It’s remarkable – and it seems to be remarkable to Jason Clarke, too – how many people under a certain age don’t know what “Chappaquiddick” means. In most situations like this, when a big historical event is lost to time, it has to do mostly with the parties involved fading away from the zeitgeist. But everyone knows who Ted Kennedy is, it’s just that his darkest chapter was fairly successfully swept away as Kennedy became the “Lion of the Senate.”
In Chappaquiddick, Jason Clarke portrays Kennedy as a conflicted man caught somewhere between wanting to do the right thing and wanting this to all go away to protect the Kennedy name. The 1969 incident at the heart of the film involved Kennedy driving, possibly while intoxicated, on the Massachusetts island of Chappaquiddick, losing control of his car and landing in a body of water. Kennedy walked away, but his passenger, Mary Jo Kopechne (portrayed in the film by Kate Mara), lost her life. The following days saw a series of conflicting statements issued in an effort by the Kennedy family to make the whole thing go away. Most infamously, Ted Kennedy then showed up to Kopechne’s funeral wearing what some suggested was a fake neck brace.
When Chappaquiddick premiered at the Toronto Film Festival, there were younger attendees who had no idea what that title even meant. The publicists for the film must have caught on to this phenomena, because the film’s hashtag is now “#thisreallyhappened,” which is usually reserved for a movie that involving the supernatural or alien sightings.
Ahead, Jason Clarke takes us through what it’s like to get inside the head of Ted Kennedy during what has to be the worst chapter of his life. Clarke wants to make clear this isn’t a hatchet job on Kennedy, but explores one of the ugliest chapters of American politics from the perspective of America’s most famous political family.
I’ve come across quite a few people who don’t realize this really happened.
Yes. It’s staggering. You know, look, it’s good for the film if people want to go and see it and learn something, absolutely. But it’s staggering on one level that you think about history because of the importance of this and what it led to, but then it’s not surprising when you see what’s going on in the legal world. You know, so it’s just a conundrum within a conundrum.
Someone commented that Chappaquiddick was a crazy title for a movie and wondered what it meant and I was like…
[Laughs.] I know, “Are you out of your fucking mind?”
So he was told and then he got mad that it was a spoiler…
It’s insane, isn’t it?
One of my earliest memories is when Ted Kennedy ran against Carter in ’80 in the Democratic primary my grandfather was like, “Oh, Chappaquiddick.” So I was like, “What’s that?” But later that went away.
I know, and he became the Lion of the Senate. It’s hard, you don’t mean to be disrespectful. And he achieved a lot. But I watched a lot of the eulogies, you know? Including President Barack Obama’s. And it’s hard to watch it with the same eyes when you put the story into context as well. And you go, really?
This movie does a great job of you getting into his head during the cover-up and going back and forth about it…
Yeah, and also the understanding of what I’m going to become if I go down this path and get out of it. Who am I? You can feel that monster inside you that’s still going down it, absolutely – taking responsibility, avoiding responsibility, passing responsibility. You follow the man on his moral journey here, his choices. It’s not some grandiose conspiracy thing at all. You just see them sitting there, working it out as they go. What’s the problem now? And the film forces you, I think, to watch it and to be with it and to experience it and to make your own mind up. Hopefully, you can relate that to the current situation: how you feel about other things in people you vote for, both sides of the coin. Not just the Republican Trump side, but the Democrats.
It also shows there were so many missteps, he could have gotten away with it even more than he did…
Well, in retrospect, you could also say that he just could have said she was driving. At the point, I think he didn’t say that because he didn’t know what they’d find in the car. So you’re taking that risk. You see the reasons he could’ve been honest and come up with it and then you see the reasons where he could have actually gotten away with it even more if he had just said, Oh, you know, she was driving. It’s actually full-on when you consider what he did and what happened. And then that’s encapsulated with his journey. His personal journey, then the journey of the people around him outside and the people that made it happen, and then the actual larger voting public.
This is still a pretty powerful family. Did you get any backlash? Did you get any weird phone calls in the middle the night?
No, we didn’t get anything. I mean, I don’t think they wanted anything to do with it.
Well, yeah, I would imagine.
But no. I think they steered clear of it. Hopefully this is not a hatchet job on Ted either.
You portray him as very conflicted. A lot of the reason there’s a coverup is because of his father.
I mean, we really went – even with the makeup and the hair and the teeth – just to not give a histrionic Ted, but a very real, intimate Ted. A person who you can see clearly that he’s traumatized for the loss of his brother, that he’s got a heavy heart, that he’s a little bit lost. That he just wants to retreat from the world, from everything that’s happened and whatever. That he’s out on a limb – that he doesn’t have his brothers or his father there really to be there. His father has had a stroke and his brothers are dead. Just little things like that, he’s isolated. He’s very isolated. And that he’s just in the middle of this fucking massive problem.
What surprised you? What did you not know about this when you first started to get into this?
Well, I didn’t know that she very likely asphyxiated, ran out of air rather than drowned. I didn’t know that.
I didn’t know that either.
I didn’t know that he pleaded guilty to leaving the scene of an accident and got six months probation. I didn’t know the constitutional legal challenge they made to keep journalists out of the grand jury was a new law that was created by a lawyer that Joe [Kennedy] Senior had provided, which then Nixon then used at Watergate to do the same thing and then the public couldn’t see what was going on. It changed a lot of things. I didn’t know that he wore a fucking neck brace!
I’ve seen that picture many times.
But come on, man. How did he get away? How did this happen?
If this happened today with a current politician, I can’t figure out if this would be the biggest story ever or if it would just go away after like a day. Because, now, some things that you’d think would be important seem to go away quickly…
It would become huge, because people are profiting both sides of it, you know? News is just news these days.
But a news cycle is like an hour now and goes away quickly…
For example, our current president is being sued by a porn star.
I know! No, I know. But, I mean, he came off the bus and he was talking about the old “pussy-grabbing” thing with Billy Bush, and then, bang, it’s over. I mean, I think, yes, technology, Ted Kennedy wouldn’t have gone and made the phone call from the ferry and all that and different things. He would have been photographed and blah blah blah. But people always adapt, people always change. The end result is still the same. That’s why it takes good investigation and education to see through it or to make up your own mind about what happened. Most people, as they don’t know about these things, don’t care enough to do it. Our education system doesn’t teach us about these things. That’s weird.
I was wondering, did you see War for the Planet of the Apes?
I did watch War for the Planet of the Apes.
Being in the second one, are you sitting there going, “Well, I need to know how this ends, one ticket please.”
I loved it. I mean, you know, you always know with Matthew [Reeves], he’s going to find his anchor in the film. He’s a very smart, intuitive, emotional director, as well as he knows his technical stuff as well. And he did it again with War. And just an amazing trilogy. What a trilogy.
That whole thing is a minor miracle.
It is a miracle. That’s absolutely true. Coppola couldn’t finish it off with [the third] The Godfather.
I’m out of time. But I really enjoyed Chappaquiddick and there are a lot of things in this movie I didn’t even know happened…
Yeah, I agree. Well, thank you, man. Appreciate it. Spread the word.
I’m going to put this whole conversation on the internet.
Chappaquiddick opens April 6th. You can contact Mike Ryan directly on Twitter.