HBO's 'The Plot Against America' rewrites history with fascist, anti-Semitic president

Patrick Ryan
USA TODAY

NEW YORK – Amid all the relentlessly awful things happening in the news, it can feel impossible to find an escape. 

"Strangely, I've been wanting to keep my eye on the ball – turning away right now feels more dangerous than not to me," says Zoe Kazan, who co-stars with Morgan Spector in HBO's timely new miniseries "The Plot Against America" (premiering Monday, 9 EDT/PDT). That said, "I've been watching 'BoJack Horseman,' and it's great. And Morgan turned me on to 'Love Island.' " 

'Love Island' is a masterwork," Spector says with a laugh. "I've literally been watching 'Love is Blind,' which is bananas."

More:HBO's 'Plot Against America' is set in 1940, but fear of 'the other' resonates today

Adapted by David Simon and Ed Burns ("The Wire") from Philip Roth's 2004 alt-history novel, the six-episode "Plot Against America" imagines a world where famed pilot Charles Lindbergh ran for president in 1940 and beat Franklin Delano Roosevelt by preaching isolationist and fascist rhetoric, leading to the rise of anti-Semitism in the USA. 

Kazan, 36 ("The Big Sick"), and Spector, 39, who appeared in "Homeland," play Bess and Herman Levin: working-class Jewish parents in Newark, New Jersey, attempting to raise their young children and protect them from mounting hatred against Jews. Winona Ryder co-stars as Bess' sister, who falls in love with a politically conservative rabbi (John Turturro) that defends Lindbergh and makes her complacent. 

Spector and Kazan sat down with USA TODAY to chat about the series and why it resonates in the Donald Trump era. 

"The Plot Against America" stars Morgan Spector, left, and Zoe Kazan pose for a portrait in New York.

Question: When "The Plot Against America" was first published in 2004, many critics saw it as an allegory for the George W. Bush administration. What was your experience reading it now? 

Morgan Spector: I read it when it came out and felt like it was pretty relevant for the Bush era. But reading it now is a different experience: The main thing in the novel that really strikes you now is this sense of an outsider who no one takes seriously as a political possibility suddenly becoming an inevitability, and then becoming the president with all of his power. The national shock of that is the thing I was really struck by reading it this time. Because for all (reasons) that I personally felt George W. was genuinely, frighteningly authoritarian, he was in no way an outsider. He played himself as "this guy from Texas," but he couldn't have been from more of a political dynasty. His arrival on the scene wasn't a systemic shock. 

Zoe Kazan reunites with creator David Simon ("The Wire") on "The Plot Against America," having previously worked together on HBO's "The Deuce."

Q: Zoe, you've previously spoken about what a "profound experience" it was making this show given your difficult family history. (Her grandfather, director Elia Kazan, named names in front of the House Committee of Un-American Activities in 1952 during the Joseph McCarthy era of the Hollywood blacklist.) Did you also have a personal connection to this material, Morgan? 

Spector: I was drawn to so much about the project, but I think I was drawn particularly to Herman because I feel the lineage of this kind of man in my own family. My father's Jewish, he grew up on Long Island, was born in the Bronx; his father was a law clerk here in New York City, (the child) of these Eastern European peasant Jews who came here through Ellis Island and built lives for themselves. And I'm sure, to varying degrees, they felt welcomed in this country but also felt that life was a battle and that it was this daily conflict to protect yourself and your family. So the constant arguing, the constant point-scoring, the sort of vehemence that lives in this guy's body, I felt connected to that in some distant, hereditary way.

Herman Levin (Morgan Spector) struggles to keep his family together in "The Plot Against America," as anti-Semitic violence surges and Jewish families seek refuge in Canada.

Q: In the first few episodes, we see the Levin family subjected to all sorts of micro-aggressions and slurs because they are Jewish. How does that escalate over the course of the season? 

Zoe Kazan: Well, it's a bit of a slow burn at the beginning of the series, because this is not (Amazon's) "The Man in the High Castle." This isn't "what if Hitler took over America?" This is about what happens when one person wins an election instead of another person, and almost like a highlighter, brings out a different quality that is already inherent in our American fabric. Those kinds of cultural changes don't happen overnight, but then you look back and feel as if they had. That's a little bit of the experience watching this: When you watch the first couple episodes, things don't seem that bad. And then by the time you get to Episode 4 or 5, you're looking back and thinking, "Oh, no, the seeds were right there, right below the surface." 

Q: Do you believe there's a hopeful message in this series? 

Spector: I don't want to give away the series (ending), but as long as a functioning democracy is preserved, there is always some hope. That's the best we're sort of left with.

Kazan: It's an introspective series; I don't think it's a series that's pointing a finger, necessarily. It's inviting a kind of introspection of how has America been built? What are the ways that it can be subtly steered into darker waters? It asks not can this happen here, but how can this happen here, and how can we avoid this happening here? How do we keep our eyes open? In that way, it's not really partisan per se. It's more about what does it mean to be American?