Jack‘s opening scene hints this isn’t a run-of-the-mill analysis of the late political leader. Cameras capture Jack Layton (Rick Roberts, Copper) the lanky leader of the federal New Democratic Party of Canada, as he jogs down a busy city street, the strains of Parachute Club’s “Rise Up” providing the soundtrack.
That upbeat song is an indication of what viewers can expect when they tune in to CBC’s TV movie on Sunday, March 10. Rather than dwell on August 22, 2011, when Layton passed away at age 61 from cancer, the project celebrates the life of the man and the longtime relationship he shared with wife Olivia Chow (played by Sook-Yin Lee, Shortbus).
Andrew Wreggitt, who has made a career out of penning emotional television movies based on real people and events (The Phantoms, Wrath of Grapes: The Don Cherry Story and Mayerthorpe), traces Layton’s rise through Toronto municipal politics during the 1980s, where he battled hard as an advocate for AIDS patients, to his final federal election campaign.
The biggest surprise in the script are the frankly funny, sweet moments Layton and Chow share. Struck by love at first sight, their wedding, naked lie-ins and awkward dinners with Chow’s mother are seen as flashbacks recalled during his 2011 federal campaigning across the country.
The intimacy of their lives was a surprise to Roberts and Lee.
“They were just so jazzed about each other, and that was important to convey,” Lee tells TV Guide Canada. “Their love and playfulness sets up what happens and makes their story so deep.”
“I had a pretty good notion of his public self, but I was pretty curious about his private self,” Roberts admits. “He and Olivia really had a sense of purpose in their lives and were very together. I was surprised by that. The script really made me look at him in a new way; this person who had eternal optimism to make the world a better place.”
Roberts studied footage of the Montreal-born politician in order to get his diction and speech delivery right, and learned to play acoustic guitar so he could strum Layton’s actual instrument during a trio of scenes in the movie. One segment featured Roberts’ Layton bucking up his demoralized staff with an impromptu singalong of “Rise Up” on the campaign bus.
While the actor nailed Layton’s mannerisms and speech patterns, Winnipeg makeup artist Doug Morrow hit a home run in transforming the actor’s facial features. Roberts spent two hours in the makeup chair having gelatin packs applied and blue contacts put in. The final product freaked out Lee.
“The first time I saw him, I was like, ‘What the hell!?’ And when I saw him again he was dressed as Jack in 2000,” she recalls. “He was off in the distance, running lines by himself, and I saw a complete transformation.”
Jack concludes with Roberts narrating Layton’s touching letter to Canadians, a missive he wrote days before his death that concludes with:
“My friends, love is better than anger. Hope is better than fear. Optimism is better than despair. So let us be loving, hopeful and optimistic. And we’ll change the world.”
Those final minutes reopen emotional wounds from 2011, but they also remind viewers of a man with an optimistic view of our country, one Jack hopes to rekindle on Sunday.
Jack airs Sunday, March 10, at 8 p.m. ET on CBC.