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Chicago actor stars in ‘Manhattan’ — about the making of the A-bomb
Perhaps best known for being part of the ensemble cast in the Oscar-winning “Argo,” South Suburban native Christopher Denham now stars in the series “Manhattan,” 9 p.m. Sundays on WGN America.
The young actor plays one of the scientists who worked on the famous, super-secret “Manhattan Project” — that grew out of research originally conducted at the University of Chicago — leading to the development of the atomic bomb that brought an end to World War II.
Q: It’s always nice to talk to a local guy. You grew up on the South Side, right?
A: Yes, I grew up in Blue Island, and then later Alsip, right off of the I-57 there.
Q: How are you enjoying being part of ‘Manhattan’?
A: I am. It’s certainly different from anything else you might be tuning into these days. The quality of the writing was what jumped out to me when I first read it. Half of our writing staff are reformed novelists, so they take an approach that is really character based.
Q: As you well know, there’s a strong Chicago connection to your show, since the Manhattan Project began here.
A: If there is a season two, I’m really hoping for a stronger Chicago connection, or subplot, so I could come back and work in Illinois. Of course, Chicago was a huge, huge part of the real history.
Q: Tell us about the part you play. What’s he like?
A: I play Jim Meeks, who’s a younger experimental physicist, who’s recruited by Frank Winter, who is the sort of head physicist of our little implosion division. We’re sort of the ‘Bad News Bears’ of the group. We’re not exactly the ‘A Team,’ which is historically how it happened. This idea of creating a bomb via this implosion technique was considered really divisive. A lot of people thought we were off out rockers, as far as the way to go to develop the bomb.
In the beginning, we’re sort of the misfits working in the back of a shed on the campus of Los Alamos in New Mexico, trying to putting the thing together.
Q: Of course, the atomic bomb is a horrible weapon of mass destruction, but President Truman was convinced — as were many others — that it did end the war more quickly and ultimately save many more lives from being killed. What do you think about that argument?
A: Yes, that’s true. And the moral arguments surrounding that and a lot of the ambiguity involved are shown on the show. Some characters have brothers fighting overseas. So there’s this impetus to get this thing done before the Germans do it.
We have to remember to see this story through the prism of history — and not how we may feel today.
Q: How is that worked into the show?
A: For all we knew, as our characters in “Manhattan,” the Germans were months ahead of us in developing the bomb — and New York could have been obliterated at any time. There’s ticking time bomb element to the show.
Q: Are you shooting this in New Mexico?
A: We are. We are in Santa Fe for the most part — about 30 minutes from the real Los Alamos. It’s been a great opportunity, because we’ve had people come through whose parents were working at Los Alamos, and they almost pass out when they see our sets — because the designers have gone to great lengths to capture the true, historic accuracy of the place. It’s enormous. They built what is like a 22-acre soundstage for this show. It’s just amazing
Q: Is that a big plus for you as an actor — to get into character.
A: It makes it so much easier. You can just walk down these hallways and you’re not confined to such a little soundstage — and it helps you think you are back in the mid-1940s.
Q: I have to ask you — even though a couple of years have passed — it must have been quite the experience to have been a part of “Argo.”
A: Both of these jobs have something in common. They’re similar in a way, because they’re both ensemble stories — stories about a group. There’s such a variety of actors involved and we all bring something different to the table. We have a great assortment of guys.
Q: Did you catch the acting bug at an early age?
A: I certainly did. I did theater in high school, down on the South Side at Marist High School. Then, smartly, I went over to the all-girls high school down the block — Mother McAuley — and did some plays there.
Later, I did a play at Steppenwolf called “Red Light Winter,” and of course that’s kind of a validation — working at Steppenwolf — for any actor coming out of Chicago.
There is sort of that quality of the Chicago actor that I’m glad I was exposed to early on. There’s that aggressiveness to it. Like that [John] Malkovich-[Gary] Sinise style of acting that’s so terrific. Hopefully, I try to take a bit of that with me. If I have one-tenth of their success I’d be happy!
Q: Besides “Manhattan,” what else do you have going on?
A: I just wrote and directed a film called “Preservation.” It’s sort of a thriller, starring Pablo Schreiber who’s currently on “Orange is the New Black.” Plus the cast also included Aaron Staton who was a regular on “Mad Men,” playing Ken Cosgrove.