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Making JFK Real

(c) Los Angeles Times

December 28, 2000



By Susan King

In the thriller 'Thirteen Days,' veteran actor Bruce Greenwood portrays President Kennedy not as an icon but as a man trying to prove his leadership.

Director Roger Donaldson says actor Bruce Greenwood virtually became John F. Kennedy during the production of "Thirteen Days," the riveting historical thriller that relives the 1962 Cuban missile crisis, when the United States came terrifyingly close to nuclear war with the Soviet Union.

Greenwood, offers Donaldson, "has a great ability to do impersonations, but he can also go so far beyond that. He really felt he could get inside the character. When you look at the film, he looks like he's thinking all the time. He doesn't look like he's thinking, 'How do I make myself look like JFK?,' but 'I am JFK.' "

Relaxing recently in a Beverly Hills restaurant, the affable, attractive actor points out there was no reason to "perform" JFK.

"It's a very smart script," Greenwood says of the screenplay by David Self. "It's one of those nice combinations of the glossy Hollywood political thriller that also has a brain."

And, he adds, one in which the traditional Kennedy icons are stripped away. 'There is no Camelot. There is no top hat. There is no tousled hair on the beach. I think one of the real strengths of the script is that it treated this period with real sobriety. It didn't wander off into those well-trod paths of Kennedy life to titillate us with all the stuff we have already seen too much of."

Indeed, the performance gives audiences a fresh view of Jack Kennedy. Greenwood's Kennedy has the famous Boston accent and even the late president's well-known back pain. But he also gives a sense of a man trying to prove his leadership ability in a room full of doubters.

"Thirteen Days," which opened Christmas Day, also stars Kevin Costner as presidential advisor Kenny O'Donnell and Steven Culp as Bobby Kennedy. A mutual respect developed between Culp and Greenwood during the production.

"I don't think he is that much older than me," says Culp, "but I think we did fall into a big brother-little brother rhythm. We never actually talked about it on the set, but it was something I felt was happening. I think he felt it too, but we chose not to talk about it because you might begin to ruin it a little bit. We fell really easily into this, what I would think is a Kennedy-like camaraderie."

As Greenwood relates it, getting the role was a "pretty stock story" in terms of his agents giving him the script. "I went in and started the auditioning process and did half a dozen of them until they finally succumbed or realized time was running late and they'd better pick somebody."

Donaldson's recollection is slightly different. The director had auditioned Greenwood for a role in a movie--though he doesn't recall which one--several years ago and thought he was fantastic.

"I remember trying to convince the producers that this was someone we should take seriously," Donaldson recalls. "He wasn't a box-office name and it went nowhere, but he stuck in the back of my mind. I had seen some of the other things he had done over the years, and I thought he always looked so different."

As fate would have it, while Donaldson was casting around for an actor to play JFK, he ran into Greenwood at a screening. "I said [to myself], 'I should try to get this guy in to see what he could do with it.' Once he prepared himself he was just fantastic. He is just really a great actor, that is the short of it."

Greenwood didn't feel any pressure during the first audition because he never thought he'd get the role. "I thought this is one of those things where they will audition 25 guys and give it to a big star, and once again with all the other actors I know I will be in the fallback position."

But the Canadian-born actor's stock had risen in Hollywood by the time he auditioned for "Thirteen Days."

A veteran of TV series such as "St. Elsewhere" and the "Nowhere Man" and numerous TV movies and miniseries, Greenwood caught critics' notice with a haunting performance as a single parent who loses both of his children in a bus accident in Atom Egoyan's 1997 film, "The Sweet Hereafter." Greenwood acknowledges that producers looked at him in a different light because of that role.

More recently he has played cool, calculating and charming villains in the box-office hits "Double Jeopardy" and "Rules of Engagement."

Once cast as Kennedy, Greenwood had a month to prepare for the part. Not only did he read a "library" of material on the president, he also had "hours and hours of footage and more hours of recorded tape, so I would read and watch film and lie in bed and listen to various addresses and conversations he had had. Kennedy's conversation timbre was an octave and a half lower than his oratory timbre."

During his research, Greenwood's perceptions of Kennedy altered. "I had thought of him as this prince of Camelot and with the wave of his arm he could inspire people and dismiss them. And that he ruled over Camelot with ease and grace and sexuality and easy power. It couldn't have been further from the truth."

In fact, Greenwood says, Kennedy was "intellectually driven, a voracious reader, often quoting poetry that would contextualize the conversation he was having."

Greenwood was living in Bethesda, Md., and attending kindergarten during the Cuban missile crisis. "I remember the feeling in the house was very tense," he recalls. "The parents were given the choice that when the [bomb warning] sirens went off to either have the children run home to be with their parents and perish or to run down to the basement at their school. We were all going to be vaporized anyway."

On "Thirteen Days," Greenwood found Donaldson to be a director who would allow actors a lot of freedom. But Donaldson did have to step into the fray every so often. "When I get great material I linger over it and roll it around in my mouth and chew it forever before I swallow it and hand it over to the next guy," Greenwood says, laughing.

"Then Roger would step in and go, 'Come on. Wake up. This is too important for you to spend any more time massaging [the dialogue]. Let go. Don't gild it.' "

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