HBO’s The Plot Against America premiered in mid-March to great critical acclaim and significant conversation around its eerily prescient plot lines. Based on the 2004 Philip Roth novel of the same name, the limited series explores an alternate universe in which populist candidate Charles Lindbergh becomes president. As a result, his close ties with Nazi Germany and personal xenophobic tendencies lead the United States toward fascism as witnessed through the Jewish Levin family.
Acclaimed actor Morgan Spector tackles the role of Herman Levin, the insurance salesman patriarch of the Levin family who becomes increasingly furious at the deterioration of his beloved United States of America. Spector works within the brilliant ensemble to help ground the material, underscoring how closely the material adheres to our current political environment. Spector’s Herman is the character through which many viewers most closely relate – or wish they did. He’s the voice of outrage, and he’s not afraid to speak his mind or stand up against the increasingly dangerous world around him.
Spector talks to Awards Daily about what most appealed to him in The Plot Against America. He also talks about creating the character of Herman Levin and where Herman’s near-volcanic anger originates. Finally, he talks about the undeniable parallels between The Plot Against America and our current, volatile political environment.
(Note: This interview was conducted before the George Floyd tragedy in late May and the subsequent national protests.)
Awards Daily: What was it about the character of Herman Levin that made you say, ‘I absolutely have to play this role?’
Morgan Spector: To start off, David Simon and Philip Roth – both heroes of mine. Also, I think there’s something about Herman that I related to and I hope a lot of other people related to. When you’re an ordinary citizen, you don’t feel particularly empowered to directly affect the kind of historical scale events that are happening around you and shaping your world. What are the things you can do to process your fear or rage to fulfill the obligations of citizenship as you see them? I feel like I do my best to do those things, to stay abreast and stay informed. Sometimes, that feels not enough, almost pitiful. The obligations of citizenship in times of extremity can come to feel somewhat feeble. That process is what we’re watching in Herman, and it felt familiar. It felt of this moment.
AD: What helps you most as an actor orienting yourself in the era and character? Are you a costume person? Is it the production design?
MS: I think for me it’s a combination of both. When you work on a sumptuous HBO production and you have the luxury of having exquisitely designed sets and costumes, that only helps you root yourself in the world and in the character. To me, it is also the script and the other actors that help locate you. You’re like a bat, flying in the dark, and you’re eco-locating and bouncing off these other human beings and what they’re bringing into the room. I always find that is the most informative aspect of playing characters – what you’re getting from other people.
With every role, you discover that, in some way, you’ve been preparing for this role your whole life. With every part, there’s some way that you’re right for it, and part of the process is always discovering how you’re right for it.
AD: One thing that’s particularly compelling about this limited series and the original novel before it is that it was originally conceived during the Bush era, but it becomes much more apt to our current political climate.
MS: Oh it’s insane. Re-reading this book, it’s like laughable. I think it’s hard to tell when you watch the series because you think David Simon put these details into his script. But many of the things that are so strikingly resonant with this particular moment are in the book. It’s a weird, perverse accident of history.
AD: Another thing I find compelling about the series is the great chemistry you have with the rest of the cast, including Zoe Kazan, Anthony Boyle, Winona Ryder and others. You all truly feel like a family. What kind of prep did you do as a team leading into filming?
MS: That’s a wonderful compliment. Thank you. For one thing, we conceived of ourselves as a team. It’s not as common as you’d think. My experience on film and television sets is that you do gel eventually, but here, it happened faster because this is a Philip Roth project. Winona is a Roth fan, Zoe is a writer, and I love him. I think there was a humility in the face of the source material, and in working with David Simon given what he’s achieved in the medium, that bound us all together. Zoe and I also come from the New York theater scene, and there is a kind of ethos of the ensemble that’s really important. We started from jump thinking this was something we were going to do together. Proceeding that way and being communicative and being consciously and deliberately collaborative with each other, I think it helped create that sense of family.
AD: Looking more specifically at your character of Herman, he reacts in so many scenes with anger and looks for ways to channel that anger. How do you as an actor generate or channel that anger? Where does it come from?
MS: Yeah, well, I’m angry. [Laughs] I’m angry at what’s going on, and it’s there in me. I also think that kind of volatility and moral indignation is a big part of my Jewish family’s experience. That you can be sitting around having a meal and the temperature in the room rises very precipitously. Then, it subsides, and there’s laughter and you go on. That is, to some extent, a cultural thing. I’m not sure what it’s born out of, but I do have that experience directly. And it’s what Roth writes of his own father. He was very emotionally involved, very sort of mercurial emotionally.
Looking at the role on the page, I thought Herman was coming across as angry all the time. I thought I’d have to modulate this somehow, but I kind of think it’s the point. The portrayal isn’t interesting unless we relate to this person and have a critique of him. We see through these people’s eyes, and we see them through the eyes of those around them. It was something I wanted to lean into with Herman. I do feel like a lot of people are letting themselves be consumed with a kind of political rage right now.
AD: As you’ve mentioned, The Plot Against America strongly references our current political climate, but the book ended on a more optimistic note than the series does. Why do you think that is?
MS: I think in a very simple way David Simon and Ed Burns didn’t want people to walk away feeling complacent or feeling American democracy was secure and they could go to bed at night with the knowledge that all of our institutions were working well and truth and justice would prevail. I don’t know that David and Ed would necessarily think that was fair even in Roth’s vision to leave the reader with that idea. I think they’re maybe a little more militant politically than Roth was. Certainly, at this moment, the hope is that we can instill in the viewer some sense of urgency and some sense of responsibility for the future, and not let the viewer sit back and think, ‘Well, it was fine then. It will be fine now.’ I don’t think that’s clear at all.
AD: As an actor, given the script that you performed, do you ever imagine where Herman goes six months or a year after the series ends?
MS: I really wondered about this a lot because it’s hard to imagine him going back to work at MetLife, and yet, it’s equally hard imaging him continuing in this new blue collar life. It’s not who he is fundamentally. I never answered that question for myself. I think he’s found a way to provide for his family. I think the major violent outburst we see between Herman and Alvin (Boyle) after the major crisis has subsided. I think that puts Herman in a difference space, and I also think it depends on who wins the election with what’s going to happen to Herman. I could see a situation where, if FDR were to lose that election, then I think Herman would move to Canada or follow Alvin’s example and take more radical action. I think that’s probably a more likely set of outcomes for him.
The Plot Against America is currently streaming on HBO Max.