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Will Tracy, creator of HBO's 'Regime' on the dark comedy about a European autocrat

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

In an undisclosed country somewhere in Europe, Chancellor Elena Vernham reigns supreme, but she's uneasy with her power. She doesn't trust her advisors and thinks they are just trying to please her. Everything changes when a lowly soldier enters her circle. Chancellor Vernham says he's a nobody, and that's exactly why she can trust him.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE REGIME")

KATE WINSLET: (As Elena Vernham) You are the only one who can tell me what the nobodies want. Look at me. You love me, don't you?

MATTHIAS SCHOENAERTS: (As Herbert Zubak) Yes.

WINSLET: (As Elena Vernham) Can you say it?

SCHOENAERTS: (As Herbert Zubak) I love you.

WINSLET: (As Elena Vernham) Yes. If you love me, tell me honestly. What would you like to happen next? Tell me.

RASCOE: That's Kate Winslet playing Chancellor Vernham in HBO's new six-part series "The Regime." It's a dark comedy about the authoritarian leader of a crumbling nation. Will Tracy is the show's creator and writer. He joins us now. Welcome to the program.

WILL TRACY: Thanks, Ayesha.

RASCOE: So you were a writer on HBO's "Succession," and before that, editor-in-chief of "The Onion." What drew you to creating a show about an authoritarian regime like the one on this show?

TRACY: I mean, it's been my kind of comfort reading and beach reading for 20 years now. I'm not entirely proud to admit that, but I guess the same way some people read true-crime books, that's how I feel about big books, about Ceausescu or Stalin or the like.

RASCOE: And why is that? Like, what draws you to reading about these regimes and, like, why is that your kind of guilty pleasure (laughter)?

TRACY: I've tried to think about that. There's, like - the usual answer that people give, I think, is that by reading about those sorts of regimes where everything collapses, you can kind of prepare yourself maybe for the same conditions appearing in your own country and in your own life. I think maybe that's part of it. I also think there's just something to, you know, when you're reading about the siege of Leningrad before bed and you turn off the light and rest your head on the pillow, you know, your problems don't seem so big anymore, do they? It's...

RASCOE: Yes.

TRACY: I tend to drop right off to sleep.

RASCOE: OK. Well, I mean, well, some people - it would scare them because they would think like, well, is that happening? But, you know...

TRACY: (Laughter).

RASCOE: ...I guess it just depends on your perspective. But Kate Winslet is already getting praise from critics for this performance. How was it working with her and the choice of her to play Elena?

TRACY: Wonderful. I think what she realized immediately - you know, with so many of these authoritarian leaders, when they first arrive on the scene, there's something about them that's sort of off, right? They look a little funny, or they sound a little funny, or they don't quite fit the mold of what we think a head of state is supposed to be. And so, you know, the people who surround them - the voters, the media, the pundits - they will often laugh at these figures. But what they do - these leaders - is they take those quirks, those odd little bits, and they weaponize it. They turn it into a superpower to become even more popular. But then they never forget, you know, they used to laugh at me.

And Kate was very brilliant about sort of preparing all these little details in a performance down to her voice and her look, her whole presentation. You both get the idea of a very magnetic, charming personality, but also someone who, deep down maybe is quite insecure that she is an unserious person, or that she might be a figure of ridicule on the world stage.

RASCOE: This character - she's ruthless, but sometimes she's also, as you said, she's just kind of weird. She starts off - she's very concerned about, I guess, mold or fungus. She has, like, these...

TRACY: (Laughter).

RASCOE: ...Like, these very, like, odd things that she wants to do to, like, strengthen herself. Do you think that kind of disconnect from reality is part of what has to be there to be an autocrat like this?

TRACY: Yeah, absolutely. I do. And I think when you have access to unlimited wealth and material resources and power, yeah, your world - you can kind of create your own reality to suit whatever your kind of psychic needs are that day. And everyone around you, because you're so powerful and vindictive, everyone around you has to conform to the same reality and pretend that 2 plus 2 equals elephant.

RASCOE: Yeah. You know, another interesting thing about "The Regime" is this running critique of American interventionism. We have a clip here of Chancellor Vernham speaking with a U.S. senator who's played by Martha Plimpton. The chancellor is challenging a deal that lets American companies operate the country's cobalt mines.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE REGIME")

WINSLET: (As Elena Vernham) We let you dig our earth for a pittance. We provided refueling and airspace support for your walls in the Middle East. We handed you hundreds of dossiers on supposed Russian cyber terrorists working in our country. We swore off China and her Belt and Road. We let your CIA run its black sites here, right here, on our sovereign soil. You shoveled your [expletive] on our doorstep for years and told us we were happy to eat it, if you'll pardon my expression.

MARTHA PLIMPTON: (As Judith Holt) I might add, we also shoveled quite a bit of investment your way as well.

RASCOE: So even though this show is satire, or maybe because it's a satire, viewers can probably - they may be able to see the chancellor's point of view on this, right?

TRACY: Yeah. It was important to me that, you know, if I was writing a show about a certain kind of regime in a certain part of the world, that I wouldn't have that - you know, oftentimes you see that American point of view of, oh, it's a show about one of those bad countries. And I just felt it was an obligation to point out that, you know, we always - we have something to do with those countries. We're not responsible for all of their behavior or all of their flaws. But, as the major hegemonic power of the world, certainly of the West, you know, we have something to do with them. That felt more interesting to me than just a sort of more old-fashioned idea of what a dictatorship in that region might look like.

RASCOE: So, you know, ultimately, like, after "Secession" and now "The Regime," is there another group of corrupt and powerful people that you're going to turn your pen towards next? Is is there another (laughter)...

TRACY: Maybe it's - yeah, maybe it's the opposite. Maybe I just need to write a show about a group of very benign zookeepers...

RASCOE: (Laughter) Very nice people. Yes.

TRACY: ...And their love of animals and their love of each other...

RASCOE: (Laughter).

TRACY: ...And their great friendships they sustain. Maybe that's the way to go. I may be all - you know, I may have squeezed all the juice from that particular lemon, of powerful people doing awful things.

(LAUGHTER)

RASCOE: Well, that is Will Tracy, executive producer, showrunner and writer for the series "The Regime," premiering on HBO tonight. Thank you so much for coming on.

TRACY: Thank you, Ayesha. This was great. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Ayesha Rascoe is a White House correspondent for NPR. She is currently covering her third presidential administration. Rascoe's White House coverage has included a number of high profile foreign trips, including President Trump's 2019 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi, Vietnam, and President Obama's final NATO summit in Warsaw, Poland in 2016. As a part of the White House team, she's also a regular on the NPR Politics Podcast.
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