A writer-producer recreates a dark time in modern American history.
Growing up in New Jersey, Alexander Woo knew much about the Holocaust, but little about Japanese-Americans interned after the attack on Pearl Harbor.
"It is a piece of our history that is criminally underserved," he says. "There is still a great deal of misconception of what the camps were. Just because people were not being exterminated does not mean their rights were not taken."
Woo's take on this dark period in U.S. history is reflected in The Terror: Infamy, the second installment of the AMC anthology series (season one focused on a 19th-century Royal Navy expedition that met a bad end in Arctic seas).
The series' showrunner and cocreator, Woo relates to the immigrants' plight. As a first-generation Chinese-American, he spoke Cantonese at home. After studying at Princeton and Yale, he examined the intricacies of being an American in his plays. Later, he explored the nature of fear as an executive producer on True Blood. These experiences made him uniquely suited for The Terror.
"If this were only a ghost story or supernatural thriller, he would have been a great writer," says David Madden, AMC's president of programming. "But this had a larger narrative. As somebody who has felt disenfranchised and disrespected, he had a strong desire to respect those people and tell it as honestly and in as nuanced a way as he could."
"In television, you are not given that many chances for a bit of poetry," Woo says, "which occasionally I strive for."
As he embarked on the project, Woo consulted a neighbor, George Takei.
Most famous for having played Sulu on Star Trek, Takei was interned when he was five. Now 82, he's keenly aware he's among the last to bear witness to this horror.
Lost on no one are the parallels to today.
"When Trump got into office, his first act was to sign an executive order characterizing all Muslims as potential terrorists," says Takei, who costars in the 10-hour series. "That is the same thing that happened to American citizens of Japanese ancestry. We were characterized as potential spies and traitors."
Takei's family was detained first in a converted stable at Santa Anita Park, just outside Los Angeles, and then in an Arkansas detention camp. Woo's dedication to authenticity led him to shoot at former camps and cast only actors of Japanese descent.
Despite the gravitas of the topic, Woo wove in an Easter egg. "He organically worked in a scene where I said, 'Oh, my!'" Takei says of his catchphrase. "Some scenes need a little levity."
With the intense four-month shoot behind him, Woo says he hopes to attract "a few million viewers, and if some portion did not know about this and now care, that is a really important accomplishment."
This article originally appeared in emmy magazine, issue No. 8, 2019
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