The beautifully lensed and historically rendered six-part HBO adaptation of Philip Roth’s novel The Plot Against America by David Simon and Ed Burns features outstanding acting work by a performer that we have been tracking for some time, the California-born and New York-based Morgan Spector. In the project, Spector plays Herman Levin, a Jewish family man in an alternate history set in the 1940’s in which isolationist Charles Lindbergh has become president instead of FDR, and the war has come home, featuring a government turning against its own citizens, namely the Jewish people, and the rage and hurt that comes with being a marginalized group in a fascist regime. The cast also features such luminaries as Winona Ryder, John Turturro, and playing Elizabeth Levin, Zoe Kazan.
The articulate Spector represents something of a departure from our typical interviews, who don’t normally talk about left-leaning news media and Hamlet references, but Spector is not a run-of-the-mill performer, and nor is this project easy watching. By sheer coincidence, we chatted with Spector in a week in which we also spoke with his wife Rebecca Hall, and Spector ruminated for the most part about the third part of his series, which was set to broadcast that weekend, but the last few parts are extremely incendiary and are required viewing to understanding our current fraught situation.
The following is a condensed and edited version of a memorable phone conversation with the gracious Morgan Spector of The Plot Against America.
Brief Take: That was incredible when you stood up and broke into song at the end of the third part. As well, singer-actor Michael Cerveris happens to be sitting right there next to you. How did you play it?
Morgan Spector: You know that scene is in the novel, it’s basically as written; as scripted. That was one of the scenes for when I got cast, I looked at and thought: “Oh man, this is going to be a hell of a thing to try to pull this off”. But I loved the scene—I think it’s an incredible…[sighs] I don’t know, I think it’s one of those Rothian works of art in and of itself that scene, and I think it’s also a scene in which you can really…I’ve read that Roth used to read his writing aloud to edit himself as he went and I think that in that scene you can really feel that, you can hear him sort of in the Connecticut retreat playing each one of those parts. Because the scene really works dramatically. But yes, I was excited about it, I was nervous about it and of course, [chuckles] having to do it with Michael Cerveris, who I saw in a church in London play Hedwig in Hedwig and the Angry Inch and he was absolutely brilliant. Yes, it was a little intimidating, but he’s an extremely gentle, gentle soul and he was very kind. Yeah, it was fun, but it was singing for a room full of people for about eight hours so…[laughs] I was glad when that day was done.
BT: Earlier on, your scenes in the third part from the family road trip to Washington in particular are very strong, and coming across the Declaration of Independence and reading “All Men are Created Equal” was quite prescient. Did you know at that point that the series would feel so relevant at the time?
MS: Yeah, I think that it was fairly clear to all of us when we started this project, that there was going to be discomforting resonance with our contemporary reality. But it’s interesting that you bring up The Declaration of Independence, The Declaration of Independence was at the time—and still is—this incredibly radical promise and yes, it does say “All Men” and certainly at the time, the community to which it referred was extremely limited. And so that promise has always been betrayed at the outset. But the idea itself is still radical and I think that as a country…[pauses] There’s a sort of easy relevance right now with this piece. We have this political outsider, rising to becoming president and bringing with him this sort of demagogic populism and I think it’s easy to stop there. But I think that the more important aspects of the novel, and I hope of the series, is when you can see these strains in American political life from our very inception—from that moment, in which the Declaration in all its broad, humanistic radicalism was utterly betrayed by the fact of slavery, from the exclusion of women from suffrage, etc, the power of a kind of authoritarian, anti-democratic strain in American life has always been war with the radical pro-democratic strain, and I think that has always been true and remains true. Yes, I hope that our piece speaks to the current moment, but I think that it speaks to something older than it, too.
BT: I was surprised by this series in that your character is consumed by the idea of news-gathering and receiving forms of media; that’s another strain that runs through the piece. And you’ve spoken that you are somebody who is a news-gatherer in your own life. What did this aspect bring to your experience?
MS: Yeah, that was one aspect of Herman to which I related. I think that everybody in this era is a little bit news-obsessed, news as 24 hour cable news merged with entertainment. I think that we’re all being buffeted by this constant wave of infotainment. And so I found my own strategies to stay abreast of the news and of what’s happening and be an informed citizen, but not necessarily be at the mercy of that sort of constant wave, so I tend to get my news from more left-leaning sort of outside the mainstream sources. I love The Intercept, I read Jacobin magazine, I listen to the podcast Chapo Trap House, I’m trying to stay very much engaged, but I try not to be emotionally manipulated for the sake of the ‘ad buy’. Yes, that part of Herman who is in a kind of constant, perpetual state of like powerless engagement with history as it flows past him, I definitely [chuckles] relate to that, yeah.
BT: At the 92Y interview, a quote from Hamlet was brought up, that “the time is out of joint”. I will bring up another Hamlet quote, which is “To thine own self be true”. How much does this idea of ‘self’ motivate you toward the truth in your projects?
MS: I mean…as much as I can! I always look to make the character’s struggles or passions or concerns to find the echo of those in my own life, so that there can be some way that I am working through something by playing this character or coming to understand something better. Or even connecting to the idea of the character through what’s really going on for me off set in my head, in my imagination. You don’t want to be anachronistic, you want to fully honour the period and the writing and in every respect serve this fundamental idea of who is supposed to be this character, but at the same time I think that the challenge is to bring as much of yourself as you can into the room, because I think that it for me it makes the experience more valuable, but it also makes it easier for which to connect the audience.
BT: How does your work in the theatre guide your performances in the medium of television?
MS: A lot. One thing that I’ve been thinking about lately is with the rise of television as this kind of culturally central and very respectable—finally—medium. There’s a greater prominence of the writer on television, television is a writer’s medium, much more so I think than filmmaking and that’s really made it parallel to theatre and that’s always…there’s a kind of rigour to…one aspect of being a theatre actor, I think, is to serve the playwright and you’re there to bring that person’s vision to life. And on a tv set, especially with the more auteur showrunner types like David Simon or Alex (Gansa), who makes Homeland, I think that there’s a real transferability of that ethic that makes it both feel a little comfortable and I feel a little more at home maybe than I would otherwise.
BT: What a remarkable group of performers on this series, from Winona Ryder to John Turturro to Zoe Kazan to Anthony Boyle and yourself. To continue the aforementioned idea, how engaged are you to the idea of looking toward the series like a play?
MS: Mmmm. Well, the nice thing about shooting something is that you only have to do it once, right? You only have to hit it once, or, you know, maybe twice. And so things that you couldn’t repeat eight shows a week, you can kind of get to and capture these little felicities that happen in a moment, spontaneously. And I think that the actors that we had on this project, I mean, to a person you couldn’t have asked for a better player in that role. And most of us…come from the theatre? I think that Winona is such a creature of the cinema, I can’t remember if she has done a play or not? I think she did a play like…I don’t think she has. But I don’t know, Winona can do anything. But it was amazing group. I guess that I would say that in terms of that ethic of “we’re here to serve the writer”, and certainly that challenge was to serve both Roth and David Simon and Ed Burns, I think that certainly with Zoe Kazan is the person with whom I worked most closely and obviously the kids, Caleb (Malis) and Azhy (Robertson), but we had a collaboration from the start on creating this family and I think that very much was tied to that theatre affect. Zoe Kazan is a playwright and a theatre actor and really comes from that background in many ways, and I think that aspect formed a basis for our collaboration. And we kind of knew each other a little bit from around New York theatre, so that also made that whole process more intelligible.
BT: How do you feel about this idea of doing “Jewish” roles, especially as you have said, that you did not have a bar mitzvah or practice, although your grandmother starred in Yiddish theatre in New York City?
MS: Yeah, well, Jewishness is a slippery idea. Because I am not religious and not raised religious with religion, in some ways there’s Jewishness of ‘The Nazis kill you when they come’, [chuckles] which of course when you know…and there’s also these traditions, these cultural traditions, these social traditions, these dynamics within a family that feel inherently Jewish and one certainly recognizes that in Roth, and I certainly feel that one recognizes it in our script. These are…they’re not exactly clichés, but they are archetypes. Like the constant debating within the family, the style of humour, the devotion to family and the devotion to hard work, these may be aspects of the immigrant experience more broadly and I think they are probably. But I think that in terms of being raised with someone with a Jewish family background and that being the specific immigrant experience that has sort of trickled down to me, I certainly connected to those aspects- the family dynamics I think most of all, and that was sort of my way into our show’s version of Jewishness.
BT: I would like to give a shoutout to your show Pearson and others in your personal arc. What are a few of the pivotal roles in your performance history for you?
MS: There are always a few kind of pivotal jobs in my life that change my career or change my life or made me sort of understand…I don’t know, that I was proud of. You come to the end of a project and it’s been fun or whatever, it’s been successful or not, but sometimes you feel like you failed [chuckles] or you feel like you didn’t do as well as you could have done. But there are a few which I’m proud of and I think that those ones are nice to look back on. I think of my first Broadway show, that kind of changed my whole career—A View From the Bridge. I did a play written by Erika Sheffer at The New Group, called Russian Transport, which was one of my favourite characters and that was one of those shows in which you just loved everybody, and I think that I played Russian for years after that, so that was definitely a pivot point [chuckles]. And yeah, also Machinal, which was a play in which I met my now wife (Rebecca Hall), so you know there are the shows that change your professional life, the shows that change your personal life, and I’d have to include Homeland among that and certainly, certainly this piece.
BT: What was your experience like on Homeland, as you packed a show’s worth of activity into one season and you recently showed up for the Showtime celebration of eight seasons.
MG: It was great. Any time you’re playing somebody who may or may not be what they seem, and the character operates on a couple of different levels, it’s just a real treat. Most of my stuff was with Claire Danes, who you could not ask for a better scene partner. I loved my time on that show. I was a fan since the beginning of it and no matter where that show went over the course of its hell of a run, the writing and the acting and the sort of filmmaking of it was always such an intensely high quality. I’ve always loved it, it was a real joy to be on that one.
BT: As your wife Rebecca is now a writer and a director, do you think that directing may be in your future as well?
MS: I don’t know. [laughs] Having watched her, for years, having to finance, produce and edit that film, I’m a little…it doesn’t exactly look like fun, but yeah, I don’t know. I do fantasize that I was ever on a show, a tv show that runs for a while, I think that affords actors an opportunity to…you know, you can shadow on episodes, you can sometimes when you’re in a show’s run if everybody’s learned to trust you, they’ll let you take a whack at directing an episode, and yeah, I’d love to. As we get older and more experienced, why not see what else we can do, see where else we can be creative, see where else we can add something? Hopefully expand ourselves and offer something to the business, so yeah, I would love to try all that stuff at some point.
BT: You exert a powerful influence over the children in this series. As you are now a father in real life, do you consider yourself to be a person of great persuasion in both your real life as well as in this project?
MS: Yeah! I mean, you can’t not. I mean my daughter is almost two and she records everything and it’s all going in and it all sticks. One of us will say something and two weeks later, it’s coming out of her mouth. You just realize that everything is staying with her, and probably the things which you don’t think about, the things that you don’t even notice yourself doing, are the things that stay with her the most. And there’s a kind of…I don’t want to say ‘anxiety’ about that, but there’s profound responsibility to that, I think, obviously. With watching this show again as it’s coming out and my daughter is older than she was when we shot and she’s more herself and I look at it now [chuckles] and think, I don’t know, you learn so much as a parent all the time. I’m finding as I’m a first-time parent, every new stage is different. It’s interesting, if I was asked to play this part again in ten years, I’m sure that I’d play it, at least in regards to the kids, totally differently, because you change so much as a person as your child ages and develops, so it’s a really fascinating process. I think that the thing that I really understood now that I wouldn’t have understood before is just about this anxiety, or your responsibility to protect your children, your role that’s meant to be to mediate between them and the world and what that means when you’re an ordinary person, you’re not a superhero, you’re not a politician, you’re not a billionaire, you’re just a guy who wants the best for his kids. What do you do, especially in the midst of crisis, especially in the midst of dramatic, global convulsions, [chuckles] what do you do to try to keep your kids okay?
BT: Good question! What *do* you do to keep your kids alright, right now especially?
MS: I have a sort of long-winded response, but part of it is that I think that what we’re realizing right now is that all of the people that we think of as low-paid, ordinary, working-class people, who are making sure that the food supply community is functioning, that the medical chain supply is functioning, medical workers, truck drivers, domestic care workers, health care workers, all these people are actually the essential aspect of our economy. And all of the stuff that is the Wall Street, the sort of commanding heights of the economy is completely a non-essential. When they’re telling you to go back to work, it’s not for your benefit [laughs] it’s for their benefit. Stay home. Take care of yourself, take care of your families and let’s make sure that whatever comes out of this crisis, which we’ve never before seen, let’s try to make sure that it’s better than what came before. Because I think that what we’re realizing is that we’re so vulnerable to this because our priorities as a civilization, as a species, have been so out of whack for so long, and if we can’t change after a shock like this, then I think that the next one will be even worse, and we’ve got to learn from our mistakes finally.
BT: What is the role of artists at this time?
MS: People are stuck at home, you’ve got hours to kill. On a sort of basic level, there’s a very honourable line that performers have, which is to keep people distracted from their troubles or giving them a way to occupy their time that is easy, that takes the weight of decisions off of their shoulders a little bit, and that’s enough in and of itself. I think that to the extent that stories help us get through and understand the moments in which we’re living, I think actors, directors, writers of all types, particularly writers, I think, writers help us see ourselves and see the moment in which we’re living for what it is. I hope that as artists, everybody’s understanding that these are confusing times as we don’t have great data and the science is discouraging, maybe it’s up to artists to help us see this moment.
The Plot Against America airs on HBO and Crave on Mondays at 9pm ET