During today’s HBO TCA panel for The Plot Against America, actress Zoe Kazan gave an emotional response when asked about her grandfather Elia Kazan and his actions during the McCarthy era, when the two-time Oscar winning filmmaker named former colleagues before the House Un-American Activities Committee.
The Plot Against America imagines an alternate American history, told through the eyes of a working-class Jewish family in New Jersey, as they watch the political rise of aviator-hero and xenophobic populist Charles Lindbergh, who becomes president and turns the nation toward fascism.
The David Simon series based on the Philip Roth novel deals with a lot of topics occurring in American and Europe today, specifically the rise of nationalism and xenophobia.
“Do you want to be more specific?” Kazan initially responded to the reporter today.
“Your grandfather, I don’t want to bring up hard times for you, I’m sorry,” responded the journalist.
Launching into a thorough, literate response while holding back tears, Kazan answered, “You’re not bringing up hard times for me, you’re bringing up hard times for our country,” before referencing her grandfather’s cinematic take on the John Steinbeck novel East of Eden.
“[In the novel] there’s discussion of Hebrew in translation in the Cain and Abel story and that word is ‘timshel.’ Steinbeck’s translates it as ‘Thou mayest.’ And the question at hand is that God says to Cain in some translations ‘You can triumph over sin’ and in some translations ‘You will triumph over sin.’ A character in the book does a deep-dive into the actual word in Hebrew and comes up with ‘Thou mayest.’ ‘Thou mayest triumph over sin.’ But it’s in the hands of the next generation.”
She continued, “I have not wanted to weigh in my family’s political history particularly because of the other people it involved in my family who have prized their privacy over a public life. So, I’m not going into it, but I have thought a lot about how the history of our country affected my family’s history and what it meant for my grandfather as an immigrant to this country to have his American-ness tested and the choice that he made from that.
“And I thought a lot about my own choices, the way I choose to live my life. I think ‘Thou mayest choose a different life.’ And I think the reason why Steinbeck put that in his book about the foundation of the West is that it’s also about America choosing to recognize who they have been – Cain did kill his brother – but also recognize that they may choose a different future for themselves.”
“Those were things on my mind as I worked on this. It was a profound experience working on this personally, politically and artistically, and I think that’s all I have to say about that,” she concluded.
Plot Against America executive producer/writer Simon responded to the thickness in the room. “I’ve been coming to TCA for about a decade and that was best answer to a question. That was so cool. It had linguistics, it had film history.”
The Plot Against America premieres March 16.