The Man Behind The Mustache: Rick Roberts on playing Jack Layton

Playing an historical figure is always a challenge for any actor. Playing a person who was alive less than two years ago poses a unique opportunity. I’m speaking of course of Jack Layton, who is the subject of CBC’s newest TV Movie JACK, which airs Sunday, March 10.  We all remember where we were the day Jack Layton died. At least I do. I woken up by a number of CBC alerts on my iPhone, the first one I read quoting Stephen Harper about how Layton was a terrific voice in Canadian politics. Like many of my political – and predominantly left-leaning friends – I was stunned and saddened by the news.

A few of my colleagues felt that it is too soon to making a movie about Jack Layton. Personally, I don’t like the phrase “too soon”. They have made many movies about people while they are still alive (Erin Brockovich, Ray, and Monster to name a few). It should also be pointed out that JACK is not some big, over-budgeted Hollywood blockbuster, but rather a small, intimate, Canadian-made biopic with home-grown talent. I spoke with one of the “home-grown talent”, actor Rick Roberts, on what it was like to portray the NDP’s late icon on the small screen.

DM: Now how did this role come to you? Did you have to audition like a normal film process?

Rick Roberts: Yes. They had an audition call and I got submitted and I went in. I auditioned once for it and things seemed to click in the room so it happened pretty quickly after that.

DM: Playing real people is always a challenge… How much did you know about Jack Layton going in and how much research did you have to do for the role?

RR: I think I knew what everyone else knew, maybe slightly more, because I do live in what was his riding [Toronto-Danforth]. But my real focus came when I started to research for the role. I watched a lot of… like most politicians, there’s a large online presence of him, so I was able to pay more attention to his voice and his mannerisms and I read his books and got a sense of what he believed in. I met with Olivia briefly and got some home movies from his daughter.  It was a gradual immersion. It became complete for me when the makeup was done. It was a pretty strange thing to have your whole face as someone else.

As Rick notes, while Layton was a politician, the movie stays clear of having any sort of ideological bent. The big learning curve for him was separating Jack Layton the man, from Jack Layton the politician.

RR: I was really trying to find that “who the private and who the public was” but I think for him and Olivia that line was not there. They lived what they believed. That was a big revelation.

DM: What was so appealing about him to voters?

RR: There’s seems to be something really appealing about someone who’s speaking what’s on his mind.

While evidently politics, policy, and being a politician come into play, this movie is very much about Jack and Olivia and the relationship that they had and life they shared with each other, and the public. They say an actor is only as good as the people opposite him, and Rick was fortunate to have a very good storyteller play his on-screen wife – CBC Radio personality, actress, musician, and writer-director Sook-Yin Lee.

JACK isn’t the only project for Rick Roberts that is about to be released. He is also appears in “Still Mine” the new film from Canadian filmmaker Michael McGowan (Saint Ralph, One Week). Roberts co-stars as John Morrison, the son of the main character - Craig Morrison - played by James Cromwell. While the film is based on a true story of a man who builds a house for his wife, Roberts says that what fascinated him about the project was that his character’s main relationship in the film was with his dad, something, he claims, is seen very rarely in cinema today. That film is scheduled to open at the end of May.

DM: Shortly after Jack Layton died, various media outlets started asking what his legacy will be. What should he be remembered for? Here are Rick’s thoughts on that subject.

RR: I think in a way, it’s encapsulated in the letter around hope, and I think that letter resonated because I think people already felt that about him. I feel like he was always trying to make change in this world; the world that he lived in, the world that he was striving towards.


 JACK airs Sunday, March 10th at 8pm on CBC.


The full interview with Rick Roberts, can be heard on the March 4th podcast of my show Endeavours:


Jack Layton’s “Letter To A Nation”, was immortalized in song, by Canadian folk legend and Children’s singer Raffi.

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