Produced by Scott Free Productions and based on the best-selling book by Bill O’Reilly and Martin Dugard, National Geographic Channel’s Killing Kennedy chronicles the build-up to one of America’s most shocking events – the assassination of President John F. Kennedy by Lee Harvey Oswald. In 1959, two men faced major turning points in their lives, one in Washington, D.C., preparing to announce his presidential candidacy, and the other at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow, renouncing his American citizenship. This film charts the highs and lows of those two men, eventually intersecting with two shocking deaths that stunned a nation. It stars Rob Lowe as President John F. Kennedy and Will Rothhaar as Lee Harvey Oswald, with Ginnifer Goodwin as Jacqueline Kennedy and Michelle Trachtenberg as Marina Oswald.
During this exclusive interview with Collider, actor Will Rothhaar talked about why he was so interested in this project, the biggest challenges in bringing Lee Harvey Oswald to life, getting into costume and really embodying the character, working with Michelle Trachtenberg on the relationship dynamic between Lee and his wife Marina, what he thinks Oswald’s motivation for the assassination was, seeing Rob Lowe in character as John F. Kennedy, and how he goes about deciding which role he wants to do next. Check out what he had to say after the jump.
WILL ROTHHAAR: No, running for the hills came after I got it. Then, everybody went, “Yeah, you got the role!” I’m like, “That’s awesome! Dammit, I have to follow through with this now.” Both of my parents are actors, as well, and they just adore Kennedy. They were both around for his presidency and his death. So, this is a subject that I’ve been educated on, since I was a kid. My grandmother lived in Dallas, so I went to the School Book Depository, several times as a youngster. For it to come around full circle, when I opened my email and saw this thing for Killing Kennedy to play Lee Harvey Oswald, I was like, “Oh, my god! This is awesome!” I made a tape for it and they cast me off of the tape, which was awesome. Once I got it and then I got on the plane to go shoot it, I was like, “Oh, dear, I guess we’re gonna have to make this happen now.” It was such a labor of love. We just had the best time. This is one of the most incredible experiences I’ve ever had. I’ve been at this for over 20 years, and this definitely tops my chart, so far.
When you read this script, what appealed to you about this take on the events that are being explored?
ROTHHAAR: What I was really happy about was that the script sticks to the facts of what we know happened. My opinion differs from that, but that’s not the story we’re telling. But it’s so well done, in that sense. It’s just the facts. That’s what initially drew me to it, as well.
Once you did sign on and you were committed to playing this role, what were you most nervous about? What did you feel the biggest challenges were in bringing this person to life?
ROTHHAAR: If you’re an actor, you get handed a character you’ve gotta play and it’s usually fictional. It’s somebody you can make up and figure that out. But, this was playing somebody. I’d never done that before, in my career. My thing with anything I do is that you’ve gotta make the person relatable, however you’re gonna play it. My main goal with Oswald, in this project, was to make him human. We always see him as just this two-dimensional villain, and you never get to learn what makes him tick. Yes, he did a monstrous thing, but he wasn’t a monster. He was a human being. The main challenge for me, throughout this project, was to not play him like a crazy person, and to play him like a main who desperately wants to be seen. He grew up with nothing but regret in his life, as a child. He didn’t have a father. His father died two months before he was born. And his mother was insane. He didn’t have any love. He never had any love, growing up. He had no positive male influence in his life, at all. So, my main challenge with this was to figure out how I could make him human. In that, I found myself understanding him. It made me wish that I was around and a little bit older than he was, when he was a child, so I could have just taken his hand and taken him aside and been like, “Look, I’ve got you. Let me teach you about this, and teach you about that.” If somebody had done that, I think it would have gone down completely different. I ended up feeling so much for him that I just wished I could have given him a big squeeze, as a child. I think it would have changed the outcome of how he decided to do things.
ROTHHAAR: I remember the first day I got to Richmond, I went to my fitting. I started putting on the clothes and they were adjusting things. Everything was tailored for me. It was all of these period threads that were amazing. After my fitting, I went to go get my hair cut and shaped. I have straw straight hair and he had wavy hair, so I got my hair curled. That was weird. There was a lot of trying to figure out the right thing. After I got that done, I went in to put on an outfit to show some people at the office, and once I had the hair and the costume, it was set. It was ready to go. Every day, coming to work was such a pleasure and an honor to get in that chair and get everything done, put the clothes on and go to work. It was such a trip to put on the belt and be like, “Yep, there he is.”
Did it really feel like you were transported into that time period?
ROTHHAAR: Yeah. And also, whenever we’d get in the van to go down to the set, we’d go to this neighborhood that was supposed to be Dallas/Ft. Worth. You’d turn a corner and see the old cars, all over the neighborhood, and you’d be like, “Did I just walk into 1961? This is amazing!” That was a trip. Also, we worked inside houses and apartments that were all dressed. It was great because it just put you there.
What was it like to work with Michelle Trachtenberg and develop the relationship between your characters?
ROTHHAAR: That was incredible. We have a lot of chemistry together. She speaks about 80% of the role in Russian, and she’s just brilliant. There were scenes where she was speaking to me in Russian, and then she’ll have given me the Russian version of an English line, and I’d say it in Russian and repeat it in English. It was fantastic. For what Marina and Lee needed to be, I think we nailed it. That relationship is something that people don’t know about. A lot of people don’t know that he was married. And there’s a lot that people don’t know about Lee. Everybody just seems him as one of the most hated men in the universe because he killed this adored figure. But at the end of the day, he just wanted to be seen. He wanted somebody to ask him about his day. That’s it.
What was the relationship between Lee and Marina like?
ROTHHAAR: When they were living in Russia, they were very much in love. She loved him, and he loved her. But because of the way that he grew up, he built this world for himself, in which he lived for the rest of his life until he died. Somebody asked me if I thought Marina added to him committing this act, and I don’t think she did. If nothing else, she was getting in the way of what he wanted. Once they got back to the United States, there was a lot of tension. He beat her up, all the time. They weren’t happy, all the time. But she also birthed two beautiful babies, and they raised them. It was definitely a tumultuous relationship between them, but that’s not to say that they didn’t love each other because I think that they did. But because Lee didn’t grow up with any love in his life, and you don’t know that and that seed isn’t planted in you as a child, it’s hard to express it when you get older. I don’t think he knew how.
What do you think Lee Harvey Oswald’s true motivation for the assassination was?
ROTHHAAR: It was really interesting to delve into what his motivation was. I think that, on a base level, he just wanted somebody to notice him. Through this process, I’ve also been exploring all of the other attempted assassins and successful assassins in the United States, and checking out why they did it and what their motivation was. And all of them are eerily similar. How do you get famous? You shoot a president. There are a lot of what ifs with this story. It’s a rabbit hole that goes very, very deep. It’s fun to explore. Literally up until the last day of shooting, I was still finding out new things. Fifty years later, it’s still one of the biggest question marks in American history. Everybody has got an opinion, one way or another, about what happened, and that’s great. I love that. I love that there can still be that debate about it, 50 years later. It’s amazing!
What was it like to see Rob Lowe in character?
ROTHHAAR: I remember the first day I met him, I was in the make-up trailer and he was just about to shoot this scene where he was swimming in this swimming pool with the White House interns. He came in and he was in an open buttoned-down dress shirt and old boxer shorts, and he had the teeth and the hair piece, and he came up and said, “How are you?” And I was like, “Oh, it’s you!” He dug so deep for this role. He really went there. Whenever I wasn’t working, I’d sit in video village and watch him. He’s so specific with it. The way that he plays him, he got so specific and he dug so deep that it’s the glue that holds this all together. The thing is that Oswald and Kennedy never occupied the same space, ever. I never got to work with Rob, at all. But, I was on set and I watched him in his wheelhouse.
Because of all of the remakes and re-boots now, when you read scripts, do you try to go into everything as open-minded as possible?
ROTHHAAR: I try to approach everything open-minded, yeah. What’s the fun in approaching something closed-minded? I’m very specific, if dialogue is too on-the-nose, or there’s a lot of telling and not showing. I’ll talk to my manager and let them know the problems I have with it. But, I always go in with fresh eyes. The first pass just needs to be about figuring out little things, here and there. I try not to judge too hard, right off the bat.
What gets you to accept or turn down a role?
ROTHHAAR: There’s definitely a lot of factors, but I’m somebody who, just in life, operates so much on the energy that I feel from my environment, specifically with people. I base so much of it on what feels good, to me. If it doesn’t feel good, there’s probably a reason. When it feels good in the gut, I’ll go, “Yeah, okay, I could get on this.” And when I read this, it felt good.
Killing Kennedy airs on National Geographic on November 10th.