Chimerica: Interview with Alessandro Nivola (Lee)

Category: Interview

What were your first impressions reading Lucy Kirkwood's script?

I hadn't seen the play so I came to it completely innocently, and it just seemed to me to be both relevant politically and to be a character study that was going to be exciting for me personally. It felt irresistible.

Could you set up the story of Chimerica for us?

The story follows a photographer who when he was very young had found himself in Beijing in 1989, right around the turn of the protest in Tiananmen Square - and ended up being one of the few photographers who captured this iconic image of a man standing in front of the tanks the day after a civilian massacre. That picture, and that experience, really changed his life – making him a celebrated war photographer and launching his career in photojournalism.

25 years later, after he has lived a life in war zones and been somewhat traumatized by them, he takes another iconic photo in Syria of a woman reaching out to her dead child, which is tipped to win a Pulitzer prize. It comes out that he's doctored the photo and this discovery destroys his life - it ruins his career and undermines his credibility completely. After that happens, he becomes obsessed with this notion that if he could find the Tank Man, the subject of his most famous picture, that it would restore the legitimacy to him both as a photojournalist and also as a human being.

The image of the anonymous Tank Man in Tiananmen Square is at the centre of this narrative, why do you think it’s such a powerful photograph?

It’s an image of one man who represents a kind of everyman - standing there with two shopping bags and unremarkable clothes - and there's something about him that just seems totally humble standing in the face of this huge military apparatus. The line of tanks were rolling through that square as a show of state and military might, and the idea that one person could actually stand in the way of that represents a feeling that every person counts. There's this incredible heroism and bravery in being able to really sacrifice your life for what you believe in.

Tell us about Lee Berger and his backstory. Can you also tell us about his ideals and how they are being challenged?

A fictional photojournalist, Lee has left wing politics, he’s a Bernie Sanders supporter and has lived his life trying to defend people who are the subject of abuse and violence in war zones throughout the world. He feels enraged by the political status quo in America and by the insincerity of politicians - both on the left and on the right - but he is also such an idealist. He can't really handle feeling like he isn’t able to effect change through the usual channels and playing by the rules doesn't seem to get him anywhere. That’s why he ends up doctoring his photo - because he can't seem to get pictures of Syria on the front page any other way. The frustration of his own impotence leads him to bend the rules in a way that - at this particular moment when the truth is so important because there's so many lies being told in the political arena - was just unacceptable.

The series deals with our relationship to truth and how it has changed over the years, particularly due to advances in technology (photo manipulation, social media, 24-hour news cycle etc). Can you speak about Lee’s relationship with the truth and what it means to him?

The moment that we're living in right now seems to be one where fact and fiction are being blurred constantly in the political arena, so more than ever there is a need for vigilance within the media. Sometimes the truth isn't enough to capture people's attention and I think that that's Lee's main frustration - nobody really seems to care about suffering or conflict unless it's packaged in the perfect image. The need to manufacture that perfect image and turn people's attention towards different kinds of injustice is what drives Lee to cheat his photograph.

How has Lee changed from the young photographer in Tiananmen Square we see in the opening of Chimerica to the man he is in 2016?

In the beginning of the story he's a young guy and he stumbles into a situation that he didn't even know was going to be as important as it turned out to be. In the time between 1989 and now he's lived a thousand lives and seen things that I think he maybe wished that he hadn't seen. He's also become a kind of nomadic person who hasn't really been able to hold down relationships at home because he's addicted to the adrenalin of being in war zones.

He's got a rapidly ticking heart and it takes the form of this obsessive behaviour in his quest to find the Tank Man. It becomes almost pathological and he starts to lose sight of all the ways that he's actually damaging people's lives, and everything that he's sacrificing in order to identify this one man. This series more than anything is about the way that good intentions can pave the road to hell.

What has it been like working with Lucy Kirkwood on creating your character?

Lucy is an incredibly bright mind who is understandably a writer in demand. The play was a big success but she has come to this adaptation as a four part television series with a completely open mind. She has worked to incorporate all the things that are going on today - when she originally wrote the play it was before Trump, before that election and everything that's happened in the past couple of years which has changed the political temperature in such an extreme way. I think she's really treating it as a kind of new work. 

Have you found any ways in which you can relate to Lee?

I don't want to talk about acting in some pretentious way but when you're doing a job like this you kind of don't really think about anything else - it's all-consuming in a way that's sometimes painful to yourself and to the people you love and care about.  That intense feeling of single-minded purpose that Lee has is something I can identify with in my own life.

What do you think the story of Chimerica shows about the power of protest, and the capacity of journalists and individual citizens to effect political change?

Chimerica isn’t making a political statement so much as it's just trying to reflect what's going on today in a nuanced and interesting way. In my mind the politics are a backdrop to this story - not the story itself. The story itself is an exploration of the way that one person's obsession – even with something that seems like a noble aspiration - can really ruin a lot of people's lives. Alongside that it does grapple with all of these questions about how interlaced Chinese politics and economics are with the US's politics and economics, and it explores themes of freedom of the press and freedom of expression.

Chimerica highlights the ways in which the US seems to be a free society but might not be as democratic or liberal as it appears. It looks at the subtle ways that people can express themselves and protest in societies that are more repressive – it does grapple with all of those things but I don’t think it’s trying to be a political polemic. The politics are a relevant backdrop for a personal story.

What’s the most interesting thing you’ve learned through the experience of filming the series or researching your role?

Lucy's made a big effort to try and expose some of the fallibility on the Left as well as the Right in an effort to avoid the series seeming to be just a condemnation of Trump - so she’s included certain facts about the Left which I certainly hadn't been aware of, which was interesting.

Some of the details just about the Tank Man photograph and the way that he disappeared after the moment in the photograph were very interesting. When these protests happened there were a lot of public executions of any dissenters in China, and so the fact that this guy disappeared without there being images of him on television with a bullet through his head were surprising - and that's what's created a lot of mystery around his disappearance.  Right after he faced off with the tanks, a man on a bicycle comes along, sort of gracefully and slowly, and ushers the Tank Man gently out of the way and into the crowd – and then is never seen again. And so that exit from that moment that was so charged was so graceful and gentle and strange it’s given rise to so much speculation about what might have happened to him.

Can you tell us a little bit about Lee’s relationship with Tess and what attracts him to her?

Lee and Tess's relationship is really an instance of opposites attracting. He has gone out with a lot of Left Wing radicals and his most recent girlfriend is somebody who's organized major resistance activity from the Occupy movement to the Dakota Access Pipeline protests. When he meets Tess she just seems like the most unlikely person for him - she does profiling for an American credit card company and is spending time in China trying to find new markets for them. Everything that she stands for is in opposition to his politics and his belief system but she's really bright and sharp which attracts and challenges him. She has a spiky acerbic wit and he meets her at a time in his life of real vulnerability, but she doesn't treat him as a charity case and he likes that about her. But he's never been out with somebody who wears a suit!

What has it been like working with director Michael Keillor, and can you describe his approach to the story?

Michael is really dry, and really cool, and really Scottish.  The best directors tend to have both a natural authority but also an openness and willingness to accept input from all the

people that they're collaborating with – and Michael does that effortlessly. He has a clear vision of this piece as primarily a personal story, but also a recognition that the political machinations are very present in every scene. 

Did you do any specific research for the role?

I read “The Shattered Lens” by Jonathan Alpeyrie – he is a war photographer who was kidnapped in Syria while on an assignment, which was a fascinating insight into the reality of covering war zones.

I also connected with a photographer named Tony Vaccaro, who took iconic pictures in the Second World War and went on to cover fashion, celebrities and politicians. He happened to have photographed my grandfather, an Italian immigrant to the US in the 1950s who was an abstract expressionist sculptor. I found out about the images by complete coincidence and then only weeks later got this role – so he was the first person I spoke to about what it was like to work as a photojournalist.

What do you hope audiences will take away from Chimerica?

Chimerica will sweep audiences up in a paranoid thriller – watching a man unravel because of his inability to let go of his fixation. Alongside that it’s also so relevant to our current political climate and the world we’re living in. I also think it will challenge people’s preconceptions and maybe highlight the extent to which China and America are interwoven more than people realise.