WGN America will debut its second original scripted series, “Manhattan,” on July 27. In preparation for the 1940s period drama, which surrounds the scientists tasked with developing the atomic bomb in New Mexico — and their in-the-dark families — Zap2it caught up with the cast for a Q&A about their new show. Up next is Katja Herbers, who plays brilliant scientist Helen Prins, the lone woman on Frank Winter’s scientific team.
Zap2it: Which is more challenging: ’40s fashion or nuclear physics?
Herbers: Such a great question. I guess nuclear physics in the ’40s!
What did you actually know about The Manhattan Project before you auditioned for the role?
Embarrassingly little, I have to admit. But it was fascinating to dive into the subject. Although the audition was at such short notice that I think I only got to researching after I got the part. For the audition, I just focused on who I thought Helen was, and tried to make her as real and full of life as possible without worrying about the physics part of it all. And what’s so great about this show is that it is really about what is going on with these people — what happens between them — while they’re trying to make the bomb.
If you could hang out with a real Manhattan Project scientist, who would you pick?
I’ve gotten really curious about all those great people. But I guess I would love to meet one of the female physicists on the project and ask them about being a woman scientist at that time.
Marry/kiss/kick to the curb: Einstein, Oppenheimer, Fermi.
Marry Fermi. Kiss Einstein. Kick to curb Oppenheimer.
What are your favorite and least favorite things about working on a period piece?
I love the time-travel element of it. To go back to when my grandparents lived and had to flee Germany. When my grandmother on my mother’s side had four children but actually had always had dreams of becoming a pianist or an actress. I have pictures of them in Helen’s room. I feel strangely closer to them, living Helen’s life, that had so much to do with theirs. Helen gets to be who she is during the war: a brilliant physicist who is respected and can work at the highest level. Maybe if it weren’t wartime, she as a woman wouldn’t have gotten such an important job. Her time is now. She knows it, and she seizes the moment.
What’s one thing about this time in history — or The Manhattan Project, specifically — that you didn’t know before you started working on the show?
I didn’t know about this town in the middle of the desert, that wasn’t on any map, this best-kept secret where the smartest people in the world gathered to try to make the bomb sooner than Hitler could. Basically, that means that — coming from Europe (lousy excuse), I didn’t know about the Manhattan Project altogether. But oh, how I do now!