A roundtable chat with the cast and crew of Amazon’s “The Man in the High Castle”

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A couple of strange things happened last summer. You might remember them. First, the people of the United Kingdom decided to leave the European Union. Then, the Republican Party’s base chose to nominate a reality TV star and alleged billionaire for the presidency of the United States. When this writer found himself in a San Diego Hilton ballroom for Comic-Con roundtables with an executive producer and five cast members of “The Man in the High Castle,” Brexit was a certainty and the dystopian Republican convention had just wrapped. Even so, the election of vulgar reality TV star turned racist demagogue Donald J. Trump to the world’s most powerful political position seemed scary, but kind of unlikely. Yup.

In any case, these two events made for some interesting conversation, considering that “The Man in the High Castle” is the deliberately paced, lavishly produced Amazon TV series drawn from Phillip K. Dick’s dark, reality-bending 1963 science fiction masterpiece. Set in an alternate reality 1962 America some years after the totalitarian Axis powers of Germany and Japan have won World War II and subdivided the nation into a Nazi-dominated East Coast, a Japan-controlled West Coast, and a no-man’s land in the middle, the show portrays the lives of a number of characters caught up in a series of tragic and terrifying events. They are largely spurred by the existence of strange films that seem to show a world where the Allied powers of the U.S. and the UK had actually won World War II. By the end of the first season, it had become clear that other parallel realities would factor into the story’s next phase.

We met with actors Alexa Davalos, Luke Kleintank, Rufus Sewell, Bella Heathcote, D.J. Qualls and co-executive producer Daniel Percival, who also directed a number of episodes. Percival promised that we would “experience the alternative realities” in Season 2, but aside from that, details about the new season were left in broad sketches. Those of us with Amazon Prime, however, can catch up with all of it starting this Friday, December 16th.

In the meantime, here are some thoughts on the show, from a time which seems oddly distant now.

Rufus Sewell on the fortunes of his character, Obergruppenführer John Smith, an American war hero turned shrewdly ruthless Nazi funtionary who learns that his beloved, Hitler youth son is in the early stages of a degenerative disease.

There’s two different journeys, because he ended Season 1 with a particular predicament, which continues. But also on a bit of a high, career-wise, because he’s been a good boy as far as the Fuhrer is concerned. For the moment, he’s backed the right horse. But his belief is under attack from inside. The dangerous self-belief of the doubter. The frightening fundamentalist element of him is just as much fueled by whatever doubts he’s pushing down about them.

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D.J Qualls, who portrays luckless factory worker Ed McCarthy, on how his loyalty to victimized, part-Jewish best friend Frank Frink (Rupert Evans) puts him in a very dangerous position.

This season the theme is, it’s the cracking… You see the breaking down of what it means being under Japanese rule, and on the other side, the Reich. You see beneath the veneer of control on one side, and the 1950s sort of utopian veneer, and what that does is that it pushes us all further away from each other.

Shakespearean Rupert Evans on the journey of Frank Frink, whose whose family has been decimated by the Japanese imperial regime due to his Jewish ancestry and his wife’s involvement in goings-on which make her an enemy of the state.

He is trying to work out how he is going to live his life now. He is starting to make choices, rather than worrying about how to fit in and conform, as he had through the whole of Season 1. He actually makes choices, and makes dramatic choices. It’s kind of a darker kind of place.

Alexa Davalos, whose character finds herself charged with one of the pivotal 16mm films, on researching the world of the show.

I’m a research fiend and I love to read. I did a film years ago that was a World War II piece, and I did so much research that I didn’t sleep for quite a while. For a number of reasons, obviously. But also studying Japanese culture and those aspects that are really important for Juliana – that’s the world she grew up in. The way that she moves and the way that she is physically is quite different from me. There’s so much research to be done about what it feels like to live under an incredibly low ceiling.

DJ Qualls and Rupert Evans on the show’s unusually serious depiction of a close male friendship.

Qualls: It’s a relationship, just like any relationship in your life. The sitcom idea of a male relationship is that you talk about how many people you banged and getting drunk. And there is an element of that [in real life]. But it’s not all of it. The real work is done in the trenches. Your buddy crying on your shoulder and being there for them. Or just physically being there, even when you’re not doing anything. And then what happens when the circumstances around that relationship change. The relationship changes, and it’s painful.

Evans: It’s like going to school with someone. If you’ve known them since you were a kid, the relationship has a history. Actually, if you’d met them when you were 20 you probably wouldn’t like them, but the point is that we’ve known each other as characters for years and years, and there’s a way that we work together, what we say and we don’t say, which is unwritten. That’s the basis of our friendship. It’s time.

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Daniel Percival on creator Frank Spotnitz (“The X-Files”), who left the position of showrunner in May 2016.

Frank remains as an editorial consultant to all of us. Frank’s vision for this show is what brought us all on board. And the team he put together is still the team on the show. It’s changed only insofar as the dynamics of the day to day production.

Luke Kleintank, who plays Nazi double-agent Joe Blake, on the personnel change.

It’s so massive, the scale of this thing. And Frank had it on his shoulders the entire time. It was a lot. All of the elements that were there, Frank created. No one should ever doubt it. He’s a great guy.

New cast member Bella Heathcote (“The Neon Demon,” “Pride and Prejudice with Zombies”) on her character debuting in Season 2.

I play Nicole Becker. She’s a documentary filmmaker. She’s passionate about the environment. I think she’s very privileged and very wealthy, and that allows her to have an independence she wouldn’t have been able to have in this world had that not been the case. She loves to party and she loves to flirt and she really likes Joe Blake.

Rufus Sewell, who has portrayed more than his share of dark characters but plenty of decent ones as well, on playing a ruthless Nazi and a loving husband and father.

When I first read this, Episode 1 and 2, my first instinct was disappointment that, “After all this time, c’mon, I proved I could play a wide range of things. A bad guy again, really?” [But then] I realized that this part, if it was managed the right way and was what they told me it would be, was the perfect answer to that. Okay, so this is a bad guy but, within that, how much of a human could I manage to put across in this? And then, I don’t give a shit what they call it. A bad guy, a great guy, whatever. I find that I just argue against DVD dust jacket descriptions of me!

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Daniel Percival on the show’s approach to music, both last season and this season.

Obviously, under the Nazis it was heavy duty oppression of any Jewish artists, any black artists. So a lot of the engines that drove the popular culture and music of the post-war era were gone. They survive in Canon City in the neutral zone. They survive on the Pacific States because that’s where a lot of people fled because the Japanese weren’t so strict in their totalitarian attitudes as the Nazis were.

We talked a lot about creating music that is an embryonic state of early rock and roll, for example. What sort of folk might be evolving? What sort of musical influences might still be breaking through the cracks of totalitarianism? If you look at Eastern Europe in the sixties and the late fifties under communist rule, there were all these underground clubs. And you will see some of this beginning to happen in the second season.

Rufus Sewell on the real significance of “The Man in the High Castle” in these strange days.

For me, what Phillip K. Dick was writing about was how people get on in life. How people continue day to day, despite whatever. That involves getting used to stuff. Normalize. Telling yourself you’re the good guy. People become kind of enamored of their captors. There’s all sorts of weird things that happen to people and how it is possible for people to accept and how dangerous that is. It’s definitely a cautionary tale. You don’t have to go far to see it. But then, you never did.

Daniel Percival on the surprising and distressing added relevance of “The Man in the High Castle.”

What Philip K. Dick wanted to remind us [was that] all it takes is to turn the other way and the ideals of bigotry and xenophobia and totalitarianism can take hold again. [He] would say don’t ever stop questioning the reality around you, because it’s only a version of the truth. It’s not the truth.

  

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