The National Geographic Channel has slowly but surely been making a presence for themselves in the field of TV movies, thanks – oddly enough – to having been provided with the opportunity to adapt a couple of Bill O’Reilly’s books. First came “Killing Lincoln,” starring Billy Campbell as ol’ Honest Abe, and, to keep things on a chronologically-accurate path, next up is “Killing Kennedy,” with Rob Lowe taking on the role of JFK.
NatGeo is going out of their way to make sure TV critics are well aware of this project, first of all by spotlighting it at the summer TCA tour and setting up interviews with various cast members, then by sending a few additional critics – including yours truly – to a press junket in Dallas, where we were fully immersed in the details of Kennedy’s final 48 hours. I mean, seriously, it was pretty amazing: we stayed in the same hotel where JFK and Jackie Kennedy spent their final night, met a few folks who were actually there that day, stood in the places where he gave some of his final speeches, and then went on a tour of various locations in the Dallas / Fort Worth area which were key to both JFK and Lee Harvey Oswald over the course of those last hours, including attending a screening of “Killing Kennedy” in the Texas Theater, where Oswald was apprehended, and then we had dinner on the seven floor of the former Texas School Book Depository, after which we went downstairs one floor to a museum dedicated to the assassination…as is only appropriate, since that’s where Oswald was stationed.
Having watched “Killing Kennedy,” I will say that, first and foremost, the reason to see the film is not necessarily Lowe and Ginnifer Goodwin as JFK and Jackie – although they both do quite well, with Goodwin in particular shining in the post-assassination scenes – but, rather, Will Rothhaar and Michelle Trachtenberg as Oswald and his wife, Marina. Rothhaar, who was with us throughout the tour of Dallas, is liable to get a serious career boost after the work he does in the film, and Trachtenberg will surprise many with her fluency in Russian…much as she surprised the producers of the film, who didn’t know she could speak the language until after they saw her audition. If you’ve got Kennedy fever, though, I recommend that you tune in early to watch “JFK: The Final Hours,” a documentary which, while perhaps a bit overlong, provides an amazing amount of detail about what Jack and Jackie did during their time in San Antonio, Fort Worth, and Dallas in the day or so before that fateful trip into Dealey Plaza. Plus, it’s narrated by Bill Paxton, who – you may or may not know – was actually in attendance for JFK’s speech outside the Hotel Texas in Fort Worth the morning he was assassinated.
Okay, enough of my yakking…not that it probably bothered those of you who were drawn here by the title of this piece, since I’m sure all you did was skip past all the opening paragraphs and go straight for the Rob Lowe interview, anyway. All things being equal, what I’d hoped to do was spend enough time with Rob Lowe to produce a Random Roles interview for the Onion AV Club, but we only had about 10 minutes together during the TCA tour, and we never managed to hop back on the phone in the intervening time, so that just never happened. As such, Bullz-Eye reaps the benefits of the “Killing Kennedy”material, while I continue to hoard the stuff he had to say about “Class,” “A New Kind of Family,” and “The Stand” until I am able to get on the phone with him. For now, though, I hope you enjoy his comments on playing the President of the United States.
Bullz-Eye: So did the folks behind the film come to you directly and say, “We’d like you to play JFK”?
Rob Lowe: They did. And, you know, the auspices under which it came were really intriguing, obviously. Ridley Scott’s company makes great work in whatever arena, whether it’s movies or commercials or television. They just do really quality stuff, so you know it’s gonna be quality. Then it’s based on a massive best-selling book, which is always helpful. And then the script was amazing and answered my question, “Why this? Why now?” And the “why now” is that it’s 50 years since the assassination, and the country needs to have and will have a conversation about that. And the “why this” is the construct, which I think is sort of ingenious. To take these two men, Lee Harvey Oswald and Kennedy, and meet them both on the same day in the same moment and see how disparate their lives were and intercut their journeys, knowing—like the Titanic—the iceberg is coming. It was just really clever storytelling.
BE: What kind of challenges did you face in portraying such an iconic figure as John F. Kennedy?
RL: Well, that in and of itself is the challenge: he’s an iconic figure. And to make it even worse, he’s a hero of mine. And every actor will tell you that you can’t play heroes. And you can’t play villains. You can only play human beings. So the challenge is, how can you take someone who’s so emblazoned in peoples’ consciousness and make him a real person, yet still be aware that you’ve got to service the hair, the look, and the voice? And it’s finding that right mix. And Ginnifer Goodwin said it very well: we’re not doing the Hall of Presidents at Disneyland. This is my interpretation of Kennedy. Much like you’ll go and see people’s interpretation of Richard III or any of the great characters. Every actor, hopefully you want them to bring what they bring to it, not what someone else has already brought.
BE: Was there ever any point when they told you to pull back on the accent?
RL: No, but, you know, everybody was very interested in the accent. Even my collaborators were very curious to know if I was even going to do it. And I was, like, “You just can’t not do it.” I think everybody was worried that it was going to sound like the guy from…is it The Simpsons?
BE: Mayor Quimby?
RL: [Laughs.] Yeah! But, you know, I worked with some great people, some linguists, which…I find linguists much more interesting than dialect coaches. Also, I think I have a pretty good ear. I mean, even just starting with, like, Austin Powers, where I did young Robert Wagner. People were, like, “How do you imitate Robert Wagner? What does he sound like? What does that even involve?” I can just… I think my thing is that I try and pick up on things that other people have maybe not picked up on. Because people have done Kennedy and done him beautifully, but I found stuff that I’ve never heard people do before that he did. And maybe it’s just because there’s more on YouTube now than there was 10 or 15 years ago, but I also listened to hours and hours and hours and hours and hours of Kennedy, and I sort of built it. And then I got on set and forgot it. [Laughs.]
But that’s what you want to do. You want it to just be real. And I think authenticity was better than… People always talk about when an accent doesn’t work, and the phrase you always hear is, “It was inconsistent, but I’m going to let you in on a little piece of trivia. Here’s the truth: Kennedy’s own accent was inconsistent. In one speech on one day, he would say, “We’ll send a man to the moon in the next decade.” And then the next week, he would say, “We’ll send a man to the moon in the next decade.” So people are inconsistent. And it always kind of irks me when people talk about inconsistent accents, ‘cause people are imperfect by nature. So in the end, what you do is, you do an inhabitation and not an imitation.