About a year and a half ago, the Danish actor Caspar Phillipson got a lead on an audition. There was some kind of John F. Kennedy film, a friend said, that Phillipson might want to go out for.
Phillipson, a 44-year-old stage and voice-over veteran – he was the Danish voice for Johnny Depp’s Willy Wonka — was at the time in Istanbul for a production of “Hamlet.” So, he went back to his hotel room and uploaded an audition scene on his iPhone.
A few days later, back home with his wife and children in Copenhagen, he heard from the casting agent. “She said, ‘Would you like to do the job?’ And I said: ‘Great! What is the job?’ “
He’d been picturing a small educational film, perhaps something made-for-television. Instead, it turned out to be “Jackie,” the critical darling that earned three Oscar nominations, including Natalie Portman’s for best actress. And just like that, one of the most quintessentially American roles portraying one of the United States’ most iconic figures? A Dane.
And just like that, a role that gave Phillipson less than 10 minutes of screen time? His calling card. His destiny. The Danish JFK.
“The funny thing is, I’ve now heard this both several times, both here and in Denmark,” Phillipson said while visiting Washington for a debut theatrical reading this week. “I’ve heard, ‘I never used to think you looked like a Kennedy, but now I can’t think anything else.’ Which is not exactly the sort of thing you want to hear from a casting director.”
But – and this must be said – he does look just like Kennedy. Just like him.
“Just like him. It was amazing,” says Mathilde Snodgrass, the “Jackie” casting agent who had already scoured New York, Los Angeles, London and her own city of Paris, seeking JFK look-alikes who fit the pitch-perfect aesthetic the director had in mind. The team had plucked the man who played Ted Kennedy off a French news broadcast – he wasn’t an actor, he worked for a think tank – and Snodgrass was getting both creative and desperate.
“I finally decided that JFK had quite a Nordic look about him, so I decided to push the casting a little further into Europe. I sent emails and researchers into Germany, Finland, Sweden. I was using Google Translate to figure out the word for ‘doppelganger’ in every language.”
When she saw Phillipson’s audition, she immediately commenced courting him. “There had been an actor in Los Angeles who had done JFK for 10 or 15 years. He was in everything,” she explains. “But he was getting too old now. I thought, if Caspar would could come with us, then he could be the next one. He could be the guy.”
When you have become suddenly famous for looking like an American president, what is the next step? Take the show on the road.
“Man, you are the spitting image,” a gray-haired man says to Phillipson, pumping his fist furiously at Martin’s Tavern in Washington, D.C., on Tuesday night, just before the theatrical reading.
“And his profile,” says the woman next to him. “Head on, of course you see it. But even the profile!”
Shortly after “Jackie” was released in the United States, another Dane, a journalist and historian named Anders Agner Pedersen, was preparing to release his latest book, the definitive biography of John F. Kennedy written in Danish. Pederson, who is based in Washington, heard about the success of his countryman and decided to reach out. They could be the guys. The Danish JFK guys.
Pederson asked Phillipson to contribute a chapter to his book, and then the two came up with another idea: a two-man staged reading in which Pederson would provide the historical context for some of Kennedy’s most famous speeches, and then Phillipson, as Kennedy, could perform them.
They chose Martin’s Tavern for their inaugural performance because of its historic significance: Kennedy used to live just up the road. He proposed to Jackie in one booth; he wrote an early draft of his inaugural address in another.
They chose the speeches because of their historic significance, but also because of their resonance in the current rancorous political climate. Here is Phillipson as Kennedy, in his famous “peace” speech, talking about distrust between Americans and Russians. Here is Phillipson as Kennedy, in the speech he was due to give on the day he died, desperately hoping that “fewer people will listen to nonsense.”
It’s worth noting how many terrific and terrible JFK impersonations have been attempted since the man’s death 54 years ago. Greg Kinnear, Martin Sheen, Bruce Greenwood. Some of them (James Marsden in “The Butler”) have eschewed makeup and prosthetics, and ended up looking the wrong kind of handsome. Others of them (Rob Lowe in “Killing Kennedy”) have overdone the makeup and prosthetics and ended up looking as if they’re wearing discount-rack wigs from Party City. Americans are perpetually doomed to needing someone to play Kennedy and being disappointed by what they get. We are always seeking another reboot, another do-over, another guy.
“The funny thing is, people also have an idea of how he spoke,” Phillipson says. “But mostly what they’re remembering is the caricature.” He has labored over intonations and pronunciations, working toward an appropriate Boston blend (“speakah,” “pahty,”) without going full-on “pahk the cah in Hahvahd Yahd.”
He has, as one might expect, become somewhat of a JFK aficionado. “A geek,” he agrees cheerfully. “My bedside table at home is full of books about Kennedy. Once the bug gets you, you can’t stop.”
Phillipson could have seen this coming. Did see it coming, in fact. Years ago.
Before “Jackie,” not a soul in Denmark ever told him that he resembled the president; it just wasn’t on their minds. “But I’ve done various acting workshops in New York, and I always heard it there. I did a workshop years ago with Frank Corsaro, this iconic American teacher — he was the leader of Actors Studio – and suddenly, in the middle of a different scene, he said in this gruff voice, ‘You have to do Kennedy one day. You just have to.”
And this different scene — was he playing a politician or historic statesman of any kind?
“We were doing a scene from the Nicolas Cage alcoholic movie,” he says. “I believe it is called ‘Leaving Las Vegas.’ “
Corsaro’s encouragement caused Phillipson to study some of Kennedy’s speeches (Mostly Bobby Kennedy’s, incidentally, believing he more closely resembled the former attorney general). For years, he did this on and off, to have the skills in his back pocket, just in case.
And now that it’s happened? Now that its done?
“My career is over,” Phillipson deadpans, and then he laughs.
No, not really. Next up he’s playing another historic character, a famous Danish radio host, in a feature film back in Denmark. After that, a short American project in Los Angeles and a concert series in Copenhagen.
Maybe the staged Kennedy speeches will grow into a something he and Pederson could perform throughout the States and Denmark, he muses. It wouldn’t be the worst thing. “I find it oddly liberating, to just watch Kennedy and do what he does,” Phillipson says. “It’s easier, kind of, than having a clean slate and nothing to hold on to.”
The Danish JFK smiles. As pigeonholes go, this is a rather roomy one to be in.