Until just a few years ago, Quebec-born actor Bruce Greenwood was making a steady living working in American television, guest spotting on Matlock and Jake and the Fatman, joining the ensemble cast of St. Elsewhere (his character, Dr. Seth Griffin, contracted AIDS on the show), and picking up major roles in a number of TV movies (he played real-life people Dennis Wilson in Summer Dreams: The Story of the Beach Boys and Larry Strickland, the father in Naomi & amp; Wynonna: Love Can Build a Bridge).
But when the big screen came calling, Greenwood was ready to go, from a small part in Passenger 57 to riveting co-starring roles in Exotica, The Sweet Hereafter and Rules of Engagement.
Greenwood gets notched up to leading status, taking on the textured, complex part of President John F. Kennedy, in Thirteen Days, the intense story of the Cuban missile crisis. And he readily admits that while playing a real person is tough, it was more of a challenge to play the near-mythologized Kennedy than a Beach Boy or the father of a Judd.
"For a few days you think, 'Oh God, I've gotta do him justice.' And then you realize, chances are you're not going to. So you just get on to the business of doing the research. I was saturated with it."
And rather than focusing on one or two parts of the character, Greenwood chose total involvement.
"When you do a role like this," he explains, "you basically put your head down for four months and you don't look up until it's over. It's that engrossing."
He's asked if he would mind talking about his teeth, but doesn't understand the relevance of the question until he's reminded that there was talk of his front teeth being doctored to make him look more like JFK, and of a story about him removing a tooth for The Sweet Hereafter.
"Oh yeah," he says, laughing. "We tried prosthetic teeth in Thirteen Days 'cause he had that famous grin, but it just didn't work on me. It just looked goofy. If I'd worn the teeth and done the accent that everybody was expecting, I would've come off like [The Simpsons'] Mayor Quimby. You don't want that in a big movie."
Even with his own teeth, Greenwood found it tricky to get the difficult accent just right.
"I worked a lot on it," he says proudly, "and chose to do his lower register, which I discovered in a lot of the footage that I watched. When he was behind closed doors and conversational in tone, his voice was about an octave and a half lower than it was for oratory. What we are most used to hearing is that rather more high-pitched speech voice. And his Kennedy cadences are that much stronger as a result."
That was a choice of his own making, but Greenwood has no problems listening to advice or suggestions from directors. In recent years, he's worked with some of the best -- William Friedkin (Rules of Engagement), Roger Donaldson (Thirteen Days) and Atom Egoyan (The Sweet Hereafter) -- each of whom has a very different style.
"Billy's energy is just so electric," he says of Friedkin. "And he knows exactly what he wants. And that's great; it becomes a drag only if you can't deliver what he wants. Roger is also extremely energetic, but in a gentler way. He's a really fun leader to be around, because he keeps a really positive vibe on the set, and he likes the vibe to be generous and open. And that makes for good collaborative work. Atom is so wonderfully easygoing, but behind the easygoing thing is this incredibly wry, black sense of humor. And he's so astoundingly inventive, that almost whatever you do, he'll find a way to believe that some aspect of it is wonderful, and reach in and pull what's most interesting into the foreground."
Greenwood has said for years that between the day before and the day after he saw One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, his interest in acting went through some major changes. And it all had to do with Brad Dourif's performance as Billy Bibbit.
"I saw a couple things there," he recalls. "I was so moved. I think it was one of the first times I'd really felt I could see this guy's soul on the screen. I felt like I could walk up there and just put my arms around him. And I'd never thought of acting before."
But Greenwood is more than making up for that these days. He has two major TV films airing over the next couple of months: the CBS miniseries Haven, and an A & amp;E remake -- from the original script, not the hacked-up Hollywood film -- of Orson Welles' The Magnificent Ambersons, in which he'll play Eugene Morgan, the role Joseph Cotton had in the original. And, of course, Thirteen Days opens nationwide this week.