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13 things to know about ‘Jack,’ the Jack Layton biopic

Anne T. Donahue
omg! TV

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Rick Roberts and Sook-Yin Lee star as Jack Layton and Olivia Chow in CBC's "Jack." (CBC)

It's been over a year since the loss of NDP leader Jack Layton, and producer Laszlo Barna has chosen to celebrate the beloved politician's life through a CBC film starring Rick Roberts and Sook-Yin Lee.

Simply titled, "Jack," the film spans Jack Layton's (Roberts) rise through politics, and the evolution of his relationship with wife and follow politician, Olivia Chow (Lee). So to get you all set for its March 10 premiere, omg! TV spoke with both Roberts and Lee, who gave us a few facts about the movie -- including how the real Olivia Chow helped them prepare.

1) Rick Roberts spent two hours every day to transform into Jack Layton: "It was very arduous," he says. "It was like jumping the gauntlet because it was two hours in makeup, so I was there two hours before everyone, and then an hour after everyone left. I remember one day we shot in an airport, and when I got on the bus [after my makeup was off], nobody recognized me."

2) Lee also underwent a physical transformation to become Olivia Chow: "I don't look like Olivia," Lee affirms. "We have very different semiotics. I don't wear power suits, I don't have the same hair, I tend to wear ... I'm not as straight-looking."

3) But Lee was unrecognizable to a friend who visited her on set: "He just assumed the whole time, and when I said, 'Hi, Chris,' he was totally [taken aback]," she adds.

4) Roberts considers the exhaustion he underwent playing Jack as a test of strength: "[Between Jack's] physical health issues, and then there's a whole multi-component that's going to be really exhausting as well," he says. "It really was kind of a pressure cooker on many levels ... And in terms of the practical labour of the gruelling hours of shooting and makeup, it was a real treat to have the exhaustion component to deal with. Kind of like an endurance event."

5) Lee, Roberts, and Barna had one afternoon to spend with Olivia Chow: "We all asked her so many questions, to try and get a beat on what it was like," recalls Lee. "Because we saw the stoic Olivia at the funeral, and always affable and poised, but I wanted to get a sense of what was happening behind the scenes."

6) Olivia Chow is actually quite an artist: "Olivia studied philosophy and went to art school," reveals Lee. "She's a beautiful artist and sculpter."

7) Part of the filming of "Jack" took place on the anniversary of Jack Layton's death: "The actual emotions were in the air," Roberts recalls. "We were literally shooting on the anniversary of his death. I felt it gave that work a nervous edge that I actually enjoy working under."

8) They avoided the "Argo" effect: "I was joking after the Oscars that it was good to do ['Jack'] soon -- before Ben Affleck did it," Roberts says, laughing.

9) A big part of becoming Olivia Chow was adopting the Cantonese accent -- which Lee learned from Olivia Chow's best friend, Nancy: "She introduced me to her best friend, Nancy, who she wanted to help me with the Cantonese translation. And I took the opportunity to ask [Nancy] so many questions because who better to know Olivia than her best friend?"

10) Roberts believes those who cast him as Jack Layton saw something in him before he himself did: "I did really want to play the role," he maintains. "It was one of those things where I wasn't sure, [but] I think I have something in my spirit that other people saw when I came to audition for it. I didn't see it at the time, but I really wanted to do it."

11) Roberts considers Jack's trademark cane as proof of his strength: "It started off as an emblem of his weakness, and was something he was embarrassed about and didn't want. But then it transformed to a testament of his strength."

12) Lee considers Canadian politics to have been Jack and Olivia's playground: "They were soul mates, and playmates, and best friends," she says. "And I just wanted to capture that the best I could. I think politics was [their] playground. And for fun, they'd go to Cabinet and write a political book together. It's where they put their aims, and goals, and energy, and delighted in one another."

13) To help the production save money, Olivia donated her own jewellery, clothing, and even the bicycle she and Jack shared: "These artifacts were coming in," says Lee. "And it was very telling to me. I know what it's like to lose a loved one, and on one level she wanted to give us as many clues as possible and to surrender these objects was a huge gesture."

"Jack" premieres Sunday, March 10 on CBC at 10 p.m. ET.

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