EXCLUSIVE: While the nearly 50-year-old drowning death of Mary Jo Kopechne that dashed Sen. Ted Kennedy’s White House aspirations would seem like strong subject matter for the cable talk shows that chew endlessly on political scandal, Chappaquiddick has proved to be a tricky sell for the filmmakers, who say they are being ignored by left-leaning shows while Fox News clamors. Jason Clarke plays Ted Kennedy in the John Curran-directed drama that Taylor Allen & Andrew Logan scripted from sworn testimony. The film is unsparing in its depiction of the tragic drowning of Kopechne, Kennedy’s inexplicable decision to not report it for nine hours and the ensuing damage-control campaign waged by the same Kennedy family confidants who helped JFK survive the Bay of Pigs fiasco. Here, Clarke explains the complexities in portraying an iconic politician in his worst moment, the difficulty in getting attention for an historically shameful event that has relevance to current political scandals. Entertainment Studios opens the film Friday, April 6.
DEADLINE: The Chappaquiddick scandal is almost 50 years old but feels strangely relevant with all the political scandal in the air today, like the Stormy Daniels 60 Minutes interview. There are left- and right-leaning political cable network shows chewing on this stuff day and night. How are the left-leaning liberal shows embracing your film, compared to the right?
JASON CLARKE: To my knowledge, the ones on the left unfortunately aren’t really embracing it, but the ones on the right seem to be all over it.
DEADLINE: JFK and Bobby Kennedy are revered by Democrats the way Ronald Reagan is by Republicans. But there is a compelling conversation to be had about our history and how things have or haven’t changed.
CLARKE: Why we are where we are, and how the piper will ultimately have to be paid. Look, we’ve definitely gotten a lot interest from the right from Fox, but the left are not engaging. Bill Maher and Rachel Maddow passed on covering the film. I think Chris Mathews is still considering but hasn’t committed, and The New York Times isn’t really entering into a dialogue about it. The Times has an important connection to this story. It was their journalist, James Reston, who was on the island and bumped into Ted on the day to break the story. It would be very interesting to see what The New York Times thinks about their coverage of the original event, in retrospect.
DEADLINE: One thing that’s different: Everything is polarized, reflecting a right or left viewpoint, and you are obliged to pick a side. Chappaquiddick is a scathing look at a shameful incident and cover-up involving an otherwise distinguished career of an iconic politician on the left.
CLARKE: I agree. I have friends who are Republicans, with different opinions from mine, but it’s time to stop blaming the other side and look at what you’ve done. What Ted’s done, it is easy to place blame, but what have we all done? Why are we still doing it? Why aren’t the Democrats talking as a group about what’s going on, about who we are as a party — because at the moment it’s just win at all costs. But maybe I’m not a big enough actor. Maybe it’s a small film and they’d rather talk about something else.
DEADLINE: What about Fox News? One would think they would be all over this…
CLARKE: Yes they are, but it’s important to be in the balance on this. I don’t want to be somebody’s political game. You can see how people react, even when the project comes up. Chappaquiddick — it’s going to be a Hollywood tear-jerker or it’s going to be a Hollywood hatchet job. It’s not that film. You’ve seen it. It’s not. And yet people come out of their own blinkered view to go. I am finding that on the right, they’re more willing to have a look at it than the left, I don’t know if they’ll it. I don’t think they know how to fit this into their agenda. Or, maybe if Tom Cruise had done it, they’d have had him on. And most importantly, this doesn’t diminish what Ted did legislatively. In the end, I would like to think this film is not just about Ted.
DEADLINE: How would you frame it?
CLARKE: You start off with one man, and it widens to his friends, then grows wider with his family, and wider with the Democratic Party, and it ends up with we the people. I wish people would be willing to talk more about these things. It’s the only way to progress as a nation. It’s the only way to pass legislation. It’s the only way to value your vote. This might start people thinking about other things then, about what is important to them and what you ask of your politicians. It’s very simple to blame politicians. That’s all we do.
DEADLINE: Chappaquiddick premiered in Toronto, the same festival where another biographical film, I, Tonya, bowed. Each changed my previous opinion of its subject. I walked away feeling some admiration for Tonya Harding as the defiant anti-hero and was surprised by how much I detested Kennedy for driving his car off the Chappaquiddick bridge and behaving so selfishly while the young woman with him drowned in the car. But the film makes you understand the pressure on him, with an impossible-to-please a father who’d lost his three other best and brightest sons in tragic ways, who sees his last chance at the White House gone. Watching Ted mismanage a drowning scandal the same time as when his brother Jack’s dream is fulfilled as Neil Armstrong lands on the moon, there is strong history here.
CLARKE: I was always struck by Joe Kennedy Sr. He lost three boys to his country. He’s lying up there in bed, expecting to have some great night [with the moon landing coverage], and then Ted rings up. The irony is incredible, isn’t it? I just did The First Man, with Damien Chazelle…
DEADLINE: The film that stars Ryan Gosling as Neil Armstrong and is about his moon landing.
CLARKE: That’s one of the greatest achievements of mankind, putting a man on the moon. And yet at the same time there’s no way around it. Chappaquiddick and the ongoing not talking about it, conspiracy, the cover-up ongoing to this day? It’s disgusting.
DEADLINE: What do you mean?
CLARKE: It’s not just Ted. It’s not just him and his father. It’s everybody. You cannot look at that last election we had and just say, “Ah, there seems to be some kind of payday here, a reaping of what we’ve sown.” Because this is off the hook of what we think is normal and acceptable. But then you look back to ’68, two leaders — Martin Luther King Jr and Bobby Kennedy — were shot in the head. There were race riots. Ted Kennedy got out of a car, she drowned, and he has a career. I couldn’t listen to that speech of Barack’s in the same kind of way. What have we done?
DEADLINE: Which speech?
CLARKE: The one at the 2008 nomination [after Kennedy endorsed Obama instead of Hillary Clinton]. Everybody gave [Kennedy] a pass.
DEADLINE: Your portrayal of the young Ted Kennedy was almost eerie — you so resembled him, down to his look and mannerisms.
CLARKE: I studied him, a lot. I wanted the audience to accept me as Ted. We all think we know him. The Kennedys are far away, but they’re close at the same time. There were no prosthetics, and I’m not mimicking. I am a real person. The story does not work unless you accept that this is a man. He has this problem and he just happens to be Ted Kennedy. Then, yeah, the teeth, the bumpers [he points to his cheeks]. I studied him a lot and picked a few of his key mannerisms. There’s little references I used, if you’ve studied Ted, like the way he held a phone. There’s actually a phone call, I mimicked that from something I’d seen. I held my size a certain way. There’s a photograph of Ted playing a little bit of football. He was strong but without being trim. He was always a bit heavy, because he’d broken his back. There’s so many things that people don’t know about him. Then, the accent, the way they speak. By the end when you watch me do the speech, and then you watch Ted when he did his speech…
DEADLINE: When he addressed the Chappaquiddick scandal in primetime on all three networks…
CLARKE: Yes. You’ll see there’s not much difference between what I did and what he did. But the goal was always to get you to see me as a man.
DEADLINE: But you’re not trying to replicate the speech beat by beat.
CLARKE: No, but I learned it and practiced it enough to have it inside of me. That speech is such an amazing piece of history.
DEADLINE: His cousin and Kennedy fixer Joe Gargan, one of two confidants Kennedy first brought to the accident site before Kennedy left the scene and didn’t report the accident for nine hours, plays the role of Ted Kennedy’s conscience in the film. He urged Kennedy to report the incident immediately and do the right thing in that speech. To see Gargan (Ed Helms) holding up damage control cue cards for Kennedy to read, written by the Bay of Pigs crisis team, is the height of humiliation for Gargan.
CLARKE: Well, it’s all there, just an incredible story. I don’t understand why it’s not taught more, why more people don’t know about it. I think the first time you watch, the facts are shocking and it’s a constricting feeling. Like, my God, this can’t be true, can it? The second time around, a lot of people have a much more emotional response, like, how can people not know about this?
I mean, I’ll never forget being shocked in that third presidential debate. I mean it was just a clown show, all around. The bus thing with Billy Bush, the four women [brought to the debate by Trump after they leveled sexual impropriety accusations against] Bill Clinton, Hillary up there. This is a debacle of epic proportions. Three levels of government at stake here, and this is where we’re at? You can point all you want at one person, but there’s a lot going on in that room. It’s just a giant mess. It’s just people getting away with it and people letting people get away with it.
DEADLINE: On both sides. The idea that Clinton’s campaign was damaged with the revelation her right-hand aide had funneled sensitive documents to the server of her disgraced estranged husband Anthony Weiner so he could print them for her is surreal.
CLARKE: Who does that? [Clinton] was the Secretary of State, and with everything she’d been through, how does that happen? Incompetence and hubris, across the board. Not trying to be mean, but you behaved like that in your job, you wouldn’t have a job. Here, we’re watching this whole thing unfold, with not just one level of government at stake, but all three. That’s like betting your whole house and your children’s houses on this roll of the dice, and you’re willing to do it with all this stuff behind you. My God. Why? Because you think it’s an unlosable election. My hope for Chappaquiddick is that it hopefully makes people think about themselves.
We can blame Ted, but that’s going to get us nowhere. His legacy in the Legislature is still mightily impressive, way more than anybody else these days across the floor. He was friends with Orrin Hatch. These days nobody even talks to each other. It’s so far apart and you go, “Why?” Watergate happens. Iran-contra with Reagan. Then Bill Clinton and Hillary Clinton in this last election. There’s an element of hypocrisy, with both sides going, they did it so we can do it. And it goes around and around.
DEADLINE: Why did it take 50 years for this story to be told? Do you know if the Kennedy influence impeded any earlier attempts?
CLARKE: I think it had been around for a while and nobody wanted to do it. People were still very wary of it. It’s not just the Kennedys. Do I see The New York Times doing a piece on, let’s look at our coverage then and how we’d have written about it now? The New York Times, the Boston Globe, the Washington Post — they all had this story. James Reston was on the island and he bumped into Ted [after the accident, as Kennedy walked into the police station in Hyannis]. How did they follow up the story? Just to say if you want to talk about blame or you want to talk about MeToo or you want to talk about changing the world, or how cover-ups happen, they don’t just happen because of Ted and that machinery. They happen because people don’t bother to do the research.
DEADLINE: The press in the movie seemed to be asking hard questions about the inconsistencies in Kennedy’s account of the accident…
CLARKE: But it went nowhere. They didn’t even have a grand jury. They tried to get one and couldn’t. The hope is you can learn from this.
DEADLINE: Chappaquiddick came out of Toronto with plans to launch in the last awards season. Why did it move to April?
CLARKE: They weren’t ready to come out in December. Oscar season is such a lockdown in many ways, from getting a campaign ready to actually finding cinema space.
DEADLINE: The same distributor, Entertainment Studios, got behind another festival acquisition, Hostiles, and jumped into the race because Christian Bale this fall will be promoting his turn as former Vice President Dick Cheney in Adam McKay’s film.
CLARKE: But even that Oscar campaign felt rushed, even though the film did well, afterwards, as it deserved to. At that time, you had The Post coming in, with dudes who were organized and had a lockdown on the cinemas. At that point, they said, “We’re not ready to go.” There’s not much you can argue about that. Disappointing, but fair enough. Then you go, when is the right time to come out? April is before summer, so it’s a good time. This is a big election year. Make no mistake, I think a lot of people, particularly on the left, have had trouble giving TV slots and things because they don’t want to discuss this right now. It’s like, this devil in the White House needs to be defeated, no matter what.
DEADLINE: Do you understand that sentiment?
CLARKE: No, I don’t. I believe that needs to happen and that it will happen, but I don’t believe the Democratic Party should morph into something that it should not be, in an attempt to beat [Trump]. More Americans voted to support Hillary Clinton. There’s hypocrisy in ignoring certain things.
DEADLINE: Last weekend was a big one for politics and spin. A march in Washington and other cities demanding action on guns after the mass shooting at a school in Parkland, Florida, then the Stormy Daniels 60 Minutes interview. Where does the nearly 50-year-old tragedy and cover up depicted in Chappaquiddick fit into this narrative?
CLARKE: A, this is not the end of the world right now. We do not need to put the baby out with the bathwater, so to speak. In ’68, Martin Luther King Jr and Bobby Kennedy were shot in the head. There were race riots. Contextually, you could say that right now isn’t the craziest time we’ve ever been in, even though like I said, the sentiment is win or die. The constitution protects a lot of things and works very well, but if the Democratic Party becomes something else, in order to win, is it worth losing your soul to gain that?
DEADLINE: What do you mean by something else?
CLARKE: Just like them — obstinate, pointing fingers, blaming, blaming, blaming. I mean there’s a reason why we lost this election, I believe. There was no real Democratic primary even. It was a foregone conclusion. Hillary Clinton had all the money, Bernie Sanders had none.
DEADLINE: Joe Biden never emerged, though it seemed like he might have wanted to.
CLARKE: It was a very big mistake. There is a guy that if I had to make a choice, I would say he would have won that election. I still can’t get past that third debate where for all intents and purposes, it should have been over. Out came four women sitting there, who’d accused the running candidate’s husband — the former president — of rape. … There was such a weird perfect storm of craziness that playing into the attitude of, “Does it matter anymore who I vote for?” We were shooting this film while this all was happening. We didn’t make the film for that reason but … when things get bad, whether it’s your relationship with your child, your partner, or your friends, you get nowhere pointing the finger and blaming the other person. There has to be an element of looking at oneself. How have I contributed to this? People nowadays are scared. Remember when George W. Bush came out and said, “You’re either for us or against us”? The left has become a little like that now too. Anything that gets in the way of, that man has to get out of the White House. That’s a bit scary. I guess that’s why people are afraid.
We always think it’s on the other side, on the right. I guess it would be an easy sell for the right to say Ted bad, hypocrisy on the left. That’s simple, but the left doesn’t want to engage at all [on this film], really. We’re finding it really hard to find footing with these guys that are out there, nightly news pushing an agenda, conspiracy, Russia, Russia, Russia, Stormy Daniels, Stormy Daniels, Stormy Daniels. They just don’t want to talk about this, and I find that really odd and upsetting.
DEADLINE: You are Australian, but you seem to have a penchant for hot-button Americana pictures. You starred in Zero Dark Thirty, whose Best Picture momentum was undone when three U.S. senators decried the depiction that made it appear that torture unearthed intelligence that led to the killing of 9/11 mastermind Osama bin Laden. What did you learn from that experience that might be helpful if there’s political push-back on Chappaquiddick?
CLARKE: That’s hard to answer. I’m sure you face it in journalism, and as an actor you face it all the time. Sometimes, you just have to go, “You know what? That’s just the way people are.” All I can do is keep trying. Hoping that rather than just getting on a bandwagon, Tweeting and Instagramming, people will hopefully want to look at something and learn from it.
Apart from whether we lost the Oscar because of what happened, I think one of the biggest disappointments was that Hollywood didn’t appreciate that for the first time, film was at the forefront of the discussion. Mark Boal and Katherine Bigelow got that story, shot that film and had it out there before Peter Bergen’s book and a lot of other things that came out. That deserves merit. It never happens. We’re so far behind the eight ball in film. We make them when it’s safe. I love Spotlight, but those journalists discovered that story how long ago? That was the most disappointing thing to me about Zero Dark Thirty. It was a hunt film, a show of tradecraft and how people focused and came together to find this guy who did bad things. So you might go, well how can you say that, when this is endorsing torture? That’s a whole other debate.
DEADLINE: How long have you lived in America?
CLARKE: About 15 years. America has been very good to me. I find the breadth of stories are big here.
DEADLINE: You spent Oscar season promoting the Dee Rees-directed Mudbound. There has been much debate whether streaming service movies should be Oscar eligible, with Steven Spielberg just weighing in with an emphatic “no.” Netflix this year will have original films by nominated directors like Martin Scorsese and Paul Greengrass, and more streaming services are hatching, so who knows where it ends up. But Mudbound had going for it great performances, and a magnetic filmmaker in Dee Rees. Did you feel the film’s award push was marginalized because it was Netflix?
CLARKE: Of course it was. Without a doubt. I mean people feel free to say their case, and Spielberg’s voice is very important. I think change in the business is inevitable, but yes, it was marginalized. It hurt. Not just with the Academy but along the way with a lot of things. We’re a year after #Oscarssowhite, and, not that you should win an award because of your skin color, but there’s Jason [Mitchell] and Rob [Morgan] with these great performances and the NAACP didn’t give them an award. A lot of it was shocking, but it’s inevitable that streaming will be considered for the awards. The Academy will either ride that at the right time or there will be a new award system.
DEADLINE: Chappaquiddick didn’t pull punches in depicting that after Ted Kennedy somehow got out of that car and then left the scene, his passenger Mary Jo Kopechnie [played by Kate Mara] didn’t drown immediately. There appeared to be an agonizingly long period where she struggled to breathe and might have been saved had Kennedy gotten help immediately and not waited until the next day.
CLARKE: Well, it’s a fact, it’s in a lot of reports. It’s evident even in the way she was brought out of the car. She was in the position. You hold yourself up for your last breath of air. It comes from the fact that we know when a car goes down there’s an air bubble. When boats capsize, there’s an air pocket. We tried not to dramatize anything [we couldn’t verify]. The writers did a really good job, using testimony from an inquiry where everyone was under oath, and talked behind closed doors.
DEADLINE: How was he not indicted?
CLARKE: It is crazy. How did it make you feel?
DEADLINE: Disgusted. But the loathsome characterization of Joseph Kennedy Sr. and the pressure he placed on his lone surviving son who could never measure up to his older brothers, made his judgment lapse more understandable.
CLARKE: When I prepared, I made a conscious choice of getting to Ted last.
DEADLINE: What do you mean?
CLARKE: I wanted to try and give myself some experience of little Ted growing up, to understand Ted at that point. I read the great book on Joe Kennedy, the Patriarch. I learned as much about Joe Kennedy as I could get my hands on. Then a bit of Joe Kennedy Jr., their mother Rose. Then Jack, and Bobby. The Making of a Liberal Icon is an extraordinary book about [Bobby], a man who started out as Senator McCarthy’s right-hand man and ended up the great modern liberal who inspired Barack Obama, inspired Bill Clinton. Finally, I got to Ted. I wanted some idea of the weight of being the younger brother of these men who strode the world and left their imprint. So when you see the father slap Ted, you understand it’s not just him being a tough disciplinarian. It’s everything [Ted] let down. My three dead sons. My family, the ideas, the chatter at the dinner table, the games, the joy, the children. All of it.
DEADLINE: And yet your character responds by hugging his father, a husk of a man in a wheelchair who seemed imprisoned within his body.
CLARKE: Of course he would hug him. That actually just happened naturally, in the moment. When Bruce Dern slapped me, I didn’t know what to do, so I just hugged him. I’d read that when Joe Sr. was dying, Ted slept at the foot of his bed for two or three days. That picture really haunted me. He died a couple of months after this. Ted and all the boys and all the family spoke so well of Joe, of feeling like ten minutes with him was the greatest gift in the world. Somebody will do the Joe Kennedy film because there’s such a story there.
DEADLINE: The film acknowledges Kennedy’s public service accomplishments as “the Lion of the Senate.” You just played him in his worst moment. Where do you come out in terms of assessing this flawed man?
CLARKE: I’m not going to judge a guy I played, but I think we paid a heavy price for lauding Ted Kennedy as the Lion of the Senate and everything else. I really do. I think it’s time to examine what that price is because at the moment politics is way out of control. It really is.
DEADLINE: Do you think there’s connective tissue between this and what it is now?
CLARKE: Absolutely. I remember feeling deep frustration when Barack Obama couldn’t get his Supreme Court justice appointment past the U.S. Senate. First of all, I was frustrated with the Republicans. How can you not do your job when your job is to serve the country? How is this serving the country? If the position is vacant, fill it. You don’t want to go to a hospital in need of brain surgery and find out they haven’t employed a brain surgeon for six or 12 months because we don’t think it’s the right time. You’d be dead. I was also frustrated with how the democrats were not able to get this through. Why is this not being made a bigger issue? Why are they just sitting on this and being quiet about it? Because we’re going to get to the next election, we’re going to win and do it then? Why didn’t we learn what the CIA told about Russia? There’s always some excuse, until you finally say, just clean the slate.
DEADLINE: You showed the film in Martha’s Vineyard. Talk about going into hostile territory…
CLARKE: I just returned. It was very emotional. There were a lot of people there who were on the island that day. They’ve lived their whole lives there.
DEADLINE: How did they respond?
CLARKE: They were very quiet and distant when we shot there but the nights we screened it, they were very emotional. Strong reactions of everything. Including “congratulations, fantastic job,” to “you showed that man to be the most selfish f*cking asshole I ever f*cking met.” I was shocked, and then a guy in front of him gets up and says, “You made a cowardly film. You didn’t do go strong enough.” A couple of women broke down and cried. Some felt he was seen as too sympathetic. Another guy got up and said, “Thank you. We all on this island knew what had happened, that this girl died and that nothing was done about it.” I think there was a great sense of … I don’t know if shame is the right word, but some sense of responsibility. It’s a small community. If you think about within your small neighborhood that something terrible had gone down, or in your office. Everybody knew, but nobody did anything, or said anything to stop it. It just happened and then everyone goes, well what can I do? I think those people did enjoy the film.
DEADLINE: You can’t help but wonder if this happened today, given the 24/7 coverage cycle, could that cover-up happen?
CLARKE: Could it happen again? Could he get away with it? Yes. People are still getting away with everything. Stormy Daniels and whether he lied about that, feels similar to Bill Clinton. Not just the scandal where the presidency just grinds to a halt, but the turmoil involving Jennifer Flowers and Whitewater. This is not meant to jam these people and the baggage they drag. But we can’t keep ignoring these things.
DEADLINE: Isn’t it hard for Hollywood to moralize, given the Harvey Weinstein and others in sexual harassment allegation scandals?
CLARKE: I agree. In the end, it’s just all about personal responsibility. We need to question and not feel fear because we’re in the dark, alone. We need transparency, and for people to stand up. The other is people being a leader and saying I’m going to do something. Hypocrisy, no responsibility and saying I’m doing this because you did it first, is the enemy. And it’s time to stop blaming the other and look at what you’ve done and what Ted’s done is easy to blame that but what have we all done? Why are we still doing it? Why won’t Rachel Maddow have us on her show to talk about how we feel about this now? Why aren’t the democrats talking as a group about what’s going on, about who we are as a party because at the moment it’s just a win. Win at all costs.