In conversation with Amira Casar, Joe Cole, Bel Powley, Tony Phelan and Susanna Fugel
A Small Light is the new Disney+ series set in 1933 and follows twentysomething Miep Gies who, when her boss Otto Frank came to her and asked her to hide his family from the Nazis during World War II, didn’t hesitate. For the next two years, Miep, her husband Jan, and the other helpers watched over the eight souls (Otto Frank, his wife Edith and daughters Anne and Margot as well as four others) in hiding in the Secret Annex. And it was Miep who found Anne’s Diary and kept it safe so Otto, the only one of the eight who survived, could later share it with the world as one of the most powerful accounts of the Holocaust.
We met Miep (Bel Powly, A Royal Night Out, Carrie Pilby, Mary Shelley), Jan (Joe Cole, Gangs of London, Peaky Blinders), Edith Frank (Amira Casar, The Contractor, Call Me By Your Name), showrunner Tony Phelan (Grey’s Anatomy) and director Susanna Fogel (The Flight Attendant) at Canneseries two weeks ago.
Tony, what can you tell us about this story?
Tony: When I went across this story and talked about it with my wife, we realized that Miep was such a young woman when Otto asked her to, uh, hide his family. And we looked over and there was our son who is 20 and was, you know, he’s a lovely young man, but woefully incapable of handling life. And so we were, we were kind of amazed that this young woman in a new marriage found herself doing all these things. So that was kind of the initial spark that we would get to tell the story of her coming of age on one side of the bookcase as there was Anne’s story of coming of age on the other.
And what about you all, were you aware of Miep’s story before?
Bel: No. I knew nothing about Miep Gies or Jan Gies. Obviously, I’m clued up on this part of history and I read Anne Frank’s diary when I was younger, and I know about the Frank family, but that was kind of the extent of my knowledge. I didn’t really even know about the Dutch resistance or what was going on in Amsterdam during the war. So, no, I didn’t know anything. I mean, I actually feel like there are a lot of incredible female heroes coming out of the woodwork now but I didn’t know anything else. Very excited to learn.
Joe: Um, I knew loads. No, not true. I obviously knew about Anne Frank and you feel like you know this story. Everybody feels like they know this girl. They know the story of Anne’s diary, but the reality is there’s so much more to learn. And this was just an incredible journey of learning. And what a story. I mean, what an incredible pair of people, and the surrounding figures who supported them and helped tide these families. It was really, really exciting to play, to play in this, and yeah, I can’t wait for people to see it.
And what about you, Amira?
Amira: I didn’t know about Miep. Um, you know, she’s like a really ordinary, wonderful hero. I mean, you know I think she’s very relevant today because there are other Miep around that are sprouting and are around doing incredible jobs, I think, in Ukraine, helping people in other war zones. And this girl, this couple had such integrity. I didn’t know anything about her and what a joy it was to learn about the two of them really. Life lesson.
Susanna: I had heard about Miep before. My mother had spent some time in Amsterdam, and so we travelled there a few times when I was growing up. I grew up Jewish, so I knew their names and I knew vaguely what she had done, but I didn’t know anything about her life. And I certainly didn’t know that really, that she was hiding other, as many other people as she was; so this was a wonderful opportunity to try to figure out all of the dimensions and relatable layers to this person that I knew just by name.
I was wondering if you think the series is a way of shedding light on Miep and her actions during the war as is a wonderful unknown story.
Tony: Uh, yes. I think that it will do that. I think that Miep and Jan deserve it. Otto got so much attention later in life because of the Diary and Miep was only one of many people who helped. And, I hope one of the things that the series does as well is for people in and around Amsterdam and around the world to ask those questions about what their grandparents or parents did during the war. Actually, right now in Amsterdam, they’re releasing documentation about collaboration with the Nazis at the time, which had been suppressed until this time. So I know, I know that researching this has caused me to ask my parents who were still alive, you know, about their memories of growing up at that time. It’s really, it’s meant to cause people to empathize with Miep’s story and really ask themselves, what would I do in that circumstance? Because sadly enough, that circumstance is part of the world that we’re in today.
Bel: It’s not putting Anne’s story in the background, it’s just a different point of view. We all know the story of Anne Frank because the diary is obviously so well famous and she’s kind of become immortalized in that. But our show is about getting into the humanity of the situation. Tony kind of mantra from the beginning was always if we’re gonna rehash this part of history that everyone knows about so well, that we all know the overarching facts, let’s make people relate, let’s make people feel connected. Often with period dramas audience feels distance from what is on screen and we would be doing these people a disservice if that’s how they will feel. So it was always about connecting to these characters and to the humanity in me. And it’s as much about them dealing with their marriage during this time of war as it is about what Hitler and the Nazis were doing. It’s about the macro and it’s about the micro, and that’s what’s gonna make people connect, hopefully to these characters.
How did you work to reconstruct Miep’s story?
Tony: Well, the first thing we did was we made contact with the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam and NIOD in Amsterdam. And we hired a Dutch researcher who combed through the local records of the time as well as hired a translator who could go and translate all of these interviews that Miep did in Dutch over the years. And in doing all of that, we began to dig out all sorts of really interesting facts about them that they chose not to tell, or that they might have been embarrassed about the fact that Jan was previously married. Neither of them ever talked about it publicly. Um, but in our telling, it just makes them all the more relatable. And then the other thing that I did was I just read everything I could get my hands on, saw as many films as I could get my hands on and tried to immerse myself in that period because even though the language itself is contemporary, we wanted to make sure that we got the facts straight and that we understood what the circumstances were, that they were operating in. And so, like with any piece of drama, we took some liberties and crafted some imaginary characters. But on the whole, the things that are the craziest that happen in the story are nine times out of 10 true. Miep’s granddaughter came and visited us on set. And then, just from scouting the locations of the show in Amsterdam to shooting, I would bump into survivors who would then tell me their stories and talk always about how important it was to tell the story again. And these are people who’ve devoted their lives to telling stories, telling the story to young people, to going into schools, to trying to communicate that. But that generation of people is sadly dying off. And so I certainly feel the responsibility to keep telling that story in a new way, in a way that reminds people that this was not so long ago.
How was it for you all to bring on-screen such extraordinary real people?
Bel: Obviously every character’s a challenge. About Miep, I feel like I felt definitely more responsibility, not just because of the real person, but just because of the weight of the period of history that we were showing. And, you know, the Franks, and it’s such a famous story; but in terms of like character building and development, like for me, whether you’re playing a real person or a fictional person it’s still the same process. And actually, in a way, it’s maybe easier when you’re playing a real person cuz you have, you know, real stuff to draw from. For example, Miep wrote her own autobiography, which was so useful to me, like that firsthand account of what happened. I went to Amsterdam, I actually like going to the actual flat that she lived in with Jon and I went, and I could go and cycle her cycle route around. So yeah, you feel more responsible, but it actually helped a lot. And also the other thing that I always had to remind myself of is she never wanted to be put on a pedestal. Her mantra for the rest of her life was: you don’t have to be special to be someone like me. I’m not a hero. I just did what a human being was supposed to do and I helped someone in need. I feel like she wanted us all to see a bit of ourselves in her. Um, so yeah, that’s what I tried to do, I guess.
Jon: Same as Bel said. No, jocking. I mean, Jan didn’t speak much after the war. I think probably, you know, he wanted to bury a lot of what happened. So there are very few accounts of you know; Miep wrote a book and spoke in front of many, many people across the world and Jan didn’t want to really tell his story. So Tony and the team and the Dutch researchers did an incredible job digging through, you know, all these accounts and piecing together a story. We understand that Jan was involved with the Dutch resistance. We don’t know how much obviously he was involved with hiding the Franks, and we’ve kind of sort of accumulated a story together. So for me, it felt like a bit of a blank canvas. We had some great imagery of Jan with the glasses and aside from that, it was about sort of putting my own stamp on it really. But I think what Bell said is so true. You know, we have to do right by this story and these characters and you have to do your due diligence and you have to research and make sure you’ve read as much as you can and watch as much as you can so that you can really feel immersed in this world.
Amira: Well, I think in a way Mrs Frank was made into the holy saint of Anne Frank in many ways. And, you know, we don’t know much about her. We see her in pictures. We know she’s a very progressive, modern woman who wanted to bring up these two daughters in a very modern way so she put them in Montessori schools so that they could be free. She was very modernist, very ahead of her time. There wasn’t much information about her. We didn’t have her voice because obviously, she didn’t survive. So there weren’t interviews of her at all. Again, was a big blank canvas for me. I didn’t want to betray her, but I also said to myself, well, she’s not a saint either. She’s a real human being and I have to try and make her real, but I think she was someone with very solid values because I think she’s someone who very much wanted to bring her children into the 20th century. Again, as modern people, all I pretty much know of her is that in the diaries of Anne, they have a very tumultuous and violent relationship, very sort of like Bergman’s film. So they had a very strong relationship. So Anne often criticizes her mother and says very, very harsh things about her, but at the same time, we get through Miep, this relationship in a way like a mother who is a daughter. You know, I think Miep was also a mother to Mrs Frank. So Miep became her confidant. So when Mrs Frank had fragile moments, Miep was always coming in, providing her warmth, her spirit, her empathy, her listening, and her advice. So in great moments of loneliness, because you know, these people were living in the dark, we have to remind ourselves they were living with humidity, with dryness, with closed windows, with heat, with cold, with very little food. And this family had the nobility of always giving the food to other people first,…when they could serve themselves first. They always put themselves behind people and they had the great generosity to invite people into the annexe to live with them. So Miep and Jan coming in all the time were a source of life. Miep and Jan brought the outside world to them, and they developed a great relationship.
A Small Light, coming on Disney+ on May 1st