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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 ...

When my co-worker found out I’d been cast in the role of Olivia Chow in the Jack Layton biopic, she laughed in my face. “You are sooo NOT Olivia Chow!”

I admit it’s not exactly typecasting. I ran away from home and joined a rock ’n’ roll band. I’ve appeared in the buff in movies. I host DNTO, a personal storytelling show on CBC Radio 1. I have never been married.

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Meanwhile, Chow, MP for Trinity-Spadina, is a career politician, a devoted wife for more than two decades to New Democratic Party leader Jack Layton until his death in August, 2011, and she could be the next mayor of Toronto.

Despite our differences, I took on the great challenge of becoming Olivia.

When I met Rick Roberts, the actor playing Jack Layton, for the first time, I was knocking on the door of Chow’s house. He appeared from the dense brush of the front yard. Weird. This was the man about to play my husband. I had a hard time looking at him. No one was home yet, but I faced the door and kept knocking to fill in the awkwardness.

Right on time, Chow appeared to open the door – in person, generous, straightforward and reserved. Curled up on the couch with bare feet, she ordered takeout sushi and answered our questions. She told how her first meeting with Jack had morphed into a romantic tryst in a hotel swimming pool. When I expressed surprise at how fast it unfolded, she thought I was a prude. Back then, she was afraid of water but Jack taught her how to swim. Now she swims alone, and finds solace in the pool where no one can see her tears. I’m a former competitive swimmer; we discovered we do laps at the same Toronto swimming pool.

According to Chow, a unique aspect of her and Layton’s relationship was that they trusted one another totally. They had only one argument, over who got to steer during a white-water canoeing trip. Layton took the stern and they ended in an up-turned boat. Soaking wet, they argued for 20 minutes, then stopped because they wanted to be friends again.

As she spoke, everywhere I looked I saw vestiges of Jack – his guitars, his keyboard, his cane, his books. I understood this; when my little sister Dede died, her belongings took on a deep significance.

When I returned home, I e-mailed Chow more questions. She answered them briefly and added, “Relax and enjoy the film shoot. You and I are remarkably similar – I am just slightly more obsessed with making this world a better place via politics.”

Chow introduced me to her best friend, Nancy Tong, a documentary filmmaker in New York. They met in the early 1980s at the University of Toronto where Chow studied philosophy before switching to art school. I learned from her that Chow’s dad was a famous opera singer and a secondary-school teacher in Hong Kong, but when he moved to Canada it was hard for him to find work and fit in.

He took his anger out physically on his wife. As soon as Chow was able to support herself, she moved into an apartment with her mom, with whom she lives to this day. According to Tong, witnessing her dad’s frustration upon arriving in Canada was what made Chow fight for immigrant rights as a politician. The story revealed more similarities between us: We’re two Chinese chicks from violent broken homes who defied our parents and pursued the arts.

Then there was Chow’s Cantonese accent to grapple with. I don’t have one; I’m a second-generation Chinese-Canadian. But after landing the part, director Jeff Woolnough asked if I would learn it. I’m glad I did, because it was the key to unlocking my transformation.

Shooting the movie

Shooting a movie on location is like being indoctrinated into a cult. You’re far from your family and the life you know, working long hours with a team of people driven to accomplish a monumental task. Disconnected, you begin losing your sense of self, only to realize you can construct a new identity.

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.

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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