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Ed Helms: In Scranton Or 'Cedar Rapids,' He's Plucky

Ed Helms plays a paper pusher on The Office and an insurance salesman in the new comedy Cedar Rapids — but on Thursday's Fresh Air, he plays the banjo. With his band The Lonesome Trio, he joins Terry Gross for an in-studio performance and a chat about his latest film.

22:05

Other segments from the episode on February 10, 2011

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, February 10, 2011: Interview with Ed Helms; Interview with Vidal Sassoon.

Transcript

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Ed Helms: In Scranton Or 'Cedar Rapids,' He's Plucky

TERRY GROSS, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

My guest, Ed Helms, got his start as a correspondent on "The Daily
Show." On the NBC series "The Office," he plays Andy Bernard, a paper
and printer salesman who isn't very good at selling or at keeping a
girlfriend. Andy exudes an uncomfortable mix of arrogance and
insecurity.

Ed Helms was one of the stars of the hit film "The Hangover," and now he
stars in the new film comedy "Cedar Rapids," as a small-town insurance
agent who's sent to a regional conference in what, to him, is a really
big city, Cedar Rapids.

At the conference, his naivete gets him into awkward situations
involving alcohol, drugs, a married woman and a prostitute; and he
learns that the insurance company that prides itself on Christian values
doesn't practice what it preaches.

In the movie "Cedar Rapids," as in "The Hangover" and the TV series "The
Office," Ed Helms gets to sing. He usually sings in a comic way. We
asked if he'd be willing to sing for real, and he offered to bring his
band, The Lonesome Trio. We enthusiastically took him up on the offer.

Ed Helms, welcome to FRESH AIR. Welcome to the band. It's such a treat
that you've brought your band with you. So thank you so much for that.
Ed, can I ask you to introduce the band and the first song that you're
going to play?

Mr. ED HELMS (Actor, Musician): Of course, Terry. Ian Riggs is playing
the bass. I'm playing banjo. Jacob Tilove is on mandolin. Together,
we're the Lonesome Trio, and we're joined today by Chris Eldridge on
guitar, who plays with The Punch Brothers.

And we're going to play a great old standard bluegrass tune called
"Please Search Your Heart."

(Soundbite of song, "Please Search Your Heart")

Mr. HELMS: (Singing) Please search your heart, and maybe you'll find a
reason to stay. I'm begging this time. I know I was wrong, but darling,
I've paid. So please search your heart before it's too late.

When you left me, I said that I'd never be blue, that I wouldn't cry if
you found someone new. But this is my plea: Give me one more try. And
please search your heart. Don't tell me goodbye.

When you left me, I said that I'd never be blue and that I wouldn't cry
if you found someone new. But this is my plea: Give me one more try. And
please search your heart. Don't tell me goodbye. Please search your
heart. Don't tell me goodbye.

GROSS: That's fabulous. Thank you so much. And that's Ed Helms and his
band The Lonesome Trio. So it's Ed Helms on guitar; Ian Riggs, bass;
Jacob Tilove, mandolin; with guest guitarist, Chris Eldridge.

Ed Helms, I never would've guessed that you love bluegrass music from
hearing you sing on "The Office" or in "The Hangover." How did you fall
in love with bluegrass?

Mr. HELMS: Well, that is a mystery to me, as well. I don't know where it
started. I just know that - you know, I grew up in Atlanta, Georgia, and
there was some early, I guess, exposure to it, but I also spent summers
up in the Smokey Mountains in North Carolina.

And it just was always a sound that resonated for me and felt like a
connection to these places that meant a lot to me, the mountains of
North Carolina. And I don't know. It always was - it just felt authentic
and something that I gravitated to.

I do think people who love banjo music are cursed in some way.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Because?

Mr. HELMS: Well because most people don't like it, and it's kind of an
obnoxious instrument. But I just get a lot of joy out of it.

GROSS: So Ed, I really want to thank you for bringing your band with
you, and I want to thank the members of the band, who can't actually
hear me because they're not wearing headphones, but...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HELMS: Our pleasure. Thanks for having us.

GROSS: Yeah. So I'm going to let the band leave. But Ed, I'm going to
ask you to stick around, and I want to talk with you about your new film
"Cedar Rapids."

So in "Cedar Rapids," you star as an insurance salesman in a small town,
and you actually believe that insurance agents are really helpful people
who help other people put their lives together after catastrophe
strikes. You are truly dedicated to this.

But you're also very naive, and you've never left the small town that
you grew up in. And then you're asked to go to a regional conference in
Cedar Rapids, and that's a really big city to your character. And when
he gets to the hotel, he's just amazed. He's never stayed in a hotel.
It's confusing and exotic to him.

And in this scene, he's just checked in. He's walking to his room,
talking to his girlfriend on his cell phone, his older girlfriend,
played by Sigourney Weaver, who used to be his teacher in 12th grade.
And so - is it 12th grade? No, it's when he was 12. He was younger.

Mr. HELMS: Yeah, I think it was seventh grade or something.

GROSS: Seventh grade. So you're walking down the hall, talking on the
cell phone, going to your room, and the hallway that you're walking
through overlooks the hotel swimming pool. So I'm going to play that
scene.

(Soundbite of film, "Cedar Rapids")

Mr. HELMS: (As Tim Lippe) I just did the whole chicken rigmarole, and
I'm on my way to my room.

Ms. SIGOURNEY WEAVER (Actress): (As Macy Vanderhei) Have you seen the
pool yet?

Mr. HELMS: (As Tim) Yeah, it's incredible. I mean, there's like palm
trees and stuff. And the whole place smells like chlorine. It's like I'm
in Barbados or somewhere. Oh, here we are, mi casa, junior suite. Hang
on a second here. Let me figure out how this deal works. The key's like
a stinking credit card.

GROSS: That's Ed Helms, in a scene from his new movie, "Cedar Rapids."
So what did you tap into in yourself to play somebody so naive and so
innocent as this character?

Mr. HELMS: I think for me, it was kind of tapping into a little bit of
idealism, and I don't know, I kind of really loved this character, Tim
Lippe, and want him to succeed, and I don't want him to learn the evils
of the world.

And so, as an actor, it was just fun to tap into a really earnest and
wide-eyed view of the world that, I don't know, that sort of celebrates
optimism and hope in a way, but also a lot of fear.

GROSS: Now, you get to sing a song in "Cedar Rapids." You sing a song in
"The Hangover." You've sung a bunch of times on "The Office." Do you
usually try to have an opportunity to sing when you're in a TV show or a
movie, and do you suggest that that be written in, or is that usually
done on your behalf?

Mr. HELMS: Yeah, it's kind of at the point now where it just seems -
when I get involved with something, people are like: How do we inject a
song into this? And I'm kind of trying to pull back a little bit. But I
do love to sing; music's a huge part of my life.

And I also think that - I've always felt like singing at the wrong time
or the wrong volume or with the wrong energy can be one of the most
hilarious things. So I always sort of use it for comedic effect,
although in "Cedar Rapids," there is a little bit of a poignant turn on
it, I guess, although I still there think there's some smiles going on.

Yeah, it's just, it's something that I love to do and just pepper in
here and there.

GROSS: When you were young and first discovering music, did you sing in
church? Did you go to church, or were you ever in kiddy talent shows, on
or off TV?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HELMS: No. No, I was never in kiddy talent shows, but I was in
church choir from a very young age. I see these pictures in photo albums
of me in this little, white choir robe, and I barely remember those
times. But there's no doubt that I was just sort of being immersed in
music a lot.

And we went to - my family went to a Presbyterian church in Atlanta,
Georgia, and it was mostly conventional hymns and so forth, but I don't
know. It planted a seed of some sort.

GROSS: And at what point did you want to be in a band? And did you want
to be in a rock band?

Mr. HELMS: Well, what - I mean, what adolescent boy doesn't want to be
in a rock band of some sort? I got my first guitar when I was about 12
or 13, and my brother, who was a few years older, was in high school.
And, you know, some of his classmates were in bands that I would see at
school functions and so forth. And I just thought it was the coolest
thing ever.

So yeah, I was always trying to get that going. I didn't have a lot of
luck in high school in bands for some reason.

GROSS: What do you mean by that? You weren't in them, or the bands
didn't do well, or...?

Mr. HELMS: Well, I played with guys here and there, but here's something
that might surprise you, Terry. I get staggering stage fright when I
play music.

GROSS: Really? That does surprise me.

Mr. HELMS: Yeah. I don't know what it is. I've done stand-up comedy for
15 years, and I can step in front of 2,000 people in a college
auditorium and just chat for an hour and a half.

But if you put an instrument in my hand, a guitar or a banjo, I
desperately want to share it with people, but I do oftentimes, I have
some stage fright, and it makes the technical act of playing difficult.
And that's something I've always struggled with. Even at piano recitals
as a kid I would freeze up.

I remember a talent show at my school in junior high, and I played Scott
Joplin's "The Entertainer," and I froze in the middle, and I could not
pick it back up. And I just couldn't find my place, and I just sat there
for a minute and then stood up and bowed and walked off.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: That sounds traumatizing.

Mr. HELMS: I don't know. That was - maybe it was.

GROSS: Okay, but when you were in high school, and you were playing in
bands, I mean, especially like in high school, you're expected in a rock
band to project a certain confidence. What did you wear when you were
onstage because I'm thinking about how your characters dress in your
movie "Cedar Rapids" and on "The Office."

You know, there's such a kind of either business or collegiate look your
characters tend to have. In "The Hangover," you're wearing your sweater
tied across your shoulders. So how did you dress when you were in high
school in rock bands?

Mr. HELMS: Well, I went to a kind of preppy high school. So like a lot
of people, I cringe when I see pictures of my adolescence. But, you
know, I was talking earlier just about how I got into bluegrass music,
and for some reason, I think it does have something to do with this
search for something kind of pure and authentic.

And high school, of course, is the opposite of authenticity. It's
everyone trying to posture and impress each other and be cool, and that
was certainly me. So, at that time, I think my musical interest was sort
of off the beaten path, searching for something a little more real, with
a little more integrity or something.

And that's not to say that bluegrass music has any more authenticity
than anything else, but it does have a roots quality. And I was
listening to a lot of blues and bluegrass at the time, and it - I don't
know. It just felt good.

It felt like something a little more tangible and real than when I'd
show up at school the next day and try to act cool despite the fact that
I was anxious and had a huge crush on that girl and couldn't talk to
her.

GROSS: You know, it's funny. So much of the awkwardness that you're
describing, and the posturing that you're describing about high school
also describes your character, Andy, on "The Office" because he's often
posturing and trying to impress people and playing cool when he's not.

Mr. HELMS: That's an interesting point. And I hadn't made a real clear
connection in that way to my life, but I suppose it's fair to say that
Andy would be me if I didn't learn more about myself and became a little
more self-aware.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HELMS: Andy's sort of the high school version of me in adult form,
perhaps, although, well, there are some differences. I never struggled
with the anger management, for example. But certainly the posturing and
the insecurity, at least I'd like to think that's most of us in high
school.

GROSS: My guest is Ed Helms. He stars in the NBC series "The Office,"
and he stars in the new film comedy, "Cedar Rapids." We'll talk more
after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Ed Helms, and he stars in
the new movie "Cedar Rapids." He's of course also a star of "The
Office," and he starred in "The Hangover," and "Hangover 2" is coming
out over the summer. Do I have that right?

Mr. HELMS: "Hangover 2" comes out Memorial Day, yeah.

GROSS: Great, okay. You know, I love hearing people sing, whether they
sing well or not. If they love music, I love hear them. And I
passionately believe that you should be allowed to sing and enjoy
singing even if you don't sing well.

Nevertheless, there's something so annoying about watching somebody who
thinks that they're a great singer, when they're not, which is something
I think you tried to pick up with on portraying Andy in "The Office"
because there's times when he thinks he's, like, so good, and he's not
and other times when he really is good. Do you know what I mean?

But why is it that there's - because you referred to this earlier. Why
is it that there's something so kind of comical and also annoying when
somebody is trying to be really impressive with their singing when
they're not?

Mr. HELMS: You know, I guess in the case of Andy, he's pretty good. I
think he's a pretty good singer, but he's not nearly as good as he
thinks he is. And like a lot of a cappella singers, he gets a lot more
pleasure out of performing than the audience does out of listening.

And so I don't know. I find that I actually kind of envy Andy's
brashness and boldness as a performer, and he really has no inhibitions.
And he just - he does have a lot of confidence. It may not be well-
founded, but it's there, and that's always fun to watch.

GROSS: It's so much fun hearing you sing in the studio and in TV shows
and in movies. On "The Office," one of my famous "Office" episodes is
the one in which you're in a community theater production of "Sweeney
Todd."

I mean, "Sweeney Todd" is, I think, like the best musical ever. And it's
so great because you're singing a song from it in "The Office," and
somebody comes up to you and says: Did you write that?

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: And you really have to be, like, a god of music theater like
Sondheim in order to have written anything from that show. But anyway,
do you love Broadway songs?

Mr. HELMS: Of course. I mean, I think anyone who says they don't like
Broadway musicals is lying or trying to be too cool for school or
something because they're just unstoppably good songs. Of course, not
all of it's great, and I don't respond to all of it.

But "Les Mis" was a big one when I was in high school, and I've always
just loved that. And "Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat" has
some great, catchy tunes. My sister just bought that for his son, and
he's already learning all the words. He's five years old.

GROSS: Got to get them while they're young. Would you like to an excerpt
of a Broadway song that you've always loved?

Mr. HELMS: It's from "Les Mis."

Mr. HELMS: (Singing) Do you hear the people sing, singing the song of
angry men? It is the music of a people who will not be slaves again.
When the beating of your heart echoes the beating of the drum, there is
a life about to start when tomorrow comes.

GROSS: Oh, marching.

Mr. HELMS: (Singing) Will you join...?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HELMS: No, I'm kidding.

GROSS: Were you ever in a production of that?

Mr. HELMS: No, but that was sort my go-to song either at high school
auditions or when I was at college parties.

GROSS: So you're working with Steve Carell now, on "The Office," and
this is his last season.

Mr. HELMS: Thank God.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: You'll be glad to get rid of him.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Do you have any idea yet how he leaves and also what happens
next? I know you're not going to tell me, but I'm wondering if you know.

Mr. HELMS: Well, that's the first time I've heard that question that
way. And I can tell you honestly I don't know. I know that there are
plans, and I've been told there are a few different plans, and they're
not exactly sure how it's going to execute.

The narrative of the show is incredibly fluid, and it really kind of
changes with whatever is successful in the previous handful of episodes.
So we have four episodes with Will Ferrell coming up, which will be
crazy and fantastic, and then Steve's departure, which will be utterly
heartbreaking but of course very exciting for the rest of us to see
where the show leads.

GROSS: Ed Helms, you've been great. It was great to talk with you. Thank
you so much for joining us.

Mr. HELMS: My pleasure, Terry. Thanks for having me.

GROSS: Ed Helms stars in the new film comedy "Cedar Rapids." You can
hear a second song that he performed with his band in our studio on our
website, freshair.npr.org. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
Here's Ed Helms in the "Sweeney Todd" episode of "The Office."

Mr. HELMS: (Singing) I'll tell you the tale of Sweeny Todd, his skin was
pale and his eye was odd, he'd see the faces of gentlemen who never
thereafter were heard of again.
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Vidal Sassoon: Fresh Hair On 'Fresh Air'

TERRY GROSS, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

The miniskirt was one of the iconic fashions of the '60s. The hairdo
that went with it was a short cut, originated by Vidal Sassoon. When his
style became popularized and caught on in salons around the UK and the
U.S., short haircuts were named The Sassoon, even though they didn't
necessarily have his flare and finesse. He not only popularized short
hair, he popularized geometric and sometimes asymmetrical cuts.

Vidal Sassoon did the hair of famous models and movie stars and created
a chain of salons around the world, as well as a popular line of hair
products. But when he was growing up, his family was so poor, his mother
put them in a Jewish orphanage for several years.

Vidal Sassoon has written an autobiography that will be published in
April. A new documentary about him opens in New York this week.

As you listen to our interview, you can see a slideshow of Sassoon
haircuts on our website, freshair.npr.org.

GROSS: Vidal Sassoon, welcome to FRESH AIR. Let's start with the first
famous haircut that you gave, I mean really famous, and this was to the
actress Nancy Kwan, after she made her movie "The World of Suzie Wong."
She was - she had really long straight hair. Why did she come to you and
what did you do with her hair?

Mr. VIDAL SASSOON (Hairdresser; Businessman): Well, she actually had
almost four feet of hair, and being rather small - she was five foot
two, actually - she almost sat on it. So you had to be very careful when
you put your hands through her hair; otherwise, you'd be feeling parts
of her bottom...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SASSOON: ...and that would not have done. But, you know, I never
looked at beauty as beauty. I always looked at bone structure and the
way the face was created; it's quite fascinating to me. And I thought:
We could do almost anything with Nancy. And I started to cut the very
back of the hair and I said, great neckline, I'll go shorter. And I went
short in the back and graduated into much – into more length at the
sides. And I suddenly realized we had a bob that could be international.
And it caught on. It caught on to the extent that people were coming in
and asking for it over time - not only with us, with many hairdressers.
It had to be not only layered from the back to the front, but when she
shook her head, it had to fall back naturally. So...

GROSS: Now did you set it at all or was it just in the cut that it fell
that way?

Mr. SASSOON: Oh, never set those kind of heads. We, you know, setting
was going out at the time – far out...

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Thank goodness.

Mr. SASSOON: ...into the country. It wasn't happening in the big cities.

GROSS: So when Nancy Kwan had her four feet of hair cut off for your
bob, was it terrifying to her? Was she afraid that she wouldn't like it
and she'd never be able to grow that much hair back again? And that hair
had been her signature.

Mr. SASSOON: She was the coolest I have ever seen anybody. She played
chess with her manager while I was cutting. It was quite extraordinary.
There they were playing chess. I was cutting yards of hair off
literally, and she didn't make a murmur. I fell in love with her at that
moment.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SASSOON: So you ended up giving Mia Farrow a very famous haircut for
her movie "Rosemary's Baby." And it was the director of that film, Roman
Polanski, who approached you. How did you end up cutting her hair before
"Rosemary's Baby?"

Mr. SASSOON: An interesting story. He wanted my balcony in London. I
said, what you want it for? He said I'm photographing Catherine Deneuve
on the balcony, they're filming – "Repulsion" it was. And instead of
staying for two days, as he promised, he stayed for a week. Well, our
clients loved it. They were there on the ground floor, he's on the
balcony and he didn't mind the noise. It was all part of the excitement,
he didn't need quiet. So we just all carried on with our work and
eventually he left.

Well, about six months later, I guess Roman figured he owed me
something.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SASSOON: So he called and said would I come to Hollywood and cut Mia
Farrow for "Rosemary's Baby." I said Roman, I cut it about two months
ago. It's not that long. She's a client of mine. And he said well, there
will be something to take off. I said, yeah, I guess you're right.

Now, Mia, out of some fit of peak - I'm not sure what it was all about,
but she was married to Mr. Sinatra at the time - had cut into her own
hair. She came to the salon and said: What can you do for me? And I
said, take it very short. It's the only way. I can't pull the short hair
long, but I can cut the long hair short. And we did it, and it suited
her marvelously because she had a shaped face and bone structure that
was just perfect.

GROSS: Was this when she was still on "Peyton Place?"

Mr. SASSOON: I don't know if she was.

GROSS: I'm just asking you because...

Mr. SASSOON: I truly don't.

GROSS: I remember when she was on "Peyton Place," she had really long
hair.

Mr. SASSOON: Yeah.

GROSS: And then one season she came back and the hair was suddenly
really short and everybody who watched the show was shocked.

Mr. SASSOON: We cut it very, very short. And it was fascinating for me.
When I say very short, it was literally about a half an inch. And why I
say it was fascinating for me, because we were known in the fashion
circles. You know, I did the shows in Paris and Milan and what have you,
and Middle America probably hadn't heard of us and they would have found
Vidal Sassoon a tongue twister, you know, rather than Joe Smith. And
suddenly Mia's face was everywhere on television having her hair cut.
She was on the - obviously in the magazines, on the radio talking. It
was just extraordinary. So suddenly Middle America began to know who I
was. So she did me an enormous favor.

GROSS: So when you cut her hair for Roman Polanski, for "Rosemary's
Baby," you had already given her a short haircut and then you gave her
an even shorter one for that film?

Mr. SASSOON: Exactly.

GROSS: Okay.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: And it was actually an event, the haircut, because I guess there
was a studio set up like a boxing ring for you to cut her hair in and
invited reporters to watch. So it was this - it was like a sporting
event, you cutting her hair.

Mr. SASSOON: The reporters were totally unruly. They climbed into the
ring and were photographing from the chair where I was working. I
couldn't move and we had to clear a space, but they stayed in the ring.
And it was filmed, you know, NBC, CBS in those days, and ABC, and then,
of course, photographers and reporters.

And she started off berating the photographers: Why are you here
photographing a haircut when the indigenous Americans - it was the
Marlon Brando thing at the time and she was involved - the indigenous
Americans are living so badly and we are treating them so badly. And
this went on for about 10, 15 minutes. Nobody took any notice,
fortuitously. I mean it would have been quite something had the
photographers rushed out to go to the reservation, but they didn't.

And eventually she calmed down and got into the act and had some fun.
She pretended to cut Roman Polanski's hair and we had - we just had a
ball. It was one of those nice afternoons.

GROSS: My guest is Vidal Sassoon. A new documentary about him opens in
New York this week.

We'll talk more after a break.

This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Vidal Sassoon and there's
a new documentary about him called "Vidal Sassoon the Movie: How One Man
Changed the World with a Pair of Scissors." He also has a forthcoming
autobiography which will be published in April.

So this is the part of the interview in which I confess that at the time
that The Sassoon spread around the United States and spread into like
neighborhood salons back when they were called, in my neighborhood,
beauty parlors, I had a Sassoon.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: I had the neighborhood version of The Sassoon some time in the
mid-'60s. I liked it. It was very easy to take care of and my hair was
kind of unruly without it.

Mr. SASSOON: Well, I'm glad they did a...

GROSS: Yeah.

Mr. SASSOON: Yes. I'm glad they did a great job.

GROSS: So, what did you think when The Sassoon spread to people like me,
who got their hair cut in the neighborhood, you know, in the
neighborhood salon and it wasn't the work of art that you had done, but
it was a very popular haircut, very, you know, easy to take care of,
look good. How did you feel about the neighborhood cuts?

Mr. SASSOON: We were totally flattered, you see. It was you either
create something and you keep it a secret and you die with it -what's
the point? If you can benefit a craft, and in essence from that
benefiting all of the craft, you're doing something for fashion
worldwide, I think that's so much more important. It's something which
you leave behind that you probably will be remembered for.

GROSS: When you started cutting hair what were the hairdos that were
popular?

Mr. SASSOON: Oh, flips and lots of lacquer...

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Mr. SASSOON: ...which was very difficult, updos, you know, the ladies
that lunch, those updos. But, and well, the cutting wasn't there, number
one, as it should've been. It was early.

GROSS: You mean it was mostly about setting and spraying?

Mr. SASSOON: It was setting and spraying. Yes.

GROSS: And the hairdos?

Mr. SASSOON: Look, some of them looked very, very pretty but I wasn't
after pretty. I was after bones, getting in to that bone structure,
making it work.

GROSS: And the teased hair and the...

Mr. SASSOON: Well, it was a joke, really. Teasing people's hair like
that and making it look very presentable for the day, but what did they
do the next day, you know?

GROSS: Oh, I remember when I was growing up the women in my neighborhood
would go to the salon on Saturday and then they'd get their hair set,
teased, sprayed – really sprayed...

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: And, you know, and then every night that week they'd sleep with a
hair net so that they wouldn't mess their hair and they were just kind
of like poof it out a little bit with their fingers or with a bobby pin
in the morning and they wouldn't comb it or watch it or do anything till
they went back to the salon for next Saturday.

Mr. SASSOON: How unhealthy.

GROSS: I know.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Were you familiar with that approach to hair? Did you...

Mr. SASSOON: I never, never used it. I mean I just thought, no. It's got
to be in the cut.

GROSS: Right.

Mr. SASSOON: From '54 to '63, when I went into my first salon, I just
said we're not doing any of that old stuff anymore. It's very pretty and
nice, but we're going to stick our guns.

GROSS: You're being so kind.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SASSOON: Well, you know.

GROSS: When you started doing hair professionally, you went to a vocal
coach, a speech coach, because you grew up poor.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: You grew up in an orphanage part of the time. You had a Cockney
accent, and you wanted to lose it. So you went to a teacher who actually
worked with theater actors.

Mr. SASSOON: Yes.

GROSS: Why was your accent important enough to you to study for three
years?

Mr. SASSOON: I couldn't get a job in the West End. They would say, go
and learn the language. And by the way, the language is English. I mean,
it was that kind of thing. And...

GROSS: What did you sound like before?

Mr. SASSOON: Bit like that, then darling. Hello. How are you, love?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SASSOON: It was a bit Cockney. Anyway, Georgia Brown, who played
Nancy in "Oliver," we grew up together. We were kind of kids 13, 14, and
she became terrific. She did it on Broadway, as well as London. And she
said, Vid, take some elocution lesions. It will be very good for you,
especially if you're going to be speaking in the future. I said sure.
Who should I go to? She said Iris Warren. I've already spoken to her. So
I went to Iris Warren. She looked at me and said: I don't take
hairdressers. I work with actors. But be at the Old Vic at two o'clock
on Thursday.

So I get to be Old Vic, and I'm in the green room, and this mellifluous
voice was coming over the soundtrack, you know. And I was going wow, I
know that voice. I couldn't quite place it. The voice went. I was called
into Iris Warren and she said, well, did you hear it? I said yes, it was
marvelous. She said who was it? I said, I couldn't quite get it. She
said couldn't quite get it? That was Laurence Olivier. And then she said
to me, on the podium. I got on the podium. Enunciate. There were some
words there to read. I enunciated. And she said God, that's bloody
awful. But I think I might be able to do something with you. And she was
quite fascinating. There was so many moments where I thought I was being
trained like an actor, and I was - although I never did want to be one,
frankly. Had I had a second choice, it would've been architecture. But
my three years with Iris Warren were wonderful, as far as I was
concerned.

GROSS: You spent part of your childhood in an orphanage. Your father
left the family when you were very young. Your mother was very poor. You
and your younger brother and your mother moved into your aunt's house.
But at some point, your mother felt that it was just an untenable
situation and she put you in a Jewish orphanage. So why did she need to
do that, and how did she tell you that she was going to put you
someplace else for a while?

Mr. SASSOON: Well, there were five kids sleeping on mattresses in one
room, and my mother and my aunt sharing another room. That was it, two
rooms. And it did become untenable. And my mother approached the Jewish
authorities, and they took me into the orphanage, and then my brother 18
months later, because he was rather too young at that time.

GROSS: How long were you in the orphanage?

Mr. SASSOON: I was in the orphanage for close to seven years.

GROSS: What did your mother tell you when she put you there?

Mr. SASSOON: She said that I'd be at a school where I could learn so
much more than if I was in an average school, but it was a sleep-in
school. I'd have to stay there. And...

GROSS: How accurate a description was that?

Mr. SASSOON: Very accurate. But it didn't please me one bit.

GROSS: So was it more of a school, or more of an orphanage?

Mr. SASSOON: It was an orphanage.

GROSS: Right.

Mr. SASSOON: But you were sent to school. It actually wasn't - you
didn't actually have school at the orphanage. You were sent to school.

GROSS: Did you get to see her mother during those years?

Mr. SASSOON: She was allowed to see us once a month.

GROSS: And were you angry with her for putting you there?

Mr. SASSOON: No. No. Fortuitously, that kind of anger or angst never
occurred to me. I knew she was - even in those early years, I knew she
was in terrible straits, and she had no alternative.

GROSS: Now, you became a shampoo boy when you were 14. You say in the
documentary about you that it was your mother's idea for you to become a
hairdresser. She had some kind of dream or...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SASSOON: Premonition.

GROSS: ...premonition or something that you should be hairdresser.

Mr. SASSOON: Premonition. Yes. Absolutely.

GROSS: How old were you, and how did she say to you, I've had this
dream, son, you should be a hairdresser?

Mr. SASSOON: I looked at her in horror. My response was no, never. Well,
what do you want to do? I don't know. But at 14, to become a
hairdresser...

GROSS: Why was that horrifying to you at the age of 14?

Mr. SASSOON: It just wasn't what I wanted to do. I wanted to play soccer
and I wanted to - I was always into - you know, I won the school
championship in running, and I was into all that kind of thing where
sport was concerned. I was useless as a student, absolutely useless.

GROSS: Had you...

Mr. SASSOON: I never could learn anything that I didn't like.

GROSS: So when she took you to a hairdresser for you to apprentice and
you became a shampoo boy at the age of 14, what did you like about it?
What changed your mind and made you think, yeah, this is for me?

Mr. SASSOON: The pretty girls.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SASSOON: It's the truth.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Mr. SASSOON: There were so many pretty girls coming into the salon as
clients, and others working in the salon. And I thought, hmm. This is
rather nice. But I was a very average shampoo boy in the sense I could
shampoo, but, I mean, I was a very average apprentice. I wasn't any
better than anybody else. And the war was on. You slept in your pants in
the shelter so that you had a crease the next day. Mr. Cohen, who I
worked for, was a great disciplinarian. I think I learned so much from
him because of that. You had to have pressed trousers, clean shoes and
clean nails. Now, this is in the middle of a war, and you weren't even
at home. You were sleeping in shelters. So sometimes it wasn't quite
possible, but we did our best.

GROSS: My guest is Vidal Sassoon. A new documentary about him opens in
New York this week. It will open in more cities over the coming weeks.
His autobiography will be published in the spring. You can see a
slideshow of Sassoon haircuts on our website: freshair.npr.org.

This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Vidal Sassoon, and there's
a new documentary about him called "Vidal Sassoon the Movie: How One Man
Changed the World with a Pair of Scissors." He also has a forthcoming
autobiography which will be published in April.

So, when did you realize you wanted to make this your life?

Mr. SASSOON: Well, I was politically involved with the anti-fascist
group 43 Group, and that meant that sometimes you got into a little
trouble. At the age of 20 I joined the Israeli Army. I was in the
Palmach, which was one of their great groups founded by, actually, Rabin
and Orde Wingate and a whole bunch of marvelous people. I spent a year
there, came home, had nothing. The only thing I knew what to do was
hairdressing and I was very quite bad at that. And then I decided well,
if I'm going to have to be in hair, let me change my attitude. Let me
see if I can do something worthwhile. And well, things started to
happen.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Now, during your career you've done so many fashion shows. So two
of the main things that have had an impact on hair in the past few
decades are fashion shows and music, especially starting with The
Beatles, whose haircuts...

Mr. SASSOON: Mm.

GROSS: you know, ended up like changing so many people's hair.

Mr. SASSOON: Yeah.

GROSS: So when you first saw The Beatles haircut, what did you think of
it?

Mr. SASSOON: Great. Because in a funny way their whole front was very
much like our five point cut.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Mr. SASSOON: Think about it. You know, that fringe, that bang that came
all the way down to the sides, it was very much like the five point cut.
I should have sent them a letter of thanks, actually.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: So you thought of it as like the male version of The Sassoon in a
way.

Mr. SASSOON: Oh, absolutely.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Mr. SASSOON: No question. Yes.

GROSS: And hippie hair. When hippie started like in the late '60s and a
lot of men and women - young men and women - started wearing their hair
long, messy, not going to professionals to get it cut or styled, what
did you think?

Mr. SASSOON: I think they should be charged and given six months.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SASSOON: It was a dreadful time. And even today when I see these
long hanging locks at the sides that haven't been shaped well. Long hair
is beautiful when it's cut long. But when it's just left hanging and
straggly, I think, do these people have style? I mean they're clothes
look well but where is their bone structure? You can't see a thing. All
you can see are curtains.

GROSS: Curtains being the hair that's covering the face.

Mr. SASSOON: Yeah.

GROSS: So one last question. You have a nice head of hair. You're in
your 80s and you still have a really full head of hair, right?

Mr. SASSOON: A little - getting a little thin on top, darling.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: OK. If you had lost your hair at a young age would that have had
a bad effect on you? Did you ever worry about that? Would you have
cared?

Mr. SASSOON: Oh, I think it would've had a terrible effect. I mean
there's this guy talking about marvelous hair and he's got none. No, I
don't think it would've worked at all. I'm very lucky to keep my hair.

GROSS: Well, thank you so much for talking with us.

Mr. SASSOON: Oh, it's been such a pleasure, Terry. Thank you so much.

GROSS: The new documentary "Vidal Sassoon" opens in New York this week
and will open in other cities in the coming weeks. You can see a
slideshow of Sassoon's haircuts on our website, freshair.npr.org, where
you can also download podcasts of our show.
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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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