For a certain group of indie movie lovers, Olivia Williams will always be Rosemary Cross, the perpetually out of reach object of affection for Jason Schwartzman’s Max Fischer in “Rushmore,” the movie that launched Wes Anderson’s career. But Williams doesn’t mind. “I love that film,” she says. “I still get the best fan encounters with ‘Rushmore’ fans and the best job offers, frankly. The only time I get offered a job without having to audition is from someone who loved Rushmore. I thank Wes Anderson for that job every day, I think.”
That said, her latest project is decidedly less whimsical. She plays Liza Winter, the wife of a physicist working on the Manhattan Project on WGN America’s new show “Manhattan.” The show is shot on location in a reconstructed version of the research base in New Mexico. Because of the name, Williams says, “I was planning on spending five months in New York. It was a bit of a rude shock to realize it would be five months in New Mexico.”
“I did need some assurance that I wasn’t just going to be playing a housewife in the New Mexico desert, and when they told me what plans they had for Liza, I was very enthusiastic to get involved,” says Williams, citing the creative team of Thomas Schlamme and Sam Shaw as positive draws to getting involved.
She did have some trepidation about heading out to the desert for the show. “To me, as an English person with rolling hills and Wordsworth, a desert is a negative term, but I have to say after five months here, it’s intensely beautiful, you know. Movingly so,” she says, calling the colors of the sky and desert “completely bewitching.” On the other hand, filming in an actual desert does come with some practical concerns. “Keeping your eyes open and trying to act any emotion other than being pissed off in a dust storm is very very hard,” says Williams.
It’s not Williams’ first role in this era. She also appeared as Eleanor Roosevelt in 2012’s “Hyde Park on Hudson” alongside “Rushmore” co-star Bill Murray, and joked that she could, at least, borrow the accent work and some of the research. Liza has a Ph.D. in Botany, and puts her own career on hold to support her husband’s physics career. “Eleanor represented a highly educated group of women who made their husbands’ lives a misery if they disagreed with their political views and I think Liza is an honorable member of that,” says Williams with a laugh. Though many of the 4000 civilians who lived on the base were willing to accept military rule as part of their lives and part of the fight for democracy, Williams says, “There were some people who said 'I don’t have to live by your rules,' and Liza is one of them.”
Liza’s botany background starts to come in handy over the course of the show, as she begins to notice certain oddities in the plant life in the area, no doubt caused by the radiation. “I think she’s a sort of tropic figure, you know. She’s Cassandra. She has the gift of prophecy but the curse of never being believed,” says Williams. “She starts to work out there’s some very very dodgy stuff going on, some of which is extremely important. It’s affecting the health and wellbeing of both the planet and the people living on the base, living in Los Alamos.”
While Liza’s life on the military base might be a far cry from most modern people, holding off on your own career while your partner pursues an important opportunity is still common. Williams says it’s come up in her own life, in her marriage to fellow actor Rhashan Stone, as they both take time off of work to stay home with the kids while the other pursues a new role. While such decisions are made in a spirit of love, when it’s been a few months and “the wheels are falling off and you just want some backup, you go, 'what did I agree to this for? How did I suddenly find that the only thing I do is the schoolroom and grilling fish fingers?'” Liza finds herself in much the same position, as Williams points out that she might have agreed to the move to help her husband pursue “his greatest career opportunity…in a moment of martyrdom” but now might be “beginning to rethink that decision.”
Follow Lisa Weidenfeld on Twitter at @LisaWeidenfeld.