Jason Clarke Is Ted Kennedy: The Aussie Actor on the Controversial ‘Chappaquiddick’
The star of the upcoming film about Kennedy’s notorious car accident—which claimed the life of Mary Jo Kopechne—discusses how the movie captures the tragedy.
MARRAKECH — It’s a name I find hard to pronounce—and could certainly never spell—without the help of Google. And, I confess that I was not all that familiar with Chappaquiddick until shortly before I sat gazing at the Australian actor, Jason Clarke, at La Mamounia hotel here in Morocco.
Framed by the opulent surroundings, Clarke’s hunky allure was further enhanced by the splendor of the hotel, and the glamorous air at the Marrakech International Film Festival, which is, quite possibly, the sexiest film festival in the world.
Think stars and exotic decoration. Endless sun and palms.
So I had to concentrate extra hard.
Inside a secluded courtyard, reached after meandering through the lush gardens, Clarke, who plays Ted Kennedy in the upcoming film of the same name, sat parked on a velvet banquet. He has piercing blue eyes, an attractively off-kilter face, and a muscular body, which peeped out from beneath a tight, blue outfit. A diminutive silver teapot and fresh fruit salad were placed on the ornately carved table, waiting for him to devour.
Chappaquiddick, as many people know, was the site of an infamous 1969 tragedy. One summer evening, during an exclusive party, Senator Ted Kennedy drove his mother’s car off a narrow Martha’s Vineyard bridge and it turned upside down in the water. He swam free, but failed to rescue his female companion, who died that night.
Kennedy did not report the incident for 10 hours, until the morning after what had been a reunion for a group of young women who had worked on his brother Robert F. Kennedy’s 1968 presidential campaign.
The party had been attended by six married men and six single women, all age 28 or younger—including Mary Jo Kopechne, Robert F. Kennedy’s former secretary.
Kennedy’s wife was pregnant at the time, and blamed a later miscarriage on the incident. The senator was given a suspended sentence for leaving the site of the crash.
But, as per Clarke, who was born one day before the accident, on July 17, 1969, it had much greater repercussions than these. Chappaquiddick is often cited as the reason that Ted Kennedy did not run for president in both 1972 and 1976, for one.
“It changed a lot of things,” he said. “Even the move that enabled Ted’s legal team to keep the press and public out of hearing into whether there would be a grand jury. They made a new law, and then Nixon used the same law to run away from Watergate.”
“It was a critical night,” he added. “It was a really long night for Ted and a long day. I mean we start off from Washington, then Martha’s Vineyard for the boat race. There is the beach, then the boat race, and then the whole party, and then the accident, and then the whole night to the next morning. So it was a long night for Ted. Ted had a rough night.”
There was a lot going on in politics and in culture.
“It was a key moment in American history,” Clarke continued. “It was also the day that they took off for the moon. I knew about it, but it’s funny when you see the posters, because it was near the day I was born, on July 17th. The accident happened on July 18th.”
Clarke did a serious amount of reading for the film, which was directed by John Curran and will hit theaters sometime in 2017. Kate Mara plays Kopechne.
“I started off reading Joe Kennedy, and a book called The Patriarch, which is a biography of Joe Kennedy, and a great read,” he said. “It is a big history of the 20th century in America. Joe Kennedy was a massive figure on all kinds of levels.”
He “listened” to a lot of books—pretty much “every Jack Kennedy book”—and then, “I watched any footage I could get ahold of, not just the Kennedy stuff but on the world, the times, the places. It was 1968.”
But how else did it affect the family?
“It was particularly strange for the father, for Joe, you know,” he said. “He had lost three sons, and this is the weekend that we’re gonna land on the moon, which is what Jack set in motion, and you know he gets a phone call from his last remaining son in the middle of the night.”
“Ted represented a lot of hope—the Great Left Hope,” he added.
“He’s much-abused, maligned, and, I think, misconstrued as well as rightly blamed in this. But his impact and influence on American society is huge.”
In Clarke’s words, the film “paints a very straight-up picture. I mean, it’s a horrific event and what happened is horrific. And then it’s all the more confusing I think in confronting it, when you put it in context of his life as a whole.”
As for how Chappaquiddick affected society? “It’s a deep, deep thing. People have very strong feelings,” he said. “Even in terms of what people think of it, or the fear of what’s Hollywood going to do with it? There is also what he represents for liberal Democrats. It’s become a football, I guess, and for a long time it’s been, you know, nobody died at Watergate or nobody died at such and such, and then what? Ted Kennedy, struggled against it, and worked with it his whole life.”
Chappaquiddick is just one of five films listed for Clarke in 2017. His previous credits include The Great Gatsby and Zero Dark Thirty.
One of his projects in the can for 2017 is Mudbound by Dee Reese, which will make its premiere at the Sundance Film Festival. He took on another slice of American history for this one, too. It is set in the Deep South during one of its darkest periods.
“It’s set in Jim Crow’s South—just before, during, and then after World War II,” he offered. “I play Henry McAllan. Carey Mulligan is my wife. And we’re a family, you know, out in the cotton farm. And we’ve got a couple of share tenants, you know, the family. It is about love, race relations, and life.”
Although he had been to the South before, he took a road trip to find out more about it. “[Co-star] Garrett Hedlund and I flew into Memphis, and drove four or five days, and camped out. It was lovely. It was really good. That was a good film; it was a tough shoot. A lot of heat, and then we had to make rain.”
He’s next shooting The Aftermath, which is set after World War II in Occupied Germany. “I play a British colonel who is in charge there. And Keira Knightley is my wife,” he said.
“It is set straight after the war, when Germany is just whacked out, and they’re being punished. And I mean the women are being raped, beyond belief, there’s no food, there’s corruption, there’s anger, there’s hatred, there’s vitriol—particularly on the part of the English. There’s looting and everything going on. There is resistance in the German army and youths getting around them,” he shared.
With all of this going on, Clarke is clearly on a roll. But I am curious as to how it all began.
He says that he started out by “just watching all the movies at university, with a really good friend. We’d just duck off and, rather than go to college, we’d watch three or four movies a day. And look what I’m doing here,” he said. “I come from a very small country town so there was no real path. So we made it up as we went, and found a way in there, and then I eventually went to drama school, and then, you know, you pay your bills. I mean, I don’t mean to be practical or whatever, but I think a lot of it is the ability to learn your craft. So you understand what you’re doing. It is a trade. And there are tools, and there are ways and things that will help you hopefully have a long career.”
It doesn’t look like he’s got much to worry about, but he says he’s ready to roll with the punches.
“It’s all one big experience,” he said. “The whole career, ups, downs, wherever it takes you. I’m enjoying it.”