ends with a fun bit of fan service.

The camera follows Felicity Jones, who plays Ginsburg, as she climbs the steps of the Supreme Court before it focuses squarely on the real Ginsburg, clad in a deep blue Max Mara coat and grinning into the camera as text overlays explain what happened between the tax case that comprises much of the film’s plot, and her appointment to the high court by President Bill Clinton.

The movie’s director Mimi Leder wrote a letter to Justice Ginsburg, asking if she’d be willing to make the cameo. (The production filmed mostly in Montreal, but shot for one day in DC and at the Supreme Court last November.)

“I wanted her to ascend to her future and morph into RBG,” Leder says. The idea for the shot came to Leder on location at the Supreme Court.

“I elongated the scene in terms of really making a meal of this woman in a sea of men, in this beautiful cornflower blue dress designed by Isis Mussenden (the film’s costume designer) in just the right color of blue, because blue is Justice Ginsburg’s favorite color,” Leder says. She wanted to recall the film’s opening sequence, which uses a similar composition to differentiate Ginsburg from her male peers as she enters her first day of law school.

One of the opening scenes of the film, seen here in a trailer, depicts Jones as Ginsburg (dressed in blue) entering Harvard Law School and echoes the final shot on the Supreme Court steps.

“I told Isis, ‘I want young Ruth to be ascending to this position in her life and I want the blues now to go deeper,'” Leder says. “I wanted them to deepen with her experience.” Mussenden curated a rack of dresses and coats for Ginsburg to choose from for her cameo. Ginsburg selected the Max Mara coat that Leder was hoping she’d choose from the outset. “I didn’t want to push her, so I held my tongue,” Leder says. “It was fate that she picked that outfit.”

Armie Hammer, who plays Ginsburg’s husband Martin, wasn’t on set the day the justice filmed her appearance, but says he was moved by it. “I’m in the damn movie and I’ve seen it so many times, probably like three times, and still when I watch it and that happens, still get choked up every time I see it,” Hammer tells Washingtonian. “It’s such a powerful image.”

Ginsburg, who has seen the film at least three times and “loves it,” was heavily involved in the production from the outset and gave notes on script drafts. The script had been in development for eight years and its writer Daniel Stiepleman—who is also Ginsburg’s nephew— made trips from New York to DC to consult with his aunt and pore over documents from both her personal files and the Library of Congress. The two would engage in detailed conversations about Ginsburg’s marriage and her many experiences as one of the few women in a male-dominated field.

on the basis of sex
Justin Theroux, Mimi Leder, Felicity Jones, Armie Hammer, and Daniel Stiepleman at a DC screening of “On the Basis of Sex.” Photograph by Daniel Swartz.

“Some people really need her to be a superhero and some people really need her to be divisive or to be their villain,” Stiepleman says. “I wanted to write the movie for her just to be a person with foibles and flaws and challenges to overcome. I thought, ‘At some point, you were my age and you became you. How did you do that?'”

Jones took a similar approach in her role. Beyond nailing Ginsburg’s mannerisms, such as her distinctive gait and Brooklyn accent, Jones aimed to uncover the woman behind the deity. “I’ve been looking for something like this for years. It’s hard to find stories like this where you have such a phenomenal character to play, obviously based on someone who is hugely loved,” says the actress. 

So what was Ginsburg like on set? Jones says that as they filmed, onlookers would come up and pay their respects to her. “You sort of find everyone lowers their voices around her, because of that respect,” she says. “You don’t see many people like her in positions of power and we need her.”

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Helen joined Washingtonian in January 2018. She studied Journalism and International Relations at the University of Southern California. She recently won an Online News Award for her work on a project about the effects of the Salton Sea, California’s greatest burgeoning environmental disaster, on a Native American tribe whose ancestral lands are on its shores. Before joining the magazine, Helen worked in Memphis covering education for Chalkbeat. Her work has appeared in USA Today, The Desert Sun, Chalkbeat Tennessee, Sunset Magazine, Indiewire, and others.