‘Killing Kennedy’: Michelle Trachtenberg on playing Marina Oswald

Michelle Trachtenberg stars as Marina Oswald in "Killing Kennedy" on National Geographic Channel.
(Kent Eanes / National Geographic Channel)

As the 50th anniversary of JFK’s assassination approaches, television is taking a look back at the era of Camelot with an onslaught of news specials, documentaries and made-for-TV movies.

The coverage begins in earnest on Sunday with the premiere of “Killing Kennedy” on National Geographic. The film, adapted from the nonfiction bestseller by Bill O’Reilly and Martin Dugard, stars Rob Lowe and Ginnifer Goodwin as the first couple and Will Rothhaar as assassin Lee Harvey Oswald.

Less familiar to virtually everyone who tunes in will be the killer’s young Russian bride Marina Oswald, even though she is the only of the main figures still living. To play the part, actress Michelle Trachtenberg not only had to endure the discomfort of period attire in 100-degree Virginia heat (“I think 99% of my wardrobe was straight out of costume houses and it certainly smelled like it,” she says) but also had to speak almost entirely in Russian.


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Luckily Trachtenberg, who grew up in a Russian household in Brooklyn, was already fluent but that didn’t necessarily make her job an easy one. We talked to her about the demands of her role, Marina’s insistence on standing by her man and the lessons of “Killing Kennedy.”

Despite all the attention paid to JFK’s assassination, Marina Oswald remains a somewhat mysterious figure. Did you know much about her before taking the part?

I was pretty familiar with the JFK story as I would hope most Americans are and about 10 or 12 years ago I watched Oliver’s Stone “JFK” movie. Marina in that movie was not at all a character. She was in maybe a scene or two, so I was not at all familiar that she existed at all. When something so monumental happens in American history and the killer becomes so villainized, you don’t realize that he may have had a home life, a wife or children. When I read the script I was floored at how dynamic a person Marina was. I had no idea she was Russian, so of course I related to that immediately. And the fact that she was still alive and she has daughters in her 50s was mind-blowing.

How did you research the part?

I read this amazing book called “Marina and Lee.” It was the only book that Marina sat down for after that assassination. It’s out of print, but I was able to order it off of Amazon. It was really thick, like 600 pages. I really was able to get an insight into her from that. In this day and age you can Google and YouTube, the last interview she did maybe 20 years ago for the 30th anniversary. She was still defending Lee.

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Did you meet with her?

I made the decision that I wasn’t going to try to bring up bad things by reaching out to her, since this is something that she’s tried to move on from. I felt that I had a lot of the research and the facts and I based a lot of my decisions on that. I always felt that it would be up to her.

What was your impression of her based on your research?

She still had, I don’t want to say a sense of pride, but my observation is that she wasn’t going to shy away from what her husband did. She even kept her last name. At the end of the day she still stood by her man even though he did something so horrible. She was still a woman who loved her husband. And it’s funny because she was in love with JFK the way every housewife in the country was.

Was it difficult to understand that perspective?

Yes and no. Because I do believe in love, and I think that’s at the core of Marina’s whole emotional journey: She believes in love. What helped me with that acceptance was that when she was in a situation where Lee was beating her, she left. She was strong enough to pull her daughters away. For me the sacrifices she made for her daughter made her a strong person. When you’ve fallen in love with someone, even if it’s gone sour, at one point in time you still loved that man. I don’t think she made excuses for him. All she said was “I don’t believe he did it.” She switched her opinion a few times. I think she always wanted to believe that he didn’t actually kill him.

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Your mom is Russian. That probably came in handy.

Her recollection growing up was about 10 years after the [the assassination], but the thing about Russia was that it didn’t really change. She was able to give me some insight into being in a working-class Russian family, and what they had to do to feed their children. She’s fluent, of course, and has helped make me fluent, though not on the level that she or other Americans who came from Russia are. I speak what I call grammatically incorrect Russian. It’s really difficult to conjugate things and remember there’s a feminine and masculine.

My mom would break down each script with me and was on call every day. I’d call her up and ask her how to pronounce things like “Please don’t shoot the president.” I’ve never needed to know how to say that, or “I’m taking the children away because you have guns.” Also the speech pattern for a woman in Russia in the ‘50s and ‘60s was very different. It was a more formal way of speaking, so we worked on that.

It must be so hard to act when no one else in the cast can understand what your character is saying.

It was one of the biggest challenges. Russian is my second language so I would have to remember a line in English, then translate into Russian in my head. My fear was there would be too long of a gap. It was incredibly challenging. My mom was like, “Put your big girl pants on and show them because this is in your blood.” It was certainly a challenge when we were on set. When you watch the dailies there’s a bit of a delay between when I stop and when the other actors begin speaking. Luckily this wasn’t a play so we had time to take after each line.

What do you hope viewers will get from “Killing Kennedy”?

For me this is the moment that America’s hopes and dreams were crushed, our idealism was shattered. It was the end of a “romantical” era -- that’s not a real world, it’s “romantic” and “magical” combined, so I’m going to rock that -- where people thought nothing could hurt anyone. I would like to believe that we never idolize Lee, we just show his thought process, we show his journey. You see the choices that make a man into a villain. Even before he did the deed, he was eccentric and had extreme political views. Perhaps it will make people realize the signs of someone who is capable of doing such horrible things.


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Twitter: @MeredithBlake