John Benjamin Hickey on 'Manhattan's' Modern Moment, 'Big C' and 'Pitch Perfect'

WGN America's atomic bomb drama marks a marked departure from the actor's Emmy-nominated turn in Showtime's cancer dramedy "The Big C."
WGN America
John Benjamin Hickey in "Manhattan"

John Benjamin Hickey returns to the small screen with WGN America's atomic bomb drama Manhattan, the cabler's second original scripted series.

Manhattan centers on the mission to build the world's first atomic bomb in Los Alamos, New Mexico. It follows the brilliant but flawed scientists and their families as they attempt to coexist in a world where secrets and lies infiltrate every aspect of their lives. Hickey (The Big C) plays Frank Winter, the professor who is commissioned to help lead the Manhattan Project. Olivia Williams portrays his wife, Liza, while Ashley Zukerman plays Charlie, a hotshot new scientist who joins the project. Daniel Stern plays Frank's boss, Glen. Sam Shaw (Masters of Sex) created the series and executive produces alongside David Ellison, Dana Goldberg and Marcy Ross. Emmy-winning director Thomas Schlamme (The West Wing, Pan Am) also is on board as a writer-director.

For Hickey, the role marks a dramatic shift from his four-season turn as Sean, the lovable homeless brother to Laura Linney's Cathy on Showtime's The Big C. The Hollywood Reporter caught up with the Tony winner (The Normal Heart) and Broadway alum to discuss doing something different with Manhattan, how Frank compares to Sean and what the latter is doing now, a year after The Big C's tearful conclusion.

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What was it about the Manhattan script that appealed to you?

I was going to go back to television. I wanted to do something completely different. I'm attracted to characters who think and behave outside the box and who have a lot in common, but tonally they couldn't be more different in terms of these two shows. One was a comedy about the end of life and one is drama about ending life. In some senses that's it. But both Sean and Frank find themselves in great existential crisis in their life, and actors are so attracted to people in trouble. It gives them more to play.

They're both somewhat anti-authoritarian. Frank is dedicated to his job but at the same time he's struggling with his conscience. How would you say they compare?

They are both very suspicious of "the man," and Sean's is born out of a million different things that played out on the series. But you find that Frank has a very intimate relationship with war. He was a part of the war that was supposed to end all wars, and he finds himself back in the game of war. He fundamentally mistrusts military regiment and order and needs to march to the beat of his own drum. He has a brilliant mind. One of the facts of this world they lived in is Oppenheimer told the military — these physicists and scientists were acting as officers — "You cannot put these guys in uniform because they can't be made to believe that they're not acting of their own free will." Their clothes are a metaphor. They have to be able to dress as who they are in order to be themselves because they were very independent thinkers. Theoretical physicists, which is what I play and is in some ways what Sean was too, are daydreamers. Our show advisers told us they "stare into space and think about ways that our enemies can get us and how we can get our enemies." This was wartime. "How math can move outside the box."

How much research did you do to prepare for this role?

I went to high school in the 1970s and was a real daydreamer and not the best student. So the answer to the question is based on my former ignorance. One of the great things about being an actor and having a part like this is you get to go back to school. I found the history on the subject and the story itself so unbelievably fascinating. There's an amazing documentary, The Day After Trinity, which is crazy good. [And there's] The Making of the Atom Bomb by Richard Rhodes, which is the definitive book on the physics of that time and place. I knew very little and learned a lot very quickly. I was voracious about learning about it, not just because I needed to look like I knew what the f— I was doing. In order for us to create fictional characters and tell an emotionally true story that is not the historical true facts at that time and place, we needed to know exactly what the world was in order to take this leap of imaginative faith. So I did a lot of homework.

Frank is a very conflicted character. What would you say drives him?

I think he's driven by demons, like so many brilliant people are. It's a really interesting dichotomy; there's a duality in Frank that the super ego, if I have this right, is altruism — trying to stop war — and you learn that he has an intimate relationship with the front lines and hates the idea of war so much and will do anything to save American soldiers' lives. Who couldn't love a guy who wants to kill that bastard Hitler and save the American solider and the American way of life? But the other half of that is ego. And that was one of the interesting things about him: You had a bunch of brilliant guys in a race against each other to try to build something that was unbuildable, and Frank is driven by very unselfish reasons. But just as much the ego is selfish, so too is his thought of, "I want to finish first. I want to be the one to be able to prove that my bomb is the underdog." His team is like the Bad News Bears, and he wants to lead them to victory.

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How does Manhattan set itself apart from other historical dramas?

This is a period piece. This is dealing with a time and place that has an allegorical, metaphorical relation to where we are now, as far as the government, as far as surveillance, as far as the government knowing all of our business or not. It's a very hard question to answer because it will be born out in how it tells its story and how its audience identifies with it. It seems completely different to me because it's taking an unbelievably specific period of our history as a country and as the world and opening the curtain and creating the fictional lives inside of it. It reminded me of Ragtime. It was a time and place when the world was changing, but that wasn't about the building of a bomb. This is a very specific thing.

While it's set in the 1940s, the issues that Manhattan examines are incredibly timely.

Absolutely. That this may have been on some level — and you should pardon the expression — the nucleus, the birthplace of that kind of government-sanctioned society, a suburb built by the government where every move was watched, and maybe it was the birth of political cynicism. Maybe the bomb and the shock waves are endless of what happened in that time and place, but getting to revisit it is amazing.

What do you think Sean is doing now?

I think Sean is doing something that will make his sister proud. I think his mental illness was acute and very real and he needs to be medicated. Sean's gift to the legacy of his sister is trying to find balance. Trying to find a way to not deal with so many extremes so he can be about his nephew and not about him because, look, Sean and Cathy were both very selfish people, and it made for a very conflicted relationship. I hope that by learning how to be a good brother, he learned how to be a slightly more balanced guy, but I'm sure he still is in the back of some grocery store somewhere yelling at people for too much waste. (Laughs.)

You got to love that about him though.

He was so much more environmentally conscious than I've ever been in my entirety, so much. I bought a used Lexus GX right before I started filming that, and I don't have kids, my partner lives in L.A. and I was driving this big, gas-guzzling thing built for eight people. Halfway through that first season, I got rid of it. I sold it because Sean made me feel so guilty.

What about Pitch Perfect 2 — will you be back for the sequel, playing Beca's dad?

No. This movie is a road trip, and there's just no reason for Beca's dad to be there. It's crazy what a cultural phenomenon that movie became and how happy it makes people. I always tell people, not only am I the oldest guy in the movie, I'm the only old guy in the movie (laughs). Look around! Maybe John Michael Higgins is close to my age, but that's it. The rest of them are kids!

Manhattan premieres Sunday, July 27, on WGN America. The series also will debut on Tribune stations across the country.

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