An interview with Brian J. Smith

Brian J. Smith plays Webster O’Connor in World On Fire.

Published: 24 September 2019
Their relationship is so beautiful because Albert knows who he is, while Webster’s still figuring it out. He becomes this smitten teenager and it’s so lovely to put that kind of pure innocence and erotic attraction in the frame of this awful, awful stream of events.
— Brian J. Smith

What was it about the character of Webster that attracted you to the part?
The thing about Webster that really moves me is he’s someone who has found himself in Paris. He’s escaped from a pretty oppressive intolerant military family upbringing. They love him but they don’t understand him, and he’s found that Paris is the place where he is his absolute best self. He’s living in a dream world.

I was fascinated with someone who finds the dream and then the dream starts to collapse and fray. We see this individual who is just trying to keep his dream alive, even as it’s dissolving around him. I find that very moving and exciting to play, and also relevant to what’s happening in the world right now. I think a lot of people feel like the world that we know is slowly disappearing and we’re trying to fight to keep it alive.

We think about war taking away liberties but for some people, it provided an environment for them to find the freedom. Is that true for Webster?
The funny thing about war is that for all the tragedy and heartbreak that surrounds it, it forces most people to be the best that they can be. The books that I’ve read for my research explain how war brings out the best and worst in people. People still fall in love and still want to keep their own particular dream alive. A war situation, as awful as it is, provides normal people the opportunity to be extraordinary, which may not happen during times of peace. It can be a catalyst to bring out the best that humanity can be.

How does Webster meet Albert?
Webster visits an underground club, a very permissive jazz club run by Albert. Webster was brought up in Texas, which likely had a lot of intense racial undertones. With his sexuality, Webster found himself having to dial down the temperature - however in Paris and at Albert’s club he finds a place where he can be himself and live his dream. He sees this beautiful man, who in every sense is the opposite of who he is supposed to love. He’s been taught from the earliest time he can remember that feelings like his are wrong.

What effect does meeting Albert and falling in love have on Webster?
Their relationship is so beautiful because Albert knows who he is, while Webster’s still figuring it out. I always think of Webster as this puppy dog around Albert. He becomes this smitten teenager and it’s so lovely to put that kind of pure innocence and erotic attraction in the frame of this awful, awful stream of events that’s happening in the world. It makes those events feel more dangerous and it makes that love and that connection feel more vital because it is so threatened.

When Webster’s father comes to visit he feels like he is being pulled back into that world that he does not want to go back to. What happens?
Webster grew up gay in Texas with a military family and a very masculine culture. When you’re raised that way, the nervous system gets very good at putting on blinkers and seeing only what’s essential to survive. As the world starts to intrude on Webster and Albert, Webster is still, for better or for worse, very good at maintaining those blinkers, at keeping any threat at bay, because that’s how he learned to survive. Unfortunately, it has some unintentionally tragic consequences.

How does this show differ from other World War Two dramas?
Period dramas can often have a lot of clichés. You can fall in to traps. We think we know how people talked and we think we know how people behaved and what they wanted. To an extent we do, but a lot of it is handed down to us from movies and photographs.

These are great sources, but what I love about Peter’s series is that it is based on the idea that human nature is essentially unchanged. The people we are today, our rhythms of speech, our dreams and our desires would be very similar to people back then. Peter hasn’t written this in a way that feels stilted and staid. We have been encouraged to approach our performances, the look and the music in a way that tries to evoke the emotion of what those times felt like. It is a really smart thing to do because we are trying and find a way to make this feel contemporary, so that the problems and the danger that was going on back then can feel very relevant to what’s happening to us today.

What was important for you to convey through the relationship between Webster and Albert?
In regards to the relationship between Webster and Albert, I thought it was very important to be aware of the tension between freedom and paranoia. Being gay back then was unthinkable; homosexuality was illegal. It was seen as a sickness and you were taught that from an early age, therefore your nervous system is stressed in a way that has ramifications for the rest of your life.

Even though Webster and Albert live in liberal Paris, we tried to play with the tension between openly and publicly loving someone, but knowing that they can’t even so much as touch each other in public - that creates secrets between people. In a way, they become their own resistance, especially when the Nazis arrived and it is their love that fights back against the Nazis. Holding on to that is their way of shaking their fists at fascism and the Nazi belief.

What’s it been like working with Parker?
It's been such a dream. Something happens to Parker when you’re acting with him. We will be talking about hip-hop and rap one minute, then we’ll get ready to do the scene and as everything’s settling down, his face - and I don’t think I’ve ever seen this before with another actor - changes from the inside. It happens maybe over five seconds and Albert just appears from the inside out in this very gentle way.

It’s just so easy to be in love with him. To act with someone whom you feel that you can be safe with, and play the kind of scenes that we have to do, requires a kind of intimacy and vulnerability. That can really be difficult if you feel like you’re dealing with an actor who is uncomfortable with the subject matter or is doing it for the wrong reasons. I could not have picked or asked for someone who just makes all of that feel so easy and fun at the same time, because we really do have a lot of fun. Even if it’s a pretty intense scene, in our breaks we have tears running down our faces, laughing, just cracking each other up.

Who is Nancy to Webster?
Nancy is Webster’s aunt. Webster looked up to Nancy as this larger-than-life figure who would always come back to visit and bring him toys/gifts from her travels. He feels a kinship with her and they share a restlessness; a need to be out in the world and a need to not live a conventional life. He says to her pretty early on in a phone call that we’ll always be alike: “You and me are always going to be chasing danger.” That is possibly why Webster became a doctor and why he wants to stay in Paris, because there are some people that just really get off on danger. He gets that from Nancy, from this mysterious woman who came in and came out of his life so many times.

Music is going to be a big part of the drama. Have you been listening to any music of the time?
It’s a pretty big deal for me to put together a Spotify playlist of songs that are either descriptive of the character or evocative of the era or songs that I think that the character would really love.

There are some pieces that really speak to me. There’s Cello Sonata by Rachmaninoff. It’s this beautiful recording with Yo-Yo Ma and Emanuel Ax. The cello and the piano remind me of Albert and Webster. It’s something that I listen to sometimes if I need to immediately grab on to an emotion in a scene. It fuels their feeling for each other. It’s this thing you can't get with words but music can do it. There’s a piece of music, Cavalleria Rusticana, that to me feels like Webster’s relationship with Paris. It’s just this sweeping, almost corny piece of music, but it has that feeling of being free and to have your whole body alive and tingling. I think that’s what Webster feels like with Albert and living in Paris.

Do you relate to Webster in any way?
I absolutely do. I grew up in the suburbs in Texas during the Ronald Reagan era so, in a weird way, I understand what’s it like to grow up and be different, to not fit in to a culture. That’s just always been something I’ve loved and understood about Webster. You love your home in a way that it’s hard to describe, but I always did feel that need to get away and to travel and here I am - working in Prague and Manchester, living in Europe, and escaping an America that’s starting to feel less and less like any America I’ve known for the past 10 years.

Can you describe Webster’s look?
The fantastic thing about Nic, our costume designer, is that you can’t really call it a costume; he gives you clothes to wear. I remember he sent me an email really early on before filming explaining his thoughts on Webster and that he thought Webster would have played sports when he was young or tried to play sports as a way to fit in. Nic had this image of him being a jock and wearing clothes that are very tasteful.

Money isn’t a problem for Webster, and Nic saw Webster as a late-1930s, stylish jock. Right there Nic gave me 70 percent of the intangibles for the character that I would never have gotten on my own. The great thing about a production like this is that you’re dealing with designers who are making you a better actor. That’s an idea I could not have come up with on my own or probably would’ve taken me a long time to get to.

Did you have to do any of your own research? Is that something you do as an actor or is it all on the script?
In terms of research, it’s a conglomeration of a lot of stuff. For me, one of the joys of being an actor especially we’re doing period is really trying to immerse yourself in it. I found a really great book called Americans In Paris which is all about the Americans who chose to stay in Paris when the Nazis arrived - I believe their number was around 2,000.

I might be getting this completely wrong but I’ve been told there were around 180,000 Americans before the Nazis came. Two thousand stayed to work at the hospital and the embassy. African-Americans especially preferred to stay in Paris, even under Nazi control, than to have to go back to the United States and deal with the racial abuse that they had to deal with at that period of time. They were not even second-class citizens at that point. In Paris, they found that they were treated as human beings. Reading up about the American hospital, what exactly they did and who these people were. What an incredible generation of people. They were so brave and resisted in the ways that they could and really did.

Did it make you interested or think about your own family background for the war?
My great grandfather, (my dad’s mother’s dad) was in the Navy in the Pacific in World War II. He was actually a boxer and I think he won the Navy boxing championship. We still have the buckle somewhere in my family. As far as I know, my family tree does some really weird stuff around World War II, but he’s the only one that I know of that fought in the war. I actually got to read some letters that my grandmother still has that he wrote to his wife and the kids when he was overseas, and it’s fascinating to know that your family was a part of that war.

Character Descriptions

NANCY CAMPBELL

Played by Helen Hunt
American broadcaster and journalist NANCY CAMPBELL is addicted to war. She can’t stay away. It isn’t just the adrenalin, but the puzzle of war - the puzzle of human nature – she craves. NANCY, in Warsaw in 1939, crosses the border to Germany and spends the first eighteen months of the war in Berlin as part of the overseas press corps. Her ability to befriend her German neighbours as well as army officers sees NANCY report those stories at the very forefront of the Nazi regime; some they are happy to have broadcast to the world, while others, they are determined to keep hidden. No surprise then, that NANCY is driven by getting those forbidden stories out of Berlin - at huge personal risk.

ROBINA CHASE
Played by Lesley Manville
When her son HARRY, finds himself on the wrong side of the law protesting against Oswald Mosley, ROBINA CHASE despairs, only slightly comforted in the knowledge he is soon to travel to Warsaw for a job as a translator. After HARRY’S father died in the most tragic of circumstances, ROBINA was left to raise HARRY alone. She has done so with the sole aim of making him a man of great social standing, but so far, HARRY is proving only to disappoint. His love for two different women - both, in ROBINA's eyes, highly unsuitable - has far reaching consequences, and her frustration is exacerbated when HARRY returns prematurely from Poland, following the Nazi invasion, with a Polish refugee in tow. ROBINA - despite her will and better judgement - finds herself with a house guest she had never expected. Against the odds, the war is set to change this cold and austere woman, as much as it will HARRY.

DOUGLAS BENNETT
Played by Sean Bean
DOUGLAS BENNETT is a pacifist who was mustard-gassed in the First World War. He watches as his son and daughter go off to war, despite the fact that he is a pacifist. With both children away, he finds solace in unlikely friendships; with HARRY CHASE’s mother, ROBINA, and the young Polish refugee she has reluctantly taken into her home. DOUGLAS’s worst fear looks set to become reality when his son TOM finds himself aboard HMS Exeter, a ship that eventually faces German ship the Graf Spee in one of the first major battles of the war. Desperate for news of TOM, the uncertainty of his son’s wellbeing and the haunting horrors of his own experience of battle look set to overwhelm him, until unexpected news from his daughter LOIS gives him renewed hope for the future.

HARRY CHASE
Played by Jonah Hauer-King
HARRY CHASE is a young Englishman with a flair for languages, deceit and heartbreak. A talented translator, HARRY is in Warsaw Woking for the British embassy. Caught in an explosive love triangle between his Mancunian girlfriend LOIS BENNETT, and local Warsaw girl KASIA TOMASZESKI, when war breaks out, HARRY has choices to make, fast. With KASIA's life in danger, he knows that there is one place she would be safe: Manchester. But how will he explain this to LOIS, and, what's more, to his mother? Funny, handsome and clever, life has been easy for HARRY so far – but war changes this forever. An idealist, a rebel, perhaps HARRY always just needed a cause – and the cause is the war. The series will take him all the way from Warsaw to Dunkirk, as he learns to lead, to fight, and to find out what he truly believes in.

LOIS BENNETT
Played by Julia Brown
LOIS BENNETT is a Mancunian factory worker. At home she is the lone girl in a family of men with the responsibility of looking after her fragile father and a wayward brother. Despite opposition from his snobbish mother, LOIS is in love with HARRY. HARRY betrays her with KASIA whom he meets in Warsaw. His betrayal seems to simultaneously break her heart and open her mind. Later, she will reflect that it was as though love blocked out the rest of the world; once he had gone, she could finally see what she was missing. A talented singer, LOIS and her musical partner, CONNIE KNIGHT are determined to make their own contribution to the war effort. LOIS finds her place – and adventure – in the form of ENSA, the War’s Entertainment Corps, and heads off to perform for the troops in Northern France.

TOM BENNETT
Played by Ewan Mitchell
On the pull or on the make, TOM BENNETT brings nothing but trouble to sister LOIS and his father, DOUGLAS. With the police having caught up with him after his latest swindle, TOM avoids prison only by vowing to join the forces, when all the while he intends to dodge action altogether, as a conscientious objector. By the end of episode two, however, TOM has joined the Navy, and is about to face a personal and a military battle of equal, epic proportion.

KASIA TOMASZESKI
Played by Zofia Wichłacz
KASIA starts the war as a waitress in one of Warsaw’s many bars and cafés, already in a passionate love affair with the young English translator, HARRY CHASE, unaware that he already has a girl at home. Her father STEFAN and brother GRZEGORZ depart for Danzig to defend against the imminent German invasion, leaving KASIA with mother, MARIA and younger brother, JAN, at home in the city. Within days of the war beginning, KASIA’s family has each faced the cruel reality of this brutal conflict, and KASIA is faced with terrible choices between protecting her family and her own safety and freedom. KASIA joins the Polish resistance and her war becomes one of subterfuge, excruciating danger and constant fear of betrayal.

GRZEGORZ TOMASZESKI
Played by Mateusz Więcławek
GRZEGORZ TOMASZESKI is not built for battle. A naïve and loving teenager, he wants only to prove himself to his father. Entirely unprepared for the horror that awaits, GRZEGORZ heads to Danzig with STEFAN to defend the city at the outbreak of war, only to face tragedy before the day is out. Like his sister KASIA, life is set only to get tougher for GRZEGORZ, and the devastating battle at Danzig is just the beginning of his wartime anguish. He makes firm friends with KONRAD, a brave man more suited to the challenges conflict brings, and together they eventually flee Poland and make their way through Europe, in the hope their lives can be spared, as so many of their fellow countrymen brutally lose theirs.

WEBSTER O’CONNOR
Played by Brian J. Smith
When we discover WEBSTER in September 1939, he is working in the increasingly busy corridors of the American hospital of Paris. When France is threatened and occupied, despite the efforts of his aunt NANCY, WEBSTER stays in Paris and he fights. At first as a surgeon in a neutral hospital, and then a surgeon in a neutral hospital under Nazi occupation, WEBSTER finds himself fighting on all fronts; for his own identity and freedom, for his lover ALBERT’s freedom, and for those patients who, as of May 1940, are prisoners of war. With the help of friend HENRIETTE, a local French nurse, they begin a system of smuggling patients out of the hospital and beyond, all beneath Nazi noses.

ALBERT FALLOU
Played by Parker Sawyers
Jazz musician ALBERT FALLOU is deeply in love with American doctor WEBSTER O’CONNOR. When the Germans invade, ALBERT grows worried for his and WEBSTER’s safety, and for his own freedom as a Parisian of west-African heritage. When WEBSTER and his colleague HENRIETTE trial their plan to smuggle patients out of the hospital, ALBERT is keen to leave too, and turns to WEBSTER for help. WEBSTER is keen for them to stay put. Before long, however, ALBERT’s fears become their reality, and he is interned in a camp just outside Paris, where he defies their racial profiling by forming a classical orchestra of inmates.

STAN RADDINGS
Played by Blake Harrison
HARRY’s sergeant, STAN RADDINGS, is a working-class southerner with an enormous heart, sometimes concealed behind an unwittingly tactless exterior. A brilliant soldier, STAN is a committed, knowledgeable and loyal sergeant, and when, in their early days of battle, HARRY becomes overwhelmed by the task before him, STAN steps up to set him, and their unit, back on the right path.

HENRIETTE GUILBERT
Played by Eugénie Derouand
HENRIETTE is a nurse at the American hospital in Paris and WEBSTER’s closest ally there. She is a brilliant nurse and they’ve grown close over time. HENRIETTE, as well as being a little in love with WEBSTER is also hiding a more important secret. When war breaks out, and Paris falls to the Nazis, HENRIETTE conceals her Jewish heritage, working with WEBSTER to smuggle French prisoners of war out of the hospital under the noses of the Nazi authorities.

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