“The story is so riveting and personal and intimate and relatable and devastating and ugly and idyllic, all at the same time.”
What was it like to play such an iconic character?
There was a bit of pressure going into playing Jackie Kennedy, as I’m sure there was with any of the roles in this film. I have read other scripts in which Jackie appeared and I have blatantly not wanted to touch her. She is, I think, every modern woman’s idol, and so it was important to me that, if I ever did play her, I felt empowered to do justice to the person she was.
What about this script made you want to finally play her?
This is the first time I read a script involving Jackie that I felt had a little bit of everything. It is respectful, it is intimate and revealing, and the narrative is captivating. I could not put the script down, and I was really inspired. Ultimately, I think what really attracted me was that, in this story, we are showing so many private moments, which gave me a little more creative freedom than I even realized going into it. I had not really thought about the public version of her versus the private version of her. Then I started researching the role and thought, of course, and found there is almost no information about what happened behind closed doors. There are a lot of assumptions, and I think most people, including me, project onto them what we want these people to have been. But because almost all of the Jackie scenes in this film take place behind closed doors, as an actress, there was something liberating, something that took some of the pressure off and made it a little less overwhelming.
Talk about your research process for this role.
I was obsessive! I don’t know if I have ever done as much homework as I did for this. I really feel like, at this point, the entire cast could teach a college-level course about the characters we played. On set we would spend all day saying “Did you know that Bobby did this?” or “Did you know Jackie did that?” I think we have probably all read all there is to read and seen all there is to see about these people. I feel like there is a lot of external judgment about Jackie, and a lot of guesses about what she could possibly have thought and felt in certain situations. Because of this, it was really important to me that I only based my characterisation of her on what she said about herself. So I read everything under the sun and just absorbed as much as I could from interviews with her. I wanted direct quotes. I also found myself really inspired by photographs. I came across a collection of photos that her daughter Caroline said were Jackie’s favourites, and I started making choices based on the dynamic between Jack and Jackie that I saw in those pictures. In the end, I latched on to a couple of quotes and one particular photograph, and all of my choices were based on what those told me about her.
What did this unique research approach afford you in terms of how you built and played this character?
Because I based my characterisation solely on the things I heard her say in her own voice, I know that I am playing her differently than she has been played before. For instance, in one interview, she said, “Why would I have an opinion about politics when Jack is going to have an opinion and it is going to be better than mine?” She described her marriage as very Victorian. It was always sort of about her being the wife he would want her to be and if there was ever a conflict between them, no matter whose fault it was, she would immediately take responsibility. It was complete devotion to her family. It is possible I am playing that devotion with a little more extremity than maybe she exhibited in real life, but I hope it reveals a different dimension to her that was real.
What do you feel sets this movie apart from others that have been made about these people and this story?
On the subject of JFK, the only films, miniseries and television events with which I am familiar are very different. They generally fall into a re-enactment category, or into something almost fictional because of their foundation in conspiracy theories or more fantastical extremist versions of the story. What I love about our film is that we are somewhere in the middle. We are dealing with facts, everything is proven and we are not complicating it with conspiracy theories at all. This is the public information we have at this point, and as actors, it is just about fleshing out the characters. Yes, we drew conclusions about what they might say behind closed doors, but I feel like all of those experiences and behaviours behind closed doors are really justifiable factually. I think this film will be seen as a really respectful portrait of these people’s lives because we are not making any judgment calls; and because what we know about them is so fascinating, I think this movie will be fascinating.
Why should people see this film?
What was attractive to me about it, and what I think the audience is going to love, is that it is so incredibly educational and yet the story is so riveting and personal and intimate and relatable and devastating and ugly and idyllic, all at the same time — much like real life is. It is also like we have been filming two different movies: one on the Kennedys and one on the Oswalds. I think that having so much about Lee and Marina is going to be really refreshing for audience members who don’t know much, if anything, about their real lives. Our director, Nelson McCormick, describes this as being like two trains coming from two different ends of the universe on a collision course. When I read the script, I hoped there would be a different ending. Clearly, all of us know what is going to happen moment for moment, and yet there is something about the building of tension in this story mixed with these really beautiful, quiet moments that does make you almost think something else could happen.
What was it like playing opposite Rob Lowe as JFK?
Hands down, there were times when I felt like I was with the ghost of Jack. There was one scene during which I felt I was witnessing the actual transformation of this conflicted, private, not-yet-fully-formed man into the powerhouse that the public knew JFK to be. Rob is such an incredibly talented and dynamic actor. I cannot say I have ever had that experience of feeling like maybe my scene partner was channelling something from a higher source. I would say working with Rob has been life changing, and has reinvigorated me and made me remember why I do this as an actor.
WILL ROTHHAAR Q&A
“To me, he is not a monster. He is a man who did a monstrous thing.”
Every American, it seems, knows the name Lee Harvey Oswald, but very few know much about him as a man. What was it like to play a character like this?
From the very first conversations I had with our director, Nelson McCormick, we talked about portraying the human side of someone who has for all these years been seen only as a two-dimensional villain. We wanted to find where he is human and let people see that. For all these years, people have seen him as a monster. To me, he is not a monster. He is a man who did a monstrous thing. And there’s a big difference.
Talk about some of the research you did for this role.
I did a ton of research. I read the book “Marina and Lee.” The author, Priscilla McMillan, spent 10 years with Marina and also used to work for JFK back when he was in office. It was interesting delving into Marina’s story as well, learning who she was and what she was about. For me, the research is almost the most fun. I found radio interviews Lee did in New Orleans where there are these three 10-minute-long segments in which you hear him talk and talk, which really helped me learn what he sounded like.
What did you learn about Oswald that surprised you?
I had no idea about his upbringing. He grew up very neglected. His father died two months before he was born, and his mother was very unstable. She put his older brothers in an orphanage when Lee was born and sent them to boarding school. Then, when he was three, she dropped him in an orphanage and then took him to New York. It was as if he never belonged anywhere, and he never had anyone recognize him, or sit him down and ask him about his day. This makes perfect sense in the story we are telling, because he is motivated by the fact that he wanted to be seen, he wanted to be recognized for something. I am not going to say you will feel compassion for him, but you might look at him and say, yeah, I’ve been there.
What was it like to shoot the assassination scene?
The scene was shot from my viewpoint, through the rifle scope. And the camera is on me following the car as it comes down the road. It was intense. We were shooting in a building that really looked a whole lot like the school book depository. When I was lining up the shot, and finally bring the rifle around, it’s like, take a breath and you know that is the moment. It was intense.
In telling this story using a parallel structure, what kinds of comparisons were you able to draw between these two men?
One thing I found really interesting is that almost from the beginning, it is obvious that Lee wants fame. And, at least in the early days, JFK really didn’t. He grew to accept it. But the first time we see him in the movie, he is about to announce he is running for president and he is talking about how it was not supposed to be him taking that stage, it was supposed to be his brother Joe. Meanwhile, the whole time, Lee is saying, “It’s always been me.” That is what he truly believes.
Did doing this movie change your mind about the assassination and all the related conspiracy theories?
I was raised on this subject when I was younger. Both my parents were big advocates of JFK so I knew about it at a very early age. There are a lot of conspiracy theories out there. I have my own opinion and I always will. And this didn’t change that. But this is the story we are telling. It is the facts, and that is what is really interesting about it. What is so cool about this rabbit hole is that it goes so deep and there are so many different viewpoints on it that you go, OK, this is the one we are going to do. And I think we nailed it.
MICHELLE TRACHTENBERG Q&A
“She was just an innocent victim and a girl who loved a man, and the man did something terrible.”
Of the four main characters in KILLING KENNEDY, Marina is probably the least known. How did this affect your portrayal of her?
It was always in the back of my mind that Marina is still alive and, even more so, that her daughters, June and Rachel, are still alive and probably have children of their own. That added a certain amount of pressure to do the role justice and be as accurate as possible. On the flip side, I think the fact that people don’t know a lot about Marina offered me a bit more freedom in my acting choices. I did an immense amount of research but at the end of the day, every scene is an inference of what we think happened in that moment, based on educated deductions.
Talk about the research you did to play Marina.
There is not as much information out there on Marina as there is on all the other characters portrayed in this film. There is an amazing book called “Marina and Lee,” which I read before we began shooting, along with watching some YouTube videos of her after her husband’s murder where she speaks in very poor broken English. From all of the things I read about her, she was just an innocent victim and a girl who loved a man, and the man did something terrible. Her question then became, do I stand by my man or do I take care of my children? And that is something that research cannot give you. It is something I got to experience through the filming process.
This is the first role in which you predominantly speak Russian. Talk about what that was like for you.
The Russian-speaking aspect of the role was one of the most challenging things about this project, and why, in many ways, I wanted to do it in the first place. I grew up with Russian in my household, but there are many different slangs and dialects, so I had to do a lot of tedious work. I was very lucky that my mother was able to help me with the entire script. We sat down and analysed each line and thought about what it would be like to respond in the ’50s, as opposed to now. So yes, while I am fluent, there is a lot of work that went into it. It’s an incredible challenge, but something I am proud of, and I hope my mom will be proud of.
What would you like people to take away from your portrayal of Marina Oswald?
More so than my portrayal of Marina, I hope that people really respond to the facts that we have provided in the story, and the true story that we are telling, and come out with their own opinions. I hope I have honoured Marina’s legacy, and I definitely know that at the end of the day, we can all say that we worked very hard and are grateful to be part of the experience.
Would you like to meet her one day?
I think if Marina Oswald would ever request that, it would be something I would love to oblige, but I would never want to put her in a difficult situation.
How do you feel about the pedigree of this film, from the fact that it is produced by Ridley Scott’s Scott Free Productions to its association with National Geographic Channel?
Immediately, working on a Ridley Scott project is like the stamp of platinum. You just know that the product is going to be the best that it can possibly be. And the fact that National Geographic Channel has believed in us to tell this story gives it a sense of authenticity that no other network can provide.
Q&A WITH SCREENWRITER KELLY MASTERSON
Q: As someone who loves history, and felt a personal connection to this story, what did it mean to you to work on this project?
This was like a dream-come-true job. It is the kind of thing you would chase if you knew it was out there, but I didn’t even know it was coming. It just sort of landed. I grew up in the ’60s with an Irish Catholic family that was just devoted to the Kennedys and the story of the Kennedys. I actually worked for Bobby Kennedy’s campaign as a boy. The story has always fascinated me. I read everything I could get my hands on.
Q: What did you learn from working on this project that you didn’t know before?
There were two major things, and they were both stories I ended up telling in the script. The first is that Lee Harvey Oswald was an extraordinarily troubled man from a very early age. And while he had periods he would go through when he could pass for a normal person, moments of lucidity and clarity, for the most part he lived in his own fantasy world that he created. And he created it when he was very young. It guided him from tragedy to tragedy in his life. For him, leaving the country was a major tragedy. He turned his back on the United States. Coming home was a major tragedy because he turned his back on Russia. Choosing to support Castro was a major tragedy, because, again, it was him turning his back on something. And his family life was certainly a tragedy as well.
Q: Did your research give you any insight into the enduring controversies surrounding the events of November 22 and the people behind them?
I feel like I came to a really clear understanding of who Lee Harvey Oswald was, and there was real clarity for me that he was a lone assassin. That is not to say there might not have been other things going on, that is certainly possible. But the thing that became very clear to me was that no one could conspire with this man. He was such a lone wolf and such a loose cannon. No one could control him.
Q: So much is known about John F. Kennedy. Did you learn anything new about him through this process?
We all know the Kennedy story. It is a very public one. What I set out to learn, and hopefully infuse into the script, was a private story of a man who did not choose this for himself. It became his destiny when his older brother Joe died in World War II. Jack took up the mantle, and whether or not he really wanted it was something he never really questioned — it was just expected of him. I often think of that sword-and-the-stone moment, where the unlikely one, the second son, walks up to that stone and does not know if he can pull it out. So that is where I started with the movie. His first instinct is to ask, can I be the man they say I am? And he sets out to prove that, and stumbles along the way. We know about the Bay of Pigs, and the Cuban Missile Crisis, but what I wanted to chart was that journey from uncertainty to certainty in a very personal sense. So a lot of what I thought about and read about and imagined in our Kennedy was what that personal journey was, a sometimes difficult journey of a man, and a journey of his relationship with his wife. And ultimately, a journey to fulfil the promise of who he was — and he did that.
Q: Talk about that relationship between the President and Jackie.
What a great challenge that was! As a writer, I often have to invent things, but in this case, I had to find things that were facts and then find the truth in them about these two people, and how they felt about one another. I know that I had a lot of guidance with a book that came out last year, historic conversations with Jackie Kennedy, in which she talks about her relationship with her husband. So I know that a lot of the territory I am in is at least close to the truth, and a lot of what I read about Jack was how in love he was with this woman, and the emotional journey he had, especially with the death of his child. Still, the writer has to get in there and try to create that for the moment we are going to see it. I hope I am channelling the true people and the things they felt.
Q: What do you hope people take away from this movie?
I hope it makes them think about how human Jack Kennedy was. There is a line at the end where Jackie says he only wanted to be a man, but now he is a legend. I think he was a man through and through, with faults like everybody else. I hope we feel that, the humanity in him. And I would say the same thing about Lee. I never wanted to portray Lee as a monster. He was certainly a troubled guy, but I also wanted people to see the humanity in him as well. I hope we achieved both of those things.