The Cast of Plot Pulls From Personal History to Prepare
“How do you respond when the norms and the fundamentals of your republic, of your society, are being challenged in the most basic way?” That’s the question facing all six major characters in HBO’s new limited series The Plot Against America, according to creator and executive producer David Simon. Based on Philip Roth’s novel of the same name, the series explores an alternate American history during World War II where Charles Lindbergh becomes president and the nation turns towards fascism, isolationism and xenophobia. Simon and cast members Winona Ryder, Morgan Spector and John Turturro sat down with moderator Peter Sagal of NPR’s “Wait Wait...Don’t Tell Me!” and had a frank discussion at the 92nd Street Y about the importance of adapting the book now and the steps the cast took to prepare for their roles.
For Winona Ryder, it was impossible for her to not be affected by Philip Roth’s novel. She finished it one sitting. Her grandfather fought and died in World War II and had lost family in concentration camps, so her connection to the material was rather personal. “It’s hard when you are a grandchild or child of European Jews. It’s hard to not be untouched by the book.” Given her family history and being a World War II fanatic, preparing for her role was tricky. She didn’t really watch any YouTube videos and films — many of them were post-1940 — and she had to “lobotomize” her brain from everything she knew about what happened after World War II to get into character. She did create a backstory for Evelyn and noted that one trick she used was to think about what Evelyn would have thought about when she went to bed at night.
Morgan Spector also read Roth’s novel, but wanted to get additional context about Herman’s backstory to reveal why he thinks and acts the way he does. He read World of Our Fathers by Irving Howe, which is about Eastern European Jewish immigration, in order to get an understanding about who Herman's parents were, what previous generations went through, and a more accurate picture of what his childhood could have looked like. Herman believes you’re doing your American duty if you stand your ground and fight injustice when you can. But as Spector noted in the panel, resisting and protesting is not enough and at some point you need to take further action.
John Turturro read the novel as well, and also conducted additional research while he was in South Carolina and read a lot of books about the Civil War. When he spoke to Simon about the show he said it reminded him of a passage from The Drowned and the Saved by Primo Levi about Chaim Rumkowski. Rumkowski was a real historical figure and was the head of the Jewish Council of Elders in the Lodz Ghetto who believed he could negotiate with the Nazis. “That essay has always been imprinted on my brain and how misguided he was in trying to save some of the population,” says Turturro.
The Plot Against America premieres March 16 at 9 pm.