Morgan Spector on Making HBO’s Timely, Surreal Alt-History Drama ‘The Plot Against America’

     April 7, 2020

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Created by David Simon and Ed Burns and based on the novel of the same name by Philip Roth, the six-part HBO limited series The Plot Against America follows a working-class Jewish family in New Jersey through an alternate American history during World War II, when aviator hero and xenophobic populist Charles Lindbergh has won the presidency and is taking the nation ever closer to fascism. As opposing political views threaten to tear families apart, the eerie parallels of how an outsider can stoke the flames of anti-Semitism and xenophobia from the highest leadership position in the nation become frighteningly real. The limited series stars Morgan SpectorZoe Kazan, Winona Ryder, John Turturro, Anthony Boyle, Azhy Robertson, and Caleb Malis.

In The Plot Against America, Spector plays series protagonist Herman Levin, a proud and opinionated patriarch who tries to maintain normalcy for his family while America seems to be slipping into fascism, anti-Semitism and xenophobic isolationism around him. During this 1-on-1 interview with Collider, Spector opened up about what made him want to be a part of this story, how relevant the subject matter is to today, how he found his character and a family dynamic with his fellow cast members, where his creative fulfillment comes from, and much, much more.

COLLIDER: This seems like one of those dream roles, getting to explore an alternate history and being in this time period. Were there any cons to signing on for this?

MORGAN SPECTOR: No, absolutely not. I also live in New York. If I had put in my little dream journal, 20 years ago or something, the things that I’d wanna do, this would definitely be — pretty much to the letter — the job.

How much did you know about this when it came your way? Had you already read Philip Roth’s book?

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Image via HBO

SPECTOR: I’d read the book in 2004, when it came out. The Bush era was its own miserable trial run of authoritarianism, and arguably a more effective and dangerous one, in many ways. I remember thinking the book was really relevant and very good, and an interesting piece of alternate history. Then, going back to it, once I got offered this, you just are stupefied by how prescient it seems. If I’d lived through the early part of the 20th century, I think I would’ve had more familiarity with this kind of populism, but now, it’s almost everywhere you look. It feels like he brought this story back, right at the right time.

It really shows how the times we’re living in now didn’t just come out of nowhere.

SPECTOR: I think it comes out of economic collapse. It comes out of austerity politics. It comes out of decades of people feeling like they’re not getting a fair deal, and feeling like nobody’s on their side and that the whole political system has abandoned them. Finally, they just become so disgusted that they wanna start throwing rocks. Before we actually start throwing rocks, this is the political version of throwing rocks that we’re living through, all over the planet.

With a project like this, it seems like you could easily go down a research rabbit hole. How did you narrow that down when you were approaching this show?

SPECTOR: I asked for a reading list. I asked if there was any stuff that they wanted me to watch or read, or anything like that. I wanted to connect to that Jewish immigrant experience. There’s an Irving Howe book called World of Our Fathers which is about the wave of Jewish integration from Eastern Europe. It starts in 1880 and goes to 1920, and that was just really informative. It’s about the lives of the first generation who came here, what they wanted for their children, the lives of their children, the politics of that community. All of that, as a backdrop for who Herman Levin is, was really useful, actually.

Is it hard, as an actor, to figure out how to approach the research, so that you can do it in the most useful way possible?

SPECTOR: Yeah, it is hard because it’s actually hard to know, in advance, what’s gonna stimulate your imagination and help you create a character. I have a little bit of an instinct to go and read the history and do that quasi-academic research, but that often isn’t as helpful as reading fiction from the era because then you get a subjective experience of living, in that time. So, it’s a mix of both. You just hope that some turn of phrase or some anecdote will hit you in a way that you go, “Okay, now I understand something about this world or these people that I didn’t before.”

Are you somebody who also uses the wardrobe and look for a character, to help you figure him out?

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Image via HBO

SPECTOR: Oh, yeah. You realize that all of that stuff is part of the illusion that helps the audience suspend disbelief and lean into the story, and it’s definitely a part of what helps you embody that invented person. I think that stuff helps a lot. The shoes help a lot. When you get your shoes for the character, no matter what you had planned, as far as how you’re gonna move, all of a sudden, you get a certain kind of feedback, in how you connect to the earth and you have to incorporate that. It’s dorky, but the shoes I ended up wearing in this were old. They were 50-year-old shoes and they just looked like somebody who’s in insurance. [Herman is] a life insurance salesman. He walks all over the neighborhood. That’s his job. He makes his collections, he sells insurance door-to-door, and he’s on his feet constantly. They looked beat to shit. They were falling apart in three places, and they didn’t survive the season. Right at the end, they gave out. It’s nice to have something like that. I don’t know who wore those shoes, but it connects you to somebody who really just beat them up.

With something like this, where it is so stylized, does it also help you leave the character behind when you’re done?

SPECTOR: Yeah. I don’t wanna overstate it, but in some ways, the world of this show is so similar to the world we’re living in now that there’s no leaving this character behind. You leave the character behind, but you don’t leave the world behind because the parallels are so direct.

Did it surprise you, at all, just how much you felt that connection to the world today?

SPECTOR: You never know how much you’re going to feel, really. Intellectually, you go, “Oh, that makes sense,” when you’re reading the book. But in terms of how it felt to live through doing it and how it feels to live through the time we’re living in now, it’s interesting because this story’s driven by a political event, but it’s also about what it feels like to be in a family and to be just a normal person, in a family with a normal job. You don’t have the power to really protect yourself from the state, or from the large events of history. It’s not just our political circumstances, it’s also climate change. I have a young daughter, who will be two soon, and she’s gonna have to live through this century. There’s that sense of, can I protect her? Can I prepare her for the world she’s gonna grow up in?” There’s a constant anxiety about that. That’s Herman Levin feels, and that’s how I feel, having played him.

What was it like to find the dynamic within this family?

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Image via HBO

SPECTOR: I just felt really lucky. I’m very grateful to Zoe [Kazan], for so many reasons. She had tried to work with my wife [actor Rebecca Hall] once, before this job, and she and her boyfriend, Paul [Dano], live very near us in Brooklyn. I always had a sense of like, “Maybe, eventually, we’ll be friends. Something will happen.” We knew of each other well enough, and I had met her a couple of times. When she heard that I had got this job, she was just so gracious about it. We both come from a theater background, where there’s a real sense of ensemble. You do it together, and you build the world and family together. You collaborate. And I think we were really able to do that. We both took the project seriously and engaged in it together. In that act of deciding, creatively, to build this fictional family together, that dynamic mirrors the dynamic of actually being the parents of the family.

Were there things that you grew to appreciate about this character, the longer you played him?

SPECTOR: I have some friends who were involved in the Tahrir Square uprising in Egypt. They’re friends of my wife’s who have become great friends of mine, and one of them told her that, when you’re in a situation where a protest turns violent, some people in your group run toward the violence and danger, and some people run away, and you don’t know which you are, until you’re in that situation. The thing about Herman is that he doesn’t really know which he is. The first thing he tries to do is just stand still and hold his ground. Then, things shift so suddenly that he has to find another way of protecting his family, and another way of being an American and standing up for what he believes in. He discovers inner resources that I don’t think even he knew he had, and I got to experience that.

Is it ever strange or surreal to be on a set that is an alternate take on history, so you’re surrounded by characters that were real-life people?

SPECTOR: Yeah. My way of coping with the day to day news cycle, which can be a lot, following every undulation of the news, I think it’s really psychologically harmful, so I check in, but I check in on a slower cycle. That’s my way of controlling my emotional response to fairly dark times. With this project, there was no doing that. We were really deeply entertaining what might happen, in the event of a genuinely authoritarian leader taking control of the country. There was no escape, really.

What was this shoot like? Did it feel like you had a lot of time to really explore the scenes and the characters, or did you wish you had more time?

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Image via HBO

SPECTOR: You always wish you had more time, but we had a pretty generous schedule on this. Minkie Spiro, the director of the first half [of the season], Martin Ahlgren, who shot it, and Thomas Schlamme, who directed the second half, are such brilliant people. Minkie, who really defined the look of the thing, had such a strong and brilliant vision for the show. Being a part of something that was ambitious, in every way – cinematically ambitious and artistically ambitious – is really thrilling. You really feel like you have to show up and bring you’re A-game. In that kind of environment, you always want the time to get it exactly right and the best it could possibly be, and you never have that time. Even if we had all the time in the world, that doesn’t mean you’d get it exactly right. So, it is TV, but compared to indie movies I’ve worked on, we had a lot more time. It felt quite generous, in that way.

As an actor, do you like to watch the projects that you’re a part of, or do you prefer to completely avoid them?

SPECTOR: I don’t like it, actually. I don’t like watching myself. It never feels, from the outside, the same way it feels, from the inside. Sometimes I’ll watch a moment where, maybe internally, I was having some deep emotional process, and nothing is happening and I’m like, “Fuck!” It’s just a strange feeling. So, no, I don’t really like it, but I also feel like I have a professional obligation to do it, sometimes. What I’ve learned is that I just have to watch it multiple times. The first time I watch it, I only experienced the horror of all of my inadequacies, in every respect. And then, maybe the third time I watch it, I can be a part of the story and see the thing for what it is, as a totality.

So, where does the creative fulfillment come from, for you? Does it come from the experience you have, on set, during the shoot?

SPECTOR: Yeah, that’s what it is. That’s what you get. You can’t control so much about it, so it’s that experience of being on set and trying to make something good. That’s the thing with this job. Everybody knows that, if the scripts are good and we could make something that’s genuinely good, and even if it doesn’t happen, the promise of that and the possibility of that is such a luxury and such a joy to be a part of. With this cast, just getting to play scenes that are these kinds of scenes was great. Every scene David [Simon] writes has substance to it. It’s really about something. Even if it’s casually played or tossed off, it’s deliberate. There’s a reason that he’s written it. So, when you have a chance to play scenes like that, with actors of this caliber, I just try to be present and enjoy it.

The Plot Against America airs on Monday nights on HBO.

Television