Next week will mark the one-year anniversary of the death of NDP leader Jack Layton. He may be gone, but he’s definitely not forgotten and now the much-loved Layton lives on in a new movie currently in production documenting his life.
“I was quite surprised and grateful that Jack’s story would be told,” Layton’s widow, Olivia Chow, told us on the Winnipeg set of Smilin’ Jack where friendly Manitoba doubles as Ottawa. “I’m hoping the film will encourage people to get involved. Whether it’s an act of kindness or something to make their neighbourhood and community a better place to be.”
Canadian-born actor Rick Roberts plays Jack and Olivia admits it was strange seeing him on set for the first time. “Oh my God,” she says. “It was a bit eerie!” Likely even more eerie - seeing broadcaster and actress Sook-Yin Lee playing her! “I had to do a double take,” she says. “I’m honoured that she’s playing me, we have a lot in common.” Their families both hail from Hong Kong and in addition to living in the same Toronto neighbourhood, they discovered they’re both members of the same community pool where they regularly swim laps. They’re also the same size, which came in handy as Olivia donated several of her own dresses and suits to the production.
Authenticity is something of paramount importance to the production team. Filmmakers invited Olivia on set for two days where she offered advice and notes to the director on everything from Jack’s walk and pattern of speech, to tie selection. After all, she knew him better than anyone.
One scene called for Jack to walk into the room and be greeted by applause from his caucus right after the NDP soared to the official opposition in the 2011 election. After the first take, Olivia gently pulled the director aside and expressed concern that the caucus didn’t seem excited enough. She suggested their applause be more roaring and celebratory. Director Jeff Woolnough took her advice and the scene was better for it.
Though Olivia is excited to see Smilin’ Jack when it airs on CBC in 2013, it’s still a bittersweet experience. “It’s up and down,” she says of losing the love of her life to cancer. “It’s hard, really hard, sometimes unbearable at times and other times it’s okay, I can keep going.” During those dark times, it’s Jack’s own parting message of love, hope and optimism that keeps her going: “He loved life and he lived it to the fullest and I hope everybody will do the same.”
Watch the set visit below!