“When Miep (Gies) meets Otto (Frank), she’s a young early 20s directionless girl, newly in love, and partying too much, and then it jumps to the Nazi occupation,” says actress Bel Powely regarding the first episode of “A Small Light” and its timeline. “For me, it was so important to show Miep previous to the (Nazi) occupation… it’s those relatable parts of her that really humanize her.”
Based on the harrowing true story of Miep Gies’ heroic undertaking, Nat Geo’s “A Small Light” provides an entirely new perspective on the story of Anne Frank and her family’s struggle to evade Nazi capture during World War II. Miep Gies was young woman, both carefree and opinionated at a time when opinions could lead to imprisonment or even execution.
After working with Otto Frank for a short time, Miep realizes that her friend and employer is in desperate need of help that few are willing to give. Miep takes on the enormous responsibility of caring for the Frank family while they hide from the omnipresent Nazi forces. Miep’s mission is artfully brought to life by Powley (“The Morning Show,” “The King of Staten Island”), who gives a performances for the ages with incredible depth and nuance.
Powley’s performance, along with the incredible writing and gorgeous production design of “A Small Light,” ensnares audiences as we witness this tragic tale in a way that’s completely original. This series permeates through the screen and stays with you long after the finale’s credits roll.
Powley spoke with Awards Focus’ Byron Burton via zoom as well as in person at Ingle Dodd’s “Spotlight on Storytellers” FYC event at the Hollywood American Legion. Along with Powley, the below panel highlights Powley’s talented costars, composer Ariel Marx, and production designer Marc Homes from “A Small Light.”
Awards Focus: The writing for this limited series is exceptional, were you hooked by the initial pitch… when you got to page ten of the pilot? I’m so curious when that “Yes” moment arrived for you.
Bel Powley: I was definitely intrigued by the pitch because I didn’t know who Miep Gies was, this woman who is so important to a story that I know well and yet I’d never heard of her role in it. The fact that I’m Jewish resonated with me and I feel connected to that part of history.
Once I read the pilot, I knew that I had to do the series and I was also realizing tonally what the showrunners were going for with this. In my career, I’ve strayed away from period pieces because I feel distant from them and those projects typically have a language style that’s more of a barrier for audiences. So, when I read this pilot and saw how connected I felt to the character it was a wonderful surprise.
The series felt modern and contemporary, both in the language and the contemporary way that it’s shot. That gave the series its own identity from the various Anne Frank films as well as the films on the Holocaust and World War II.
AF: Seeing Miep Gies’ life in the pilot is enthralling and as an audience member you’re intrigued about this world she inhabits before the Nazi occupation. I find that it’s rare for those first act scenes to have such an impact. In a lot of pilots, the early scenes before the inciting incident feel quite arbitrary and very rarely are the characters this fleshed out.
Powley: Not being constrained by the “olden-day language” allowed for a lot of improvisation which was great for developing the characters. Our director, Susanna Vogel, would give us two takes for us and two for her… having that freedom gives it that natural feeling of things flowing. For an audience, that immediately makes it feel accessible. Our costume designer, Matthew Simonelli, who hadn’t done a period project, came in with designs that are accurate for 1942, but also had fresh ideas for shaping the aesthetic.
I would say the same for Marc Homes, our production designer, in that all of the sets felt lived in and the rooms operated in a realistic way. He didn’t design the rooms as fancy showpieces that aim to highlight elements of the time period.
AF: So many of your scenes once the Nazis arrive require your character to hold the weight of the world on her shoulders. As an artist who uses their body as an instrument, how did you hold that intense “note” for hours and hours each day while shooting these intense scenes where Miep is very much in danger of being found out for her role in hiding the Franks?
Powley: One thing that I think is worth saying is that I’ve been in movies where I’ve been in every scene, but it’s a thirty day shoot. I’ve never been in every scene over a five month shoot, with such an arc for the character that spans so much time… I had to keep on top of things and have every plot thread accounted for mentally. If you let one thing go, you’re screwed and as a result I had a massive binder of all the scripts and then the new pages all together. It was my Bible that got me through the shoot.
In terms of the emotion of being inside Miep’s head, obviously it’s physically draining as well as mentally exhausting. You almost become an athlete with a marathon mindset when you get into the swing of fourteen hour days and the quick changes required… you just have to just your head down and you manage the best you can. I also think it’s really important to let off steam, as a cast, especially on the weekends.
Being in that world 24/7 is hard and there is a real feeling of claustrophobia when you’re in the recreated space that the Frank family had to survive in without making a sound or being able to leave. The fact that this circumstance was actually someone’s reality… it can be very hard emotionally.
Miep had an unwavering sense of what was right and wrong and she never complained… she was ego-less. Miep had incredibly thick skin and I wanted to mirror that throughout the shoot, although I didn’t realize that at the time.
AF: Your costar, Liev Schreiber, is incredible as Otto Frank. He has an ability to build vast depth and nuance with very little dialogue and an unwavering stillness that demands the audience’s attention. After seeing his masterful work with a similar stoic character in Spotlight, I found this to be another awe-inspiring entry in the masterclass that is Liev’s range and ability. Can you talk about your experience working with him?
Powley: He is so good! Liev is hands down one of, if not, the best actor that I’ve worked with and we clicked very fast. I think we approach work in a relatively similar way, both feeling it out as you go along and focusing on presence. Liev said it was like playing tennis, our scenes together, and they would evolve as we were shooting them. With both of us coming from stage, you’re looking for that magic and fire when you work and that is harder with the repetitive nature of film and television. He and I would explore something new with each take, and his interpretation of Otto is nothing short of remarkable.
I didn’t think this at the time because we were “in it,” but watching the series now I see the dichotomy of Miep and Otto… Miep is loud and chaotic and Otto is so still and it’s fire.
AF: It’s a beautifully written relationship, and the two of you take it to new heights.
Powley: Thank you. Of course, none of us were there so we don’t what Miep’s relationship was with Otto, but I interpreted it like they were best friends. I think it’s an incredibly contemporary take on that and I do think Miep was a very modern woman for her time and there’s something special about a woman in her 20s being best mates with a man twenty years her senior.
“A Small Light” is available now to stream on Nat Geo and Disney +.