The Man In the High Castle, Amazon’s latest drama series, proposes an alternate history in which the Axis Powers won World War II. In this world, originally conjured up in Philip K. Dick’s 1962 novel of the same name, Nazi Germany controls the Eastern United States and Imperial Japan the Western part. Launching in its 10-episode entirety tomorrow, the series follows a collection of characters who inhabit these two regions, including a high-level SS Nazi officer named John Smith who’s tasked with investigating the resistance movement in New York City. The character is embodied by British actor Rufus Sewell, a veteran of the screen who’s taken on everything from romcoms (The Holiday) to period pieces (the Middlemarch series) to Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter. For Sewell, The Man In the High Castle was an opportunity to research another aspect of world history and to attempt to understand what it would mean to don a Nazi uniform. We spoke with him about his role, his career and his gift for finding empathy in the least likely places.
What made you want to be part of this show?
Once I realized that the character wasn’t in the book I was a little bit concerned that maybe he was a mechanism that had been inserted. Was it just to provide an uber-villain who was just dark? I asked if there was any more information and luckily there was a second episode, which contained a scene with his family. It backed up what had been told to me about him being a very complex character. And that’s what hooked me in.
The scene with his family in episode two seems pivotal in understanding your character’s severity.
It offsets the severity you see in the first episode, where there’s a lot of strolling up and down in his Nazi uniform. The only people he’s talking to seem to be hung upside in chains, which tends to give an overriding impression. But that uniform is a very strong signifier, which lends a very strong tone to anything that’s said. Even though he’s pretty normal and fatherly, the fact that he’s wearing a SS uniform gives you a strong feeling. There are scenes in later episodes with his family where he’s just wearing a green pullover and slacks and suddenly there’s an entirely different complexion on the whole thing. That’s when it becomes very confusing and very familiar. A lot of the stuff he’s saying sounds obviously very fascistic but a lot of it sounds like stuff you might agree with. It’s deliberately quite provocative in that way.
How did it feel the first time you put on the Nazi uniform?
The first time I put it on, people backed away from me. It has a very strong sense of power. But the more interesting thing is that, a few days after that, they stopped doing that. After a few more days, people were saying, “Yeah, I like your black suit. You look really cool.” And then it just becomes the clothes you’re wearing. That’s what happens when people start to accept stuff that at first seems horrifying and outlandish. It becomes wallpaper. And that’s dangerous. We had to retrain ourselves before we went back into the outside world.
Did you have any trepidation about saying “Heil Hitler”?
For me, I just wanted to get completely comfortable with it. I wanted to be as happy saying “Heil Hilter” as I could possibly be, which is not advice I would give to people. But in my situation it was apt. It needs to be the clothes you’re wearing; it needs to be what you believe.
Even though John Smith is presented as a villain, did you find a sense of humanity in him?
He’s certainly set up as a villain in the first episode. But the appeal for me in this character is that he’s a Nazi, but in a different life he’s someone who would not have been a Nazi. That means there’s an alternative outcome for all these people in that sense. If Nazism had not happened in Germany, all of those people would not have been Nazis either. For me, he was a person who’s made certain choices considering the way history turned out, and he went a certain way and convinced himself he’d done a good thing. He still loves his children and cares about his family. But he has his doubts. As the season progresses, he begins to get more and more conflicted; that was what made it interesting. He wasn’t a cardboard villain, although he had the costume of a cardboard villain.
It seems like one of the benefits of being an actor is that you can immerse yourself in a viewpoint you might not otherwise consider.
Yeah. The greatest gift you have is empathy. For me – and this is something I’ve thought about a little – having established that John Smith wasn’t in the book, I did all my own research. It was a wonderful opportunity to educate myself. I read The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, which is an extraordinary book, and I read Albert Speer’s book Inside the Third Reich to try to get some perspective on how people justified this to themselves. What did they believe? What was their version of events? I think it’s a disservice and it’s dangerous to characterize the Nazis as monsters. It’s very important to characterize them as human beings who did monstrous things.
Do you typically do that much research for a role?
It depends. If I’m lucky enough to have strong instincts and a gut feeling I go with it. And I had a gut feeling about this character. But if there’s stuff you know you don’t know, well, get to know it. See what that changes. And it did. It gave me a lot. That’s my favorite thing: Having a job on the way and a book to read.
You were recently cast in an upcoming series about Queen Victoria. Do you especially enjoy doing these sorts of historically-based roles?
Not necessarily. Anything that’s an excuse to read feels like a chance to catch up on what I missed at school. I’m just as excited to do modern things. I swore off doing romantic period dramas for a few years because I felt that’s the way I was seen and that pissed me off. And now, in my late 40s, to be offered the chance again, I jump at it.
You didn’t like those romance movies?
No! I’ve never had any particular preference for any type of genre or any type of part. I always resented it when people thought I did. The great thrill for me has always been changing. Going from playing such a dark character in The Man In the High Castle to immediately playing a rather nice man in this, I’ve got nothing to complain about right now.
The trailer for Gods of Egypt, which you’re also in, came out this week. Have you been paying attention to the discussion about it online?
No. I haven’t.
The most pressing question is, “Why did everyone in ancient Egypt apparently have a British accent?”
I don’t know. All I know is that I’m English. I think it’s slightly better than the prospect of me doing an ad hoc Egyptian accent.
Do you have a response to the criticism that the film whitewashes ancient Egypt?
I only spent a few days on it, so I don’t know what the cast breakdown is. I do know I was hanging out with Chadwick [Boseman] when I was there quite a lot. But it certainly wasn’t an Egyptian-heavy cast. At the time, speaking quite honestly, seeing as I’d been unemployed for a while, I was glad they had room for one English person. This particular white English man was quite glad of a job at the time.
What keeps you going when you have those periods of unemployment as an actor?
I suppose now I’ve relinquished this idea of ambition the way I would have once seen it. My ambition, in some vague way, is to be approaching the type of actor that I want to be. And I don’t totally know what that is, so that’s enough to keep me busy. I love being challenged. I’ve decided to stop being frustrated about not being given opportunities and try to be a little bit more philosophical. In the end, you end up being happier. I feel very fortunate at the moment. I’m 48 now and actually I’ve always felt like a character actor. I’ve always felt like, for me, the idea of happiness would be to be considered eminently useful as an actor in a way that no one could quite predict. And I have the feeling that is beginning to settle on me now. I feel like I’m landing on myself, in a way. This is an interview to do just before I get hit by a bus, because at the moment I feel that everything is quite good.