The Men of the High Castle
Three seasoned actors bring Philip K. Dick's novel to life.
In 1962, Philip K. Dick wrote a book positing an alternate world in which the United States had lost World War II, and was now divided between Germany and Japan.
That novel, The Man in the High Castle, has been made into a series on Amazon, now in its second season. It is the first of Dick’s books to be reimagined as a series, rather than a film, which has allowed the producers to expand on Dick’s world with far more fleshed-out characters from the book, as well as new characters only seen in the series.
The title character, The Man in the High Castle, is a shadowy figure who has a collection of banned films that seem to show an alternate reality where the Allies won the war, replete with scenes familiar to viewers from 1940s and 1950s newsreels. Members of resistance forces in both German and Japanese occupied areas find these films and work to realize this alternate world they have seen.
Moving from Japanese to German occupied areas of the former United States, the story follows several storylines, sometimes separately, and sometimes intersecting.
With an international cast, The Man in the High Castle explores themes of resistance, transcendence, and duty. These themes are explored through characters such as Trade Minister Nobusuka Tagomi, played by Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa, Frank Frink (né Fink - an unpopular surname in this new world), portrayed by Rupert Evans, and Obergruppenführer John Smith, played by Rufus Sewell.
Each actor has delved into his character and the world of The Man in the High Castle, both through reading the book (several times for some of them) and in working with the writers to create fully-formed, complex and often conflicted human beings.
Tagawa plays the Japanese Trade Minister. Although he is fairly high in the hierarchy of the Japanese occupying government, he is also a very spiritual man, consulting the IChing and prone to wandering into his own thoughts.
At the end of the first season, and several times in the second, those thoughts manifested in his being transported to the alternative reality, where he has an opportunity to live the life he might have lived with his wife and son. Exploring the character’s story resonated strongly with Tagawa.
“I didn’t realize when I began to what depths it had a possibility of going. Certainly, once we got rolling, I immediately got it, I immediately related to it. My life experience has been such that it wasn’t difficult to identify with him. It’s not exactly me, but certainly my range of experience coming from Japan in 1956 definitely put me into a mindframe that has been a history of my life. “
Tagawa also enjoys bringing previously unfamiliar aspects of Japanese culture to Western audiences, as well as exploring the conflict between old and new Japan.
“Well, it absolutely is a conflict. The other Japanese character, Chief Inspector Kido (Joel de la Fuente), certainly represents another aspect of Japan thinking, and the part that Tagomi represents is a part that we aren’t familiar enough with in the West, or in the world.
"Tagomi is absolutely rooted in the old Japan of values, of deep commitment to country, very conscious of his movement, his actions, not to dishonor in any way those things that are important to him. So, yes, it does represent old Japan. There’s also a part that we haven’t seen enough in Western portrayals of Japan, and that’s a deep, deep, deep soulful sensitivity.
"That’s a part that they didn’t tell me about, if I should play that or not, so I took it upon myself to pull all the plugs. I think this is such a great opportunity to represent that aspect of Japanese culture that we haven’t seen much of represented in film or television. I’m definitely taking the liberty to push it to the limit of how much they’ll let me express.“
Tagawa’s character in the book is slightly different from the character that Tagawa has created.
“I think that he’s a weaker character [in the book] when he gets sick and sometimes he gets too emotional about things. I don’t quite get sick, personally, nor do I want this character to. I want him to maintain his strength, that he is maybe a little bit more strong than in the book. Some elements of the book display that sort of weakness in his sensitivity, and I’d rather play it as the strength in his sensitivity.
"I think it’s a great reflection of where I think the west can expand a little bit more. I think we need to allow men more sensitivity, so we don’t end up taking up arms against each other because we can’t deal with our own sensitivity. We can end things on a football field and everything’s OK, but life is just not that simple.
"And when we don’t deal with those things as men, it produces the kinds of problems we have on the planet. There are a lot of men, different countries, different races, different colors, and all having this odd sense of incomplete identity. I’m hoping that this project will help and that my character will help bring some light to that."
Evans’s character goes from being a man who just wants to build a life with his girlfriend Juliana Crain (Alexa Davalos) to a full-fledged member of the resistance.
Evans, too, has read the book in depth and has embraced the changes made from book to series. “There are changes. There are differences, but having read the book now so many times - I continue to go back to it, and I always have it with me, because I find it a really useful resource - I think primarily the book sets up the world of this show and sets our world up very clearly in it.
"In season two, we’ve moved geographically farther afield, taking in Berlin and other places, New York, as well as, obviously, San Francisco. But I think the book transcends that completely. It shows us a complete picture of what they did in the Mediterranean by draining the Mediterranean and all that.
"So, for me, it gives a sense of context. Inevitably, with a TV show, there are certain changes that are made, which I think is for the best. Probably the biggest one is that in the TV show we have the film reels as opposed to in the novel it’s a book or books, and my relationship with Juliana Crain is slightly different.
"In the book, we’re shown as married and divorcing, and in the show we’re still going out, and how we met, that’s looked at a little deeper, so there are changes, and it is different, but at its essence, I really feel, and I hope, that we’ve stayed true to P.K. Dick as much as we can within the bounds of trying to create a TV show.
"I think it’s interesting as well that this is one of the few shows from his books that are not films. And I think because of that as we’re trying to expand on that to a TV show, I think the changes inevitably have to come, and I think also it leads us to try to have more time to explore further and later on as well.
"I think those changes are good. But ultimately, I still find the essence of the book in the show and how it feels, particularly in the Japanese side, because the book looks at that in greater depth, and that was very helpful for me. “
Sewell’s character didn’t change from the book to the series, because his character was created expressly for the series and does not appear in the book.
Sewell’s John Smith represents the new American Nazi. Once an officer in the American army, Smith has attained a high role in the new Reich.
Sewell says, “The Americans who are Nazis were obviously something else before,. All of them are Nazis and none of them are Germans, apart from the Germans,
"One of the things that actors would do, or the writers, even, would do, if they just went on automatic, is that they would kind of German-ize or Nazi-ize the writing and the behavior in a way that was really not useful.
"It’s very tempting for people to come in and during a day’s work do a very clipped speaking and clipped body language and kind of subtle German accents, even though they’re actually playing Americans. To me, it’s far more interesting, and far more believable, definitely far more interesting when you see very recognizable American characteristics, but with a Nazi iconography.
"They’ve succeeded by subverting the American culture and getting to the Americans as Americans. They’ve kept certain movie stars and kept certain music and allowed people to still feel American, but Nazi Americans. And that’s how it’s worked in this instance.
"What happened was, when the Nazis attacked America, there was a civil war after they dropped the nuclear bomb on Washington. There were the American forces who wanted to keep on fighting and there were the American forces who wanted to capitulate quickly, as far as they were concerned, to save the maximum amount of lives.
"Once the Nazis were committed to dropping bombs on every American city, there was no chance, as far as Smith was concerned of survival. So, he wanted to do whatever he could.
"He saw himself as a patriot. There was a brief civil war between the people who didn't want to give up and the people who wanted to give in and side with the Nazis. And, because he picked the right side, here he is, very high up in the Reich.”
In the process of making changes, the actors have been instrumental in building their characters, working in concert with the writers and other production personnel. Evans says, “One of the blessings of this job for me, more than any other job, is the line of communication and collaboration that runs through the show.
"I know a lot of people say that, but there genuinely has been a line of communication from us to props to costuming to the writers to the producers and the show runners and executive producers to allow us to really try to find the best way through each episode and through each journey of the characters. So that’s been a great pleasure.
"There’s a lot of material in the show that comes from actors as well as writers. It’s that sort of collaboration, which for me is a rare thing.”
Each of the actors came to his role from different places and for different reasons.
Tagawa, who has done a number of action films using his martial arts prowess, was looking for something different. Although his background is martial arts, he has been involved for 40 years in martial healing, having developed his own system. “I began in martial arts, had my experience with it, and in fact, leaving martial arts led me right into martial healing.
"This is my life’s work for 40 years, developing a system of martial healing. So I do use physical movement that is very deliberate, thought out or instinctively part of me.
"But I’ve always been aware that movement in film. When you watch a film, there is so much time when you see a character walking, sitting, standing. And it’s says so much about them without them expressing verbally anything about it. So, I’ve always been very conscious throughout all my career , and I’ve paid attention to my movements personally.
"This fits very well for Trade Minister Tagomi in that he was a former Navy man, so would have been very much conscious of those things.”
For Evans, it was the arc that the character followed that fascinated him.
“When I first got the script, it was actually a two-hour special, so the pilot and the second episode of the first season was called “Night One,” and it was a two-hour thing. So, I read this, and just was absolutely staggered by the idea. And I ran to the nearest book shop and bought the book, because I hadn’t actually read the book before the script.
So, I ran to the book shop, bought the book, read the book, and was totally absorbed by this extraordinary idea, this alternative world where the Allies lose World War II, and what life would be like, particularly for my character, Frank Frink.
"I found it fascinating what it must be like to live day to day, to survive day to day living under that pressure, that pressure of an occupied territory and what that would do to an individual and how you live, both publicly. when you’re out and privately and how that starts to eat away at you, and how you react. I think we’d all act very differently.
"And I think we’d hope that we’d all stand up and put our heads above the parapet. But actually, a lot of the time, as what happened in occupied France during the time of the war, I think some of us would probably keep our heads down.
"What happens with Frank Frink is that initially he keeps his head down in season one, and then in season 2, of course, he takes a very different approach, and that’s what interested me, really, was this arc that the character goes in, and will hopefully continue to go in.
"And with that arc, we have the ever-intriguing emotional thread of the characters and their lives, and Juliana Crain and my sister and her kids and all that. So that dichotomy fascinated me. It’s rare to have a part where you have such a good arc, and that’s really what interests me more than anything is to see a character change.”
Sewell, who has been busy in the past year with excellent parts in not one but two high profile series, says that this part came at exactly the right time for him.
“Well, it’s interesting. Because for a long time, I’ve been a little frustrated. There have certainly been periods in my life and career where I’ve battled this frustration that certain sections of the industry only saw me in a very limited light. Whereas, I’ve always thought the greatest thing that I have to my bow is the ability to do all kinds of different things.
"With regards to big budget movies, especially, and English television, I was either the personification of evil or the personification of evil on a horse or nobility on a horse with something weird about me. And I’m fine with that, actually, because I realized that the only thing that bores me is bad writing.
"And one of the side effects of only being offered similar parts is that generally, the people who want to see you do something they’ve seen you do before tend not to be terribly smart. So, if you’re not careful and you accept the same kind of roles, they get successively worse written, and you’re working with less and less smart people.
"In the end, when this role, and almost at the same time the role of Lord Melbourne in Victoria came up, both of them were, I suppose you could say, different typecasts that I’d kind of lived with for a while.
"Then I realized that I’d had the great good fortune at this time of my life to still, for a start, be offered them, and very good examples, but I could work out all of those things that I suppose you could have called frustrations with the potential limitations of those roles, through two wonderfully-written examples of those roles.
"I could show all that I had wanted to express about how limited a bad guy role can be for someone who has got a lot of life amongst a lot of other things. It is actually borne out so beautifully if it goes the way it should, in the part of John Smith.
"Because here’s someone trapped in a role that had been foisted on him, someone who, had history’s casting gone a different way, would have been playing another part. So, it seemed, in this age of my life, a fantastic way of exploring that and just counting my lucky stars. And then at the same time, a couple of months later, I get offered Lord M. in Victoria, who is just one of the nicest men.
"And I just thought, well, I’m pretty lucky for a start being offered these roles, but actually the roles are getting better and now I’m able to bring a lot more to them.”
The Man in the High Castle, seasons one and two, is streaming on Amazon.
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