Featured Image Michele K. Short/HBO
In 2004, the prolific author Philip Roth released one of his most acclaimed books, The Plot Against America. The novel focuses on an alternate 1940s America, one where famed pilot Charles Lindbergh is elected President and a Jewish-American family (based primarily on Roth’s real family) watches as a wave of antisemitism rages through the nation. In March 2020, a miniseries adaptation began airing on HBO. The series premiered to critical acclaim and significant Emmy buzz.
One of the series’ key characters is Sandy Levin, the oldest son of the family. Even as his family voices their displeasure for Lindbergh and his views on Jewish citizens, he secretly harbors an extreme adoration for the daring pilot.
TV Wasteland sat down with Caleb Malis, the teen playing Sandy, to discuss his role on the show and his first big experience in the industry.
Malis’ route to being cast on The Plot Against America was a wild one to say the least. Most of the cast had already signed on in February of 2019, including a different young actor who was slated to be Sandy. However, that actor dropped out in late March, so a frantic hunt began for a new teen. Malis heard about the opportunity and had a tape sent in on Tuesday. By Saturday, he was meeting with a casting director, and a mere two days later, he had been offered the role. The readthrough was that Friday, so Malis had three days to prepare to be thrown into the epicenter of production. He packed his bags and flew across the country, less than two weeks after he had sent in the original tape. He didn’t end up returning home for six months.
Malis found his graduation to the world of intense HBO production a little jarring. The scale presented here, a world where entire neighborhoods were built from scratch and then burned down only a couple months later, was far from the college productions and miscellaneous projects of Malis’ past. He described everything he had been in before as much more fast-paced, but productions with more money and available time posed a new challenge: stamina. Sometimes the cast would be needed until one or two in the morning, and to get all of the right angles and shots, Malis would need to spend an entire day crying.
Of course, Malis was also now in the acting big leagues, working alongside Academy Award and Emmy nominees like Winona Ryder (Stranger Things), John Turturro (The Night Of), and Zoe Kazan (Olive Kitteridge). The firepower extended behind the scenes as well, with David Simon and Ed Burns of The Wire leading the writing team.
Malis admitted to being “absolutely terrified” of the accomplished people on set. Turturro would do his takes over and over, always trying to get the perfect performance, and Ryder shook Malis to his core when she asked for his phone number. He made it his “life’s mission” to have a full conversation with David Simon, who he described as incredibly smart. Even though it was an intense production, everyone on set was really nice (even through misunderstandings and accidents like falling window frames).
Nonetheless, despite his initial intimidation and awe, Caleb spent almost every free moment he could watching behind the scenes, staying late to see how everything operated behind the camera. While he claims to be “happiest in front of the camera,” he’s fascinated by everything else that goes on in production and would love to explore that more in future projects.
Sandy Levin, one of the protagonists of The Plot Against America, is a perfect example of the people most swayed by Lindbergh’s rhetoric. In the series, the fictionalized version of the World War I aviator uses his celebrity status to divide the American public and turn many against the Jewish-American population living among them. Sandy is the “impressionable teenager” who is more entranced by the flashiness of Lindbergh’s background and personality, just one of the millions who are pulled in by his charisma.
When asked about the similarities between him and his character, Malis joked that while one of the biggest differences between them is that his character is actually cool. Although, he claimed to really identify with the story of the “awkward skinny fourteen-year-old Jewish artist.”
Malis’ biggest idol (and the man who originally inspired him to act) was Robin Williams. The actor’s range is what still stands out most to the teen, the way that he can go from silly to sweet to serious just in the span of a one scene. It’s no surprise then, that Caleb also cites Dead Poets Society as his favorite movie.
In the future, the young actor is open to any work that can get him back into the industry as he continues to pursue acting and perhaps behind-the-scenes work in the future. For now, he is studying Integrated Arts at the Orange County School of the Arts in California.
The Plot Against America, starring Caleb Malis as Sandy Levin, airs Mondays at 9 PM on HBO.