The Making of TV’s Dark-Horse Drama, ‘Manhattan’

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 WGN America

Ashley Zukerman is pretty frank about how little he knew regarding the historic Manhattan Project, the U.S.'s first development of nuclear weapons during World War II. "To be honest, I don't think we were taught much of anything in school," Zukerman, who was raised in Melbourne, Australia, says laughing. But through his WGN America show Manhattan, now in its second season, the show's 31-year-old star admits a newfound appreciation for the internal struggles of the men and women involved the first atomic bomb's construction.

The series focuses on the families that were relocated to the remote desert regions of New Mexico to work under the shadow of secrecy during the 1940s, and the tortured conscience that comes with crafting a devastating weapon of war that's meant for good, but only through an unforgivable evil. It's this provocative inner battle Zukerman puts a face to in his role of Dr. Charlie Isaacs, an enterprising young scientist enlisted to assist in the creation of the implosion design under Dr. Frank Winter, a character roughly based on the real-life project leader Seth Neddermeyer and played by John Benjamin Hickey. Zukerman plays his part with such finesse and respect it's one of those performances you would be hard pressed to name an actor who would be more capable, despite what he may have you believe.

"I just got lucky," Zukerman says. "I kind of assumed that the role was going to go to a name, but I guess they exhausted their way through my contemporaries." Manhattan series creator Sam Shaw says casting him to play Charlie Isaacs was a decision that he and partner Thomas Schlamme came to very quickly. "Right when he walked in there was something in his eyes that we had trouble describing, like he's keeping a secret from you. When you combine that with his intelligence, he was perfect." After being hired Zukerman had all of one month to prepare before filming on the 13-episode first season began in Santa Fe, New Mexico, a mere 40-minute drive away from Los Alamos, where the Manhattan Project was actually based.

It was there on location that the cast went through regular science boot camps with UCLA physics and astronomy professor David Saltzberg, who also consults on the science content for The Big Bang Theory. Shaw says the classes inspired his cast to pursue their own independent studies of the material, but no one proved as rapturous a student as Zukerman, whose parents teach at Monash University back home. Now with two seasons of the show in the can, he's proving more adept than ever. "Ash would call me having found a problem with one of the formulas in the script," says Shaw, laughing. "I'd have to hang up and call the pros. It would have been caught in the later proofreads, but the fact that he was that on top of science was impressive."

In addition to Saltzberg's expertise on the subject there were also frequent visits paid by local physicists who had been present in the area during the actual project. They were asked to contribute the equations that can be seen on the chalkboards and papers scattered among the show's set, furthering the mathematical authenticity for the era. So much care was put into the set's design that visitors who had been to the actual base were lost for words upon seeing the homes and period-perfect paint jobs.

Harry Truman, Vice President under Roosevelt at Manhattan Project's inception, famously wasn't made aware of its existence until after he was sworn into the Oval Office, and similar to the cloaked nature of the project was the level of secrecy necessary to keep spoilers from hitting the public before shows air. While the actual events are well documented, the cast is commonly in the dark regarding the ultimate story arcs of the characters they play. "There is naturally a very present thriller component in the show," Zukerman says. "I think it helps to keep everyone in the dark."

Though Shaw is adamant that the withholding of information is mostly to allow the actors to focus on the scenes they need to shoot next, he admits that once or twice they've purposefully hid storylines. "In one case during the first season we had an actor who was playing a spy. Nobody else in the cast knew and he didn't even tell his wife it was revealed on the show."

Now, after the conclusion of the series's second season the audience is left to wonder what other secrets have been locked away, and though Manhattan hasn't been officially renewed for another season, Shaw is hopeful he'll be able to continue telling the story of what happened to these great inventors after the bomb was dropped. "From the beginning this has been a show with a trick up its sleeve," he says. "The most dramatic material waits on the other side of that horizon."

As for Zukerman, when asked if the show has done anything to change his thoughts on America's decision to use the atomic bomb, he pauses. Though spending his childhood in Australia, he was born in Santa Monica giving him the unique perspective of both a citizen and an outsider. "I have become sympathetic to the complications of the time and I'm glad we're able to share their side of the story."