Meadow Williams is Mildred Gillars in the new American Traitor: The Trial Of Axis Sally. Gillars was convicted of treason against the United States in 1949. William E. Owen was present during the real life trial and wrote the novel Axis Sally Confidential. Swen Temmel joins in portraying Billy Owen’s character.
Based on the true story, AMERICAN TRAITOR: THE TRIAL OF AXIS SALLY follows the life of American woman Mildred Gillars (Meadow Williams, “Boss Level”) and her lawyer (Al Pacino, “Serpico”), who struggles to redeem her reputation. Dubbed “Axis Sally” for broadcasting Nazi propaganda to American troops during World War II, Mildred’s story exposes the dark underbelly of the Third Reich’s hate-filled propaganda machine, her eventual capture in Berlin, and subsequent trial for treason against the United States after the war.
I had the pleasure to speak with Meadow Williams and Swen Temmel via phone to discuss their experience in American Traitor: The Trial Of Axis Sally. They both shared what it meant to play real life characters and how they prepared for their roles. In addition, to favorite scenes and the experience of working with the high caliber actor Al Pacino.
Meadow Williams: Have you seen our movie?
Nancy Tapia: You know what? I had a chance to see a few clips, not the entire movie. It’s pretty cool that we are speaking about American history. How did you both feel to jump into this project, being something based on a true story. Being part of history versus any other projects being another role?
Meadow Williams: I very much took that seriously. This is a person that history has either left behind or shown in a life that I didn’t agree with. So I took it very seriously, that this is a real person’s life that had no one. No family and was kind of abandoned by history and treated unfairly by history at the times you do know who she is. So I just felt very, very serious about the fact that this is someone, this is someone’s life we’re talking about. I really wanted to show her correctly and show her in the way that she would be happy with. Because I just felt like she gave so much, she tried so hard, she was a powerful, successful woman in her own right in a time when that was just about impossible. Having Nazis over her, an American citizen, it meant a lot to me to tell her story. So I took everything about it very seriously.
I was so deep in character. I was dreaming her dreams, I was seeing her life. We went to Berlin before the film started and walked where she walked, went in the buildings that she worked in. We were all over the place, all where she lived. I took her life very seriously. I took her ways of being, the things that were written about her, the way she liked to move, crossing her legs and the things she would do with her handkerchief and her lipstick and everything that was written about her. I took that seriously because this is a true person. This is just not my artistic rendering, my artistic creation out of my head like we actors always do. It’s not a fantasy. I have a debt as a human to give this other human that I’m taking on her name for for awhile. So I felt very strongly about that. I’m happy that Mildred gets her day in court through the American people now because I don’t necessarily agree with what everyone thought back then. I think a lot of people.
Nancy Tapia: And for you, Swen?
Swen Temmel: I mean, it’s a huge obligation to be able to portray somebody that is a real story and it’s based on somebody that existed. So, you do everything possible to do them justice. For me, this script was based on a book that was written by my character, by Billy Owen.
So, he was there in the courtroom. So everything that happened, he took note of, and then later on wrote a book. Then Vance Owen, his son, wrote the script. So for me, the biggest part was doing Billy Owen justice and hopefully I did. Hopefully he’s looking down upon us and smiling and saying that I did a great job. But, it was a fun time. I enjoyed the character very much. I feel like a little part that without Billy’s Axis Sally, Mildred Gillars’s verdict would have looked a little different. So he did his part and I very much loved playing the character. I had the greatest time and hopefully I did him justice.
Nancy Tapia: With the script being based on a novel, did you guys also read the novel?
Swen Temmel: Yes, absolutely.
Meadow Williams: Yes, and I also researched her thoroughly, besides the book, to take other people’s ideas too.
Nancy Tapia: How long did it take you to prepare? With a novel, research to dive into.
Meadow Williams: Absolutely, I downloaded pictures of her. I stared at her every day. I started to dress like her. I started to wear the red lipstick every day even when it wasn’t filming, I kept the red nails. I very much focused on who she was. I think that’s important when you’re playing a character. For me, that’s the way it has to be, haha…It’s just part of being an actor.
Nancy Tapia: Swen, it must have been nice to see her in character, haha…
Meadow Williams: Oh, there was the red lipstick and the outfits that she had on and the clothing back then was just so vastly different than what we’re used to today. I mean, for a dress, the thought, the detail that went into it was just incredible. They wore like 14 layers of clothes under their clothes.
Meadow Williams: Haha…yeah. It was a different time, that’s for sure.
Nancy Tapia: That’s one of the things I was going to ask. It must’ve been to dress in that period and super so classy.
Meadow Williams: Oh, I loved her wardrobe. I kept begging the wardrobe people if there was any way I could get one of the lingerie that looks like a beautiful evening gown of today. And I kept asking, if there was a way I could purchase one of these dresses because they’re magnificent. They’re just fabulous. The material and the way they flow, they’re just fantastic. But unfortunately, the ones that we had for the movie were historical pieces and they’re all the true things. So they’re rented at a high cost and they’re expected back in perfect condition and just the way they were because they are a piece of history. So they would not let me purchase them at any price. But I loved them. They looked like evening gowns. Beautiful silky evening gowns. The lingerie just looks like full made ballgowns and just beautiful, just beautiful.
And the other ones are so finely made and they make you stand very proud because you have no choice, haha… You have to put your shoulders back and you have to stand up straight because the garment sorta makes you do that. They’re just fantastic clothing. People did have a certain decorum. They did have a certain way of being that required a dignity and that is lost in clothing today. Even though I love fashion and I love clothes today, there is a magical quality to the days of old and the way they dressed.
Nancy Tapia: My boyfriend in the background says to try eBay. They have everything. Someone might have gotten it from a grandma-or great-grandma.
Meadow Williams: That’s true., you’ve got a good point. I will definitely try that because I loved them. Mildred had such a way of fashion and style. Even though she was a radio personality, she always dressed. That was very clear everywhere you looked. From the court renderings, to press people, to just anything you could find about that time and her. She was very famous.
People would talk about the red lipstick, her beautiful legs and the way she crossed her legs and the way she held herself, the way she walked. There were a lot of reports from different people. So, you knew this is what people thought about her and the way they saw her. So, I definitely tried to take all of that into account, but yeah, she was quite a lady. To become famous in a time when women were treated like possessions mostly and to be a single woman at that time that’s pretty amazing. And with all the other things about her story, with the horrible people above her. The Nazis and what they did to her, she was a real survivor. I think there’s a lot to be said for courage and strength.
Nancy Tapia: Definitely a perfect example for today…Can you share about one of your favorite scenes that you enjoyed filming? Question for both.
Swen Temmel: For me it was definitely… Well, definitely there’s a lot of great scenes throughout the movie. For me, working with Al Pacino was incredible and definitely a moment that I’ll never forget for the rest of my life. But I think my favorite movie moment in the movie is the final scene between Mildred and Billy when they’re in the jail cell, right before the verdict happens and she sort of lays it all out and tells Billy her life story pretty much. And I don’t say much, I don’t really say anything at all, but I just listen and take in her life story.
For me, that was such a powerful moment and such a beautiful thing that she would confess that to him. And I think for me, that’s definitely one of the more beautiful scenes in the movie. I really enjoyed filming it for Meadow. It was traumatizing and a very difficult scene, but I think for me, it was something very beautiful and I enjoyed it very much. But of course, working with Al in his office and doing that scene was incredible as well. So there’s just so many different scenes in this movie that I’ll never forget. But, that one with Mildred in the jail cell is probably my favorite.
Meadow Williams: As soon as you asked this question, eight scenes flashed through my head. [Chuckles] I love different things for different reasons, but the first scene that flashed into my head is going to be an unusual one because it was one of my hardest scenes and one of the most gut wrenching for me.
But, there was a moment in it that was so gratifying because I was so deep in Mildred. I don’t want to be a spoiler and tell what happened in this scene. But there is a moment in the movie where I pull a gun to kill someone and I pull the trigger. In the moment that I pulled that trigger in the movie, I was so deep in character and I wanted this person dead so badly. He’s a person that history would love to have killed. It would have saved millions of lives if I could have killed him.
But I felt so intensely at that moment that I was taking evil from the planet and when I pulled the trigger, just the feeling was so intense because I think anyone would love to go back in time and try to take that person out. And any righteous person, any kind person, anyone with a heart at all would want to save millions of lives. Just the moment of pulling that trigger was so intense for me. You’ll have to see the movie to see the whole scene. It’s a feeling I’ll never forget because he was just such a horrible, horrible thing. That scene was probably the best because of that intense feeling, of trying to rid the world of a lot of horror.
But I loved so many scenes. I just really loved even little scenes, like when I was recording the soldiers from that time. And they’re all in hospitals and we’re bringing them cigarettes and things that they wanted back then. The guys were great and it was just nice recording them telling their families who they wanted to say “hello” to and putting it on the radio. I liked the radio scenes, I liked the singing, I liked dancing, I liked the playful moments very much. I love the scene Swen was talking about. Actually, no, I hate that scene. It was painful (chuckles).
Swen Temmel: Haha…
Meadow Williams: I like watching it now, but at the time it just tore me to pieces. At the time, oh my goodness, my face hurt from all the crying.
Nancy Tapia: It sounds like there was so much emotion that you brought into the scenes. For example, pulling a gun to this individual. Did it feel emotionally draining at the end of the day?
Meadow Williams: Oh, yes and even after I stopped filming, Mildred hung around a while and I would cry every time anyone would start asking me questions about her. If they would ask about when the love of her life died and the different things she went through, I would cry (chuckles). Even as an actor, after I was filming, finished filming. I would still be so emotionally distraught for some of the things that she went through. So, yeah there were days that I did a lot of crying and there were days that were very exhausting.
It was truly exhausting (chuckles). But anybody that has to go through tough things in life, it’s an exhausting time. When she dealt with the love of her life dying right in front of her, basically. He died slowly with illness and she had to live with that for a while. And these things are exhausting and it takes a lot out of the human spirit and the human soul. But, I felt an obligation, not just to Mildred, but to other people that have lived through intense things in war. It means a lot to tell it purely, to tell it from the heart… Sorry, I’m getting choked up. But yeah, it is an obligation.
Nancy Tapia: I appreciate you really opening your heart and sharing your feelings when it comes to this character. It was definitely not an easy story.
Meadow Williams: Yeah, definitely not. But worth telling and one that I want people to see and report back and tell us what you think.
Nancy Tapia: For sure. Now let’s discuss something that I am sure brings a smile. Swen, you mentioned the experience of working with Al Pacino. What did you take away from your experience of working with Mr.Pacino?
Swen Temmel: I mean, getting to work with Al Pacino is the highlight of my life. He is the greatest living legend in the entire world. He was the kindest and most beautiful person to work with. He’s such a giving actor. Working in the scene, he’ll give you so many different things and he’s there. He is present, he gives his all. So in a scene, it’s not like he’s just like, “Oh, I’m Al Pacino, I’m just going to come and do my lines and leave.” No, even if the camera’s on me, he still gave his all, he still was present and was 100% committed to the scene. He was there early, we rehearsed, we talked about the characters and the backstory and all of that stuff. So, working with Al, I have nothing but the highest regard for him and it was just incredible working with him.
Meadow Williams: Oh, I couldn’t agree. Al is a treasure in every sense of the word. He’s a gentleman, he’s a kind soul and he’s a very, very dedicated actor. He loves to get in there and scrap. He wants you to go back at him just as hard as he’s going and just really spar, sort of speak, with the acting. He’s a champion and I love Al. As Swen said, the joy of my life, working with Al.
You can compare it to a million different things if you have a hobby that you love, like you love painting, to get to paint with the greatest painter alive or one of them. If you are a motorcycle rider to get the ride beside a great person. If you love stunts, to be with a great stunt person. It’s just, to be with your hero is the greatest feeling. It’s really incredible. Al is one of a kind and absolutely fantastic. I love his voice, I love his mannerism, but nothing can top those eyes. When he stares at you, you are just mesmerized and you are in it. You were there because you’re going with him. There’s nothing like it. God bless you Al. You are just a magnificent man and we love you.
Nancy Tapia: Well, thank you so much, both, for your time to talk about the American Traitor: The Trial Of Axis Sally. Meadow, thank you for opening up and really sharing your deep experience on portraying Mildred Gillars.
Meadow Williams: Thank you so much.
Swen Temmel: Thank you very much. It was a pleasure. Thanks for having us.
Nancy Tapia: Also thank you for sharing, Meadow, about the location you were at. I’m going to look it up.
Meadow Williams: Oh, thanks and enjoy New Orleans. I mean, what a place. I’m happy you get to go to such a fantastic place. With COVID, sometimes we don’t get to see the lovely places and New Orleans is certainly one of those.
Nancy Tapia: Yes, indeed. Thank you so much and good luck in your future projects.
Meadow Williams: Thank you
Swen Temmel: Thank you
American Traitor: The Trial Of Axis Sally is available in select theaters & On Demand
Source: LRM Exclusive