Of all the TV specials airing this month commemorating the 50th anniversary of John F. Kennedy's assassination, only one is not a documentary. Following the success of “Killing Lincoln,” Nat Geo has turned the last days of the murdered 35th president — and his assassin Lee Harvey Oswald — into a scripted drama starring Rob Lowe as JFK and Will Rothaar as Oswald. Adapted from the bestseller by Bill O’Reilly and Martin Dugard and premiering on Nov. 10, “Killing Kennedy” paints a personal portrait of two men whose lives tragically converge.
“Take Oswald and Kennedy both at 1960 at the exact same moment in time, and Oswald is defecting to the Soviet Union, and Kennedy is announcing he’s running for president. They couldn’t be more disparate. They couldn’t be more different. You can’t imagine that they would ever even meet, let alone affect each other’s lives the way they did,” observes Lowe. “It’s these two parallel tracks — it’s really a genius storytelling device. It makes a story that we all know unbelievably compelling.”
For Lowe, playing JFK “was very much about capturing him as a man. We all know the iconography of Kennedy. I was really interested in the details of what he was like as a father, as a brother, as a son, as a husband, as a flawed, complicated, and heroic guy — where those small details live,” says Lowe, who aimed to be “the guy who embodies and fleshes out and makes him a real human being, not imitate Kennedy.” But he did try to get the voice — or voices — right. “He really had two voices, the voice that everybody knows and imitates, and the voice he had in private, with his stammer. I tried to bring that.”
Lowe was born five months after the November 1963 assassination, but was nevertheless impacted by the event. “Growing up in a country that had been affected by his death, and then losing Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King, all of that affected me, even though I may have been too young to really know what it was. It was such a psychic trauma to us that I don’t really think anybody can ever have the experience that we had with this loss. I’ve been following the Kennedy assassination since I was in the first or second grade and read every conspiracy theory book known to man. I’ve read all of them. And I started off as a guy who thought there’s no way a guy could do it, and I’ve come around to thinking that they got it right, that Oswald did act alone.”
Will Rothaar, 26 and of a later generation, did considerable research to play Oswald. “I watched newsreels, many documentaries, I read literature and things on the Internet, a lot of searching. I watched interviews, first-hand accounts from people about what they were doing, and where they were when the news broke.”
He didn’t hesitate to accept the role of the infamous assassin, but admits he found the prospect daunting at first. “There’s always a moment when you book something and think, ‘Oh my God, I have to follow through on this.’ But once that challenge presented itself, it was very easy to jump in.”
His primary goal was to give Oswald dimension. “He’s always been seen as this two-dimensional villain. I wanted to make him human and relatable, not necessarily that you feel compassion for him but so you can look at him and say ‘I’ve been there’ or ‘I’ve felt that.’ He grew up in a household where he didn’t have any love. His mother was insane. His father died before he was born. He had no male figure in his life. People are going to get sides of these two men that they’ve never seen before — you’re going to see inside their lives.”
Next, Rothaar is set to star in “Wild Blue,” a potential Fox series set on an aircraft carrier. “It’s kind of an upstairs-downstairs look at the pressure cooker lives of servicemen and women. I play an ordnance officer, one of the more dangerous jobs.” A musician specializing in traditional Afro-Brazilian, Afro-Cuban and West African percussion, Rothaar plays backup with three different groups in his spare time. “I’m excited to see where the next part of the road takes me,” he says.
As for Lowe, he’ll appear in the comedy “Sex Tape” next year and if the long-gestating Civil War mega-project “To Appomattox” gets off the ground, he’ll play another famous historical figure, Ulysses S. Grant. “I think any actor is drawn to heroic men who are also flawed,” he says, explaining why Grant fits the bill. “He was a functional alcoholic and destitute and saved this country. Then he had a not-so-great presidency, and yet, when he died, had the largest publicly held funeral in the history of this country. So I have my fingers crossed I’ll finally get to do that.”