It is one of the most iconic moments of the 20th century, and one that imprinted itself on the minds of an entire generation. In 1963, on a late November day, President John F. Kennedy was assassinated as he rode in an open motorcade through Dallas’ Dealey Plaza. His wife Jacqueline, her pristine pink suit spattered with the blood of the young president, wrapped her arms around her dying husband in a desperate attempt to save him.
But Kennedy didn’t die in that car: He was rushed to Parkland Hospital in Dallas, where a team of physicians frantically attempted to keep Kennedy alive.
Parkland, which arrived in theaters in early October and is available on DVD today, is based on the actual events of what happened after the fatal shot was fired 50 years ago. The film centers on the lives of those everyday people most affected by the incident — the medical team that tried in vain to save him, the bystander (played by Paul Giamati) who accidently caught the assassination on camera, and the family members of assassin Lee Harvey Oswald.
The film’s most crucial role is that of Kennedy himself, played by actor Brett Stimely, who is little more than a corpse being poked and prodded on a gurney table. “We’re the same height, we have a similar bone structure and similar eyes, and if I put my hair the right way it looks similar to his,” said Stimely, sipping an iced tea at Hollywood’s Chateau Marmont. Stimely, a Washington state native, grew up idolizing the man he would come to personify not once, but four times on screen. “I always admired him,” he said simply, “he was always my favorite president.”
But Parkland isn’t about Kennedy, according to Stimely. “You’re focused on the reaction of these people as it happens,” he said. “There’s a wonderful picture that Colin Hanks [who plays Dr. Malcolm Perry] sent to Tom [Hanks], his father, where two doctors — Colin and Zac Efron, and a few others — are all gathered around me, and Colin has his finger stuck in my trachea, with blood all over,” Stimely said. “He got a text back from Tom saying ‘ick.’”
Because the majority of Parkland is set inside the hospital operating room, with a team of medical experts elbow deep in the insides of the President, Stimely was outfitted with a variety of prosthetics. “There was so much blood,” he said. “I had a wig on, and my wig had a big 14-centimeter flap open, with bananas and yogurt and fake blood coming out — that was our brain matter. There were two tubes up my back and into where the flap was, and they were in the other room oozing blood so it was dripping all over and going into the kick bucket… Quite fun.”
Stimely’s job on Parkland involved laying lifeless on a table, but he said that the gig wasn’t all that easy. “I had to be naked for many days, laying on the cold slab, for eight or nine hours. I got up once for lunch during the day, but when they called cut or did a break or something, I had to lie there. The continuity wouldn’t be able to be matched, so I had to stay all hooked up. No toilet breaks.”
Historical accuracy was paramount to the film’s producers, because, as Stimely put it, “You want to be absolutely accurate because it’s the first time you’re telling the story of these people.” To this end, Stimely wore contacts to make his eyes appear dilated to different sizes. “I didn’t know this, but when you look at pictures of Kennedy when he died, his eyes were open, and they were open until they put him in the coffin,” he said. “I had to have my eyes open for 12 days. There were bets going on for days about when I was going to blink. You hold it, you just don’t. In between each take I got eye drops, so that kept the burning down a little bit. Technically [Kennedy] was alive for 35 minutes before they called it.”
In one particularly memorable scene, in a last minute attempt to save the President, two doctors take turns delivering compressions to Kennedy’s now lifeless body. But as the scene builds, so does the severity of compressions delivered. “Yes, It hurt,” Stimely confirmed. “One day we had a big prosthetic piece that was a mold of my chest, so when Colin was giving me chest compressions, it was great. But then Zac [Efron] took over, which was the next day, and there was no chest piece. So he starts doing it and I go, ‘AH!’ and he said, ‘Dude, did I hurt you?’ He had to make it look real, so I was getting a pounding. I couldn’t scream, I couldn’t punch him — I wanted to punch him.”
Parkland was not, however, Stimely’s first time portraying Kennedy. In Zach Snyder’s 2009 adaptation of Alan Moore’s seminal graphic novel Watchmen, Stimely stepped into the shoes of the iconic leader for the first time. “For Watchmen, there was a whole shoulder-up body cast, with two little straws to breath out of the nose,” he said. “They put nine pieces on my face, then makeup — adding sunspots, eyebrows, under the eyes, the waddle under the chin.” The entire process took four hours to assemble. “They needed me to look very, very authentic,” he added.
After that performance, Stimely was soon remembered by casting directors as the actor who played Kennedy. That’s when 2011’s Michael Bay action film Transformers: Dark of the Moon came knocking. “What I heard is that [Bay] talked to his people and said, ‘Get me the same guy who played Kennedy in Zach [Snyder]’s movie, the movie with that big blue man.’” For this role, the editing team intercut real footage of JFK with footage of Stimely in costume. Because of this, Stimely said, “I had to look identical, ‘cause you don’t know what’s real and what isn’t.”
In another recent Kennedy performance, this time in Dominican film Kill The Dictator, Stimely was physically equipped with very little in order to convincingly depict the president. “For the first films, I had the nine prosthetic pieces on, now in Kill the Dictator — nothing. Nothing on the face, just the hair combed the right way. I did have the [false] teeth set put in, because he had those big set of chompers. But it was the way they lit it. I surprised myself. I thought, I’m not gonna look too much like him, but when I saw it, I went, ‘WOW.’”
Playing Kennedy four times on film has made him a near expert on the man himself and his physical bearing: “The way he held his together, the way his legs were crossed in the rocking chair, the way his arms laid on the arms of the rocking chair, the way he would be at his desk, the way he walked slightly hunched over.”
“People didn’t know he had a debilitating back problem that he was born with,” Stimely continued. “What you are privy to in [Parkland] is that you see he was wearing a corset for back support. And he was taking two major drugs for that, and also Valium. So I did my research, I popped Valium to see what that was about… I’m just kidding. I’ve never had a drug or even a cigarette in my entire life.”
While he’s certainly found his niche, Stimely doesn’t have any future plans to play President Kennedy. His most recent project was adapting author Ray Bradbury’s short story Kaleidoscope to film. The result is a powerful and thought-provoking 17-minute space adventure, following five stranded men, spinning separately through the atmosphere, each attempting to accept their undeniable fate, an end that neither Kennedy nor anyone in America could see coming on that pivotal and tragic November day in 1963.