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Can The iPad Or The Kindle Save Book Publishers?

E-books are rapidly gaining market share, and publishing companies are going through changes that parallel the music business. New Yorker writer Ken Auletta explains how the transition from paper to screen is changing the way we choose, buy and read books — and what the changes mean for publishers and authors.

21:26

Other segments from the episode on April 27, 2010

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, April 27, 2010: Interview with Ken Auletta; Interview with Oliver Platt.

Transcript

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Can The iPad Or The Kindle Save Book Publishers?

TERRY GROSS, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

For those of us who still read books, we have the options of reading ebooks if
we're willing to pay the money for a reading device. We're going to talk about
how ebooks are changing the publishing industry. My guest, Ken Auletta, wrote
an article about ebooks called "Publish or Perish" in the August 26 edition of
The New Yorker. He writes the magazine's series Annals of Communications and is
the author of the book "Googled," about how Google has changed the world.

Auletta says that although ebooks account for only an estimated three to five
percent of the book market, their sales increased 177 percent last year. At the
end of last year, Amazon, which produces the reading device the Kindle,
accounted for about 80 percent of electronic book sales.

The landscape is changing with Apple's recent release of the iPad. Unlike the
Kindle, which is a dedicated reading device, the iPad is a multimedia device
that can access Web and email and download video, but the iPad costs more and
is heavier than the Kindle.

Last week, Barnes & Noble announced that it would add software to its
electronic reader, the Nook, that will let users access the Web and play games.
So the field is getting more competitive, and the publishing industry is hoping
that ebook competition will be good for their profits.

Ken Auletta, welcome back to FRESH AIR. Now, in your article you say that in
some publishing circles the iPad has been called the Jesus tablet because it
has the potential to be the savior of the publishing industry, but I think it's
fair to say within the publishing industry, ebooks are seen as part threat,
part savior?

Mr. KEN AULETTA (Writer): Correct. The savior is that it opens up a new market,
potentially – particularly to younger people, their hope. Secondly, what
publishers hoped to do when they belatedly jumped into this, and I think they
were much too late, but nevertheless, they're trying to create multimedia
functionality out of a book.

So they're offering a new kind of book in an ebook. It's not just an electronic
book. It's a book that allows you to go to an archive, to access things in a
multimedia dimension. So their hope is that they can actually charge more for
that book and open up a new revenue stream.

It is also seen as a savior in that by the iPad coming into the market, it
gives the publishers leverage over Amazon, and they were afraid that Amazon,
with an 80 percent market share of ebooks, would basically continue to lower
prices and basically have them over a barrel, and now they feel they've
regained some leverage and regained leverage over their ability to price books.

A problem for publishers and not a savior, in that as ebooks expand
exponentially and expected one day to reach 25 to 40 percent of all books
published, what does this do to bookstores?

Already independent bookstores are down to 10 percent of all the bookstores and
bookselling places, and the problem with that is that independent bookstores,
with a staff of people who you tend to know, you tend to have gone to that
store, they are people who really are noted for reading many books and for
spotting that first-time novel, that non-fiction book by a new author, and that
word of mouth and their recommendations have helped spur sales for years. And
the worry is: What replaces that? Because a bookstore, it's very hard to see
how a bookstore, which is selling a book, let's say, for $26, can compete with
an ebook selling for $13.

GROSS: So let's look at the pricing of ebooks and the war that threatened to
break out about the pricing. Amazon had been pricing its books at $9.99, which
is much cheaper than the $20-something price that you're likely to find in a
bookstore for a hardcover book. So let's start with: How had Kindle manage to
price ebooks so low?

Mr. AULETTA: What Kindle was doing was - let's say a book normally selling for
$26 in the store, the publisher sells it to most bookstores or to Amazon for
half that price. Let's say they sold it for $13. What Amazon would do was
subsidize the difference, take a loss of $3 on each of those books and sell it
for 9.99 and hope that they would make up for it by doing two things: one by
selling Kindles – they don't tell you how much profit they make or how many
Kindles sell, but the estimate is about three million Kindles are out there,
and they're making a nice buck on each Kindle.

In addition to that, by gaining market share, and already they were up to 80
percent market share of electronic books, the fear the publishers had is that
Amazon would continue to drop that ebook price from $9.99, lower and lower and
lower, as is the tendency in the online world.

It is done more cheaply, and customers expect lower and lower prices, and
publishers felt that that basically threatened their basic business.

GROSS: Now, a new – with the arrival of the iPad, the new Apple multimedia and
reading device, the pricing system is changing. How is it changing?

Mr. AULETTA: Well, what the publishers got Steve Jobs to agree to is to allow
them to set what's called an agency model, meaning they could basically set the
price.

GROSS: The publisher sets the price.

Mr. AULETTA: Yes, and Steve Jobs will go along with that for at least one year,
and obviously there's a question whether he will continue beyond a year at that
pricing. But that pricing is going to be, instead of $9.99 as Amazon was doing,
it's going to range between 12 and $15, let's say.

And what happened is that Amazon did not want to go along, but five of the six
major publishers, who publish 60 percent of all the hardcover books, squeezed
Amazon, and with the backing of Apple, and with the coming backing of Google –
Google said that they would go along with the so-called agency model as well –
Amazon was forced to surrender and agree to that as well.

GROSS: But Apple has agreed to the agency model for one year. So that means
after a year they could say, ah, it didn't work for us, we're going to change
it. Right?

Mr. AULETTA: Correct, and if you look at what happened in the music business
with Apple and iTunes, the music companies were very upset that Steve Jobs set
the price of a single track or an individual song at 99 cents.

Now, you can make the argument that iTunes in fact has been good for the music
business and that the music companies were really stupid to say you have to buy
the entire CD, you can't buy an individual song, but nevertheless there has
been real friction with not just the music companies but the television
companies with iTunes. Steve Jobs was setting the price, and that upset them as
well.

So is that a model for what's going to happen in the book business a year from
now? It might be.

GROSS: Now, you say that ebooks are basically calling into question the whole
system of how books are priced. What has the system been based on until now,
until the arrival of ebooks?

Mr. AULETTA: Well, what happened was that bookstores are taking a chance on
books, and it used to be you didn't get – you didn't buy books at airport
kiosks, or you didn't buy them at Wal-Marts and price clubs, and you didn't buy
them electronically. You bought them in bookstores, first independent
bookstores, then chains.

During the Depression, in order to get bookstores to take risks on books that
they would stock, the publishers agreed to have a returns policy. That is to
say, if you buy and display my books in your bookstore, any books you don't
sell, you can return to me at no cost to you, the bookstore.

And the problem is that, according to American publishers, roughly 40 percent
of all the books are returned, and that's very expensive for publishers. And
with ebooks there are no returns. And there's no inventory that you have to
stock up and no warehousing and no distribution costs. So it's a much more
efficient system and a much cheaper system to produce a book.

On the other hand, what it does is it threatens the very existence of
bookstores, and that is something that worries the publishers. I mean, you
could argue that the bookstores could, for roughly $100,000, buy a print-on-
demand machine that can print out in a couple minutes any book, but $100,000 is
not something that most - certainly independent - bookstores can afford to do.

GROSS: So publishers I think are also worried that the electronic reading
device manufacturers like Amazon and Apple will start approaching writers
directly and cut out the publishers altogether.

Mr. AULETTA: They're less worried about Apple doing that, since Apple really
isn't selling – you know, they're in the business of selling hardware, and the
iPad, the iPod, et cetera. But Amazon has actually made some deals with authors
- Stephen Covey is one, but others as well - and has actually approached
authors and editors to try and look to hire - not only hire editors to work for
Amazon but also to procure books for them and offering authors a much larger
commission than the commission they get from hardcover publishers.

GROSS: So what do you think the odds are that publishers will actually
eventually be cut out of the equation?

Mr. AULETTA: I think one of the things that happens, Terry, in the online
world, there's always a question, is who is the middleman? Who is the
superfluous middleman that you really don't need? Do you really need
publishers? I mean, if Amazon is going to provide marketing and provide
editing...

GROSS: Are they providing editing?

Mr. AULETTA: Well, what they were moving towards is to hire editors to do that,
yeah, and to actually go out and acquire books. And there's a whole issue now
about who owns the ebook rights for books that were published before ebooks
rights were stipulated in current publishing contracts in the last 10 years.

So those old books, William Faulkners and Norman Mailers, a book published 10,
15 years ago, who owns the electronic rights to them? And can Norman Mailer's
estate go to bypass Random House, which was his publisher, and say, no, you
don't have the rights to that backlist ebook, we're going to sell it to Amazon
or someone else? I mean, there are a lot of others.

So there's a growth of ebook publishing people who say: You don't need a
publisher anymore. Publishers really are cutting – they've cut back their
marketing, and they've cut back their editing costs. And come to us, we'll do
it and we'll give you a larger commission on that, and you'll be happier. And
so that puts publishers in the position of saying we have to prove that we are
providing a service that can't be matched by others.

And you know, the same issue apples to agents. Are they going to become the
middlemen? So I think everyone in this world, when you think about the Internet
and what it does, think about travel agents. Think about real estate agents.
What's the value added that you offer the consumer? That's a basic question.

GROSS: Now, you mentioned the whole question of, if books were written before
ebooks existed, and the contract said nothing about ebooks, who owns the right
to the ebooks? And there's a big story in that world that just broke, which is
that the family of the late writer William Styron has gotten the rights from
his publisher to publish the ebooks themselves, to not do it through the
publisher but to take the rights themselves. What's the significance of that
case?

Mr. AULETTA: Well, Random House, which announced that decision on - releasing
it on Monday - they went to pains to say that this is just a one-time agreement
with the Styron estate. It's not for all of Styron's books, I believe, just for
some.

So presumably, I presume what happened there is they made some kind of
accommodation where we'll let you do it with these books, but these others
we'll retain. I assume that. I'm not certain of that.

But in any case, they went to pains to say – and this is actually a budding
issue between authors and agents on one side and publishers on the other. If
you look at the old book contracts, and there was actually a ruling on this,
earlier in this century, where the court said that if a contract with an author
is silent about rights, be it paperback rights or movie rights or ebook rights
– there were no ebooks at the time – automatically, they declared, that the
rights revert to the author, not to the publisher.

Publishers are asserting that in contracts signed before ebooks were a fact -
in other words, now any book contract talks about ebooks, but earlier contracts
like Styron's did not. And publishers are claiming that that right is theirs.
This will be adjudicated and fought over intensely, because it's – I mean,
obviously if you're an author, if you can get those ebook rights, and if you're
an agent representing that author, if you can get those ebook rights for
yourself, your royalty is going to be much larger than if you have to give the
bulk of it to your publisher. And your argument is that if the contract is
silent about that, as the courts ruled initially against Random House, they're
mine.

And publishers are saying, no, we put in all the sweat, we put in all the work,
we edited it, and they're ours.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Ken Auletta, and we're talking
about ebooks and their impact on the publishing industry, which was the title
of his recent piece in The New Yorker, "Publish or Perish." And Ken Auletta
writes the Annals of Communications series for The New Yorker and is the author
of the book "Googled." Let's take a short break here. Then we'll talk some more
about ebooks and publishing. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Ken Auletta. He writes the Annals
of Communications series for The New Yorker. We're talking about ebooks. His
most recent article, "Publish or Perish," was about how ebooks are affecting
the publishing industry.

Now, you recently published your book about Google and how Google has changed
the world. Google is figuring into the story that we're talking about now, the
story of how ebooks are changing publishing. What's Google's part in all of
this?

Mr. AULETTA: Well, Google initially did what engineers do, which is they said,
you know, hey, wouldn't it be cool, we could actually come up with a system to
digitize all the 20 or so million books ever published, and wouldn't that be
cool? And of course it would be cool, and great for me when - or you - when we
do our searches, to have books included in those searches.

What the engineers at Google didn't think to do was to consult with the
publishers and authors who own the copyrights for those books. So they got a
lawsuit, and ultimately they settled that lawsuit in 2008 and agreed – and this
is a very significant victory for copyright holders – they agreed to pay $125
million to authors and publishers in order to have the right to digitize those
books.

But now what is Google is doing, assuming that the courts approve their
settlement with the publishers and the Authors Guild, what Google hopes to do
is basically to create an online bookstore as well, and compete against Apple
and against Amazon. The publishers welcome that because the more competition,
the more leverage they have.

GROSS: So now that you have several different epublishers putting out books,
what are the odds that you'll be able to download all books on all devices, or
will devices largely be – will the books that you are able to download largely
be controlled by their compatibility with the device you own?

Mr. AULETTA: Oh, you've really touched on an important difference and an issue
going forward. With Apple and with Amazon, you can only download a book on
their devices. What Google is promising when they start their program, assuming
they do this summer, that's their target, they are saying that you can download
our book on any device of your choice.

So it's not a closed system, the way the Amazon Kindle is a closed system or
the iPads, iTunes or iBook is a closed system. And that's going to be an
interesting test, what happens there.

GROSS: But aren't the companies going to have apps that'll enable you to
download the other companies' books on your device?

Mr. AULETTA: Well, you will have apps, which obviously Apple will get a piece
of. Apple is in the app business, and they have – in fact, Amazon has an app on
the iPad. So you can actually order Amazon books on the iPad.

Yes, then you can download it to, say, to your desktop computer or your laptop
computer, but Apple, of course, is making a chunk of change on that.

GROSS: When Apple started iTunes, there was already a culture of free music.
There was a lot of, like, sharing of free music through the Internet, a lot of
sites where you could download free music. The music industry was very upset
about that, and Apple, as far as the music industry was concerned, Apple was
selling stuff cheaply, but at least they were selling it, which was good news
for the industry, compared to the giveaways.

Now, in the book world, there hasn't been that culture of free books. There's
been a culture of giving away newspaper and magazine content for free, but not
books. So is that affecting how the new world of ebooks is being shaped?

Mr. AULETTA: I think you're quite right. Piracy has not been the worry for book
publishers that it has been for others, but the larger point here - if you go
back to when iTunes began in 2003, what it really did was challenge the very
culture of the Internet. The culture of the Internet is a culture that grew up
around the notion that information and entertainment should be free, that the
Internet is free.

What Apple did was introduce the notion that you should pay for content, and in
that sense it was salutary for the music industry but also salutary for anyone
in the content business.

And you see this world of the Internet changing very dramatically. I mean,
Amazon is an online world that says you want to buy a book, you have to pay for
it. That is a very important step in the notion that all people who are
traditional publishers or in the content business are terrified of.

They say, How do we charge for our content on the Internet? How do we avoid
people either pirating it or taking it, thinking that they deserve to have it
for free? So you can make the argument that what's happened is that the digital
world, the Amazons and the Apples, have become pioneers in the notion of
charging for content, and now you see a change taking place because of the
recession of late '07 and '08, where suddenly companies like Google wake up and
realize that, oh my God, we are relying totally on advertising to support and
sustain our business, and advertising has fallen off. We need another revenue
model, another source of revenue.

That is good news for traditional publishers and for people in the traditional
content business because it means that the digital world is moving closer to
them.

GROSS: So how do you read now? Do you read a lot of ebooks? Do you read a lot
of, like, hardcover books? Do you...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. AULETTA: When I go – I have a Kindle. I'm waiting to buy the iPad until the
3G or the faster model comes out in a month or so. When I go on vacation, I
take my Kindle and read on that because it's much lighter. When I say lighter,
I don't mean the three-quarters of a pound with Kindle. I mean instead of
taking five books, I take my Kindle, and they're there and you can download in
60 seconds. I love that.

I actually prefer to read a book in hardcover because I can mark it in a way I
can't in the same efficiency of a Kindle, and it's on my bookshelf, and I can
refer to it as I'm writing. Some years later, I say, wait, wasn't there a Bob
Caro(ph) story about Lyndon Johnson in the Senate that – and I can find it much
more easily if it's on my bookshelf.

The other thing I don't like about the Kindle, which is an advantage I think
the iPad offers, the Kindle doesn't paginate. You don't know what page you're
on. It says you are 52 percent of the way through this book.

But the Apple iPad will actually paginate. So you see you're on Page 10 or 20
or whatever, and that’s an advantage. I mean, I find that more attractive.

GROSS: Well, Ken Auletta, I want to thank you very much for talking with us.

Mr. AULETTA: My pleasure.

GROSS: Ken Auletta article "Publish or Perish" was published in the April 26th
edition of The New Yorker. His latest book is called "Googled." I'm Terry Gross
and this is FRESH AIR.
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Oliver Platt: From 'The West Wing' To 'Please Give'

TERRY GROSS, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I’m Terry Gross. The Tribeca Film Festival is underway in
New York. The new film "Please Give" will have its New York premier at the
festival tonight.

My guest, Oliver Platt, is one of the stars of "Please Give." In the series
"The West Wing," Platt played the White House counsel. He also co-starred in
"Frost/Nixon," "Kinsey" and "Bosworth," and was featured in the TV series
"Bored to Death," "Nip/Tuck" and "Huff."

In "Please Give," Platt plays a husband who's the father of a teenage girl.
Catherine Keener plays his wife, who feels guilty about her affluent lifestyle
and tries to compensate by doing things like giving homeless people or people
she mistakenly thinks are homeless, $20 bills. The couple owns a store in New
York that sells vintage furniture. They buy most of the furniture from people
whose elderly parents have died and want to sell their belongings. The couple
buys cheap, then sells the furniture at high prices, which is contributing to
the wife's guilt.

Here's a scene with Platt and Keener in their store.

(Soundbite of movie, "Please Give")

Ms. CATHERINE KEENER (Actor): (as Kate) I mean who's to say this stuff isn't
valuable?

Mr. OLIVER PLATT (Actor): (as Alex) I can. This stuff is not valuable.

Ms. KEENER: (as Kate) Somebody liked it. I mean in 15 years this chair will be
worth a ton of money because some genius German designer, you know, designed
it.

Mr. PLATT: (as Alex) We're not going to sell any of (bleep).

Ms. KEENER: (as Kate) I already sold two shelves for $1,400.

Mr. PLATT: (as Alex) You did? That's great.

Ms. KEENER: (as Kate) No, it’s not. I don’t feel very good about it.

Mr. PLATT: (as Alex) I don’t understand.

Ms. KEENER: (as Kate) I practically stole from them.

Mr. PLATT: (as Alex) Well then why did you charge them a ton of money?

Ms. KEENER: (as Kate) I wanted to. And I've been feeling really suspicious
lately, Alex, and people have been coming in asking questions.

Mr. PLATT: (as Alex) Like what?

Ms. KEENER: (as Kate) Like where does your stuff come from and how do you get
it?

Mr. PLATT: (as Alex) You know, people are like that. They're just curious.
They're curious about where the stuff comes from.

Ms. KEENER: (as Kate) No. This is different. People who we’ve bought stuff from
are sending in friends or lawyers to find out how much we're selling these
things for.

Mr. PLATT: (as Alex) Hon, your guilt is warping you.

Ms. KEENER: (as Kate) Why isn't it warping you?

Mr. PLATT: (as Alex) It is. Your guilt is warping me.

Ms. KEENER: (as Kate) Mm-hmm.

GROSS: That's my guest, Oliver Platt, with Catherine Keener in a scene from the
new film "Please Give."

Oliver Platt, welcome to FRESH AIR. It's a real pleasure to have you on the
show.

Mr. PLATT: Thank you so much, Terry. The pleasure's mine.

GROSS: And Nicole Holofcener, who wrote and directed "Please Give," was quoted
as saying that she wrote the role with you in mind. Did she tell you exactly
what about you she had in mind when she wrote the part?

Mr. PLATT: I don’t know. I think it's because I have the - it must be my
struggling – my struggling schlub quality.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. PLATT: There's an aspect to Alex where I think he's kind of, you know, he
has a kind of marvelous cluelessness which I think on a certain level allows
him to get away with the things that he does in the movie. Not that he's
actually getting away with them, because I think that he's in the sense of
getting over, because I think that he's actually just as surprised by what
happens to him in the movie as anybody else is.

And if you were to ask him why this has happened, you know, this relationship,
this extracurricular relationship that might or might not occur in the movie
occurs, he wouldn’t necessarily be able to tell you.

GROSS: Right. So getting back to the fact that she - that Nicole Holofcener
said she wrote your part with you in mind - she wanted you to play it - in
spite of that, did she make you audition after she wrote it?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. PLATT: She didn’t. She - we had a delightful cup of coffee at a café in my
neighborhood and...

GROSS: In New York?

Mr. PLATT: Yeah, in New York in the West Village. And she asked me to do it. I
was - I was delighted. Yeah, if only all meetings with directors were like
that.

GROSS: Right. What did she want to know?

Mr. PLATT: It was interesting. I think, and she would tell you this, that it
was the one role in the movie that she wasn’t absolutely sure about a couple of
aspects of. And I think that as a man she was like, you know, how do you
respond to this?

I think it's in particular, it's the through line of how does this
extracurricular friendship take place? And what has to be going on or maybe not
going on in a marriage that is ostensibly a good marriage to make - have
something like that happen? And so we talked about that a lot. And not that we
came up with all kinds of answers, because one of the things that we decided -
there wasn’t necessarily an answer, that it was maybe a mysterious thing.

You know, and it's - which is one of the things that I love so much about the
movie, is I think that this movie has a healthy dose of what really ultimately
compels me about any narrative that, you know, that I want to get involved in,
is there is mystery. And when I say mystery I don’t mean a whodunit kind of
mystery, but a human mystery, human condition mystery. You know, what - that
thing of people kind of stumbling around looking to get made whole, you know,
even if they don’t know that they are.

GROSS: A lot of people know you from your work on "The West Wing" as the White
House counsel. And so I want to play a scene from an episode of "The West
Wing." And this is a scene, you’ve just found out that the president has MS and
has withheld the information for some time, and you’re worried about the legal
implications of this for the president and perhaps for other people on his
staff who might have known and withheld information. So you’re questioning the
people on the staff. And in this scene you're questioning the president's press
secretary, played by Allison Janney, who found out six hours ago that he has
MS.

(Soundbite of TV series, "The West Wing")

Mr. PLATT: (as Oliver Babish) Have you ever lied about the president's health?

Ms. ALLISON JANNEY (Actor): (as C.J. Cregg): Should I have my lawyer here?

Mr. PLATT: (as Oliver Babish): I'm your lawyer.

Ms. JANNEY: (as C.J. Cregg): You’re the president's lawyer.

Mr. PLATT: (as Oliver Babish): I'm the White House counsel, C.J. Have you ever
lied about the president's health?

Ms. JANNEY: (as C.J. Cregg): When did he tell you?

Mr. PLATT: (as Oliver Babish): I'm sorry?

Ms. JANNEY: (as C.J. Cregg): When did the president tell you?

Mr. PLATT: (as Oliver Babish): Six days ago.

Ms. JANNEY: (as C.J. Cregg): And Josh?

Mr. PLATT: (as Oliver Babish): Two days after that.

Ms. JANNEY: (as C.J. Cregg): Tobey?

Mr. PLATT: (as Oliver Babish): Two days before he told me. C.J., have you ever
lied about the president's health?

Ms. JANNEY: (as C.J. Cregg): And Leo he told more than a year ago.

Mr. PLATT: (as Oliver Babish): Yeah.

Ms. JANNEY: (as C.J. Cregg): And I've had this for six hour now. So maybe
giving me some room wouldn’t be totally out of line, you know what I'm saying,
Oliver?

Mr. PLATT: (as Oliver Babish): C.J., I'm going to have to ask you some
questions. The less you can be pissed at the world for no particular reason,
the better I think.

Ms. JANNEY: (as C.J. Cregg): I don’t know you.

Mr. PLATT: (as Oliver Babish): I'm sorry?

Ms. JANNEY: (as C.J. Cregg): I was told to report to you. I don’t know you.
You’ve been here - what?

Mr. PLATT: (as Oliver Babish): Three months.

Ms. JANNEY: (as C.J. Cregg): Three months. So why should I trust you?

Mr. PLATT: (as Oliver Babish): Well, I don’t care if you trust me or not.

Ms. JANNEY: (as C.J. Cregg): Imagine my shock.

Mr. PLATT: (as Oliver Babish): I've got better things to do with my
imagination.

Ms. JANNEY: (as C.J. Cregg): I think this is going really well so far, Oliver.
It's almost hard to believe that four different women have sued you for
divorce.

Mr. PLATT: (as Oliver Babish): Well, you could do that if you want, C.J. I've
been through it a couple of times with Josh and Tobey. But sooner or later
you’re going to have to answer questions.

Ms. JANNEY: (as C.J. Cregg): Either to you or?

Mr. PLATT: (as Oliver Babish): A grand jury.

Ms. JANNEY: (as C.J. Cregg): Compelled by?

Mr. PLATT: (as Oliver Babish): A Justice Department subpoena.

Ms. JANNEY: (as C.J. Cregg): Well, I have to tell you, it'll be the first time
that I've been asked out in quite a while...

Mr. PLATT: (as Oliver Babish): It's entirely possible that the president has
committed multiple counts of a federal crime to which you were an accomplice.

Ms. JANNEY: (as C.J. Cregg): That much has sunk in in the last six hours.

Mr. PLATT: (as Oliver Babish): Has it?

Ms. JANNEY: (as C.J. Cregg): Yes.

Mr. PLATT: (as Oliver Babish): So why don’t you knock off the cutie pie crap
and answer the damn question?

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. JANNEY: (as C.J. Cregg): What was the question?

Mr. PLATT: (as Oliver Babish): Have you ever lied about the president's health?
What is your answer?

Ms. JANNEY: (as C.J. Cregg): Many, many times.

GROSS: Great scene from "The West Wing" with my guest, Oliver Platt, along with
Allison Janney. You must've been so happy to get that part on "The West Wing."

Mr. PLATT: You know, it's a funny story about that. I had actually just had my
own television show that I did for NBC unceremoniously ripped off the air after
three episodes, and I was - or four episodes. And I was making a movie...

GROSS: Which show was this?

Mr. PLATT: It was called "Deadline." And I was making a movie in Vancouver and
my manager called me and said Aaron Sorkin wants you to be on "The West Wing."
But I had no - I didn’t want to do it. And I thought well, I've got to read it
so that I can call Aaron up. And then I read it, you know, and I was - and that
kind of actor thing kicked in, like, you know, well, I'm not going to let
anybody else do this.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. PLATT: You know, the writing was just so spectacular. And you know, that's
the strange texture of life and show business, isn't it? I mean it turned out
to be a complete highlight for me. You know, I did eight episodes of the show
and I just had so much fun. And it kind of restored my belief in television.

GROSS: So what did you do to prepare to play the part of the White House
counsel?

Mr. PLATT: You know, I actually had very, very little time. And, you know,
fortunately, my father was a career diplomat. I grew up in Washington, so I
kind of - I'd been drinking the water all my life, so to speak. And, you know,
the writing of that character was so extraordinary. And it was also - I think -
I pat myself on the back for being smart enough to recognize that it was
actually a different - a very different character in the culture of that show.

You know, the kind of the - the dirty little secret about "The West Wing," what
made it so much fun to watch on a kind of voyeuristic - well, I mean the level
of fantasy, really. So here you had this great man in the White House who's
surrounded by all these marvelous people who were bright and educated and had
their hearts in the right place who were - completely worshipped him and loyal
to him.

And along came this guy who was actually just as loyal, but he was much more
interested in tough love than necessarily - not that they kowtowed, but they
were - they treated him with kid gloves, you know? And here was a guy who
recognized how much trouble this man was potentially in and was extremely
direct with him.

I think whoever played that part, you know, it would've landed because it was -
the character really provided a counterpoint in a way. It cut across the
current of the rest of the personalities in that show. And so all I really
needed to do was to get on the horse and ride, you know? But - and it’s not an
easy show to work on because you have to say all of the words exactly the way
they're written, and which is not, you know, always my forte.

And there's this nice little lady who sits behind the camera - not the script
supervisor - and she would come out and tell you afterwards if you literally
got an A or a Z or a but wrong, and you'd have to do it all again. And, you
know, that Oliver Babish, he was a talkie fellow and there were some big long
speeches that I had to - and I didn’t know, you know. Because when I finally
called Aaron, Aaron said to me, you know – oh, Oliver, just, you know, we're so
thrilled you’re doing this, just make it your own.

And so when somebody says to me make it your own, I thought he meant, oh, I can
kind of like, you know, cross this out or make this more comfortable coming out
of my mouth. That's not what Aaron meant. And, you know, Aaron has every right
to not mean that. He just meant come and, you know, and have a good time and be
you. So I had a little hazing of it went on as I figured out that you had to
say it exactly as it was written and sweat it out.

GROSS: If you’re just joining us, my guest is Oliver Platt. He's starring in
the new movie "Please Give."

Let's take a short break here and then we'll talk some more.

This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guest is Oliver Platt. He stars with Catherine Keener in the new film
"Please Give." When we left off we were talking about his role on "The West
Wing" as White House counsel. Platt says that the series creator and chief
writer, Aaron Sorkin, insisted that actors read every word in the script as
written - no improvisation.

So you said that reading the script word for word isn't your forte. Is that
because of a bad memory or just wanting to make it more comfortable for you to
say?

Mr. PLATT: Television is much more of a writer's medium, and I hadn't done a
lot of television at that time. And I'd done a lot of movies and, you know, and
I came up doing movies in the '80s and the '90s when, you know, movies were
very concept heavy and they were, the script wasn’t always the most important
thing. You know, big huge multimillion dollar deals were made on napkins
because a star had agreed to do some sort of idea and that this writer would do
it and, you know, the writers were often pulling their hair out, being
rewritten by, you know, I don’t know, schlubs like me.

GROSS: Could you give an example of the kind of line that Aaron Sorkin wrote
that you'd maybe either get wrong or slightly rewrite to make it more
comfortable for you and then you had to do it over again exactly as written?

Mr. PLATT: The example I can give you is every single one, you know, because
he's...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. PLATT: ...he's very fastidious, and he has every right to be. And there's
an absolute music and a rhythm to the way he writes. And it was a wonderful
exercise for me as an actor, you know, because God knows, that's what we're
supposed to do. You know, I'd gotten lazier. I'd gotten, you know, the
conditions that I just described to you, it gives you a little bit of a sense
of entitlement and it makes you lazy.

GROSS: Since we were just talking about working on the TV series "The West
Wing," let's stay in the White House for a moment and hear a scene from
"Frost/Nixon." And this about the making of the now famous interviews that
British journalist and talk show host David Frost recorded with President Nixon
after Watergate. And you play Bob Zelnick, a journalist who was helping with
the preparation of the interviews. And this scene is part of the prep. David
Frost is doing a kind of rehearsal with you standing in for Nixon. So you’re
playing the part of Nixon in this little rehearsal that they're doing. The
scene begins with you doing a voiceover.

(Soundbite of movie, "Frost/Nixon")

Mr. PLATT: (as Bob Zelnick) Because I have written about and watched Nixon for
years, I got to play him in our rehearsals. You know, the fellows would throw
me a question and I would try and anticipate what his response might be.

Mr. MATTHEW MACFADYEN (Actor): (as John Birt) Okay, the White House taping
system.

Mr. PLATT: (as Bob Zelnick) Ours is not the first administration to use taping
systems. Lyndon Johnson's White House used them. So did Kennedy.

Mr. MACFADYEN: (as John Birt) Houston planned wire tapping and the alleged
abuses of power.

Mr. PLATT: Well, let me tell you, our administrations were up to far worse.

Mr. MACFADYEN: (as John Birt) Just for fun, your close friend Jack Kennedy.

Mr. PLATT: (as Bob Zelnick) That man, he (bleep) anything thing that moved. He
fixed elections and took us into Vietnam. And the American people, they loved
him for it. Whereas I, Richard Milhous Nixon, worked around the clock in their
service and they hated me.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. PLATT: (as Bob Zelnick) Look. Look, now I'm sweating.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. PLATT: (as Bob Zelnick) Dammit, dammit. And Kennedy's so goddamn handsome
and blue-eyed and women all over him. He (bleep) anything that moved and
everything. Had a go at Checkers once. The poor little bitch was never the
same.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: That's my guest Oliver Platt in a scene from "Frost/Nixon." Now you were
born in 1960. Did Watergate have any impact on you?

Mr. PLATT: You know, it did because we were living - with the start of
Watergate I was living in Washington, actually. And then we were living in
Japan when Nixon resigned. And I remember, very clearly, we were driving out to
the country and the news came over the radio. My parents pulled the car over
and they told us all to listen.

I remember my parents being utterly consumed by the Watergate hearings -
everybody being consumed by the Watergate hearings. And I just remember it
being, you know, I was what - Nixon resigned in '72 - '73? So is that right,
Terry? So I was 12 or 13. And then and, you know, and it was what, several
years...

GROSS: Seventy-four maybe?

Mr. PLATT: Seventy-four? Like I say, I was conscious of my parents being
obsessed by it. I didn’t get interested in politics till I was a little bit
older.

GROSS: Now, your father was a career diplomat. He was an ambassador to
Pakistan, Zambia, the Philippines. What were you doing in Japan?

Mr. PLATT: That was at an earlier point in his career. He wasn’t an ambassador
yet but he was a senior member of the political section of the embassy. And I
was, you know, I was going to school. I was just being an American teenager in
Japan.

GROSS: So what impact do you think Watergate had on your father, since he was,
at that point, representing the Nixon administration?

Mr. PLATT: Well, you know, that's a very interesting question because, you
know, my father actually went on all of those trips with first Secretary Rogers
to China and then with Kissinger to China, and then ultimately with Nixon to
China.

GROSS: Wow.

Mr. PLATT: He actually just published a memoir about it called "China Boys,"
about the opening of China and he really had a remarkable perspective on it. He
literally - he has a home movie, you know, of Nixon getting off the plane and
shaking Zhou Enlai's hand and he's standing literally, you know, 15 yards away
from him when that happened. And so he really, I think my father had
complicated feelings about it.

GROSS: So, when you had to play the part in "Frost/Nixon" of Bob Zelnick and
you sat in for Nixon in this kind of a role play rehearsal of the David Frost
interview, what were you going for when you were doing like an impression of
Nixon?

Mr. PLATT: Well, you know, it was very easy because I unyoked myself from this
aspect. I talked to Ron about it and we said listen, the whole idea is to, you
know, Bob Zelnick's not an actor. You don’t have to be a good Nixon. You know,
you can as a matter fact, the worst Nixon you are the better and, you know,
maybe the funnier. And so I just kind of let loose with whatever I remembered
about, because everybody back in those days, you know, had a Nixon impression.
I mean you couldn’t...

GROSS: Absolutely. Yeah. Absolutely.

Mr. PLATT: ...turn on a like, you'd watch "Rowan and Martin's Laughin" and
everybody was imitating Nixon. Holding up their, you know, their arms and the
peace signs and kind of hunching their shoulders and shaking their jowls, you
know? So we just had fun with it. I didn’t at all study any sort of Nixon. I
just pulled it out of my memory - my perverse memory.

GROSS: So where does acting come in? How did you get interested in acting?

Mr. PLATT: You know, we moved regularly. We moved every two or three years, and
sometimes shorter spans than that. And, you know, it wasn’t always easy being
the new kid. You know, I - after one particularly difficult transition, I
think, when I cam back from Hong Kong, and I came back and I went to quite a
little bit of a Tony school in Washington, D.C. and I, you know, for whatever
reason I was the only new kid and I had a very difficult time. And, but for
whatever reason, I auditioned for the Christmas pageant and I played - I was
cast as the innkeeper who turned Mary, Joseph and the baby Jesus away from the
inn. And I said my line and God knows why, but the place went nuts.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. PLATT: And it must be because I said it inappropriately, because you know,
I don’t think that, you know, the innkeeper turning Mary, Joseph and the baby
Jesus away from the inn is necessarily a hilarious moment.

GROSS: That's right.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. PLATT: But however I said it, I got a big reaction. And, you know, I kind
of, you know, when you are a - I know this sounds so pathetic as I tell the
story, but you pay attention. All of a sudden I was going ooh, you know, I’ll
have a little more of this. You know, when you’re like a friendless loser and
all of a sudden...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. PLATT: ...and all of a sudden, you know, you get a rise out of a group of
people, no matter how inadvertent or wrongheaded, you remember. And so I kept
on auditioning for, I kept on, you know, doing school plays and it became this
instant way, you know, because I kept on moving around, of course, and then it
became kind of instant way to plug into a group. You know, to a subculture, to
a group of friends. It really was a survival mechanism, you know?

GROSS: My guest is Oliver Platt. He stars with Catherine Keener in the new film
"Please Give."

We'll talk more after a break.

This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guest is Oliver Platt and he's starring in the new movie "Please
Give."

Now, let me jump ahead to something pretty recent. You played Nathan Detroit in
a Broadway revival of "Guys and Dolls." This is the role done by Frank Sinatra
in the movie. Had you been in musicals before?

Mr. PLATT: I had been in musicals in high school. But, you know, the high
school musical and the Broadway musical are two completely different beasts. I,
you know, I'd done plays before, you know, in the professional environment and
you’re really worrying about the play and the text, and but with a musical,
there's choreography, there's learning the songs, there's, you know,
quote/unquote "dancing," which I only say quote/unquote because I, you know,
they were very very kind about the demands they put on me for dancing. But
there's just a lot of difference. There's a lot of - and it makes it thrilling,
you know, once you figure how to do it.

You know, I'll never forget like the first time I - we're sitting in these
beautiful rehearsal studios on 42nd Street. It had these huge windows and
you’re kind of looking out over Time Square and Broadway. And the first time,
you know, that I was sitting in the middle of this chorus of singers in the
cast. And the first time we all sang, you know, "Luck Be A Lady." I mean you’re
just sitting there going, oh my god. I can't believe I'm getting paid to do
this, you know.

GROSS: So sadly, this Broadway revival of "Guys and Dolls" that you were in did
not get great reviews and it closed in a few months. Was that kind of
heartbreaking for you?

Mr. PLATT: You know, it wasn’t easy but we got to do it for a while. And, you
know, when the show wasn’t well received we were all disappointed and your
first, you know, your first response is oh god, I wish this would just go away.
But then when it didn’t you settled into it and, you know, it's "Guys and
Dolls," and people would come and despite what the critics said, they would
have a ball.

And, you know, I don’t know how to describe it. You know, there's something
about working in that environment that is absolutely magic. You know, I'd run
off stage right. I'd have to make an exit stage left in 47 seconds. You run
down the stairs, you know, three sweaty dancing girls, you know, in their
hotbox...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. PLATT: ...outfits who would pass you, you know, giggling on the way up the
stairs. You take a right, you pass the wig room. You look in the wig room,
there's a guy dressed up in a pin stripped like trying to put the moves on one
of the hairdressers.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. PLATT: You know, you keep - you’re trying to follow this little yellow
lone. You hear the washing machines humming, you know, because they're already
doing the clothes, then you pass like the trap room. There's a guy sitting in
front of a glowing monitor pressing button because something isn't functioning.

You finally get to the stairs. You’re ready to go up and then like Benny
Southstreet, the Nicely-Nicely, come barreling down the stairs, you know, like
laughing about something that just went wrong on stage. And you barrel up the
stairs and then you see the security guard and he's watching the Yankee game.
You know, he's lit by the glow of the Yankee game. He's got this earpiece in
but he's drooling but he's asleep and he's perfectly lit by little spotlight
above.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. PLATT: And then you rush back on stage and then the whole time, you’re
listening to this gorgeous Frank Loesser music. And once again you go; I can't
believe I'm getting paid to do this.

GROSS: You know, I especially noticed in your new movie "Please Give," how tall
you are. You kind of towering over the actress who plays your daughter and you
tower over Catherine Keener. You’re a big man.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. PLATT: Well, thank you.

GROSS: How do you feel like you use your size in different performances?

Mr. PLATT: You know, that's a really interesting question. You know, sometimes
it need to be used and sometimes it wants to be not used, you know. And the
great thing about film is that they can make you as short or tall as they want,
you know, by putting other actors on boxes or putting you in a ditch. You know,
I have to say the honest answer is I don’t think about it too much, you know. I
think about it if I need it and then I realize that it’s just there. You know,
if I have to be imposing I just, you know, it's talk softly and carry a big
stick. I mean I kind of, you are the big stick, you know, what I mean if you
have that size.

GROSS: So what's a role where you’ve used it to be imposing? "West Wing?"

Mr. PLATT: Yeah. Maybe Oliver Babish.

GROSS: Yeah.

Mr. PLATT: Since we’ve been talking about a little a bit.

GROSS: Uh-huh.

Mr. PLATT: And he was a very imposing character.

GROSS: Now how do you think your size affects the roles that you’re cast in?

Mr. PLATT: A lot of directors are surprised by my size. They think that I'm
shorter. I think it affects it maybe in secondarily. But it's not like people
say let’s get that guy. He's so tall. People are almost always surprised by it.

GROSS: What about being like a little husky?

Mr. PLATT: I think that, you know, I don’t know, I wonder about that endlessly.
I think that something it keeps me away from certain roles. I think it gets me
other roles. In the end it's probably a wash, but it's just it's what I am.

GROSS: Well, Oliver Platt, I wish you good look with your new movie and your
new TV series. And I really want to thank you for talking with us.

Mr. PLATT: It's my pleasure, Terry. Thank you.

GROSS: Oliver Platt stars with Catherine Keener in the new film "Please Give."
It has its New York premier tonight at the Tribeca Film Festival and opens
Friday in New York and L.A.

You can see clips from "Please Give" on our website freshair.npr.org where you
can also download Podcasts of our show.

(Soundbite of music)

I'm Terry Gross.

(Soundbite of music)
..COST:
$00.00
..INDX:
126133651

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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