This story about Morgan Spector and “The Plot Against America” first appeared in the Limited Series & Movies issue of TheWrap’s Oscar magazine.
What if a demagogic, populist celebrity with an authoritarian streak and suspect ties to a hostile foreign government ran for president of the United States and won? Philip Roth’s 2004 novel “The Plot Against America” asked that question in the context of the 1940s, positing a presidential victory for Charles Lindbergh over Franklin D. Roosevelt. In the book, the election leads to a U.S. decision to stay out of World War II and a wave of anti-Semitic violence from emboldened white supremacists.
In David Simon and Ed Burns’ HBO adaptation of the novel, Morgan Spector plays Herman Levin, a Jewish father of two and a stand-in of sorts for Roth’s own father.
Had you read “The Plot Against America” when it first came out?
I had, yeah. I was maybe two or three years into my Philip Roth obsession, and I was delighted to have a new book. I remember at the time thinking it was quite unlike the other Roth books that I was loving — more plot-heavy than some of his other novels. And I felt it was very relevant to the (George W.) Bush era, for sure. But the myriad ways in which the Bush regime was evil were different from the book. It seemed pertinent, but not weirdly prescient in the same way that it does now.
The novel gets into issues of economic uncertainty, white supremacism, government overreach, violence against minorities … What jumped out at you when you reread it before making the miniseries?
Well, let’s see. There are a number of things in the novel where when you think about the worst-case-scenario possibilities of the current administration. It’s almost so on-the-nose that it’s ridiculous. One of the real ways it seems prescient now is that in imagining where America might’ve gone in the aftermath of the Depression, Roth did a brilliant job of imagining where America might go in the 21st century in the aftermath of the 2008 recession, if the underlying issues that caused that recession and the deepening inequality that resulted from it were not addressed. He accidentally predicted 21st-century America.
Beyond the book, which is obviously a very rich source, what did you turn to in your preparation?
Although we’ve changed the names of the family, in some way I felt like I was playing Roth’s father. So I went back and read “Patrimony,” which is the story of his father’s life. I read “The Facts,” which was a sort of autobiographical piece. And yeah, I just went back to the novel again and again. I have never played a character adapted from a novel before, and there’s a real luxury in that because the whole inner life of this person is completely detailed.
Although I suppose you could say that in “The Plot Against America,” you’re getting the son’s version of his father’s inner life.
That’s a really good point. I don’t know whether you’d notice it or not as an audience member, but I think in our script, we sort of start with these characters as they are perceived by the children, particularly the mother and father. And then as it develops, we start to live with those characters in a way that it’s a little bit more of their own interior world.
I think that’s David Simon and Ed Burns taking ownership of these characters progressively. We start in an 8-year-old’s idealized vision of Weequahic (in New Jersey). And then as the world changes, it’s transformed into a darker world, and we need adult perspective in order to accurately perceive it.
What were the biggest challenges in playing Herman?
I think one is Herman’s volatility. You read this guy on the page and think, “He just never shuts the f— up — he’s such an a–hole.” Part of my job is to allow that, even though you worry, “Am I overplaying this one note?”
One of the first things that David Simon and Ed Burns said to me was, “This guy’s not a hero.” And the way I ended up interpreting that was, this was an ordinary person. Sometimes he ends up doing the right thing and standing up for what’s right. And sometimes he’s a jerk and unpleasant to be around.
I think the wonderful thing about the way that the story is told in our adaptation is that David and Ed allow all of these characters to be seen by the others and allow the audience to see each of those characters through another perspective. So sometimes they could appreciate them and sometimes they can be critical of them. It’s a very honest mode of storytelling.
To read more of the Limited Series & Movies issue, click here.