From its outset, HBO’s “The Plot Against America” follows a family living through an unthinkable time. The Levins, from parents Herman (Morgan Spector) and Bess (Zoe Kazan), to their sons and nephew, witness the consequences of Charles Lindbergh’s fictional presidency. As the vaunted aviator hero’s attitudes toward the Hitler regime in Germany forestall the United States’ involvement in a war in Europe, Lindbergh gains political allies from unlikely sources.
One such man is Rabbi Lionel Bengelsdorf (John Turturro), who first really makes his presence known at the end of the HBO series’ Episode 2. Appearing at a Lindbergh rally, Bengelsdorf delivers an impassioned argument for electing Lindbergh president and remaining out of the brewing conflict across the Atlantic. It’s one of the memorable sequences from the series’ early third and, even for a veteran performer of stage and screen like Turturro, it didn’t happen without a little bit of help.
“It’s weird when you making a big speech like that. You can see people’s reactions, but you don’t really have a huge audience there. So I did ask Minkie [Spiro] the director to have people maybe applaud at different lines. I’ve done a lot of live theater, but it’s very different recreating the atmosphere of a big room in a big room that wasn’t wasn’t filled,” Turturro told IndieWire. “Just getting a little feedback helps. When I’ve done speeches, you hear a big laugh and all of a sudden your body just releases these endorphins and you’re off and running. It can become addictive, obviously with some people and politicians.”
Three decades ago, Turturro starred in an off-Broadway production of “The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui,” a play written by Bertolt Brecht in 1941, not long after the events of “The Plot Against America” take place. As fashioned by Brecht, Ui is a thinly-veiled stand-in for Hitler. In studying for that title role, Turturro studied the dictator’s speeches as a way to better grapple with that mindset. Though he didn’t play Ui or Bengelsdorf as direct Hitler analogues, some of that lingering research allowed Turturro to better understand the atmosphere that could have fostered their popularity.
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“There were so many people who were isolationists at that time and didn’t want to disturb their position. They wanted to solidify their position and went along with being a pacifist, especially after World War I,” Turturro said. “I think all of us would like to imagine that we would be the person who would stand up, but usually the person who does do that, they’re the exception and not the rule. And so a person who’s very smart thinks, ‘I can mediate. I can show these people we’re human beings.’ At the same time, the closer you get to power, the more seductive it can be.”
As with any effective character who takes an untenable position, Bengelsdorf has an interior life to go along with his fiery public persona. His charisma draws the attention of Bess’ sister, Evelyn Finkel (Winona Ryder), and his political message is dramatically potent because it connects to some of the prevailing opinions of the time. “The Plot Against America” dramatizes an alternate series of events, but it’s rooted in those who took advantage of isolationist tendencies and made them not just acceptable, but desirable.
“I think what the book is about is about the universal dilemma of how something is always there: If people are hungry and starved or afraid or they don’t have things, they look for a savior and look for a person who will give them the answer and not help with the question. To sell nuance, it’s so much more difficult than to say, ‘I’m good and you’re bad.’ And we see where that has led,” Turturro said.
That proximity to power and desire to paint with the broadest of fear-preying brushes corrupts Bengelsdorf’s aims. To present him this way, as both someone acting in self-preservation — however warped — makes him a far more recognizable figure than a one-dimensional portrayal would have.
“The more you make him appealing and human, the more maybe we can see the other point of view and maybe ourselves, because I think people have both in them. Even watching a little of it, I find it a little frightening in a good way,” Turturro said.
Michele K. Short/HBO
Under the guise of pacifism, Bengelsdorf is advocating for a figure and a platform based on exclusion. If there’s an allegory to be drawn the current political environment, Turturro argues that those tendencies of the past always find ways to worm their way into public discourse. Even in the understanding needed to play someone like Bengelsdorf, with all his complex faults, Turturro hopes that by presenting the humanity in both sides of this struggle that’s both fictional and not, that we can strive to excise intolerance from our current political situation.
“I can understand people who have more conservative views, but to be able to have a civilized conversation and not demonize groups of people. Once you demonize someone, then that means any group can be demonized. It seems like it’s always there and you have to be vigilant on guard. You have to continually fight it,” Turturro said. “Democracy is, as [series co-creator David Simon] says, a very fragile system. It’s based on a certain amount of tolerance. When you tell a story about right now, you can’t see right now. But this story reflects right now in some ways, this infatuation or addiction to nostalgia that never existed.”
To bridge that gap between past and present, Turturro said that he was also able to draw on some of the preparation he did to get into another of his memorable characters living in the early 1940s.
“When I did ‘Barton Fink,’ I read a classic anti-fascist book by Mike Gold called ‘Jews Without Money.’ That book was really informative to me about people in the ’30s and it’s a wonderful book. Primo Levi, he’s one of my go-to people. I did a movie based on him and Philip Roth actually helped me. I got to know him a little bit because he’d interviewed Primo Levi,” Turturro said. “There are some things that stay with me. Brecht, Levi, these are people who were writing in the midst of it. This feels urgent, but I’m so glad that there’s some distance metaphorically from it. I hope people watch it.”
“The Plot Against America” airs Monday nights at 9 p.m. on HBO.