Rick Roberts recreates the essence of Jack Layton in new CBC bio Special

Posted Feb 27, 2013 by Jeff Cottrill
For any actor, playing a real-life celebrity is a tricky job. Especially when it's a well-loved, progressive politician who passed away less than two years ago. Like Canadian NDP leader Jack Layton, who's getting the biopic treatment from CBC.
Rick Roberts plays the late Jack Layton in the upcoming CBC made-for-TV movie  Jack .
Rick Roberts plays the late Jack Layton in the upcoming CBC made-for-TV movie "Jack".
CBC Media Centre
So how did Toronto actor Rick Roberts, 47, who stars in the new made-for-TV movie Jack, approach the delicate task of recreating the late opposition leader?
“I watched a lot of YouTube clips,” he explains, “to get physical traits that I thought would be good to achieve. I spoke briefly to Olivia [Chow, Layton's widow] beforehand, and his daughter gave me some videos of home movies.” Roberts also took time to study French and Cantonese – and even learned how to play the guitar. “One of the pleasures of being an actor is that you get to do things you wouldn't normally do in the course of your real life, and it's fun.”
But Roberts wanted to capture the essence of the man, not just impersonate him. “He had a really playful, outgoing spirit,” he says. “Because he's an iconic figure whose voice and face are still so fresh in our minds, I wanted to create enough of a physical impression for it not to be a distraction. But I didn't want to stop at that. It's a living human being you have to become. You can't fall in love with your impression and forget you have to affect people and tell a story. A lot of the work was figuring out what the story of the script was, then doing enough homework.”
Jack, which airs on March 10, tells the story of Layton's relationship with fellow politician Olivia Chow (Sook-Yin Lee), from his days as an ambitious Toronto city councillor in the 1980s to the convention triumph that made him federal leader of the left-leaning New Democratic Party in 2003. As a framing device, the movie also depicts the last several months of his life, when he led the NDP to its highest-ever election standing while battling cancer.
Written by two-time Gemini Award-winner Andrew Wreggitt, and directed by Jeff Woolnough, the movie highlights Layton's well-known social consciousness, including his concern for the gay community, AIDS victims and the homeless. But Roberts stops short of calling the movie a sanctification of Layton.
“It honours him,” he says. “It honours his memory and who he was. By all accounts, he was a great guy. Most people, across the political spectrum, have a positive memory of him as a man. And the great thing Andrew does is shine a light on our collective memory of that time, which was such a public victory and then such a public tragedy.”
This isn't the first time Roberts has played a real-life figure. He also portrayed notorious cult leader Jim Jones in the 2007 docudrama Jonestown: Paradise Lost and nineteenth-century explorer John Rae in 2008's Passage. Other past TV work includes recurring roles on Global's Traders and CBC's Republic of Doyle, plus appearances on Little Mosque on the Prairie, Degrassi: The Next Generation and Puppets Who Kill.
Still, Roberts admits that the pressure of taking on the role of Layton, who's still so vivid in the memory of Canadians everywhere, was a little nerve-wracking at first. “I was really nervous about the idea of getting it wrong. But I know you can't please all the people all the time. It was a real pleasure to shoot. It was a really friendly, generous set, and I was surrounded by lots of talented people, not the least of which was Doug Morrow, who did such a great job on makeup.”
Things became a little more intense when the real-life Chow visited the set for two days as a consultant. “It was all very surreal,” Roberts recalls. “I was a bit nervous, because I didn't know how she'd react. I was playing her husband, who she was still mourning. And I wanted it to feel accurate to someone like her or to the people who were there. You want to honour the public memory, but you also want people who knew him privately to go, 'Oh, I recognize that.'”
But Roberts found Chow very helpful, he adds. “She was very generous and positive. It was great to have a witness to the time on set. She didn't get in the way, and she gave a few cool notes. It was good to have her drop in, but it was also good to have space to do it on our own. I don't know if she's seen the movie or not, so I don't know what her feelings are about it.”
Despite his long list of TV credits, Roberts feels most at home working in theatre – both as an actor and as a playwright. “I enjoy the interaction with the audience, and like Jack Layton, I'm a bit of a ham. It recharges my batteries and puts me in touch with the audience. When you're in front of the camera, you don't get that direct contact.”
A member of the Tarragon Theatre Playwrights' Collective, he earned several Dora Mavor Moore Award nominations for his play Kite. At the moment, he's working on a TV pilot with esteemed Canadian playwright Michael Healey, who's arguably best known for The Drawer Boy.
TV depictions aside, how are Canadians going to remember Jack Layton in the long run?
“I think his message of hope will certainly live on,” says Roberts. “Because he came up through a city-council atmosphere, he really created a spirit of people working together in a community. I've gotten letters from people saying how he transformed their lives simply by empowering them to make a change in the world.
“I think that will be his legacy. Empowering people to make the changes that they want to make.”
Jack airs on CBC Television on Sunday, March 10 at 8:00 p.m. (8:30 in Newfoundland).