‘The Plot Against America’ Explains How Holocaust ‘Can Happen Here’ Says Producer

March 11, 2020

Set in the 1940s, Philip Roth’s 2004 novel “The Plot Against America” hypothesizes a chilling alternative history in which hero aviator and Nazi sympathizer Charles Lindbergh is elected president and the United States becomes an ultra-nationalist, xenophobic and very dangerous place for Jews. Now, 16 years later, it’s a six-part HBO miniseries, and in a climate of rising anti-Semitism, what was a disturbing dystopian fantasy seems chillingly real.

In 2013, producer David Simon (“The Wire,” “Treme,” “The Deuce”) passed on the project initially because he didn’t think it was politically relevant then, during the Barack Obama administration. “I was convinced that America was moving beyond that kind of demagoguery,” he told the Journal. “I was wrong.”

The story’s horrifying alternate reality unfolds through the eyes of the Levins, a Jewish working-class family in New Jersey. Their concern becomes palpable fear as anti-Semitic rhetoric turns into action, and Kristallnacht-like attacks, forced resettlement and murders escalate. Lindbergh himself is peripheral. “All the historical figures exist only as they’re experienced by these characters,” Simon said, referring to parents Bess (Zoe Kazan) and Herman (Morgan Spector), their sons Sandy and Phillip (Caleb Malis, Azhy Robertson), Bess’s sister Evelyn (Winona Ryder) and Rabbi Lionel Bengelsdorf (John Turturro), an opportunist who allies himself with the new administration. The rabbi comes to see the foolishness of his choice but much too late, as does the starry-eyed Bess, who falls in love with him and the glamour of the Lindbergh inner circle.

Simon initially set out to cast Jewish actors in the lead roles and did with Ryder and Spector, but made an exception for Kazan and Turturro. “When I offered Zoe the role she said, ‘You know I’m not Jewish. We were Greeks in Turkey.’ I said, ‘If you don’t know from Cossacks, who does?’ John has played Primo Levi, Barton Fink, Herb Stempel in ‘Quiz Show.’ If this guy can’t play Jewish, nobody can.”

For “Stranger Things” star Ryder, who lost her maternal grandfather and many paternal relatives in World War II, “Plot” hit close to home. “I never thought in my life that I would see a swastika except in a movie, so it’s clearly relevant,” she said.

As proud, stubborn Herman, Spector (“Homeland”) said he “deeply feels the travails of his country” and rages against them but declines to leave home for Canada despite the mounting danger. He reread Roth’s novel and several other books about the Jewish immigrant experience to prepare for the role. Jewish on his father’s side — his grandfather’s family fled pogroms and his grandmother, a Yiddish theater actress, lost family in the Holocaust — Spector was raised without religion. “We didn’t go to temple. I was not bar mitzvahed. But I read Chaim Potok and Primo Levi. I came to it through culture, through literature,” he said.

“I think Jews will read it as being about anti-Semitism. But it’s also about Muslims, immigrants, people of color, others who are vulnerable. If Jews think it’s only about Jews, they’ve missed it. It’s broader.” — David Simon

Having acted in community theater as a child, Spector gravitated back to it after college when a family friend was casting an indie film and hired him. His television roles have included “Allegiance” and “Boardwalk Empire,” but he feels that “Plot” “sits in that magical place that’s both high profile and a dream artistically, the kind of work you want to get to do and the kind of people you want to work with,” he said.

He’s currently at work on “The Gilded Age,” an HBO miniseries from “Downton Abbey” creator Julian Fellowes, playing a 19th-century railroad magnate. He’s also developing projects with his wife, actress Rebecca Hall, with whom he appeared in the films “Permission,” “Christine” and Broadway’s “Machinal,” where they met. A social and political activist, Spector said that he hears “the ticking clock of climate change in my ear every day and I think it’s incumbent on all of us to act.”

Simon, who has roots in Russia, Belarus, Hungary and Slovakia, grew up in the Washington, D.C., suburbs, the son of “a professional Jew. My father was the PR director for B’nai B’rith for 25 years and the ADL (Anti-Defamation League) before that. The joke in our family was the temple we failed to attend regularly had to be Conservative. We were not particularly observant,” he said. “But it was a household that was aware of Jewish thought and ideals. We routinely had secular Jewish leaders at our dinner table.”

While working as journalist for the Baltimore Sun, he wrote “Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets,” which became the Emmy-winning NBC series “Homicide: Life on the Street,” launching his TV career. Married to mystery writer Laura Lippman, he’s currently writing “Dry Run,” an HBO miniseries about the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, American soldiers who fought against the fascists in the Spanish Civil War.

Simon hopes that “The Plot Against America” is a wake-up call, and that viewers come away with the realization that “it can happen here. We’ve demonstrated that in a fundamental way in the last few years. Democracy is not a certitude. It requires constant struggle and it’s never perfected,” he said. “We have fundamental structural problems in this country in terms of inequality and economic opportunity that we’re not addressing, and if anyone comes along and offers ugly, frightened rhetoric, our democracy is susceptible. I think Jews will read it as being about anti-Semitism,” he added. “But it’s also about Muslims, immigrants, people of color, others who are vulnerable. If Jews think it’s only about Jews, they’ve missed it. It’s broader.”

For Spector, it’s a plea for civility and change. “Blaming the outsider and turning on each other is one solution,” Spector said. “But the other solution is we come together collectively and demand better lives for ourselves.”

“The Plot Against America” premieres March 16 on HBO. Each episode of the series has a corresponding podcast that premieres after the episode airs on HBO. Hosted by Peter Sagal (NPR) and creator/executive producer David Simon, it’s available free on Spotify, Apple, Google Play and Stitcher

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