LOS ANGELES, April 2 (UPI) -- Actors Helena Bonham Carter and Mark Rylance had grandparents involved with World War II. The new PBS series, My Grandparents' War, chronicles their discovery of details about their grandparents' contributions, as well as those of Carey Mulligan and Kristin Scott Thomas' grandparents.
Violet Bonham Carter died when Helena Bonham Carter was 3 years old. The 54-year-old actor said she knew that her grandmother spoke out against the rise of Hitler, including a speech at the Royal Albert Hall.
Through My Grandparents' War, Helena Bonham Carter met descendants of families Violet Bonham Carter helped to escape from Czechoslovakia. Those survivors shared letters between their parents and Violet Bonham Carter.
"I hadn't really appreciated how she survived two world wars, and her life straddled both," Bonham Carter said on a Television Critics Association Zoom panel. "She lost her brother in the first, and then must have lived in such a state of terror, having survived that."
Bonham Carter said she knew her maternal grandmother, Bubbles, as an adult. Bubbles' husband, Eduardo Propper de Callejon, helped Jews escape from Bordeaux, France, into Spain by signing visas in defiance of Spanish law.
My Grandparents' War taught Bonham Carter the details of the week Propper de Callejon spent signing visas at the Spanish Embassy. She said she imagined a much grander location for his mythic story.
"The embassy was much smaller," Bonham Carter said. "The reality was very, very different to what I'd imagined."
Other members of the Bonham Carter and Propper de Callejon families joined Bonham Carter. Her second cousin, David Price Jones, visited Eduardo and Bubbles' 1939 home with Bonham Carter. Other relatives shared historical documents they had preserved.
"I had these very personal conversations with my uncle and his cousin, his relatives and my mother," Carter said. "David hadn't been back to his childhood home for a long time, and it was very healing for them, too."
The 61-year-old Rylance focused on his maternal grandfather, Osmond Skinner. Skinner was an HBC Banker in Hong Kong who volunteered for the Hong Kong Volunteer Defence Corps in 1941 and was posted in Kobe, Japan.
In the show, Rylance learned Skinner was wounded in the stomach, assumed killed and left behind. Skinner was captured on Christmas Day 1941 and spent years in the Argyle Street prisoner-of-war camp. Rylance said he was with his grandfather on Christmas Eve 1980 when he suffered a stroke and died days later.
"I thought of all those Christmases that he must have always remembered in this terrible way," Rylance said. "He was shot, and over 50% of his volunteer defense corps were killed around him."
During his years in Argyle Street, Skinner composed original music and performed at concerts for the prisoners. Rylance was surprised to learn that Skinner and the POWs performed Shakespeare's Twelfth Night in 1943.
"The root of acting in my family was my grandfather on Argyle Street officer's prisoner-of-war camp," Rylance said.
Twelfth Night had a connection to Rylance's career. Though he did not learn what role Skinner played, Rylance played the female role Olivia in Twelfth Night in 2002 and won a Tony Award for that in 2014.
The multiple Tony Award-winning actor said he was inspired by Kabuki actor Taichi Saotome to play female roles, as male actors did in Shakespeare's time. Rylance said his grandfather's story taught him "how helpful it is to be creatively involved in something, or indeed to be able to go along and watch other people who are being creative."
After World War II, Rylance said, his mother had a strained relationship with Skinner, who sent Rylance's mother to boarding school. My Grandparents' War helped Rylance understand why both his maternal grandparents seemingly abandoned their daughter, the actor said.
"They left her in England and went back to Hong Kong to rebuild the Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank, where he was chief inspector after the war," Rylance said. "He probably had a lot of mental difficulties. In the '50s, they didn't want the children to see those things, I would imagine."
My Grandparents' War premieres Sunday on PBS at 8 p.m. EDT with Bonham Carter's episode. Rylance's follows on April 11.