DATE May 29, 2001 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
PROGRAM Fresh Air
Interview: Enrique Santos Calderon talks about the effect the drug
trade has on journalism in Colombia
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
A lot has changed in the Colombian cocaine market. The days of Pablo Escobar
and the Medellin cartel are over, but others have taken their place. The US
market for cocaine has leveled off, but the European market has expanded. One
of the things that has stayed the same is that it's very dangerous for the
press in Colombia to report on the drug lords. It's also dangerous to report
on the left- and the right-wing paramilitary groups which are funded by drug
My guest, Enrique Santos Calderon, is editor in chief of the daily El Tiempo.
He and his reporters have been threatened with death by drug lords.
Thirty-four journalists have been killed in Colombia in the past 10 years.
Calderon took over as editor in chief of El Tiempo last year after the former
editor, his cousin Francisco Santos, fled the country because of a death
threat. Ten years earlier, Santos was kidnapped by Escobar's henchmen and
held hostage for eight months. I asked Enrique Santos Calderon if he's afraid
to remain a journalist in Colombia.
Mr. ENRIQUE SANTOS CALDERON (El Tiempo Editor In Chief): To cope with fear
is one of the things that one has to learn when one is a journalist in
Colombia. There's a saying that every person is the owner of his own fear,
the administrator of his own fear. And so one learns to cope with that, to
live with it, every person in his own way. I've been threatened a lot. I've
had to leave the country on two occasions. My house was...
GROSS: Your home was bombed, wasn't it?
Mr. CALDERON: My home was bombed on one occasion. Since 10 years, I go
around in an armored car with bodyguards. It's a very stressful situation.
It's a terrible situation. But one says that man is a creature of habit; and
in a way, you sort of get used to it. You learn to cope with it. You learn
to disregard certain kinds of threats. You learn all kinds of security
measures--different routes, different schedules. In a way, one adapts, but
fear is always there.
GROSS: Can you give us an example of a story that you had to anguish about
before deciding whether to publish or not, because you knew that it would put
journalists at your paper at risk?
Mr. CALDERON: Well, usually what we learned very rapidly is that all the
people, journalists, reporters or investigators, we assigned to cover drug
stories were no bylines; nobody signed any kind of these stories.
After the editor in chief and part owner of Colombia's oldest daily paper, El
Espectador, the second national newspaper after Tiempo, was assassinated by
orders of Pablo Escobar in mid-'80s. Then for the first time the Colombian
press did a thing that has no precedent in the history of Latin-American
journalism--I don't think in the world this ever happened--that all the
papers, big papers, small papers, magazines, TV news programs, radio programs,
got together and decided that we would not compete anymore on these kinds of
stories. That we would pool our resources to investigate the drug cartels, to
investigate where they were, how they infiltrate all the aspects of society,
and we would publish exactly the same story, exactly the same day with the
same layout. The news programs, the TV news programs would publish the same
kind of news program and the radio also.
So it was an incredible reaction of self-defense, and also of going out and
attacking them while defending ourselves through all this kind of collective,
anonymous work, so they couldn't individualize it. They couldn't single out
any paper or any journalists. They had to kill us all or nobody. And in a
way, it worked 'cause they were very disconcerted. They were flabbergasted.
They didn't know how to react. And it was a very emotional and very a
beautiful experience of how we can protect ourselves and stop certain kind off
competition and individual things when our life and our newspapers and our
professions are at stake.
GROSS: So did you do that once or is that a pattern? Do you always do
Mr. CALDERON: Well, we did it...
GROSS: ...on the drug stories now?
Mr. CALDERON: We did it like for three months almost every week, until of
course--I mean, journalism is by nature so competitive and this couldn't last
very much, because I mean we're not made out to work in this fashion. But it
served its purpose in the sense that it was a message to the country; it was a
message to the drug cartels that we would not be intimidated. That we had
means of responding. And then we all went back to doing our things, each in
its own way, in our newspapers and in our TV programs, but it was a very, very
positive and very interesting experience.
GROSS: What kinds of deals do the drug lords or do the armed groups try to
offer you to not publish something?
Mr. CALDERON: Well, it's usually the philosophy of what we call in Spanish
(Spanish spoken), money or lead, intimidation or corruption. And these guys
could--what they couldn't do because most of the media down there is
family-owned, no, it's not public stock. They couldn't buy their way in,
which they did with other industries and other aspects of the economy. And so
that's when they resorted to just to the kidnapping or to assassinations or to
dynamite, attacks and things like that. But what the armed groups now try to
do is they try to offer exclusive interviews with their chiefs.
Anyway, since we have a peace process going on, the Colombian government is
talking with the guerrilla groups. And so that has given them a certain
legitimacy. And if the government talks to them and there's a peace process
going on, then they're interviewable and they try to combine giving interviews
and exclusive visits to their jungle camps and all that. But then if they
don't like what comes out, there might be a problem. And so it makes the
intimidation with the offering of interviews and of special things.
GROSS: So when you're offered an interview or a visit to their camp, will you
accept it knowing that if you publish something they don't like, then there'll
be threats and violence?
Mr. CALDERON: Usually we accept it. And different papers react in different
ways. But as a whole, the Colombia media has been very firm in saying that.
I mean, how to do these interviews, no, they have to be very spontaneous
interviews. They cannot be censored or they cannot be--the rules of the game
cannot be set by the guerrilla chiefs or by the paramilitary chiefs. There's
always a struggle here, a give and take in these things. But I would say that
the journalism in Colombia has managed to impose on them certain rules that if
they're going to be interviewed, they have to accept our rules and not theirs.
And slowly, in a way, I think they're learning.
GROSS: What are some of the most important stories that your newspaper has
Mr. CALDERON: Oh, boy, you put me thinking now. I think one of the--for me
personally, one of the most satisfying experiences has been to save a life.
That was when a missionary of Norwegian origin that worked in the Colombian
jungle near the frontier with Venezuela with the Catatunga Indians(ph), with
the Motilone Indians, a missionary who had worked for many years in this
region, and he was kidnapped by one of the smaller guerrilla groups, the
National Liberation Army, ELN, and was accused of being sort of a CIA foreign
agent that was indoctrinating the Indian tribes with imperialist literature
and those kinds of things. And he was sentenced to death. He was tried in
one of these mock revolutionary courts and sentenced to death. And I had
known him for many years, called Bruce Olson(ph).
And so I was Sunday editor at that time and I decided to launch sort of a
national campaign in my Sunday edition to save this missionary's life, and
appeal to all the Indian tribes in Colombia and to all the anthropology groups
and all the sociologists, that this was the most unjust, arbitrary thing. And
this campaign has a success. It spread like wildfire. And all the Indian
groups started, you know, demonstrating and sending messages to the ELN. And
it became so intense that this group did a thing which it had never done
before, because it's death sentence--they always carried them out--had to
admit and recognize that it had been mistaken and that this spontaneous
popular reaction in favor of Bruce Olson convinced them that he was no
imperialist agent and they set him free. And for me, that was one of the most
exciting things in my career, when Bruce came to the paper with all his Indian
chief friends to say his thanks.
GROSS: The newspaper that you edit, El Tiempo, has been run by your family
since 1913. Are there similar stories from other generations of your family
about having to publish the newspaper under the constant threat of violence
Mr. CALDERON: Unfortunately, Colombia has a long tradition of political
violence. And in the 1940s and 1950s when the two main political parties in
Colombia, the liberals and the conservatives, would practically in a sort of
non-declared civil war, and the conservatives were in power and Tiempo was in
the opposition or Tiempo was burned down by hoards of the conservative party
that were sent by the government. It was burnt down later under the military
dictatorship of the 1950s. It was closed down for a couple of years. So, I
mean, we've had--our family and my father and my grandfather--they've also had
to cope with very difficult moments of tension and of threats and of violence.
GROSS: My guest is Enrique Santos Calderon, the editor in chief of the
Colombian newspaper El Tiempo. More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: My guest Enrique Santos Calderon is the editor in chief of the
Colombian newspaper El Tiempo. We're talking about the difficulty of covering
drug lords because of their death threats against journalists who investigate
How did the armed groups on the left and the right become aligned with the
Mr. CALDERON: The guerrillas sprung up in the 1960s and the influence of the
Cuban revolution and due to problems of poverty of regions of Colombia where
the government didn't function or didn't exist, out of misery, peasants that
were in very difficult conditions; so there were objective social and
economical conditions for the springing up of these groups. But then as the
drug phenomena started in the '70s in the marijuana at the beginning, and the
cocaine and then the heroine and all the consumption in the United States.
And these groups that were already there, that had their own areas of
influence of power where nobody went in, where they had their own small
private armies, they realized that this was a source of income that was
incredible. You have to understand that drugs have no ideology.
So the drug economy moves on the left, moves on the right, in the south of the
country where all the coca plantations are and they're controlled by the
guerrilla movements. It has a leftist face. In the north of the country in
all the cattle lands where the paramilitary groups move and they're also
financed by narcos, it has like a rightist face. So you might call them
leftists and rightists, but I think that all these armed groups have lost most
of their ideological values and are now just--it's a way of living and a way
of intimidating, of having power--of having power over certain parts of the
country. They have the armed power; they have the economic power; and they've
lost all their political credibility, in my way of seeing it.
GROSS: I'm wondering if any of the armed leaders on either side, on the right
or the left, have become drug addicts as a result of becoming so dependent on
the drug economy?
Mr. CALDERON: As a general rule, no, they tend to be very strict in that.
For example, on the guerrilla part and on the product part, drug consumption
is totally forbidden. I mean, it's punishable by death, people are shot.
Drug trafficking is completely outlawed in their zones of influence and
control. They see it sort of more as a business. They're businessmen in that
sense, but they don't tolerate or promote or accept drug consumption within
their own ranks. I mean, phenomenons have occurred, but, I mean, as an
exception to the rule.
GROSS: Colombia has been called the kidnap capital of the world. And, you
know, often journalists are kidnapped, other people throughout Colombia are
kidnapped. I think you said there's one kidnapping every four hours. What's
the point of that? Is it for ransom money? Is it to make a point and to
terrorize the population? All of the above?
Mr. CALDERON: No, it's totally ransom. It's totally economic. It's become
an industry. Kidnapping is an industry down there. You have all levels of
kidnapping--the big multimillionaire kidnappings, the kidnappings of
middle-class, of lower-class, kidnappings in the poor neighborhoods. The
guerrilla has lately resorted to the most incredible thing, which is called
there the--I don't know how to translate that--(Spanish spoken). It's like on
the road they will stop on a highway or, you know, any national road, all the
cars that they see that are more or less of a good model. They will stop the
inhabitants. They have laptop computers and then the people identify
themselves. And if they more or less have a bank account or something, they
will--there's been massive kidnappings of 40, 50, 60 persons in two hours in a
highway, for example. They've even resorted to kidnapping people in buses,
you know. So they've generated it into really a very massive phenomena which
is tearing our country apart. And when you realize that six to seven people
are kidnapped every day--more than half of the kidnappings in the world take
place in Colombia--then you can more or less imagine what this has come to.
GROSS: Last year, the US Congress authorized $1.3 billion for the region's
war against drugs. What's your impression about how that money is being used
or is going to be used in Colombia?
Mr. CALDERON: Well, it's a big debate, big controversy on this called Plan
Colombia, this massive aid program for Colombia, which has a very strong
emphasis on the military aspect and on the aerial eradication, of spraying of
the coca fields.
But my personal view is that we need military aid in the sense that the
Colombian state has not only the right, but the obligation to defend itself
against all these private armies that are practically overwhelming the
institutions. The armies on the right, the paramilitaries on the left of the
guerrillas--they are very well-armed. They have no scruple of any kind. They
are financed by the drug money, by the kidnappings. They respect absolutely
no human right. And the Colombian government has to modernize and
professionalize its armed forces. It needs more technical equipment. It
needs more helicopters. It needs surveillances. So if democracy is going to
prevail in Colombia, we need this kind of aid.
Nevertheless, what worries me is all this emphasis on anti-drug thinking of
this aid, like. It's the old obsession of the United States with Colombia.
They see it all through this prism of war, on drugs, drugs, drugs. And then
they start all this spraying of the coca fields, and if you don't offer all
these peasants an alternative to live, then all you're going to do is push
them into the arms of the paramilitaries or the guerrilla, because eradication
is not accompanied by crop substitution, by alternative development. It just
means that you're taking the livelihood and the way of living of the peasants
and not doing anything in return--then this will be counterproductive in the
sense that it will only make the guerrillas and the paras stronger.
GROSS: The United States is giving a considerable amount of money to help
eradicate coca crops. I'm wondering if you think that the United States is
part of the problem because there's such a big market for the cocaine and
heroine that is being exported.
Mr. CALDERON: I would say it is the problem. I mean, this is the oldest
question: the hen or the egg; supply or demand. But it's evident that what
sustains something is the consumption and the demand for this product. And
you can eradicate them tomorrow, lets say, from Colombia, if Plan Colombia
works miraculously, coca cultivation is eradicated from common territory, the
next state--it will spring up in Bolivia or in Ecuador, in Peru, in Venezuela,
in Brazil, as long as you have a demand. In that sense, the war on drugs is a
war without end, and it's a war that has no solution in the way it's being
carried out now.
GROSS: You have a lot of security protecting you. You have guards. You have
an armored car.
Mr. CALDERON: Mm-hmm.
GROSS: Does any of that ever get in the way of practicing journalism?
Mr. CALDERON: Well, maybe yes; maybe no. I haven't thought of it that way.
I mean, I think of it as a safety measure. But the type of journalism I
practice now, which is basically writing editorials and editing certain kind
of opinion pieces, it doesn't get much in the way. And of course, excessive
security is very repressive of intimacy of private life, even--you feel like a
little bit caged in sometimes, and that might hamper you mentally sometimes.
But these safety measures, I haven't felt that I've limited myself.
When I go out, for example--when I go out to interview or to talk with the
guerrilla leaders--two months ago, I was talking with the chief of the ELN and
I usually go on my own and I--we make like promises to the guys that if I go
and they know I'm going and the security runs on their accounts. So there's
all kinds of arrangements that have to do with security in Colombia.
GROSS: Thank you so much for talking with us.
Mr. CALDERON: OK. It's all right.
GROSS: Enrique Santos Calderon is the editor in chief of the Colombian
newspaper El Tiempo. I'm Terry Gross and this is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: Coming up, growing up in front of the camera, a conversation with
actress Christina Ricci. She made her film debut as Winona Ryder's little
sister in "Mermaids" and went on to star in "The Addams Family," "The Opposite
of Sex," "The Ice Storm" and the new movie "The Man Who Cried."
And Maureen Corrigan reviews "John Henry Days" by Colson Whitehead.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Interview: Christina Ricci discusses her acting career
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
Christina Ricci has a reputation for playing characters that are young,
troubled and kind of kinky. It's the type of character she played in the
drama "The Ice Storm" and in the comedies "The Opposite of Sex" and "Pecker."
Even the child she played in "The Addams Family" and its sequel was gloomy and
cynical. Ricci made her first film, "Mermaids," at the age of nine. She's
now 21. In her new film, "The Man Who Cried," she plays a young Jewish woman
who ends up in France in the early days of World War II after having fled her
village in Russia when it was burned to the ground. She and everyone she
meets has to make moral decisions about how far they're willing to go to
Ricci told me that she welcomed the chance to be in a period film. She says
her character was written with traits a contemporary young woman would be
unlikely to have. I asked her to explain.
Ms. CHRISTINA RICCI (Actress): Suzie's a 20-year-old girl going through
probably some of the hardest things I can imagine a human being going through.
And it seems like this period of time, when almost everyone in Europe was
going through such hardships, they didn't have the luxury of the kind of
pessimism and cynicism that we have today. Today, if you go through something
really difficult, you have the luxury of being sarcastic about it, becoming a
cynical person. And if they paused enough to do that during this time period,
they would not have survived.
So it created character traits in people of this time that were kind of
incredibly optimistic and hopeful. And bad things happened to them and they
just kept going, because they were so hungry for happiness and so driven to
survive and get through all of the horrors that were happening to them.
GROSS: Were there any mannerisms or ways of speaking that you have that you
had to consciously not use?
Ms. RICCI: No. The only thing that consciously I had to do was of course I'm
supposed to have a British accent, so that was something that I learned with a
coach and I had a coach on set. And that was difficult only in that I'm a
very unconscious actress. I don't really like to think about what I'm doing
while I'm doing it, so it was difficult for me to all of a sudden have to
think about every single syllable as it was coming out of my mouth.
GROSS: Most of your time on camera, you're really watching and reacting and
Ms. RICCI: Yeah, that was lucky. I did not have to speak that often.
GROSS: Let's talk about your early work. You were discovered by a casting
agent, I believe, when you were in a school play?
Ms. RICCI: It wasn't a casting agent. It was one of the other kid's
mothers, and she was a critic, a theater and film critic for a local newspaper
in New Jersey. But her son had been doing commercials for years, and so she
suggested to my parents that they might want to get me started in it as well.
GROSS: And what was your parents' reaction to that?
Ms. RICCI: My mother did not want me to have anything to do with it.
Apparently similar offers had been made to all of my older siblings, and she
had always said no. But because my siblings were older, they kind of had the
presence of mind to tell her that--to kind of bully her into letting me
GROSS: Oh, because they'd been through it once and this time they wanted you
to make up your mind.
Ms. RICCI: Well, they didn't realize that they had. Apparently no one had
ever told them. But now--I mean, my oldest brother's eight years older than
me, so he was like 16 and decided that I should have the right, as an
eight-year-old, to, you know, audition for things if I wanted to.
GROSS: And did your mother offer you that right?
Ms. RICCI: Oh, yeah, she was bullied into it, pretty much.
GROSS: And you wanted to do it?
Ms. RICCI: Yeah. I mean, I thought it was a good idea. Basically it was
explained to me, you know, in very childish terms like `Oh, you could be on
TV.' I was like, `Yeah. Who doesn't want to be on TV?'
GROSS: So did you get commercials at first?
Ms. RICCI: Yeah. I did about 10 commercials over like a year-and-a-half-long
period, and then I got "Mermaids."
GROSS: What were the commercials for?
Ms. RICCI: Cereal, dolls, curtains, stuff like that.
GROSS: So how did you go from commercials to your first movie, "Mermaids"?
Ms. RICCI: When you're a kid, they kind of--they're really impressed when you
can read properly. So they don't really think that you have any specific
talent. So you're sent on everything--print work, commercial work, movies,
television, musicals, theater. So I went on every kind of audition there was,
and eventually I just started getting movies.
GROSS: How did you feel as a kid being judged by strangers all of the time?
Ms. RICCI: It didn't bother me when I was kid at all.
GROSS: It bothers you now?
Ms. RICCI: Well, no, it bothered me when I became a teen-ager. Because I
think, you know, I was a teen-ager, so everything bothered me. But, you know,
when I was a kid, it all made perfect sense, like, `Yeah, they're seeing lots
of people to see, you know, who fits the best in their film.' And my mother
was really good. She kind of explained to me that it had very little to do
with me personally and I should always remember that. So I kind of always
GROSS: Was she always with you on the set when you were a child?
Ms. RICCI: Yeah, she was. She was also probably one of the best things I
had that helped me be successful as a child. Because when you're a kid, your
mother is with you at all times, so one of the main things producers look at
when they're looking to hire a child is what the mother's like. Because
they're going to have to deal with that mother on set all the time. And my
mom was so great and so easy to work with and level headed, and just sort of
more helpful to a film production than hurtful, the way a lot of these crazy
mothers are, that I always got a great report and she always got a great
report, and I was hired more because of her.
GROSS: Christina Ricci is my guest, and she's now starring in the new movie
"The Man Who Cried." How'd you get the part in "Addams Family"?
Ms. RICCI: Actually, I almost didn't go on that audition. I was going that
day on like my fourth audition for a television movie, I think it was, and I
had this big dramatic scene where I had to cry and everything. And I went
into that audition and I was just so tired afterwards, that my mom said, `OK,
we've got one more audition to go on.' And I was like, `Oh, no, Mom, I just
want to go home. I'm tired.' And she was like, `OK, we can go home if you
want to, but, I mean, it's supposed to be a really big audition.' And it was
on the way to the Port Authority in New York, so I was kind of like, `OK,
fine, we'll go.'
And I just went in and auditioned and like a couple of months later, we got a
call from some people who had worked on "Mermaids," and they said that they
were working on "The Addams Family" and they had just been in a production
meeting in which they were discussing casting. And they said that they had
worked with me and my mother and had told the producers and everything how
easy we were to work with and how great we were. And then like a week after
they called, we were called in for a call back, and I went in for my call back
and then found out after that I got the movie.
GROSS: Why don't you describe the character that you play in "The Addams
Ms. RICCI: Well, Wednesday is--she is a morbid, kind of very stoic,
unemotional child, meant to be sort of disturbing in her stoicism, I guess.
GROSS: And she's going to see the dark side of everything.
Ms. RICCI: Yeah. I think more so she just doesn't see the bright side of
GROSS: Six of one. OK, let's hear a scene from the sequel "Addams Family
Values." And this is a scene where, you know, you've been sent to summer camp
for rich kids, and you're in one of those the Pilgrims meet the Indians kind
Ms. RICCI: Yeah.
GROSS: And, you know, you're playing a Native American. And one of the rich
girls in the camp is playing the Pilgrim, and she's welcoming you and the
other Native Americans to the Pilgrims' dinner.
(Soundbite of "Addams Family Values")
Unidentified Actress #1: Welcome to our table, our new primitive friends.
Ms. RICCI (As Wednesday Addams): Thank you, Sarah Miller(ph)? You're the
most beautiful person I've ever seen. Your hair is the color of the sun.
Your skin is like fresh milk. And everyone loves you.
Unidentified Actress #1: Stop. Sit.
Ms. RICCI: Wait.
Unidentified Actress #1: What?
Ms. RICCI: We cannot break bread with you.
Unidentified Actress #1: Huh? Becky, what's going on?
Unidentified Actress #2: Wednesday!
Ms. RICCI: You have taken the land which is rightfully ours. Years from
now, my people will be forced to live in mobile homes on reservations. Your
people will wear cardigans and drink high balls. We will sell our bracelets
by the roadsides. You will play golf and enjoy hot hors d'oeuvre. My people
will have pain and degradation. Your people will have stick shifts. The gods
of my tribe have spoken. They have said, `Do not trust the Pilgrims,
especially Sarah Miller.'
Unidentified Actress #1: Gary, she's changing the words.
Ms. RICCI: And for all these reasons, I have decided to scalp you and burn
your village to the ground.
(End of soundbite)
GROSS: Christina Ricci, how close was your part in "Addams Family" and
"Addams Family Values" to your sensibility?
Ms. RICCI: Sensibility might have been close, just in terms of I think that
Charles Addams probably had quite a bit--I mean, there's quite a bit of irony
in the creation of these characters, especially in the little girl that
refuses to show any emotion whatsoever and just behaves completely opposite
from, you know, our little cute stereotype of a young girl. But I was sort
of--I've always been sort of a typical girly girl. I played soccer up through
high school and shopped at The Gap and did the Cindy Crawford workout video
and, you know, just with a little bit more sarcasm and cynicism than, I guess,
a lot of kids my age had. But I think that was just more from being around
older people my whole life. As I said, my oldest brother is eight years older
than me, so, you know, I was always around older kids. So I think I adopted,
at a very early age, a much more sarcastic attitude and sense of humor than a
lot of girls my age had.
GROSS: My guest is Christina Ricci. Her new film is called "The Man Who
Cried." More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: My guest is Christina Ricci. She made her film debut at the age of
nine in "Mermaids." Her other films include "The Addams Family," "The
Opposite of Sex," "The Ice Storm" and "Pecker." She stars in the new movie
"The Man Who Cried."
You know like most teen-agers really worry about whether they're going to be
popular and whether they're hip or not, since you were making movies when you
were a teen-ager, is that something that you didn't have to worry about?
Ms. RICCI: Very much so.
GROSS: Because what could be hipper than making movies?
Ms. RICCI: Yeah, very much. I mean, basically, because I was making movies
and I never wanted anyone to dislike me because of it, or feel jealous, I
always sort of tried to be the least conspicuous. I never competed when I was
in school for anything. I never wanted to be better than anyone in my high
school or anything. I never wanted to be the most popular, because I felt
like I already had enough reasons for girls to be jealous of me; I didn't want
to create other ones. And I also never had, like, one clique of friends,
because, I guess, I wasn't interested in social dominance. I floated in and
out of a lot of different groups of people, which was really great. And yeah,
it definitely helped to take a lot of pressure off I think a lot of high
school kids feel. I didn't have that kind of pressure, because I had
something else that also was such a source of confidence for me. I knew I was
good at something. I knew that I had a place somewhere, a very specific
place. I knew my value. So it took a lot of the insecurity out of my high
school life that I think most kids feel.
GROSS: Another thing that I think a lot of kids find really important,
particularly in high school, and maybe in college, too, is to dress in such a
way that you're making a statement about who you are.
Ms. RICCI: Yeah. Well, I still like to do that. I still try to dress like a
punk rocker, even though it was like, `Yeah, you're punk. You're making
"Casper."' So, I mean, it's pretty silly, but I still try to.
GROSS: Let me get to your movie "The Opposite of Sex."
Ms. RICCI: OK.
GROSS: This is a great film. And it's a very warped movie for your first
real adult film. You play a 15-year-old who's really angry at the world,
including your half brother. And because you're in such a bad mood about the
whole world, you steal away his gay boyfriend and convince the boyfriend to
have sex with you. Let's hear this scene in which you're first trying to
convince your brother's boyfriend that he shouldn't be gay and that, you know,
he should try things with you. You're both at the swimming pool. He's just
gotten out of the water.
(Soundbite from "The Opposite of Sex")
Ms. RICCI: He's, like, what, 20 years older than you?
Unidentified Actor: He's nine, sometimes 10, depending on the month.
Ms. RICCI: Have you always been a mouth?
Unidentified Actor: Yeah, I guess.
Ms. RICCI: You've never slept with a girl.
Unidentified Actor: Nope. Never came up.
Ms. RICCI: So to speak, right?
Unidentified Actor: Well, it's just not for me.
Ms. RICCI: How would you know if you've never tried it?
Unidentified Actor: Well, I never tried communism, but I know I wouldn't
like that. It's the same thing--or grits.
Ms. RICCI: Have you ever slept with a black person?
Unidentified Actor: No, I don't think so.
Ms. RICCI: Because you know you wouldn't like it.
Unidentified Actor: No. I don't know that. I mean...
Ms. RICCI: So even though you've never tried either, you'd have sex with a
black person but not with me. God, it's like reverse discrimination, quotas.
Unidentified Actor: Is it?
Ms. RICCI: Yeah. It's prejudice.
(End of soundbite)
GROSS: Did your family have any concerns about you playing this part because
of all the assertive sex in it?
Ms. RICCI: No, actually.
GROSS: And you do play a pretty kinky character.
Ms. RICCI: Well, I play a character--I play a 16-year-old who has more sex
than I think people really want to know their kids have. I also play--this
character's also--it's insinuated that she's sexually abused as a child and
she has an alcoholic mother, so, you know, it's not very strange sort of
acting out for sort of an abused teen. My mother read the--and, also, the
way it's presented is really humorous. It's taking things...
GROSS: It's very funny. Yeah.
Ms. RICCI: The thing is, like, with this movie, it's taken things that can
be really painful and laughing at them, which is the way a lot of people deal
with pain in their lives. And my mother read the script before I did and she
was the one who said, `Oh, Christina, you have to read this. It's exactly
your sense of humor. You'll love it.' So my parents had no problem. My
mother knew that I was an intelligent person who wouldn't be--and strong
enough in my own, like, mental state that playing a character like this
wouldn't make me be this character, and because I played a character like this
it didn't mean that I was this character before.
GROSS: Now I think your father was a therapist who did a lot of primal
Ms. RICCI: Mm-hmm.
GROSS: Did he encourage you to always introspect about your emotions and
think about your emotions?
Ms. RICCI: No. I'm very much the other way. I don't like talking about my
emotions on sets. Like, I don't really like rehearsing because it means we're
gonna talk about imaginary people's emotions. And that always--I think it's
something left over from being a teen-ager. Like, that always irritated me.
So, yeah--no, I actually have the other thing where I'm very sort of against
discussing my emotions.
GROSS: And did you ever overhear any of the primal scream therapy that your
father was doing?
Ms. RICCI: Yeah, it used to--he tried to soundproof the basement, but he
didn't really succeed and it used to come up through a vent into my bedroom.
But, I mean, they were screaming, so it wouldn't have been very hard to
GROSS: How old were you when he was doing that?
Ms. RICCI: I was--oh, God, I think it--somewhere between eight and 10.
GROSS: Did it scare you to hear his patients screaming?
Ms. RICCI: No. By that age I already had a pretty good sense of the
ridiculous and I actually thought it was hysterically funny. I mean, I
just--when I think about the memory, I just--I have this strong sense of me
rolling my eyes and, like, trying to go back to sleep.
GROSS: Did you--were you exposed to many different screams; screams that you
were able to draw on now in your work as an actress, if screaming is required?
Ms. RICCI: No, not really. They always kind of screamed the same way, like
that forced `I'm screaming because I've been told to' kind of scream...
Ms. RICCI: ...which, it's a little odd.
GROSS: Christina Ricci is my guest.
One of the things you're doing now is that you have your own production
Ms. RICCI: Mm-hmm.
GROSS: Are there certain kind of roles that you feel you need to produce the
movie in order to get or, you know, do you think there's a shortage of movies
that you're interested in? I guess I'm wondering why you feel the need to be
a producer now?
Ms. RICCI: Well, I've always loved movies, and I've been, you know, acting
in movies for 12 years. So I think that it was a sort of natural progression
for me to start to want to be more involved in actually making movies. And
then, you know, I came across a lot of scripts that needed help getting put
together, and sort of established this production company so that I would have
a legal title under which to kind of get these movies made. I think people
just look in the wrong places. They're looking to already established writers
and already established directors, when the most interesting stuff is coming
from people who've never directed a film in their lives. And from that, well,
there's so much excellent material.
GROSS: Well, how do people who started off as child stars end up having
really serious emotional problems, financial problems? They're in support
groups, you know, with the other former child stars. You see just see these
awful features on them.
Ms. RICCI: The child star support groups. That's something I'd like to see.
GROSS: Yeah. It seems like you've gone through this pretty well, though,
that, you know, your parents didn't embezzle your own money and, you know, you
weren't, like, terribly mistreated. You're not an emotional cripple. You...
Ms. RICCI: No. I've always has a very good sense of humor. I think that's
probably the best thing. Even when I was a little kid, like, I never took
anything that seriously. I always thought everything warranted a bit of
laughter. So I never really felt stress, and I never felt like any of this
really mattered. I mean, I came from a world where people were, you know,
lawyers or, you know, mechanics. They worked real jobs in a real town. So
acting, to me, was something I got to do. It was like a privilege. It was
something that I was lucky that I was doing it. And it may last forever. It
may have lasted only two months. So I wasn't about to take something that, to
me, seemed so fantasy-like serious. So I think that's why it never caused any
problems for me was 'cause it never seemed real to begin with.
GROSS: Well, Christina Ricci, I want to thank you so much for talking with
Ms. RICCI: Thank you.
GROSS: Christina Ricci is starring in the new film "The Man Who Cried."
Coming up, Maureen Corrigan reviews Colson Whitehead's new novel, "John Henry
Days." This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
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Review: Colson Whitehead's new book "John Henry Days"
TERRY GROSS, host:
With his novel "The Intuitionist," Colson Whitehead made the kind of literary
debut that most writers wouldn't even dare to dream of. Critics hailed
Whitehead's novel as magical, groundbreaking and starkly original. His second
novel, "John Henry Days," has just came out. Book critic Maureen Corrigan
says it's good but "The Intuitionist" is a hard act to follow.
MAUREEN CORRIGAN reporting:
Here's a literary puzzler for you. Are second novels ever as good as firsts?
The only examples I can think of at the moment are from the 19th century, when
publishers were more nurturing of developing talent. For instance, Dickens'
"Oliver Twist" made more of a splash than his inaugural novel, "The Pickwick
Papers," and George Eliot's "Adam Bede" outsold her first novel, the
snoozily entitled "Scenes of Clerical Life." But in these tough times for
literary novels, there's so much economic pressure to follow up quickly on a
successful debut that lots of authors' second books feel rushed, halfway
hatched. It's third novels that really determine whether or not writers are
one-hit wonders. And, by the way, there's nothing wrong with one-hit wonders.
Emily Bronte and Margaret Mitchell are in that distinguished category.
So let's reserve the grand critical pronouncements until Colson Whitehead's
third novel. Because, predictably, while his just-published second book,
"John Henry Days," is fine, it's nowhere near as magnificent as his first,
"The Intuitionist." What a wonder of a story that was. A sui generis tale
about race and elevator maintenance that borrowed from the sci-fi and
detective fiction traditions, but somehow wasn't of them. The only flaw with
"The Intuitionist" was its ending. It sort of just trailed off. And that's
where "John Henry Days" picks up.
This is a novel that has almost everything--brilliant style, humor, social
commentary; everything except a plot. Thus, it's an interesting book, rather
than an incredible one. Whitehead, by turns, assumes the voices of the folk
hero John Henry and the singer and actor Paul Robeson, as well as a crackhead,
a Tin Pan Alley songsmith and post office bureaucrats who've just attended a
workshop called The Don't Be a Hero Urban Readiness and Preparedness Seminar.
He does riffs here on the culture of celebrity, the death of the '60s and
black-on-black prejudice. In fact, a long riff he does on the sly purpose of
hotel blackout curtains should be laminated and displayed in the Literary Riff
Hall of Fame.
But a novelist has to build up an awful lot of good will to get by on
impersonations and riffs, and Whitehead doesn't have those kinds of critical
creds hoarded up just yet. The anti-hero and primary voice of "John Henry
Days" is named J. Sutter. He's a young, black freelance journalist, a member
of an army of mooching mercenaries who'll cover just about any publicity event
to nab the free food and T-shirts. Sutter has traveled to what he dismisses
as a smudge town named Talcott in West Virginia, where the US Postal Service
has decided to unveil its new folk hero stamp series.
Why Talcott? It's the home of the legendary black railroad worker John Henry,
a man of superhuman strength who wielded his hammer in a famous race against a
steam drill and won, only to die immediately afterwards of exhaustion.
Talcott is hosting a John Henry Days Festival, and Sutter has shown up with
his fellow bottom feeders to report the story. They amuse themselves by
trying out different puff piece pegs--John Henry as a defiant alternative to
the figure of the black man castrated by American society; John Henry as a
proud worker resisting the dehumanization of the Industrial Age.
Whitehead's novel tries out different pegs, too, but commits to none. In
fact, almost everyone in and everything about this book is so disengaged, it's
hard for a reader not to just wander away. When a minor character goes postal
at the end of the novel, I felt perversely grateful that at least someone felt
strongly enough about something to pop off.
Whitehead has an affinity for cramped Kafkaesque landscapes and predicaments.
In "The Intuitionist," the mystery plot tethered his book to a narrative and
rescued it from the weightlessness of self referentiality. In the plotless
"John Henry Days," all that's solid about the writing itself melts into air.
GROSS: Maureen Corrigan teaches literature at Georgetown University. She
reviewed "John Henry Days" by Colson Whitehead.
GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.
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