Heroic Effort

Avoiding initiation, Bruce Greenwood captures the essence of JFK in the retelling of the Cuban Missile Crisis in 'Thirteen Days.'

January 13, 2001|By Chris Kaltenbach | Chris Kaltenbach,SUN FILM CRITIC

Bruce Greenwood has a Baltimore connection he doesn't even remember.

From 1986 to 1988, he played the egotistical, self-centered Dr. Seth Griffin on NBC's "St. Elsewhere." And Dr. Griffin was a Hopkins med school grad.

"That's really flipping back through the files a long way," Greenwood laughs, regarding his interviewer at Washington's St. Regis Hotel with a look that says, "You've got way too much free time on your hands."

Of course, he's too polite to come out and say something so cruel. Instead, he simply smiles and says, "I'd forgotten that, actually."

So OK, given the circumstances, such a memory lapse is forgivable. A lot of film has run through the cameras in the 15 years since "St. Elsewhere" went off the air. There was another TV series, UPN's short-lived "Nowhere Man." There were TV movies, including one where he got to play Beach Boy Dennis Wilson. There were theatrical films, including "Rules of Engagement," "Double Jeopardy" and - most notably - a pair of films for Canadian director Atom Egoyan, "Exotica" and "The Sweet Hereafter."

And right now, the 44-year-old native Canadian is enjoying the best notices of his career (and considerable Oscar buzz) for his supporting turn as John F. Kennedy in Roger Donaldson's "Thirteen Days," a brisk retelling of the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis that also stars Kevin Costner as presidential aide Kenny O'Donnell and Steven Culp as Attorney General Robert Kennedy.

It's that movie's imminent release that brings him to D.C. on this December day, the first stop in a seven-city promotional junket he's undertaking for the film. Wearing an "Exotica" T-shirt and exhibiting no obvious ill effects from the hours he spent earlier in the day sitting in a grounded airplane at an overcrowded airport, Greenwood seems bemused by the red-carpet treatment - lavish hotel, free room service, hovering publicists - he's receiving.

It's not every day that a career major player in small films or small player in major films gets to enjoy the perks of stardom.

"It's a thrill," he says with a wink (unlike Dr. Griffin, Greenwood seems reluctant to take himself too seriously). "When you can go into a hotel room and make a phone call and not have to pay for it, that's pretty fabulous."

But Greenwood has earned such frills. His JFK is a class performance all the way, and a lesson to any actor struggling to represent a historical figure onscreen. Eschewing attempts to imitate the 35th president - he doesn't look like Kennedy, and the Boston accent he adopts for the film is nowhere near as pronounced as JFK's - Greenwood sought to capture the essence of the man. Specifically, he tried to imagine what would have been going through Kennedy's mind during the crisis, which brought the world to the brink of nuclear war, and act accordingly.

"I had a very shallow knowledge of him," Greenwood explains, "other than he was this gorgeous man who presided over Camelot, and that it all seemed to come naturally and effortlessly to him."

In fact, when it was suggested he play JFK, Greenwood remembers, his first thought was, "That's absurd. How dare I?" But after landing the role, he set to work doing serious research, downloading material from the Kennedy Library Web site, listening to audio tapes of Kennedy's speeches, reading accounts of Kennedy's actions during the crisis.

"He was a very serious guy, who, when confronted with the most serious of problems, could rise to it," the actor says of the president he captured so compellingly. "I think during this period, he really came of age; this was a turning point in his ability to lead. To try and describe that arc somehow, within the context of this movie, is something I gave a lot of thought to.

"I had notes all over my dresser and all over my house about what my responsibility was, that the weight of the world was on his shoulders. As much as an actor can assume that, I tried to. Of course, an actor assuming the weight of the world, it's ludicrous. But the more I read, the more I felt he certainly deserved that level of respect from the likes of me."

A lunch with former Kennedy press secretary Pierre Salinger helped add texture to his performance, Greenwood adds.

"Before that, to some degree, it had been pretty dry, all the research," he says. "But sitting across the table from a guy who had been there, knowing this man had been there in the heat of it, allowed me to see everything on a more human level. It humanized it for me somewhat, made me think of Kennedy on some levels as just a guy who met this impossible challenge."

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