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Actors need courage to recreate Jack Layton's life

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It's Thursday afternoon in the concrete canyon courtyard between the Centennial Concert Hall and the Manitoba Museum, and Jack Layton and his wife Olivia Chow are having sandwiches and discussing Layton's immediate political future with a trusted adviser.

That, of course, is just an illusion. Pull back from the trio of politicos and see a camera crew and a retinue of background extras recreating a meeting in the concrete courtyard of Toronto's City Hall in 2003 when Layton and Chow were city councillors and the federal NDP was just one seat away from losing official party status.

In the scene, Layton, as played by the cosmetically altered actor Rick Roberts, expresses doubt that the country could get behind a "loudmouth show-off from Toronto." Chow, played by actor/filmmaker/CBC Radio vet Sook-Yin Lee, presciently suggests Layton is precisely what the endangered NDP needs.

The movie is Smilin' Jack: The Jack Layton Story, a TV movie earmarked for CBC's 2013 schedule, which follows Layton's ascendency in the party, culminating in the NDP's stunning rise to opposition party status in the 2011 federal election, as well as his struggle with the cancer that ultimately claimed his life nearly a year ago.

Roberts, a 20-year veteran of Canadian television, might ordinarily be recognized from his TV work on programs such as Republic of Doyle or Traders, except he is utterly unrecognizable done up as Layton, courtesy of makeup artist Bruce Morrow's dazzling use of prosthetics and hairstylist Pina Robinson's reproduction of Layton's close-cropped white hair.

"My face doesn't look anything like this," Roberts says during a break.

It's been a quick turnaround of intense research for both actors. During an interview, they make the surprising discovery that Sook-Yin's member of Parliament is Chow and Roberts' MP had been Layton.

"I had to lose some weight and get fitter for the role," Roberts says of his physical preparation. "Jack Layton was an athlete."

Roberts, 46, never met Layton, and was challenged to piece together a portrayal largely based on the politician's public persona. (Beyond the fitness regime, he also had to learn to speak some Cantonese and play guitar.)

"Anyone I've talked to that knew him has said that he was incredibly genuine and generous and warm and human and a great listener," says Roberts. "So it gave me a bit of courage to take on his public gestures.

"But at some point, as an actor, you ask how do you get beyond just an impersonation and impression. You have Jack Layton and you have me and you have to find this other creature that lives in between them."

Lee enjoyed more familiarity with both Layton and Chow, beginning with a fateful encounter on the streets of Toronto when Lee was directing a segment of the omnibus movie Toronto Stories, and was frustrated in her attempts to get access to the Royal Ontario Museum as a location.

"I saw Jack riding his bike and I, of course, stopped him and hailed him down and introduced myself and I told him about my dilemma," Lee recalls. "He said immediately: 'We can help you. I can't help you but my wife Olivia can.' And on the spot, he texted her.

"I was like: Oh my God, did he just give me Olivia Chow's personal email? And sure enough, he did. And she helped me get in there."

Lee still has Chow's personal email address and she says she "spattered her with tons of questions" when she got the role. Lee says Chow was gracious and amazing in answering them.

Lee likewise was challenged by portraying the private side of a public person.

"It is very much a process, like Rick says, of intuition and doing your due diligence and seeing how much you can find out," she says.

"But also, I've had a huge experience with cancer in the last year. My sister Deanna was diagnosed with cancer and I moved to Vancouver to support her. That is something that I know well, and I think that's a huge part of this story.

"It's hard to live with cancer, and they were doing all this work, keeping their eyes on the prize working towards this amazing (election outcome). When my sister was going through chemotherapy, radiation and surgery, she didn't want to get out of bed. It takes a lot out of a person. It's a big struggle. It takes a lot out of families and it's difficult on the people."

To outward appearances, this apparently mainstream telefilm might seem a departure for Lee, whose resumé includes controversial works such as her film Year of the Carnivore (2009) and her participation in the sexually explicit 2003 film Shortbus, which almost lost her a job as host of CBC Radio's Definitely Not the Opera.

Lee sees no real distinction in those movies and Smilin' Jack.

"I think this is a very edgy movie," she says. "We're talking about real lives and we're talking about mortality, your body decaying on you and hurting you.

"To me, that's a deep part of living and so I don't think of this as a non-edgy film at all. I think there's a lot of heart and grist and soul here."

randall.king@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 11, 2012 G1

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