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Barry Pepper on 'The Kennedys' producer Joel Surnow: 'Being conservative has become a bad word in Hollywood'

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Barry Pepper
Kennedys Productions (Ontario) Inc. and Zak Cassar

In anticipation of Sunday’s premiere of The Kennedys on Reelz, EW talked to True Grit’s Barry Pepper — who plays Bobby Kennedy in the eight-part miniseries that’ll air on the basic cable net that reaches 60 million homes. The project from Joel Surnow (24) and director Jon Cassar also stars Greg Kinnear as John F. Kennedy, Katie Holmes as Jackie, and Tom Wilkinson as the president’s father, Joe.

EW What was your initial reaction when you were approached to play the President’s brother?

Barry Pepper I was very flattered. He’s legendary, a member of American aristocracy, a political dynasty. But then after I got off the phone, I realized what a huge responsibility it was going to be. I thought, what have I done? After reading the 500-page script, though, my first thought was that this is remarkable, this is so well-researched, so well done. How will they pull it off in four months? It’s three feature films in four months.

EW What did you do to prepare?

Pepper I was very nervous about the accent. I knew my first request was to bring in my makeup team to design and build a look. We owed him as much respect as we could give him. He had those prominent Kennedy pale blue eyes, hooded eyelids. Bobby had more of a pugilist nose, like an eagle’s beak, so we had a nose built. I don’t know, I think we had 70 noses built. It was so fantastic. I had a month or two before production so I could really focus on the accent.

EW As an actor, do you think you should have concerned yourself with whether the miniseries was historically accurate?

Pepper All of us threw ourselves into it, consuming books, listening to audio, grabbing every digital sample I could find. I was terrified throughout the entire production. I think that’s one thing that’s fallen through the cracks, was how much painstaking effort we went through to source the truth. It was so daunting, so nerve-racking, not wanting to let the family down. We were deeply concerned about accuracy, and respect for the family. In a very public press situation like ours, when History decided to go another direction and Reelz championed the project, truth was the first casuality. Every one was piling as if Greg, Tom, Katie and myself would attach ourselves to something that hadn’t been so painstakingly vetted. The fact remains that we had to have a First Amendment lawyer to get production assurance. We couldn’t go haphazardly into this project. It’s not only our careers at stake. That’s not something we entered into lightly.

EW What did you think about the early internet campaign by a liberal documentarian who, among other things, took issue with Surnow’s conservative views and argued that the miniseries touted Kennedy’s quest for power and sex above all else?

Pepper Sadly, we all form opinions based on misinformation. Once I got to meet Joel Surnow and speak with him,  I discovered we had more in common than I thought. He is a very misunderstood person. People don’t take the time to look beyond the labels that have been attached. I think for some reason being conservative has become a bad word in Hollywood. I did want to know what was going on, though, based on everything I was reading. Boy was the script really salacious or slanderous? What created such shock and awe? By the time I was given the script, I never read that particular version. I don’t believe any of us did. For some reason an early draft leaked out. It was unfortunate.

EW How did you feel when History passed on the project?

Pepper We were flooded with emotion. We felt like, gosh what is it that we did that was so offensive? We were really taken back. We really don’t know what the reasons were. You feel like you failed, but you also realize that you did everything you possibly could. We were our own historians, we were our own worst critics, wanting to make sure that nothing could be contested. The series will contain elements that might upset Kennedy loyalists. But as Americans we immortalized them. They were human. Like all of us, they did things that were incredibly admirable and also, not so admirable.

EW Had you heard of Reelz?

Pepper I knew of them. We were very fortunate they bought it. Camelot found its knight in shining armor at the last minute!

Katie Holmes on playing Jackie O in ‘The Kennedys’: ‘It felt odd to me to be in that pink suit’

Ode to Barry Pepper, the teeth in ‘True Grit’

Follow me @EWLynette