Americans love a good conspiracy story, which is why the assassination of President John F. Kennedy continues to hold fascination more than 50 years after his death. This despite the Warren Commission Report's finding that Lee Harvey Oswald, as a lone gunman, was responsible.
For this President's Day, Feb. 15th, Hulu will be launching the eight-part event series 11.22.63, based on the 2011 New York Times best-selling novel by Stephen King, which follows a high school teacher who travels back in time to try to prevent the shooting.
"I read the novel pretty fast, I just loved it so much," says James Franco, who plays high school teacher Jake Epping. "I actually had a friend that knew Stephen King and I emailed him immediately and said, 'Could I do something with this?' He said, 'Sorry, J.J. Abrams is doing it.'"
When Abrams heard of Franco's interest, he placed a call to the actor, and it all worked out in the end with both men working on the limited series.
11.22.63 begins when Epping goes to a diner he visits on a regular basis and the owner Al Templeton (Chris Cooper) shows him a portal, which takes time travelers back to a day in 1960. Al, now dying, has made it his mission to stop the Kennedy assassination because he feels that if he could change that one day in history that the present would be a better place. With his impending death, he is attempting to pass the mission on to Jake.
Jake is at first reluctant. But then Al explains that no matter how long Jake spends in the past, when he comes back, only two minutes will have passed. So even though he would have to wait three years to stop the assassination, when he returns, he would be able to pick up his life as if nothing had happened. Of course, there is some push back. History doesn't like to be changed, and it will do everything in its power to keep Jake from saving the president's life.
"I thought this story and this approach were so great because it's a fresh way in," Franco says. "We're not exactly telling a history lesson. With Jake Epping, the time traveler, you have a new in to the story. You get to learn everything all over again but from a completely fresh perspective that we haven't really seen before. It's a way to guide a new generation into what happened."
Adding a touch of reality to the series, a portion of 11.22.63 actually filmed a number of key scenes on location in Dallas, including Dealey Plaza and Lee Harvey Oswald's apartment building.
"It was incredible," Franco says. "It was eerie being there. They've done it there before, but ours has its own little twists and turns, so it felt like revisiting, but also that we were doing something new that hadn't been done before. Like any movie or project that you go to the actual place, it resonates with something. It still retains something of what happened."
Also to add a touch of authenticity, there were elements of the '60s that the series captured on film that weren't necessarily a part of the assassination story, but were a sign of the times that provided color to the story. Examples include Jake's first experience with Jim Crow bathrooms, the fact that food tasted better, and Jake's frustration at not having a smart phone to Google information, but, rather, having to do old-fashioned research.
"It was a chance for Stephen King to underline everything he loves about the past and everything he hates about the past, because he has this character that doesn't fit there," Franco says. "Jake's the fish out of water who can go back in time and say, 'Milk tasted so much better back then,' and, 'Oh, that's what race relations were like then.'"
Not content to just perform in the Hulu series, Franco also took on directing chores for the sixth episode.
"Basically, what you see in the series is there become two main threads," he says. "One is Jake's trying to stop the assassination, and the other is Jake developing this whole personal life in the past that becomes more important to him than the personal life he has in the present, and so, in my episode, his personal life starts going crazy."
Franco is too young to have experienced the Kennedy's assassination, but he was very much aware of it, having previously filmed in Dallas, which sparked his interest. One of his favorite novels is American Tabloid by James Elroy, which is a fictionalized conspiracy story but with a different take than most, and one of his favorite movies is Oliver Stone's JFK.
11.22.63, also starring Josh Duhamel, Sarah Gadon, T.R. Knight, and Daniel Webber, begins streaming on President's Day, Feb. 15th, on Hulu.