Exclusive Interview: Olivia Williams on ‘Manhattan’

WGN America’s new original series “Manhattan” premiered on Sunday, July 27, the weekend of Comic-Con. No one was going to read about a new show right when Comic-Con ended so I had to wait, but I’ve been sitting on this great Olivia Williams interview since “Manhattan” presented to the Television Critics Association.

Williams plays Liza, the wife of a team leader on The Manhattan Project. Living on the Los Alamos base in the 1940s is full of as much drama for the families as it is for the scientists racing to create the atom bomb. I also asked Williams about her legendary film roles and the short-lived “Dollhouse” when I sat down with her after her TCA panel. “Manhattan” airs Sunday nights on WGN America.

CraveOnline: Has there been a lot written historically about the families that were on the base?

Olivia William: There hasn’t been a lot written historically. What there are a lot of is personal accounts. There’s this crazy society called The Los Alamos Historical Society and they’ve gone around collecting any testimony they can find of survivors, be they people who were Pueblo Native Americans who worked at the base, the wives… So part of our research was weeding these collective letters and accounts which was fascinating.

Were things like the ovens that caught fire and how long it takes to get basic supplies in the letters?

Anything, like stockings or pots and pans and sheets for your bed, sanitary towels. Anything you can think of had to be carried by truck up this hill that wasn’t supposed to exist. You had domestic women trying to build homes who were reliant on the army for supplying their needs, and yet they weren’t under military law officially.

Has that been revealed through these accounts or was that well known before?

I think anybody who was there assumed it was general knowledge. Some of these accounts have been collected into a couple of historical books, all of which you can get from this eccentric little museum in Los Alamos if you care to look.

How do you imagine a relationship formed to the point where you could get married to someone who could not share a significant portion of his life? Or when did he reach that level of secrecy?

Exactly, I think that’s the drama for me of Liza’s life, is that she married a man who was her intellectual equal. They met at Princeton University. He was a physicist, she was a botanist. Those two subjects interweave as we know. You know, anything natural is physical and scientific. They probably sat around a table and talked about their passions, scientific and emotional. They come to Los Alamos and that foundation of their relationship is gone, is over. We’re watching the fallout of that loss I think.

So you think this is the first project where he had that level of secrecy?

Yes, definitely. You can see accounts from documentaries where scientists say, “I was working at the University of Chicago and I was a physicist. One by one the members of my department said, ‘Oh, I’m going away, don’t know when I’ll be back.’” And then you’d get the letter that said, “Turn up to Santa Fe, NM, 109 Palace Street and bring a large suitcase.

When the rumor gets out and it’s the wrong rumor, one wife says they’re building armor.

There were all sorts of theories floating around. One person said they were building electric rockets. These were real accounts. Different disinformation was sent out about what they were building. Submarine windscreen wipers, crazy stuff.

So when Liza hears that, she already knows that’s false information?

I think her modus operandi was not to ask and not to torture her husband and try not to torture herself with wondering what she cannot deny is evidence that she sees. She doesn’t listen to gossip, I don’t think. But she as a botanist sees changing things happening to plants. We now know that radiation causes bizarre things to happen in the natural world and she is a student of the natural world.

Was that science already in in the early ‘40s?

They didn’t know that. She’s going, “Why is this chrysanthemum this bizarre color?” And nobody knew why then.

That science is coming in the future.

That’s her journey.

Does that present an interesting performance dilemma where we know some ends of the story?

We know the end of the story. They drop the bomb and kill hundreds of thousands of people. I was saying earlier, what makes this such a great story is that if you presented it as a fictional sci-fi show, people would say, “That is ridiculous. You couldn’t build a city of 5,000 people on top of a hill and nobody know it was there.” If the bomb hadn’t worked, if they’d dropped it on Hiroshima and it bounced down the street and landed in a gutter and everyone went, “What the f*** was that?” this would be a comedy. This would be an absurdist drama about a secret city that failed. Because it worked, it is a most astounding piece of social historical drama.

In the pilot it almost looks like his team is going to be fired and taken off the project. Had that happened, would Liza have been happy?

It’s that terrible thing, isn’t it? My husband and I do it with every job that we take. You say to your partner, “I’m going to be going away. I’m going to be absorbed in a project with lots of people who aren’t you for a few months. Do you think we can handle it?” And the other person says, “Yeah, I think I can handle it.” Then three months or a year into a project and you find you’re not handling it or you find you can. That’s the promise you make in a marriage, is I will come with you wherever you go and you try your very best to stick with it.


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