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A Sense of Responsibility and Respect


You might not recognize Bruce Greenwood in his new movie, Thirteen Days. Not only does he completely inhabit his role as John F. Kennedy, but as well, he is completely different here than in his previous parts—Ashley Judd’s dastardly husband in Double Jeopardy, the grieving father in Atom Egoyan’s The Sweet Hereafter, the title character in UPN’s short-lived SF series, Nowhere Man. Moreover, not one of these characters quite prepares you for Greenwood’s own demeanor—the guy is modest, funny, and enthusiastic. We spoke on the phone, about his career, his approach to acting, and the “absurd amount of research” he did for Thirteen Days.



Cynthia Fuchs:

How difficult was it to tackle this mythic character?



Bruce Greenwood:

Well, the fortunate thing about the script is that it doesn’t go to Camelot. Instead, you see a man alone. The deeper I got into the research, the more I realized how driven intellectually he was, and how his sense of moral obligation, to do what he felt was right, evolved profoundly from the Bay of Pigs to this time [the Missile Crisis].



CF:

The relationship that you and Steven Culp [as Bobby Kennedy] have on screen looks pretty intense. How did you work that out?



BG:

We spent a lot of time together, in the month before we shot, initially because our accents tended to drift into one another’s. So we wanted to find a way to hang onto our own thing and be distinct without drifting into each other’s territory. We’re both guitar players, so we noodled around on guitars. And we just talked at each other.



CF:

Your general performance style is low key, even when you’re doing a villain, as in Double Jeopardy.



BG:

You know, it’s weird, because in person, I’m a bit of a flat-footed goof, more inclined to broad, banana-peel behavior.



CF:

So is this something you think about when you’re putting a character together?



BG:

I’m looking forward to doing something in the future that’s a little wiggier. But certainly in this film, and The Sweet Hereafter and The Rules of Engagement, I needed to come to a certain quiet resolve or something. I think you’re right, it’s less showy than it might be.



CF:

Can you tell me a little about Nowhere Man, which I thought had an intriguing premise.



BG:

I thought so too. About half the episodes we did were really good. And about a quarter of them were appalling. And I was completely immersed in it for about a year.



CF:

So, TV is hard work?



BG:

Oh mama! Yeah, if you’re the sole star of an hour-long show, you’re in every scene, and at the end of the year, you kind of say, “Jesus, what happened this year?” I wouldn’t want to do it again. Never say never, but I’m not going to do it any time soon. And of course, if you’re the star and the show is cancelled, it’s hard not to take it personally. [Laughs] I was pretty rattled by it, but you know, I’ve been in the business for a long time and I have a lot of cartilage from having doors slammed in my face—so it didn’t hurt too long. And the silver lining for me was that if it hadn’t been cancelled, I wouldn’t have been able to do Sweet Hereafter, which contributed to people thinking, “Oh, maybe we haven’t seen this guy before, maybe we haven’t seen all that he can do.”



CF:

Do you have a preference for big-time or smaller projects?



BG:

They’re fun for different reasons and serve different purposes. The big stuff is widely distributed and seen by a lot of people, and often fun to chew on. Jeopardy was fun to gnaw away at, and this film was certainly was more than I ever expected to try and consume. And when you’re seen all over the place, you’re more recognizable and the studios are more inclined to give you a job that might actually pay some money, or one of the few good parts that aren’t only two or three scenes. And then you get to do the other stuff, the Atom Egoyan stuff for example, which is so wonderfully conceived.



CF:

I know that Egoyan is very precise in planning his work, but the films can feel almost organic in the way they unfold on screen. How do they feel when you’re working on them?



BG:

They feel different from other movies. Usually I fool around a lot, to separate myself from the work, and to keep the energy up. It was a different kind of energy on Thirteen Days. Everybody studied and had a deep sense of responsibility. There wasn’t so much cartwheeling around the set.



CF:

[Laughs] Now I have an image of Kevin Costner cartwheeling around the set.



BG:

[Laughs] Yeah, it’s the little known Cirque du Soleil connection.



CF:

Was it difficult or unusual for you that Thirteen Days was so focused on guys, to the point that there were few women in the film?



BG:

You’re right. It was a pretty “guy” set, but it was a guys’ world, at that time, in the Oval Office. And there weren’t any pissing contests, just a lot of guys on the set. Of course there were women working, and a couple of actresses, but for the most part, they were on the sidelines, as they were back then. Often when there’s much “guy” around, there’s a lot of testosterone flying, and a lot of people asserting themselves with solid stances and pushing each other’s buttons, just because that’s guys being guys, staging contests for fun as much as anything else. But [on Thirteen Days], the set itself inspired a really broad and deep respect in everybody. It was just in this big old dusty warehouse in the middle of Glendale, [California], the last place you’d expect to walk in and be moved, because you’re driving past all these McDonalds cups blowing down the street. And then you open the bay doors on this warehouse, and the air is different. It was like we’d dropped through the ceiling into another time. It gave everybody a sense of responsibility and respect.



CF:

Do you think this sense of respect had to do as well with our current historical moment?



BG:

I do think there was some of that. The more we realized what men and women in the Oval Office are going to be called on to deal with, the more we thought, “Oh my God, what we’ve got going on now is just thoroughly unacceptable.” Admittedly the Kennedy brothers were lucky during this event, but at the end of the day, if it had been anybody else, we might not be having this conversation. And it’s beyond politics. One of the [Kennedys’] brilliant strokes was that they enlisted as many different points of view as they could respect, put them in a room together, and allowed everyone to have their say. My own respect for what’s required to be a great leader and exercise real judgment was altered. You put yourself in the shoes of an icon like Kennedy, and at some point you see him as a man, and you think, “Who among us is really qualified for this?” Not many. Maybe some who don’t appear to be qualified will rise to those occasions, but for the most part, we need superb people. The office of course, is not attainable for people who make mistakes, who’ve had sea changes in the way they view the world. That’s not acceptable because it looks like a lack of focus or a lightness.



CF:

Well, Bobby Kennedy went through some dramatic changes during his career.



BG:

Yes. At first he may have seen Civil Rights initially as a political necessity and then once he investigated it, it became a moral crusade for him.



CF:

JFK is pervasive these days, as a model of presidential goodness—as in The West Wing. Did other people’s performances of Kennedy influence you at all?



BG:

No, I took pains not to have any of that in my consciousness. A friend of mine gave me a copy of The Missiles of October and I popped it in, and the minute I saw the brothers, I said, “No, no, no.” If I make a choice that’s the same [as someone else’s], I don’t want to change it because it might be considered derivative. In a role that’s not a real person, stuff comes to you all the time: while you’re washing the dishes, there’s some arbitrary bit of behavior that you suddenly mark and you go, “I’m going to do that.” Whatever goofy things you come up with, and whatever more profound inventions you come up with—you can just pile them up arbitrarily and then peel away the ones that you can’t tie in. But this is a whole different smoke. You can’t pull that stuff out of the ether, you can’t make it up.



CF:

Even though Costner’s in the film, which sort of makes it a Costner film in marketing terms, anyway, the other characters are well drawn, or at least sketched.



BG:

And that credit goes to Kevin, for understanding that, to get this movie made, and not play the president, he’d have to share the hero spot. And he really loves what’s best about America. It sounds like the most horrendous cliche….



CF:

Yeah. It does.



BG:

[Laughs] Forgive me. But it’s the truth. And he really wanted to make this movie. And he believes in much of what it asks us to think about, issues of trust and leadership.



CF:

This may be a hard time to sell that.



BG:

Or is it? We’re hoping that people are looking for it somewhere. I think certainly kids, who might have been less interested in this at another time, now have seen beyond that flimsy curtain that the soul of politics is hiding behind. Maybe now we should spend some time looking at where we’ve been and how far we’ve come, or haven’t.

Cynthia Fuchs is director of Film & Media Studies and Associate Professor of English, Film & Video Studies, African and African American Studies, Sport & American Culture, and Women and Gender Studies at George Mason University.


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