JFK has arrived in Netflix’s acclaimed British royal family drama The Crown, but you can expect a rather different depiction of the 35th president than the laudatory portraits typically seen in American film and television.
As played by Michael C. Hall (Dexter, Six Feet Under) in the show’s second season (premiering Friday), President John F. Kennedy is still a charming leader who can deliver an inspiring speech (a scene where Kennedy describes a divided nation and calls for healing leadership seems particularly on point). But he’s also shown behind the scenes as a controlling jealous conniver prone to outbursts, including very roughly handling Jackie Kennedy (Jodi Balfour) — who later reveals her and her husband’s heavy dependence on drugs. Below, Hall gives his first interview about the drama series, whose second season follows the life of Queen Elizabeth (Claire Foy) from the years 1956 to 1964.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: What was your first thought when offered this role?
MICHAEL C. HALL: I knew the show was very well regarded but I had yet to see it. It was somewhat daunting, obviously, to breathe life into somebody so iconic and who had life breathed into him by so many other people. But that was also exciting. And when I looked at the script I thought the presentation [of Kennedy] was pretty broad spectrum. It’s basically a sketch — I’m there momentarily here and there — but it took some risks in terms of how and what it was depicting. And I was excited in this day and age to give a speech that a lot of people in the states would crave to hear from a leader.
He’s perhaps the most previously depicted president in Hollywood history. Did that add any pressure?
Sure! It’s tough. You can’t ignore the ubiquity of his image and his voice. You have to in some way honor that without mimicking him. It’s a challenging thing, I know that on the show they certainly encourage people to honor the spirit of the people they’re playing but don’t encourage straight-up mimicry. So I didn’t feel too bound by that. But that accent that’s almost unique to just the Kennedys and those rhythms are not something you’d want to discard because they have so much to do with getting a feel for him.
His voice must be tricky because it’s so distinctive. I imagine it’s easy to slip into Mayor Quimby from The Simpsons if you’re not too careful.
Exactly. There are plenty of things I heard [of his recordings] that if I accurately re-created would sound like a send-up. It’s like if you try to sing exactly like Bob Dylan you’re going to sound like you’re making fun of him. Part of the challenge was straddling that line. I haven’t seen it yet. Hopefully, I was on the beam at least some of the time.
You note the show took some risks. Kennedy seems like a jerk-y and abusive addict compared to how he’s normally portrayed. Did that give you any pause?
No. Not given what I know to have been true about him. His initial drug use was steroids to treat his autoimmune deficiency which resulted in a lot of bone deterioration, and then they put him on painkillers to manage that. But because of the sluggishness that [the painkillers] inevitably created, he turned to amphetamines to function. And obviously, you have to function at a pretty high level as a head of state. So, yeah, he was very much a functional addict — initially by necessity and then he was managing the side effects. I think he had his own Dr. Feelgood and that was part of the picture. And his relationship with women was certainly a well-kept secret back then but at this particular moment is an interesting thing to examine and reveal.
Anything else about this experience unique compared to other projects you’ve worked on?
It was incredible. The show is so sumptuous. The locations they use are so real and authentic. You’re not on a set, you’re in a palace. It’s such an incredibly happy set. Everybody does their jobs so well. [Stars Foy and Matt Smith] were fantastic. It was my second day of work when I started watching the show on my phone in the car while going to location and started to realize how unique and high quality of a production it was. I tried to make sure I showed up ready to go. And also it was a real blast meeting and working with Jodi, I think she’s an amazing talent.
And lest you get out of any interview without being asked this question: Any thoughts on a Dexter reboot? Any moment on that front?
I don’t think it’s quite time. But it’s a conversation that continues at its own pace.