To some, Rick Roberts has a tricky. This Sunday, he’ll play the late Jack Layton in CBC’s movie, simply called “Jack.” Tricky, because the pain of Layton’s untimely death his still fresh in the minds of his biggest fans and admirers.

So how did Roberts do?  Well, you’ll have to tune in to see for yourself. Until then, I caught up with the popular Canadian actor to ask him about how he tackled the role and how playing Layton changed him, maybe for the rest of his life.

When I first heard about the Jack Layton movie, I honestly felt like it was “too soon.”  What were your thoughts on the timing?
Jack’s political rise and then his death happened so quickly, that it was probably inevitable that there would a movie. Unlike other interesting political figures, whose movie would take a year to research, the framework of the Jack’s tale was already there.  Yeah, it was early, but I think that it put extra pressure and focus on the production. Selfishly, it was kind of a gift for me, I enjoyed having the pressure of telling something that’s still fresh in people’s minds.

I’ve read that it took two hours of make up and prosthetics every day to make you look like Jack. Without that, could you see yourself as Jack?
No. Physically, I knew what they were going to do, so I had confidence in that. But I was working on his physicality, his voice, his mannerism. But it always came up against looking in the mirror, so it was kinda getting depressing, until we did the make up test and I was like, “Oh thank god!”  At one point, I photoshopped his face on mine, just to see what it could possibly be.

Jack and Olivia are sort of known for their chemistry, how was it developing your chemistry with with Sook-Yin Lee?
Well, we got along really well, so that helps. It’s kind of like Jack’s relationships in the movie, they are all real life. So on one hand, you want to honour that, but to do that, you have to find your own way on screen. Lee is a really good listener, so we just used our own natural chemistry. We tried to not act like you imagine they would act, but trying to have the courage to use your own instinct to make that stuff happen.

ChowRick-600x448With bio-films, there’s always the risk of the people will just come off as caricatures, were you conscious of that?
Yes, that was the one thing that I didn’t want. I worked really hard at the physicality and the voice, so when it came time to do a scene, I was able to throw it all away and let it just be there. If I got stuck in the impression, then it would become a non-funny Saturday Night Live skit.

Now that you’ve played the part, what happens when you see clips or videos of Jack Layton?
Mostly I see the differences. It’s kinda of weird, because when you’re doing something that leaps off of real life, it has to take on its own life, so I always knew that whatever I created for Jack, would be a little bit of him and a little bit of me. And that would have to live on its own for the movie.

I wanted to ask you about the politics of this movie. Having studied and played Jack Layton, did that have any affect on your own politics?
The way he engaged in politics was from a place of belief, so everyone you talk to about him says, “He was passionate about what he was talking about.” He just lived it. Politics was his life. In terms of political believes, I don’t think the movie changed them, but talking to Olivia, he really just wanted to make the world a better place and we can be cynical about that, but I don’t think he had a cynical bone in his body.  It kinda goes with that guy that shows up with a guitar at the party, which he is, before I would like, “Oh my god, there’s a guy with a guitar.” But now, I’m like, “Oh, that’s cool, he’s trying to have fun.”  Hopefully Jack’s made me a little less cynical.


“Jack” airs on CBC on Sunday, March 10 at 8 p.m. ET/PT.

Mike Morrison