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MANHATTAN’s Ash Zukerman on Charlie Isaacs’ Journey on The Hill and the Human Cost of Secrets

To call what Manhattan‘s brilliant physicist Charlie Isaacs experienced a “whirlwind” would be an understatement. In the few short months he’s been in Los Alamos, New Mexico, living on The Hill and working on the oh-so-ominous “Gadget,” Charlie Isaacs has gone from prodigious new guy, to B-team project foe, to ally, to leader of a doomed project, to the one mind capable of saving the United States’ atomic bomb project, to a spy, and back to The One Hope again. And that doesn’t even begin to look at the effects of all of this on his personal life with his wife.

Played by actor Ash Zukerman, Charlie’s frenetic few months in season one of the WGN America show have been an amoebic, dread-filled time for the smartypants. So we chatted with Zukerman about the challenges of Charlie and the real cost of secrets—keeping them and being kept from them—and how and why Manhattan is not a period drama, despite its place in history and the depiction of real-life places and things.

Nerdist: So I just watched the finale, which was super intense. Charlie has endured such a whirlwind while he’s been on The Hill—what’s it like, dealing with that and playing that.

Ash Zukerman: You know, being amongst it, it’s too difficult. It just feels like when you read the next script, that’s what the story is now, so you just do it. Now, watching it and looking back over it and actually realizing how, in quick succession over five months, I guess, it doesn’t really feel like that long a journey. But now? In 40 minute episodes? It really feels like this thing spirals quickly. This really gets out of Charlie’s control.

Nerdist: It pairs very nicely with the science at the heart of the show–how it’s unstable and things can change at any second. That really plays itself out amongst the social life of The Hill.

AZ: That’s a nice way to look at it. When we were researching the project for the first two weeks before we started shooting, a physicist came and gave us a lecture on the simplest way to describe the different designs of the bomb. And one thing he described was the way nuclear chain reaction gets taught at university is like a pen—a circular pen — that’s full of ping pong balls, and one ping pong ball gets thrown in and you immediately see the scatter effect of all that until they’re all bouncing around and hitting each other. And I guess that is our show: one little event ripples through everybody and it creates anxieties and tensions and secrets and humanity and life out of that one event. And then that one event actually is 10 events or 12 events that create people who are incredibly warm and intelligent and hopeful, and turns them into something else entirely.

Nerdist: You look at how all these things snowball out of control, particularly when it comes to secrets. There’s this one scene in the finale where Liza [Winters, played by Olivia Williams] says basically, “I don’t know what’s harder, having secrets kept from you, or being the one keeping them.” The secrecy that’s so necessary becomes this insidious toxic thing for everyone.

AZ: And I think we can feel that in our lives now; I think everybody understands that. That’s why I think Tommy [Schalmme, Manhattan‘s director] talked about it not being a period show, but a 2014 show because I think that — if the show is about secrets and what that does to somebody—I think that is something that everyone can hang onto. That’s certainly something I can hang onto. I understand the way a secret, from a white lie to a big secret, can eat you up and change your behavior and change your relationships. I think that’s going to be the one thing that people attach themselves to in our show.

Nerdist: It really becomes this lab rat experiment, living on The Hill, which is interesting when juxtaposed to stuff like what Liza Winters was doing with the bees and the flowers, and the romances between several characters. Even regardless of the environment, stuff like this is so wholly relatable, especially right now in America with our wariness of the government and secrets.

AZ: I very much hope so—I very much hope that people feel that. I don’t think they need to; I don’t think we were ever trying to teach or carry lessons on our show. I think Sam’s just trying to express something and pose questions and his source material is our time. And hopefully the audience is feeling that. But I do also believe that in 50 years or 60 years, this show could potentially still be relatable, I think that’s something that’s timeless. I mean maybe never so much as now, in the history of man, have people and their lives been able to be circulated so easily and justified by our government so quickly, and never have we been so happy to accept it, maybe, because it all seems too difficult—the way the media can twist something around… I get very excited about the show and talking about that. I think it talks about human beings and it’s wonderful; I think there’s another side which teaches people a little about our history. But if it can make people think about that, then I think that’s a really wonderful effect of the show.

Nerdist: In the last episode, let’s talk about those scenes with you and Richard Schiff. Which, first of all: Richard Schiff! That must be amazing, to work with him AND Schlamme together.

AZ: Dude, the reason this show became really such a dream for me, I mean there are many reasons but like, even just coming out of the audition and getting to meet Tommy Schlamme was one thing. But fast-forward a few months later and I’m doing scenes with Richard Schiff after seeing every episode of The West Wing maybe seven times? It’s really a very special thing. Other than the boy crush kinda element, to be an actor and be able to meet people in a scene, with skill and ability, is really so, so very fucking warming. It’s very cool.

Nerdist: I can only imagine — and those scenes! I love how he is always so scary and unsettling and he like, never really raises his voice above that Richard Schiff almost-whisper, where he’s all “I’m just going to tell you I think you’re a spy.”

AZ: [laughs] Incredible, right? The way it’s all inflection and in time rather than volume or anything. He can play with you and make you unsettled in so many ways. Although I have to say, from watching the show—and I don’t know how you feel—but I actually find him incredibly trustworthy in a way. I believe in him, and I believe in his import. And this is the tragedy of our show, because I’m glad he’s doing the work that he is, and I think he truly believes he’s doing it for the good, whatever he may believe that to be.

Nerdist: Well that’s what makes the show so heartbreaking is so many ways. You see so many characters saying “”his is going to stop war” and they really believe it. But for all their good intentions we know now–pie in the sky is now how this works out for anyone.

AZ: [laughing] I think you’re absolutely right, and it is absolutely a tragedy how earnestly the characters commit to that belief. And why wouldn’t they? And don’t we all believe that, in some way? Maybe not now but, like we’re… maybe actually not now. Maybe now we don’t believe that war will end. I think that’s actually more hopeful, maybe, than anything right now … that we believe starting wars will only create more wars in the future. Or maybe not! I mean back then, to believe that they could end it all — wouldn’t that make you do anything? Wouldn’t that confuse you if your wife was assaulted by another guy? Wouldn’t that make you lose your domestic ethics? Because you could potentially stop all wars forever?

Nerdist: The stakes literally couldn’t be higher.

AZ: Literally could not be higher. It is a tragedy how noble these characters believe themselves to be when in fact they’re losing their liberties every day in their actions.

Nerdist: Heading into season 2, everyone’s going to have to come back so much less naïve than they were. This patina of “we’re going to do the good work” has really crumbled.

AZ: I’d be so interested in that. Because I think, yeah, everybody has to be a little bit more jaded; everyone has been a bit burnt by what it is they’re doing. I mean the greater truth is still there, right? There’s still a war to win. And that makes me think that although our characters aren’t the real people, and the events may not have taken place in this way, after three or four years of this project—after hiding the truth from themselves of what they’re actually building, convincing themselves that it’s a peaceful venture? Three years living with something like that? It has to affect you. And that’s what we’re looking at, but ultimately we can only dream of what those scientists were actually going through.

Nerdist: There’s not a lot of stuff written about how people were feeling and dealing with this stuff. Like in your final minutes of the episode—Charlie goes from being an accused spy to the head of everything. It’s the pinnacle of just how manipulative the whole thing is, and I can’t help but feel like Charlie’s going to come back in some kinda way next season.

AZ: Something will be broken inside him. And there’s so little that’s known about that. To read it on the page, that’s one thing. To actually ask the question “how would that affect you for the rest of your life? What would that actually do?” You can’t wash that away. You can’t forget that. Every line of history that’s written about The Manhattan Project, we get to ask what that actually means for human beings and that’s very, very special.

For those of you who’ve yet to check out Manhattan, WGN America will be hosting a marathon of the series on Sunday, October 26th.

What do you think of the plight of Charlie Isaacs? Let’s discuss in the comments.

Images: WGN America

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