David Simon, Zoe Kazan Wade Into Timely Alt-History of 'The Plot Against America'

David Simon The Plot Against America - H Split 2018
Dia Dipasupil/Getty; Amazon

David Simon says he was first approached to adapt Phillip Roth’s The Plot Against America shortly after the 2012 election — but he didn’t think the novel, an alternate history in which Charles Lindbergh rides an isolationist and antisemitic wave to defeat Franklin D. Roosevelt in the 1940 presidential election, was timely.

“I enjoyed the novel. It’s a nice little artifact, but it had its moment,” said Simon, recalling his initial reaction on Wednesday morning. “How wrong was I?”

The Plot Against America debuts as a six-part limited series on HBO starting March 16, and the Wire and Treme writer credits the xenophobic political movements in the United States and abroad as the sole reason the adaptation is finally happening. “Antisemitism is resurgent in America, and great effort is being made to define people as ‘less American,’” Simon continued, addressing members of the Television Critics Association, speaking alongside the cast of the project, which depicts a 1940s America drifting toward fascism. “The rise of xenophobia and fear of the other, that’s the reason this got made. The piece is incredibly relevant.”

Simon’s panel got especially interesting when star Zoe Kazan was asked, in so many words, how she felt about her late grandfather Elia Kazan — particularly his revealing names of the Hollywood blacklist while testifying in front of the House Committee on Un-American Activities in 1952.

“You’re not bringing up hard times for me, you’re bringing up hard times for our country,” said Kazan before wading into a long and thoughtful answer about her grandfather’s film adaptation of East of Eden, John Steinbeck’s translation of the Hebrew word timshel (“though mayest”) and her own interpretation of the word as allowing for generational change. “I have not wanted to weigh in on my family’s political history,” she continued before leaving the topic, “partially because of the other people in my family who prize their private life.”

As for the book, Simon lamented the fact that the author was no longer around to see the adaption — Roth died in 2018 at the age of 85 — but did reveal that he and Roth discussed the book before his death.

“He had a moment of clarity and caution about the book and our current time,” said Simon. “He said Lindbergh really was a hero. He brought astounding charisma to the moment that he found himself in. There was a genuine fear that he would be president.”

Lindbergh, of course, achieved his celebrity by making the first solo transatlantic flight. And while Donald Trump’s name was never uttered during the discussion of the modern-day parallels, Simon got in a subtle jab at the current president’s own road to fame: “You didn’t even need a great American hero to sway our political foundation, which is unnerving to me.”