The Brit star explores the dark heart of The Man In The High Castle
The man from The Man In The High Castle.
Rufus Sewell’s John Smith may not appear in Philip K Dick’s original The Man In The High Castle novel, but the ruthless SS Obergruppenführer made a big impression on the first season of Amazon’s TV adaptation. While Smith is, on one level, an utterly chilling villain and a thorn in the side of the resistance fighting to free the USA from Nazi rule, the Brit star says he doesn’t see the character as evil – just an ordinary guy adapting to his circumstances.
“Until the Nazis dropped the nuclear warhead on Washington in 1945 Smith was a good soldier for the American side,” he tells SFX. “He never showed any predisposition towards torture. He’s not particularly racist. But he ended up in a society where those elements were eked out of him, and the others were suppressed. I believe that he’s the dark version of that everyman.”
It feels like Smith is equally divided between advancement for advancement’s sake and actual belief in the Nazi ideology.
I wouldn’t say that’s true. I would say he believes in protecting his family at all costs. I don’t think he has a sense of advancing up the ladder for the sake of advancing up the ladder. Do you think he’ll thrive in any environment he’s thrust into, if the ultimate end is the preservation of his family?
I don’t know. What I try to steer away from is the idea that he is an evil person and there are certain aspects of this personality that will push him towards a certain type of behaviour, irrespective of his environment. I think the key to him – and what’s interesting to me about playing him – is that he is a man who has many, many good qualities and many dangerous qualities, like a human being. What does he tell us about the rise of Nazism?
He was a good case study for Nazis. Nazism was started by a small group of really corrupt, really twisted people. And it spread until it took over an entire country. And the entire country was not evil people. They were not all predisposed to evil any more than anyone else. However, it took hold. And not only that, it nearly took hold everywhere else. There are people in America who are very pro-Nazi. So the idea that’s interesting for me is that people find a narrative to convince themselves that what they’re doing is good and right. On the surface he seems like the typical 1950s nuclear family father…
That’s like the snapshot, and what’s interesting for me is going past that snapshot. That’s the photo of the “allAmerican father knows best” kind of thing. But just like in real life, you peel back behind that, and then you actually have a real problem. I was against the idea that in order to make some kind of dramatically ironic point that we were in all other respects a cheesy American family. For me, in all other respects, we were a real family. That’s where it becomes interesting, once you get past that. What steps did you go through to build the character?
I tried to put myself in the mind-set, not of a Nazi, but of a human being. I would notice, for example, that day players would come in to play American Nazis, and they would [does German accent] automatically start speaking like this. Their body language would automatically want to pull on their fingers, one glove at a time. A lot of these signifiers of Germanic evil would automatically happen to the performance. And we all do that with our thinking – if you want your granny to think you’re a good actor, you act like a Nazi. I wanted whoever that granny figure was to think I’d got it wrong. What did you read for research?
As soon as I found out my character wasn’t in The Man In The High Castle, I thought, “I won’t read that yet.” I read, first of all, The Rise And Fall Of The Third Reich, which was the history – very famous history – of how it happened. And I discovered a lot of very interesting things. Hitler said something very, very terrifying about people who questioned the validity of Nazism. He said, “Don’t worry about these people. I have their sons, I have their daughters, I have their sisters, I have their mothers, I have their wives.” That is very, very chilling. You think you’re a lone person, but you lose everything you have. What interests you in a character when you’re choosing a role?
I don’t know. It varies. To be perfectly honest, living in the real world, sometimes I hold out for the greatest part in the world – and then you can be unemployed for a really, really long time. So for me, it just has to excite me.