New Democratic Party leader Jack Layton and wife Olivia Chow celebrate their victories at NDP headquarters in Toronto, Ont., on Monday, May 2, 2011. Watching other moments of her life with husband Jack Layton play out before the cameras must have been hard enough. Curious, even, in an out-of-body sort of way. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darren Calabrese
OTTAWA - The hospital scenes were toughest on Olivia Chow.
Watching other moments of her life with husband Jack Layton play out before the cameras must have been hard enough. Curious, even, in an out-of-body sort of way.
But a key scene in the upcoming Layton made-for-TV biopic — one in which the couple learns that the man who led the New Democrats to their greatest electoral triumph is beyond medical help — proved especially difficult for Chow.
Earlier this month, Chow — bracing, no doubt, for this week's one-year anniversary of her husband's death — visited the Winnipeg set of "Smilin' Jack: The Jack Layton Story," which documents a tumultuous period in recent Canadian political history.
At one point, she said, she had to stop listening. She could only watch as one of the most emotional moments of her life was recreated for the cameras.
"There was a scene where Jack was talking to the nurse, and then Olivia walked in to say, 'We're going home,'" said Chow — describing her character in the third person — during a phone interview from her Toronto home.
"So it was a very special moment. They did it really well. So I watched. I didn't say a whole lot. But that was a bit difficult. It's fairly traumatic to watch that."
The film chronicles Layton's journey last year from the moment he refused to support the Conservative government's budget, through the so-called Orange Crush that swept the New Democrats into the Official Opposition benches, to the public outpouring of grief following his death mere months after leading the party to its greatest achievement.
It is also a love story.
Interwoven in all the politics is the tale of Layton and Chow, who met in the 1980s when he was a scrappy city councillor and she was a school board trustee. She went on to join him on Toronto city council, and years later followed him to Ottawa when she was elected to represent the riding next door to Layton's.
The movie stars Canadian actor Rick Roberts as Layton and CBC Radio host Sook-Yin Lee as Chow.
Shooting the hospital scene was a "very palpable, very real moment," said Lee, adding that she tried to make a mental connection with Chow during filming.
"I think she was aware of our communication. And then I saw her dismiss herself and go," she said. "It choked me up some, but I knew that for the story, it's imperative that I go there, that we go there, in order to have the moment resonate."
"That was a tough day," said Roberts of having Chow on the set.
"It was a great gift. It just reminds you that this happened and that these are real people. It was a good anchor for the production."
In Chow, Lee found a kindred spirit. They're both swimmers who belong to the same pool in Toronto. They live four blocks apart, and a mutual friend sold both of them their homes.
Chow lent the filmmakers some personal items, such as clothing and Layton's cane. Lee said she never thought she'd fit into one of Chow's tailor-made dresses, but sure enough, it fit like a glove.
"Either there's some crazy sort of Chinese reincarnation going on, I don't know, maybe we were sisters in a previous life or something like that. I think about those things," Lee said.
"But maybe we're like-minds that travel in similar circles."
Director Jeff Woolnough said a few other serendipitous occurrences left the cast and crew feeling as though Layton was somehow on the set, guiding them.
The costume designer was having trouble finding the expensive grey Chaps sweater with the high collar and brown elbow patches that Layton often wore during the election campaign.
"And she went into a store that she never goes into and she walked up to a rack, and there that sweater was, and it was on sale for twenty-five bucks," Woolnough said.
"She took that as a sign that Jack kind of steered her there, you know, and said, 'That's where you'll find it.'"
Pier 21 Films and Eagle Vision Inc. are producing the film in association with CBC for release next year.
Filming began earlier this month in Winnipeg, almost a year after Layton died from a type of cancer that to this day remains a closely guarded secret.
Layton had been diagnosed with prostate cancer, but during the 2011 campaign he repeatedly insisted his PSA levels were normal. When he appeared gaunt and raspy-voiced at his final news conference last July, he referred only to a "new" form of cancer.
Although the precise nature of the second cancer is left vague on screen, as it has been in real life, Roberts said facing one's own mortality is one of the film's overarching themes.
"There are the real-life events that really take on a mythic journey for a man," he said.
"So I kind of see all these things — mortality, and what's your life's purpose, and triumph — which happened for them in such a condensed period of time. It really is the stuff of drama and storytelling."