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The United Hates of America

Brigit Grant speaks to director Minkie Spiro about her take on Philip Roth’s dystopian novel for television

Brigit Grant is the Jewish News Supplements Editor

A working-class Jewish family in New Jersey watches the political rise of aviator-hero and xenophobic populist Charles Lindbergh, as he becomes president and turns the nation toward fascism.
A working-class Jewish family in New Jersey watches the political rise of aviator-hero and xenophobic populist Charles Lindbergh, as he becomes president and turns the nation toward fascism.

Philip Roth never got to see the television adaptation of his disturbing novel,The Plot Against America.

The prolific author, who candidly explored middle-class Jewish suburban life in Goodbye Columbus and Portnoy’s Complaint, died in May 2018, although the HBO series was already being written by Ed Burns and David Simon, creator of The Wire.

It was Simon who presented a revised ending to Roth’s story, which is set in an alternate American history and features a Jewish family battling to survive in 1940 as aviator hero Charles Lindbergh, a notorious antisemite and xenophobic populist becomes president and turns the nation towards fascism.

Daring to revise Roth’s ending for the benefit of television, Simon has talked about his agonising wait as the author read the changes, only to respond with a non-commital “well, it’s your problem now”.

Minkie Spiro, director of Plot Against America with its stars Anthony Boyle and Winona Ryder at the launch party

The reaction to the series by American audiences suggests Roth would have been satisfied, although the parallels to 2020’s political quagmire make it a fearful watch. As director of the first three episodes, Minkie Spiro, a Fulbright scholar and former photo- journalist who grew up in St John’s Wood, understands the discomfort.

“Little did I know, while making it last summer, that the world was going to unfold and how discerning and relevant the story was going to become,” she says.

“The Plot Against America is a cautionary tale, for when a world forgets to respect inclusion and acceptance. It felt very significant to be making something that speaks of a current moment. I just never thought it would be this current.”

As the daughter of Robin and Nitza Spiro, who pioneered the study of Jewish history and culture at their north-west London institute, Minkie – one of six sisters and a brother – had a lifetime of familial inspiration to bring to the fictional Levins of the story, who are based on Roth’s real family.

Zoe Kazan with Minkie

The Holocaust knowledge imparted by Minkie’s parents also coloured her interpretation as she knows where the ghettoising of Jews as depicted in the drama leads.

“But the story speaks to anyone who is marginal- ised. It just happens to be set in a Jewish community in Newark, New Jersey, where Roth was raised. It is really a portrait of any family that is persecuted and belittled for being different and how love within that family
is tested in order to survive a horrific moment in time.”

Having worked with a plethora of big names – including Dame Maggie Smith on Downton, Sam Rockwell and Michelle Williams on Fosse and Verdon – calling the shots does not phase the diminutive director, although she was impressed by Winona Ryder, who plays impressionable social climber Evelyn Finkel, the love interest of deluded Rabbi Bengelsdorf (played by John Turturro).

“Winona is a very precious soul in my eyes,” says Minkie of
the Jewish actress, whose real last name is Horowitz. “She’s film
and TV royalty, phenomenally talented, yet so humble, warm and funny.She’s also an avid reader and huge Roth fan, so was passionate about telling this story. Suffice it to say, I adore her.”

Winona Ryder as Evelyn in Synagogue

As the rabbi, Turturro, who is the son of an Italian immigrant, also made his mark.“John is such an interesting man and we had wonderful rehearsal time prior to getting on set. You can dig deep with John and, to research the part, he went to the South, met with the local rabbi and spent time listening to various Southern dialects before pitching one to us.

“John has played so many Jewish characters he might as well be
Jewish, and the rest of the cast, if not Jewish, all had cultural or first- hand connections with the world they were about to inhabit.”

John Turturro as the duped Rabbi

They included Northern Irish actor Anthony Boyle, who plays cousin Alvin and regaled Minkie with stories about his time on Broadway in Harry Potter and The Cursed Child. John Turturro as the rabbi supporting Lindbergh “He’s not Jewish, but told me he feels he is, having been adopted by New York Jews who took him under their wing and fed him chicken soup when he wasn’t feeling great.”

Friendships of substance are rarely made on film sets, so Minkie’s popularity post- production is a rarity, although the delivery to Highclere Castle of spinach and feta parcels from her Israeli husband’s deli did cut some swathe on Downton. But deli life in Kensal Rise is a far cry from Hollywood, where Minkie, husband Doron and daughters Blissy and Ruby-Rae live, although she has just left for Canada to be executive producer and director of Pieces Of Her, an eight-part psychological thriller

based on Karin Slaughter’s novel. Taking on an other novel after realising Roth requires a fresh mindset, but with the protests and unrest in America echoing Plot, Minkie knows it’s a challenge.“The series reminds people to stop and think,” she says. “Never forget the past and be an instrument of change. We need it right now, as these past few months have taught me anything can happen.”

  • The Plot Against America airs on Tuesday, 14 July, 9pm, on Sky Atlantic and Now TV
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