DATE April 30, 2007 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
PROGRAM Fresh Air
Interview: Harrison Goldberg on writing and directing "Numb," his
new film about experiencing depersonalization syndrome; Matthew
Perry, star of "Numb," on the film, his parents and the shows
"Friends" and "Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip"
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
My guests are Matthew Perry and Harris Goldberg, who wrote and directed the
new film that Perry is starring in. It's called "Numb," and it's playing this
week at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York. Perry is, of course, best
known for his starring role on "Friends," and more recently "Studio 60 on the
In the new film "Numb," he plays a screenwriter who's having a breakdown and
can no longer function in his professional or personal life. Maybe it's the
marijuana he smoked, but he feels removed from the world, even from his own
body. And after the marijuana wears off, the numbness does not. He tries
several therapies and is diagnosed with depersonalization syndrome. The movie
is based on a period in Goldberg's life. The film is a departure for
Goldberg. He's best known for writing the 1999 Rob Schneider comedy "Deuce
Bigelow: Male Gigolo." Here's a scene from "Numb," in which the screenwriter,
played by Matthew Perry, has finally met a woman he cares about, yet it's
still hard for him to feel anything. He's afraid to explain his problem to
her. He decides he needs help and gets therapy. This scene starts with a
(Soundbite of "Numb")
Mr. MATTHEW PERRY: (As Hudson) I couldn't hide my condition from her
forever. If I had any chance with Sarah, I had to speed up my recovery. So I
went with another doctor who specialized in a big word which meant...(word
censored by station)....talking, take drugs.
Mr. BRIAN GEORGE: (As Dr. Richmond) Richmond.
Mr. PERRY: (As Hudson) ...Richmond, here's the thing. I have met, and I
think fallen in love with, the most beautiful, incredible, weird woman on the
face of the planet. And she's so pretty. She thinks she has a big head, but
she doesn't. And last night we consummated our relationship, which is to say
that I had sex--we had sex, and it should've felt really good. I mean, it
should've felt really good, but I was so focused on her not seeing the pen
that I stole which she saw me steal, but I told her that I returned it. But I
didn't return it, I just stole another pen. So all that was flying through my
brain when I was supposed to...(word censored by station)...help.
(End of soundbite)
GROSS: Matthew Perry, Harris Goldberg, welcome to FRESH AIR.
Harris, let me start with you. What is depersonalization, which is the
condition that your character has in the movie?
Mr. HARRIS GOLDBERG: Well, it's kind of an offshoot of anxiety. It's sort
of in that realm. And really, what it is is it's sort of a chronic state of
feeling like you're watching yourself in a movie, and everything around you is
like a sort of dreamlike state. And it's a pretty uncomfortable feeling, and
it's like there's anxiety and then there's panic attacks, and this is kind of
like one step above it. And what they know so far is that it's kind of a
defense mechanism from too much stress that you're receiving, and, you know,
some people, I think, are vulnerable to it and have that sort of, you know,
aspect inside themselves that if they're stressed too much they can get it.
But they really don't know much about it, and it's just starting to really
open up, where there's more people that are suffering from it than, you know,
you can really imagine. It's kind of mind boggling. So.
GROSS: Did you have it?
Mr. GOLDBERG: Yes. Yes, very much so, for a long time. And that's what
made me, you know, write the movie in the first place.
GROSS: Matthew Perry, why did you want to star in "Numb," which is about a
writer who has this kind of detachment from reality through this anxiety
Mr. PERRY: Well, for me personally, I had just taken some time off because
"Friends" had come to an end, and I was afforded the, you know--I was very
lucky to be able to not have to work for a while. And I read this script, and
I related to a lot of it in my own life. This character's isolation, and this
character's fear, and this kind of desperate attempt to improve his life on a
daily basis, I completely related to. So I read the script and then I had a
meeting with Harris a couple of days later, and we just talked about what he
had gone through, and what this character goes through. And I thought it was
just an excellent opportunity for me to really do something different. There
was less pressure to be funny, although there is comedy in the movie. But it
was this guy's desperate struggle to improve his life, and I really related to
it. The character holed himself up in his house for weeks at a time. I've
done that in the past. And I just thought it was an excellent opportunity to
do something different for me. And I was also moved by the story, so.
GROSS: Now, one of the things that most people hope to achieve by fame is
desirability, that everybody will want to spend time with you. You can go to
the best dinners or parties, and have your choice of partners, or whatever.
And you're talking about identifying with the isolation of the character feels
and identifying with like holing yourself up for weeks, you know, at home?
What made you want to isolate yourself, and what made you feel isolated?
Because I'm assuming you're referring to a time when you were well known, and
could've been, you know, in a very social world.
Mr. PERRY: I would like to say at this point that I feel that I am still
very well known. No.
Mr. PERRY: I'm just kidding. No, no, what I was talking about was...
Mr. PERRY: I think dealing with "Friends," I got that show when I was 24
years old, and the kind of the white hot flame of fame at that point was
pretty disillusioning to me. At first, it was kind of everything I'd ever
wanted, and I was getting all this attention and it was wonderful. But then I
kind of realized that it wasn't real and that it was sort of this--existed in
this kind of ether, and it became kind of scary to me. So I spent a lot of
time, you know, at home watching TV during that time, and just not wanting to
deal with reality. And that's really what I related to most in the story.
GROSS: What was scary?
Mr. PERRY: Just that the world kind of changed overnight, and doors that
were, you know, closed were now open, and creatively that was good. But, you
know, if you're fortunate enough or unfortunate enough to be in a situation
that becomes that huge overnight, just the entire world changing is scary in
and of itself.
GROSS: Now, Harris Goldberg, you wrote "Deuce Bigelow: Male Gigolo," which I
confess I haven't seen. But my impression is, it's not among the most
introspective of comedic movies, and it's probably not about someone who's
really trapped in his head. So when you became the kind of person who is
really trapped in his head and who felt really isolated from, you know,
separated from the physical world, did you feel like your whole sense of what
your material ought to be changed, too? I mean, could you not even
re-identify with the kind of writing that you'd been doing?
Mr. GOLDBERG: No, actually, a lot of those movies I wrote during this entire
state. But I was just, you know, I'd come from a comedy writing background.
As I have said, my older brother having written "Stripes" and "Meatballs," and
I grew up with the whole Second City thing in Toronto. So when I got here, I
sort of, you know, hit fast and furious with sort of this broader kind of
comedy thing, which I never really liked, to be honest with you, but I was
just good at it. I don't know why, but it was just sort of you didn't have to
think that much. And it was scary to kind of write things that were more
personal and stuff.
So I wrote all those movies during those years, but I just got to a point
where I just couldn't do it anymore. I just didn't want to write something
that just didn't mean anything to me. So I really just sat down to write this
for me. I didn't think anything would happen to it, but it just felt good.
It was very cathartic, and it felt like I was finally writing words that I
really wanted to write, and I was relating to what I was wanting to write, and
the feelings, you know, of what was going on.
So when I met with Matthew, you know, I was always a big fan of Matthew, but I
just had this gut feeling that there was this side to him that was so
underrated and not even touched that it was a huge opportunity for me. And
when I met him and we had a fairly lengthy conversation; I realized this was
GROSS: Just another question about what you were writing. Just seems to me
like if you were living in this nightmare dreamscape, which is how you
describe your anxiety condition then, how do you get to the point where you
can even write comedy?
Mr. GOLDBERG: Well, it actually got so bad that I would sometimes go to the
beach, Malibu Beach, and I would lie on the sand just staring up at the, you
know, sky, and I would have somebody--I would just dictate the script to
somebody who would write notes down, and I would go and transcribe it. That's
how bad it got. And I think I was doing this film called "Without a Paddle"
at the time, which was a Paramount film that, you know, did very well, but I
can't even remember writing two lines of it.
Comedy, it's like a defense mechanism for me. It has always been. I was
always sort of the class clown. It's a very--you sort of follow these
patterns that you kind of--you have this bag of tricks that you can go back to
over and over again, which are kind of these rhythms that you know will make
people laugh, that you know people will like you if you get into that realm.
And it's sort of a secure place to be, and to break out of that and not do
that is very, very difficult. And so I just did that for a long time because
I was good at it, and that's what everyone expected of me, so, you know, those
were the kind of projects the studio wanted me to do. And it worked for a
long time. And they still want me to do it, quite frankly, but I'm hoping
this movie will, you know, facilitate me doing some other things that are a
little deeper, you know?
GROSS: Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm.
Matthew Perry, unlike Harris Goldberg, you were a really like well known,
public figure when you'd go through periods of like isolation or whatever and
you also went through a period of being in rehab and so on, and that was
written up in the press. So it must be really hard to go through periods like
that when you're living, you know, under the microscope?
Mr. PERRY: It must be hard to go through periods like that when I'm living
under the microscope? Yes, of course it was. Yes, I have, unfortunately, a
rather well documented history with having to deal with certain issues in my
life on the public level. I've managed to kind of turn that around, though,
for me, where it gives me much more of an opportunity now to help other people
who're going through similar struggles.
Mr. PERRY: It also made it impossible for me to just go to a bar and have a
drink, because if you're on the cover of People magazine in rehab, you're
going to turn some heads. So I turned it into a positive. But all of that
stuff is what helped me relate to this character and this movie.
GROSS: Yeah, yeah, in what ways? Like, what could you draw on from your own
experiences to help you understand what the character was going through?
Mr. PERRY: Well, you know, drugs do play a factor in this movie, and as we
touched on earlier, the isolation. And just sort of, when you're going
through, as Harris describes what he was going through, or as I have described
what I was going through, there tends to be a dynamic that falsely enters your
brain that tells you that there's kind of a universe in play, and you. And
when you think that way and you don't really have the courage to stop that
line of thinking, it leads to, you know, serious isolation and serious
problems in your life.
GROSS: The movie that we're talking about is "Numb," and it's a movie about a
comedy writer with an anxiety disorder starring Matthew Perry, and written and
directed by Harris Goldberg. And, Harris, thanks for talking with us about
the movie. And, Matthew Perry, if you don't mind, I'd like to keep you a
little longer and talk with you about other aspects of your life and your
career, other movies and TV shows and so on.
Mr. PERRY: Sure.
GROSS: And Matthew Perry is starring in the movie "Numb," which was written
and directed by Harris Goldberg, and it's playing this week at the Tribeca
Film Festival. Before we talk more with Matthew Perry, we have to take a
break. This is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: My guest is Matthew Perry, and he's starring in the new film "Numb."
He became famous for his role as Chandler on "Friends." Here's a scene from
"Friends." Joey has just given Chandler a kind of tacky gold friendship
bracelet. Chandler is wearing it when he's in the coffee shop trying to pick
up a girl. But she leaves when she sees the bracelet. Here he is talking
(Soundbite of "Friends")
Mr. PERRY: (As Chandler) Oh, this is excellent. You know, he could've
gotten me a VCR; he could've gotten me a set of golf clubs. But no, he has to
get me the woman repeller. The eyesore from the Liberace House of Crap!
Ms. LISA KUDROW: (As Phoebe) It's not that bad.
Mr. PERRY: (As Chandler) Oh! Yeah. Easy for you to say. You don't have to
walk around sporting some reject from the Mr. T collection.
Ms. KUDROW: (As Phoebe) Chandler. Chandler.
Mr. PERRY: (As Chandler) I pity the fool who puts on my jewelry! I do! I
(End of soundbite)
GROSS: Before you got the part on "Friends," did you do verbal, witty parts?
Was that the kind of role that you saw yourself as getting?
Mr. PERRY: Hm. Yeah, before "Friends," you know, I was auditioning for
everything, and what I would find that--the parts that I was getting was
sitcom auditions and people that were at least trying to be funny. And I
think that's largely due to growing up in Canada around a bunch of goofy kind
of funny people, and I just learned all these kind of comedic rhythms to make
kids laugh or make girls laugh in school. And I would use those in my
auditions, and kind of 9 times out of 10, early on, I would get these little
sitcom auditions that I would go out for. And at the time, it was important
for me to be on TV, and I thought it was, you know, a fun job. So that's
certainly how it started. I mean, I got--comedy came easier to me than drama,
than the stuff that I'm playing out in the movie "Numb," which is a little bit
harder for me to do.
GROSS: I read that when you auditioned for "Friends," you actually weren't
going to audition because you were tied up with another pilot, but you ended
up auditioning, and you already knew the lines because you had so many friends
who were auditioning for the part that you eventually got. What was it like
for you to audition for the part, having heard friends of yours do it in their
way? Like, you'd already heard so many versions of the character.
Mr. PERRY: Well, that was a very interesting time, because I, you know, had
for years been doing the kind of jobs we were talking about, and was off the
market because I'd done another pilot that year just for the money. The pilot
was about baggage handlers in the year 2194 at the LAX Airport, and needless
to say, it wasn't very good because it was...
GROSS: Could've been more dynamic after September 11th, right? It could've
been a thriller.
Mr. PERRY: Yes, exactly. It was about, you know, futuristic baggage
handlers. But what that did is it rendered me off the market for that pilot
season, and then all of a sudden, this wonderful script, at the time called
"Friends Like Us" came around and it just had a part in it that leapt off the
page as something that was very similar to me and had my rhythms. And it was
about a guy who was sort of trying to distract everybody from how miserable he
was all the time by being funny. And so a lot of my friends, you know,
comedic out-of-work actors tend to gravitate towards one another, and we would
have lunch and hang out all the time. And this part came around, and a lot of
people saw that it was sort of similar to me. And because I was off the
market, they'd ask me to run the scene with them and, you know, help them with
their auditions. And finally, after the fourth person did it, I said,
`Listen, I think I've got a really line on this character. Why don't you let
me just do this scene for you, and just take any choices that you like?' And a
couple guys I did that for, and they did very well on those choices, and got
to network and got to the final levels. And I was, you know, I was a little
disappointed, of course, because I thought that this show was going to be
good, and I couldn't be on it.
And then what ended up happening was some of the powers that be at the network
and the studio saw the pilot that I had did, the futuristic baggage handler
show, and decided probably wasn't going to get picked up, so I get a phone
call from my agent saying, `You have an audition for this show on Wednesday.'
And at that point, when I got that phone call, I knew--and I've never felt
that way before in my life and I probably never will again. I knew that I was
going to get the job, I knew that it was going to change my life, just even
before I went in to read for it.
GROSS: Now, how did you get the part in "Studio 60," which is in hiatus now,
hoping it comes back. And on that you play--this is just--there's two TV
shows that recently premiered that are kind of like backstage at "Saturday
Night Live" kind of shows. There's the comic one, and then "Studio 60" is
more of a drama, done by, you know, written by Aaron Sorkin, who did "The West
Wing," which you had a part on for one of the arcs. So how did you end up
playing the head writer on the show in "Studio 60"?
Mr. PERRY: Well, I had little or no interest in returning to television,
because my theory at the time was I'd already been fortunate enough to be on
one of the better shows, so why go back? And I'd just completed this TNT
movie that we shot in Canada called "The Ron Clark Story." And I was in my
hotel and my manager called and said that Aaron Sorkin had written a pilot
about backstage at a "Saturday Night Live"-type show. And I just immediately
wanted to get my hands on it, and they e-mailed the script to me. And about
2:00 in the morning in a business center of one of these hotels--I'd just read
it on the computer--and by the time I'd finished it, I thought to myself, `Oh,
boy, I guess I'm going to have to do another television show,' because the
character was so great and the writing was so wonderful that...
So I e-mailed Aaron Sorkin. I got ahold of his e-mail address, and just let
him know that I'd read the script, I thought it was wonderful, and you know,
the character of Matt the writer had spoken to me. And he e-mailed the next
day and said, `Well, I'm glad it spoke to you because I wrote it for you.' And
it kind of went on from there.
GROSS: After years of playing Chandler on "Friends," do you feel like the
writing rubbed off on you? Like, you were already witty, I'm sure, but do you
feel like you became even more witty because you were doing these great lines
Mr. PERRY: I suppose so. I mean, it really was sort of the perfect marriage
with--that whole thing had like a magic dust on it. I mean, it was the
greatest director at the time, and just the wonderful writers, and they got a
great cast. And it just came very naturally to me, and we kind of fed off
each other: I would come up with lines, they would come up with lines, and it
just was exactly--it was sort of like, you know, just a slightly funnier
version of my real life because they had, you know, I had writers for me on
"Friends." But I would say it certainly--we did feed off each other, and this
was a very interesting, funny character. So, you know, you learn those
rhythms, and I had a lot of those rhythms going in, so they worked off that,
GROSS: Matthew Perry is starring in the film "Numb," which is playing this
week at the Tribeca Film Festival. He'll be back in the second half of the
show. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with Matthew Perry. He's
starring in the new film "Numb." He's a star of "Studio 60 on the Sunset
Strip," which is currently in hiatus. He plays the head writer of a network
sketch comedy show, kind of like "Saturday Night Live." Here's a scene from
the pilot of "Studio 60." Perry is at an awards ceremony seated at a table.
He falls off his chair.
(Soundbite of "Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip")
(Sound of chair crashing)
Mr. PERRY: (As Matt) Whoa! Sorry. That was strange. I'm sorry.
Unidentified Actor #1: (In character) You OK?
Mr. PERRY: (As Matt) Yeah. I'm on some medication right now that I guess
makes me not know where chairs are.
Unidentified Actor #2: (In character) He means he's on back medication.
Mr. PERRY: (As Matt) Yeah. Hm?
Unidentified Actor #3: (In character) How'd you hurt your back?
Mr. PERRY: (As Matt) It happened when a surgeon sliced it open with a knife.
Actor #2: (In character) He had back surgery a few days ago.
Actor #3: (In character) You're on Vicodin?
Mr. PERRY: (As Matt) Yeah. I may have exceeded the recommended dosage.
Actor #1: (In character) Should you be out of bed this soon?
Mr. PERRY: (As Matt) I play with pain.
(Soundbite of Actor #1 laughing)
Actor #1: (In character) Well, they haven't gotten to your category yet.
They're doing the awards between courses this year.
Mr. PERRY: (As Matt) Where's your wife?
Actor #3: (In character) Sitting right next to her husband. I was just
talking to you.
Mr. PERRY: (As Matt) Sure. I'm on a little Vicodin and some Percocet and a
steroid called Nordisone, side of effect of which is mania. I swear to God,
it says so right on the bottle.
Actor #3: (In character) You're here alone?
Mr. PERRY: (As Matt) Completely alone.
GROSS: "Studio 60" was created by Aaron Sorkin, who also created "The West
Wing." I asked Matthew Perry if Sorkin wrote Perry's "Studio 60" part to show
off Perry's verbal facility and cynicism.
Mr. PERRY: Yeah, I think so. I think he, in that character--and now I know,
in that character, he was trying to write himself. And Aaron Sorkin is one of
the biggest, freaky "Friends" fans in the world. It just happens to be that
he's seen every episode like 15 times. And he, you know, I guess was a fan of
my work on that show, and then when I came to do "The West Wing," which was a
much more toned down version, a much more dramatic performance than what I had
done on "Friends." So, you know, for whatever reason, he had written the part
for me. And the guy is slightly cynical, he's messed up, he's dark, he's a
genius. He's all the things that Aaron Sorkin is. And with this show, as
these things tend to happen, over the last year, that character has become
sort of a combination of Aaron and myself.
GROSS: Yeah, and one of the things that you guys have in common in addition
to being like being smart and maybe a little cynical and funny and all of
that, you also have like a period of like drug problems in your background, as
does your character. And I wonder if that kind of helps link you to the
character and to each other?
Mr. PERRY: You know, I think so. The character in the pilot was on Vicodin
because of a back surgery, and that obviously leapt off the page for me,
because I thought it, you know, afforded him to be a little freer and a little
crazier in the pilot, and a little darker. So, you know, I've had my history
with that, and he's had his history, as well. They're both very separate
histories, but, you know, they both, you know, there's a lot of that darkness
in Hollywood. There's a lot of that kind of history in writing rooms all over
the place, so, you know, that just added to my interest in the project, that's
GROSS: Do you have a favorite scene from "Studio 60" so far?
Mr. PERRY: A favorite scene from "Studio 60." Well, I think my favorite,
just personally my favorite episode's been the pilot, and then we did a
Christmas episode that I really liked, and then there was another episode
where Matt Albie, my character, starts to take Vicodin and starts to remember
when he first came to "Studio 60," an episode called "The Friday Night
Slaughter" that just personally means a lot to me.
GROSS: Do you remember the first time you saw yourself on film or on video,
and how that jibed or didn't jibe with your self image of yourself?
Mr. PERRY: Yeah, it's very interesting. You know, a lot of actors don't
watch their own stuff, and a lot of actors watch a lot of it, and I'm probably
somewhere in the middle. I mean, at first, as a young actor, when I was 16 or
17 and I couldn't get enough of it. It was just, you know, it was just so
much fun to be able to see my work on television. And now I'm less apt to
watch it, because I still sort of watch it with that juvenile kind of eye.
You know? I can be doing the most important scene in the world and I'm more
concerned about what my hair looks like or, you know, what I'm wearing, so
it's a very bizarre profession us actors have put ourselves into, because, you
know, you can see it. You know? It's like in other professions, you're kind
of submitting your work and it's on a piece of paper, and people either like
it or not, but it's your work. This is, it's you.
GROSS: Did you look like what you expected to? Were you surprised at seeing
yourself the way other people see you?
Mr. PERRY: Did I look like I expected myself to look? You know, I think...
GROSS: Because, you know, mirrors are different than cameras.
Mr. PERRY: They are. You know, I think I probably looked like what I
thought I was going to look, but, you know, it's what's going on in my head
that's the problem. As I said, I'm like pointing--like I'll look immediately
at what I think are the bad things before the good.
Mr. PERRY: That's why I try not to watch it too often.
GROSS: Now, I know when you were growing up, your father did Old Spice ads,
and for anybody who doesn't know or remember Old Spice, it was a kind of like
aftershave and cologne that was really, really popular in the '60s, and I
think in the '70s, too. So your father was the guy who did the commercials on
TV for Old Spice?
Mr. PERRY: Yeah, that's actually led to most of my problems, because my
father is the handsomest man in the world. So that's led to why I look at
myself on TV in the first place, and also why I immediately go to the
problems. But yeah, that was my, you know, a lot of you guys probably
remember the, you know, there was that Old Spice commercial where the sailor
has like a tote bag and he's whistling, and all the women are...
GROSS: Right. So was it a lesson in what was show business was like, to have
a father who was famous from commercials?
Mr. PERRY: Well, it was an interesting lesson on all fronts, to have a
father in this business, because I got to see the highs and lows, because he
would, you know, he would have one year that was just off the charts
successful, and then he would have a year that wasn't. And, you know, he's
one of those actors that have, you know, managed to work for 40 years in this
business. And, you know, I saw a lot of the highs and lows. I saw him go out
for pilots and either get them or not, and, you know, what that kind of does
to your attitude on a daily basis. So, you know, his big lesson to me was to
make sure that there's something else in your life that is more important than
acting, or you'll go bananas. And so I've tried to follow that, and I know
that he feels that way, too.
GROSS: So your mother was the press secretary to Prime Minister Pierre
Mr. PERRY: Yes.
GROSS: So one parent is exposing you to, like, you know, Hollywood, and the
other to politics. What was your impression of the political world growing
Mr. PERRY: Well, I was absolutely fascinated by it, and she was around
during Jean Chretien's liberal leadership campaign, and I was right there as
a, you know, 12-year-old kid just watching all of that happen and watching,
you know, all those campaigns. And it was just fascinating and, you know, it
was bizarre because my mother was sort of in the public eye when I was a kid,
as well, just from a completely different arena. But, you know, I was
fascinated by it as a kid, and watching all these people gather together and
celebrate all these politicians. It was really fun.
GROSS: Did you see her on TV a lot? Did she have to make a lot of public
Mr. PERRY: I did. I did. I saw her on TV a lot, you know, especially
during campaigns and stuff, because she was always kind of, you know, around.
So it was really an interesting time.
GROSS: So you grew up in an environment where the people who you knew best,
your parents, were on TV a lot.
Mr. PERRY: Yeah.
GROSS: So, I guess, did that make it any more or less of a big deal to be on
Mr. PERRY: Well, the most interesting thing was, you know, I grew up in
Canada, in Ottawa, Canada, and, you know, with my mom. And the way that I
would see my father on a regular basis was on TV. He would call me up and
say, you know, `I'm doing an episode of "Mannix," or I'm doing an episode of
this.' And that's the way I got to kind of see my dad. So I really think that
generated a huge respect for television and for the industry because of that.
GROSS: Well, I want to thank you so much for talking with us.
Mr. PERRY: Well, thank you. This was really fun.
GROSS: Matthew Perry. He's starring in the new film "Numb," which is playing
this week at the Tribeca Film Festival.
Coming up, Sarah Polley talks about directing the new film "Away from Her."
This is FRESH AIR.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Interview: Actress Sarah Polley on the film "Away from Her," the
first feature-length film she's written and directed
TERRY GROSS, host:
What happens to a long marriage when the wife's memory of the relationship
begins to be erased by Alzheimer's disease? That's the premise of the new
movie "Away from Her," which is based on an Alice Munro short story. My guest
Sarah Polley wrote and directed the film. It's the first time she's directed
a feature length film. She's been acting since childhood, and is best known
for her starring roles in Atom Egoyan's films "Exotica" and "The Sweet
"Away from Her" stars the Canadian actor Gordon Pinsent and Julie Christie.
It's a rare starring role for Christie. She doesn't make many movies anymore.
In the '60s and '70s, she starred in such films as "Dr. Zhivago," "Don't Look
Now," "Shampoo" and "McCabe and Mrs. Miller."
Let's start with a scene from "Away from Her." Fiona and Grant Anderson have
been together nearly 50 years. But now that Alzheimer's symptoms are
worsening, they have agreed she should move to an Alzheimer's facility where
she can be taken care of. The facility has an enforced 30-day waiting period
before anyone can visit. When Gordon returns after 30 days, Fiona has
forgotten who he is. She thinks he's another resident with Alzheimer's, and
she tells him about her new male friend, who she actually thinks she knew when
she was a child visiting her grandparents. She describes to Gordon where her
(Soundbite of "Away from Her")
(Soundbite of piano playing in background)
Mr. GORDON PINSENT: (As Grant) Fiona, I know where your grandparents lived.
It's where we lived. We live.
Ms. JULIE CHRISTIE: (As Fiona) Really? I better go back. He thinks he
can't play without me sitting there. It's sweet. I hardly know the game
anymore. I'm afraid you'll have to excuse me.
Mr. PINSENT: (As Grant) Will you be through soon?
Ms. CHRISTIE: (As Fiona) We should be. It depends. If you ask that grim
looking lady over there nicely, she'll get you a cup of tea.
Mr. PINSENT: (As Grant) Oh, I'm fine.
Ms. CHRISTIE: (As Fiona) I can leave you, then? You going to entertain
yourself? Must all seem strange to you. But you'll be surprised how soon you
get used to it. You'll get to know who everybody is, except some of them are
pretty well off in the clouds, you know. Mm. You can't expect them all to
get to know who you are.
(End of soundbite)
GROSS: Sarah Polley, welcome back to FRESH AIR. Why did you want to make a
movie about the effects of Alzheimer's disease on a marriage when you're still
in your 20s and you're not going to be facing this any time soon?
Ms. SARAH POLLEY: I think in a way it's probably precisely because of my age
that I was really interested in looking at this story and wanting to make it
into a film. I found it when I first read the Alice Munro short story that
it's based on, "The Bear Came over the Mountain." I found it to be the most
kind of profound and interesting portrait of love and of a marriage that I'd
ever read. And I think it's because I was at the beginning of a relationship,
at the beginning of what was to become a marriage, that this just seemed like
such an interesting way to spend my time, to be thinking about what it might
look like after 44 years.
GROSS: Part of what the movie's about is how do you express your love to
someone who no longer even realizes that they're married to you.
Ms. POLLEY: Mm-hmm.
GROSS: And what is the nature of jealousy when your wife has Alzheimer's and
seems to be bonding with another man who also has Alzheimer's, and neither of
them comprehend that there's another person in their life, that they're
Ms. POLLEY: Mm-hmm.
GROSS: So were you interested in how, like, what is the nature of jealousy
when the person who you love has no memory anymore?
Ms. POLLEY: Absolutely, yeah. I mean, I think what was so compelling to me
about this story was that it was this incredibly intricate portrait
exploration into the nature of unconditional love, and what does it mean to
kind of give of yourself in a way that will not be acknowledged.
And I think in the case of this story, as well, another really fascinating
part of it to me was the idea of this man's guilt, that he has not always been
a saintly husband, that, you know, there have been wounds that he's
perpetrated in the past, and affairs that he's had, and that there's this
strange, almost poetic justice that he perceives in her forgetting him and
seemingly falling in love with another man in front of his eyes. So I think
that, for me, it was really interesting to see, you know, what do you do with
that? In a strange way, for this character, I think he's able to discover the
kind of husband he always wanted to be through her disease.
GROSS: Now, Julie Christie stars as the woman with Alzheimer's disease in
Ms. POLLEY: Mm-hmm.
GROSS: And she's most famous for her early starring roles in "Dr. Zhivago,"
"Darling," "McCabe and Mrs. Miller," "Shampoo," "Don't Look Now." And you've
already worked with her in a couple of movies.
Ms. POLLEY: Mm-hmm.
GROSS: In Hal Hartley's "No Such Thing" and in the movie "The Secret Life of
Words." I want to ask you about working with--or playing somebody who has no
memory, when in fact she has serious problems with memory in real life.
Ms. POLLEY: Mm-hmm.
GROSS: I just want to play you a short excerpt of an interview I did with
Julie Christie in 2002.
Ms. POLLEY: Sure. I think this one became quite famous, didn't it? It got
written about a lot.
GROSS: Did it?
Ms. POLLEY: Yeah, I'm excited to hear it. I've never heard it.
GROSS: OK, so I'm going to play you and our listeners a short clip. But she
told me that she had bad memory problems, and that a neurologist told her she
had what was described as autobiographic amnesia, meaning it's hard for her to
remember parts of her own life.
Ms. POLLEY: Mm.
GROSS: So she really couldn't answer my questions about her classic films
because her memories just weren't clear enough to talk about that part of the
Ms. POLLEY: Mm-hmm.
GROSS: And here's one of the things she had to say.
(Soundbite of FRESH AIR)
Ms. CHRISTIE: I've always had a problem with my memories. Ages and ages
ago, I had a problem doing plays for that reason. I was doing a--we were
doing "Uncle Vanya" on Broadway. Now, when was that? I can't remember a date
at all, so I can't tell you when it was. And remembering those lines was a
nightly horror, so it took away from the actual acting. And I really have a
real problem remembering lines. Of course, in films it's not nearly as
serious, but it's still there. I mean, you still have to remember and say
GROSS: Now, you're not that interested in making a lot of movies. You're
very selective, and you're just as happy to work very little. If you didn't
feel that way, if you wanted to work a lot more, I imagine this is a subject
you wouldn't be very comfortable talking about, it's something you might be
covering up, in fact.
Ms. CHRISTIE: What, my memory?
Ms. CHRISTIE: I never thought about it. I mean, because the director of my
dreams might not hire me. Don't worry, director of my dreams, I'll pull it
GROSS: Exactly. Exactly.
Ms. CHRISTIE: You know, if somebody listens to this and thinks they don't
want to hire me because of my memory, it's just--I don't think they would,
because they've seen me. They know what they want. Memory or no memory,
people know what they want. The memory doesn't get in the way of what the
audience sees, that's the thing.
Ms. CHRISTIE: It gets in my way, but not in the way of what the audience
GROSS: That's an excerpt of an interview I recorded with Julie Christie in
2002, and Christie is now starring in Sarah Polley's new movie "Away from
Her," and Christie plays a woman who has Alzheimer's disease.
So, Sarah, when you cast Julie Christie, who you'd already worked with in a
couple of films...
Ms. POLLEY: Mm-hmm, mm-hmm.
GROSS: ...did you know about her memory problems, and the problems that she
would have learning lines for the movie?
Ms. POLLEY: What's interesting is actually, just before I read this short
story, I think that that interview just played, got actually written about,
and it was sort of taken totally out of context in a few papers, I think, in
England, that reported that Julie Christie had Alzheimer's disease and, you
know, her son was very confused. And, you know, she doesn't have a son. So
it was kind of, you know, this really hysterical thing. And it was, I think,
quite hurtful and pretty upsetting for her that it had been taken out of
context in that way. And she wrote a brilliant rebuttal to it in The
GROSS: See, I never know about this.
Ms. POLLEY: Yeah, yeah, yeah, that interview became sort of quite infamous
in a way. And I think that, you know, yes. I know about Julie's concerns
about her memory. I have not, to be honest with you, noticed in my
relationship with her any significant signs of memory loss. And on this film,
she didn't forget a single line, and she had wax of dialogue. So I haven't
experienced it firsthand, but I know that she feels that she has, you know, a
very big problem with her memory. I haven't noticed that myself. But I did
think of that when approaching her with this because I know it's something
she's concerned about.
But I also thought of it in the context of that, you know, really awful story
being written and, in a strange way, this is being a bit of a middle finger to
that guy. You know, that she's so kind of like fine with that kind of thing
that she's sort of willing to embrace playing this person without fear of, you
know, people taking it completely out of context again.
What I really wanted was that incredibly magical, witty, intelligent,
ephemeral quality that only I think she has. And I think this character is
someone who, you know, has this kind of quality, being incredibly engaged and
incredibly vivid, incredibly conscious of the person they're with. And then a
minute later, you're kind of chasing them a bit. And I couldn't think of
anybody else who could play that in the same way as Julie Christie. So in a
way I kind of wrote this for her.
GROSS: So you really did, you wrote it for her?
Ms. POLLEY: I did. Yeah, as soon as I read the short story, I just couldn't
stop seeing Julie's face. And, in fact, the character's a bit older than her.
There's something about her mischievousness and that strange, ephemeral
quality she has that I just--I couldn't think of anyone else but Julie.
GROSS: One of the things I really enjoyed about her performance is that she's
still so beautiful, and watching her get older and still be beautiful, it's a
different kind of beauty than when she was in her 20s. But it's still really
beautiful, so it's a pleasure to, you know, to watch her face.
Ms. POLLEY: Yeah, no, I mean, she's stunning. And it was funny, when we
were working, Luc Montpellier, the DOP and I, we just kind of kept creeping up
closer and closer on her face because it's just sort of intoxicating. I mean,
you can't get enough of it. And she has, I think, a much more beautiful face,
and a much more interesting face than she's ever had. So it really sort of
made us want to just sort of linger as much as we could on her.
GROSS: My guest is Sarah Polley. She directed the new movie "Away from Her."
We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: My guest is actress Sarah Polley. She directed the new movie "Away
from Her" about a marriage disrupted by Alzheimer's disease.
This is the first feature film that you've written and directed yourself.
Ms. POLLEY: Mm-hmm.
GROSS: You've done shorts before. Atom Egoyan, who is a Canadian director
and writer--and you've been in a couple of his films, "The Sweet Hereafter"
and "Exotica"--he's an executive producer on your new movie "Away from Her."
Ms. POLLEY: Mm-hmm.
GROSS: Did he give you any helpful advice in directing?
Ms. POLLEY: Well, absolutely. And Atom's been a big mentor to me, and on
all of my short films, he's sort of been available to me whenever I've had
questions, and has been so supportive. And on this film he kind of, you know,
was there when I needed him. So if I just sort of had a moment where I
couldn't possibly know what to do because of my lack of experience in terms of
not knowing how to communicate something or not knowing how to get something,
he would be the person I would turn to. So he wasn't sort of hands-on
involved, but he was always sort of available to me, which was such a great
asset to have.
GROSS: Any lasting advice that you remember?
Ms. POLLEY: I think it was, you know, there were a couple of like early
moments, you know, in rehearsal process where, you know, actors had a few
script notes, and I didn't know what I thought of them, and I didn't know how
to deal with it. And he just sort of gave me a long speech about, you know,
not being defensive in moments like that, and being able to really listen, and
yet be clear about how that, you know, sort of fits into your sort of broader
plan. And I thought that was sort of great, you know. It's the kind of thing
that I think, you know, as a first-time filmmaker, you could become defensive
in those moments. And you would learn with experience, you know, that it's
actually a really appropriate time to listen, and I don't know that I would've
known that without him there.
GROSS: Now, in the film, when the husband brings his wife to like an
Alzheimer's residential facility, he's told that he can't see her till 30 days
Ms. POLLEY: Mm-hmm.
GROSS: Because that's their standard procedure. Is that a typical procedure?
I'd never heard of anything like that.
Ms. POLLEY: It's not typical. It's not typical, no. It's something that I
don't think is ever used--I don't know about the United States, but in Canada,
it's not used at all in public facilities anymore. There are a couple of
private facilities that have sort of similar recommendations that people go
for 15 days or so. But I think it's something that used to be a lot more
common, and if you read Alzheimer's books now, there is a warning in them to,
you know, not go to these kinds of facilities, which implies that they exist.
It's a very important device in the film because that's the time in which
Fiona forgets her husband, but, you know, it's a contentious point in the film
because it's certainly not indicative of, you know, a norm in these
GROSS: OK. How did you find the Alice Munro story that your movie's based
Ms. POLLEY: I had actually just finished working with Julie for the first
time, we'd done Hal Hartley's "No Such Thing" in Iceland. And I was on my
home, and I was in a plane, and I, you know, there was a copy of The New
Yorker that I think I'd picked up. And whenever I see there's a story by
Alice Munro, I read it. And this just kind of hit me, and I couldn't stop
seeing Julie's face. And there were all these references to Iceland in, you
know, the sort of subtext of the story. And it just sort of became a film in
my mind. And I was so profoundly moved by this story, and I felt like I had
so much to learn from it. And so in a strange way I've always felt like I
kind of wanted to make this film so I could walk around inside this piece of
GROSS: Do you think you learned anything about acting from directing?
Ms. POLLEY: I think I learned a ton about acting from directing. I have no
idea if it's possible to put it into use. I hope it is. Because, you know,
it's an amazing thing to sort of like leave that very subjective place of an
actor and see the entire process, and see how that rule sort of fits into the
broader picture of making a film. And I worked with actors who taught me a
lot about how to embrace, you know, a filmmaker's vision and how to
collaborate, and they were so unbelievably helpful to me, and never at odds
with what I was trying to accomplish. And I would love to kind of take what I
learned from them and put them into my own process as an actor. And I guess
I'll just sort of have to, you know, figure out how that works and how to
actually take something you know and turn it into behavior. I don't know.
GROSS: Now, Michael Murphy, who co-stars in the movie, and he plays a man in
the Alzheimer's facility, you know, one of the patients there, who develops
this relationship with the Julie Christie character, and they've both
forgotten that they have spouses already.
Ms. POLLEY: Mm-hmm.
GROSS: He'd worked with Julie Christie in "McCabe and Mrs. Miller," right?
Ms. POLLEY: Yes, yes.
GROSS: Did you intentionally cast them because they had a movie in common?
Ms. POLLEY: I did like the idea of there being a history there, I think,
because there's an ambiguity of whether, you know, whether or not these two
actually knew each other when they were young. They seem to think that they
did, and we don't know if that's part of their disease or if it's true. But I
did like the idea that there was a kind of, you know, subliminal history that
we have with both of them that they have with each other. That's sort of
underlying, you know, those relationships. I mean, it's a pretty subtle
point, but I did like that. And Michael Murphy, I think, is, you know,
probably been in more of my favorite films than almost any other actor, so he
was someone that I was dying to work with, as well.
GROSS: So you sought him out?
Ms. POLLEY: Absolutely, yeah.
GROSS: Sarah Polley, thanks so much for talking with us.
Ms. POLLEY: Thank you. Nice to see you again.
GROSS: Sarah Polley directed the new movie "Away from Her."
GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.
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