The Reluctant Conspirator in 'The Man in the High Castle'
'Inverse' speaks to actor Brennan Brown about making Robert Childan a complete character and how the show has become sadly topical.
Perhaps overlooked at first, a stressed-out antiques salesman named Robert Childan is turning out to be one of the most important characters in Amazon’s original series The Man in the High Castle. The show, an adaptation of the Philip K. Dick novel that imagines what the world would be like if the Axis powers won, slowly builds Childan up from a minor character to a key cog in the uprising against the Japanese, who occupy the west coast of the former United States. And, in Season 2, Childan’s role in all of it might have some deadly consequences.
Brennan Brown, who plays the unassuming merchant, stepped into the spotlight this season, and spoke with Inverse last week about the show’s sudden resonance, building Childan’s character, and thinking about the big picture of Season 3.
Do you think the show has become more topical since the presidential election?
It undoubtedly has. The book was written in 1962, and the show doesn’t directly address the specifics of what’s happening in our country right now, but one of the real joys about the book is that like any great work of art, it’s universal. It speaks to the constant human condition as opposed to a response to specific current events.
It’s a little sad that we’re dealing with the same issues over and over, with human rights being threatened, the loss of individuality, racism, imperialism, colonialism, how people respond when dictatorial regimes take power — all of the things that Philip K. Dick addressed in the book.
Do you think it’s imperative for the show to be a commentary and not just an escape?
I hope the show inspires people to think about what’s happening, and offer some comfort with what the show is trying to demonstrate of the human struggle we’re constantly facing.
What Philip K. Dick is trying to say in his work is to question authenticity and how we experience reality. I think so many people are looking at the country right now and saying, “This can’t be real. There has to be something more going on.” I think we all ask ourselves is what I’m experiencing the sum total of that reality? Hopefully the show offers people solace in that they’re not alone feeling like that.
Childan represents someone trying to bridge a us-vs.-them divide. Do you think he’s a good representation of how people can approach that sort of problem in terms of the choices he makes?
He’s caught up in it. Childan is desperate to be accepted. He’s a character who’s bought in totally to the colonialized frame of mind. He’s going to use the power structure in the Pacific States to his advantage. What Philip K. Dick was showing with Childan was the violence colonialization does to an individual’s psyche. Childan loves the Japanese, he wants to be Japanese, and he starts looking down on his own race because of the enforced class system set up by the conquering forces. He’s the tortured mentality of the Stockholm Syndrome in how he begins to love his oppressors but also hate them.
The source material for Childan is so rich, and one of the reasons he’s so fun to play is that he’s so tortured and contradictory. I don’t know that that’s a template for anybody looking at the world right now.
I guess I was looking at it like he’s in that situation, but he also learns to accept and be accepted by rebels Frank and Ed as well.
What people can take from Childan this season is that he begins to care about people who are other than himself. He’s been in it in a venal way to get status and power and money. But he begins to see there’s something more with Frank and Ed. Childan is so isolated and lonely, but desperate for human contact. When he gets that with Frank and Ed it dawns on him that they’re giving him an emotional solace.
One of my favorite moments of the second season is the brief scene of Childan and the prostitute where he has her tell him in Japanese, “You are truly a man of great culture and rare taste.”
I actually pitched that scene! The writers were very generous in asking for ideas, and they wanted to know if I had any ideas for that Episode 7 transition. I wanted to show Childan in a different light.
I thought about the idea of her dressing up as a Japanese woman because Childan would want a Japanese woman, but that would be impossible in the structure of the society. It just made sense with the identity themes, but also the gender dynamics of that society. I wanted a scene that wasn’t exploitative but instead highlighted his loneliness.
It has to be difficult to internalize a lot of the harrowing stuff that happens to Childan, but he’s also the kind of uncomfortable comic relief in such a serious show. Is that tough?
It’s a dark show, there’s a lot of justifiably bleak stuff happening, but the show needs some release to counterbalance that. It was extremely important to me that the comedy be utterly organic to the character and no in any way winking at the audience to play for a laugh. If that happened it would cheapen everything. If the character was doing pratfalls we’d be in big trouble.
What is it like being on a show that has such a huge ensemble like this. Are you cognizant of the many moving narrative parts while shooting the show?
I didn’t have a ton of scripts available right away, and they came to us as we were shooting. I had a general idea of where the character and the show was going, and as an actor the more information I have the better. Each episode is so enormous, and the scope is so vast it’s like shooting a feature film every ten days.
Season 2 leaves off on some big cliffhangers. Do you talk about big picture stuff while on-set beyond or into Season 3?
We talk about that for sure. But shooting this season was all about getting it done. It was difficult, but we definitely thought about future stuff. It’s just that we’re thinking about more in earnest now that we have the mental energy to flesh out the notions we had last summer. We just want to raise the bar every time with every season.
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.