When casting someone as iconic and all-American as Ted Kennedy, one might not immediately think of Jason Clarke, the Australian actor best-known for films like “Zero Dark Thirty” and “Mudbound.” Yet in “Chappaquiddick,” which chronicles the infamous accident and aftermath that nearly took down Kennedy’s rising star, Clarke perfectly channels the complicated politician during a turning point in his life and career.
And if you’re the kind of person who puts any stock in coincidence, consider the following: Clarke was born the day before the July 18, 1969, incident in which Kennedy drove off his car off a bridge and his 28-year-old passenger Mary Jo Kopechne drowned. He even happened to cross paths once with the late Kennedy; the two attended a boating event when he was a relatively unknown actor on the Showtime series “Brotherhood.”
Questions of fate and destiny weigh heavy in “Chappaquiddick,” which hits theaters April 6 and dares to present the incident in a straightforward manner, without needless flourishes on the part of director John Curran and screenwriters Taylor Allen and Andrew Logan. Those looking for bombastic speculation or conspiracy theories in the vein of “JFK” might be disappointed by this sharp, insightful character study that allows audiences to make their own judgments. Which is part of what appealed to Clarke.
“It was never a hatchet job or a glorification. We didn’t want to be salacious or tabloidish,” notes Clarke. “John and I wrestled a lot with that. There were a couple scenes where we weren’t sure how calculated Ted should be. But I always respected what John said, which was to play it for real in the moment and let it all add up.”
And to be clear, the actor has great affection for the Kennedy clan. “I love the Kennedys, I love the rhetoric,” he says. “But how do you get past what he did? And how do you judge? It’s ‘Crime and Punishment,’ it’s Dostoyevsky.”
The Kennedy family has been covered extensively in media before, but rather than worry about oversaturation, Clarke says, “I don’t think they’ve been explored enough! People have very basic ideas of who these people are, but they’ve barely scratched the surface.” He points to the much-maligned patriarch Joseph Kennedy. “He’s done a lot, good and bad. Think of his impact. Just one example: after the great crash, he was one of the people chosen to write the rules for the SEC that gave the legal framework Wall Street had to operate in. it brought back confidence to Wall Street. He’s really, really fascinating.”
The esteem with which many hold the Kennedys might have turned off a lot of actors from the project, which Clarke says worked to his advantage. “I desperately wanted it. The script was going around but they wanted one of the big $15 million guys to do it,” he recalls. “Some were looking at it, but it was problematic. It’s one of those dark things in the Democratic Party and people were saying, ‘I don’t think the Democrats need this now.’ Whereas I think they do.”
Clarke understood the challenges, but those were also what excited him. “How do you follow a lead character when he does something heinous straight off the bat?” At a certain point I thought, ‘This is a film for our time and a film really worth exploring.’”
Which is not to say he was sure he could do it. Asked when he knew he could pull it off, he admits it was at the camera test. “I had the wig and teeth and at that point I said, ‘You know what? I see Ted Kennedy.’ But you never really know if you can do it.” He takes it as a compliment that several people have said they didn’t know it was him in the film, even though the makeup is kept minimal so as not to be distracting.
It’s worth noting that many of Clarke’s films have a political or human message, even the blockbuster “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” raises some serious questions. Asked if he’s drawn to such material, he says, “I guess so. I’m attracted to things I can’t stop thinking about. We live in a world where I think film should have something to say.”
Clarke will have a lot to say this year; in addition to roles in “The Aftermath” with Keira Knightley and “Serenity” opposite Matthew McConaughey, Clarke recently completed shooting “First Man,” Damien Chazelle’s follow-up to “La La Land” about Neil Armstrong’s walk on the moon. It’s another look into a famous American event. “It’s one of the great moments in history. One of the great moments in American history and world history,” he notes. “One of the great achievements of us as a race, the ability to put a man up there.”
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