“I love history,” Rob Lowe tells me, “because you know somebody didn’t make it up. It actually happened.”
Sometimes, those historical events that actually happen are tragic in nature, occasionally to the point of impacting an entire nation. Such was the case with the assassination of President John F. Kennedy on Nov. 22, 1963 — 50 years ago this month.
As not only a student of history, but particularly as an admirer and voracious studier of Kennedy and the whole “Camelot” era, Lowe was drawn to his starring role as the iconic president in Killing Kennedy, premiering Nov. 10. The film is based on Bill O’Reilly and Martin Dugard’s bestseller that chronicles how the disparate lives of Kennedy and Lee Harvey Oswald (played by Will Rothhaar) collided in a fateful and catastrophic way.
“I don’t think [younger generations] realize just the sort of personal, human, emotional trauma that it caused the world,” says Lowe, who was still a few months from being born at the time of the event but recalls the sense of psychic devastation felt by his parents and others who were more aware in the years following it.
The film also stars Ginnifer Goodwin (Once Upon a Time) as Jackie Kennedy, and Michelle Trachtenberg as Oswald’s wife, Marina. What is fascinating about the project — and what Lowe, Goodwin and Rothhaar touched on in my interviews as one reason why they wanted to be involved — is how this story deals with the more human, and private, elements of all the main characters, Oswald included. There have been a good number of film and TV projects dealing with the assassination, and while it may feel like we’ve seen and heard everything, the creators and cast of Killing Kennedy wanted to find a different angle.
“I was keen to take the challenge,” says Goodwin about playing Jackie, “but I certainly risked putting myself under an enormous amount of pressure even though a million people have played her at this point. But because a million people have played her at this point, it [took] a conversation that I had with [director] Nelson McCormick right before we began filming in which he said, ‘We all have to figure out why it is we want to be part of this and why we’re telling this story again.’ When he said that, I really stepped back and asked myself why it is that, for instance, I was so drawn to this project when this story has been told before, and it couldn’t just be because we’re delving into the lives of the Oswalds, which does make the project different. I had to figure out why it is that I want to be part of the Jackie story.”
What Goodwin came away with was the love story between Jack and Jackie, the small, private, unseen moments of a very public couple.
“I fell in love with the intimate moments,” Goodwin continues, “and I realized that my part of the storytelling is a love story. And we haven’t really, as far as what I have seen as a viewer, we haven’t had the Jack and Jackie love story. And I loved the fact that we only have half of the movie. Since the story is really two trains on this collision course — half of it is Oswalds, half of it is Kennedys — I have basically less than an hour of the film to tell a really iconic love story.”
One of those trains is Lee Harvey Oswald, and actor Will Rothhaar gave a similar explanation for what attracted him to this infamous role, and how insights from this project might present Oswald to viewers in a different light.
“He committed a monstrous act, but he was not a monster,” Rothhaar says. “Once I started to really look into his life and research his past and when he was born and his father dying and his mother picking him up and putting him in different places … he was neglected so much, there was no love in his life. And it made me realize that it’s that thing where if you’re a child, any boy or girl, whoever, if you’re a boy and you don’t have any positive male influence in your life, your mother is taking you everywhere, if that seed isn’t planted in you as a kid, it’s so hard to get there as an adult. So I found myself at a certain point wishing that I had been just a little older than he was when he was a kid so that I could have, like, given him a hug. Like, ‘Dude, let me show you one or two things. Let me teach you how to be a big boy.’ It might have shifted some things. So when I found that, it just made me see him as a person, and I was like, OK, that’s the man I need to be.”
The man Oswald became was also tied in with the woman he was with, Marina, and in the film’s view of the relationship between Lee and Marina we see similarly intimate moments as we do with Jack and Jackie.
“There’s a lot of anger, a lot of charged things going behind Oswald throughout the film, but my thing was I wanted to find those tender moments,” says Rothhaar, echoing Goodwin’s comments. In this case, Rothhaar thinks those moments would help to humanize Oswald, which was one of his goals as an actor.
“Those moments are the key to you watching and going, ‘Hmm. I’ve been there, I’ve felt that.’ Or like, ‘He’s not such a bad dude.’”
It’s hard to say which would have been more challenging: giving new insights into Lee Harvey Oswald through acting, considering this more human side of him hasn’t been explored very often, or presenting a new look at John F. Kennedy, who has been played countless times, which was the challenge Lowe faced, coming as the latest in a line of notable actors to play the legendary figure.
“I think,” says Lowe, “anytime anyone is an admirer and done the amount of reading that I have done and then adds the research on top of it, I’d like to think I came to this set very knowledgeable about almost anything that [Kennedy] might have said or done or behaved or stood or worn. And then you use all of the tricks you have in the bag, down to physicality, prop work. I can remember one day asking for a shorter pencil to hold in a cabinet room scene because he held his pencils in a particular way that I had discovered, and it has to be a certain size to do that. So the minutiae, the sort of useless information that no one would ever want or need to know about Kennedy, that’s exactly the kind of thing you need to know to play him.”
Goodwin was confronted with a similar challenge in playing Jackie.
“I do know that my portrayal of her is probably very different than what people will expect of anyone’s portrayal of her,“ Goodwin says, “because it isn’t based on the impression that we have of her in her public life. And it’s not based on her post-assassination, clearly, which is where most people draw their conclusions about her. … All my scenes were closed-door scenes, all scenes that no one involved knows anything about. So I do feel that I was relieved of the responsibility of, in some ways, living up to our impressions of her, our preconceived notions of her, because I’m sure, just like everyone else, she was completely different behind closed doors, and she must have had a private side.”
Ultimately, the human stories behind the figures in Killing Kennedy led to a great human tragedy on many levels, including the impact that the Kennedy/Oswald collision course had on the world, and America in particular, which Lowe sums up nicely.
“Just because it’s clichéd doesn’t make it any less true, that we’re 50 years, this November, of the beginning of our loss of innocence as a country. So to go back and revisit it, not only as a reminder and a teaching tool for people who might not know, I think it’s a good thing because we can remember how we felt, and what we thought was possible, and where we thought we were going, and there’s no reason we can’t go there today.”
Killing Kennedy premieres Nov. 10 at 8pm ET/PT on National Geographic Channel (NGC).
Killing Kennedy photos: Credit National Geographic Channels/Kent Eanes