“Killing Kennedy,” based on the book by Bill O’Reilly, is set to premiere in November to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Kennedy. It’s an important anniversary, of course, and one that seemed to be front of mind for the talent appearing to promote the move at the 2013 TCAs. Rob Lowe (President Kennedy), Ginnifer Goodwin (Jacqueline Kennedy), Will Rothhaar (Lee Harvey Oswald), Michelle Trachtenberg (Marina Oswald), Jack Noseworthy (Bobby Kennedy) and director Nelson McCormick and writer Kelly Masterson talked mastering iconic characters, Bill O’Reilly and “weird, bizarre details.”
When asked about the significance of the project, Lowe explained, “We don’t have a royal family here, so the Kennedys are like our royal family. Shakespeare made a career writing about the royals… so it’s like playing a character from Shakespeare. A lot of people have played JFK and a lot will play JFK in the future, and he’s just one of our great American icons. You just try to figure out what you individually can bring. To me, it was a lot about figuring out who he was as a man, as a father, a brother, a son, a husband, as a complicated and flawed guy.”
Goodwin [who appeared via satellite from Vancouver] explained how she created her iconic character. “It was only a couple of days before we began, I realized I wanted the story to be based on how she talked about herself, and that took all of the pressure off. It was all about these private moments. No one knows what happened, all we have is what she said after the fact. I wanted to humanize these people, and I don’t feel they’ve been fully humanized in the past.”
Asked about whether kids today understand how the assassination changed American life, Lowe said, “I have a college freshman, so I know that generation. I think for those of us who lived through it, or I was born that year, [but] it was such a psychic trauma to us, I don’t think anybody can have the experience we had with this loss. I was drawn to introduce these generations to what happened… this visceral ownership of this moment has not been passed on. This will be the 50th anniversary, and I could not be prouder to be with these people to introduce them [to this] story.”
“I hope young people will watch this and understand what this meant to people,” screenwriter Masterson added, noting that given the amount of conflicting information about the assassination, “i It was an enormous challenge. I had to be very focused. I started with the book. I started with the facts as I know them… I can’t tell all of those stories, this is the story I can tell. I used the Warren Commission report , and let people make up their minds with the other things.”
While the panel was mostly serious, there was some room for joking around. When asked about how Lowe created the character, Trachtenberg joked, “He’s asked everyone to refer to him as Mr. President.”
“It’s in my rider,” Lowe shot back. But seriously, he’s a big JFK fan. “I have always been interested in Camelot, the romanticized version and [there’s] the West Wing nerd part of myself. He was an optimist, he said we’ll put a man on the moon in ten years, I can’t think of any other president who’d say that and then deliver on the promise.”
But even being a fan didn’t make it easy for Lowe. “Whoever scheduled this movie I’m going to have them assassinated, because the first scene [was the one in which the Kennedys] share the loss of [their] son. The Kennedys are and continue to be about family, so that did resonate with me for sure.”
Trachtenberg didn’t have Lowe’s depth of knowledge about her character, to say the least. “I actually didn’t know anything… I was unfamiliar [Lee Harvey Oswald] had a Russian wife. I did massively fall in love with her. Who would want to play the wife of the man who tarnished America’s future? What I discovered she was, is, a victim. She’s still alive and her daughters are 50 and 52. I wanted to bring the innocence of a woman in love, a woman confused. I found it so interesting that Lee and JFK’s funeral were the same days. She watched the funeral right until she had to go to her husband’s. She had a crush on JFK, and that was an interesting story to play.”
To complicate matters, “I speak about 80 percent Russian in the film. Marina barely spoke any Engish, her first words were hot and cold,” Trachtenberg added.
When asked if any of the panel’s personal politics made it difficult to work on a project based on a book by a right wing commentator, Lowe shrugged. “I didn’t really think about it at all, because the book had been so successful. Any time you can do material that has already proven to be of value to people, that’s helpful. And the book is nothing if not very straightforward about the facts of this story.”
“I have a different political position than Bill O’Reilly. But I found I had a lot in common with him; we’re both Irish Catholic and have a devotion to JFK. I enjoyed my collaboration for that reason,” Masterson said.
Creating one of the 20th century’s most loathed villains was a job Rothhaar was eager to take on. “Oswald has always been seen as a two dimensional villain. I wanted to make hum human, not that you feel compassion for him, but you’ll be able to say I’ve been there… I wanted to make him relatable in some way. I found myself feeling for the man, which you don’t hear a lot of people say about Lee Harvey Oswald.”
Of course, it was only a matter of time before someone brought up the famed JFK accent. “Every president today talks like him. They’re like bad actors who found the greatest that ever was and initiated him. He was the man. He was the first telegenic president and it’s become nothing but that now.” Did his research for the role unearth any strange discoveries? The weirdest, smallest bizarre details, like why he didn’t have a more happening, ‘Mad Men’ pocket square,” Lowe said. “You’re the president, have somebody make you look tight! He used reading glasses always, never liked being photographed in them because he thought they made him look old, and he kept them in his pocket… and it jammed the pocket square down. “
As to whether or not he bought into the conspiracies surrounding the assassination, Lowe said that, though he was born afterward, he feels that it had a huge impact on his life. “Newborns feel [tension] in a household, and I think growing up in a country dealing with his death, all of that affected me. I’ve been following the assassination since I was in the first or second grade. I’ve read all the conspiracy books. And at first I thought there’s no way one guy could do it. But I think Vince Bugliosi’s book [“Reclaiming History: The Killing of John F. Kennedy”] got it right. We all like to believe there’s some big uber thing out there. That 9-11… you’d think we’d have things in place for this. I think it scares us that it’s that simple.. we’d like to think there’s a safety net, and most times there isn’t it.