Helen Hunt and her World on Fire castmates Julia Brown, Jonah Hauer-King and Zofia Wichlacz talked about the upcoming PBS World War II drama that provides a very personal perspective Friday at the TCA Winter Press Tour in Pasadena, CA. The series, which follows the intertwining fates of ordinary people in five countries as they grapple with the effects of the war in their everyday lives, has already received a second season order. Season one is set in 1939 and season two will follow the characters into 1940, per executive producer and writer Peter Bowker.
Bowker explained that he and executive producer Damien Timmer were fascinated by the 1970s documentary World at War and how that documentary provided inspiration for World on Fire as they attempted to make a fictional version that provided various perspectives on the war as that documentary did. “Television had changed and people were investing more in longform series – it seemed like a good time to tell something novelistic in its sweep,” Bowker noted.
Asked about being the “token American” in the series, Hunt reflected, “There are some subjects too big to write about and this is one of them. I responded to the choice to choose simple people doing their jobs and follow their lives and fears. What was easy was I sort of play the audience because I play a woman who looks over a fence and saw 1000 German tanks lined up. That’s the way I would be if I discovered the worst nightmare was coming true. The more human and real I could be, the more people would relate to what I was doing.”
Hunt’s character Nancy Campbell is an American journalist and the character is a combination of two real-life journos: William Shirer, who did daily broadcasts and kept diaries during wartime, and British war correspondent Claire Hollingwood, who actually did see Nazi tanks gather on the Polish border. Peter Bowker recounted that when Hollingwood reported what she saw to the British Embassy, they discounted her claim and ignored her warning. Hunt said she read Shearer’s diary to prepare for the role.
Co-star Julia Brown also had a personal connection to her character Lois, as her grandmother was a jazz singer during wartime and Bowker based the character on his own grandmother.
Jonah Hauer-King portrays central character Harry Chase and he noted, “Normal life went on [during wartime.] What was interesting for me was learning about how people of our age and generation went through this war and how it changed them. It was such an extreme time.”
Season one of World on Fire premieres April 5 on PBS.