In 2011, REELZ took a mighty chance on The Kennedys, an unvarnished, ambitious and star-packed Canadian miniseries about America’s de facto royal family. Assailed before it even hit the airwaves and rejected by both History and Showtime, The Kennedys made its U.S. debut on the little-known network that April, earning solid ratings, four Emmy wins and another six Emmy nominations, including Outstanding Miniseries or Movie. Six years later, The Kennedys gets a two-night sequel called The Kennedys — After Camelot.
After Camelot is based on a J. Randy Taraborrelli bestseller — this time encompassing an expansive time frame “from Robert Kennedy’s deathbed to JFK Jr. getting into his plane,” says Jon Cassar, who co-directs with Katie Holmes (Holmes also reprises her role as Jacqueline Kennedy). We sat down with Holmes and her costar Matthew Perry, who plays a pre- and post-Chappaquiddick Ted Kennedy, to get the details — and some laughs.
Katie, what was it like to see The Kennedys embraced and then embark on this sequel?
Katie Holmes: It’s really exciting. I’m really proud of the work that we did on this second project. The time span that is covered is huge, and you get to go on a journey with this family. As much as the Kennedys are this “royal” family and we admire them and have them on this pedestal, I feel so proud that we’ve humanized these characters so much that you can relate to them as you’re watching them go through circumstances that are bigger than most people’s. There’s real value in people seeing how other people mourn and how to handle that.
Matthew, viewers are used to you playing comic roles. Tell me about the opportunity to let TV audiences see you step into the skin of this man who was revered, then reviled, then revered again?
Matthew Perry: This is the hardest job I’ve ever done, by far. Little things helped, like having an amazing hair and makeup team and the prosthetics on, and putting a fat suit on and a white wig. The compression suit. At 38, apparently Ted was stockier and thinner than I am, so I had to wear this incredible compression suit — which, if you had to go to the bathroom, it was like an hour-and-a-half ordeal. [Turns to Holmes] I’m so sorry you missed that.
You do sport some impressive prosthetics.
Perry: Heath Ledger talked about it when he was playing the Joker — that you’re freed up by the prosthetics. You’re freed up by the fat suit and you kind of hide in that and just do your job, which was the case with me in that it made it easier to emote. I’m not used to shots of me where I don’t move or I’m not saying anything. There were a few quite powerful shots of me just sitting and thinking.
Katie, what was it like to watch Matthew embody Ted?
Holmes: Exciting! Obviously, I’ve been a huge fan of Matthew as a comedy actor and …
Perry: You can say “icon” if you want.
Holmes: … and icon. Usually people who can be funny are also really good doing drama, so it was exciting to watch the transition. And it was fun to discover the relationship between Jackie and Ted. What you learn very quickly in the research is that, because they were in this sphere of politics and fame and tragedy, their bubble was tight. Only they knew what the other one was going through and only they knew the stakes. Only they knew what it felt like and how it was isolating and pressurized. It was fun to have these two people bond in that way — and have conflicts because of it.
What was it like to direct Matthew — and Matthew, what was it like to be directed by Katie?
Holmes: Matthew was really kind, because I did try different things. I wanted it to feel very spontaneous and authentic and not have us be hitting a mark and saying a line. With television, sometimes that can happen and I wanted it to feel very natural because it is a family and we wanted these moments to ring true.
Perry: It was hard for me as a writer to be hearing notes like that, because my creative mind went, “Well, that’s not going to work.” Nine times out of 10 she was right, of course.
Holmes: I think it was 10 times out of 10, actually.
Perry: Well, that one Thursday … remember?
Can you each talk about what playing these two has taught you about resilience and nobility in the face of incredible public scrutiny?
Perry: Teddy was a guy who was lost at sea a bit as a younger man. Always lived in the shadow. Wasn’t quite as smart as Jack and Bobby were and knew that and tried to rise above that. We see, in this movie, him make the realization. Everybody comes to that spot in their life where they’re like, “This is what the next part of my life is going to be about.” Katie, of course, wanted to shoot that through a mirror. I was, like, “Really?! A mirror for his big realization …”
Holmes: It was a metaphor for that!
Perry: So you see his come-to-God moment — and then, with the knowledge that he followed it up with 40 years of being a brilliant politician and helping so many people. They say people can’t change, but Teddy was a guy that certainly changed and could have been brought down by numerous things. The death of his brothers. He was married to an alcoholic wife. He ran for president and he lost, which was my favorite scene to play. I don’t know if you’ve gotten the scene of him on 60 Minutes?
Perry: He went on 60 Minutes, and — this was the most fun part of the whole thing for me — just crumbled. He was asked, “Why would you like to run for president?” — it’s Roger Mudd and Ted Kennedy — and Ted goes into this sort of stupor and stops making sense. It was almost like somebody gave him seven Valium. I just imitated that word for word. That was a really fun.
Holmes: Playing Jackie this time, it did take a tremendous toll on me, because there is so much sadness that she has. The weight of the world. What I love so much about Jackie is she really understood her position in public and within the Kennedy family. She knew that she had to help everyone and had to be an example of how to mourn someone publicly. How to get through losing a president and then, with the family, how to move on from that. And how to listen. She was a real matriarch.
Perry: Well, you may say that it was hard to do, but you certainly made it look very easy.
Holmes: Thank you. I cried a lot on the weekend.
Perry: We cried 24/7 on this project.
The Kennedys — After Camelot airs April 2 and April 9 at 9/8c on REELZ