Recreating Lee Harvey Oswald’s history got ‘very eerie’ for ‘11.22.63’ actor Daniel Webber
John F. Kennedy’s assassination: It’s a part of American history that launched over 50 years of debate and speculation. The questions of what really happened at Dealey Plaza and who this man Lee Harvey Oswald was have been the subjects of countless books.
Stephen King added his own book to that collection — a fictional take on this history, though one with a lot of historical research involved. The Master of Horror blended together elements of political intrigue, suspense, mystery, and romance with his 2011 book 11/22/63, about a schoolteacher who travels back in time to prevent JFK’s assassination. The eight-part series based on the book and produced by J.J. Abrams debuts today on Hulu. New episodes will be released weekly on Mondays on the streaming service.
During the three years (five in the book) that James Franco’s time-traveling Jake Epping spends in the past, leading up to the fateful day of November 22, 1963, he tracks and spies on Lee Harvey Oswald, attempting to find out whether he indeed killed Kennedy and whether he really worked alone.
Australian actor Daniel Webber took on the complex role of Oswald for his American TV debut. The 27-year-old is best known Down Under for his recurring role on soap Home and Away (which has also featured the likes of Chris Hemsworth and Ryan Kwanten).
Webber told HitFix that 11.22.63 is “absolutely” the project that’s demanded the most preparation from him. He studied New Orleans-born Oswald’s voice and mannerisms in what footage is available of him, and he read not only King’s novel but several biographies about Oswald and other people in his life key to 11.22.63, like George de Mohrenschildt, Oswald’s unlikely Russian friend. Most helpful, Webber says, was a 1977 book called Marina and Lee, by Priscilla Johnson McMillan, who interviewed Oswald in the U.S.S.R. after he’d defected there in 1959, and she interviewed Oswald’s wife, Marina, after the assassination. Before production began, Webber also got to visit New York, where Oswald moved when he was 12.
“Going to some of the places where he had grown up — that really connected me to his story,” Webber said.
Gil Bellows as FBI agent James Hosty and Daniel Webber as Lee Harvey Oswald in a HitFix exclusive photo from 11.22.63. Photo credit: Russ Martin/Hulu
When Bridget Carpenter, the writer-producer who developed the adaptation for Hulu, saw Webber’s audition tape for the part, she was captivated by “something about about his stillness, about the formality and odd cadence of speech,” she told HitFix via email. “He seemed simultaneously arrogant and vulnerable, and I couldn’t take my eyes off him.”
Though the 11.22.63 team had to figure out how to condense the 800-plus pages of King’s book into a mini-series, Oswald’s character ultimately ended up being more fleshed out in the book.
“There’s something Stephen King said — that if he could change how he portrayed [Oswald] in the book, he might him more accessible for us to understand, as opposed to being a black-and-white, ‘you’re a bad man’ character,” Webber said.
In the novel, told in the first-person point of view of the time-traveling protagonist, we see Oswald through the eyes of Jake Epping, the man on a mission to stop (and, if necessary, kill) this infamous assassin before he could do the infamous deed. All we, as readers, know about Oswald is what Jake gleans from spying on him through curtain-drawn windows and listening to his conversations via bugs planted inside the Oswalds’ table lamps. But in the Hulu series, the audience steps into the Oswalds’ home and sees what Lee and Marina are doing while Jake is in other parts of Texas.
“Lee,” in fact, is how Webber constantly referred to his character throughout HitFix’s interview with the actor, never the more distant “Oswald.”
Photo credit: Ben Mark Holzberg/Hulu
In the third episode of the series, at an event for General Edwin Walker (whom Oswald believed to be fascist), there’s an impassioned outburst where Oswald lashes out at Walker and yells, “I have something to say!” and it’s evident that this Oswald is bubbling over with a strong sense of self-importance — or at least an intense desire to be important.
“He definitely had a sense of his own importance,” Webber said, “and what’s interesting about Lee is no matter how far downtrodden, how disappointed and dejected he was, how much failed ambition he had, he always tried to keep the image of a very important man, a man who’s actually succeeding, that nothing’s going wrong,” but at the same time the actor sees Oswald as “paper-thin in his sensitivity. He was very conscious of other people, very defensive and ready to attack when someone rebuked him or put him down.”
In bringing to life a complex, sympathetic Lee Harvey Oswald, Webber also discovered that Oswald “had intense anxiety, he was very shy and very awkward. I think he was a very depressed human being.”
Webber had to bring dimension and sympathy to a man who murdered an American president — one who is now viewed mostly favorably (and even, in some quarters, adoringly) by Americans, though Kennedy was divisive in his own time. Would the task have been more difficult for an American actor who had had imprinted on him since early schooldays the horrific images of JFK shot in the head in his Lincoln Continental limo? Webber just contends that “it’s gonna be different with whoever plays the role,” and he pointed out the preparation work for him was perhaps more involved than it would have been for a U.S.-born actor, since he had to learn the accent, and his research had to include him getting up to speed on some basics of the history of the assassination. Webber explained that JFK’s assassination isn’t “something that’s that’s taught [in primary school in Australia], but it’s in the general consciousness.”
Even though Webber hadn’t grown up with Kennedy’s assassination being a part of his curriculum, the experience of recreating this history had its chilling moments for the Aussie actor.
Much of 11.22.63’s production was in Ontario, Canada, and then for the final week of shooting, the cast and crew went to Dallas. Going to the Texas School Book Depository (no spoilers on how the famed building actually figures into the time travel narrative!) was “surreal,” Webber said. The crew also filmed at the boarding house where Oswald lived on Neely Street in the Oak Cliff neighborhood of Dallas.
On Webber’s final day of production, at the Neely Street house, he and Lucy Fry (who plays Marina) recreated the moment when Oswald’s wife snapped the famous photo of him in the backyard holding two communist newspapers and a rifle, possibly the one he used to shoot Kennedy. The photo appeared on the cover of Life magazine in February 1964.
Photo credits: Warren Commission; Hulu
Recreating the backyard photo was a “very eerie” experience, Webber said. “It felt like touching the Oswalds at the very end of this shoot and tying together those memories.”
So, with all the research Webber’s done and after all this time spent inside Oswald’s head, what does the actor think really happened — was Oswald actually the trigger-man, and did he act alone? “The dreaded question!” Webber moaned when prompted to reveal which theory he subscribes to, but he had an answer ready:
“I feel like he was a man who was very capable of having killed the president. Everything in his life seems to point toward someone who could very easily pull something like this off,” Webber said. “Whether or not he was influenced by other people or whether or not he was working with other people is a 50-year debate, isn’t it? But I truly believe he could have done this, absolutely.”