Q

How Josh Radnor's Jewish faith fuelled his role as a 1970s vigilante Nazi assassin

Radnor stars alongside Al Pacino in Hunters, a hugely anticipated TV series inspired by true-life tales

Radnor stars alongside Al Pacino in Hunters, a hugely anticipated TV series inspired by true-life tales

In Hunters, actor Josh Radnor plays Lonny Flash, a movie star who falls into a pit of addiction, then resurrects himself by hunting Nazis. (YouTube)

In the 1970s, a fictional covert group of vigilantes hunts down Nazis who are hiding out in America, looking to get a foothold.

Among them is Leonard Flazenstein, an actor who moved to L.A. and became Lonny Flash, a movie star who falls into a pit of addiction before resurrecting himself by hunting Nazis.

Played by Josh Radnor, Lonny Flash is one of the colourful characters in the hugely anticipated new Amazon series Hunters, whose ensemble cast includes veterans Al Pacino, Saul Rubinek, Carol Kane, Dylan Baker, Lena Olin and others.

Radnor says Flash is arrogant, and often says the thing everyone is thinking but shouldn't say out loud; but he's loyal, cares about justice and wants to do the right thing. 

The character is also fuelled, in part, by Radnor's own faith.

"There's something elementally about being Jewish that I just never have to fake. I don't have to lean into it. There's just something of my DNA about it," says Radnor, who adds that he is "theologically omnivorous," but that his roots are in Judaism.

'That's what we've done for thousands of years'

For the 45-year-old actor, who is best known for his role in the Emmy-winning sitcom How I Met Your Mother, the religious influence runs much deeper than simply playing a role. In fact, he says his lifelong desire for knowledge and learning comes in part from his religious upbringing, and informs his work.

Set in the 1970s, Hunters is about a covert group of vigilantes who are hunting down Nazis hiding out in America and looking to get a foothold. (YouTube)

"Tony Kushner said this beautiful thing. Years ago, I heard him in an interview and he asked why so many Jews were involved in the theatre. He said, 'Jews historically pore over text. That's what we've done for thousands of years. We dig underneath the text to figure out what's underneath the words — and that's essentially what you're doing with a play,'" says Radnor. 

"And I really, really relate to that."

In fact, Radnor has described his approach to acting as Talmudic.

"Studying scripture is a kind of exercise in imagination where you step into these fantastical stories or parables or allegories and you imagine, how do they relate to your own life," he says. "And on some level you're doing the same thing as an actor, even as a writer, where you're stepping into shoes that aren't your own or you're trying to pull something a little closer to you."

Show faces criticism

Radnor isn't the only member of the Hunters cast and crew who comes from a Jewish background. The show's creator, David Weil, has spoken about how his grandmother was a Holocaust survivor, and many of the other cast members are of Jewish descent. The parents of actor Saul Rubinek were also survivors.

Al Pacino plays Meyer Offerman, a Jewish philanthropist and Holocaust survivor who recruited and leads a vigilante group of Nazi killers in Hunters. (YouTube)

The show has faced criticism, however — most notably from the Auschwitz Memorial, which is responsible for preserving the notorious Nazi death camp in Poland.

The organization criticized Amazon for the show's fictitious depictions of atrocities in Nazi death camps, among them a grim game of human chess where people are killed as each piece is taken.

"Inventing a fake game of human chess for @huntersonprime is not only dangerous foolishness & caricature," wrote representatives of the Auschwitz Memorial in a tweet. "It also welcomes future deniers. We honor the victims by preserving factual accuracy."

Hunters creator and executive producer David Weil addressed the concerns in a letter.

"While Hunters is a dramatic narrative series, with largely fictional characters, it is inspired by true events. But it is not documentary. And it was never purported to be," he wrote.

"In speaking to the 'chess match' scene specifically — this is a fictionalized event. Why did I feel this scene was important to script and place in a series? To most powerfully counteract the revisionist narrative that whitewashes Nazi perpetration, by showcasing the most extreme — and representationally truthful — sadism and violence that the Nazis perpetrated against the Jews and other victims."

We really went into this with our eyes open. We had consultants. We had historians we were working with. Certainly David is an anti-Nazi, anti-fascist, never again kind of person. And he was trying to make a show that was both wildly entertaining and really about something.- Josh Radnor

Radnor say he appreciated Weil's response.

"I thought it was incredibly respectful and thoughtful. And he really understood what they were saying. He heard them and honoured their point of view, while at the same time saying this was not a rash or ill-considered thing," says Radnor.

"We really went into this with our eyes open. We had consultants. We had historians we were working with. Certainly David is an anti-Nazi, anti-fascist, never again kind of person. And he was trying to make a show that was both wildly entertaining and really about something."

'When humour goes, we're really in trouble'

"I think that humour in a show like this is not only necessary," says actor Josh Radnor, "but almost inevitable in some ways if you want to hit close to the truth." (Hunters)

Given the seriousness of the subject matter, some viewers might be surprised to find how much humour there is in Hunters — but Radnor argues it's not at all out of place.

On the contrary, it connects the show to another long-held Jewish tradition. 

"With tales of survivors and people in the camps, there was still laughter. There was still joking. And I think that when humour goes, we're really in trouble," says Radnor.

"At the darkest moments of human history, people have held on to their sense of humour — and in particular Jews have done that. I think part of the grand legacy of Jewish humour is born out of the kind of pain and epigenetic trauma of Jewish history, which is littered with hardship and struggle and pogroms and genocide and all sorts of stuff," he continues.

"So I think that humour in a show like this is not only necessary, but almost inevitable in some ways if you want to hit close to the truth."

Written by Jennifer Van Evra. Interview produced by Annie Bender.

Miss an episode of CBC q? Download our podcast.

now