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Rick Roberts as Jack Layton and Sook-Yin Lee as Olivia Chow in the CBC biopic Jack. (Allen Fraser)
Rick Roberts as Jack Layton and Sook-Yin Lee as Olivia Chow in the CBC biopic Jack. (Allen Fraser)

In her own words: Sook-Yin Lee on playing Olivia Chow (against type) in the Jack Layton biopic Add to ...

Staying in the legendarily haunted Fort Garry Hotel in Winnipeg, I wandered the corridors and snapped photos of bleak Prairie landscapes. One night I woke up and I felt there were ghosts hovering above my bed. “Jack?” I whispered.

The movie spans three decades, beginning when Chow meets Layton, and ending when he dies. In between is an epic romance.

I was at a wardrobe fitting when I found Roberts lurking behind racks of costumes. He looked completely different from the actor I had met earlier at Chow’s home. Roberts was in his “Jack Layton, 1980s attire” with the requisite high-waisted pants, and his face had been completely altered with prosthetic cheek enhancements and ice-blue contact lenses. His head was shaved and he wore a ragged, lopsided wig (which I later learned was a joke wig – not the one he’d wear for the film). Still, there was a nagging thought that wouldn’t go away. How am I supposed to fall in love with him?

Later, Roberts changed into his “Jack-mask, 2000s” look, which was eerily convincing.

I watched him alone, moving around strangely, and talking to himself. Before my eyes, he seemed to transform fully into Layton. I thought he was crazy. I wanted to run away.

The contact lenses particularly got to me. I told Roberts and my director it was hard for me to connect with those dead, soulless eyes but Woolnough insisted the blue eyes sell it – they’re what make him look like Jack.

Once again, I gathered advice. French film auteur Laurent Cantet urged me to trust the story. As long as the scene is strong, the actors are convincing. Another actor told me to apply a “sense memory” technique and imagine someone I love. Still another advised me to try to take in Jack’s aura, his whole being.

A few weeks earlier in Mexico City, I met a gorgeous young woman with a Frida Kahlo uni-brow. When I e-mailed her, she was holed up in hotel room, having an illicit affair with her dad’s best friend who was three times her age. She responded: How can you fall in love with someone with dead soul-less eyes? It sounds like falling in love with Dracula. Or that you’re falling in love with the idea of limitless life that is so intimate that you can return to it any time you want.

The physical aspects of my transformation helped a lot: the hair extensions, the latex wrinkles, the business suits and the Cantonese accent. When I looked in the mirror, I saw Chow.

For my first day on-set, they stacked all of Jack and Olivia’s make-out scenes in a row. Roberts and I were lip-locked from dawn till dusk. The makeup artist confided in me that this is often done because throwing actors into intimate scenes breaks down barriers and can lead to an exciting exchange. Rick’s constant joking helped temper the extreme oddness of the situation.

Mid-week, Chow arrived while we were shooting a scene in the legislature building with a cast of well-seasoned actors. I felt out of my league and intimidated knowing Olivia was watching me on the monitor. I was in a power suit and high heels with my hair and face altered to resemble hers. That’s when I stumbled down the austere marble staircase.

The next day, we were shooting an intimate and painful scene at the hospital where Olivia tells Jack they’re allowed to go home for him to live his final days. Olivia’s presence on-set helped me get to the difficult place I needed to go to serve the story.

When l saw her quickly leave unable to watch any more, my heart went out to her.

After she was gone, packages began arriving full of her and Jack’s belongings. She lent the production these personal treasures – his cane, his hat, their tandem bicycle, her earrings and her silver pendant. It was a generous gesture, intended to save money, but I wondered if letting go of them for a time was also a part of her mourning process.

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