DATE September 19, 2006 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
PROGRAM Fresh Air
Interview: Journalist Rajiv Chandrasekaran, author of "Imperial
Life in the Emerald City: Inside Iraq's Green Zone," discusses
his experiences in Iraq's Green Zone
DAVE DAVIES, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, senior writer for the Philadelphia Daily
News sitting in for Terry Gross.
In the Green Zone, the secure area for coalition forces and American diplomats
in Iraq, there's a dry cleaner with a sign on the wall which reads, "Remove
ammunition from pockets." That's just one of the revealing details in a new
book about the Green Zone by my guest, Washington Post assistant managing
editor Rajiv Chandrasekaran. He was the newspaper's Baghdad bureau chief for
the first 19 months of the occupation in Iraq. His book is called "Imperial
Life in the Emerald City: Inside Iraq's Green Zone." He describes a world
specially created to make Americans comfortable in a war-torn land, and he
details what he considers the sometimes misguided efforts of American
administrators to quickly transform Iraq's economy and political culture.
Before heading the Post's Baghdad bureau, Rajiv Chandrasekaran reported from
Indonesia, Egypt, and the post 9/11 war in Afghanistan.
Well, Rajiv Chandrasekaran, welcome to FRESH AIR. You called your book
"Imperial Life in the Emerald City." Remind us what exactly the Green Zone in
Baghdad is, who lived there, what is was--what it looked like.
Mr. RAJIV CHANDRASEKARAN: Well, the Green Zone is a seven-square-mile
enclave at the center of Baghdad. Before the US-led war to topple Saddam
Hussein, it was the site of Saddam's republican palace and many other
associated government buildings for his bodyguards, for his ministers. It was
a walled-off enclave that Iraqis ordinary Iraqis could never enter. They just
simply drove very quickly by the walls on the outside lest they be accused of
gawking and picked up by the secret police.
After the Americans arrived in Baghdad, it was the ideal place for them to set
up shop, and it quickly became a place where soldiers congregated. And then a
few weeks into the US presence in Iraq, it was determined that this would be
the ideal place to seat the occupation government. And they took over
Saddam's republican palace, and it became the headquarters of the Coalition
Provisional Authority. But the Green Zone is more than just the marble-walled
palace. It's the whole area around it, and it became a little America. It
became a land of swimming pools, of bars. There were at least seven bars and
discos in the Green Zone. It became an enclave that was taken over, in some
parts, by the large defense contractor Halliburton. It became this sort of
other worldly place that was so divorced from the reality of post-war Baghdad.
As soon as you crossed over those walls, you could really see this chaotic,
dysfunctional country that was still sort of smoldering from the ruins of the
looting. But when you went inside the Green Zone, it was this sort of
sterile, almost Disneyland-like environment where, as I say in my book, you
know, it was sort of--a "calm sterility of an American subdivision prevailed."
DAVIES: You made a number of interesting observations about food in the Green
Zone. What was served?
Mr. CHANDRASEKARAN: Well, it was American fare. You could live for six
months in the Green Zone and never eat an Iraqi meal, never eat kabob, humus,
flatbread. It was almost always sort of down-home cooking with a Southern
flair, a lot of grits, a lot of bacon, a lot of sausage, burgers, and what's
interesting here is the bacon was pork bacon. You know, we're in the middle
of a Muslim country. Pork is a food that's offensive to Muslims, yet
Halliburton persisted in serving it in the dining hall in the Green Zone and
almost for every meal. You'd go there for breakfast, and there was pork bacon
in the buffet for breakfast. Lunchtime you had pork hotdogs, and dinner you
could find bacon cheeseburgers or pork loin. It was amazing to me the
cultural insensitivity that was displayed because, inside that dining hall, it
wasn't just Americans and Brits eating, but there were a number of Iraqis,
Iraqis who had been brought into the palace--carefully vetted, mind you--but
brought into the palace to work as translators, to work as janitors, to work
as other sort of support personnel. And they were forced to eat at that
palace, and they were forced to get food from the very same buffet that was
piled high with pork.
DAVIES: Now, you talk about a guy who was Halliburton's customer service
liaison for the dining services, a fellow named Michael Cole. Was he aware of
this issue of pork, of Muslims being surrounded by all this pork?
Mr. CHANDRASEKARAN: He certainly was. He was a young kid, but he had a good
heart, and he certainly knew that this was offensive to the Muslims who ate at
the dining hall, and, in fact, offensive to the Muslims who were serving the
food. No Iraqis were actually allowed to serve the food. They were worried
that they might actually poison the food, so Halliburton brought in a bunch of
Pakistani and Indian laborers to come in and do all of that work. This young
guy, Mr. Cole, was at least attuned enough to that that he never, he claims,
never ordered pork in the dining hall. But when this was brought to his
attention, and he took it up the chain of command, what he was told was that
the morale of the Americans was more important, that it was more important to
give people good down-home cooking so they wouldn't get homesick, and if it
meant that some Iraqis were offended, well, so be it.
DAVIES: Now, you mentioned that, I guess, Saddam's palace was one place where
activities occurred, but that there was such a need for housing that a lot of
the Green Zone was, in effect, trailer parks. Right? What kinds of
accommodations did people have over there?
Mr. CHANDRASEKARAN: Well, initially what had happened was a lot of American
personnel bunked right in the palace because there are about 256 rooms in that
place. There was ample space for the first wave of Americans to come in and
find accommodation. But then, as the CPA grew and grew, there was--they ran
out of space in this vast palace. So then they moved into the Al-Rashid
Hotel, and the Al-Rashid then served as the principal dormitory for the
occupation authority. And it did so until the fall 2003 when insurgents hit
the hotel with a barrage of rockets, killing one CPA staffer and wounding a
few others. And, at that point, they all sort of moved back closer to the
palace, and they moved into a whole set of trailers. This massive trailer
park grew, and they were sort of subdivided into little mini trailer parks,
and they took on names like Poolside Estates and Ocean Cliffs. And these
weren't really great trailers. They were pretty dilapidated things that were
brought in, again, by Halliburton, who I'm sure charged the government a
pretty penny for them. It was by no means grand housing, and they were
particularly vulnerable to mortars, because, you know, the trailers have only
very thin corrugated metal atop of it, so they eventually started to pile the
sandbags along the sides of them. It took on a very sort of other worldly
scene as you'd walk through these trailer parks and kind of snake your way
through these sandbagged encampments to get into people's little hovels that
had a little single bed in it and some plastic chairs, and this was the new
DAVIES: And it was interesting that there was a difference between the
trailers the British had and the ones the Americans had.
Mr. CHANDRASEKARAN: Yeah, well, the British have a longer history of
occupation than Americans do. I think, figured it out a little quicker some
of the things they needed to do, so instead of going to Halliburton and
getting some second rate trailers, they had theirs outfitted with furniture
from the Swedish company Ikea, and they, I think, anticipated the potential
for mortar attacks in the Green Zone, so they set up many of their trailers in
a parking garage in the Green Zone, so there was a cement covering on it,
which gave them an added layer of protection. It was a degree of foresight
that some of the American planners did not have.
DAVIES: What about people who dated? I mean, were there places for intimacy
in the Green Zone?
Mr. CHANDRASEKARAN: Not that many, so it forced people to get creative. You
know, initially the ratio of men to women was something like 10 to 1, so men,
as they started to woo women, began to refer to themselves as operationally
single and women in the Green Zone began to receive attention that sort of
verged on harassment. One woman recounts going into a meeting and introducing
herself to a man, and the man says to her, `Oh, I know who you are. We know
who all the pretty girls are.' But those who did sort of want to hook up,
they'd have to do it sort of surreptitiously. They'd have to walk to some
quiet corner of the Green Zone or find an abandoned office in the palace. One
place that people were known to sort of hook up, they thought was actually
quite private was in the porta-pottys in the back of the palace.
DAVIES: The porta-pottys.
Mr. CHANDRASEKARAN: Yes. It's a...
DAVIES: Hardly romantic.
Mr. CHANDRASEKARAN: Hardly romantic. It's a disgusting thought but there
was a belief, particularly among military personnel out there, that it was
perhaps the safest place because you could lock the door and be assured that
nobody was going to come in.
DAVIES: Rajiv Chandrasekaran was the Washington Post's Baghdad bureau chief
after the American-led invasion of Iraq. We'll talk more after a break. This
is FRESH AIR.
DAVIES: My guest is Rajiv Chandrasekaran. His book based on his coverage of
the occupation in Iraq is called "Life in the Emerald City: Inside Iraq's
Give us a sense of who some of the civilians--what kind of civilians inhabited
the Green Zone--their ages, backgrounds.
Mr. CHANDRASEKARAN: It was a motley assortment of people, everywhere from
young, jobless college graduates to war-zone adventurers to people who had had
a little experience overseas to a lot of people who had never left America.
One of my most telling statistics that I write about in the book about the
Green Zone is that more than 50 percent of the people who came out to work for
the occupation authority applied for their first passport to come out and work
there. So a lot of people who had never ventured beyond the shores of the
United States, and a lot of them were really young. You had a lot of people
in their 20s who were looking for a little adventure, many of them very loyal
Republicans. That was a key criteria to be chosen to come out there. but it
was a whole assortment of people. In fact, it's been described by others, and
I share this view, that walking through the Green Zone, it was sort of like
going to the bar in "Star Wars," that whole, you know, motley assortment of
DAVIES: Were their Democrats in the Green Zone, I mean, among this sea of
Mr. CHANDRASEKARAN: There were some. Most of the Democrats were either
State Department diplomats or career military officers who by law could not be
queried about their political affiliation before they were sent to Baghdad,
and a handful of them actually formed their own little support group that they
called `Donkeys in the Desert,' and they would meet once a week to sort of
talk about Democratic issues. They put some posters up initially to advertise
there meetings, and just like you might expect in a high school, a lot of them
were defaced. They were yanked from the walls or they were scribbled with
graffiti. But this group did persist in meeting. They, at one point,
screened Michael Moore's "Fahrenheit 9/11." But unless they were among their
own, they never really openly advertised their political affiliation. One of
the donkeys compared being a Democrat in the Green Zone to being gay in
small-town America, and he said, `You know, if you know what's good for you,
you just stay in the closet.'
DAVIES: You know, you describe this world in which there are all of these
civilian employees, many of them young, who have this sort of recreated
American suburban world where there's familiar food and familiar vehicles and
restaurants and bars, and outside you had this country that's sort of
unraveling. What do you think the effect of that isolation was on those who
had to figure out how this country was going to rebuild itself?
Mr. CHANDRASEKARAN: Well, they had no sense of what reality was like on the
ground, what Iraqis needed, what they wanted, what was practical, what was
doable. And so you'd have groups of very well-meaning, very earnest young
Americans who would sit around in conference rooms in the palace and diagram
using dry erase boards and note pads what the country needed. They'd work up
with their power point presentations, well, Iraqi schools need this, or Iraqi
hospitals need that. And it was well-intentioned, but it bore no resemblance
to what was really happening, and it wound up being a process that really
didn't involve lots of Iraqis, and the Iraqis that it did involve were Iraqis
who were sort of self-selected. They were Iraqis who felt comfortable enough
with the Americans that they would want to get jobs working with them or would
want to come into the Green Zone, and Iraqis who also were slightly
opportunistic, who knew that eventually the Americans would cede power back to
them and that if they were sort of telling the Americans what they wanted to
hear, they might be best positioned to get that power and to get lucrative
reconstruction contracts. So these people inside the Green Zone wound up
essentially operating in an echo chamber.
DAVIES: Can you think of an example of something that you observed which
illustrates that lack of connection, someone devising plans which had really
no connection to what was needed, what was happening?
Mr. CHANDRASEKARAN: Yeah. Let me tell you about a day in early 2004.
Suicide bombers detonated their explosive-laden belts outside a very large
Shiite shrine in Baghdad, killing dozens upon dozens of people. And I spent
the morning out there walking through the carnage, seeing corpses, seeing
piles of shoes of the dead, and really just experiencing Iraq at its very
worst, at its most bloody. And that evening I went into the Green Zone to
meet somebody for dinner, and I sat in the palace dining hall, and this, mind
you, was such a catastrophic attack that Iraqi political leaders essentially
declared three days of mourning. It was all anybody outside could talk about,
and it had really wracked the country. And I went inside the the Green Zone
for dinner and sat at a table with people and started talking with them, and I
asked one of the people at my table what he thought of what had happened
earlier today, and his response was so blase. It was, `Oh, yeah, I think I
saw something about that on my office television, but I didn't really watch it
because I was too busy working on my democracy project.' And I was just blown
away. You know, what good is a democracy project if, outside these walls,
innocent people get blown up while going to the mosque. And there just seemed
to be this huge disconnect between the security situation on the outside
between what really mattered to Iraqis and what mattered to the Americans
inside the Emerald City.
DAVIES: You write quite a bit about efforts to recast the Iraqi economy by
some conservative Americans who really saw it as a chance to kind of
bring--unleash the benefits of free enterprise in this struggling country.
You write that Tom Foley, who was an investment banker and Republican donor
and actually a classmate of the president when he was at the Harvard Business
School, headed the office of the private sector development, who thought his
mission was to privatize all of Iraq's state-owned industries within 30 days.
How well did this work?
Mr. CHANDRASEKARAN: It was an utter disaster. You know, Foley and the
others who showed up there viewed Iraq as their quiescent terrarium to
implement neoconservative economic ideas that they have never been able to
implement in this country. They showed up in a country where unemployment
was, at best, 40 percent, perhaps as bad as 50 or 60 percent with an ossified
socialist structure, and what did they think needed to be done? You know, not
a sort of a New Deal jobs program. `Hey, what Iraq needs,' they said, `is a
flat tax.' And they implemented this 15 percent flat tax. They engaged in
tariff reduction. They implemented a whole host of legal changes that were
designed for Iraq's ascension to the World Trade Organization. Before
Ambassador Bremer left the country, he rewrote Iraq's laws governing microchip
design, genetically modified seed varietals, intellectual property
protections, all sorts of things that, in the eyes of many people who look at
Iraq, were sort of rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic. You know, this was
a country that needed some basic economic stimulus. It needed money pumped
in, perhaps to sort of low-wage, low-skill jobs but getting people back to
DAVIES: Iraq was a country that under Saddam Hussein had a number of
state-owned enterprises which the Americans thought would be best put in
private hands. Give us an example, maybe, of how well that worked or didn't.
Mr. CHANDRASEKARAN: Well, what the Americans thought should be done was this
sort of big bang privatization effort. You know, bring in a bunch of foreign
investors, sell off all of these companies, and hey, we're off to the races.
Well, the reality was far, far more complicated than that because you had, you
know, more than 150 government-run factories. Most of these things had been
looted. There was no electricity service. Many of the employees had gone
home, not knowing when they needed to report back. And so there was this
large effort that needed to be implemented to actually just get these things
working again, and, once you get them working, then maybe you can sell them
off. But the US government never devoted enough people to this effort. At
best, there were two or three people assigned to the task of trying to get
these 150 factories that employed a collective 100,000 people back to work,
and a few months into it they brought over some Germans to advise them because
of their experience in privatizing government factories in the former East
Germany. And the Germans sat there with the three Americans on the other side
of the table and said, `So, tell us about your efforts here. Tell us, how
many people do you have working on this?' And one of the three Americans said,
`Well, you're looking at them.' And the German said, `Well, no, no, no. Not
the people in charge. How many people overall do you have? We had like 8,000
people at our country working on this effort.' And the Americans say, `No,
it's just three.' And the Germans said, `Don't even bother trying.' But we
tried. We thought that, you know, it wasn't important to really get these
things back up and running, that foreign investors would flock to Iraq and
would buy up these things. Well, we all know now that that never happened.
Nobody really wanted to come into a war-ravaged country where you couldn't
even fly in commercially into the airport, that the road from the airport into
the city was incredibly dangerous and was infiltrated by insurgents, that any
private company would be willing to come in and invest in Iraq.
DAVIES: Rajiv Chandrasekaran's new book is "Life in the Emerald City: Inside
Iraq's Green Zone." He'll be back in the second half of the show.
I'm Dave Davies, and this is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
DAVIES: My guest is Rajiv Chandrasekaran. His book based on his coverage of
the occupation in Iraq is called "Life in the Emerald City: Inside Iraq's
Green Zone." He'll be back in the second half of the show. I'm Dave Davies
and this is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies sitting in for Terry Gross.
My guest Rajiv Chandrasekaran's new book about the occupation in Iraq is
called "Imperial Life in the Emerald City: Inside Iraq's Green Zone." He
writes about the protected enclave for Westerners in Baghdad and the efforts
of coalition administrators to transform the Iraqi economy and government. I
asked him about the American who was supposed to rebuild the country's public
Mr. CHANDRASEKARAN: Jim Haveman was the former director of community health
care in Michigan. He essentially ran the Medicare and Medicaid system in the
state of Michigan. He didn't have much international experience. He had done
some work for an evangelical Christian organization promoting development of
the Third World. Prior to that he had run a large adoption agency that had
encouraged women not to have abortions. And Haveman got his job because the
Republican governor of Michigan, John Angler, recommended him to Paul
Wolfowitz, and Haveman, you know, eventually was put on a plane out to
Haveman replaced a man who has been described by people at USAID as the single
most talented health care professional who deals with post-conflict
environments, a guy who has a medical degree, which Jim Haveman didn't, a guy
who has four post-graduate degrees, two Bronze stars, who's a senior person at
USAID, who had worked in northern Iraq after the '91 Gulf War, who had been in
Kosovo and Somalia. But a few weeks after the liberation of Baghdad, this
guy--his name is Skip Burkle--he got an e-mail from a senior official back in
Washington saying that the White House, quote, unquote, "wanted a loyalist in
the job." And so Haveman comes out there. And you know, Iraq's hospitals were
decrepit. They didn't have basic things like CAT scans and ample anesthesia
and antibiotics and all the things that we take for granted here in this
country. And meanwhile, people getting attacked by insurgents were the sort
of single largest health care challenge in the country. And Haveman decides,
well, you know, I'm really not going to put lots of money to fixing Iraqi
hospitals just yet. I think we need to sort of approach this in a different
mind-set. We need to encourage Iraqis not to come to hospitals when they have
basic ailments. So he wanted to set up a system of little primary care
And then, perhaps, you know, most crazily, he tried to do something that he
had done in Michigan that had saved some money. He had forced Medicare
providers in Michigan to buy drugs off of a list called a formulary, and he
looked at Iraq's health care system and saw that in Iraq the government
actually imports lots of medicines for hospitals because health care is free.
Incidentally, Haveman didn't like the idea that health care was free and
wanted to start charging people kind of co-payments to come in to see doctors.
But so, Haveman sees this formula that Iraq has and says, `We need to rewrite
this,' and brings over a team of experts from this country to rewrite this
list of drugs that they import. But it was this classic example of focusing
in on one little part of the problem and neglecting the much broader issue.
It wasn't that Iraq had sort of an old-fashioned list of drugs it was
importing. It was that the entire system of drug procurement and distribution
was broken to the core, and Haveman really didn't focus on fixing that. His
idea was, `Oh, we'll just privatize that. We'll sell it off to somebody.
That'll work.' And when it became clear that nobody really wanted to buy this
big, dysfunctional mess and assume the responsibilities of distributing
drugs--and by the way, Iraqi leaders didn't want some private company doing
this, they felt this was important for the government to do--there was no real
plan in place to fix it. So by the time Haveman left, by the time the United
States handed over sovereignty back to the Iraqis, a huge percentage of drugs
that were deemed essential by the health ministry were just unavailable in the
country, and the Iraqi interim government had to go to the United Nations for
help, had to beseech its neighbors for assistance, because the Americans, in
the months they were there, had failed to just accomplish the basic task of
ordering and distributing the most essential drugs that Iraqi hospitals
DAVIES: You know, you paint a picture of a number of these efforts to sort of
transplant American free enterprise to Iraq, which came to nothing, and of
course, when the Coalition Provisional Authority closed, a lot of these folks
left and came back to the United States. I'm wondering if, once they were
back in the States, and as you began doing follow-up research from the book,
did you contact them and did they have a different perspective on their
experience in Iraq?
Mr. CHANDRASEKARAN: That's a really good question and the answer is, for
many of them, yes. People who were true believers back in their days in Iraq,
when they returned home, they re-entered their normal lives, they started to
see Iraq from afar and started to see the consequences of what they did, and
they started to come to understand that Iraq was not going to turn into a
secular stable democracy anytime soon. A number of them started to become
disillusioned, and a number of those people actually were very helpful to me
as I worked on my book. People who I talked to only very briefly while I was
out in Baghdad, upon their return became so frustrated that they were willing
to share with me documents and e-mails and explain to me what really happened
in there, that the facade of loyalty that the administration had sought to
show and create in Iraq started to break down sort of as everything else in
that country began to break down.
DAVIES: Do you have a sense of how the Green Zone might be different today?
I mean, do we have as many, you know, Republican and conservative loyalists
running things and does the place feel different?
Mr. CHANDRASEKARAN: Fortunately, there aren't as many, and that's because
the State Department is in charge. It's no longer a special Pentagon
operation, and the State Department has brought out a lot of very talented
diplomats, many people who speak Arabic, who have experience working in other
countries, in other post-conflict zones. And so there's been a real
professionalization, and that started to happen as early as mid-2004, as soon
as Ambassador Bremer left and the Coalition Provisional Authority was
dissolved. And so that's been a positive sign. The Green Zone, if anything,
is even more fortified. There are more checkpoints; there are more little
blast walls. The days of Americans being able to walk even into the parking
lot of the palace to go to the PX, the store there, to go to the Chinese
restaurants, that's all over with. You can't do that anymore. The Green Zone
cafe that I mentioned in the book, well, that was hit by a suicide bomber in
late 2004. So if anything it's an enclave that feels even more like it's
under siege than it did back them.
DAVIES: Well, Rajiv Chandrasekaran, thanks so much for speaking with us.
Mr. CHANDRASEKARAN: It's a pleasure.
DAVIES: Rajiv Chandrasekaran's new book is "Life inn the Emerald City:
Inside Iraq's Green Zone."
Coming up, actor Ed Harris. This is Fresh Air.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Interview: Actor Ed Harris discusses current movie "Copying
Beethoven" and other movies and plays in his career
DAVE DAVIES, host:
Ed Harris has been acting in films, television and on stage for 30 years,
earning a reputation for thorough preparation and intense performances. He
earned Oscar nominations for his roles in "Apollo 13," "The Truman Show," "The
Hours," and "Pollock," which he also directed. His other films include "A
Beautiful Mind," "The Right Stuff," and HBO's "Empire Falls." Next month
Harris stars at New York's Public Theater in "Wrecks," a play written and
directed by Neil LaBute.
Harris has played a number of real historical figures--astronaut John Glenn,
artist Jackson Pollock, and Watergate figure Howard Hunt. Now, in his new
film, Harris plays the composer Ludwig von Beethoven in a film directed by
Agnieszka Holland called "Copying Beethoven." It's the fictional story of a
young woman who lands a job copying musical scores for Beethoven near the end
of his life. Beethoven is at first reluctant to have the help of a young
woman, especially as he prepares his ""Ninth Symphony"." In this scene,
Harris, as Beethoven, is in a tavern talking with his friend, the tavern
owner. He's wondering if he should send the woman away or see her as a sign
(Soundbite from "Copying Beethoven")
Mr. ED HARRIS: (As Beethoven) This new symphony, it's my farewell. I...
TAVERN OWNER: You're not that sick.
Mr. HARRIS: (As Beethoven) No, no, no, no. My farewell to music as I've
always known it, as I've always written it.
TAVERN OWNER: You've been talking about that for years, Louie.
Mr. HARRIS: (As Beethoven) I'm starting a new chapter in my life, new forms,
a new language, and now this woman is sent to me at this very moment. What if
she were sent by him?
TAVERN OWNER: Women are usually sent by the other one.
Mr. HARRIS: (As Beethoven) But suppose it's a sign.
TAVERN OWNER: A sign for what, Louie?
Mr. HARRIS: (As Beethoven) That it's time.
TAVERN OWNER: A time for what?
Mr. HARRIS: (As Beethoven) A time for me to join with him.
TAVERN OWNER: Well, if it's true and she was sent by him and she's waiting in
your apartment, you shouldn't be sitting here drinking, should you?
(End of soundbite)
DAVIES: To prepare for the role, Harris spent months taking piano and violin
lessons. I asked him if the lessons were for the moments when he plays those
instruments on screen or to inform his performance in some other way.
Mr. HARRIS: Well, kind of both. I mean, I knew I would have to play a
little bit on screen. But, also, just--I mean, I grew up--I played, you know,
piano two years in second and third grade, or something, and then I played the
baritone horn, which is kind of a cross between a tuba and a French horn
through high school, so I mean, I knew music, I could read music. But my life
is not really centered around music, and so it was to play the piano, but it
was also to just infuse my life with music and to be thinking about it all the
time and to practice every day and to know that this was where this man lived,
you know. He was constantly with music, constantly in his head, constantly
composing, and, you know, so it just helped kind of fill me up.
DAVIES: And what about his personality, his physical mannerisms? I mean, how
did you get to that? Was that based on contemporary descriptions or
Mr. HARRIS: Well, the film really covers the last couple years of his life,
kind of condenses it.
Mr. HARRIS: It begins when he's in the middle of finishing the "Ninth
Symphony" and goes to his death. And you know, there's some wonderful
drawings of him on the street, friends that, you know, drew pictures of him at
the time. He was quite an eccentric guy, particularly at this time in his
life, and there's descriptions of him walking through the street and people
kind of, you know, getting out of his way and dogs barking at him, because he
was a bit of an odd fellow and he would walk kind of slightly bent forward
with his hands clasped behind his back and kind of always be hearing something
in his head, always hearing some music in his head, so that that kind of
posture helped a little bit.
DAVIES: One of the most memorable scenes in this film is the one where you,
as Beethoven, are conducting an orchestra, debuting the ""Ninth Symphony","
and of course, this is not one that we can really give the audience your
performance on radio, because you have no lines, it's all visual. But let's
just give the audience just a sense of the power of some of this music.
(Soundbite of ""Ninth Symphony"" from "Copying Beethoven")
DAVIES: This is a magnificent scene in which you're debuting the "Ninth
Symphony" as Beethoven. Talk a little bit about the challenge of recording
this. You've got a full orchestra, a full chorus.
Mr. HARRIS: We had a full orchestra, we were working down in a little town
called Kecskemet, which is south of Budapest, and we shot this in Hungary, and
it was a local orchestra and choir. They had to bring in some outside
musicians to fill in the orchestra because there were no women in the
orchestras at that time. And we shot it in maybe three and a half days. We
used a recording, a Haitink recording from the Decca Record Collection that we
had access to, and it was the best recording, Agnieszka felt, that represented
this piece of music. So that music would always be piped in, very loud--you
know, loudly enough so that the orchestra that was actually playing could hear
it and play along with it, because otherwise it would have been hell to mix if
we were recording live with the orchestra, so I'm conducting them, and they
are playing live, and we just--we worked our butts off for, you know, long,
long, long three days. There was--it's about a 12-minute segment. It has
some pieces from the first, second, and fourth movement of the "Ninth
Symphony." And, boy, I tell you, it was thrilling, I mean, especially when
they would cut the actual recording and I would keep conducting the orchestra
and then the choir would come in and we'd finish up the fourth--the final
movement and then everybody would just go `Yeahhhh!' You know. It was really
just thrilling. I'd worked really hard on it. It's a difficult piece of
music. I mean, there are some portions of that--of the symphony, where it's a
thing that conductors study for years, you know.
DAVIES: You know, this film calls to mind "Pollock," which you directed and
co-produced, about the, you know, the famous painter Jackson Pollock. What so
fascinated you about Pollock?
Mr. HARRIS: I think initially it was the obstacles in his personal--the
personal obstacles that he had to overcome to achieve what he did, his kind of
demons, the tormented kind of life that he had, his problems with alcohol, his
anti-social behavior. I mean, I just--there was parts of that that I
identified with, not so much in the present day, but I recall when I first
began acting, it was such a private thing for me, I felt very uncomfortable in
the presence of other people, and I was not much of a social animal. And I
just, I just really had a lot of empathy for this guy as a man, you know. And
then when I began to look at his art and try to appreciate what he'd done, the
more time I spent with it, the deeper and deeper I got involved in it, I
became obsessed with the guy, you know. I just, I had to do this.
DAVIES: Well, and as you mentioned you began painting, and I think the scenes
in the film "Pollock" at which you are Pollock painting are pretty compelling,
and I was wondering there, are you--when you're doing those things, are you
thinking about the work of art you're creating or are you...
Mr. HARRIS: Yes..
Mr. HARRIS: No, I was really just trying to paint something that had merit,
you know. Unfortunately, you know, I would actually be creating something
that I felt was working when the camera was on the canvas, you know, most of
the time, a couple of things in there that I felt were trash, but when--but
then the camera would turn around on me and, to save canvas, to save time,
etc., I would keep working on the same piece, and so I would kind of like
screw them up, you know, so I didn't really accomplish anything that I was too
proud of, but there were moments along the way where I felt really good about
what I was doing. But yeah, it was always just focusing on the work. It
was--I'd really studied the way he painted, you know, with the Namuth film and
all that, had built a little studio for myself so I could work on the floor on
a larger space. And so, in the film, really, filming those painting scenes
were probably the easiest part of the movie for me because it was the most
freeing, you know.
DAVIES: Well, you know, the other thing about this film, of course, is that
you didn't just act in it, you were its director, which is, of course, a whole
'nother work load when you're making a film.
Mr. HARRIS: Yeah.
DAVIES: There is a story--and sometimes these get exaggerated in the
telling--but I read that there was one moment where, I think, to get your
co-star Marcia Gay Harden's attention, you threw a chair. Is this--did this
Mr. HARRIS: Oh, I probably did. It's that scene where she--where she comes
out of the bath and we talk about having children, and I just knew that there
was a deeper place where she could get with it, and I just tried to shake her
up a little bit, you know, which she didn't mind.
DAVIES: Yeah, well she said that you really helped her get to a place she
would never have otherwise gotten.
Mr. HARRIS: Yeah. I mean, working with Marsha Gay was great, and it's kind
of the way Agnieszka worked with me. I mean, you can pretty much say
anything, do anything with someone that you're that--you feel that--that feels
that comfortable with you and vice versa. You know, they know you're not
trying to manipulate them. They know that you're just trying to get them to
deal with something that maybe they're not getting down to, you know?
DAVIES: Well, I think that we ought to listen to that clip then. This is
from the film "Pollock," my guest Ed Harris and his co-star Marcia Gay Harden.
(Soundbite of "Pollock")
Mr. HARRIS: (As Jackson Pollock) Let's make a baby.
Ms. MARCIA GAY HARDEN: (As Lee Krasner) No.
Mr. HARRIS: (As Jackson Pollock) No? Am I missing something here? Are you
Ms. HARDEN: (As Lee Krasner) We can't.
Mr. HARRIS: (As Jackson Pollock) We can't?
Ms. HARDEN: (As Lee Krasner) My life is full enough with you, Jackson.
Mr. HARRIS: (As Jackson Pollock) Wait a minute, wait a minute. Where are
you going? Don't walk away from me. We're husband and wife. I want to have
a baby. Our baby. That's what the--that's what the progression of things is
about. That's what the union is about.
Ms. HARDEN: (As Lee Krasner) That's not what the union is about.
Mr. HARRIS: (As Jackson Pollock) Well, what else is there?
Ms. HARDEN: (As Lee Krasner) That's not what it's about, Jackson.
Mr. HARRIS: (As Jackson Pollock) For me!
Ms. HARDEN: (As Lee Krasner) The vows don't stipulate baby.
(Soundbite of chair crashing against wall)
Ms. HARDEN: (As Lee Krasner) I am not going to bring another life into that!
(End of soundbite)
DAVIES: And that was my guest, Ed Harris, and his co-star Marcia Gay Harden
in the film "Pollock." We're speaking with Ed Harris. His new film is
We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
DAVIES: If you're just joining us, my guest is actor Ed Harris. He's
debuting in New York in a new play by Neil LaBute called "Wrecks." He's also
appearing in the new film "Copying Beethoven."
You have another memorable role in "A History of Violence," and I thought we
would listen to a piece of you speaking with Maria Bello. This is the scene
where you're playing Carl Fogarty, who is a Philadelphia thug who has come
into town seeking revenge on a gangster who had disappeared and who, it now
turns out, appears to be working in this town. And Maria Bello is his wife
and doesn't believe her husband has anything to do with you and your fellow
gangsters. In this scene, she has lost track of her daughter shopping for
shoes in a mall, and she discovers that the daughter is near you, as Carl
Fogarty. Let's listen.
(Soundbite of "History of Violence")
Mr. HARRIS: (As Carl Fogarty) Nothing to worry about, Mrs. Stall. I've
been watching over her.
Ms. MARIA BELLO: (As Mrs. Stall) You stay...(word censored by
station)...away from my family, you...(word censored).
Mr. HARRIS: (As Carl Fogarty) There's no need for that kind of language,
Ms. BELLO: (As Mrs. Stall) Listen to me. I don't know what you want, and I
don't really care.
Mr. HARRIS: (As Carl Fogarty) You should care about what I want, Mrs.
Stall, because I want something from your husband that might affect you. It
might change your life.
Ms. BELLO: (As Mrs. Stall) My husband does not know you. He wouldn't know
you, somebody like you.
Mr. HARRIS: (As Carl Fogarty) Oh, he knows Carl Fogarty all right. He knows
me intimately. See, this isn't a completely dead eye. It still works a bit.
Problem is, the only thing I can see with it is Joey Cusack, and it can see
right through him, right through your husband. Eh. See what's inside him,
what makes him tick. He's still the same guy. He's still crazy...(word
censored)...Joey, and you know it, don't you?
Ms. BELLO: (As Mrs. Stall) I know that my husband is Tom Stall, that's what
Mr. HARRIS: (As Carl Fogarty) Yeah?
Ms. BELLOW: (As Mrs. Stall) Yeah.
Mr. HARRIS: (As Carl Fogarty) Well, why don't you ask Tom about his older
brother Richie. You ask Tom about how he tried to rip my eye out with barbed
wire, and ask him, eh, how come he's so good at killing people?
(End of soundbite)
DAVIES: That's my guest, Ed Harris, from the film "A History of Violence."
Boy, you were a scary guy there. You know, one of the things about the
character there, I mean, you are--your character Carl Fogarty is disfigured.
He has an eye damaged from a previous encounter with this guy he has been
stalking. In the Beethoven film, you're wearing all this period stuff that
really transforms you physically. And I'm wondering, does that--do those
physical help you kind of internalize the character in any way, I mean,
because you don't have them when you're rehearsing or when you're thinking
about the part.
Mr. HARRIS: Right. No, very much so, particularly in the Beethoven thing.
I mean, you know, I don't have much hair at all, so to have a big full head of
hair, and we did some alter--a little bit of alteration facially, and it--no,
it helped a great deal because, as in the period costumes, it gives you a
certain--much different feeling on your body. I'd also put on some weight for
this role because Beethoven was a rather stocky fellow, and so all of that
helps not just visibly when you check yourself out in the mirror, but it also
definitely helps internally--internalize and feel comfortable in your skin and
know that you are--you know, give you the freedom to feel and imagine yourself
as this other person.
DAVIES: When you're getting a role together, when you're--you know, before
you're shooting and you're imagining how you're going to animate this
character, do you ever put on stuff or try to do things to sort of put
yourself in the period?
Mr. HARRIS: Well, you know, there's a lot of little things you do in the
privacy of your own home or studio or wherever you happen to be that are
probably different for every actor, and they're kind of going to remain
private. You know, it's a lot easier to do that sometimes on your own that it
is in the rehearsal with even other actors, you know. I mean, it's different
in theater because, you know, you're rehearsing a play and you have weeks to
work physically, internally, with the script, with the beats of the drum or
whatever it might be, with the fellow actors and find out where you're going
to go, and if you work on something physically privately, you bring it in, you
work on it in rehearsal. But on film you really don't have that much
rehearsal time. You show up, the cameras are rolling. You've got to be ready
to go man, so, you know, there's a lot--it's a little bit of a different kind
of work that way, filmically.
DAVIES: Do you prefer one or the other? I mean, I know you're doing a play
Mr. HARRIS: I know, I enjoy both. I mean, I hadn't done a play in 10 years
prior to doing this Neil LaBute play in Ireland last fall, and it was--I just
had a great time, and I'm really looking forward to doing it at the Public
here pretty soon so...
DAVIES: Right. That's debuting in New York in October, right?
Mr. HARRIS: Yeah.
DAVIES: Maybe you should just say a little bit about that. You did it in
Europe at Cork, Ireland. This is a play at which you're sort of narrating a,
kind of a mourning process--is that right?--for someone who's died?
Mr. HARRIS: Well, no. It's really kind of a love story. I mean, it's a
one-character play about a man whose wife has passed, who happens to be--she
happens to be on the stage in the casket. I mean, the casket's closed, and he
kind of removes himself from the wake, the group of people that are here to
say goodbye to her, and he really addresses the audience and talks to them
about their relationship, and it's--some of it's pretty funny. Some of it's,
hopefully, kind of moving and has a few LaButisms in there, and it's a pretty
DAVIES: Well, Ed Harris, it's been a lot of fun. Thanks for speaking with
Mr. HARRIS: Thank you, Dave. It's really been great being on the show.
DAVIES: Actor Ed Harris. He stars in the new film "Copying Beethoven," and
next month he'll be at New York's Public Theater staring in "Wrecks," a play
written and directed by Neil LaBute.
(Soundbite of "Ninth Symphony" from "Copying Beethoven")
DAVIES: For Terry Gross, I'm Dave Davies.
(Soundbite of "Ninth Symphony")
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