Film producer Mark Ciardi loves an underdog story, which explains entries in his IMDb registry such as “The Rookie,” “Secretariat” and “Million Dollar Arm.” (He’s also a former professional baseball player who played in college for the University of Maryland, which explains his affinity for sports tales.)
But most of all, he says, his favorite films are “true stories.” Which brought him to his latest project, “Chappaquiddick,” about the scandal that threatened to thwart the political career of Sen. Ted Kennedy. The thumbnail sketch: In the summer of 1969, the young senator drove his car off a bridge, killing his passenger, Mary Jo Kopechne, who had been a young aide on the presidential campaign of his brother, Robert Kennedy. The upcoming drama, which hits theaters next month, stars Jason Clarke of “Zero Dark Thirty” as Kennedy, “House of Cards” actress Kate Mara as Kopechne, and Oscar winner Bruce Dern as patriarch Joe Kennedy.
We chatted with Ciardi from his office in Los Angeles about why the Kennedy family probably won’t be lining up to see the film, his own quirky career path and his old College Park haunts.
You have a really odd résumé: professional baseball player turned model turned Hollywood producer. First, are there any other weird jobs I’m missing? And how did you take such an unusual path?
No, I think that’s about all! So when I was playing baseball, I moved here [L.A.] in the offseason, because I had an agent who lived there. He asked where I was working out, and I said New Jersey, and he suggested I come out there instead, so out I went. I started getting to be friends with people in the film business, and that’s when I sort of got the idea. It was in 1999, and I had no experience in film, but I looked at my friends and thought, if they can do it, I can do it.
I worked out of a garage for a while and finally got a few movies greenlit, including “The Rookie.” The subject of that was familiar — I had played in the minor leagues with Jim Morris.
Wait, you worked out of a garage? That’s like a scene from a movie.
Right, like Steve Jobs. [Laughs.] No one was going to hire a 35-year-old with no experience. I was self-taught. There’s really no obstacle to being a producer — you just have to have your phone calls returned.
You have made a lot of sports movies since then. So what drew you to “Chappaquiddick”?
About three years ago, I started an independent movie company. A friend called and said he had a script that was really good, so I read it and just fell in love with it. It read as a political thriller and an interesting part of American history.
Was it hard to cast a Kennedy?
When you’re portraying someone that iconic, you need someone who resembles the character, and Jason does. He used a little enhancement — the teeth, the hair, and he used a dialect coach. And then he looked really like him. You get a sense when you’re watching that this is Ted Kennedy — it’s not like you’re like, “Oh, it’s that actor playing Ted Kennedy.”
Have you gotten pushback from the Kennedy family or from their supporters? This is a chapter of their family’s story they obviously would rather be forgotten.
We didn’t get pushback when we were filming. We shot a couple days in Chappaquiddick and the north shore of Boston. Now, through the grapevine, I don’t think the family is particularly happy.
I think it was a fair portrayal. We did a screening in Martha’s Vineyard last week, and there were people who had known the Kennedys there. I think people were appreciative of how we handled it. Obviously, it’s not flattering; you can’t get around that.
The movie is about an ambitious man’s attempts to hide and spin a political scandal — what resonance does this movie have for a Trump presidency and the current political climate?
So we started making the film in 2015, before Trump was a factor. And I think people will have their own takeaways, whether they are on the left side of the aisle or the right. But we really wanted to make this a nonpolitical film.
Tell me about your undergraduate days at the University of Maryland. What were your hangouts?
I think I was a B-average student, and I played baseball, which took a lot of my time. I loved my time there, and I’ve been on the board of trustees for about eight years. Everyone remembers the Vous [that would be the Rendezvous, the beer-soaked college bar now replaced by Cornerstone Grill]. And [RJ] Bentley’s hasn’t changed in 40 years. I took school seriously, but I had fun, too.
You’ve made a lot of sports movies — what’s your favorite that you didn’t make?