'Chappaquiddick': 6 of the Film's Stars and Their Real-Life Inspirations

7:31 PM 4/6/2018

by Katherine Schaffstall

The film focuses on the aftermath of a deadly car accident involving Senator Ted Kennedy and political staffer Mary Jo Kopechne.

Chappaquiddick  - STILL 1  - TIFF PUBLICITY - H 2017
Courtesy of TIFF

On July 18, 1969, Senator Ted Kennedy drove his car off of a bridge on Chappaquiddick island in Massachusetts. The accident caused the death of 28-year-old political staffer Mary Jo Kopechne. Kennedy did not report the accident until 10 hours later.

The upcoming film Chappaquiddick tells the story of Kennedy’s personal and political life following the aftermath of the fatal car accident that took place when he drove Kopechne home from a party with the other "Boiler Room Girls" that worked on Robert F. Kennedy's 1968 presidential campaign. Director John Curran explained to The Hollywood Reporter that the movie retells “that pivotal week in Ted Kennedy’s life” after the accident.

The true story is told through the performances of Jason Clarke, Kate Mara, Bruce Dern, Ed Helms, Jim Gaffigan and Taylor Nichols.

Read on to find out how the actors prepared to play their real-life characters.

  • Ted Kennedy, portrayed by Jason Clarke

    Clarke plays Ted Kennedy Sr. during his time as a senator from Massachusetts.  

    “I just did it all as much as I could,” the actor told THR about the preparation process for the role of Kennedy. Luckily for Clarke, there are many clips available of the former senator from which to gain inspiration. “There’s a wonderful silent movie of Ted and Joe [Gargon] sailing. You know, just free and easy. Steve McQueen-y glasses, cigarette in mouth, pulling up the sails,” he described. “And then to the great speeches of Ted and his family and his brothers and his father. Researching this story and this family is modern American history in the 20th century.”

    The actor studied everything from Kennedy’s mannerisms to his physical features. “It did a lot of help to get that Ted smile and size of his face to getting a wig right,” Clarke revealed.

  • Mary Jo Kopechne, portrayed by Kate Mara

    Mara portrays Kopechne, a political operative who drowned after Kennedy’s car landed in Poucha Pond on Chappaquiddick.

    The actress was not familiar with the incident prior to winning the role. “I really didn’t know anything about this story, so reading the script for the first time was really quite thrilling and upsetting and I couldn’t put it down,” she told THR. “I really had to research, you know, as much as I could about Mary Jo and about the entire incident, because I wasn’t familiar at all.”

    Mara found the research process particularly difficult because there is not much documented about who Kopechne was as an individual. “There’s only so much information out there about her, so yeah. I definitely tried to find out as much as I could, but that was about it for me,” she said.

  • Joe Gargan, portrayed by Ed Helms

    The comedic actor is taking a dramatic turn for his portrayal as Kennedy’s cousin Joe Gargan

    Gargan is arguably best known for his involvement in the case involving Kennedy and the death of Kopechne. The lawyer acts as his cousin's conscience throughout the film.

    While talking with THR, Helms joked that audience members will “take away that my character Joe Gargan was so pivotal to American history in a way that they had no idea.”

  • Joseph P. Kennedy Sr., portrayed by Bruce Dern

    At the time in history the film takes place, Joseph P. Kennedy was already confined to a wheelchair after suffering from a debilitating stroke. While his health was depleting, that didn’t stop him from defending his son following the fatal car accident.

    Dern’s character was the leader of his son’s defense team and called in trusted Kennedy advisors to deal with the press and run damage control following the scandal. The elder Kennedy passed away four months to the day after Kopechne’s death on Nov. 18, 1969.

    While speaking with Showbiz 411, Dern did not hide his dislike for the real-life inspiration of his character. “Joe Kennedy was a vile human being. When Ted went to him to tell him what happened, and the thinking is that Mary Jo could very well have been still alive at that point trapped in the car, all they could think about was Ted’s political future,” said the actor. “Joe — who had just had a stroke and was wheelchair-bound — his first word to Ted after Ted told him what had just happened was ‘alibi.’”

  • Paul F. Markham, portrayed by Jim Gaffigan

    Gaffigan plays Paul F. Markham, an attorney who was a guest at the party Kennedy left with Kopechne before the car accident.

    While discussing the film before its premiere last fall at the Toronto International Film Festival, the actor talked about what attracted him to the project. “It was fascinating just from a political dynasty standpoint, and also given where our politics is right now," he told Vanity Fair.

    Gaffigan also mentioned that in today’s society where social media is everything, Kennedy would have been condemned much more severely for the scandal. “That’s why this movie’s important,” he said. “This horrible thing happened, but there’s a lot of questions to be answered. He did a lot of good after this horrible mistake.”

    Added Gaffigan: “This movie’s also been a long time coming. The fact that the movie wasn’t made before is pretty impressive.”

  • Ted Sorensen, portrayed by Taylor Nichols

    Nichols portrays President John F. Kennedy’s former advisor, special counsel and primary speechwriter.

    Following the Chappaquiddick incident, Sorensen contributed to Ted Kennedy’s explanation of the events that led up to the fatal accident and his actions after. Sorensen’s involvement with the scandal is often cited as the main reason the Senate opposed his nomination to become CIA director.