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In the first half hour of Netflix series Transatlantic, we get a sense of the range of Lucas Englander.
When we meet the Austrian actor, who plays Albert Hirschman in Netflix’s new international series, he’s a bedraggled refugee, stumbling down the hill toward the beach at Marseilles, the “last free port” in Nazi-occupied France, circa 1940. Spotting the waters of the Mediterranean, he stops. Then breaks into a run. Hitting the beach, he strips off his grimy clothes and plunges into the water, letting out a whoop of pure joy, like a child on the first day of summer. A few scenes later, Englander plays Hirschman as the suave lothario. In a bluff to get past a checkpoint, he pretends to be the lover of American heiress Mary Jayne Gold (Gillian Jacobs), whom he met moments earlier, wrapping his arm around her and giving her a brazen smooch. Later, Englander as Hirschman goes full Nazi: impersonating a Gestapo agent, he screams (in German) at a pair of French border guards about to arrest refugees trying to escape. The ploy works: the browbeaten “flics” scuttle away, tails between their legs.
As the series progresses, we see the many faces of Hirschman, aka Englander: as negotiator and go-between for the American-led Emergency Rescue Committee (ERC), helping fellow refugees escape Nazi terror in the 1940s. As a makeshift spy, helping to spring English soldiers from a German POW camp. As a would-be revolutionary, planting bombs and staging attacks on Nazi targets.
Community alum Jacobs and Cory Michael Smith (Gotham, Carol), who plays Varian Fry, the American journalist who led the ERC effort in Marseilles, are the “stars” of Transatlantic, but Englander is the show’s true revelation. The 30-year-old actor has had a handful of bit roles in big productions — on Sky’s Catherine The Great, Netflix’s The Witcher and in Warner Bros.’ Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore. But Transatlantic marks his first leading role in a major series.
Even in Europe, Englander is largely unknown. His most prominent roles to date have come in France: in Parlament, a satire on European Union politics — think Veep for the EU — that streams on French VOD service france.tv, and in Marc Fitoussi’s 2020 French thriller Appearances. In the former, he plays the unctuous political assistant Torsten Muckenstrum. In Appearances, in a performance that got him shortlisted for France’s César award for best newcomer, he plays a seemingly ordinary young man who romances Karin Viard, before revealing himself to be a stalking psychopath.
Transatlantic co-creator and showrunner Anna Winger says she cast Englander as Albert Hirschman after a single Zoom call, without having seen any of his previous performances.
Watching Transatlantic, it’s not hard to see why. While the actor says he had “zero knowledge” of Hirschman before reading the series’ script, his and Hirschman’s family histories are closely intertwined.
“My grandfather was a World War II refugee to the United States. He was a quarter Jewish, but that was too Jewish for the Nazis. He worked with the rescue committee to help Austrian immigrants escape,” says Englander. “The stories from my family are very similar to Hirschman’s. I can understand Albert’s energy, that desire to help and try and do something good, but also that vengeance and anger, the burning to fight back.”
Just how close Englander’s performance is to the real Hirschman, and how close the series aligns with the historical record, is a bit beside the point. Transatlantic, from the producers of the Emmy-winning Unorthodox, takes inspiration from the incredible history of the ERC — the group helped more than 2,000 refugees emigrate — but the show, which premiered on Netflix on April 7, is self-consciously fiction. Inspired by Julie Orringer’s novel The Flight Portfolio, the series borrows heavily from the romantic melodramas and screwball comedies of 1940s Hollywood (many of which were created by recent WWII emigres). We even get a scene with Englander, as Hirschman, donning a bellhop uniform to avoid detection by the Wehrmacht: more Jerry Lewis than docudrama.
“Because it’s fiction, I attached myself to the experience of the script, and didn’t try to create an imitation of the real man,” says Englander. “I watched a video of him from a court trial after the war, a trial of a Nazi general where Hirschman was a translator, but that was just to get an idea of his voice, how does he roll his R’s, how good is his English, that sort of thing. But we changed things. The real Albert spoke fluent French, almost without an accent. Our Albert speaks very good English but not that great French. I see him, much like myself, as someone who, because they’ve traveled around so much, are able to be a chameleon in language.”
Englander’s English, like his fictionalized Hirschman, has a clear American tilt, a result of his time at the Stella Adler Studio in New York. “I spent a half-hour every day just working on my accent, it was part of trying to assimilate and adapt to the culture,” he notes. His French is similarly impressive. In Parlament, Torsten’s sarcastic barbs are equally sharp when delivered in English, French or German. Over the course of Transatlantic, Hirschman’s accent subtly shifts, depending on what language he’s speaking and to whom he’s speaking.
“People might see that as a mistake, but it’s something I did deliberately, because it is what happens, when you speak different languages and you are among people who speak differently,” he says. “If you have a good ear, you start to change your accent to match who you’re talking to.”
But Englander doesn’t view acting as a way to hide his true identity. In fact, he says, for him performing has always been a way of revealing inner truths.
“I started acting when I was about 19 years old. It happened by accident,” he recalls. “My teacher chose me to do an improvisation in front of the whole class. It was about a subject very close to me and, for the first time in my life, I felt like I was being really truthful. Not trying to please society, or be strong, or an alpha male, or whatever. I felt my life up to then — I’m 30 now but I was born in Vienna and I grew up in a very patriarchal society where I was taught that being strong meant don’t show weakness, don’t show pain — had been pretending. That improvisation was the first grain of deconstruction, of allowing myself out of the box I’d been put into. I came right home and told my mum: I want to be an actor.”
While he didn’t take a method approach to recreating Albert Hirschman for Transatlantic, Englander says the role has had a direct impact on his life. He’s joined the International Rescue Committee — the successor group to the ERC — and become involved in Serve the City Paris, a group that helps asylum seekers, refugees, the homeless and underprivileged living in the French capital.
“I’ve become, in the words of Albert Hirschman, a ‘possible-ist,’ which is different from being an optimist,” says Englander. “I think we can be blinded by optimism. What I’ve learned from Albert is that we need to look at reality, at the dirty notions that are inside of us and are in our society, and work on that together. It’s a big thing to say but this series has changed my life.”
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