Lisa Wolfinger (right) with director Jeremy Webb and actress Mary Elizabeth Winstead. (Photo by Antony Platt/PBS)
Stories of abolitionists, Confederates and runaway slaves are woven into "Mercy Street," an original PBS series that premieres on Jan. 17, right after the third episode in the final season of "Downton Abbey." Lisa Quijano Wolfinger, co-creator and an executive producer (along with Ridley Scott, David Zucker and David Zabel, also the head writer), talked with us in June on the set at Laburnum House on Richmond’s North Side during the filming of the last three episodes. Wolfinger describes the show as “Gone with the Wind" meets 'M*A*S*H.” Part medical saga, part family drama, it’s set in 1862 in Alexandria, which is under occupation by the Union Army, in a luxury hotel, Mansion House, that's been repurposed as a hospital. Laburnum served as the setting for the interior scenes, while the exterior was built in Petersburg. (Editor's note: This is an expanded version of the interview that appeared in our December issue's "Coming Soon" feature.)
Richmond magazine: Tell us about your role in creating the series.
Wolfinger: Well, “Mercy Street” was originally my idea, I suppose. Four or five years ago, I knew I wanted to do something about the Civil War. I wanted to find an angle that really hadn’t been done, a fresh way to tell an old story. I came across the story of Mansion House Hospital in Alexandria, Virginia, and just the little blurb that I read I found very intriguing, so I started to dig and I came across Mary Phinney, baroness von Olnhausen’s, memoirs. What I realized was here was a really interesting, vibrant character, a complicated character, a woman in an all-male environment. And it was funny, and I loved the sense of humor. As I continued to dig, I came across Louisa May Alcott’s "Hospital Sketches," a short book that she wrote about her experiences during the Civil War when she worked in Washington, D.C., as a volunteer nurse. And again, even though the world was grim, it was funny, there was humor in it, and these women were so vibrant and interesting. It sparked the idea.
RM: Can you give us examples of some of the standout characters in the series that are probably going to be fan favorites?
Wolfinger: That’s a tough one. I’ll preface this by saying that my creative partner in this, David Zabel, was the showrunner of NBC’s "ER" for five years and wrote many of the episodes. That "ER" vibe really informed how we constructed this. It’s very much an ensemble cast. It’s kind of tough to tell at this point who’s going to pop and who audiences are going to connect with because they’re all so strong and so different and so three dimensional, so complex. But certainly in the first episode we follow Mary Phinney, baroness von Olnhausen, who is recently widowed. She was married to a German baron, but she herself is from New England and she’s a staunch abolitionist and kind of a fiery character who wants to go out and make a difference, but she doesn’t really know what she’s doing. And so she walks into this hospital world with a mission to make a difference and realizes that it’s not quite what she expected. We follow her adventures certainly in the first episode through that first day. We also follow the life of young Emma Green, who is a Confederate belle, a Southern loyalist, and her father owns the hotel that has been repurposed as a hospital, and they live down the street from the hospital. She ends up as a volunteer nurse in the hospital. We have these two very strong female protagonists and they really pull us through the series, and I think that’s quite unusual. This is not a Civil War series about battles and the glory of war. It’s really about the home front and about the women who tried very hard to make a difference in the middle of really horrible carnage.
RM: Josh Radnor, who plays surgeon Jedediah Foster, is best known for the CBS sitcom "How I Met Your Mother." How was he chosen?
Wolfinger: The part of Dr. Jed Foster is a key role and we really had to find the right person. We needed an actor who could deliver the comedic timing, the wit as well as the intelligence and the arrogance. This is a complex character. He’s a brilliant, arrogant surgeon, but he’s got a sense of humor. We saw a lot of actors and none of them came close. Then Josh auditioned, and I have to confess, I never watched his show, so I wasn’t familiar with him as an actor. I was really just focused on the audition and what he was bringing to the role and it worked for me. He brought the humor, he brought the comedic timing, but he also brought the intensity and the intelligence that we needed for that character.
RM: What is his character’s relationship with nurse Mary Phinney?
Wolfinger: It’s hot! (Laughs.) The two of them certainly come into conflict in the early episodes, but as with all good romances or love stories, you start in conflict and then you find some chemistry. Our first season is really about them dealing with their conflict, and their conflicting views, if you will, on politics and medicine and all things, and through that conflict maybe finding a little chemistry.
RM: What does Mary Elizabeth Winstead bring to the role of Mary Phinney?
Wolfinger: Mary Elizabeth Winstead is just a wonderful actress and a lovely human being, and she just brings the warmth and the humanity and the complexity that we were looking for in our Mary. She’s such a luminous actress, it’s really exciting to watch her work. And I think Mary and Jed, the two characters and the two actors, truly have some warmth and chemistry.
RM: What’s appealing about a hospital setting?
Wolfinger: Setting our drama in this world was kind of exciting because there’s so much going on scientifically and there are so many social conventions being broken and it’s all because of war. It gives us opportunities, for our female characters, especially, to step out of the constraints of society.
RM: What was it like being here for the end of the Civil War Sesquicentennial?
Wolfinger: I was so deeply immersed in prep through March and into April that I wasn’t paying too much attention to what was going on around me, but I had this surreal experience that was right around the first week of April, walking from Riverside apartments down in the Canal Walk up to Cary Street. I walked around the corner and there were a bunch of Civil War soldiers in full garb and a couple of ladies in hoop skirts and I thought, “Oh my God, I’ve gone back in time, or I’m hallucinating." Having spent four years immersed in Civil War history, to be in Richmond on the anniversary of the fall of Richmond and then the end of the war was really quite profound. That’s one thing I think we’ve all felt here. The Civil War happened 150 years ago, but the scars are still visible and you can feel the ghosts.
RM: How did Richmond’s rich history in the Civil War influence this series? Did your actors pull inspiration from Richmond, its landmarks and historical figures?
Wolfinger: We’ve been living here now for four months and our actors have been here for three months, and I know it’s been deeply important for them to be able on weekends to go and explore Richmond, and some of the Civil War sites and Richmond museums. In fact, one of our actors, Jack Falahee — he plays Frank Stringfellow, who’s a real character, he’s a dashing Confederate scout — was able to go to the Virginia Historical Society right here in Richmond and find his love letters to his girlfriend, and then wife eventually. So that has just a profound impact, I think, on actors as they prepare.
RM: What do you think about the stories being told will connect with audiences now?
Wolfinger: I think audiences are going to respond to “Mercy Street” primarily because it’s good drama. It’s good storytelling. It has a sense of humor. We have some very relatable characters, and varied and complex characters. I think the Civil War aspect to it will be intriguing to a lot of Americans especially, but I think this will have appeal beyond America. I think it will appeal to an international audience because the themes that we deal with, whether it’s war or racial issues or issues of discrimination, whatever issues are connected to wartime, if you will, are universal.
RM: Do you think Mercy Street will pick up the audience from Downton Abbey?
Wolfinger: That is certainly PBS’ hope. It’s our hope that we will hold onto that audience and pull them into a new world, and to a new cast of characters and get them excited about some home-grown drama.
RM: Has there been any preliminary work yet on the next season?
Wolfinger: We have a lot of ideas for season two. We’re ready to get back into the writers’ room.