DATE May 7, 2003 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
PROGRAM Fresh Air
Interview: Author Sarah WaterSs discusses her novel, "Tipping the
Velvet," which has been adapted for television by the BBC
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
My guest, Sarah Waters, is the author of three lesbian-themed novels set in
Victorian England: "Tipping the Velvet," "Affinity" and "Fingersmith," which
was nominated for England's prestigious literary award, the Booker Prize.
Last year, the BBC showed a three-part TV adaptation of "Tipping the Velvet."
It will be shown on BBC America over the Memorial Day weekend. The screen
adaptation was written by Andrew Davies, who also did the BBC's "Pride and
Prejudice" and "Bridget Jones's Diary."
"Tipping the Velvet" begins in 1888, when a young woman named Nan sees a music
hall act featuring a woman dressed as a boy. Nan is drawn to the performer,
Kitty Butler, and gets a chance to meet her backstage. Here's a scene from
that first meeting.
(Soundbite of "Tipping the Velvet")
Unidentified Woman #1: (As Nan) Miss Butler...
Unidentified Woman #2: (As Kitty Butler) Oh, call me Kitty, do. And what can
I call you?
Unidentified Woman #1: (As Nan) Nan. Thank you. You're very kind. I was
going to ask, Kitty, why did you think of it in the first place, dressing like
a boy and cutting your hair short and everything?
Unidentified Woman #2: (As Kitty Butler) Well, wouldn't you if you had the
chance? Men have all the fun. Besides, there's too many girls in this
business. Most of them would do anything to please the manager, and you won't
find me playing those games, Nan. And I love my costumes, and able to stride
about and give them a bit of cheek. Don't get me wrong. I do like being a
girl as well, you know.
GROSS: The two women fall in love, and Nan joins Kitty's act, for which she,
too, has to dress as a boy. But that's just the beginning of Nan's adventures
in this fictional lesbian underground of the late 1800s.
Here's a reading from "Tipping the Velvet," from a scene just before the one
we heard. Nan is watching Kitty's music-hall act for the first time, and is
amazed by what she sees.
Ms. SARAH WATERS (Author, "Tipping the Velvet"): (Reading) Kitty Butler did
not wear tights or spangles. She was, as Tricky had billed her, a kind of
perfect West End swell. She wore a suit, a handsome gentleman's suit, cut to
her size and lined at the cuffs and the flaps with flashing silk. There was a
rose in her lapel, and lavender gloves at her pocket. From beneath her
waistcoat, shone a stiff-fronted shirt of snowy white with a stand-up collar
two inches high. Around the collar was a white bow tie, and on her head there
was a topper. When she took the topper off, as she did now to salute the
audience with a gay `Hello,' one saw that her hair was perfectly cropped.
It was the hair, I think, which drew me most. If I had ever seen women with
hair as short as hers, it was because they'd spent time in hospital or prison,
or because they were mad. They could never have looked like Kitty Butler.
Her hair fitted her head like a little cap that had been sewn just for her by
some nimble-fingered milliner. I would say it was brown. Brown, however, is
too dull a word for it. It was rather the kind of brown you might hear sung
about, a nut-brown, or a russet. It was almost perhaps the color of
chocolate, but then, chocolate has no luster, and this hair shone in the blaze
of the limns like taffeta. It curled at her temples slightly and over her
ears, and when she turned her head a little to put her hat back on, I saw a
strip of pale flesh at the nape of her neck where the collar ended and the
hairline began, that for all the fire of the hot, hot hall made me shiver.
She looked, I suppose, like a very pretty boy, for her face was a perfect oval
and her eyes were large and dark at the lashes, and her lips were rosy and
full. Her figure, too, was boylike and slender, yet rounded, vaguely but
unmistakably, at the bosom, the stomach and the hips in a way no real boy's
ever was. And her shoes, I noticed after a moment, had two-inch heels to
them. But she strode like a boy and stood like one, with her feet far apart
and her hands thrust carelessly into her trouser pockets, and her head at an
arrogant angle, at the very front of the stage, and when she sang, her voice
was a boy's voice, sweet and terribly true.'
GROSS: Well, Sarah Waters, thanks for reading that excerpt of "Tipping the
Velvet." Is this a typical music-hall act of the period, with a woman
dressing in a man's clothes?
Ms. WATERS: Yes, it is, very much so, and it's not something, you know, that
features in mainstream entertainment today in Britain, but in the 19th century
in the Edwardian period, it was really--you know, it was big business. Male
impersonation was a standard music-hall act, and there were very famous male
impersonators--Vesta Tilley was the best known--and you know, they had fans
all over the country. They were--it was a really big deal.
GROSS: I think for most of us who are more familiar with drag acts where a
man dresses as a woman--I know that was really a staple of British music
Ms. WATERS: Yes.
GROSS: ...and it usually was not meant to be sexual, you know, as...
Ms. WATERS: Right.
GROSS: In those drag acts, it was just comedy. So who was the, like, target
audience, so to speak, for the acts in which a woman dressed as a boy?
Ms. WATERS: Well, that's one of the interesting things about it, I think,
and especially from my point of view, because, you know, I was wanting to
tell, basically a lesbian story, a lesbian romance, and what strikes us today,
I think and what struck me when I was looking at images of male impersonators
is that they do lend themselves, you know, to having a sort of lesbian
interpretation put on them. They've very dapper. I mean, I guess our only
exposure to images of women dressing as men today is as drag kings, is as a
sort of lesbian act.
But as I was saying, this male impersonation in the music hall was mainstream.
It was very much directed to and enjoyed by, you know, a cross-section of
society, a very family act. But I suppose I was interested in, you know, did
it carry some kind of erotic charge for some spectators? You know, I suspect
it did, and it was kind of wanting to pursue that, really, that formed the
basis for the "Tipping the Velvet" novel.
GROSS: So the main character in "Tipping the Velvet," Nancy, first falls in
love with one of these male impersonators in a vaudeville act, then, you know,
they become lovers, and then Nancy herself becomes part of the act, but
without giving away too much of the story, not long after that, Nancy becomes
a streetwalker, still dressing as a boy as she did onstage, but this time,
she's for rent. Did you do research, too, on what the life of a streetwalker
would have been like in the late 1800s, and also, were there streetwalkers who
were women dressing as boys?
Ms. WATERS: Well, that's one of the things we can never really know for
sure. We know, for example, that women dressed as men. Lots of women passed
as men, working-class women I think more that middle-class women. We have
lots of evidence about that--court records, for example. Women were found out
and sort of hauled before the courts. How far that went in terms of what kind
of erotic encounters they were having, of course we don't know, but I think
what I was really trying to do with that part of the book is, one of the
starting points of the book for me was some of the evidence we have around gay
men's lives in the late 19th century, and we do know quite a lot about
prostitution amongst men. Oscar Wilde, for example--I mean, we know about the
encounters that he had with rent boys, prostitutes. And it's a very
interesting world with its own sort of codes and its own vocabulary, and I was
very taken with it, and given the relative paucity of information we have
about lesbian lives in the late 19th century, I really kind of wanted to
borrow it, you know. So it seemed after having written about male
impersonation onstage, for me the obvious next step was to sort of take Nancy
onto the street dressed as a boy, and then involve her in this other sort of
underground world that the people today don't know too much about.
GROSS: So you're in a way kind of inventing a lesbian underground world
because there's no real history of one. You kind of have to invent it?
Ms. WATERS: Yes, absolutely. I mean, lesbian--the book has a lot of very
enthusiastic lesbian readers for whom, you know, I'm very grateful, but
lesbians often read the book, I think, as sort of a lesbian social history,
and in fact I did do research into lesbian history, and the book is authentic
to a certain extent. But as you said, it's much more--really, it's a kind of
historical fantasy. It's me sort of wanting to imagine a past for lesbians,
but also to go even further than that and just kind of invent a rich and
exciting and glamorous, at times rather seedy, history for us. I think the
area where I had to do that most was around working-class lesbian history,
because of course, middle-class women tend to have left much more in the way
of historical record, you know, through journals and diaries and letters, and
it's with working-class women that you have to read between the lines much
GROSS: Our heroine, Nancy, later becomes the kept woman of a somewhat older,
very wealthy woman, and the wealthy woman uses Nancy as her object of
pleasure. Is this a staple of erotic literature, the young, attractive person
who's taken in to pleasure the wealthy person?
Ms. WATERS: It is, it is, and again, I think this is--you know, there are
lots of different things going on in the book, and that point in the novel,
for example, I was both trying to draw again maybe on that sort of Oscar Wilde
world. I mean, we know that Oscar Wilde and his middle-class,
upper-middle-class friends were very interested in sort of encounters with
working-class boys, and that was the sort of sexual charge in their community.
And so I was interested in sort of taking that for a lesbian story and seeing
what happened with it. But also of course, at this point in the book Nancy
really enters a kind of pornographic world. I mean, again, that's very
deliberate. One form of representation which gives us the most vivid account
of lesbianism is pornography, and it's, you know, authored by men, it was
probably meant for male consumption, but at the same time, it does give us
this very sort of rich and often quite positive representation of lesbian
sexuality, and I was interested in again borrowing that for this story, so
that Nancy moves through a whole range of lesbian worlds in "Tipping the
Velvet," and this pornographic world was just one of the worlds, you know,
that she moves through.
GROSS: Were you able to find lesbian pornography from the Victorian era?
Ms. WATERS: Yes. I mean, again, people don't know much about pornography in
the 19th century, but it was big business, and there's a lot of it still
around. There's a lot of it in the British Library in London, and I looked at
quite a lot of it for "Tipping the Velvet," and actually more for my newest
book, "Fingersmith," which talks about a Victorian collector of pornography,
and a lot of it--I mean, lesbianism and lesbian representation has been a
staple of male pornography since pornography began to be written, you know,
and still is, and so it makes it rather problematic for lesbian readership for
that reason, because often, for example, the lesbian action is seen as a sort
of prelude, you know, to heterosexual sex. The man will step in at the
crucial moment and take over. But even so, I still think there's so much
energy to it that it's worth us, you know, taking it on and thinking about it
and trying to use it maybe for our own ends.
And it's also worth speculating about, you know, did women--how many women
were exposed to pornography? OK, it was written by men and for men, but I
imagine that women used it--prostitutes maybe used it in brothels or women
were exposed to it through their husbands buying it, or women, we know,
actually ran businesses, you know. Sometimes they were involved in the
production and the selling of pornography. We know that for a fact. I think
it's very interesting to, you know, think about that, to remember that.
GROSS: My guest is novelist Sarah Waters. We'll talk more after a break.
This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: My guest is novelist Sarah Waters. The BBC adaptation of her novel
"Tipping the Velvet" will be shown on BBC America over the Memorial Day
Now you mentioned that when you were reading Victorian pornography you
realized that a lot of it was written in code, that there was an interesting,
like, vocabulary, slang vocabulary that was used in this literature. You used
some period-sounding words, and I'm not sure if they're words that you made up
or if they come from the times. Let's look at some of those words and
expressions, such as `tipping the velvet,' the title of one of your books. Is
that an expression from the period?
Ms. WATERS: It is, actually, yes. I came across it first in a dictionary of
historical slang. People think it's quite a sort of nice kind of phrase and
often ask me what it means, and what it actually means is, it was a term for
cunnilingus, so--and you find it in pornography, too, but it was definitely in
use in the 19th century, and actually is still known today. Some of my
friends whose fathers have been in the services, you know, in the army or the
air force, they seem to know it, so it's obviously existed in some groups even
well into the sort of late 20th century.
GROSS: You use the word `tom' to describe a young woman who dresses as a boy.
Is that a word from the period?
Ms. WATERS: `Tom' has a fascinating history to it, yes. I had to be--I must
admit, this is the one word where I had to be slightly--I had to take a few
liberties with history, because the word `tommy' was used in the 18th century
to refer specifically to lesbian women, and in the 19th century, I've come
across references to it again, in, say, dictionaries of historical slang as
meaning masculine women. It was also a term for prostitutes. There was this
kind of cross-over, I think, as there is to some extent today, I think, in
But I really needed a word--with "Tipping the Velvet," Nancy, as I said, moves
through sort of different lesbian communities, and she starts off in the music
hall, goes through a sort of upper-middle-class world and ends up very much in
a working-class world, and I needed a term that I felt that the women would be
comfortable using amongst themselves, and so used `tom.' And I suspect--in
fact, I'm pretty sure that women wouldn't have used it quite as freely as I
suggest, but you know, I like the force of it, and actually, it's been kind of
taken up, in Britain, anyway. I think women are starting to use it, which is
a really nice idea, that people are reclaiming these words from the obscurity
of history, thanks to one of my novels.
GROSS: The director of the TV adaptation had to decide how explicit to make
the erotic scenes from your novel, and the funny thing is, on the TV
adaptation, right before any lovemaking scene, there's a disclaimer. The
disclaimer doesn't just come at the beginning of the program. It comes before
any scene that they think requires such a disclaimer, which I think is pretty
funny, because for some people, that's a sign that they should, you know, turn
off the TV and leave the room, and for other people it's like move closer to
the TV now. That's the funny thing about those disclaimers. How do you...
Ms. WATERS: I didn't realize, sorry, that they had that. That must be for
the American TV market, I guess.
GROSS: Oh, maybe that's just for the American version.
Ms. WATERS: Yes.
Ms. WATERS: It is.
GROSS: Oh, that's interesting.
Ms. WATERS: Yes.
GROSS: So you're not even aware of that.
Ms. WATERS: No. I didn't know that was--no, I didn't know that had
GROSS: Well, it kind of gets you off the hook, because if anybody
Ms. WATERS: Yeah.
GROSS: ...you say, `Well, we told you. We told you that this was going to
happen. We gave you the chance to turn off the TV and leave the room.' Were
you in on discussions about how explicit to make those scenes?
Ms. WATERS: Well, to a certain extent, yes. I mean, it was an issue right
from the start, because the book is, you know, pretty explicit, and has been
known, you know for its kind of frank sort of portrayal of lesbian sex right
from the start, and so I--to be honest, I kind of thought, when I heard that
there were plans to adapt it for mainstream TV, I kind of thought, `Oh,
they're never going to do it. It's never going to happen.' But Andrew Davies
was pretty keen on the sex, and he said he would only do it on condition that
they kept all the sort of sexual details in, which they did, and I mean, it's
done fairly tastefully, I have to say. There's nothing particularly
gratuitous about it, and it is, after all, the story of sort of young girls'
sexual awakening, so it all feels kind of integral to the story. But
certainly when the show was aired last autumn in the UK, there was a lot of
advance excitement about the sex. In a way, I think there was slightly too
much emphasis on it, because when it turned out, when the first show was
aired, the BBC had a few complaints, and some of them were that it was too
rude, but most of them actually were that it wasn't rude enough, given all the
hype that people had beforehand.
GROSS: You actually were in academia before you were a novelist, and you
wrote a dissertation on lesbian fiction. Was it lesbian fiction of the
Ms. WATERS: Actually, it was lesbian and gay fiction, and it sort of--I
started off in the late 19th century but moved sort of to different moments
in the 20th century, and what I was really looking at was the idea of history
in lesbian and gay writing, and actually in writing about homosexuality. I
was very interested in how people's idea of an appropriate, you know, kind of
lesbian and gay history and different sort of historical icons have changed as
sort of popular ideas about homosexuality have changed. And so in the late
19th century, for example, people were very preoccupied with ancient Greece.
Gay men would often say, basically, you know, it was a form of defense, an
apology, you know, that it was fine in ancient Greece, you know, they were all
kind of having sex with each other and you know, they were a very kind of
noble and civilized bunch, and so why should it be a problem for people today?
And similarly with lesbians. At the beginning of the 20th century people like
Honore Vivien(ph) and Natalie Barney living in Paris with their kind of
lesbian community, lesbian salons, they were very interested in the figure of
Sappho and kind of, you know, wrote poems about Sappho. So that's what the
PhD thesis--that's what the thesis looked at, sort of changing ideas about
history. And so it felt very natural for me, then, to just begin to write
lesbian historical fiction of my own. It's really progressed quite
organically, sort of out of the academic work I'd done.
GROSS: In your reading of historical fiction, did you find a lot of stories
in which friendships, and you know, old maids living together seemed to really
be about lesbian relationships, like covert lesbian relationships?
Ms. WATERS: Well, certainly when you look at the 19th century, I mean,
passionate friendships between women were sort of, you know, standard in the
19th century and you often find letters written between women, women wrote
poems to each other. Women who were even married, you know, would still
maintain--I mean, I think over here, you know, you hear about the Boston
marriage tradition, I mean, you know, quite sort of well-respected, and as I
say, quite passionate friendships between women would be tolerated in society
in a way today, you know, those friendships would be almost suspect.
And this is one of the fascinating things for me about thinking about
lesbianism in the 19th century, because, you know, sexual relationships
between women were pretty hidden, but at the same time, for that very reason I
think there was a certain freedom for women. You could get away with that
without having a label slapped on you, and today, for all that we
have--there's a great kind of political significance and a great, you know,
liberation to being able to label yourself lesbian or gay or bisexual, and to
find communities and you know, to be able to act politically under those
labels. I think we're far too eager today to put people, I think, in boxes,
and when you go back to the 19th century, there was a far more--there was a
greater fluidity around sexuality that I think was more genuinely liberating,
really, for some people.
GROSS: Sarah Waters, thank you so much for talking with us.
Ms. WATERS: Thank you.
GROSS: Sarah Waters, author of the Victorian lesbian trilogy of books,
"Tipping the Velvet," "Affinity" and "Fingersmith." The three-part BBC
adaptation of "Tipping the Velvet" will be shown on BBC America over the
Memorial Day weekend.
I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Interview: Actor John Malkovich discusses his career and his
new film, "The Dancer Upstairs"
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
John Malkovich got started in the experimental theater group Steppenwolf and
went on to star in everything from action films to art films. Films like "Con
Air," "In The Line of Fire," "Places in the Heart," "Dangerous Liaisons," "The
Sheltering Sky," "Of Mice and Men," and of course, "Being John Malkovich." He
just directed his first feature film, "The Dancer Upstairs." It's set in an
unnamed Latin American country and follows an honest police detective who's
working for a corrupt government. The detective is tracking down an anarchist
turned terrorist who has thrown the country into chaos. The movie is adapted
from the novel by Nicholas Shakespeare. The character of the terrorist is
inspired by the leader of the Peruvian group the Shining Path. Malkovich
first read the book after traveling through Peru. I asked him what he'd seen
there that connected to "The Dancer Upstairs."
Mr. JOHN MALKOVICH (Director, "The Dancer Upstairs"): I remember the night
we got to Lima. We were--I was there with my oldest friend and business
partner, Russ Smith, and I remember in the night we got to Lima, and we were
talking to some students, some of whom went to university in America, and in
sort of mid conversation when they were explaining to us that the Shining Path
movement was really just something that happened out in very sort of isolated
areas in the countryside and that it could never arrive in Lima was the first
night Sendero blacked out the city of Lima. And, you know, there were many
terrorist acts, security was very, very tight, and obviously, I mean, it was a
country in the throes of being buffeted by this revolutionary movement.
GROSS: You mention when you were in Peru that he had blacked out the city of
Lima. Now you do that in the movie, the terrorists black out the city, and in
order to do that, I mean, you have a genuine shot of a blackout. You see all
the electricity just go off in a flash.
Mr. MALKOVICH: Yeah.
GROSS: Which means you had to arrange to do that and you had to get not only
the consent of the mayor or the governor or whoever, but everyone in the city
had to, I suppose, be warned that this was going to happen.
Mr. MALKOVICH: Yes. I think they were warned, but we shot it at a certain
time of night when most lights were out already, and they took the electricity
out--this was in Porto, in the north of Portugal--for a very, very brief time,
and we only did, I think, two takes or something like that. But they were
incredibly sort of generous to us, that's true.
GROSS: Do you have to ask yourself like how much is it worth inconveniencing
everybody in a city in order to get that shot?
Mr. MALKOVICH: Yeah. Well, you have to ask yourself that just about
everything you do really. Inconveniencing people in the city, as you say, or
inconveniencing yourself by working eight years on something, and I mean,
every day you're faced with certain problems in filmmaking, and one of the
problems is you have to deal with real people and their daily lives and their
daily needs, and all the incredible inconvenience that filmmaking brings. But
on the other hand, for the economies of the city and for providing work for
people, that can also be quite a boon to a city, so I try to inconvenience
people as little as possible, but some sort of hardships can't be avoided,
GROSS: Now I don't know how self-conscious a person you are, but when you
first started making movies after being on stage, and you saw yourself blown
up for the screen, were you surprised at what you saw, and did it make you any
more or less self-conscious?
Mr. MALKOVICH: I'm not a self-conscious person really. I'm actually a very
shy person, quite a timid person, but I'm not self-conscious because I don't
think of that person I see in the movies as having anything remotely to do
with me. So I watch it usually fairly coldly. If I watch it at all, I watch
it quite coldly and quite objectively. But I wouldn't classify myself as
among my biggest fans.
Mr. MALKOVICH: It's not something--I don't at all enjoy watching myself in a
movie, or certainly hearing the sound of my voice really sort of makes me
nauseous, in fact. So...
GROSS: That's a lot to overcome, if you're an actor, if you don't like seeing
yourself and you really hate hearing yourself, and then you're making movies,
which live forever. I don't know how you cannot be self-conscious when you
put it that way.
Mr. MALKOVICH: Well, first of all, I don't see many of them, so that's a
GROSS: Right, right.
Mr. MALKOVICH: ...in not sort of making myself sick. But it just was never
an interest of mine to watch myself. Part of the thing I love about the
theater is you had to be there, and there--I think I probably am less
self-conscious--or let's just say less self-absorbed. The theater is a very
difference experience than that, and plus you have the great benefit of the
fact that it's a living thing. One either saw it or one didn't. That's all.
You can't sort of pop it into a tape machine 30 years later. And also, the
fact that I don't enjoy watching myself particularly in movies at all doesn't
mean at all that I don't like acting in movies, sort of don't like the work of
acting in movies.
Mr. MALKOVICH: I actually like the work itself. The work itself interests
me. But if one could compare it to what you do, I doubt you sit and listen to
the interviews you do with people every night, right? You do your interviews.
It's the work you like.
GROSS: Yeah. Right. I understand what you mean. Like, I have a quotient of
how much of my own interviews I can listen to without surpassing what I can
Mr. MALKOVICH: Yeah, exactly. What you can bear.
GROSS: Yeah, exactly.
Mr. MALKOVICH: And you see, me, I've made 60 films. I get it, you know.
Mr. MALKOVICH: I get it. OK? But I have to go on doing my work, and there
are many other actors I would just much prefer watching to watching myself.
GROSS: My guest is actor John Malkovich. He just directed his first film,
"The Dancer Upstairs." More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: My guest is actor John Malkovich. He's starred in such films as "Con
Air," "In The Line of Fire," "Dangerous Liaisons" and "Being John Malkovich."
He just directed his first film, "The Dancer Upstairs."
I think the first movie that I saw you in in which you played the heavy was
"In The Line of Fire," which you starred in with Clint Eastwood, and you play
a presidential assassin who's ready to kill a president again. One of the
interesting things about this movie is, you know, both you...
Mr. MALKOVICH: I should point out...
Mr. MALKOVICH: ...excuse me--that actually the character isn't the person
who'd shot the president the first time. That character sort of tortured
Clint Eastwood with his own failure to protect the president, but it actually,
in my memory anyway...
GROSS: I'll go with your memory.
Mr. MALKOVICH: ...he actually hadn't assassinated at this point, President
Kennedy, I suppose it was.
GROSS: Right. OK. Good.
Mr. MALKOVICH: But go ahead. I'm sorry.
GROSS: Oh, OK. What I was gonna say is, one of the interesting things here
is that, you know, Clint Eastwood has this, like, small voice in movies, and
the voice that you use as this potential killer who's, you know, threatening
the life of the president and threatening Clint Eastwood, the Secret Service
agent, as well, you speak in this very kind of quiet, meticulous, slightly
cranky voice. So the two of you are speaking--you're both very powerful
people, and you're speaking in these little voices.
Mr. MALKOVICH: Well, I never realized that I was cranky. I always thought I
was rather good-natured. But I've always been quiet and that's always been
the way I've spoken or communicated. I don't like loud noise. I don't like
loud sounds. And I got along with Clint very well because he, too, is really
quiet. I think he's actually quieter than I am. And he's also quite shy,
actually. But I think a lot of people obviously who might prove to be on some
level dangerous in life or capable of communicating danger are not necessarily
people who shout the loudest.
GROSS: Right. Well, let's hear a scene from the film in which you're on the
phone with Clint Eastwood.
(Soundbite of "In The Line of Fire")
Mr. CLINT EASTWOOD: Yeah.
Mr. MALKOVICH: Trying to trace me, Frank?
Mr. EASTWOOD: Now why didn't I think of that?
Mr. MALKOVICH: You did. Or you're not the adversary I'd hoped for. Speaking
of which, how are you? I was worried about you today.
Mr. EASTWOOD: Oh? Why?
Mr. MALKOVICH: In the motorcade. I thought you were gonna pass out. You
really should get in shape for that kind of duty.
Mr. EASTWOOD: Yeah, maybe you're right.
Mr. MALKOVICH: By the way, I'm watching your movie.
Mr. EASTWOOD: Movie?
Mr. MALKOVICH: November 1963, Kennedy's last days. The arrival in Texas.
Must've been exciting for you, Frank. Dallas, that morning at Love Field.
You all looked so radiant. JFK, Jackie and you. You looked so young and
able, Frank. What did happen to you that day? Only one agent reacted to the
gunfire, and you were closer to Kennedy than he was. Must've looked up at the
window of the Texas Book Depository, but you didn't react. Late at night,
when the demons come, do you see the rifle coming out of that window, or do
you see Kennedy's head being blown apart? If you'd reacted to that first
shot, could you have gotten there in time to stop the big bullet? And if you
had, that could've been your head being blown apart. Do you wish you'd
succeeded, Frank? Or is life too precious?
GROSS: That's Clint Eastwood and my guest, John Malkovich, in a scene from
"In The Line of Fire."
John Malkovich, I missed the movie "Con Air" in which you played the heavy.
Did you do a voice that's very different from the one we just heard in "In The
Line of Fire"?
Mr. MALKOVICH: I actually don't know. I've never seen "Con Air."
GROSS: Oh, here we have something in common.
Mr. MALKOVICH: Yes. Yeah. We certainly do. I never saw "Con Air." I've
heard so much about it, but I never saw it.
GROSS: You aren't curious?
Mr. MALKOVICH: And I have no idea. Not terribly. I had a basic
understanding of what was being made. There are some things I'm curious
about. I'm curious, yes, to sort of see how Simon West cut it together and
the other things that were filmed that I wasn't really privy to, and there are
a couple of performances in it from people I met on that film or worked with
on that film that I'd be happy to check out, but it was just never around when
I was around, and I'm not a huge moviegoer at all, so...
GROSS: Did you surprise yourself being cast as the heavy in a blockbuster
Mr. MALKOVICH: No. It's really you can just do sort of Portuguese art
Mr. MALKOVICH: ...and make a living, which I do with some regularity. You
also have to literally make your living, you know. Doing "Con Air" is how I
paid for the option of "The Dancer Upstairs." It's how I paid for the
screenplay and how we ran our little production...
Mr. MALKOVICH: ...office and all of that. And without that--in fact, Jerry
Bruckheimer produced "Con Air," and for a long time we thought of calling our
production company, which is called Mr. Mudd, of naming it Jerry's Kids
instead, because he'd really paid for it.
GROSS: That's funny.
Mr. MALKOVICH: And, you know, I have no problem doing that or no problem also
being in something popular, but in the end, an actor, you choose from among
those things that you've been offered.
GROSS: Exactly. Right.
Mr. MALKOVICH: Nobody...
GROSS: Let me ask you about one of the things that you were offered. One of
the movies that you starred in was "Being John Malkovich" in which people
could spend a few minutes inside your head and see what it was like to be you.
Now so here you are playing John Malkovich, but the John Malkovich you were
playing I'm sure is not the John Malkovich who you really are. So who did you
base the character on?
Mr. MALKOVICH: Well, you know, I never really took it as anything to do with
me. I mean, except I thought the jokes about me were really terrific jokes
and very funny and very sort of cruel and altogether on target and completely
to be fully embraced. But I do remember the first few times in rehearsal or
shooting of that when Spike Jonze, you know, who's the very young man who
directed "Being John Malkovich," would say to me, `Malkovich wouldn't do it
that way.' And I would say, `Oh. Well--oh, well, how would Malkovich do it?
I mean, I don't know.' And he'd say, `Well, he'd do it like this.' `Oh, OK.
OK, great. Well, thanks. I'm glad to find out how Malkovich would do it.'
And I suppose it was sort of strange, but the only thing I really thought
about with that film was that I had always been allowed to be at least a
semi-public person who was left to have a private life and really pretty much
left alone by the media and the public, and I had a really deep appreciation
and thankfulness for that, that I didn't want to see changed by doing this
film that's called "Being John Malkovich" that's supposedly about this person
that's called John Malkovich. But, in fact, that didn't happen. It didn't
change my life in any way, and I'm very lucky, and that was the only thing I
really thought about "John Malkovich" was I didn't want to sort of cross the
line into a sort of, I don't know, rent-a-celeb. And...
GROSS: Right. Well, you know, the image of the actor in there, like there's
one part where you're doing a reading from a text into the tape recorder and
you're reading, `I am hungry as the winter. I am sick, anxious, poor as a
beggar. Fate has tossed me hither and thither.' And it's all quite
pretentious. So the image of the actor in the film is a spoiled, pretentious,
self-absorbed, but at the same time kind of an empty vessel.
Mr. MALKOVICH: Yeah.
GROSS: So what did you think of that image as the actor that you were
embodying in the film?
Mr. MALKOVICH: First of all, I think all of that's true certainly about me.
I mean, pretentious, self-absorbed, etc., etc. It is probably about many
actors. It is, by the way, true of many people also. But that's what I like
in that way. Yes, I have my own personality. I have my own life. I have my
own friends. I have the things I like to do. But as an actor, I think you
are an empty vessel. That's really what you are. You see, it's not about me.
I'm nothing. Nothing at all. And without sounding like a sort of '60s
person, you really are an empty vessel. It's not important at all who I am or
what I am or who I'm not or what I'm not. It's, to me, the work is all there
is, and I think that film very beautifully illustrates that I'm of no interest
otherwise. Do you understand what I'm saying?
GROSS: Mm-hmm. Yeah.
Mr. MALKOVICH: I think that's a fantastic message in that film, and I love
to have been able to be at least one of the messengers of that message.
GROSS: Well, John Malkovich, I want to thank you so much for talking with us.
Mr. MALKOVICH: My pleasure. It was time well-spent for me. Thank you very
GROSS: John Malkovich. Here's a scene from "Being John Malkovich" after
Malkovich has entered the portal to his own brain and then been ejected.
Waiting for him is the man who discovered the portal, played by John Cusack.
(Soundbite of "Being John Malkovich")
Mr. MALKOVICH: That was no simulation!
Mr. JOHN CUSACK: It wasn't. I know. I'm sorry.
Mr. MALKOVICH: It was no simulation. I have been to the dark side. I have
seen a world that no man should see.
Mr. CUSACK: Really? For most people it's a rather pleasant experience.
Mr. MALKOVICH: That portal is mine and it must be sealed forever for the love
Mr. CUSACK: Mr. Malkovich. Mr. Malkovich, sir, with all due respect, I
discovered that portal. I mean, it's my livelihood, do you understand?
Mr. MALKOVICH: It's my head, Schwartz! It's my head! I will see you in
Mr. CUSACK: What makes you think I won't be seeing what you're seeing in
GROSS: John Malkovich just directed his first film, "The Dancer Upstairs."
Coming up, Ken Tucker reviews new CDs by The Libertines and The Stratford 4.
This is FRESH AIR.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Review: New CDs by The Libertines and The Stratford 4
TERRY GROSS, host:
The trend in nostalgic yet lively rock music that began last year with bands
like The Vines and The Strokes continues with new releases from two bands
stylistically and musically miles apart: The British band, The Libertines,
and the San Francisco group The Stratford 4. Rock critic Ken Tucker says
these young acts are building on the music they emulate rather than just
(Soundbite of "The Good Old Days")
THE LIBERTINES: (Singing) The Queen Boadicea is long dead and gone. Still
then the spirit in her children's children's children, it lives on. If you've
lost your faith in love or music, oh, the end won't be long. Because if it's
gone for you, then I too may lose it, and that would be wrong. You know, I've
tried so hard to keep myself...
KEN TUCKER reporting:
Let me unsnaggle some of that toothsome British accent for you, aided by the
lyric sheet on The Libertines' "Up The Bracket." That song, "The Good Old
Days," finds this quartet in a rare vulnerable moment, asserting that, quote,
"If you've lost your faith in love and music, the end won't be long." These
ragtag 20-somethings are usually more raucous about their love and music.
(Soundbite of "I Get Along")
THE LIBERTINES: (Singing) You caught me in the middle, dazed on the carpet.
I was following the lines that move like more snakes thinking `Something ain't
quite right. You got a devil on your side standing to your right.' Come on.
You caught me in the middle, dazed and confused. I was following the good
steps fancy free and footloose. Said, `Something ain't quite right. You got
the devil on your side standing to your right.' Come on. Oh, come on. I get
along. I get along. I get along. I get along. Get along. Get along. Get
along. Get along. Get along. Get along. Get along. It's coming out my
TUCKER: Through a matter of timing, luck and intention, The Libertines are
caught up in the boom for invoking '70s punk rock. Their album was produced
by one of that genre's founders, Mick Jones of The Clash. On a song like
"Death On The Stairs," singer Carl Barat and guitarist Peter Doherty provide
a typically quick, vivid sketch of a few desperate characters, including a
pale young Anglican and a surly youth who says he has cable TV and less than
50 P. Ponce(ph) is about pence, I guess you could call The Libertines' music,
which on "Death On The Stairs" courts nihilism only to yank it back for a plea
(Soundbite of "Death On The Stairs")
THE LIBERTINES: (Singing) A little boy in a stairwell who says, `I hate
people like you.' I got matchsticks and cable TV, half of less than 50 P. We
all clambered over the balcony, banging on the window waking Steve. Bringing
with a true love his unholy friend, singing, `if you really need it, you just
won't leave it behind.' So baby, please kill me. Oh baby, don't kill me.
But don't bring that ghost round to my door. I don't want to see him anymore.
Please kill me. Oh baby, don't...
TUCKER: Meanwhile, over in San Francisco, another quartet, The Stratford 4,
is making music that invokes the shimmering guitars of bands as various as
their once-upon-a-time citymates the Jefferson Airplane and British moaners
like Echo And The Bunnymen.
(Soundbite of music)
THE STRATFORD 4: (Singing) If you're going to fall out of his bed, I want you
to land in mine. You give me a crazy sensation. I'm wanting you all of the
time. Couldn't we stay in touch? You got his...
TUCKER: The Stratford 4's best song by far is a seven-minute epic called
"Telephone," whose plot is a rock 'n' roll novelty: a conversation between
the singer and his mother. Listen to the way singer Chris Streng begins this
song, placing the call to Mom, hoping to rouse himself from a haze of
melancholy and probably a druggy buzz.
(Soundbite of "Telephone")
THE STRATFORD 4: (Singing) I call my mother on the telephone. Said, `You
think it's all right on nights when I'm home.' I sit in the dark in a corner
getting stoned just listening the radio. She said, `You're old enough now. I
cannot tell you what to do. It all depends on what you're listening to.' I
said, `Spacemen 3, Primal Scream and T-Rex, Bell & Sebastian and the
Bunnymen.' `When I was 22, I was a lot like you. When I was 22, I was a lot
TUCKER: Mom tells Streng, `When I was 22, I was a lot like you. I was high.'
And the honesty is startling and comforting, to the singer and to the
listener. It's one of those rare songs that pulls you into its world
(Soundbite of "Telephone")
THE STRATFORD 4: (Singing) I heard a smile at the end of the line. She said,
`Son, you're gonna be just fine. But don't forget Bob Dylan and don't forget
the Stones, and don't spend Saturday night all alone. When I was 22'...
TUCKER: Between The Stratford 4 and The Libertines, there's a new world of
music that, if it owes a debt to the '70s and '80s, avoids nostalgia by
producing its own set of subjects, obsessions and solutions.
GROSS: Ken Tucker is critic-at-large for Entertainment Weekly. He reviewed
new albums from The Libertines and The Stratford 4.
GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.
(Soundbite of music)
Unidentified Singers: ...(Unintelligible) address so I was...
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