John Benjamin Hickey has already learned a valuable life lesson on the set of “Manhattan,” the period drama about the men and women creating the atomic bomb in 1940s New Mexico, on which he stars as a scientist: He really did need physics in high school.
“One of the great joys of being an actor is you get to go back to school,” he says while traveling back to Santa Fe, N.M., to return to set after a quick jaunt to L.A. for an appearance at TCA. “You get to learn stuff that you thought was not important when you were in high school. I was not paying attention during physics in high school; I was wondering if I was going to be cast in ‘Pippin.’ ”
Hickey is more than making up for lost time as Frank Winter, who is driven by the mounting U.S. war dead to find the key to the creation of an atomic bomb. Not that he had been looking for another television show so soon after his Emmy-nominated turn on Showtime’s “The Big C.”
After a year off, Hickey started looking around for another project—preferably a play, but as he says, “After you do a play like ‘The Normal Heart’ it’s hard to find something you feel so passionate about.” But when the script for “Manhattan” found its way to him, Hickey’s immediate response was, “Oh, I’m not smart enough for that science.”
The cleverness of “Manhattan,” however, is that a drama about the creation of the atomic bomb isn’t as concerned with the actual fission as it is about the compelling fiction of its imagined characters. By setting stories against the backdrop of a paranoid government base in the middle of nowhere in the desert, peopled with men and women who have been plucked either from cushy university jobs or directly from Eastern Europe, “Manhattan” has set the stage for telling any number of stories with parallels to today, something that creator Sam Shaw denied at the TCA Summer Press Tour but which Hickey brings up.
“This is such an unbelievably rich and complicated time in American and world history,” he says. “This was a turning point, maybe even the beginning of the world you live in now. Surveillance and weaponry and warfare: This was the birthplace of all that.”
The birthplace of all that turned out to be just as complicated, meteorologically speaking. The conditions on location in a city where the weather changes so often the locals say, “If you hate the weather in Santa Fe, just wait a minute,” can be trying. But that physical discomfort only adds to Hickey’s performance.
“We’re filming this where it happened so you imagine all the brilliant minds—many of whom had been working in a very comfortable academic environment in Princeton or Berkeley,” Hickey says. “In some ways I can relate, because I’m this die-hard New Yorker who’s suddenly in the middle of a dust storm. It’s an incredibly physically challenging environment, but talk about atmosphere!”
But that environment is where Hickey has found support from his theatrical training, with its focus on concentration. Besieged by winds, Hickey and his fellow cast members have no choice but to power through. “That kind of training ground really does give you your armor to go out in a completely different kind of environment,” he says. “And it’s invaluable. It’s really invaluable. You know how to focus. And it’s a really terrific asset to have. I was shooting the third season of ‘The Big C’ and doing ‘The Normal Heart’ at the same time on Broadway and I thought, I’ll never do anything as difficult as this. And turns out Santa Fe was waiting for me!”
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