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For Bill Hader, Sketch Comedy Sprung From A 'Need To Be Doing Something Creative'

In 2012, Saturday Night Live's Bill Hader told Fresh Air that watching old films as a child sparked his interest in Hollywood. His latest project is the HBO series Barry.

22:30

Other segments from the episode on March 30, 2018

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, March 30, 2018: Interview with Bill Hader; Interview with Alyssa Mastromonaco; Review of film 'Ready Player One.'

Transcript

DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli, editor of the website TV Worth Watching, sitting in for Terry Gross. Today's first guest, Bill Hader, just hosted "Saturday Night Live," returning to the late night sketch series where he was a regular for years. And he just launched a new comedy series on HBO called "Barry," in which he plays a hitman who stumbles on a potential new career as an actor.

On "SNL," Hader earned three Emmy nominations for his versatility as a performer, playing everyone from New York City nightclub correspondent Stefon to Italian talk show host Vinny Vedecci. But on "Barry," which premiered last Sunday, Hader doesn't even think about acting until he follows Ryan, his next assigned target as a paid assassin, to his acting class. As Barry explains to his handler, played by Stephen Root, something happened there.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "BARRY")

BILL HADER: (As Barry Berkman) Look. Look. Look. Something really, really cool happened, OK?

STEPHEN ROOT: (As Fuches) OK.

HADER: (As Barry Berkman) I followed Ryan yesterday, and he went to this theater to take an acting class. And I end up doing a scene with him from "True Romance."

ROOT: (As Fuches) "True Romance" is a movie?

HADER: (As Barry Berkman) Yeah, it's LA theater, so I guess all the scenes they do are from movies. Point is, I was really good. And afterwards, I hung out with all of them.

ROOT: (As Fuches) Them?

HADER: (As Barry Berkman) The acting class, and they're super nice.

ROOT: (As Fuches) The whole class, including the guy you were supposed to burn?

HADER: (As Barry Berkman) Ryan Madison. Yeah. No, he's a great dude. And I don't know. They just made me feel really good about myself, you know? And you know how you and I talk all the time about my purpose?

ROOT: (As Fuches) You think acting could be your purpose?

HADER: (As Barry Berkman) I don't know. I just - I don't know - I just feel really motivated right now or something. Like, that made me feel really good.

ROOT: (As Fuches) OK, but what about what we do together, Barry?

HADER: (As Barry Berkman) Well, you know, they told me a very small percentage of actors actually make a living acting. You know, so most of them have day jobs. So I just figured, you know, I do night hits or something. Just...

ROOT: (As Fuches) Whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa. Just - that's it, OK? Barry, acting is a very face-forward type of job. It's in direct conflict of being someone who anonymously kills people. You want to have a hobby or something? You could take up painting. Hitler painted (laughter). John Wayne Gacy painted. It's a good, solid hobby. It never got in the way of what they were doing.

HADER: (As Barry Berkman) These are professional actors, and they're the real deal. And they say I got something.

ROOT: (As Fuches) No, I get it. I get it, but I think you got to think this thing through. I mean, you want to go out there and try to burn a guy and have him say, hey, there's the guy from chicken commercial?

HADER: (As Barry Berkman) I don't know if I do commercials.

ROOT: (As Fuches) Barry, when you decided to do this for a living, you closed the door in being able to do anything else. You're a killer, Barry. You kill the bad guys.

HADER: (As Barry Berkman) Yeah, but this Ryan guy wasn't a bad guy.

ROOT: (As Fuches) No, no, no, no.

HADER: (As Barry Berkman) He lent me a book. He's...

ROOT: (As Fuches) Stop thinking. Kill Ryan. These Chechens aren't the scariest people I've ever worked with, and they're talking about taking you off this job.

HADER: (As Barry Berkman) Off the job?

ROOT: (As Fuches, laughter) God, I'm sorry, but I don't feel like dying over some wannabe actor.

BIANCULLI: Terry spoke to Bill Hader in 2012 just after he got the first of his three Emmy nominations as a performer on "Saturday Night Live." Here he is in a sketch from that show, a trailer for a pretend movie with Hader providing the voices of both the announcer and one of the film's stars, Alan Alda.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE")

HADER: (As character) This Friday, from the makers of "Valentine's Day" and "New Year's Eve" comes the story of the whole world coming together on one night to celebrate "The Apocalypse."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "RAISE YOUR GLASS")

PINK: (Singing) So raise your glass if you are gone.

HADER: (As Alan Alda) You know, I love this whole Armageddon thing - you know, brimstone and hellfire. You know, just the other day, I strangled a guy for some flashlight batteries.

(As character) Starring literally thousands of your favorite celebrities.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

TERRY GROSS, BYLINE: That's Bill Hader as the announcer and as Alan Alda in that trailer from "Saturday Night Live." So how did you start doing Alan Alda?

HADER: I - (laughter) that is such a good question. I think Lorne would love it if I had came in and was like, I got a really good Robert Pattinson or something. You know, somebody...

(LAUGHTER)

HADER: But instead, I'm like, you know, I was watching "Trouble In Paradise." I think I could get Herbert Marshall really well. And he - Lorne said someone who's alive and working now. You know...

GROSS: (Laughter).

HADER: So Alan Alda was, like, the closest - 'cause I'm like he's in "Tower Heist." He's in "Wanderlust." He's still working. He's Alan Alda. I mean, he's a national treasure, you know? That came from watching "Crimes And Misdemeanors" with my wife. And I just started doing it watching the movie 'cause he's so funny in that movie. And I was just doing it while we were watching the movie. And again, like John Mulaney, she was like, oh, you should do that on the show. And I was like, oh, really? And so we did it in a - again, another sketch that Colin Jost wrote. It was the audition tapes for "Back To The Future," and it was Alan Alda auditioning for the role of Biff, the bully. And he was like, hey, why don't you make like a tree and get out of here? You know...

GROSS: (Laughter).

HADER: (As Alan Alda) I really love this. This is such a great script. And so we thought that that was just really funny in that he's very nice.

(LAUGHTER)

HADER: And that he's such a nice, gregarious guy and very complimentary. So yeah, that - and then one time, John Mulaney and I tried to write a thing with Alan Alda. I will - this was what it was called in the sketch because there was the - that show out with William Shatner called, you know, "S - Explicative My Dad Says." You know what I mean? So we had My Roommate's a Blank Horse - an F-ing horse - and with Alan Alda. And it was him with this - you know, I've got this horse for a roommate.

GROSS: (Laughter).

HADER: And it was him, like, trying to have a date. And he would come home and go, why are these horses in the house? You know, it was like - and no one laughed (laughter). We did it at the Wednesday table read, and it played to silence. (Laughter) It was one of those things where we were doing it, and I'm doing it, and you can hear people, like, you know, folding their legs...

(LAUGHTER)

HADER: ...You know, crossing their legs and, like, digging in their pockets to check their cellphone. You know, you can actually hear it. Like, it was really bad.

GROSS: So as we heard in the trailer for "The Apocalypse," you - you know, you were the announcer. You do so many announcer voices. Were there announcers that you used to do impressions of as a kid or that you especially enjoyed or thought were great or ridiculous on TV?

HADER: Oh, that's a really good question. I always grew up with people that I didn't know their names. Actually, you know what? Interestingly enough, Maya Rudolph - her husband is Paul Thomas Anderson, the filmmaker. And his dad was Ernie Anderson. And Ernie Anderson was the voice of ABC growing up, like "The Love Boat."

GROSS: Yep (laughter).

HADER: You know what I mean? And, like, "America's Funniest Home Videos," and like - so he was a guy I remember growing up with. And I didn't realize that until Paul was talking about him. He's like, oh, my dad was this guy Ghoulardi. And I was like, oh, wow. And I went on YouTube and went oh, that's your dad? You know (laughter), like, I loved him.

GROSS: He was a horror TV host.

HADER: Yeah, yeah. And just being, like, kind of an overall geek for stuff, just started devouring all that - you know, just going in and, you know, finding all the, you know, Ernie Anderson stuff. And it was really funny and interesting. And - so yeah. He was a guy that - without consciously doing it, I would do that, like, at school. You know, I would try to be doing those kind of voices. Another guy, to be honest - fullheartedly ripping off - is Phil Hartman. You know, he was a guy that I really liked on the show because he could do that. You know, he could be the announcer. He could be the lead in the sketch, like Unfrozen Caveman Lawyer. That was one of my favorite "SNL" sketches of all time. That was one I would do at school. I would walk around and do that in science class. Like, this photosynthesis - you know, I would...

GROSS: (Laughter).

HADER: ...Like, you know, try to do that voice but, like, at 9, you know?

(LAUGHTER)

HADER: It didn't really sound right. He could be the lead in the sketch, but he also could be the dad and - you know, it was Matt Foley's sketches where Chris Farley was the motivational speaker - he would be the dad, and completely committed and engaged. And I remember my dad saying it to me. Like, yeah, everybody's laughing at Chris Farley, but look at Phil Hartman. I like watching Phil Hartman. And so yeah, that - yeah, I feel like I took that approach when I got to the show.

GROSS: So in addition to all the announcers you do, you do a lot of game shows. Do you watch the Game Show Network...

HADER: (Laughter).

GROSS: ...Just to get inspiration?

HADER: I don't know. No, I don't.

(LAUGHTER)

HADER: I don't. Those - you know what the funny thing is? I will say Vince Blake, the one game show host - Simon Rich, Marika Sawyer and John Mulaney have written these game shows like What's That Name. I don't know if you remember that where we did that - where someone would come out. And you would say, you know, he's the star of "Ocean's Eleven." And they'd be like George Clooney. I'm like that's right. You know, $15 for you.

GROSS: (Laughter).

HADER: And then it's like, all right. Then - she starred in "Pretty Woman." Julia Roberts. That's right. Twenty dollars for you. And then I go, all right, now, for $10 million...

GROSS: (Laughter).

HADER: ...Who is this? And it's like, hey, I'm your doorman. I say hello to you every day.

(LAUGHTER)

HADER: What's my name? And it was so funny. And we did it with Justin Timberlake and Lady Gaga where Lady Gaga knew everybody's name. And Justin Timberlake didn't even remember one of his former bandmates from *NSYNC's name.

(LAUGHTER)

HADER: And, like, he couldn't remember anybody's name.

GROSS: What did you do for your "Saturday Night Live" audition?

HADER: I played Vinny Vedecci, the Italian talk show host, doing impressions. So I did Vinny Vedecci doing Al Pacino, James Mason, Peter Falk - I can't remember. Oh...

GROSS: Gregory Peck?

HADER: Gregory Peck, thank you. And you know who else? That morning, they called me. My audition was at 2. My manager called me at 9 in the morning and said, they want a political impression from you, and it can't be George Bush. And I was like, OK. And I just went on C-SPAN. And I saw this thing, and it was, like, a live meeting of Parliament. And Tony Blair was up - went up and spoke. And I listened to Tony Blair. And then I called my friend, who's from the U.K. And he was like, who's this? And I did it. And he was like, is that supposed to be Tony Blair? And I was like, let me - I'll call you right back.

(LAUGHTER)

HADER: And then I watched it some more. And I call back and go all right, now who's this? And he was like, Tony Blair. And I was like, yeah. And he was like, all right. And I hung up.

(LAUGHTER)

HADER: And so, yeah, I did, you know, Tony Blair. And I had to come up with some bit for him, like, really fast, like, in my dressing room before I went out to audition. And I remember getting in the elevator for my audition and there was a guy next to me who had a backpack full of props and wigs and things. And I went, oh, my God, that guy is so prepared. I have nothing. I have no props. And that was Andy Samberg.

GROSS: (Laughter).

HADER: And Andy Samberg said he was looking at me going, oh, that guy has no props. He doesn't need props. (Laughter). And that was the first time we met. It was in that elevator.

GROSS: Oh, that's great. So you did Vinny Vedecci for your addition. And, you know, he's a character you've done on "Saturday Night Live." And he hosts a talk show and, you know, has on celebrities. But you once did him - and this is on YouTube for anybody who wants to see it. You once did him at Garage Comedy, which is a comedy club, I assume. And you were introduced by the emcee as the replacement for a comic who had to cancel. And she said, the comic we're going to hear is actually our busboy, but he used to be Italy's top comic impressionist back in 1985.

HADER: Right.

GROSS: And then you come on stage and start, like, speaking in Italian or faux Italian.

HADER: Yeah, it's Italian gibberish.

GROSS: Italian gibberish, yeah. And then - so you start doing your impression. So I'm going to play just, like, an excerpt of that.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

HADER: (As Vinny Vedecci) Impressioni, impressioni.

(APPLAUSE)

HADER: (As Vinny Vedecci) This is Mr. Gregory Peck in "To Kill The Mockingbirds."

(LAUGHTER)

HADER: (As Vinny Vedecci) Very famous racecar driving movie.

(LAUGHTER)

HADER: (As Vinny Vedecci) Scout - (imitating Italian). Scout, you are not a lady.

(LAUGHTER)

HADER: (As Vinny Vedecci) You're a tomboy. And you know what they call tomboys when they grow up, Scout? Bull dykes.

(LAUGHTER)

HADER: (As Vinny Vedecci, imitating Italian).

(APPLAUSE)

GROSS: So did the people in the audience know that you were Bill Hader, or did they really think that you were a busboy?

HADER: I think a lot of them knew I was - I think they knew it was a bit that I was doing.

GROSS: And why were you doing it? I mean, were you testing something out?

HADER: That actually was before I was on "SNL," I think.

GROSS: Oh.

HADER: That was before I was even on "SNL." That was my first - that was me probably working out my audition is that clip. I - before I got "SNL," I would try stuff out at live audiences. And I was in a sketch group at the time. And what happened was - quick version of a long story. Megan Mullally saw me in a show, recommending me to Lorne Michaels. Lorne Michaels came to LA and said, I want to see you in your sketch show, the show that Megan Mullally saw.

So we put on a sketch show. And in it, I did Vinny Vedecci doing impressions, kind of like what you heard, but as a sketch. So it was like I snuck an audition into a bigger sketch show. And Lorne - it went great. But Lorne, I think, kind of was like, oh, these are all his friends in the audience 'cause the place is going crazy. They all know I'm here. So Lorne said, you've got to come to New York and do it (laughter) at UCB Theatre, an audience where no one knows you.

So we came and did the show in New York with the sketch group. And we looked out, you know, in the audience and there's Tina Fey and Seth Meyers (laughter) and Amy Poehler. And I was like, oh, my gosh (laughter) - plus with a bunch of New York people going, who are these guys from LA. 'Cause they all knew - look at all the "SNL" brasses here. Who are these people? Oddly enough, Bobby Moynihan was in the audience, who later got on the show.

And I did that - what you kind of heard, that Vinny Vedecci. And I will always be thankful for this. Amy Poehler laughed really loud. And it kind of made the whole audience relax 'cause they went, oh, Amy Poehler finds this funny. We can kind of relax. This is funny. Like, this is great.

GROSS: So what were the movies you watched with your family? Did you watch old movies on TV? Or did your parents, like, rent videos and screen movies for you that they thought that you'd love?

HADER: Yeah. We - my family, we were a big movie family, even more so than television or books. Like, my grandparents - I grew - my grandparents lived next door to us when we were growing up, my mom's parents. And they were like the reading house. And then, like, my mom and dad's house was the movie house. And pretty much every night we would watch a movie, especially during the summer. It was, like, our way of relaxing. And it was all different types of films.

Everything from whatever was currently - like, my dad would come home from the video store and go, yeah, whatever, I got "Overboard" - you know, Goldie Hawn and Kurt Russell - let's watch this to my mom going, oh, my gosh, on Channel 13 is "To Kill A Mockingbird" or "The Enchanted Forest" or "Gone With The Wind." I remember watching all of "Gone With The Wind" on a Sunday with my parents. And it was a very communal thing.

It was something that I still - my favorite kind of thing to do with, like, my wife is to watch a movie and get caught up in it. And my wife and I recently watched the film "Take Shelter." I don't know if you saw that.

GROSS: Sure did.

HADER: It was fantastic. And that movie was - just getting caught up in it. And one - a very clear memory I have is watching "The Hunchback Of Notre Dame" with Charles Laughton.

GROSS: I love that film.

HADER: Watching that movie and the scene where he swings down and saves...

GROSS: Esmeralda.

HADER: Yeah, Esmeralda. Who's the actor? It was Maureen O'Sullivan (ph)?

GROSS: Yeah.

HADER: Yeah, Maureen O'Sullivan, where he swings down and grabs her. And I just remember the way it's shot you see him way in the background, and then he kind of comes right into frame and picks her up. And it's just - it's an amazing shot. And the music kicks in. And I just remember when that happened my mom going like - gasping, you know, behind me and looking - and just her watching and going, oh, I just love this. I love that moment, you know? And...

GROSS: And then he climbs with her to the top of the Notre Dame Cathedral and holds her out to the, like, thousands of peasants who are (laughter), like, storming the cathedral below. And he holds her up and he says, sanctuary, sanctuary.

HADER: Yeah. That moment, that is one of my favorite moments because it's a great film moment. But I just think of my mom when I see it, my mom getting, like, choked up. And like, you describing it is very much how my mom talks about it. She goes, oh, I just - you know, and he does it, and you're, like, oh, it's so amazing, you know? So that feeling you just want - you just become kind of like a junkie for it. And you just go, I just want to watch - I just want that feeling over and over again (laughter).

GROSS: When I was growing up in New York "Million Dollar Movie," which was on Channel 9 in New York, used to show the same movie over and over all week. And the next week it would be a different movie shown over and over and over. And one of the movies that they frequently showed for a whole week was "The Hunchback Of Notre Dame." And so the first time I saw it, I thought it was, like, about a quarterback.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: I was expecting it to be like a football movie.

HADER: Yeah, the hunchback...

GROSS: I was, like, too really young to know the difference.

HADER: Just let me play.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: I want to be in this game (laughter).

HADER: He's the hunchback. We'll never let him play. We're Notre Dame. We're a big university. We're the Fighting Irish. We can't have a hunchback. It's like, just let him play, everybody. Sorry. Go ahead.

GROSS: So I was just - so I realized, OK, so it's not about, like, the quarterback of Notre Dame. It's, like, the hunchback of Notre Dame. But - you know, but I'll watch it.

HADER: I'll play hunchback (laughter).

GROSS: Yeah, I'll watch. And then suddenly it's like they're crowning the king of fools and there's all these, like, you know, people trying to look like clowns. And suddenly you see the hunchback's face. And he's so deformed. And it was - I wasn't prepared for it. I was so frightened. And I made my family, like, turn off the television and put on "Texas Rangers," "Tales Of Texas Rangers" (ph), instead.

HADER: (Laughter).

GROSS: And then I used to, like, sneak a peek at it because it was so scary but thrilling. And then I'd watch the - and then I just like - I realized what a beautiful, beautiful film it is.

HADER: Oh, yeah.

GROSS: Were you afraid the first time you saw it? Did it...

HADER: You know what? My parents were such movie nerds that they kind of told me everything. OK, it's got Charles Laughton. And, you know, and so the first one, you know, had Lon Chaney. And you know, he did all these things with his face. But Charles Laughton - I remember my mom saying Charles Laughton is the greatest actor who will ever live. And that's how I was introduced to the movie (laughter) so that you're seeing - acting doesn't get better than this.

GROSS: I want to thank you so much for joining with us. It's really been fun. Thanks for being with us.

HADER: It's a huge pleasure. No. Are you kidding? This is huge.

GROSS: Oh, it was so much fun.

HADER: (Laughter).

BIANCULLI: Actor Bill Hader speaking to Terry Gross in 2012. His new comedy series "Barry" premiered last Sunday on HBO.
DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli, in for Terry Gross. Our next guest today was part of President Obama's inner circle at the White House, but she isn't famous. In fact, in 2011, she was included on the New Republic's list of "Washington's Most Powerful, Least Famous People." But now her name is becoming better known because of her best-selling memoir about working in the White House. Her name is Alyssa Mastromonaco, and her book, which is now out in paperback, is called, "Who Thought This Was A Good Idea?" It's not an expose.

It's about what it takes to make things work at the White House and how stressful the process is. Mastromonaco was assistant to the president and director of scheduling and advance at the White House from 2009 to 2011, and then served for three more years at the White House as assistant to the president and deputy chief of staff for operations. She's now an executive at A&E Networks. Terry spoke with her last year.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

TERRY GROSS, BYLINE: Alyssa Mastromonaco, welcome to FRESH AIR. So when President Obama came to the White House and you came with him, you were working on events. And you said - you know, and you had to, like, create and schedule events - that the Secret Service was especially unwilling to do anything remotely risky because President Obama was the first African-American president. Can you talk about some of the things surrounding that, surrounding what I imagine is all the threats against him?

Because in addition to it being, like, an incredibly divisive atmosphere, as the first African-American president, there was so much racism that was being directed at him overtly or covertly. So how did that affect his ability to events and what it took to schedule, you know, events for him?

ALYSSA MASTROMONACO: So a couple of things. A lot of people, of course, compared us to President Clinton and how President Clinton got out more and he did these sort of sweeping, beautiful events on the, like, at the Grand Canyon when he would sign bills. And what people didn't realize is not only, you know, was Barack Obama the first African-American president, he was a post-9/11 president, which is a totally different beast. And also, it was the first presidency that was completely within the age of social media.

So when people talk about the uptick of threats that the Secret Service would report, so much of that was because of the advent of Facebook and Twitter. It was easier to make the threats for people to count, right? And so when we were first getting started, none of us wanted to ever put anyone, you know, at unnecessary risk. I don't think anybody would want to do that. But for us, there were a lot of grand ideas that people had. One of them was having him do an event on the Triborough Bridge. And I knew that there was no way on earth that the Secret Service was going to allow that.

But I think even now with President Trump, they wouldn't allow that because it's just such a different world. Technology is so different. You can detonate a bomb with a cell phone. We know that now. Even on the rope line with President Obama, when people would hold up their iPads or their iPhones to take a picture, Secret Service always asked them to put it down because they can be, you know, a device.

GROSS: So another thing that you had to do as deputy chief of staff is work with agencies like the Department of Defense to run classified construction projects and maintain the continuity of government exercises, exercises so that if there's a nuclear attack or if Washington floods or the president is incapacitated, everyone knows what to do.

MASTROMONACO: Exactly.

GROSS: Just mentally, emotionally, what was it like for you to be in charge of planning for the absolute worst?

MASTROMONACO: Oddly, it was actually very reassuring when you sit down with the folks who, again, from administration to administration keep this process alive and have this information. You know, you sit down, and they brief you. And you're like, oh, wow, if something happens, actually everybody does know what to do. And so I found it - on the one hand, it's very heady. You're like, I can't believe that I'm seeing what would happen if a nuclear missile was launched from X and how long it would take to get here and what happens.

But it is comforting to see that these processes are pretty well socialized. Everybody knows them. You know, the 25th Amendment has been one of the funnier things that happens is you obviously notify the speaker of the House and the majority leader, minority leaders in Congress. And we realized that the - when we actually ran the exercise that all of the fax numbers were wrong because people didn't really use faxes anymore. So that was - we're like, oh, we should get new fax numbers.

GROSS: Can you tell us what your role was supposed to be in case of the worst, like, where you would be and what your job would be?

MASTROMONACO: If - I can't really talk about what my job would be - but in both - in a scenario of the president being incapacitated, say, he needed to have surgery, I sort of ran the process, the many steps of the 25th Amendment and sort of bringing that to life. And then the - in, like, worst case scenario, if the president had to go some place, I would have been part of the crew that was evacuated with him.

GROSS: What was the closest you got to having to enact one of those plans?

MASTROMONACO: Goodness. Oh, I would say it was when the president had his colonoscopy.

GROSS: Wow. If that was the worst (laughter).

MASTROMONACO: Knock wood - yes, that is the worst I remember.

GROSS: So you were preparing for, like, say it really doesn't go well...

MASTROMONACO: Yes.

GROSS: ...Or just for that period when he's incapacitated...

MASTROMONACO: Just that period when he's...

GROSS: ...Because he's under a light sedative.

MASTROMONACO: Exactly. And we figured this is a great time for us to, you know, go through all of the steps, and it was an interesting exercise.

GROSS: Right. OK.

MASTROMONACO: You feel very - you feel like you're in the, you know, "The West Wing" television show in those kind of - in those scenarios.

GROSS: So what did you have to do to get the president in and out of Iraq or Afghanistan which were, you know, war zones? And what is the secret service and weaponry like when you fly with the president into a war zone?

MASTROMONACO: You know, it's - there's a lot of it. You know, you have the counterassault team, of course. And usually when you're working with, you know, President Karzai's team, they're pretty - I mean, nobody wants anything to happen to the president when he's coming to take a visit because that reflects so poorly. I mean, President Karzai wants people to believe that, you know, Afghanistan is not that dangerous. And so, you know, having anything bad happen to the president of the United States when he's there would be quite bad.

So they were usually pretty helpful. I mean, not always as helpful to me because I was a woman, and so sometimes they would make me sit out in the courtyard when all the guys went inside. But the Secret Service - and they were always quite protective of me. Like, they understood that in a lot of these places, people were a bit hostile towards me.

But no, I mean, Secret Service acted - of course it's heightened, you know, when you're going someplace that is - that can be that volatile. But for the most part, they were always at a 10 out of 10 on the preparedness scale.

GROSS: Is this the kind of thing that happened to you a lot when you were traveling abroad to Muslim countries where you were shut out in some way?

MASTROMONACO: You know, not really, to be honest. When we went to - I'm trying to think. Most places were quite open. They know that you are an American and that you're a diplomat in this capacity. And so they're quite generous and sort of fluid, I guess, in these situations. And one person had told us when we went to - it was customary for King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia to not shake women's hands. And that when you got off the plane and went through the receiving line that you basically should keep your hands down by your sides and just say nice to meet you and keep going.

And so you line up in precedence order, right? So it's like, you know, the chief of staff would be first, you know, followed by the senior advisers and then me and the national security adviser. So when we were getting off the plane in Saudi Arabia, Valerie Jarrett and I, who traveled together a lot, she and I knew, like, keep your hands down and just keep going. But King Abdullah put his hand out to us. And I was petrified. It's like, I didn't want to cause an international incident and shake his hand when I wasn't supposed to. But he had his hand out, and President Obama was standing there and he's like, shake his hand.

GROSS: (Laughter).

MASTROMONACO: So we did. And so for that - you know, mostly it was just that there weren't a lot of women in general around, not that they didn't really let us be there. Like, we were always welcome. We were just usually - Valerie and I were among the only two women sometimes in lunches of 30 people.

BIANCULLI: Alyssa Mastromonaco, speaking to Terry Gross last year. More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF PRINCE SONG, "ALPHABET ST.")

BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. Let's return to Terry's 2017 interview with Alyssa Mastromonaco. Her memoir about working in the inner circle at the White House titled "Who Thought This Was A Good Idea?" is now out in paperback.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

GROSS: So tell us about Air Force One.

MASTROMONACO: Air Force One and the White House medical office are the two things that you miss the most when you leave. People talk about, you know, oh, Alyssa, like, uptown problems, you always flew on Air Force One. I said, yeah, but now I have no frequent flyer miles anywhere so I don't get upgraded.

GROSS: (Laughter).

MASTROMONACO: So it's doubly hard. But no, it is - I will tell you that - and it's one of these things that when I watch the Trump folks, I just don't know if they feel the same way that we did. But getting on Air Force One for the first time was the most humbling, awe-inspiring - you know, you are trying to be an adult - right? - but you're literally a kid in a candy shop. You're like, can I take a tour? Can I go up and see where all the equipment is? It is a lot like you see on TV.

And what people don't totally know, we would fly - President Obama liked to be very efficient with his time. So many, many trips, we would leave Washington at night, fly overnight and then land in country the next morning around 8 o'clock and start our day. And people wouldn't understand there aren't, like, beds for us on Air Force One. We had those, like, Snuggies that you buy on QVC. And we would sleep on the floor. And the best part of becoming deputy chief, especially when Valerie Jarrett didn't travel, is that I could claim the couch. There was one couch that you could sleep on. And then you'd get up. And then you get ready and you have your breakfast. And you go down and you start your day.

And there is nothing like walking off the steps of Air Force One. Every single time, you always feel so proud. And the reception too of other people in countries when they see that beautiful, like, blue and white plane, it's just - it always gives you goose bumps.

GROSS: You had to sleep on the floor?

MASTROMONACO: Yeah. We would sleep on the floor. The seats didn't recline all the way, so they could be really uncomfortable. And so we would - a lot of us would sleep on the floor.

GROSS: Wow.

MASTROMONACO: See, it's not that glamorous.

GROSS: No, really. So - and now you have to fly coach? (Laughter).

MASTROMONACO: I do.

GROSS: (Laughter) What a comedown.

MASTROMONACO: It's a real bummer when you're in, like, boarding group D.

GROSS: (Laughter) So what was the worst fiasco that you were involved with? This is assuming there was a fiasco.

MASTROMONACO: Well, this one's sort of funny. It wasn't quite a fiasco but there was this period of time, I think it was in 2011, when that Icelandic volcano erupted and caused that plume that sort of circled the globe and was quite dangerous for planes because if you flew through the plume, it would melt the engines and the plane would crash. And so we had several trips at that time that were scheduled, foreign trips.

One was - you'll recall I think it was the president of Poland was killed in a plane crash. And the funeral was happening, and we couldn't go because of the plume. But then a couple of weeks later, we had to go to Asia. And we were in - I think we were in Indonesia. And we were at a summit. And I got a report from the military aid that the plume was coming dangerously close, and that if we didn't take off in, like, the next two hours, we were going to be stuck in Jakarta.

And so I got on the phone with the millaid (ph) and the captain for Air Force One. And the first time President Obama met Colonel Turner, he said, that's exactly what I want my pilot to look like 'cause he looked like a total bad ass with his buzzed hair and he was really tough. But I found Colonel Turner. I said, you know, what are we going to do? We have to get out of here. We can't be stuck in Jakarta. And he said, well, the best thing for us to do is be number one in line for takeoff. And he said, but the Chinese are pulling their plane - they're taxing the plane out.

And so I sort of had to make this decision. And I told him to cut the Chinese off and pull out Air Force One and get us first in line for takeoff. And we had to hurry to the plane. And the president was like - and all of the military folks on the plane were like, oh, this is great, we're taking off. You know, we could have been stuck here for three days. And the president's like, well, what do you mean?

They're like, well, if we hadn't been the first in line to take off, we would probably be stuck. We couldn't get back to the U.S. And he said, well, how did we get first in line for takeoff? And they said Alyssa told us to cut off the Chinese. And he looked at me like I could potentially have done something very bad but at the same time was very glad because we all wanted to go home.

GROSS: This could have started a conflict with the Chinese (laughter) because of American arrogance.

MASTROMONACO: Exactly. But it worked out OK. We got home plume-free. But that plume wreaked havoc for months.

GROSS: Well, it's a huge responsibility to, you know...

MASTROMONACO: Yes.

GROSS: You can't be flying with the president if it's dangerous and the plane might go down, right? I mean, that...

MASTROMONACO: That would really be bad.

GROSS: ...Would be bad. (Laughter) Yeah, that would be bad.

MASTROMONACO: That would really be bad because as he would remind us, if that ever happened, it would be President Barack Obama and several unnamed staffers.

GROSS: (Laughter).

MASTROMONACO: We were like, we know, we know.

GROSS: So one of your legacies - I underscore the importance of this, you know where I'm going (laughter).

MASTROMONACO: I know. Go there.

GROSS: I'm going. You had a tampon machine installed in one of the ladies' rooms. And apparently there aren't many of them in the White House.

MASTROMONACO: Yes. The White House, the West Wing, does not have as many bathrooms as I think any of us would have hoped. And the women's bathroom downstairs, which was near my first office, I think it was three stalls. And all you ever wanted was a tampon. And there just weren't any. And so we would all have - all of the ladies sort of had a code that was like, you know, the tampons are in the upper right drawer of my desk, help yourself. But sometimes everybody would be out. And then inevitably, it was on someone's assistant - usually mine, both of them were men - to go to CVS, which is sort of a pain to go to in the middle of the day, and pick something up.

And so when I became deputy chief, I was in the bathroom one day in desperate need and didn't have one. And one of the people who reported to me, Katie Keel (ph), was the assistant to the president for office and administration. She oversaw all of the White House personnel and the campus. And I said Katie, is there any reason we can't have a tampon machine in the West, you know, ground floor bathroom? And she said, I don't think so.

And so she went. Two weeks later, we had one. And one, it's great that we were able to do that. But the real point of the story is that you should always ask for - I think for years and years, people assumed there was some reason it couldn't be there and it just took me asking to make it happen. It's not like - I wasn't really breaking ground there. I think I just asked a question.

GROSS: Is there, like, an engraved placard next to it?

MASTROMONACO: No, there isn't, which is why I felt a need to write about it so I could hog all the credit in my book.

GROSS: (Laughter) Right. So I thought this was really interesting. You had to get national security clearance for your job.

MASTROMONACO: Yeah.

GROSS: One of the questions you had to answer was a kind of detailed list of your drug use. And you'd smoked marijuana.

MASTROMONACO: Yes.

GROSS: You had to say how many times (laughter).

MASTROMONACO: Yes. That was...

GROSS: Yeah. So you handled it by saying unknown. How did you come to the conclusion that that would be your answer, an unknown number of times?

MASTROMONACO: Because - well, because I really feel strongly about not lying. And so when the FBI agent asked me for a number of times and she said, you know, 20? And I was like, no. She said, a hundred? I said, no. And then when she got up to 500, I was like, I'm not saying - I'm not giving you a number because who knows if they're going to go try and prove the number? So I just said, unknown. And apparently from her reaction, nobody had ever said that before.

GROSS: You write that you had to get randomly drug tested almost every month. Is that because you'd said unknown or does everybody have to do that?

MASTROMONACO: No. Most people get drug tested, like, once or twice that first year. But I was drug tested quite often because I was very forward-leaning about my drug use, very open-kimono, as we would say. And so, yeah, every - just about every month, you'd get an email that said, you know, you have 24 hours to show up for your test. And I would. And it was fine because I wasn't. So I had nothing to hide (laughter).

GROSS: OK. It's been great to talk with you. Thank you so much.

MASTROMONACO: Thank you so much. I loved it.

BIANCULLI: Alyssa Mastromonaco speaking to Terry Gross last year. Her memoir about working in the inner circle at the White House titled, "Who Thought This Was A Good Idea?" is now out in paperback. Coming up, film critic Justin Chang reviews Steven Spielberg's latest film "Ready Player One." This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF BOB MARLEY AND THE WAILERS' SONG, "MEMPHIS")
DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. After tackling the story of the Pentagon Papers in "The Post," Steven Spielberg has a new movie that's a sci-fi action adventure film adapted from a novel by Ernest Cline. It's called "Ready Player One." It features Ben Mendelsohn, Mark Rylance and Lena Waithe, and film critic Justin Chang calls it Spielberg's return to his escapist roots.

JUSTIN CHANG, BYLINE: It's the year 2045, and Columbus, Ohio, has become an overpopulated junk heap of a city. The colors are gray and muted. People dwell in cramped trailers stacked on top of each other in rickety towers. But dystopia isn't all doom and gloom. When Dorothy got tired of Kansas, she flew over the rainbow. And in "Ready Player One," Steven Spielberg's fantastical but fatally overblown juggernaut of a movie, anyone can strap on virtual reality goggles and achieve the ultimate escape. Our guide to this brave new world is Wade Watts, a young orphan played by Tye Sheridan, who lives with his aunt in Columbus.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "READY PLAYER ONE")

TYE SHERIDAN: (As Wade) My name's Wade Watts. My dad picked that name because it sounded like a superhero's alter ego, like Peter Parker or Bruce Banner. But he died when I was a kid - my mom, too. And I ended up here, sitting here in my tiny corner of nowhere. There's nowhere left to go - nowhere except the OASIS.

CHANG: Imagine if someone had taken the eye-popping worlds within worlds of "Inception," "The Matrix" and last year's "Valerian And The City Of A Thousand Planets," then smashed them together into a giant CGI megamall, and you'll have some idea of how this astoundingly elaborate virtual reality universe operates. The OASIS was the brainchild of the late tech visionary James Halliday, who, as played by Mark Rylance in flashbacks, comes off as a nicer, nerdier Steve Jobs.

Along with his old friend Ogden Morrow played by Simon Pegg, Halliday dreamed up a fully immersive world where visitors could create their own digital avatars, lose themselves in interactive games and shop online to their heart's content. Before his death, Halliday left behind a Willy Wonka-style competition to find his heir, the person who would safeguard his legacy. Hidden throughout the OASIS are three keys unlocking a series of clues that will lead one lucky player to the carefully hidden grand prize, the ultimate Easter egg, the rights to the OASIS itself.

The twisty plot requires Wade to solve puzzles and join forces with a smart, tough-as-nails love interest named Art3mis, played by Olivia Cooke, plus a few other trusty allies played by Lena Waite, Win Morisaki and Philip Zhao. Their archnemesis played with a testy scowl by Ben Mendelsohn is Nolan Sorrento, a former Halliday intern who now runs a soulless, murderous conglomerate bent on finding the keys at any cost. Halliday also designed the OASIS with another purpose - to pay homage to every movie, TV show, video game and comic book he ever consumed.

Like the popular 2011 Ernest Cline science fiction novel on which it's based, "Ready Player One" is an extended valentine to those pop culture relics, most of which came out in the '80s and are thus beloved by people who grew up watching, well, Steven Spielberg movies. Spielberg avoids any allusions to his own films apart from a stray dinosaur who may or may not hail from "Jurassic Park." But as one of the undisputed high priests of American popular entertainment, he is in many ways enshrining his own legacy. Frankly, I wish he'd been more careful with it.

At nearly 2 1/2 hours, "Ready Player One" is an awful lot of movie. Watching it is like taking the world's most expensive, hallucinatory nostalgia trip. The pop culture references fly so thick and fast they make Quentin Tarantino look restrained. A tire-screeching car race includes a highly destructive cameo by King Kong. There are appearances by Batman, the Goonies and The Iron Giant, the star of a wonderful underseen 1999 animated feature that maybe some fraction of this movie's audience will feel compelled to check out. I won't give away the title of the film that inspires Spielberg's most exhaustively detailed homage. Suffice it to say that the resulting sequence is both spectacular and spectacularly empty, the apotheosis of this movie's dazzling but self-defeating aesthetic.

There's no denying that "Ready Player One" is a triumph of computer-generated imagery. The colors are wild. The avatars are engaging, and every new dimension we enter has a hundred different details to tickle the eye. But it's also a failure of dramatic engagement and, especially in its second half, a busy protracted slog. Spielberg can barely sit still long enough to grapple with the political implications of his futuristic premise, and his sensibility is too sanitized to explore the darker, more provocative aspects of 24/7 online addiction. None of the script's lame wisecracks made me roll my eyes as hard as the ending, with its halfhearted message that we all need to disconnect from our gadgets and connect with each other. Now, there's an idea.

The best thing in the movie, as in a few other Spielberg movies of late, is Mark Rylance, whose solemn, spaced-out line readings are pure pleasure to listen to. Halliday, a populist uber-geek with a touchingly pure soul, may be the benevolent overlord of "Ready Player One," but it takes its cues from Nolan Sorrento, who started out fetching Halliday's coffee and who now happily exploits fan culture for the sake of his own profits. He more or less sums up this movie's crass, cynical spirit.

BIANCULLI: Justin Chang is a film critic at The LA Times.

On Monday's show - the astonishing story of the Siamese twins Chang and Eng who were brought to America in 1829 and exploited and displayed as freaks. Eventually they took charge of their own career, became rich, married two sisters and fathered 21 children. We talk with Yunte Huang about his new book "Inseparable: The Original Siamese Twins And Their Rendezvous With American History." Hope you can join us.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BIANCULLI: FRESH AIR'S executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham, with additional engineering support from Joyce Lieberman and Julian Herzfeld. Our associate producer for digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. For Terry Gross, I'm David Bianculli.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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