SANTA FE, N.M., July 27 (UPI) -- John Benjamin Hickey and Olivia Williams say they knew Manhattan had the potential to be a terrific television show as soon as they read the script for the pilot penned by series creator Sam Shaw.
The 13-episode, fact-based drama is set in 1940s Los Alamos, N.M. It follows a group of scientists working for the U.S. government to develop the first atomic bomb in the hopes of ending World War II. The Manhattan Project is so highly classified, not even the scientists' families, who live with them, know the nature of it.
Hickey plays Frank Winter, one of the lead physicists on the project, while Williams plays Winter's wife Liza, a botanist who puts her own career on hold to support her husband's work, despite the fact she doesn't know exactly what it is.
"I thought it was extraordinary because it wasn't about the historical reality of the time and place," Hickey told UPI during a sit-down interview on the show's Santa Fe set. "Although all of the facts were in place, it was a look inside the kind of emotional truth of what was going on with these men, women and families keeping secrets from each other. I thought I was going to read it and get a history lesson, which I would have welcomed, but I got a lot more than that and I thought it was an extraordinary way to get inside this world. I loved it."
"What's brilliant is that you don't have to make it up," Williams noted. "Los Alamos was a secret city. If you were there, you had this weird post office box as your address. If you were born there, your address at the hospital was a post office box and the relationships between people... There were no old people. There were no sick people. It was just very, very clever people and their kids and so that created this kind of fermenting world that we get to play out."
"There's a lot of really great tension between the characters," Hickey continued. "It was an exciting time in their lives. It was great sacrifice, great stress and great pressure, but I think none of them ever felt more alive than when they were called to duty to do the thing that they were better at than anybody else in the world to help end the war."
"I think it is everybody with passion -- whether your passion is singing and dancing or nuclear physics... If they say, 'You can have as much equipment as you want, you can call anybody in the world you want to come and join in this project...' There were scientists from Europe and from every university in America brought to this one place to work and play together," Williams added.
So, what kind of research did they do to prepare for their roles?
"I read books," Hickey said. "I didn't pay much attention to physics in high school. I'll admit it. That's why I became an actor. But you have to let your imagination go, too. I was never going to catch up to be as bright as Frank Winter is. Not by a long shot. So, I watched Casablanca five times because you just want to be as much like Bogey as you can. Who doesn't? You know, you immerse yourself in the time and place. That movie was about sacrifice. This show is about sacrifice. So, you do research, but how much nuclear physics can you actually absorb before you have to start using your imagination to substitute, 'What would I have been like in this time and place, if I had been asked to do something like this?' You have to kind of let your imagination run wild."
"I had actually played Eleanor Roosevelt a couple of years ago [in Hyde Park on the Hudson] and I think Liza is Eleanor, but transplanted to New Mexico," Williams said. "I think educationally and intellectually, they are actually very similar and they are about the same age."
Co-starring Daniel Stern, Ashley Zukerman and Rachel Brosnahan, Manhattan is set to premiere Sunday night on WGN America.