Chimerica: Interview with F Murray Abraham (Frank Sams)

Category: Interview

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

It's literate, smart, and it's so well written. Chimerica deals with material that's truly important, and I think that's not too common these days. It’s clear that there are serious problems and corruption in the relationship between China and America and exploring these issues through a drama intrigues me.

What resonates most with me about the time we live in now, and the context of the series in the lead up to the 2016 elections, is the absence of a press that the general public seems to trust. I don't know how you re-establish trust in the press and in news organisations when the President of the United States says that they're all fake, and many people seem to believe him.

The idea that the only source of truth is in the mouth of one man - that's dangerous, and the press exists to balance that and act as the Fourth Estate. If you look at cases of reporters around the world that are being targeted or assassinated at an alarming rate - doesn't that tell you anything? It tells me something: the truth is dangerous.

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 Frank’s relationship with the truth and what it means to him?

This question of the media changing because of electronics, reminds me of a question that's asked about the difference between acting in the theatre, which is what I do a lot of, and acting in front of a camera. There are technical difficulties and differences that have to be mastered but essentially, the truth is the truth. It doesn't matter the medium.  The first thing we have to begin to examine is whether there is such a thing as the truth? What is the truth? That's what we have to find out.

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 speaks to two things. First of all: courage of that man. The impulse and the catharsis that he experienced, and through him, we experienced. That was essentially what we saw, but secondly, that encounter brought out the best in the driver of that tank. We can't dismiss that. In contrast there have been incidents in the Gaza Strip, for example, when people have stood up in protest and been violently killed.

Can you discuss Frank’s conflict as an old-school news man facing a changing media landscape following the rise of social media, citizen journalism, and fake news?

I love that Frank Sams is a Republican who adores Kissinger, someone I don't adore, but he still insists on voting against Trump. He's in danger of losing his job if he doesn't keep up, and he's hip enough to know that. He will learn to tweet but that doesn't save him from people 25 or 30 years younger than he is, with the same ambitions he had when he was starting out. He may be an old pro, but he realises he'd better start scrambling. I like the idea that he doesn't quit in the face of it - he accepts it. This change in the landscape is forced on him, but he doesn't just turn tail and run. I admire people like that. I don't think Frank is afraid of change, I think he just regrets the loss of the hands-on operation. But essentially, it still comes down to that reporter going out and getting this story. That doesn't change.

Can you tell us a little bit about Frank’s relationship with Lee?

I think Frank just simply likes him and maybe sees Lee as a surrogate son. Frank also sees something in Lee that he had in himself as a young reporter - he doesn't give up. He's like a terrier, so single-minded. Frank sticks by Lee when his photographic fraud is exposed, even though it goes against all of Frank’s principles.

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?

I think that it is suggesting that it's possible to make change. That it's not only possible, it's necessary to pursue it, to believe that you can change things.

What do you hope audiences will take away from Chimerica?

Hope. A little more respect for the news media, and for the truth.