Mild spoilers below for HBO's The Plot Against America.
One of television's most powerful and outspoken voices, David Simon took on the controversy-centered novel The Plot Against America as his latest HBO project. Following in author Philip Roth's footsteps, the show tells the alt-history story of aviator-turned-celebrity Charles Lindbergh's successful run at the U.S. presidency, and how it turned the country against itself, not unlike what's playing out in the current political climate. Star Morgan Spector knew early on that it was a special project, and now audiences are seeing just how gripping it is.
Morgan Spector, who plays Jewish family patriarch Herman Levin, spoke with CinemaBlend about The Plot Against America at this year's Television Critics Association winter press tour. The Homeland vet talked about his Philip Roth fandom, the relevance of Plot's storyline, who he thinks the audience should be made up of, and more. Read on!
On The Effectiveness Of The Plot Against America's Alt-History Approach
While most people know Charles Lindbergh for his impressive piloting efforts (to the point where even his plane's name is famous), or perhaps for the kidnapping of his infant son, there are likely many that are unaware of Lindbergh's xenophobic and racist views, or that he pushed hard against U.S. intervention in World War II. The Plot Against America takes Lindbergh's troublesome popularity up a notch by having him beat Franklin D. Roosevelt in the 1941 presidential election, sparking a chillingly awful downward spiral.
I asked Morgan Spector if he enjoyed (for lack of a better word) taking on an alt-history project like this, akin to Stephen King's 11/22/63, and he answered with:
The alt-history thing, it's like all speculative fiction. It's like sci-fi, right? Where what's interesting about it is always not how different it is from the world we live in, but how similar it is to the world we live in. In some ways, the more you depart from reality, the more that departure becomes a potent metaphor for analyzing the times that we're all living in. That's what I think is really effective about this style.
On The Plot Against America's Relevance
In a very similar vein to the above topic, The Plot Against America star Morgan Spector talked about how in tune the miniseries' focus is with today's culture. When I asked him about jumping from the more currently relevant Homeland to the arguably more timeless story at the heart of Plot, here's what Spector told me:
I think everything strives for relevance, but I don't know. It's some potent cocktail of 24-hour cable news and social media, and the Internet has the collective digestive system of our polity. I think it means that we're just all fixated, and certainly the whole media class is just fixated on politics all the time, and so it feels impossible to make anything that isn't speaking to that. Even if you do, when it comes out, it'll be kind of filtered through that lens anyway. These are the times we're living in. In a big-picture sense, I'm just happy to be getting to work on interesting projects, but it's also exciting when things have the ambition to speak to the contemporary moment. That's always a worthwhile thing to be involved in.
To Morgan Spector's point, there are tons of movies that have come out over the years that, when viewing things from a modern perspective, absolutely seem politically motivated in one way or another. Whether that was actually the artists' intention, or whether it's because society is now so politically inclined, is quite hard to discern without personal input from those involved. Not much guesswork to be had with The Plot Against America, though.
On Who The Plot Against America's Audience Should Be
Regardless of the subject matter, HBO programming draws in audiences from all sides, whether it's for crime dramas like The Wire, cringe comedies like Curb Your Enthusiasm, or inspirational miniseries like Band of Brothers. And Morgan Spector hoped for The Plot Against America's audience to be equally well-rounded, with all manner of viewers taking in the anti-fascist story matter together. In his words:
First, what I hope is that the audience for this piece is not just an audience of the already persuaded. You know, the piece is anti-fascist, and that's not necessarily a Democrat or Republican issue. Americans, we're supposed to be anti-fascist as a country. So I think if you connect to that idea fundamentally and philosophically, then maybe you can come and enjoy this piece. And if you do, yeah, man. We all really wanted to make this special. We all felt like this was one of the rare chances where you could actually make something good. You know what I mean? [Laughs.] Maybe we did.
I also asked if Morgan Spector if he thought The Plot Against America might hold a candle to 2019's Chernobyl in terms of striking a resonant chord with audiences, and he said he would be perfectly fine with that, saying it was "cinematically ambitious" and "stunningly photographed."
On The Plot Against America's Building Tension
For its first two episodes, The Plot Against America took a fairly methodical approach to introducing the story and all of the major players involved, including John Turturro's Rabbi Lionel Bengelsdorf and Ben Cole's Charles Lindbergh himself. But that isn't to say they were slow or boring. It's more like the set-up in a horror movie, right before the evil monster strikes for the first time.
In that sense, fans shouldn't worry about The Plot Against America maintaining that same pacing, as everything kicks into high gear for the rest of the season. Here's how Morgan Spector put it:
Yeah, I think you really start out with the family. You're rooted in their everyday life; this is the life that, had nothing ever changed for them, this is the life that they're living. You have to get a sense of that, so you know and so you feel what is taken away from them, so you feel what is about to be destroyed. That first episode is really about establishing that, and the danger that starts to live on the horizon. Then from there on out, all the way to the end of the season, the stakes build and build, and the tension builds and builds.
As one might imagine, the story doesn't get wrapped up and tied off with a big bright bow in Episode 3, so definitely keep tuning in to see how harrowing The Plot Against America gets as Charles Lindbergh takes control.
On Tackling Philip Roth's Work As A Fan
Suitably enough, Morgan Spector was already a fan of Philip Roth when he landed The Plot Against America, which definitely helped inspire his performance. When I asked about his process for getting into the role, Spector brought up conversations he had with the miniseries' director, Minkie Spiro and show creator David Simon about "what their vision was" for Plot. He then said he dove back into Roth's work to help him get to then place where he could imagine himself within the character's life.
And then I was sort of left to do my own research, and really dive back into Roth. I've always loved Roth, and love his writing. I'd read Plot back when it came out, so I went back to the novel, and went back to a lot of Roth's other writing about his father. And then also did some research on the period. All of this preparatory to get a sense of what it was like to be a man at that time, what the expectations of someone like this would have been. What kind of the best-case scenario for his life would have been, and what his dreams [would be]. And really get a sense of his aspirations, and his love for his family and all that stuff. So yeah, that was all the imaginative work you do in anticipation of playing something like this.
It couldn't have been very heartwarming for any of the core actors to get into the imaginative work of playing these characters, considering their lives become flipped upside-down by Charles Lindbergh and this actions. But thankfully, acting isn't always about taking on the easiest roles, which makes a project like The Plot Against America all the more worthwhile on both sides of the camera.
The Plot Against America airs on HBO on Monday nights at 9:00 p.m. ET.