Earlier this month in Los Angeles, Paste snagged a spot on the red carpet for the premiere of 11.22.63, Hulu’s latest original drama. Based on a Stephen King novel, the compelling series follows high school teacher Jake Epping (James Franco) as he travels back in time to stop the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. Of course, changing history isn’t easy, and Epping learns the hard way that the past doesn’t alwayswant to be changed.
The limited series began its eight-week run on February 15, with each episode released weekly (sorry bingers!) on Hulu. We had a chance to chat with J.J Abrams, one of 11.22.63’s executive producers, Franco and other cast members during the premiere. They talked Stephen King, playing historical figures and what they’d change about the past if they could. Here are nine fun things we learned from the conversations on the red carpet.
J.J. Abrams can cherry pick projects, and his love of the 2011 Stephen King novel drew him to work on 11.22.63. “It was such an amazing read, and I thought it would be an incredible watch, also,” Abrams said. Franco picked up the book after reading 150 mostly academic texts for his Ph.D. program in literature at Yale. “I had a chance to read whatever I wanted to read [after passing the oral exams], and this had been a book that caught my eye before,” Franco said. “It’s about 1,000 pages, but it was so engrossing. I read it aloud with my assistant, so we read it together in about a week.”
Searcy (Justified), plays Principal Deke Simmons, who supports Epping’s 1960s cover story. The actor was clearly the biggest Stephen King groupie on the carpet. “I’m a fan of Stephen King’s. I’ve been trying to get into his projects for 25 years. I came close a few times, and this one really opened up for me, and I was glad to do it.” He even revealed this great fanboy story: “In 1980, I drove from New Hampshire, where I was doing summer theater, to Old Orchard Beach [in Maine] because I heard that Stephen King was going to be on a talk show that was filming live out there. We got up at 5 in the morning, and I drove over there. I got him to autograph my copy of The Stand.”
When we asked Abrams why limit the show to eight episodes, we learned that movie-length was too short (and no one wants to see an Under the Dome redux, right?). “I know that [11.22.63] was something he [Stephen King] and Jonathan Demme had been working on for about a year, looking at it as a feature. Ultimately, they weren’t happy with the results, and I think part of it is that the book’s too big. The story was too detailed, and had so many kind of wonderful detours, and condensing it into a two-hour movie was something that I could see as problematic, so I asked him if he was open to a miniseries, he said yes. [Showrunner] Bridget Carpenter came on to write the adaptation, and she’s an amazing writer and producer… and she found the length that felt right to her.”
The Russian woman Fry (Vampire Academy) who plays in 11.22.63 just so happens to be Marina Oswald, wife of Kennedy assassin Lee Harvey Oswald (Daniel Webber). We asked how she prepared for the challenges of playing a real-life character. “I read her autobiography about three times, and by the end, it was lined, and ruled and scraggly from me going through it. And I watched a lot of her interviews online.” Then came the challenge of learning a new language: “I had to learn Russian for the part. When she [Marina] arrives in the States, she doesn’t speak any English at all, so she has to learn it.” Fry says that she learned to speak broken English with a Russian accent, so we asked the Aussie which was harder for her—learning Russian or a Russian-American accent. The unequivocal answer: “Russian. Definitely.”
Fry’s onscreen husband Lee Harvey Oswald is played by fellow Australian actor Webber, who studied newsreel and interview footage of Oswald to watch and learn how the Texan-turned-Russian defector carried himself and spoke. “The vocal quality that he has—he lived in New York and he lived in Russia for a period. He has his own ‘Lee’ quirks. It was actually a challenging accent to negotiate.”
Though he wasn’t even born when Kennedy was assassinated, Bellows (Ally McBeal) knows the period well, now having filmed two projects specifically centered around November 22, 1963: “I was in a movie called Parkland that was actually about this event.” In the film, Bellows played David Powers, special assistant to JFK. In the Hulu miniseries, Bellows plays FBI agent James P. Hosty, another real-life character. Hostly was the agent assigned to investigate Oswald when he returned to the U.S. after briefly defecting to the Soviet Union.
Rippy (Deadwood) plays Harry, an emotionally damaged janitor at Jake Epping’s school in the present day. Jake tries to intervene in Harry’s violent, early life in the 1960s. While Rippy wasn’t familiar with King’s novel, he said, “I knew the numbers. It was a very impressionable point in my life.” He added, “I was in military school at that time [of the assassination]. And just a few years earlier, in the sixth grade, with my safety patrol on their annual trip to Washington, D.C., I got to shake John Kennedy’s hand. And so [JFK’s assassination] hit me pretty hard as a young boy.”
T.R. Knight (Grey’s Anatomy) plays Jonny Clayton, a 1960s salesman whose wife Sadie (Sarah Gadon) gets involved with Franco’s character. If given the chance to go back in time, Knight said that he’d probably take a pass. “I would just make a mess… I feel like there are other people that should go, and I’m going to stay here because I’m barely good in 2016, so that’s for other people. Leave that to James Franco.”
While many cast members wouldn’t mess with history, Searcy said he might change one thing. “I’m not sure I would know enough what to change… unless… except … all those years that Duke won the National Championship [in collegiate basketball]. I would go back and change those. Maybe I’d go back and do a Tonya Harding number on Christian Laettner before the Kentucky game, that way they don’t even make it to the finals.”
All episodes of 11.22.63 will be available on April 4.
Christine N. Ziemba is a Los Angeles-based freelance pop culture writer and regular contributor to Paste. You can follow her on Twitter.