John Benjamin Hickey has conquered Broadway and garnered Emmy award nominations – but still calls Dr. Frank Winters “the most challenging role he’s ever played.” As the lead scientist on the Manhattan Project, Winters is driven and intense, traits that Hickey says drew him to the role in the first place.
“I just got along with the guy, and not because I thought he was a prefect person. Quite the contrary. I loved his flaws,” the actor explained when we recently spoke together. Read below for more, including how Hickey came to be involved in the project, as well as his thoughts on where Frank is headed in the series.
Congrats on the success of Manhattan so far! Now that you’re done filming and have gotten some reception, have you had a chance to reflect a little bit on the first season?
“It was an extraordinary experience. From top to bottom…we started with this crazy weather, and I know weather in these situations is the most boring thing in the world to talk about, but just braving the elements – I think that’s one of the great things about the show and about the world of the show. They went to the place where it happened and they’re able to use for that atmosphere.”
And I think part of the reason that the show works as well as it does is because of the elements and the location.
“Absolutely. Coming from theater, you have to make up all of that kind of atmosphere on stage. It’s all make-believe. And I have to say, even when the weather is inclement, when you’re outside and you have a really tough scene to play, and on top of that you’re battling God and you’re battling 50 mile an hour winds and dust…it’s like nature is playing a lot of your part. It’s really great. And you know, Tommy Schlamme is so legendary for walks and talks. On this show, when you walk and talk, it’s not like you’re going from the interior into an exterior soundstage…you’re working in an indigenous environment.”
I know you’ve talked about this a little bit in interviews before, but can you discuss in depth how you came to the role of Frank and what inspired you to take it? Because it’s very different than the roles you were doing previously.
“First and foremost, it was just such a great script. I’m always attracted to good writing, and you don’t find it that often. And I loved the idea that…I thought Sam Shaw took a really big chance and tried to shoot the moon with this material, in that he didn’t make the show about the iconic historical figures like Oppenheimer. It was a little like Ragtime – the icons exist on the peripheries of the piece, and what he created was a fictional set of characters who inhabited the emotional world of the reality of what Los Alamos was. I thought Frank was…he’s incredibly righteous in his determination to stop this war, which I think anyone can relate to, but he also has a great self-righteousness. He has an ego attached to wanting to be this guy who proves that he can build this bomb. This is, in many ways, his life’s work – not bomb building, but theoretical nuclear physics. I think he sees an opportunity here to fulfill some sort of career and life destiny. I think he’s unconsciously or consciously aware of the moral quagmire he finds himself in when the show begins, and it causes a lot of controversy and a lot of conflict for him.”
Frank is such an interesting, complex character, and I love that he has those two sides to him – he’s selfish/egotistical, but he’s not a bad person. He just wants help and make a difference. Do you find that balance hard to play at all?
“It’s a fine line, and I think that as the series unfolds, a lot of questions will come up, namely: what kind of man is Frank Winters? I think it’s a great question to ask in a character drama. Do I think his motives are pure? I think that comes up time and time again. And it’s certainly the most challenging part I’ve had to play, not just because of the historical immersion, which I basically only knew the bullet points of, but we get into nuclear bombs and nuclear physics, and how many of us who are in the entertainment business were paying attention? Let’s be honest [laughs]. That stuff that I kind of had to take a crash course in.
But I think I appreciated Frank’s sense of compartmentalization. Like the way he has to compartmentalize his mind and his personal life, and what he’s doing and asking of his wife and daughter. I didn’t relate to it because I’ve never been in a war, but I just liked that aspect of him and I thought that would be a really fun challenge. And everything I’ve read and everything I’ve learned of the time, the work sacrifice meant so much more back then than it does now. I think Frank, because of things you end up learning about him, I think he appreciates making that sacrifice if it’s going to help end the war.”
It’s really a testament to Sam’s storytelling – that he’s able to make you feel for a character with all these complexities, that has the air of being unlikeable.
“Absolutely. He doesn’t have the greatest bedside manner, I will admit [laughs]. One of the things Tommy said to me in my meeting was “no, John, I like the fact that you’re a naturally warm guy. I want that to help combat all the complexities.” It’s a really fascinating challenge for me. A few years ago, I was doing the third or the fourth season of The Big C and at the same time, I was doing The Normal Heart on Broadway. I said out loud to somebody as some point, ‘I will never work as hard as I’m working right now, and I will never be as challenged doing double duty.’ Working on this show and playing this part and being so fully immersed in this world and this character has made it look easy compared to that.”
I’d imagine a show like this requires a lot of research on the actors end. How did you specifically prepare for taking on this journey?
“I hope this doesn’t sound too superficial – I kept trying to keep my head in the world even on superficial levels. I listened to 40’s on 4 on Sirius XM, my bible was this amazing Richard Rhodes book called The Making Of The Atomic Bomb. It’s huge and it’s very heavy on the physics, but once you get the physics, that book explains what it took to actually make that happen. And I was going to say, the thing that weirdly enough I kept coming back to was that the house I was renting they had Pay-Per-View. I watched Casablanca like seven times. Just because it’s the greatest movie ever made – and you can’t even argue that – and also one only hopes they can act as well as Humphrey Bogart. You steal from the best. But it was a movie about the beginning of the war. It was a movie about an American who makes a sacrifice. Weirdly enough, I kind of think of Frank Winter in this romantic way. That’s a very tricky thing to say, because once again it takes us into the moral dubiousness of what they were doing and what they were building. But at the time, again, it comes back to that sacrifice. In many ways, it was such a pure thing he was doing. I wanted to keep this kind of romantic ideal of him in my head. When you’re playing people who are complicated like that, you have to try to remember what makes that work. As corny as it sounds, and I know it does, that’s one of my biggest reference points. All roads lead back to Bogart.”
One thing I love about this show is that the cast is really strong – you all gel and you have amazing chemistry.
“You sort of only have each other to leave on. When you get a great group that gels like this…I think Tommy and Sam looked very long and hard to find the right mix of people. I think they were given great license and liberty by the network and the studios to cast people who weren’t big names. And then you start working, and the material is just so good, you always want to work with people who make you feel like you’re better than you are. And that’s what this is. Everyone’s bringing their A-game every day to work, and you just try to rise to their level. But I do think so much of it has to do with the fact that we were placed in this world the same way these real people were.”
Manhattan airs Sunday nights at 10/9c on WGN America.