Liev Schreiber and Tony Phelan chat with Yahoo on World War II series, A Small Light
The National Geographic & Disney Plus series spotlight Miep Gies, a secretary who hid Otto Frank and his family from the Nazis in WWII.
The telling of Anne Frank's historical life story has been retold in many different formats – animation, docu-series, films, and podcast – but most recently, it's taking shape at National Geographic and Disney+ as an eighth-part biographical drama series starring award-winning actor Liev Schreiber, Bel Powley, Joe Cole and Amira Casar.
But the story of Anne Frank – a celebrated diarist who described her everyday life while hiding from the Nazi occupation in an Amsterdam attic – is not the major story arc of A Small Light. The series, instead, spotlights Miep Gies (played by Bel Powley), a young, carefree secretary who hid Otto Frank (played by Liev Schreiber) and his family from the Nazis in WWII. For nearly two years, Miep and her husband Jan (Joe Cole) protected the Franks and others while she held down a day job, kept her marriage intact and shouldered more responsibility than anyone could imagine. While millions are familiar with Anne Frank’s diary and her family’s life in the Secret Annex, A Small Light is the lesser-known story of how an ordinary secretary showed extraordinary courage during one of the darkest moments in history.
Watch A Small Light on Disney+
We recently sat down in a one-to-one interview with actor Liev Schreiber and director Tony Phelan – credited with writing and filming Grey's Anatomy – who are more than happy to share their experiences bringing to life this aspect of an important piece of history most of us are not fully aware of.
Schreiber most recently starred in the Emmy-nominated American crime drama, Ray Donovan: The Movie, a spinoff of the multiple award-nominated series which ran for seven seasons. He received three Emmy Award nominations and five Golden Globe nominations for his work on the show. Schreiber, whose grandfather was a Jewish immigrant from Ukraine and Poland, co-founded a group called BlueCheck Ukraine that identifies and funds local organisations providing assistance in Ukraine.
To Schreiber, this series is almost like paying tribute to his own heritage and upbringing.
For me, fear is probably the dominant thing. I think about the saber-rattling that goes on and how big a role fear plays and how bullies succeed. How ironic it is that this tiny little woman was the person to stand up to Adolf Hitler.Liev Schreiber
The importance of knowing one's heritage
Liev, I read on IMDB that you endured hardships when growing up in New York, and I was wondering if you drew inspiration from your personal struggles for your character as Otto Frank?
Liev Schreiber: I've said this before, but it really is true – I don't think there's a character that I play that isn't some version of my grandfather. And I think that Otto, he's part of that continuum. It's also just wanting to know your own heritage, especially when there isn't a lot of clarity – when they don't want to talk about the Holocaust and your Jewish experience. The immigrant experience was something that I've always been engaged with or curious about.
On this job, it really was me. By showcasing the Frank family in the war (pauses), which is kind of peripheral to the central storyline, it was a wonderful way, a wonderful perspective. I really liked it, and it felt very kind to me. Because you know, these things have a pattern to repeat themselves – the sorts of stories, and how to get an audience to get this story in a new and fresh way. And I thought that was very successful.
I’m in awe of what prosthetics and makeup can do to elevate a character – did you have to undergo a massive transformation?
Liev: It was truly horrible.
Tony Phelan: (laughs)
Liev: Some actors enjoy that sort of stuff, but I'm not one of them – I don't like sitting still, and that involves sitting still for about three hours and for what? To look awful? But that was the job. And I was very happy with the results and where we ended up. Sometimes to have that experience of like, a mask work – you change yourself in a way that you can see something – it's inspiring that it worked out.
Mr Tony, how was it like for you to direct Liev in this role?
Tony: Once we solved the problem of prosthetics, I was able to avoid that, so that was good (smiles). I was the last director to come on and everybody had already worked with another two. But you (looks at Liev) were kind of the one who engaged with me first, so I try to do what you wanted to do.
I was the kind of repository of research. This was one of the reasons why I only direct things that I write because there's clarity and a vision of knowing what you're trying to accomplish. And you stay open for the collaborative collaboration of the actresses, the DP (director of photography), and your hesitant partner (smiles). When you have these things that are serious, you'll often get very different directors – sometimes even up to eight different directors. So it's really important to have a conversation at the beginning to get some consistency of our theme and things like that.
Liev: So it's important to have somebody there all the time, which is Tony.
Tony: Yeah, I'm also used to dealing with large ensembles. The big thing that you always keep in mind, is the circumstances is that you never want them (actors) to feel that you're wasting their time. You want everybody to get a concept and be able to do their work.
I've said this before, but it really is true – I don't think there's a character that I play that isn't some version of my grandfather.Liev Schreiber
The message to the younger generation
Having watched the pilot and everything, I just feel like, we've come full circle; it's crazy. Then, in the 21st century, we are going to war, and this series is also going back to understanding history. On the topic of cancel culture, do you think it’s important to tell stories about history or art even though some may deem it to be ‘controversial’ or ‘problematic’?
Liev: I think that the strange thing for me is that if I had done this project 20 years ago, my attitude towards it would be very different. Because I think that I would be thinking of it as a historical piece. Now, I don't think of it as a historical piece as much as my response to what's happening in the world. By finding a historical figure and story that I want to tell and say, this is where I'm at, which she (Miep Gies) did, we need to all be doing. Because the world is an increasingly scary place to live, so how do you keep your calm?
We made the right calls back then, and we'll make them again. And to some degree, I hope that it is hardwired into us as human beings to know what's right. Whether we choose to act on that, in a way that we pieced it is up to us. I guess I keep looking at that – her (Miep Gies) decision was hers.
For me, fear is probably the dominant thing. I think about the sabre-rattling that goes on and how big a role fear plays, and how bullies succeed. How ironic it is that this tiny little woman was the person to stand up to Adolf Hitler. I think that's right. I guess for me, that's the point of the title. A small light – anyone can turn on a small light in a dark room – it's just looking past fear.
Liev, you've got a family of your own, and the show features Anne Frank and Margot Frank. So there's like, synergies between young children of a different generational gap. So what's the message that you would like the younger generation to have or to take home after watching this series?
Liev: We've been on about how we are part of a continuum, and to know it is to learn it so that we don't make the same mistakes. But it's impossible because that's the nature of kids – they think adults don't know anything. There's no way we're ever going to change that. But the reality is stories like this happen. You see it ah, it lit something, I should listen, I should be curious. Be curious because the pattern of the same thing happens over and over again. There's a reason why we still have Shakespeare and are still doing the Franks' (life story).
Tony: Something that came up yesterday when we screened the show here in the Netherlands is that we had Miep's grandchildren there. And it struck me how odd it must be to watch your grandparents' love affair. And to see them be young people and be sexual with each other – there's something that I think really tugs the generations closer to each other because you see that we're all dealing with the same issues.
Watch A Small Light on Disney+