JFK comes alive in 'Thirteen Days'

Actor Bruce Greenwood brings realism to presidential role

— When visiting Dallas recently, Bruce Greenwood took in the usual sights, riding by the triple underpass, the Sixth Floor Museum and the Kennedy Memorial.

If his chill was even more prominent than that of most sightseers, it's understandable. The Canadian-born actor plays President John F. Kennedy in "Thirteen Days," which inspects the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis and its potentially devastating global effect.

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AP Photo

Steven Culp as Robert F. Kennedy, left, Bruce Greenwood as John F. Kennedy and Kevin Costner, right, playing Kennedy aide Kenny O'Donnell, appear in a scene from the film "Thirteen Days." The tense drama is about the 1962 Cuban missile crisis.

"I definitely got a chill at the triple underpass," the affable actor says. "The whole experience of making the film was a revelation to me. Prior to it, my own vision of JFK might be called soft-focus. I knew about the Camelot mystique and had visions of him playing ball with his brothers and running along the beach, tousled-haired. I knew, of course, about Jackie, and somewhere in my mind was the image of Marilyn Monroe singing 'Happy Birthday' to him.

"It's nice that I didn't have to play him in that mythical manner. (Director) Roger (Donaldson) and I both wanted a more realistic perspective."

That required homework. The actor's "Kennedy library," consisting of visual tapes, audio tapes and a vast collection of books, wound up "reaching up to my belt line."

In playing the part, he tried "to sense what any man would go through under that kind of pressure."

"I really came to admire him, which is inevitable, but I mean that I admired him tremendously. I had not been aware of the tremendous amount of anti-Catholicism he had to overcome just to be elected. And I felt that he was very intellectually driven, somewhat in contrast to the popular image of him as young, smiling and carefree. He could freely quote poetry and classical literature.

"Learning about him reinforced my own belief that we need someone in the Oval Office who's a notch above the rest of us. As it is now, running for the office has become so expensive that it's almost impossible for a great many people to have the door opened for them. Both parties seem so interested in finding some transgressions, which was so obvious in this presidential race. Often, big mistakes are turning points in people's lives, which is not to say that everything's forgivable. But great men and great women are seldom timid. No one's without stains."

He also has kind words to say about top-billed star Kevin Costner, making them sound earnest rather than dutiful.

"I'd heard all the (unflattering) stories and didn't know what to expect. But he was collaborative, forthcoming and even-handed. He went to a great deal of trouble to make himself accessible to everyone. Before meeting him, I had wondered how it would be. Here I am, playing the president of the United States, and here is this superstar, playing my assistant. But he made it seem natural and comfortable for me."

Greenwood won critical acclaim as a grieving father in Atom Egoyan's "The Sweet Hereafter" and earlier was seen in the director's "Exotica." He will star in the controversial director's upcoming film but has promised Egoyan he will not divulge its title or subject matter.

"It's a thrill to work for Atom because you know his film will be taken seriously. He's so loved by serious filmgoers. But whether critics love or hate his next film, you know they won't dismiss it cavalierly."

Greenwood's most widely seen role was as Ashley Judd's duplicitous husband in the surprise hit "Double Jeopardy."

"It was fun to make. It was fun to play such a slick and creepy fellow," he says. "I knew the movie would push buttons with an audience, but no one could have guessed how big it would be."

He hopes a similar happy fate awaits "Thirteen Days."

"People need to be reminded in a visceral way of how close we came to the precipice during the Cuban Missile Crisis. It defies belief, and we need a constant reminding of it."

"Learning about (JFK) reinforced my own belief that we need someone in the Oval Office who's a notch above the rest of us."

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