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Interview: Actor Will Rothhaar talks ‘Killing Kennedy’

Will Rothhaar in 'Killing Kennedy'
Will Rothhaar in 'Killing Kennedy'
National Geographic Channel/20th Century Fox

Killing Kennedy,” which released to Blu-ray on Feb. 11, explores the events leading up to the assassination of President John F. Kennedy (portrayed by Rob Lowe) in Dallas, Texas on Nov. 22, 1963. This Nelson McCormick-directed film – based on the Bill O’Reilly and Martin Dugard book, “Killing Kennedy: The End of Camelot” – also examines the life of former U.S. Marine, Lee Harvey Oswald (portrayed by Will Rothhaar), who would end up gunning down the 35th President of the United States.

Recently, the Chico Movie Examiner conducted an over-the-phone interview with Rothhaar about his performance as Oswald; whether he thinks the conspiracies surrounding the assassination might hold some truth; and how it felt to recreate a moment that would forever change America.

Check out the full interview below.

David Wangberg: I know we were supposed to talk last week, but I had jury duty. So, I apologize for that.

Will Rothhaar: Hey, no worries, man. You gotta handle that.

DW: But that actually gave me the opportunity to watch the film, finally, and I thought you gave a fantastic performance.

WR: Aw, thank you, brother. I really appreciate you watching it, and thank you for that.

DW: Yeah, you’re welcome. Now, actually, we’ve seen Lee Harvey Oswald portrayed many times before in film – most notably in Oliver Stone’s “JFK.” What was it about your portrayal of Oswald that you wanted to do differently from the ones in the past?

WR: To be honest with you, I didn’t watch any of the other performances before we shot ours. I actually only watched “JFK” for the first time very recently. I watched it over the summer for the first time – right at the tail end of the summer. The thing about [Oswald] is that he’s always been this random dude who did this really terrible thing, and he’s always been this huge villain. Everybody has hated him forever, but what I wanted to do – and what director Nelson McCormick wanted to do with him – is show a more human side of him. Because, I mean, it’s not like he hatched into a full-grown monster. It didn’t happen like that; there’s more to it. So delving into his past, the way he grew up, the upcoming that he had – all of these different factors would go into the equation that make up who he [was]. And I wanted people to walk away from it not feeling compassion for the guy but maybe being a little more understanding to how he got to be the way that he was.

DW: This tells the story straightforward. There isn’t any diving into the conspiracies or anything that’s been explored before. Having done the film, do you believe this side of the story, or do you think the conspiracies might still hold some truth to them?

WR: Well, that’s the interesting thing about this subject. There are so many different ways to tell the story, and there have been so many different versions of this. The fun thing about having this – what’s great about it – is that you can hold your opinion about it. But this is the version that we’ve done. We’re telling the facts of what happened that day as far as the Warren Commission goes. Certainly, I have my own opinions about what happened that day, and doing this film never really changed that. But again, it’s fascinating that we can just tell the facts, and we can tell the story based on the truth – which is what we did.

DW: As we all know, Oswald was assassinated two days after he killed Kennedy. But if Jack Ruby hadn’t killed him, and Oswald happened to miraculously live up until this day, and you had the opportunity to sit down and talk to him, do you think an interview with him would help you better understand him and help you do a better job with your performance?

WR: Oh, certainly. I mean, if I had the chance to sit down and talk with him now, that would be incredible. A lot of people, they’ll ask, “If you could go back and ask him one thing, what would it be?” If I had the chance, I actually wouldn’t ask him anything. I researched him, and there’s a lot of good work as far as that goes. The thing I wouldn’t mind is [that] I wish I could go back to the time to where I was a little older than he was. Because you still have to understand that he was full of neglect. His father died, basically, when he was born. His mother was really unstable and picked him up and moved him all over the country. He attended 22 different schools by the time he was 14. The kid had no chance to put that into words. I think about how unfortunate that is to be a little boy and to be growing up in that kind of a situation.

What I would really love to do is I would really love to go back to a time to where, maybe, I could be a little bit older than he was and give him a little bit of attention – take him out; show him how to be a kid; and hang out with him. I feel like, when you do that, you might be able to change some things that happened on that list. A good foundation for a child is necessary for positive growth.

DW: Now, you mentioned that you wanted to show the more human side to him, because everyone sees him as a monster. As someone who is in the [movie] industry and you have cameras around you and fans coming up to you for your autograph and pictures, what is it that you do to show people that you are human – just like everyone else?

WR: I think that it’s such a strange situation, because people do hold actors and performers on this pedestal – which I’m not really a fan of. The thing about me is that I’ve been doing this since I was four years old. I’ve been doing this over 22 years now. And the thing is that I didn’t get a lot of notoriety. I’ve been working pretty consistently, since I was a child, but I’m not famous or anything like that – which I kind of love. I sort of got to experience the whole work aspect of doing this job and whatnot, but I was also on the sidelines. And, for lack of a better phrase, and you can bleep me out in the article, I got to stay free of a lot of the bull**** that comes along with it. I mean, if you talk to anybody that’s close to me, I run with this huge circle of friends; I’ve got a lot of different types of people in my life; and, more often than not, I would just rather hang out with my folks and do stuff with my people and anybody.

I’m a very open book as far as the way I relate to people. I think that the most important thing that you can constantly keep intact in this game of a lot of falsities and things like that is yourself. You gotta maintain your own level of sanity; you gotta be kind; [and] go out of your way to [not] be an a**hole. Because I think it’s that phrase where it’s a hell of a lot more muscles to frown than to smile. It’s a lot harder to be a d**k than to be nice to people. I think that, just in general, my number one priority is to just go out of your way to stay yourself and put yourself out there in a positive way. It’s so easy, and you can connect with a lot of your friends.

DW: Yeah. And don’t worry about the profanity; I will bleep it out. You’re fine. If you drop an f-bomb or whatever, you’re fine.

WR: OK. Cool. [laughs]

DW: There’s a moment in the film where Oswald has one of his imaginary interviews, and he says people will remember him as a hunter, a fascist, and a hero. You’re a young guy now, but if history looks back at you and your career, how is it that people will remember you?

WR: That’s a really good question. I really don’t have an interest in being famous like that with people and all the fans – people going crazy like that. On a professional level, I would love to be remembered for my work. On a personal level, I would love to be remembered for exactly what I said before – just being able to extend my heart and my love and myself to anybody around me. I hope that, when I leave this planet, I will have touched a few people in a positive way. That’s really what I hope I am remembered for the most.

DW: I know that this is a movie, but the character you play assassinates one of the most beloved presidents of the United States. Take me to that moment where you had to pull the trigger – where your character pulled the trigger and assassinated JFK. What was going through your head as you were doing that scene?

WR: The thing is, especially on the set, we’re working against the clock. We got time constraints; 50 people running around doing different jobs; people coming up and pulling your shirt; adjusting things and lights; sound men checking on your mic; and all these different things. When you get in the moment, everything kind of settles down, and you take that time laying it out. I was taking that time to hold that rifle up, and I was just aiming down the street. We didn’t have the motorcade going as we were shooting my part of that scene, but I was envisioning where it was going [when] bringing that rifle up and looking through the scope. When you have to pull the trigger, there was definitely a second where I was looking down the barrel and thought to myself, as Lee, “Do I have to do this? Is this where it’s going to go right now?” And then you make the decision to do it. I think, at the end of the day, people will say, “What do you think Lee had against JFK?” And the thing is I really don’t think it had anything to do with JFK, because, before that, he tried to kill Edwin Walker, and he was going to try to take a stab at Nixon. And then he decided to kill JFK.

It’s the power of extremely ordinary people doing extremely extraordinary things, and I think that, at the end of the day, he wanted to be seen. So much of his life was being on the fringe and [having] nobody paying attention to him, like his bosses. He was in a very strange situation with his wife. There were a lot of different things, and people were not paying attention to him. And as a child, he was not seen – nobody saw him. I think, when stuff gets that way, you do something extreme like killing a president. Nowadays, kids go into schools and mow down other kids with an assault rifle. These things happen like that. I think, in that moment, there was a second where I was thinking to myself, “Grab the gun and do this.” You say, “Yeah, I’m willing to go to whatever extreme I have to to get seen like that.” So, yeah, it was an intense day – that was an especially intense day, for sure.

DW: We’ve had several presidents assassinated while in office. But the two who get the most cinematic treatments; specials; and stuff like that are JFK and [Abraham] Lincoln. Do you think there might be a chance where we’ll get more stories about McKinley and Garfield – both of whom were also assassinated?

WR: I would love that; I think that they should. Another interesting thing about this project is I was educated a lot on this subject as a kid. My grandmother lived in Dallas; my parents loved JFK; and I went to the School Book Depository as a kid. Both of my parents are actors and directors and whatnot. My dad loves really solid, old school, Broadway musicals, and one of them is “Assassins” by Stephen Sondheim. All of the successful or non-successful assassins that have ever existed in the United States come together, and they talk about their killing or attempts through songs. It’s a really incredible musical. One of the things that was really fun about my research for this is that I didn’t stop with just Kennedy and Oswald; I delved into all of the other assassin stories. I went into [John] Hinckley and Giuseppe Zangara – everything I could possibly find on everybody else as well. And it’s an interesting thing about all these people is that [they] wanted to be seen; they wanted to be noticed. So, yeah, I would love to see that. We’ve done a lot of JFK assassination stories and we’ve done a lot of Lincoln assassination stories. I think we should delve into some other ones, because they are all very interesting people. That would be fascinating to see, for sure. You’ve got my vote on that.

This concludes the interview, but the Chico Movie Examiner would like to thank Will Rothhaar for taking the time to talk about “Killing Kennedy.”

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