Jim Gaffigan on Reenacting the Political Horror of 'Chappaquiddick'

We chat with the stand-up comedian about portraying U.S. attorney Paul Markham, the Kennedy sidekick trapped along the fringes of a national scandal.

Jim Gaffigan Chappaquiddick

We chat with the stand-up comedian about portraying the Kennedy sidekick trapped on the fringes of a national scandal.

Before sitting down to watch Chappaquiddick, the political thriller directed by John Curran and starring Jason Clarke, I knew very little about the incident that would go on to define Ted Kennedy’s political career. I guess I had some idea of its place in history as far as Wikipedia would describe the tragedy, but for me and probably a lot of other folks out there, Chappaquiddick barely registered as a blip on the Kennedy curse. That certainly changed by the time end credits rolled.

Chappaquiddick is a painfully relevant detailing of the lengths dynasties will go to cover-up the skeletons in their closest, and in this case, the flesh has barely seeped off the bone before the corpse gets tucked away. Jim Gaffigan plays U.S. attorney Paul Markham, the pal of Ted Kennedy who is sidelined into a conspiracy he never bothered to consider when he was scrambling up the political ladder. He’s all “gee willikers” until he’s neck-deep in fishing out the body of Mary Jo Kopechne.

Last year, our own Natalie Mokry spoke to the director and writers of ChappaquiddickThe conversation was rich and informative and delved into the murky responsibility of adapting such a historical event for mainstream consumption. My conversation with Gaffigan further extends into the complexities of portraying real-life figures. Speaking over the phone, we discussed his prior knowledge of the incident, and how making this film evolved his opinion of its participants. We talk for some length on not allowing past sins to define our lives and the grisly execution of recreating a crime scene.

Here is our conversation in full:

The events of Chappaquiddick were certainly something I was aware of, but I don’t think I quite understood the level of subterfuge that was happening in the wake of the accident.

Yeah, I certainly didn’t know prior to reading the script. There was a lot of maneuvering going on, that’s for sure.

What was your initial reaction to the script? Were you looking for this kind of role, someone like Paul Markham? It’s hard to I imagine hunting for a character like that.

I don’t get tons of offers, but I got this offer. I’m starting to get more, but I got this offer for this role. I loved the script. It was pretty fast approaching, and I had a lot of commitments. I had standup dates, and I was taping a special. And so, I liked the character, but I wasn’t sure if I wanted to kind of throw chaos to my whole calendar for this. And then talking to John Curran, who directed, I was like, “All right, it’s not the biggest character in the world, but it’s an important piece of this.” It was the feeling, and I learned a lot. I love acting. It’s the right role and making sure that it works.

So much of that character though is on you. I mean, there’s not a lot on the page I would imagine.

Yeah, that was the thing. So, initially I was kind of like, “I don’t know. This guy he’s in a lot of scenes, but I don’t know what he’s doing.” But then we talked about it. Ed Helms’ character has this family element with Ted. Joe Gargan was Ted’s cousin but essentially raised as a brother. And so, John Curran and I talked about how Paul Markham, particularly in our version of the story, symbolized the attraction to be part of the Kennedy inner circle. Here is where you were gonna do good, you were gonna have influence, it was a huge career opportunity. But then, of course, because he’s one of the lawyers at the house that night, Teddy calls him out. So his career as a result of this is probably irrevocably kind of changed. He was a US Attorney for Massachusetts. He was probably in a position to possibly be on the Supreme Court. So it was an interesting task to kind of do research, but also the research I would implement in my character was to serve the character and the movie.

After watching Chappaquiddick, I found myself going down a rabbit hole of conjecture. If this event had not happened and Kennedy had run in ’72. Let’s say he gets the White House. There would be no Nixon; there would be no Watergate. I mean, who knows what the landscape would be.

Yeah, it’s really interesting, but someone else asked me about that. Something about the movie talks about is, or touches on, is the chain of events that lead up to Chappaquiddick. One, which you forget, or I didn’t realize how close Bobby’s death was to Chappaquiddick. So this guy’s dealing with the third of his three brothers being assassinated or dying. He’s also dealing with the weight of this Kennedy legacy; he’s also not the smart one, not the charismatic one. He’s the other brother.

Right, he says this specifically in the film.

Yeah, and so, he’s dealing with this weight. So maybe it wouldn’t have been Chappaquiddick, but there was, I think, there would have been an unraveling. I think the weight and immaturity that Ted Kennedy … Look, what happened at Chappaquiddick on that night, there’s a lot of miscues that resulted in someone’s death, and I would think, not that I know, but I would think this guy would mess up in some other way. You know what I mean? Did some of this happen because of the conflicting natures surrounding this obligation that was put in front of him? You know what I mean?

And you as an actor, you’re finding yourself reenacting the scene where you’re diving into the water trying to bring her body out. What is it like filming something so tragically horrible?

It’s pretty insane because you also have to consider these guys were drunk. And anyone whose probably been wasted and been forced to have the sobriety of tragedy hit them and the panic and the hysteria of the moment. It was pretty crazy. It doesn’t require too much acting because you’re jumping off a bridge next to a car. You don’t know where you’re landing. So there’s a certain kind of, “What are we doing? What’s going on?” I mean, that’s what’s so fun about acting in film. It is servicing the logic. The path is laid there, and you’re keeping it grounded. You talk to any film nerd when there is something that breaks logic in the movie; it infuriates us. We’re like, “Wait a minute.”

It’s pretty amazing. They built that bridge. Obviously, we shot some in Chappaquiddick, and then they built the bridge in Mexico. It’s a pretty significant jump. And also, my character injured his knee. It’s one of those things where you want to jump off … You know how to jump off a bridge in a way where you would protect yourself, but if you’re a drunk guy who is panicked, who has a bad knee, you can’t do a cannonball. You’re diving in to see if you can save a woman.

There’s that moment where you’re on top of the car, and there’s this real horrible sense of futility to watching these drunks attempt some rescue.

I think John [Curran] captured how horrifying that moment … the powerlessness of it … because it was shallow water. It’s deceptive because it’s shallow, but there’s a big undertow. They went through and recreated the currents for that time of the morning. It’s presented as a thriller because we all know what you’re supposed to do, and what the right thing to do in every moment is, or what our parents would tell us to do, but in that scenario, it’s the unfortunate events that these people undertook.

I’m sure there’s a better word for it out there, but the thrill of this film is watching the cover-up occur in the wake of this event. You look at that scene where you guys are diving into the water, and then I think about the resulting scene where you’re with Bob McNamara, and you’re trying to get the statements together. You’re off in the corner over there just trying to survive in this group of big personalities.

That’s a room filled with the most powerful men in America, the brain trust. And probably, Paul Markham, all he ever wanted was to be in that room, but then he finally finds himself in this room, and he’s like, “I wish I wasn’t here.” Do you know what I mean? All that respect and admiration. From doing research, Paul, he worked with Bobby. He knew all these people. He was probably on a surface level part of that room, but never in the inner circle. He’s probably working his way up to it. So it’s brutal to finally get what you always wanted.

Having now in habited that skin, what are your feelings about Paul Markham as a man?

I feel sorry for him. I think he was obviously a good lawyer, but he was gobbled up by the machine. Joe Gargan and he are lawyers that are kind of like driven by an understanding of the law and what you’re supposed to do from a legal standpoint, but not the Kennedy power and entitlement. I think that must have been pretty sad to come to the realization that empowerment and wealthy entitlement can kind of shift and move around laws. Particularly, when what probably attracted him to the Kennedys was the desire to do good.

Watching today, or making it today, what’s the relevance that you pull away from Chappaquiddick?

There’s two things because when we were shooting Chappaquiddick, we were shooting it in September and October of 2016. September in Massachusetts, and October in Mexico for the water scene. And the general belief was in 2016, was like, “Look, if this happened today, Ted Kennedy would go to jail. 24-hour news cycle. They wouldn’t have been able to maneuver around having this statement. Some fatal error like Teddy wearing the neck brace would’ve done it.” It would’ve ended it. You look at the Mayor of Nashville. She couldn’t navigate it. Even with the brain trust.

But now, in this day and age where Stormy Daniels is not even the third most important story of the day, it’s the fifth most important story of the day. I think, oh, maybe people can work around situations, but I also feel like …, and I think we attribute some of this to the Kennedy mystique, but I think there’s a Teflon ability of people getting away with murder. We see it in the entertainment industry too. Look, Mike Tyson went to jail for raping a woman, and he has a Broadway show. You know? So there are certain personalities that we allow people to get away with things.

I would hope that look, we’re in this era of Me Too, and Time’s Up and stuff like that. But I think that it’s weird because one of the questions, I think, the movie asks is, “Are you defined solely by a horrible event?” Look, this movie’s called Chappaquiddick because it’s about Chappaquiddick and many people would say this movie defines that Ted would never be President, that the Kennedy’s used their power to cover this up.

But I think the movie, in all that cynicism, there’s also a version of the story where it’s like – He didn’t give up drinking, he was flawed after that, but he did become a better man and many people believe a great Senator. So it’s an interesting question because we don’t have our own Chappaquiddick, but we have things in the past that could define us, or we have to move beyond these failings so that we can contribute to society. It’s strange, it’s not for me to ask, or to even decide, but I think it’s an interesting question.

But we do encounter many Chappaquiddicks in the daily news cycle, and we have to maneuver which ones are important to us and which ones are not.

Yeah. Look, that guy who was Kelly’s assistant. I mean, spousal abuse of two wives. You know? I’m certainly not an expert on his FBI background checks or whatever, but I’m like, “How did that go unnoticed?” You know what I mean? I was just like, I mean, there’s part of me, it’s like, he’s not even that old. I would’ve been like, “Wait, you’ve been married twice?” You know?

Sure.

Not that there’s anything wrong with multiple marriages, of course, there isn’t, but I would have been like, “So what happened?” Because if it were a friend of mine, I would be like, “Dude, what happened? You’re in your mid-30s, you’ve been married twice.” And most people would say, “Yeah, I was in my 20s and didn’t work out. We were high school sweethearts, and then I met someone else, and we’re different people than … ” It’s like there’s a logical reason, but there’s a lot of interesting things that are going on.

Look at the reporters portrayed in this movie, who did some good reporting. The reporters were doing their jobs. Some might call that bravery of the Republican Congress or the ethical appetite of the American public. It’s weird, right?

Right. But then, of course, you have the moon landing happening two days later.

Oh, yeah. No, and it’s like the benefit of distraction, right? If you draw a parallel, it’s the irony of the Access Hollywood tape landing on the same day as the report about Russian collusion. The coincidence of that and also the managing of it.

By the way, it’s a compliment to Jason Clarke. Look at Teddy’s speech [that opens the film]. That three-network kind of speech. If you look at that, and then you look at Ted Kennedy’s speech. I mean, Jason Clarke is so talented, it’s frightening at times.

Red Dots

Chappaquiddick opens in select theaters on April 6th.

Trekkie, Not Trekker. Weekly Columnist for Film School Rejects, co-host of the In The Mouth of Dorkness Podcast.