What were your first impressions reading Lucy Kirkwood's script?
I said yes after the first 25 pages. Lucy’s intellect and ability to take huge ideas and then window them into these wonderfully flawed characters and create a cracking story is just brilliant.
Could you set up the story of Chimerica for us?
Chimerica is two stories really. It begins during the catastrophe at Tiananmen Square in 1989 – a young college freshman photographer, Lee Berger, gets a shot of a man with his white shopping bags standing in front of the tanks. Fast forward to 2016, Lee is now a photojournalist working in warzones. Whilst in Syria, he misses the iconic shot he needs. He makes the fateful decision to digitally combine two photos– and it destroys his credibility and his career. In his mind he thinks that he can redeem himself by tracking down the Tank Man alive and well for a story, that it will repair his reputation and win him his job back. My character Mel, a war journalist, has known Lee since he was a boy – they’ve been in the trenches together, so she’s supportive but very honest with him.
On the other side of the world in Beijing we have the story of Zhang Lin, an English teacher who lost his beautiful young wife at Tiananmen Square. She was the activist in the relationship, living in the square for two months. He’s tormented by her death, lost, and like Lee in New York, he’s starting to descend into a downward spiral.
There are all sorts of political intrigue surrounding both of these stories and the way both governments manipulate and use their citizens and use each other. What is truth, what are facts and what is fiction?
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?
Because everyone identifies with him and no-one wants to be him. It’s fascinating to try and understand the courage, the frustration, the despondency or whatever it was, that made someone so utterly fearless.
Tell us about Mel and her backstory. What kind of challenges does she face?
Mel is a hard-bitten intellectual war journalist who has always been more comfortable in the field. That was her stock and trade for most of her adult life. She’s since settled down, fallen in love and married a woman. They have a young boy who has real emotional problems so she’s taken a more sedate job at the newspaper. She reconnects her working relationship with Lee at the October 2016 Trump rally and that’s where their friendship starts to be tested.
I don’t think of Mel as maternal necessarily but there’s a protectiveness with Lee – she thinks of him not as a son, not even as a brother really, but as this young man that she treasures as much as anyone in her life. She’s watched him grow up and mature into this superb photojournalist so the impact of his professional fall from grace on both of their lives, and their friendship, is devastating.
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 Mel’s relationship with the truth and what it means to her?
I think there’s a line in the script where Mel says to Lee: “In news you don’t have anything except your credibility”. That’s it. So many in America who call themselves journalists are just propagandists but the true journalists, the PBS journalists, the major newspapers, they still have to fact check and fact check and fact check. Any errors are immediately reported and corrected, unlike the current administration.
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?
It shows that even Tiananmen Square, the Arab Spring or the Parkland students, all protests that ricocheted around the world – they may become historical footnotes, we don’t know to what extent yet but footnotes that may rise at times, vibrate with greater weight and importance before fading again. But they’ll always be there and hopefully those reverberations, those footnotes in history, no matter how catastrophic and huge, and horrific they were, hopefully they will make a difference, whether it takes 20, 30 or 100 years. It’s those protests that demonstrate the resilience of the human spirit.
What do you hope audiences will take away from Chimerica?
That we must never make assumptions about one another, that everyone has such a complicated story. That no-one is immune from pain and suffering, that no-one is alone - until they are by fate or sadly their own making. It’s about how we live with ourselves when we find that we are alone. In a way both Lee and Zhang-Lin are alone, one with valour and one with his own demons, so I hope it makes the audience feel less alone in their own flaws.