“The best way I can honor him is to make him a man again.”
What does it mean to you to be playing John F. Kennedy?
I have always been an admirer of the Kennedy family — and of JFK in particular. And I’ve always had a connection to him — maybe because I was born a few months after he died, and was sort of born into the sadness, the sort of loss that the country felt. I obviously didn’t know him, yet I have always felt so compelled and inspired by him. JFK represents so much, not just to me, but to all of us. And to be able to embody his story on the 50th anniversary of his death, that was an exciting, humbling and once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. I was honored to be asked, and it was an amazing experience.
What approach did you take to portraying one of the most iconic figures in American history?
I think for known figures, the key is inhabitation, not imitation. Clearly, there are benchmarks that you need to meet. People know how he spoke, they know he dressed a certain way or wore his hair in a certain way. You can get all of that right and it can be awful if you are not portraying a man. Nobody can portray an icon. Nobody can portray a hero. We can only play human beings, and that is hard enough. My goal was to play a husband, a father, a brother, a man with a big job who loved and was funny and smart and charming and flawed and inspired. That was the stuff that I was looking to capture about him. Right after he was killed, Jackie gave an interview, and she said that she just thinks of him as a sickly, lonely boy in bed reading his books and thinking about his heroes. A lot of the reason he loved heroes and believed in heroes was because in those early years of his life, that was his world. So it is really ironic that we remember him as a hero, and yet he was a man. Jackie had a great quote: “And now he is legend; he would have preferred to be just a man.” The best way I can honor him is to make him a man again.
Do you feel a certain responsibility playing John F. Kennedy?
I have been given an opportunity to present something that belongs not just to me, but to all of us, and when I’m done I’ve got to give it back to everybody. So I am the caretaker of his story for this moment. This is not about me playing JFK, it’s about all of our relationships with our great, honored president. I am really aware of that, and it frames my responsibility in terms of how I treat his memory and how we treat his memory in this story.
Talk about the transformation you make in becoming President Kennedy.
I had to really immerse myself in it. There is so much amazing footage. There probably is not a piece of footage of him that I haven’t seen, or a piece of audio of his voice that I haven’t heard. I have them all on my phone and my laptop. I immersed myself in those for hours. There is no shortcut. The good news was that in doing that, it seeps in so that by the time I get to the set, I’ve forgotten about it and don’t think about it anymore. It’s just part of me.
Talk about some of the things you learned in doing your research for this role.
There are so many things that I discovered, including some tiny things that one might think don’t matter, but that I think do. For instance, he kept reading glasses in his pocket. He was rarely photographed in them, but they were always in his pocket. If you ever look at his pocket, and the way he wore his pocket square, it was a peak. It wasn’t the Mad Men version. A lot of times you can barely see it. I discovered that he had a tic in which he would take his glasses out and play with them just constantly, so much so that his pocket square got crunched in. As a result, I wanted to have the period glasses to fiddle with and re-create that movement. They were hard to find because they are rarely photographed, but we found them and I always had them with me.
How would you describe this movie to audiences?
I have two perceptions. I have a perception as an audience member, and then I have a perception as someone who just got finished playing JFK. As an audience member, it’s similar to seeing a movie like Titanic, where you know it is going to hit the iceberg but you still sit there and think, “It’s not really going to hit the iceberg, is it?” Then it’s, “Oh yeah, it is, but you are not going to believe what happens.” You kind of dread it, but you are also compelled by it, and you can’t look away. The construct of how this movie is put together is very much like that. As the actor who just played JFK, I see it as a love story. And it’s not just a love story between the president and Jackie, and those darling little kids, but it’s about his love for the country. It’s a story about love.
What was it about JFK that remains so compelling to you and to so many people around the world, even today?
I am struck by his spirit, by the twinkle in his eye, by his boyish, youthful enthusiasm and by his intellectual curiosity. He wanted to go to the moon. He believed in civil rights. He did things no one ever believed were possible. He had a remarkable ability to inspire people that we have rarely seen since. We have had people who inspired people, but it has been very different. President Obama is the closest thing we have to Kennedy in his golden years in that 2008 election, but people were inspired to follow President Obama. Kennedy inspired people forward into the future of this country. It is very different. He inspired the best in us instead of the other way around, and it is just extraordinary.
Talk about your experience working with Ginnifer Goodwin.
I was so excited when Ginny Goodwin was cast. My good friend Bill Paxton played her husband for seven years on Big Love, and I watched them all. I was blown away day in and day out working with her on this project. There were moments when I really thought I was in a room with Jackie Kennedy. Talk about transformative acting … she became her, and the sort of commitment she exhibited in playing this woman is unbelievable. As an actor, I feel like I got to fall in love with Jackie Kennedy for real.
Why should viewers watch this movie?
This movie works on two levels. First of all, there are two generations of people born since President Kennedy was killed. I don’t think many can even imagine what it was like to live through this era. The events leading up to his death, what he accomplished, what he didn’t accomplish, the tragedies, the deeply personal and complicated love affair … you don’t make this stuff up. It’s the stuff of Shakespeare. This is a tremendous love story — his relationship with Jackie is one of the great love stories of our age. Also, in Killing Kennedy, it works as a thriller. It’s an absolute edge-of-your-seat, can’t-take-your-eyes-away-you-almost-don’t-want-to-look thriller.
How do you feel about working with National Geographic Channel on this project?
Well, there is a lot of talk in our world about brand, and National Geographic is a no-fooling brand. I grew up with National Geographic. It means a lot to me and has a tremendous distinction in our life. It stands for something, and it stands for all the things I just happen to like, which are history and the human condition and what is going on in the world and all of it. I am predisposed to do stuff in that world because I am interested in it, and I think it’s a value for them now to be really becoming groundbreakers in long-form scripted or traditional movies. It’s great. This is a movie I would want to see. There was probably a time when this would be a movie. Those days are over. A movie studio is not making this movie. Nat Geo is making it. And they are making it great. So I feel like I am part of something that is potentially a new wave of filmmaking.
Don’t miss the global premiere of Killing Kennedy Sunday, November 10 at 8P!
For more on Rob Lowe and JFK, don’t miss this behind-the-scenes interview: