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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 ...

Something was happening to me. In my trailer hung Chow’s distinctive tailor-made dress that she wore at the press conference when Layton stepped down from his position as NDP and Official Opposition leader because of his illness. Olivia is five inches shorter than me and much slighter. But when I tried it on, it fit like a glove. The costume designer and I let out simultaneous gasps.

On my days off, I couldn’tshake Olivia’s Cantonese accent. It crept inside my mouth, softening my r’s and l’s. I was no longer myself, nor was I her, but a perplexing combination of both of us.

I called my boyfriend in Toronto but got his answering message. We hadn’t spoken in days. I was alone, but come the weekend, the Fort Garry Hotel was possessed by weddings. The lobby was all taffeta gowns and tuxedos and plastered-on smiles. I have never been big on marriage. The thought makes me want to bolt like a wild horse from a corral.

I checked the shooting schedule and saw: “SET CHANGE – Wedding Party, 1988.” Jack and Olivia were getting married the next day. I felt lousy in the morning, but adrenalin kicked in. As I slipped into my sequined white wedding dress with a billowing crinoline skirt that made me look like an ice cream cone, I started bleeding. I got my period.

Stuffed into the back of the van heading to the set, I looked out at the vast Prairie landscape and imagined myself running along the highway to escape.

We arrived deep in the woods by a lake. It was a hot, humid summer afternoon, and as I walked across marshland in high heels, my gauzy crinoline skirt trapped hundreds of insects: giant spiders, flies, mosquitoes and winged creatures. My face swelled with an itchy red lump that the makeup artist concealed, as ballroom dancers whirled around me.

Action! We started down the centre aisle. I looked up, and there was Jack hobbling with a cane from our bike accident the week before. He wore a white suit with a pink rose in the lapel. Above us, an archway of white and red balloons was squeaking in the wind.

I gazed into his dead, soulless blue eyes. A burst of sunshine crested like a halo around Jack’s face.

I was in love.

Jack airs Sunday on CBC at 8 p.m.

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