The Set of Manhattan Is Like Traveling in a Time Machine

Ashley Zukerman Talks About Playing Charlie and Quitting Physics Class

by | October 13, 2015 | Comments

[Warning: Contains season one spoilers!] The Manhattan Project lasted four years, from 1942 to 1946, so WGN America’s period piece drama Manhattan is just getting started. We learned in a panel for the Television Critics Association this summer that season two would jump around further in history, up to six months in one jump. What exactly that means for the fictional characters of Manhattan, we’ll find out when season two airs tonight.

We’re especially eager to find out what happens to Charlie this season. Season one ended with a big interrogation. While Charlie was spared a false conviction as a spy, all his other secrets came out, including his affair and his wife Abby’s affair. We also discovered who the real spy is, but that’s a different story. We sat down with Ashley Zukerman, the Australian actor who plays the American scientist Charlie, to find out what’s coming up on Manhattan.

Fred Topel for Rotten Tomatoes: How intense was the interrogation scene in the season finale?

Ashley Zukerman: It seems like a year ago. I’m a huge fan of The West Wing. I’ve watched all seven seasons at least five times. So being able to be in a small room with Tommy Schlamme and Richard Schiff for three days was really a dream. To be honest, I look at that scene as intense as the other scenes. Some of them are even more subtle in terms of the amount you can actually release or show, but every one of them, especially the first season, [has] that much tension, that much decision-making, and that much secrecy, but thanks for noticing that.

Rotten Tomatoes: I’m jealous that you’re able to watch seven seasons of a show five times. I can’t even watch all the shows I want to see once.

Zukerman: Me also. That’s the ridiculous part of it. I spent most of my time just watching The West Wing.

Rotten Tomatoes: So how does that interrogation impact Charlie in season two?

Zukerman: Something happens to him in that cell. I think season one is bookended by that projection of equations against the blackboard. In episode one, you see him looking at the equations and figuring it out — that’s the moment he realizes it’s an atomic bomb he’s creating — not the hope and dreams that a young physicist has. At the end of the season, last time we see Charlie, he’s looking at the equations again but this time with new eyes. It’s those new eyes that I guess you see in season two, where he actually makes the decision to stop f—ing around and actually get the job done… We see a much more dogmatic, much more cerebral, much less concerned Charlie. He’s still who he is. There’s still a pervasive belief, a wish that he’s a moral guy but he’s just able to jump that hurdle a little quicker I think this year.

Rotten Tomatoes: Does that change occur during the six-month jump?

Zukerman: Huge character jumps and emotional jumps happen in that six-month period. We get told about them retroactively. I think that’s fascinating to think about actually. I think often in our story, the characters engage in the moment and often they also engage outside of the moment. It’s less interesting to see the break-up. It’s sometimes more interesting to see the moment after the break-up. I think our show continually plays with form and time.

Rotten Tomatoes: How strained is Charlie’s relationship with Abby?

Zukerman: I guess at the end of the first season, almost every secret is out of the bag. I’m aware that she’s been sleeping with Elodie. She’s aware that I’ve been sleeping with Helen. The one thing that she doesn’t know, which is really the biggest crime, is what it is that I’m working on. At the end of season one, you find out that Abby’s pregnant. Charlie finds out at the beginning of season two and that’s the instigation for him deciding to work for his family as best he can, which gives his relationship with Abby an incredible thrust in season two — that they’re really trying now. That’s what we see with every one of these characters. It doesn’t matter what I’ve been doing that day, complications with my work and my time, or what she’s been up to during the day. When these characters meet, they’re constantly trying to make the marriage work. I think ultimately because of who they are and where they are, it might prove impossible.

Rotten Tomatoes: Since she was brought into the interrogation room, does that weigh on their relationship?

Zukerman: Actually, I believe that moment was actually quite beautiful. Her coming in was a rejoining. We had fallen apart up until that point but, in that crisis, we actually found each other again. I think Charlie’s ultimately so alone as a human being. He doesn’t have a family that’s close to him. He’s never fit in anywhere. Abby’s really the only person that has ever seen something in him. I think in moments of crisis, they really find a connection, but I think it was the moment after she was brought into the prison cell, that’s when Charlie gets told by Occam, Richard Schiff’s character that she’s been sleeping around not with Lancefield, but with a woman. So there’s cracks that appear after that moment that we have to deal with at the beginning of season two.

Rotten Tomatoes: Was the voice of Charlie ever a challenge to get in the beginning?

Zukerman: The accent and where it’s placed? No. I mean, we’re lucky that we get to work on a show which reads more like a play than television. Sam [Shaw] writes all the clues, puts all the clues within the script. This kid is a gambler’s son in 1940. So he comes from a family of gangsters in a subtle way. We explore that a little more this year. He’s from east St. Louis. He’s a working-class kid who happens to be a genius and he’s constantly trying to fit in with wherever he is. The east St. Louis accent was something I just wanted to try to get right, to actually place him somewhere and make it period, make it a little clearer, a little crisper — there’s stuff like that that I was interested in. Moreover, I was interested in the idea that he was, as a working class person, very much grounded in his body but has this intellectual side. He’s also a little bit of a pretender. That he tries to put on something else as well. So I think he constantly switches between his head and his gut in terms of his voice. That seemed to play well into the stories. With those kinds of decisions, you just kind of make them because they’re enjoyable and they worked out. That one did, I guess. I make a lot of decisions that don’t end up working out and you have to throw them away very quickly and adapt to whatever the show needs.

Rotten Tomatoes: Could you share any of the ideas you scrapped for Charlie?

Zukerman: I think the biggest one, I guess, is my way of working. I immediately, when I got this job, was already doing classes in chemistry online at University in Australia, just out of enjoyment. I love learning. It doesn’t matter what it is. I guess that sounds ridiculous but I signed up for a physics class and I threw myself into understanding of physics as much as possible. But as soon as I got on set, what became very apparent is that this isn’t a story where that was going to be helpful. The bigger questions we’re going to answer are the emotional questions about what these people went through. So I did abandon a lot of the physics training I was going to do and actually delved more into the people’s lives and what they were trying to manage. That really comes from Tommy’s work. He cares very little for the window dressing of television. He’s very interested in the emotional connection between two people and the complications between people. So that’s where all my energy had to go in.

Rotten Tomatoes: Is walking on the set like traveling back in time to the 1940s in this little bubble?

Zukerman: It is entirely. It’s an 11-acre set. We have a set in Santa Fe where, once we’re inside it, you cannot see any other part of the city at all. We also have a set out in the desert as well. We’re very, very fortunate that once I leave the makeup bus, we’re done [up], we’re in costumes, and we step onto the set, it means that I can really exist there. I was showing some friends around the set recently. I got there and I was very moved because I could actually see it for the first time through someone else’s eyes. I could see the walls and I could see the set and I could see where it is that we actually get to play because in our work, our objective has to be to feel like none of this stuff is impressive. It’s just where we happen to work. It’s just where we happen to live. That’s my bed, there’s my sheets, these are my dishes. That’s what that set gives us so that when you step on it, actually there’s no pretending in terms of that stuff. It allows us to focus just on what’s going on between people. All those cupboards are filled with period things. You can lift any drawer and pull out a pan.

Rotten Tomatoes: Not empty cans?

Zukerman: Not empty cans. They’re real things. When we’re rehearsing, often, we’ll just find [stuff], especially in the kitchen scenes and things like that. When you’re walking through the set, suddenly the dramatic work seems to make sense, that we actually go somewhere else entirely. The staging as it is makes sense. We have to work so quickly in television that we can suddenly say, “You know what? Let’s just set up over here, or let’s turn this corner and then work in this area.” We can because it’s all set and it’s all fine, it’s all there.

Rotten Tomatoes: Do continuity supervisors ever get mad at you for playing with the stuff?

Zukerman: It’s one of the assets of modern television that even though everything looks so great, we have to work so quickly. We only ever get a few takes. So often there’s a loose relationship to that kind of stuff that usually they’ll use the take that works dramatically. It doesn’t matter what it is that we’re actually doing. The focus is all in keeping it right, not being too specific about that stuff. And it always works. Once it’s alive, it works.

Season two of Manhattan premieres tonight on WGN. Read reviews here.

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