Meet the Cast of World on Fire
Which World on Fire cast member once studied theology, who nearly joined the United States Army, and who has starred in a hit musical on London’s West End? Learn all about the multi-talented cast of the upcoming, epic World War II drama, including Jonah Hauer-King, Helen Hunt, Sean Bean and more. Get the rundown on where you’ve seen them before, how they prepared for their World War II era roles, and some fun facts about their lives and award-winning careers. Mark your calendars: World on Fire premieres on MASTERPIECE on PBS on Sunday, April 5, 2020 at 9/8c.
The Character: Jonah Hauer-King portrays Harry Chase, a young Englishman working as a translator for the British embassy in Warsaw who finds himself caught in an explosive love triangle.
Fun Fact: 24-year-old star Hauer-King graduated from the University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom, where he studied theology and religious studies. Before he charmed audiences as Laurie Laurence in Little Women and broke hearts as Paul Wilcox in Howards End, he also spent time waiting tables at a restaurant, thanks to his father, Jeremy King, a London restauranteur—and he thoroughly enjoyed the experience.
“It’s great for people watching and performance, because you’re reacting to a table: if they’re up for a good night, you’re helping them along on that energy, if they’re in a foul mood you’re trying to take the sting out of that,” he told the Evening Standard in one interview.
Behind the Scenes: Hauer-King’s own family history made the role more personal. “I’ve always felt quite connected to the second World War because my grandparents are Polish Jews who fled in the ’30s to America, which is where my mum grew up,” Hauer-King said. “War is so unsettling and there’s so much upheaval. Because of that I’ve always been really fascinated in how war affects one’s identity.”
Credits: MASTERPIECE fans will recognize Hauer-King from Little Women as Laurie, and from Howards End as Paul Wilcox. Hauer-King is currently filming Disney’s live-action film The Little Mermaid, playing Prince Eric.
The Character: Helen Hunt plays American broadcaster and journalist Nancy Campbell, who spends the first eighteen months of the war in Berlin as part of the overseas press corps.
Fun Fact: Hunt has been acting since she was young; some of her earliest roles were on the Swiss Family Robinson TV series (1975-1976) and The Mary Tyler Moore Show (1977). Her acting work may have been inspired by her family’s work in show business. Her father, Gordon Hunt, was a longtime acting coach and director whose credits include not just hundreds of cartoons and sitcoms for television, but also episodes of daughter Helen’s hit television series Mad About You.
Behind the Scenes: Hunt has personal connections to the war. “About 15 or 20 years ago, when my father and my aunt were still alive, I got my father and his three siblings together as I wanted to get them on film talking about their life,” she explained. “They were deep into this conversation and I asked them what their earliest memory was and then someone mentioned something about their oldest brother serving during the Second World War. I asked if they were on the front and served. They weren’t on the front, however after Buchenwald was liberated, it was his job to go in and look for mines. So he went through his own version of the trauma of the war and his family never even knew about it.”
Credits: Hunt is known for her Oscar-winning role in As Good As It Gets, as well as her starring roles in films such as Twister, Cast Away, and What Women Want. Throughout the span of her long-running 1990’s television series Mad About You (which made a return with all-new episodes in 2019), Hunt won three Golden Globe awards, four Primetime Emmy awards, and one Screen Actors Guild award for her portrayal of Jamie Buchman.
The Character: Sean Bean plays Douglas Bennett, a pacifist and a World War I veteran. He finds his worst fears coming true when his son and daughter are involved in the Second World War.
Fun Fact: One of Bean’s biggest claims to fame has been not just his on-screen roles—but also the large number of on-screen deaths he’s endured. While he doesn’t hold the record for the highest number of on-screen deaths (an honor which, according to a 2014 report by Nerdist, went to late actor John Hurt), he does rank highly. In fact, he’s started turning down roles for that very reason, he admitted in a 2019 interview with The Sun. “I’ve turned down stuff. I’ve said, ‘They know my character’s going to die because I’m in it!’ …I just had to cut that out and start surviving, otherwise it was all a bit predictable.”
Behind the Scenes: Bean has parental connections to the war. “My mother and father were born just before the war started in the 1930s,” Bean said. “They used to tell me stories about how they used to wear the gas masks. My auntie and uncle had an Anderson shelter in their shed (that’s still there today) that we used to play in it when we were little. It was very flimsy as bomb shelters go and I’ll always remember those moments.”
Credits: Bean is known for his roles in The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, in Game of Thrones, and more recently, in Medici and The Curfew (both of which also include Sanditon star Rose Williams). Longtime MASTERPIECE fans will recognize Bean from his leading role in the Sharpe shows, based on the books of Bernard Cornwell.
The Character: Lesley Manville plays Robina Chase, the wealthy and strongly opinionated mother of Harry (Jonah Hauer-King). The war, and Harry’s involvement in it, bring a new set of changes and challenges to Robina’s comfortable life.
Fun Fact: On top of a successful on-screen career, she’s also well known for her stage work, which spans more than four decades. She’s done a number of productions with London’s prestigious Royal Shakespeare Company, and has won a number of awards, including the Laurence Olivier Award (presented by the Society of London Theatre) for Best Actress for her role in Ghosts in 2014. Even when she’s filming, she’s often still working stage productions. According to one interview with The Guardian, as recently as 2018, Manville was racing to the theater from the set of Harlots, cleaning off her 18th century makeup on the way for her performances in Long Day’s Journey Into Night.
Behind the Scenes: Manville was attracted not only to the role of Robina Chase, but also to the series as a whole because of it’s unique scale. “I love the way the story dipped in and out of all these different lives,” she said. “Yes of course there are the central characters, but it’s a real cocktail of stories about how this epic and tragic event affected different people in different parts of the world. It looks at what the war did to peoples’ lives on a big scale, on a very small scale and on a very personal scale. What it does to love, relationships and families.”
Credits: Manville is known for her roles in Phantom Thread and Harlots (alongside Downton Abbey’s very own Lady Sybil, Jessica Brown Findlay). MASTERPIECE fans will recognize her from her role as Mrs. Rose in Cranford.
The Character: Julia Brown stars as the young Lois Bennett, an English factory worker, a talented jazz singer, and the first love of Harry Chase (Jonah Hauer-King). At home, she is responsible for looking after her veteran father, Douglas (Sean Bean) and wayward brother Tom (Ewan Mitchell).
Behind the Scenes: The chance to sing on-screen as Lois was one Brown couldn’t turn down. “I was so excited as I used to sing when I was younger,” she said. “I started with a month of rehearsals working with a brilliant musical director called Matt Smith. To begin with, we spent time focusing on finding Lois’s style, and because I’d never sung jazz before, Matt was trying to teach me how to free up my voice and use decorations. Then we started tackling the songs and it has opened up a whole repertoire of music for me, which has been a really fun aspect of the job.”
Brown also admitted that her favorite song is “Dream a Little Dream.” “The funny thing about that was when I auditioned, they asked me to sing a snippet of a song that I liked and I sang that one because my granny used to sing it to me when I was young,” she said. “She sang during the Second World War as a young girl and it was crazy and lovely that when I finally got the part and the script that I got to perform it.”
Credits: Prior to World on Fire, Brown appeared in television series such as Shetland, The Last Kingdom and M.I. High.
The Character: Zofia Wichlacz stars as Kasia Tomaszeski, a young waitress in Warsaw who falls passionately in love with English translator Harry Chase. Within days of the war beginning, Kasia is faced with terrible choices between protecting her family and her own safety and freedom.
Behind the Scenes: “World on Fire tells extraordinary stories of ordinary people,” Wichlacz said. “It is universal. It’s about love, about freedom, about wanting to be free when you can’t. It’s about young people who are full of life yet they’re in this difficult time and very dark place. It’s a very emotional story.”
She dove headfirst into Kasia’s world to prepare for the part. “I wanted to create a world for Kasia including things she liked, the books she would read, and what she might be interested in and why,” she said. “She’s independent, earning her own money and I was so inspired by things that I found in my research. I read a lot about Warsaw at that time before the war and how vivid the city was. I wanted to know the places where she could have taken Harry on a date. What music she would have listened to, and I listened to it a lot myself. That was really important for me to get the essence of her character.”
Credits: Before World on Fire, Wichlacz was best known for her roles in the film Warsaw ’44, and in television series such as 1983 and The Romanoffs.
Brian J. Smith
The Character: Brian J. Smith plays American doctor Webster O’Connor, the nephew of journalist Nancy Campbell (Helen Hunt) who is working, living and falling in love in Paris before the war arrives at his doorstep. When France is threatened and occupied, despite the efforts of his aunt, he stays in Paris to fight not only for his patients, but for his own identity and freedom.
Fun Fact: Smith almost took a very different path in life. Instead of playing a doctor in the midst of war (World on Fire) or a futuristic soldier (Stargate Universe), Smith himself nearly joined the United States Army. “I was two months behind in the rent, I didn’t have insurance, and I’d just auditioned for [a role] and was told they went with somebody else,” he told the New York Post. “I figured, it’s a sign! I went to the recruitment office on West 72nd Street and was going to show up the next morning at 8 for a physical.” When he called his agent to let him know, his agent informed him that the other actor had passed on the role, and that the part (in 2009’s The War Boys) was his.
Behind the Scenes: Webster’s story and of all the characters in World on Fire were fascinating to Smith. “The funny thing about war is that for all the tragedy and heartbreak that surrounds it, it forces most people to be the best that they can be,” Smith said. “The books that I’ve read for my research explain how war brings out the best and worst in people. People still fall in love and still want to keep their own particular dream alive. A war situation, as awful as it is, provides normal people the opportunity to be extraordinary, which may not happen during times of peace. It can be a catalyst to bring out the best that humanity can be.”
Credits: Smith is known for his roles in television series such as Sense8, Gossip Girl, and Stargate University.
The Character: Parker Sawyers plays French jazz musician Albert Fallou. When the Germans invade Paris, Albert grows worried for his safety and that of the one he loves, and for his own freedom as a Parisian of west-African heritage.
Behind the Scenes: For Sawyers, working on a period drama was a new venture for him. “I haven’t read for many period dramas but I have watched them…I will catch myself wondering what Thomas the Valet’s dreams are in Downton Abbey, and in World on Fire I really feel a sense of Albert’s dreams and goals for the next three years, seven years, and his dreams of moving to America. You get a sense of people’s hopes and dreams and very real ambitions of their own which are interrupted by events that are not in their control.”
In three words, Sawyers described World on Fire as: colorful, layered and authentic. “These are human stories and we are affected by one another’s potential and the potential of those that didn’t get a chance to live.”
Credits: Sawyers is known for playing a young President Barack Obama in Southside With You, and for appearances in series such as Deep State, Pine Gap and Succession.
The Character: Blake Harrison plays Harry Chase’s loyal and committed sergeant Stan Raddings, who helps an overwhelmed Harry navigate the responsibilities of the Army.
Fun Fact: Harrison’s talents go far beyond the screen. In the summer of 2019, Harrison sang, danced and starred as Ogie in the West End’s production of the hit musical Waitress.
Behind the Scenes: “The beauty of this story and what Peter [Bowker, series writer] has done is to have so many perspectives on such an important moment in history,” Harrison said. “It’s not just Churchill or Hitler or a band of American soldiers coming in to save the day. We’re looking at it from so many angles, of both military and civilian, of Polish, German, British, American and French. Because of that we’ve got a really unique story that’s going to be a great watch.”
Credits: Blake Harrison is known for his roles in The Inbetweeners and A Very English Scandal.