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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.

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.

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