There's an old showbiz axiom that states if it ain't on the page, it ain't on the stage.
In other words, an actor is only as good as the words written for her or him to recite.
Rick Roberts might argue that there's a corollary to that old theatrical saw: if it doesn't happen in the makeup chair, it won't happen on the screen.
Roberts underwent a startling daily transformation last summer when he was in Winnipeg for the filming of Jack, the CBC-TV movie in which he portrays former federal NDP leader Jack Layton. And it was the magic that happened in the hair and makeup department that helped him find the character he plays in the biographical drama, which airs Sunday at 8 p.m. on CBC.
"There's a makeup artist in Winnipeg named Doug Morrow, and he's a genius," says Roberts. "In a way, it was a matter of living up to his work. And it was strange, because I spent 16 hours a day, for a month, with someone else's face on. It's sort of a weird place to be, when you forget about it and then you look in the mirror and you have this other person looking back at you.
"It's hard to describe -- I had been working on the voice and some other stuff at home, but I really never landed on the character until we did the first makeup test. It's like putting on a mask, and it kind of instructs you."
In Jack, Roberts plays Layton over a span of three decades, from his political beginnings as a Toronto city councillor through his rise to the leadership of the New Democratic Party and its stunning ascent to Official Opposition status in the 2011 federal election.
Well-known actor/musician/radio personality Sook-Yin Lee co-stars as Olivia Chow, who met Layton when he was a municipal politician and with whom the NDP leader shared a rich public and private life until his death just a few weeks after the 2011 triumph.
Roberts, 47, who, without the benefit of a hair/makeup overhaul, bears no physical resemblance to Layton, says he didn't hesitate when the opportunity to audition for the part was presented.
"When the call came to audition, I think, smartly, that I just went for it," he says. "I thought that if you limited your search to only people who physically resemble any person, like (Layton), you'd have a pretty thin field to choose from. So I think -- I hope -- they decided to go with somebody they felt could find his way to embodying the spirit of the man.
"I decided to take it on because it's such a momentous Canadian story, and I wanted to be part of it. When my parents' neighbour found out I was doing it, she said, 'Oh, that's a real honour.' I hadn't really thought of it that way until she said it, but it is. It's an honour to play this part."
Roberts credits his co-star, Lee, for helping him find the spirit of the man he was tasked to play. In many ways, he says, Jack is as much a love story as it is a political biography.
"She's a very immediate, truthful actor," he says. "I think what you have to do is go within yourselves and form your own relationship on camera, and hopefully find the truthfulness and the chemistry in that, so that people can recognize that it's just like any kind of love relationship in which people are interested in caring about and listening to each other."
The pressure that accompanied playing this real-life couple was compounded when Chow paid a visit to the Winnipeg set during filming. It was, Roberts recalls, a rather stressful time for Jack's cast and crew.
"I was pretty nervous about it, especially when she was there on a day when we were shooting the later scenes," he recalls. "This (movie shoot) was all within the year that he had passed away, so I wasn't sure how she would react. I was thinking, 'Are you sure she knows what we're shooting today?' But she was very generous and very helpful... She gave us all the space we needed to work in, but it was strange. It was very surreal."
For her part, Layton's widow says she found the set visit to be more of a fascinating experience than a difficult emotional ordeal.
"It was eye-opening; I had never been on a film shoot before," says Chow. "I thought, 'Wow, this is how it's done.' It was complicated, but it was like clockwork. I was astounded by the number of people and the complexity involved in putting a film together."
There was, however, a time when the set of Jack was a hard place for anyone to be -- during filming of scenes in which Layton is shown succumbing to the cancer that took his life.
"Some scenes were really hard, like the hospital scene," Chow recalls. "I was trying to detach myself, while still finding a way to be useful and contribute in some way. For instance, I commented that the shirt Sook-Yin was wearing had too many flowers for a hospital scene -- it was too cheerful, a bit jarring -- so I suggested a different shirt."
Roberts recalls that sequence as being the most difficult to shoot.
"It was pretty brutal," he says, "because it's such a private and personal thing. You start reflecting on your own mortality and what it would be like to have to say goodbye to the people you love. And then you're dealing with someone like (Layton), who seemed to have this optimism and this sense that he could achieve anything.
"It was hard. That was a tough one."
Chow says the actors and the screenwriter got it right.
"There was a lot of respect given to that personal space," says Chow. "I think 'dignity' is a good way to describe it. It wasn't overwrought with too much emotion, but it wasn't dealt with too lightly. The tone seemed right."
There's a moment in that difficult hospital scene in which Layton, while being fussed over by a nurse, tries to explain to her that his job as a political leader is no more important than hers as a health-care provider, and that his job is one that anyone could do.
And that, says Chow, is the essence of the man she hopes Jack will portray.
"I would love for people who see the film to feel inspired and say, 'Oh, I have passion, too, and I can get involved in my community,'" she says. "That's the message I hope people get -- 'He's a pretty decent guy, and he's done quite a bit, but I, too, can do the kind of work he did.'
"That's why I wanted this film to be made... If it's a way to motivate people to get involved, then it's worth telling his story."
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THE ROBERTS REPORT
You might not recognize actor Rick Roberts (born Nov. 13, 1965, Hamilton, Ont.) after the hair-and-makeup transformation that turns him into Jack. Here's a sampling of titles in which he has been easier to spot:
Street Legal (1993)
Side Effects (1995)
L.A. Doctors (1998-99)
An American in Canada (2002-03)
Plague City: SARS in Toronto (2005)
This Is Wonderland (2005-06)
Jonestown: Paradise Lost (2007)
ZOS: Zone of Separation (2009)
Republic of Doyle (2011)
Wrath of Grapes: The Don Cherry Story II (2012)
Starring Rick Roberts, Sook-Yin Lee and Wendy Crewson
Sunday at 8 p.m.