HBO shoots mini-series in Jersey City

Winona Ryder stars in Philip Roth's 'The Plot Against America'

HBO is filming a mini series in Jersey City and Newark. Photo by Victor M. Rodriguez
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HBO is filming a mini series in Jersey City and Newark. Photo by Victor M. Rodriguez

Passersby might have been surprised to see Winona Ryder being filmed on the front steps of Temple Beth El on Kennedy Boulevard early on April 18.

She was filming the HBO series “The Plot Against America,” based on Philip Roth’s 2004 novel of the same name.

The six part series, which may well be seen as a metaphor for the contemporary national political scene, will also star Zoe Kazan (“The Ballad of Buster Scruggs”); Morgan Spector (“Homeland”); Anthony Boyle (“Harry Potter and the Cursed Child”); Azhy Robertson (Untitled Noah Baumbach Project), newcomer Caleb Malis; and John Turturro (“The Big Lebowski”). The script was written and executive produced by David Simon and Ed Burns.

Simon has created or written for “The Wire,” “The Corner,” “Show Me a Hero,” “Generation Kill,” “Treme,” and “The Deuce. “The Plot Against America” is a complicated series that takes the long view of American social systems and the individuals they serve.

Or as one critic noted, don’t serve.

Simon is a critic of President Donald Trump. The series portrays “an alternate American history told through the eyes of a working-class Jewish family in Newark as they watch the political rise of Charles Lindbergh, an aviator-hero and xenophobic populist who becomes president and turns the nation toward fascism.”

Family versus fascist 

Kazan plays the role of the mother and homemaker, Elizabeth, who fears for the future as she tries to protect her family from an escalating political climate of isolationism. She plans a possible escape from the forces that seem to be threatening their world.

Ryder portrays Evelyn Finkel. Elizabeth’s older sister, Evelyn is unmarried, her plans thwarted by 10 years of caring for her infirm mother. She is hungry to find her own place in life. The sudden attentions of a key Lindbergh supporter — the politically ascendant Rabbi Lionel Bengelsdorf — are exhilarating and transformative for her.

Turturro plays the conservative rabbi, a transplant from Charleston, S.C., where he presided over his first synagogue. He became a widower with the death of his affluent wife. He seizes the reins of power to become a key figure in the emerging Lindbergh administration, despite growing opposition within the Jewish community.

Local color

Roth, who died in May 2018, often set his stories in his hometown of Newark. Many of the scenes are expected to be filmed in Newark as well as Jersey City.

Stephanie Daniels, director of JC Films, the city agency that oversees productions that take place in Jersey City,  said HBO will be returning several times to film at different locations in Jersey City.

She said HBO has been very cooperative with the city and the residents, meeting with community groups to work out the use of property. Several storefronts will be redesigned to reflect the period being depicted in the film.

The shooting on Kennedy Boulevard came as a surprise, Daniels said. “They were not supposed to shoot there right away. They did it in record time.”

The county office of cultural affairs and tourism also got involved. Kennedy Boulevard is one of the busiest streets in Jersey City, so the film required the help of the Hudson County Sheriff’s Department

“This is a big deal,” Daniels said. “Everything changed when the state restored the film tax credit.”

A portion of the “Joker” was filmed on the steps of Brennan Court House as well as at the Loew’s Jersey Theatre last year. NBC’s “The Enemy Within” has been filming throughout Jersey City, both exteriors and interiors.

The folks behind that film “provided a film boot camp for minorities and college students at city hall,” Daniels said. It was a two-day session that involved 15 kids.

For updates on this and other stories check hudsonreporter.com and follow us on Twitter @hudson_reporter. Al Sullivan can be reached at asullivan@hudsonreporter.com