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Josh Radnor, Gary Cole and the ‘Mercy Street’ Cast On Bringing The Brutal Truths of The Civil War to PBS

Josh Radnor, Gary Cole and the 'Mercy Street' Cast On Bringing The Brutal Truths of The Civil War to PBS

The next big medical drama to launch this year comes with a unique edge, especially if certain scenes from “Gone With the Wind” scarred you as a child. 

READ MORE: Watch: ‘Mercy Street’ Trailer Brings Josh Radnor and Mary Elizabeth Winstead to Civil War Virginia

PBS’s “Mercy Street,” launching this Sunday, features a large ensemble cast including Gary Cole, Josh Radnor, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, AnnaSophia Robb, Jack Falahee and Hannah James, who populate an occupied Richmond, Virgina during the Civil War. Radnor plays a doctor trying his best to treat the patients housed under the roof of local businessman James Green (Cole), whose daughters Alice and Emma (Robb and James) find themselves sharing space with not just wounded soldiers, but newcomers to town like Mary (Winstead), an abolitionist nurse from the North. 

To get some sense of “Mercy Street’s” epic yet intimate scope, Indiewire sat down with the above-mentioned cast members to dig into how the show depicts the realities of life during wartime, what it means in Virginia to be fighting for “the right side” and of course, the bloody reality of 19th century medicine. An edited transcript of our conversations is below. 

Josh Radnor Loves This Show

JOSH RADNOR: It just got to me. The experience of doing it was really special. It was fun. It was nice. I lead this pretty monastic life there. I went to Richmond. I worked really hard on the part. I did a lot of research. We hung out a lot as a cast, which was really fun. We got to know the city a bit. It was really touching to me to play this guy who I really grew to be fond of. Just stepping into the world, it felt consequential. It felt like a real, vital, alive world. It felt like a story worth telling. It didn’t just feel like: We’re just trying to make you laugh. It’s super entertaining though. I don’t think it suffers in entertainment value for being real and important. 

“The wreckage of the war…”

GARY COLE: What it targets is not something that’s really looked at a lot in terms of the war. This is stuff that’s off the beaten path in terms of what we think of every time you start a Civil War history or a Civil War presentation. It’s usually about the military and the soldiers and all that stuff. And this is not. It’s the backdrop to a place and a time and circumstances that didn’t have anything to do with that.

ANNASOPHIA ROBB: It feels much more personal and relatable…especially with what’s going on with the climate of the country…to sort of understand, or at least get a view into the personal lives of what was going on. It wasn’t good versus evil. It was people in this predicament and this situation. I think that’s what I learned.

JACK FALAHEE: Yeah. I agree with all of that. I think it’s definitely a more accessible story. You can sort of put yourself in the shoes [of a woman] who misses her betrothed much easier than you can put yourself in the shoes of the soldier storming a hill during a bayonet charge. So I think that alone creates a world that is accessible. It’s very easily relatable. They were people going through everyday problems that we experience ourselves, so just being able to sit there and read these love letters that Frank and Emma wrote to each other and think, “Oh, I felt that way before.” But these are larger than life circumstances surrounding their romance.

COLE: At the moment, the centerpiece of it is really this hospital. But it’s not just a place. It’s what’s taking place there. And a lot of the principal characters are entrenched there. And it’s — just back to what we see with the war — we usually see the war and the warfare, not necessarily the wreckage of the war.

“I could amputate your leg, 1861-style.”

RADNOR: I remember the first day I was looking at my hands and I thought about my nails. People wouldn’t really be paying attention to that, but a Civil War doctor– What would they be doing with their nails? Would they cut them really low? And Dr. Burns said, “No, they would let them grow out so they can scoop stuff out. They would use their nails.” So for a while I let my nails grow. They were too long. I kept stabbing myself by accident, so I cut them down, but I was trying to be faithful to the details.

MARY ELIZABETH WINSTEAD: I had a vague idea of what it was like from what I had read, but seeing this reenactment of a surgery and how messy and chaotic [it can be]. It’s such a wild, wild west of medicine. Some of the stuff you did was just get in there and chop the leg off. It’s just sort of get it done.

RADNOR: It’s funny. We had this medical expert Dr. Burns on set, and I kept thinking it was going to be much more precise. And he was like, “Just jam it in there. Just hack it off.”

HANNAH JAMES: Apparently very few people were actually trained as doctors. And when the Civil War came out, they just decided to become doctors, so they just read books and were doing what was said in the books. And a lot of battlefield doctors would literally be doing surgery and reading from an instruction book.

RADNOR: That actually happens. I have an amputation scene and I’m holding a book. And looking at steps one, two, three. 

JAMES: And then he passes it over, and I start reading directions to him as if I should know what he should be doing.

RADNOR: And then she’s passing out from the blood.

JAMES: It’s a mess.

RADNOR: But Mary and I went to– It’s called the Chimborazo Medical Museum, which is where this old hospital was and they had this thing on amputations. I’d already shot this scene and I thought, “I know all of this.” That’s exactly what we did. Give me a lister knife, a catler knife, a bonesaw, some sutures, a ligature, and some chloroform and I could amputate your leg, 1861-style.

WINSTEAD: We were very lucky that we were surrounded by people that were incredibly knowledgeable. I would never trust myself–

RADNOR: Mary was actually the Civil War representative.

WINSTEAD: Yeah, I pretty much was telling everybody how to do everything.

JAMES: The day that we did the invitation, I sat in my trailer and I watched a YouTube video of an amputation–

WINSTEAD: That’s right. Why would you do that?

JAMES: Because I need to know how intense this was going to be. And I didn’t know we were actually going to see quite a lot of blood and stuff. So I was like, “How does this actually look?” And it totally made me feel so sick. So, the rest of the day I was like, “Oh my God. This is so nasty.”

RADNOR: We also had this girl in makeup, Katie, who is an expert at making things looks disgusting. Like gangrene. And she would come on and put little– It was disgusting. She was lovely.

[Everyone laughs.]

JAMES: I was thinking, she must watch so many disgusting videos and pictures to try and see exactly how it looks.

WINSTEAD: In shooting it, it was really intense. We haven’t seen all the episodes so I can’t really say how gory it will be on the show, but it felt–

RADNOR: We have footage that is disturbing.

JAMES: I saw some of the amputations. It’s pretty gross. it’s pretty full on. There’s a lot of blood.

WINSTEAD: I’m holding a severed leg at one point.

RADNOR: I think PBS, the one note they kept giving was: Not too gross.

WINSTEAD: They got pretty creative in terms of exploring all the different types of surgeries that would happen in that hospital. It’s not too repetitive.

RADNOR: In the pilot, there’s wheelbarrows with severed limbs. It’s fun. Tune in, folks. Start your week off right.

Life During Wartime

COLE: I think I might have my stats wrong on this, but because of the occupation, because of everything going on, the actual physical space of it, the population of Alexandria was suddenly much greater than it was. Even within that community it caused a lot of structural problems. There was not enough of anything.

ROBB: It smelled really bad.

COLE: It didn’t smell great before there was a problem. But I think that it’s all of those consequences of a conflict like that, that didn’t even occur to me. I was able to go down to Alexandria on the way to Richmond — I stopped there — because I had to be in New York and I took the train down and I stayed there a few days at the same site of the hospital. It’s not there anymore, but a restored version of the family house is. But what got me was I was standing on the Potomac. There’s this great walkway but you can stand on the Potomac River in Alexandria and looks across the river and see the capitol building. It always seemed kind of funny. Well, not funny. They say they’re going to secede from the Union and then they turn around and look at the river and go, “Oh.” Except the Union miles are six miles away.

ROBB: They can hear you as you’re calling across the river.

COLE: And the American flag is flying. And within a very short time they weren’t in the Confederacy very long. And it was like, boom. They were probably the first to go because of proximity. They were sitting next to Washington.

ROBB: I think also something that I’m really proud of this show is there’s a lot of tension in our country and I think the Civil War isn’t necessarily– When I was in school, I learned about the Civil War and the economics behind it, but I was still thinking good versus evil. And I think that this show might help people understand the underlying tensions that we still face and see within our country and that’s sort of the disparity, especially with why the South has much higher poverty. I think it’s educational where the split happens. It’s just different ways of life.

Was it hard to play someone who sympathizes with the South? 

ROBB: Yes. I thought so. At first, I read the character and thought, “Oh my gosh.” I had a hard time sympathizing with her, but when I was reading. When I took it not about slave issues, but as family and loyalty and a way of life and understanding the character as a person — because we’re not a slave-owning family.

COLE: Not at the time.

ROBB: And I had to take that out of the equation.

FALAHEE: But yeah, I agree. Approaching it by looking at them as people and understanding where their loyalties lay. That was such a big thing for the South. I don’t know what the numbers are but the majority of men at fighting age in the Confederate Army, they didn’t own slaves. They were fighting a war that they thought was a war of aggression and they wanted to safeguard the idea of their home and their land. So putting yourself in that role at least for me was helpful.

COLE: It was really executed well, from the art direction to the wardrobe to everyone else. And I have to say, two really exceptional directors who did three each. Roxann [Dawson] did the first three and Jeremy [Webb] did the second three. And I think they really were very meticulous in getting the right tone because it is both. It isn’t dour and it isn’t grim, but it’s not a romp either. It’s truthful and it has room for both of those things.

WINSTEAD: One of the things I was most excited about when I got the script: I was like, “So many great women.” And women involved behind the scenes too. It was really, really wonderful. [Roxann Dawson] is fantastic. We were so lucky to have her. Such a real gem.

JAMES: Just auditioning for the show, I remember she was in my audition, and I was so excited that there was a female director.  

FALAHEE: I’m not in the first two episodes so I had a lot of time off. I holed up in the Virginia Historical Society and the research assistant there helped me find everything on Frank Stringfellow [his character, a Confederate spy and Emma’s fiance]. And Stringfellow’s family has donated a large collection of his war correspondence with Emma Green to the historical society so I was able to actually read the letters he wrote to Emma. So, so Hannah and I ended up going there and going through all of their letters and seeing what their actual relationship entailed. And then Hannah actually ended up having tea with Frank’s descendants, to pick their brains and go through some personal belongings. And they went so far as to point out trees in Alexandria where Frank would play and climb. Or the ditch he hid from the Union cavalry at. It’s all there. 

COLE: I look at it scene-by-scene. Whether it’s a historical character or not, whatever, on the page is one thing and delving into the history or somebody is one thing, but making something work for an audience in front of a camera is another exercise and you bring whatever authenticity you can to it. But for me, you also have to be conscious of what is going to play. And that includes playing with. Sometimes it’s just a vibe. It’s what’s going to make this scene work. And sometimes there may be something that restricts you that has to do with something that maybe is historically accurate. And then you have to weigh that decision and give up something for a scene to work. 

FALAHEE: We were very fortunate to have historians on set with us. And a lot of our crew members worked on every single reiteration of all these different Civil War movies and shows and documentaries. A lot of the guys on the crew were re-enactors. And they had a vast amount of knowledge on the era as well, so just being able to talk to them was significant. While we do know how the story ends, I don’t know if we necessarily know how accurate they’ll continue to be with it. I think there’s artistic interpretation in some regard. But it is daunting in a way. You want to portray someone the best way you can. So knowing that that person lived and breathed and walked the Earth is a little more daunting than maybe just creating someone out of thin air.

ROBB: They had so many drafts of the scripts and then they would give them to experts. Medical experts. Civil War experts. Behavioral experts. And then we’d always have a hired expert on set whether that was in the hospital. We had the freedom — at least with me — I was storming into some room and I figured she wouldn’t leave her gloves, she’s emotional. And Anya would come in and say, “Actually she would make sure to grab these things.” So certain little decisions. You kind of go with it. 

COLE: But there was protection there because if something did get by they could flag it.

FALAHEE: Another interesting to think about is in the Ken Burns documentary, they talk about Shelby Foote. A historian who talks about how in all his research he’s done to rewrite history of the Civil War, he could go back and rewrite it using totally different resources and it would totally change the way we perceive the war. There was so much written down and so much of it was conflicting. The way one person would tell the story of Bull Run conflicted entirely with how another person wrote it down in their diary. While there is a history that we are honoring and staying, true to I think, there is in itself a little bit of wiggle room based on these different and oftentimes conflicting stories.

Fighting for “The Right Side”?

JAMES: In Richmond, when we would get into a taxi cab I would have so many people ask me what we were doing there and I’d explain it and the first thing they would say is, “Are you fighting for the right side?” And that’s so weird.

RADNOR: They meant the South.

JAMES: Totally. I mean we were in Richmond, Virginia.

RADNOR: One of the great things in either “Confederates in the Attic” or the Ken Burns documentary, but Shelby Foote is interviewed.  He’s asked why the Civil War is still alive in the South. He said, “I’ve been in about 60 fights in my life.” (Which is crazy. What’s he doing?) “But I lost two really badly. And those are the two you remember.” You remember the one’s you lost.

JAMES: Somebody else was asking me if I felt an allegiance to the South because I was brought up there. And I never felt like Virginia was part of the South, even though it is. I didn’t feel like I was a Southern girl. And I would never introduce myself and say, “Oh. I was from the South.” It was never a thing for me because it wasn’t something that I was surrounded by.

RADNOR: There’s that great Bill Hicks line — the comedian — where he says, “Are you proud to be an American?” “I don’t know. It’s just where my parents had sex.”

[Everyone laughs.]

RADNOR: He used a different word, but you know. I think on some level [Dr. Jed Foster] is apolitical. He’s there to save lives and not really take sides, and that’s why Mary and my character have this conflict on treating soldiers. She’s such a fierce abolitionist and Union sympathizer and believes that it’s a Union hospital. And I say there’s only one type of soldier here: a sick one. So, I think I’m single-minded about medicine and about helping people and I take that oath very seriously, but there’s that conflict because I grew up in a border state on a plantation with slaves and yet I’m pro-Union. I work in a Union Hospital. It’s very interesting mix of elements.

JAMES: There’s also a lot of stories going on and different relationships and different characters. And I think individuals will connect with different characters on a broad sense. So I think people will support different characters based on their own beliefs. And I think that’s an interesting things this show can bring about. I think there’s a little bit of something for everyone in it. 

RADNOR: I think a lot of Civil War stuff is written– As they say, history is written by the victors. And one of the things that I think is fascinating about this from a purely dramatic perspective is whether someone is right or wrong, you understand where they’re coming from in this. And so, however many people watch this thing, that’s how many different opinions there will be about it. But I don’t feel like it has an agenda in terms of its ideology. It just presents a story like a mirror. It’s a mirror more than it is than a distorted mirror.

“Mercy Street” premieres Sunday night on PBS. 

READ MORE: Julian Fellowes On Ending ‘Downton Abbey’ and Moving Onto ‘The Gilded Age’

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