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An 'Enchanted' Role for 'South Pacific' Star

Singer and actress Kelli O'Hara has received three Tony nominations in as many years. She currently stars in the crowd-pleasing revival of South Pacific.

33:47

Other segments from the episode on June 16, 2008

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, June 16, 2008: Interview with Kelli O'Hara; Interview with Jenji Kohan; Obituary for Tim Russert.

Transcript

DATE June 16, 2008 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
NETWORK NPR
PROGRAM Fresh Air

Interview: Kelli O'Hara, star of newly revived musical "South
Pacific," on performing
DAVID BIANCULLI, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli, TV critic for Broadcasting & Cable
magazine and tvworthwatching.com, sitting in for Terry Gross.

The revival of the 1949 musical "South Pacific" won seven Tony awards last
night, the most of any show this year, including one for Best Musical Revival.
Our first guest today, Kelli O'Hara, stars as Nellie Forbush in that wonderful
production. She's wonderful, too, and received a nomination as Best Actress
in a Musical. Here she is singing "A Wonderful Guy" from the new cast
recording of "South Pacific."

(Soundbite of "A Wonderful Guy")

Ms. KELLI O'HARA: I'm as corny as Kansas in August
I'm as normal as blueberry pie
No more a smart little girl with no heart,
I have found me a wonderful guy

I am in a conventional dither
With a conventional star in my eye
And you will note there's a lump in my throat
When I speak of that wonderful guy

I'm as trite and as a gay as a daisy in May
A cliche coming through
I'm bromidic and bright as a moon-happy night
Pouring light on the dew

I'm as corny as Kansas in August
High as a flag on the Fourth of July
If you'll excuse an expression an use,
I'm in love, I'm in love, I'm in love, I'm in love,
I'm in love with a wonderful guy

(End of soundbite)

BIANCULLI: What Kelli O'Hara does in "South Pacific," and what this first
revival of the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical accomplishes in general, is
unforgettable. Based on stories by James Michener who was stationed in the
Pacific during World War II, "South Pacific" tells, among other things, of a
sweet Midwestern girl, Nellie Forbush, who falls deeply in love with a French
plantation owner named Emile de Becque--until she discovers that he was
previously married to a Polynesian woman and has custody of their two young
children. It's not that he has children that bothers Nellie, it's their
ethnicity.

In the stories, Michener had the N word come out of Nellie's mouth. On stage,
working from a script that predated the original production, the new "South
Pacific" has Nellie recoil suddenly and use the word "colored," a word that
sends shock waves through the theater and makes this almost-60-year-old
musical seem an amazingly topical examination of race as well as war. As
Frank Rich raved in The New York Times, "In a year when war and race are at
center stage in the national conversation, this relic turns out to have a
great deal to say."

When we spoke recently, I asked Kelli O'Hara about that pivotal scene and that
raw word, and how she went through the process of deciding just how to play it
onstage.

Ms. O'HARA: She's not proud of it, but she's so set on it in such a way that
she's defending herself, almost like in a belligerent way. `What do you mean
I'm wrong? You know, I'm right.'

BIANCULLI: Yeah.

Ms. O'HARA: And so therefore it comes out as not embarrassment, but as
anger. She's angry. And the way to play that scene, in my opinion, when here
she is madly in love, life can't get any better, she says to him, `We're the
same type of people. We have this much in common. We're so right for each
other.' Bam. `You've had children with a Polynesian woman, and they're
biracial and they live in your home and I'm expected to be their mother, I'm
expected to take them back to Arkansas to introduce them to all my racist
family? I'm angry at you for not telling me, and I'm angry at you for living
this sort of life, which has been taught to me to be so wrong. It's dirty.'
And this is how she feels, and so there's fear, there's anger, there's
belligerence, there's stubbornness. And so when I play that scene, it is
ugly. There are nights when I feel ugly. And I have to go face my castmates
downstairs, having put those thoughts into my head. Dirty--thoughts like
dirty, ugly, animalistic, gross. And that to me is one of the hardest parts
of my job in this cheesy, corny, Rodgers and Hammerstein musical. I think
not, you know? I think that it's much, much more that that, and I hope that
that's what we're pulling off.

BIANCULLI: It was such a surprise to me. I didn't have a memory of that from
the movie or from the cast recording when I was a kid growing up listening to
it.

Ms. O'HARA: No, I don't think they--no.

BIANCULLI: But if it hit so hard in the audience, if I could really palpably
feel everybody's shock at that attitude that your character had suddenly
revealed, what does it feel like onstage?

Ms. O'HARA: Well, as far as all the scenes go, like--I've said this a
million times--but here you have all these famous and fun songs leading up to
that moment. In fact, they give you kind of a reprise of each of those songs.
I don't know if you remember, between Emile and I, we sing through kind of the
whole first act, just in a little megamix of the first act. So you're kind of
reminded of this lovely, lighthearted thing, and then, bam, there's a complete
shutdown of any kind of peaceful, joyful emotion that you've been given from
the material to have at this moment. It's basically like, you know, the
brakes slam and it comes to a halt, and the music is beautiful underneath,
too, and emotional to provide that, as well. So all the pieces kind of come
together like a big crash, a car crash, I think. That's how I feel.

And that's how we end the first act, and I think it feels incredibly moving to
me. In fact, I race offstage, as you know, after, you know, running away from
him, and then I usually turn back to watch him finish that moment. Because I
think it's an indication to me how we are providing the audience that night
with the story that we're trying to tell, how the audience reacts, and we hear
them. That's the most fulfilling thing at that moment, is to hear those gasps
and to hear that confusion, and the immediate--the music stops, and the
immediate conversation with the audience. We can hear it over the monitors.
You can't hear what they're saying specifically, but it's like a car crash and
then the lights go up and then you hear `uh-sps-sps, uh-sps-sps.' You just,
you know, you know that they're saying--one guy's always saying, `Oh my gosh,
she's terrible, I hate her so much.' You know? Or one woman's saying, `Can
you believe what she'--you know? And so it's just a wonderful kind of feeling
to feel like you're engaging people's emotions and getting them riled up, you
know.

BIANCULLI: The first time you performed that scene in front of an audience,
was the reaction what you expected?

Ms. O'HARA: Yes, and I terribly, terribly cried. It's an amazing thing.
You think you're just doing something that's on the page, and you just, you do
it. But that night, when I said those words and I felt the...(gasps)...in the
audience, it moved me in such a way. The first time I did say it out loud in
the angry way that I was supposed to say it, my mouth shook in a way that was
kind of involuntary, in kind of like my face saying, `No, no, you're not
supposed to say that out loud.' And my lips literally shook in a way that was
so kind of emotional and strange. It still does that every once in awhile,
but I think that's a good sign that we're doing something that's kind of off
the beaten path.

BIANCULLI: My guest is Kelli O'Hara, star of the Broadway revival of "South
Pacific."

It's amazing, pre-civil rights, pre-integration, to think of how strong the
message is in this musical. And it's staged in such a way, and there are so
many subtleties to the staging of "South Pacific," this version of it, that I
don't think this is accidental--but you can tell me if it is--that the
audience is not given any sort of a cathartic chance to applaud at the end of
that song to say, `Yes, we agree, prejudice is bad.' It's just emotionally
caught up into the very next part of the scene. Is that intentional, or does
it change from night to night?

Ms. O'HARA: No, it's intentional. There's never any pause, because it
goes--it's to move through that moment. That's kind of what I mean about the
brilliance of their writing. You're to move through to go to the next place.
If you feel this, don't stop and rest. If you feel this, move forward, make a
change. That revving underscoring that they've put under us, I couldn't
understand, to be honest, the first time I heard it, it's kind of a like a
oonz-a-oonz-a-oonz-a, (singing) you've got to be taught to--(speaking) and all
of a sudden you're thinking, `This isn't a waltz, what is this?' I mean, it
certainly doesn't have that--the words don't mean that, but what they did was,
it's a revving. It revs, it revs, revs, it's anger, and then it goes right
into the next moment. It goes right into Emile de Becque singing about his
problems and why he's on this island, and then it goes right into Matt
Morrison, the Lieutenant Cable character, saying, `Let's go, you know, fight
this war. Come with me.' And, you know, I think that's why the whole moment
there just keeps moving and you move through it in such a heightened way, you
don't ever stop to rest.

BIANCULLI: Another subtle thing that it took me awhile to absorb and notice
in the staging is that there are, among the soldiers, there are three black
guys.

Ms. O'HARA: Yeah.

BIANCULLI: Who are always, once you start looking at them, they're always
sitting or standing slightly apart from the rest and behind the rest. And,
you know, can you talk about some of those things that are incorporated into
the production that are that subtle, and why they're put there?

Ms. O'HARA: You know, you just said a minute ago, `I don't know if such and
such was meant to happen this way,' I guarantee you that it was meant to
happen this way. Everything, all the choices, this is just the way Bart Sher
is. You start from the beginning, you start from the absolute truth of
everything. You don't start with the songs, you start with the book and what
it says and the words and what they mean. And then you start with the
history, where we are. We had an entire, you know, World War II institute
where we learned it. We had veterans come and talk to us. We had them tell
us, `Where were the black men? Were you with them? Did you fight with them?
Were they housed differently than you? Did they...' You know? And they told
us the truth. Many of them still very, very prejudiced as they said it.

A lot of productions these days of "South Pacific," if you see them in
colleges or community theaters, it's all integrated as, you know, so much
theater is and should be. But how can you tell the story of this divide and
integrate this cast? They weren't even allowed to fight, except for the
Tuskogee Airmen, so they were mostly--they took care of the men in the service
and served them, but didn't get to fight. And if they did get to fight, they
were on the front lines, or as you see in our play, carrying the ammunition in
case it just happened to blow up, you know. These are the jobs they had, and
this is the reality of it. And we have these three amazing guys, and, whew,
amazing, because and I'll tell you why. Christian Carter, Mike Evariste and
Jerold Solomon, they sing, they dance, they act, and here they are, they're
standing in the back, not dancing, except for in one or two moments.

BIANCULLI: Mm-hmm.

Ms. O'HARA: They knew their job was to make a point, to show that here these
guys are over here singing about dames. They start to integrate them just for
a second and then quickly segregate them again.

BIANCULLI: Yes.

Ms. O'HARA: And like I said, carrying the ammunition boxes or being--they
ask a question to one soldier who basically flips them off, you know, `Don't
talk to me.' It's pretty harsh to watch, but if you don't build that world,
then you can't get anybody to understand your point. And it's amazing how
many people don't even notice that, and that's got to tell you something, too.
I've had people say, `Oh, I didn't even notice they were separated over there.
Were there black guys in your show?'

BIANCULLI: These songs are so familiar, how did you get to hear them
differently and sing them differently? I guess what I'm asking is, how did
you make them fresh?

Ms. O'HARA: You know, I think that--what people have told me is that I hear
the songs a little differently, like I hear what they're saying. And I think
what that means is, I'm just working with the texts, the lyric of the song.
And yes, I grew up with that old-fashioned music, and I think in a lot of ways
I sing in a kind of an old-fashioned way sometimes, if I'm called upon to do
so. But really, I didn't mean to set out to make them different. I'm just
trying to sing what the words are. I'm trying to communicate them. And I
think the biggest number that I've gotten a response to for that reason is
"Cock-Eyed Optimist." I think people always have assumed "Cock-Eyed Optimist"
was kind of a silly song, kind of, `I'm a positive girl, and that's about all
I am!' You know?

BIANCULLI: Mm-hmm.

Ms. O'HARA: And I think what she's saying is, `I hear the human race is
falling on its face,' or `People are saying that we might as well be dead
because the world's going to end.' I mean, she's saying something pretty
special. She's saying, `I don't think so. I don't care what other people
think. I don't think so. I think we still have a chance, and I think there
are still good things in this world.' You know? So I really kind of didn't
want to make that song into a hokey-pokey song. I wanted to say the words.
And it's a little simpler than I think people expect, and it doesn't deserve a
huge round of applause or anything like that, but I think that's a sacrifice
that it's more, it's OK, because I think the song has a lot to say that's a
little bit more emotional.

BIANCULLI: My guest is Kelli O'Hara. She stars in the current Broadway
revival of "South Pacific." Here she is on the new cast recording singing
"Cock-Eyed Optimist."

Ms. O'HARA: (Singing) When the sky is a bright canary yellow
I forget every cloud I've ever seen
So they call me a cock-eyed optimist
Immature and incurably green

I have heard people rant and rave and bellow
That we're done, and we might as well be dead
But I'm only a cock-eyed optimist
And I can't get it into my head

I hear the human race is falling on its face
And hasn't very far to go
But every whippoorwill is selling me a bill
And telling me it just ain't so

I could say life is just a bowl of Jell-O
And appear more intelligent and smart
But I'm stuck like a dope with a thing called hope
And I can't get it out of my heart
Not this heart

(End of soundbite)

BIANCULLI: Another famous number you get to perform in this show is "I'm
Gonna Wash That Man Right Out of My Hair." I'm curious about how you decide to
stage this with the director, knowing that you're going to perform it so many
times a week that you have to decide, you know, how wet is wet enough, you
know, that you don't want to get sick, you've got to protect yourself. What
goes into performing that song and preparing to perform that song?

Ms. O'HARA: Well, you know, it's so interesting. You'd think that we were
smart enough to think that way. When you're first putting a show together,
you say, `Oh, sure, I'll do cartwheels and backflips and I'll do all that,'
because you get really excited. And then you think--about three weeks in, you
think, `Oh my gosh, what have I done?' We definitely had to--with "Wash That
Man" we had to get the logistics right, of course. We had to make sure the
shower worked, we had to make sure--these days we have that big invention of
microphones, which weren't in the original production.

BIANCULLI: Mm-hmm.

Ms. O'HARA: And that's a big concern. We had to make sure that situation
worked. Let me tell you, there's still...

BIANCULLI: Well, how does that situation work?

Ms. O'HARA: Well, you know, it's no secret anymore, I suppose, now that the
show's up and running, but, you know, we thought I would use my own hair and
wash my own hair, but so--cut my own hair off. But then where do you put the
microphones? Because microphones are notorious for falling out of your own
hair because your hair's soft and it moves around a lot. So putting a wig
over the microphones holds the mikes in place. But then what about washing
the wig? You ruin the wig very quickly, so all of a sudden we're getting new
wigs every three weeks, which is very expensive. That's one thing.

Another thing is, what kind of soap do you use? Do you use regular soap? I
heard Mary Martin used Prell, but that was--that's what we hear--but that was
her own hair, and she had very, very short hair, and we didn't want to go with
that idea. So we tried real soap in this wig, didn't rinse out in time. So
there I was doing the rest of the song with soap in my hair. What about if it
gets in your eyes, you know?

BIANCULLI: Mm-hmm.

Ms. O'HARA: There you are screaming, crying and--which hopefully I would not
do, so we're using baby suds, not even soap. And so it's all of these little
tricks that we've come up with, but I am actually taking a shower. There's
plenty of water in that shower. Which another thing is, how cold, how hot is
that shower? It's freezing. And then so we try to heat up the water a little
bit.

BIANCULLI: It's a wonderful scene. I'm wondering, though, is it something
you have to be concerned about in terms of protecting your voice, your throat,
your health, or not?

Ms. O'HARA: No, absolutely. I mean, I think that in the beginning of the
run I did get a little sick due to--because, you know, often the theaters are
kept cold or cooler because, again, cold for comedy, and you want the people
to be comfortable out in the audience. I spend most of the show completely
bare legged and barefoot, and at one point I really thought, `I'm spending a
lot of my time freezing cold.' So we've done a lot of things. You know, I
have robes off the stage, and I'm now putting a kind of a protector guard
under my wig that doesn't allow my hair to get that wet under--my head to get
that wet underneath. It was just getting sopping wet, and then I'd spend the
whole rest of the show with a wet head, even though I had a dry wig on. So I
think that was adding to my getting a cold and things like that. So I haven't
been sick, knock on wood, ever since, and we're getting it, and I have a
heater in my room. And, you know, you figure out ways to make it work, and by
no means are there any complaints. When you dress up and sing and dance for a
living, you can't complain too much. It's fun. It doesn't--it's not that big
of a deal.

BIANCULLI: The show won seven Tony awards last night, including one for Best
Musical Revival and one for O'Hara's co-star Paulo Szot as Best Actor in a
Musical.

You're barefoot for much of the play, and I'm wondering, as a perform,
especially since women in Broadway musicals probably are in heels most of the
time and having to dance and do stuff...

Ms. O'HARA: Yeah.

BIANCULLI: Is that great and liberating, to be barefoot? Or does that have
its own hazards?

Ms. O'HARA: Well, I'm kind of a strange girl, and I love heels. I love
being in high heels. I think it's probably because I have short legs, and I
always think I'm fooling somebody. But being barefoot in the beginning was
wonderful, because I was a kid who spent most of my life with no shoes on, my
mom said. And so I thought, this is fantastic. And the more and more you're
on that wood floor in your bare feet jumping and landing and cartwheeling and
wet, there are days that I really, really could use a pair of high-heeled
pumps. But I think it goes back and forth. Because I do appreciate the
liberation of it, and especially no stockings, you know. I think if you
really are put back in those days and you think, a girl would never be just
wearing shorts and no stockings around all of the time, which is what they're
doing, because they were on the beach, I think that it's probably very
liberating. And so I have to think about it in those terms, that it feels
pretty free.

BIANCULLI: One very intimate part of the production, and I mean this as a
total compliment, is your acting.

Ms. O'HARA: Oh, thank you.

BIANCULLI: Not only when you're singing and acting, but just when someone
else is singing to you, when Paulo as, you know, Emile is singing to you
especially. How important is staying focused in the moment and listening to
what's happening around you?

Ms. O'HARA: Well, I mean, no one would ever believe me if I said I was
constantly engaged and that once in a while my head didn't go to my grocery
list or whatever it is...

BIANCULLI: Mm-hmm.

Ms. O'HARA: ...or what I forgot to do that morning, but I--if a man sang to
you, you just met him two weeks ago and he sang to you `you are my true love,
and I knew that the minute I saw you, and I found you and I'm never going to
let you go,' I think you'll probably listen. And especially if it's a man who
looks like Paulo Szot. So, you know, to stay in the moment and to actually
be--pull off what you're supposed to be pulling off, a love story that you
need to be falling in love with yourself, you've got to stay engaged. And the
songs are not just songs, they're words. They're communication. It's part of
the scene. You know, as if he's just telling me these things, and he deserves
the respect of my listening to him, is how I feel about it.

BIANCULLI: Before I saw you in this, I saw you in "Pajama Game" opposite
Harry Connick Jr., and there was one number, "There Once Was a Man," where you
guys are singing to each other and you're climbing on a table, you're climbing
on each other, it's a big, sexy song-and-dance thing. It was so sexy, I
almost wanted to leave you guys alone.

Ms. O'HARA: Oh, gosh.

BIANCULLI: Can you talk about that before we hear it? Because, man, I have
not seen magnetism or charisma or just sex appeal on a stage in a regular,
conventional Broadway musical in a long time.

Ms. O'HARA: Well, thank you very much. I mean, I...

BIANCULLI: So how did you get there?

Ms. O'HARA: Well, it didn't, you know, it's not hard with somebody like
Harry Connick Jr. I've been pretty lucky with my leading men, believe me I'm
very thankful for that. You know, the song has always--"There Once Was a
Man," I think talk about cheese. I mean, people kind of think of it as this
cowboy song with hands on hips and standing there and we really didn't want it
to be that way; and Kathleen Marshall had this idea of, there we are at the
outside the gates of the factory and there's probably some crates laying
around and some things like that, so what can you do with that? What would
you do if you were just mad, crazy in love? And we're to assume that they had
spent a night together the night before, which is very--for 1954, it was very
forward and exciting. And, you know, here we are just crazy about each other
and we're going to sing this song to each other; so in our thought, it was
kind of like a continuance of our night. And to be honest, the more attention
we got from people the way you've just described it...

BIANCULLI: Mm-hmm.

Ms. O'HARA: ...the more we gave it. We had a blast. And Harry's such a
musician, the kind of musician that can change anything or change a chord or
change a note to fit in the--you know, he's a very--he's ultimate jazz, you
know, so he would start to change things up a bit, and of course I had to keep
up with him if I wanted to hang, you know. So we would change the way things
were sung, we would shorten phrases, lengthen phrases, just add to phrases,
and no one ever stopped us. And along with that came, `Well, gee, I
think--you're a big strong man, pick me up and throw me around. That might be
exciting.' I don't know, it just got out of hand in a way that was so great.
And we had so much fun. But believe me, we had so much fun because we knew
the effect it was having on the audience, and the more we knew that, the more
we played into it.

BIANCULLI: All right, here is a little bit of "There Once Was a Man" with
Harry Connick Jr. and Kelli O'Hara.

(Soundbite of "There Once Was a Man")

Mr. HARRY CONNICK Jr.: (Singing) I love you more

Ms. O'HARA: (Singing) There once was a woman
Who loved a man
He was the one that she took poison for
They say that nobody ever loved as much as she
But me, I love you more

Mr. CONNICK Jr.: Mm, tell me

Ms. O'HARA: (Singing) And there once was a woman
Who loved a man
He was the one she swam the Channel for
They say that nobody ever loved as much as she
But me, I love you more

My love's meteoric
It's merely historic
A whirlwind, a cyclone on wheels
It rocks my whole solar plexus
It's bigger than Texas
I just can't tell you how it feels
I only know there once was a woman
Who loved a man
Loved him enough to cause the Trojan War
They say that nobody ever loved as much as she
But me, I love you more
More, more, more!

Mr. CONNICK Jr.: (Singing) More than a hangman loves his rope

Ms. O'HARA: (Singing) More than a dope fiend loves his dope

Mr. CONNICK Jr.: (Singing) More than a Injun loves his scalps

Ms. O'HARA: (Singing) More than a yodeler loves his Alps

Mr. CONNICK Jr.: (Singing) More

Ms. O'HARA: (Singing) More

Mr. CONNICK Jr.: (Singing) More

Ms. O'HARA: (Singing) More

Mr. CONNICK Jr.: (Singing) More!

Ms. O'HARA: (Singing) More!

Mr. CONNICK Jr.: (Singing) There once was a man...

Ms. O'HARA: (Singing) There once was a woman...

Mr. CONNICK Jr.: (Singing) Who loved a woman...

Ms. O'HARA: (Singing) Who loved a man...

Mr. CONNICK Jr.: (Singing) She was the one he slew the dragon for

Ms. O'HARA: (Singing) He was the one that she took poison for

Mr. CONNICK Jr. and Ms. O'HARA: (Singing)
They say that nobody every loved as much he
But me, I love you more
But me, I love you more

(End of soundbite)

BIANCULLI: That was "There Once Was a Man" from "The Pajama Game" with Harry
Connick Jr. and Kelli O'Hara.

I have this romantic image of opening nights, which is probably 50 years old
and hopelessly outdated, of the whole cast like going to Sardi's somewhere and
hiding in a back room and waiting for the evening editions of the newspapers
to come out and read. And this is 2008, with an Internet and--what's it
really like now?

Ms. O'HARA: Right. Well, you know, I don't--for as far as the producers and
those people that goes, I'm sure they do it way differently than they used to
do. You know, they find out very, very soon. As cast members, or at least
me, I don't read reviews. I don't. I've, you know, I've had people tell me
the gist of many, many reviews, good and bad, but I don't read the exact words
only because I--and as Bart Sher calls critics, he calls them the final
collaborator, because he feels like we do need them, of course, because--you
should see the difference sometimes it makes by what is written in the papers.
But I don't want to change my thoughts about the show.

But I will say that on opening night, I have had the opening night where I'm
dancing and having a good time with my family and then the room kind of clears
out. That happens. And you kind of get the feeling, `Well, I know why that
happened. We won't be running very long, probably. Our show is not going to
be a success.' But then, like, for instance, like with "South Pacific," it
started to bubble around that night that we were going to be OK. Those were
the only words that I really cared to hear was, `You're fine. You're fine.'

BIANCULLI: Kelli O'Hara, star of the Broadway musical "South Pacific," which
last night won seven Tony awards. It's fine. Her solo CD is called "Wonder
in the World," and the new cast recording of "South Pacific" is out now, too.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Interview: Creator of "Weeds," Jenji Kohan, on her life and career
DAVID BIANCULLI, host:

The Showtime series "Weeds" begins its fourth season tonight, starring
Mary-Louise Parker as Nancy Botwin, a suburban widow who decides to support
herself and her two children by becoming a local pot dealer. Series creator
Jenji Kohan calls Nancy a female flawed outlaw, but Nancy's not without some
scruples. Here she is in the series pilot confronting a high school dealer
who has sold drugs to even younger kids.

(Soundbite of "Weeds")

(Soundbite of something slamming into something)

Ms. MARY-LOUISE PARKER: (As Nancy Botwin) You made me a promise, you
little...

Mr. JUSTIN CHATWIN: (As Josh) Take it easy. I won't sneak up on you
anymore.

Ms. PARKER: (As Nancy Botwin) I just heard a 10-year-old got busted. A
10-year-old. You're...(censored by network)...liar.

Mr. CHATWIN: (As Josh) The kid told me he was 37.

Ms. PARKER: (As Nancy Botwin) You promised me no kids.

Mr. CHATWIN: (As Josh) Yeah, but they all want it, and they cry if you say
no.

Ms. PARKER: (As Nancy Botwin) Josh!

Mr. CHATWIN: (As Josh) I just sold him shake.

Ms. PARKER: (As Nancy Botwin) He's 10.

Mr. CHATWIN: (As Josh) Look, when you opened shop here, I was totally cool
with you, you know? And you took away a lot of my parent business, but I let
it go.

Ms. PARKER: (As Nancy Botwin) It's not OK to sell to little kids.

Mr. CHATWIN: (As Josh) Let their parents worry about it. I'm selling to
whoever's buying, OK?

Ms. PARKER: (As Nancy Botwin) You're not!

(Soundbite of something slamming into something)

Ms. PARKER: (As Nancy Botwin) No, you're not.

Mr. CHATWIN: (As Josh) No? What are you going to do? You going to tell on
me? My dad's over there getting baked in the minivan. He'll just be pissed
that I was holding out on him.

(End of soundbite)

BIANCULLI: By season four, which begins tonight, Nancy has fled the suburbs
and relocated with her family to a California border town. Nancy and her
brother-in-law Andy flee to Andy's grandmother's house. But when they get
there, they find her on life support being taken care of by Andy's father,
Nancy's father-in-law, who is very hostile and is played by Albert Brooks.
Nancy is there with Andy's dad and with some German takeout food, and no one
can decide which is worse.

(Soundbite of "Weeds")

Mr. ALBERT BROOKS: (As Glen) What is that?

Ms. PARKER: (As Nancy Botwin) (Unintelligible)...with spaetzles.

Mr. BROOKS: (As Glen) What?

Ms. PARKER: (As Nancy Botwin) I don't know. It's German.

Mr. BROOKS: (As Glen) You're sitting in my mother's living room eating
German food and smelling like gas. She was in Auschwitz, for Christ's sake.
What kind of a monster are you?

Ms. PARKER: (As Nancy Botwin) A terrible shiksa monster here to terrorize
your clan. What do you want from me, Glen? It's been 20 years. Can you get
over it already?

Mr. BROOKS: (As Glen) Hey, Judah stopped talking to us.

Ms. PARKER: (As Nancy Botwin) Because you'd only call me "Not-Francie,"
because you refused to come to our wedding. Because the one time we came down
here, after Silas was born, you told us that the baby had eczema because
Judah'd watered down the gene pool.

Mr. BROOKS: (As Glen) Look who's keeping lists.

(End of soundbite)

BIANCULLI: Our guest Jenji Kohan created "Weeds" after writing for such TV
shows as "Sex and the City," "Gilmore Girls," "Will and Grace" and "Mad about
You." She started working in television on a dare. So I asked who dared her.

Ms. JENJI KOHAN: I was seeing a guy at the time whose friend was having some
success in television, and he kept telling me how his friend was doing this
and his friend was doing that, and I was thinking, well, you know, `I should
try this.' And he told me I had a better chance of being elected to Congress
than getting on the staff of a television show. So my entire career was just
really, you know, based on vengeance, and it's a big, you know, screw you to
my ex-boyfriend.

BIANCULLI: Have you ever let him know how much money he eventually earned
you?

Ms. KOHAN: Oh, sure.

BIANCULLI: Oh, good.

Ms. KOHAN: And so I kind of quit all my "Mcjobs," and I had a friend who was
studying for her medical boards in Santa Cruz, and I went up there and I moved
in with her, and I had taped shows off TV and I'd watch my little videotapes
and she'd study her medical books, and I wrote a "Simpsons" and a "Seinfeld"
at the time. And then I came back down, and my ex-sister-in-law's father gave
my scripts to an agent in an elevator. They worked in the same building. And
I was on a show by spring. It was really amazing.

BIANCULLI: Wow. Very good.

Ms. KOHAN: Yeah.

BIANCULLI: Which show was that?

Ms. KOHAN: "Fresh Prince of Bel-Air."

BIANCULLI: Oh, OK. So...

Ms. KOHAN: Yeah.

BIANCULLI: You started with a very young Will Smith.

Ms. KOHAN: I did indeed. He was lovely. He was lovely. Things upstairs
were a little crazy and chaotic, but things on set were nice.

BIANCULLI: What are some of the issues from your childhood that have made it
into "Weeds"? I mean, the things that are there so strongly--I don't want to
presume too much, but there's generational dynamics, there's body image,
there's drug use and abuse, there's conformity.

Ms. KOHAN: Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm.

BIANCULLI: Which ones came out of you and rang true for you, and which ones
don't? Which ones mean more personally?

Ms. KOHAN: Wow. You know, it's all personal. It all comes out of life
experience, and my whole writer's room is just a big open wound, and we're
working in it. In a lot of ways, it's also my rebellion, because off the set,
I lead a pretty conventional life. I've got, you know, the kids and the
husband, the dog, and this is my entertainment and my fun, and I can process
things that I observe without huge risk. And I can be edgy and dangerous on
the page and not carry it into my life necessarily. And it's fun. It's
really exciting.

BIANCULLI: How would you characterize your own history with drugs? I don't
usually ask that question, but since it's so central to "Weeds," I think it's
fair.

Ms. KOHAN: Yeah. I mean, it's interesting, I was the good girl. I never
did drugs. I was always really paranoid, and I was always really afraid of
being altered. And it just wasn't my thing. And really, I set out to do an
outlaw show, so I went looking for a crime. And it's not like I was naive
about drug use; it was everywhere. You know, I had a friend whose mother was
a dealer. I remember looking for celery, and the vegetable crispers were
filled with bags of pot. I think at one point one of my brothers was growing
it in his closet. It wasn't like it was a mysterious thing, I was just a big
nerd and it wasn't for me. I don't particularly enjoy smoking pot.

BIANCULLI: Was the idea of doing a female flawed outlaw, was that a reaction
to "The Sopranos"?

Ms. KOHAN: No, not directly, it was just something I was interested in. You
know, I watch "The Sopranos," I enjoy it, but it was more "The Shield,"
truthfully.

BIANCULLI: OK.

Ms. KOHAN: I was way into "The Shield," and I wanted my "Shield."

BIANCULLI: Well, it's another wonderful show.

Ms. KOHAN: Yeah.

BIANCULLI: But, I mean, another thing that I've read is that you sold that to
Showtime in five words.

Ms. KOHAN: Yeah.

BIANCULLI: I can never imagine things are that easy.

Ms. KOHAN: Right.

BIANCULLI: But go ahead. What were the five words?

Ms. KOHAN: It was "suburban widowed pot dealing mom." But you also have to
understand that I'd been writing pilots for 12, 15 years, and I knew everyone
and I'd been working, and it's not like I came out of nowhere and I said five
words and I had a show. I'd certainly spent a lot of time in the trenches and
built my career. And so when I pitched, you know, I had something behind it.

BIANCULLI: You write so well for strong women, and your resume says that
that's sort of the way that you've come up.

Ms. KOHAN: Mm-hmm.

BIANCULLI: Is that easy to do? Is that something that was welcome when you
started, or is more welcome now?

Ms. KOHAN: It's hard because, you know, you don't want to fall into the
chicklette ghetto. You know, I'd like to think that I write well for
characters, and if a character is a strong woman, that I write well for her,
and if she's a--and if it's a slacker guy or a black gangster that, you know,
hopefully I can capture that voice, too.

BIANCULLI: Mm-hmm.

Ms. KOHAN: I think the men in my writers' room would be really offended if
they were told that, you know, they don't write the women as well. You know,
hopefully people are talented and can capture voices, and that's their skill.

BIANCULLI: And do you find, as you progress through your career, that
executives at the networks are more interested, or just more ready to have
shows with strong women at their centers?

Ms. KOHAN: You know, it's always a business decision. If strong women are
making money, if they're the flavor of the month, they're going to go for it.
And if blowing up cars is going to do it, they're going to blow up cars. It's
economics, it's not art for that side of the business. All I can do is just
keep writing what I'm interested in, and writing the voices that I'm hearing
in my head, and hope that people relate to what I'm putting out there. I
can't approach my career in a way going, `Well, what does the marketplace
want?' And `I've got to come up with a woman this week because "Sex and the
City" made a lot of money.' And I can't. It wouldn't hold my interest, and
it's just never been what I pursued. I really just write what's on my mind at
the time, and this time I wanted to explore the gray areas, and I needed to
find a vehicle for that.

BIANCULLI: We're talking with Jenji Kohan, creator and executive producer of
the Showtime TV series "Weeds."

You come from a really interesting family. I'm not telling you something you
don't know.

Ms. KOHAN: Thank you.

BIANCULLI: I'm filling in everybody who's listening. Your dad is Buz Kohan,
who wrote for TV's "Odd Couple" and "Laverne and Shirley" and I guess was most
famous as a writer/producer of many TV specials. That's how I know him.

Ms. KOHAN: Mm-hmm. Yes.

BIANCULLI: And even now, isn't he still a writer for the Oscars?

Ms. KOHAN: Oh, yeah. He still has his hand in it. He does nightclub acts,
he does speeches, he does any specials that are left, and a smattering of
award shows.

BIANCULLI: OK. And your mom is a novelist.

Ms. KOHAN: Yes.

BIANCULLI: And your older brother David Kohan was co-creator of "Will and
Grace" and has another show that's coming up this fall.

Ms. KOHAN: Mm-hmm. That's right.

BIANCULLI: So what was that family dynamic like growing up?

Ms. KOHAN: It was a tough room. I got to say, I didn't speak for years at
the dinner table because I was told that I had fifth grade humor, and it
was...

BIANCULLI: What grade were you in when you were told that?

Ms. KOHAN: You know, I--that's the question. I don't remember. I just
remember my brothers just holding up five fingers and just silencing me. It
was fast and loose and funny, and I remember one of my brothers being
admonished for telling fart jokes because fart jokes are funny, but it's an
easy laugh and they can do better. It was a good training ground. I really
didn't speak for years.

BIANCULLI: You have three kids now, don't you?

Ms. KOHAN: I do.

BIANCULLI: Are your kids old enough to know what it is you do for a living
yet?

Ms. KOHAN: Yeah. My kids are two, six and eight, and my daughter was
actually in the show last year. She played Five-Year-Old Who Pees Her Pants.
She was wonderful. And my eight-year-old now wants to be on the show because
he knows his sister made money and he wants to buy more Legos. So I'm trying
to figure out what to do with that. The baby has no idea, he just knows that
at mommy's worked there's a Slushee machine, so that's very exciting. And
they know about the show, but they're not allowed to watch the show, and
occasionally--they know all the music because my husband does the music. So
they know how to sing along to the show. Occasionally we'll show little
scenes that are appropriate. And they know how to identify a pot plant, which
gets us in trouble sometimes.

BIANCULLI: You must be so proud.

Ms. KOHAN: You know, we have all these fake pot plants around, and they come
to the office and they sort of know what it looks like. And we were--my son
was at camp and he told his counselor that he saw wild marijuana growing in
the woods, and the counselor was really giving me the fish eye a little bit.
I had to explain.

BIANCULLI: Jenji Kohan, thanks for being on FRESH AIR.

Ms. KOHAN: Oh, my pleasure.

BIANCULLI: Jenji Kohan, creator of the Showtime series "Weeds." It begins its
fourth season tonight. Seasons one, two and three are available on DVD.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Profile: Remembering Tim Russert
DAVID BIANCULLI, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli, TV critic for Broadcasting & Cable
magazine and tvworthwatching.com, sitting in for Terry Gross.

When news of the sudden death of NBC's Tim Russert hit the airwaves Friday
afternoon, cable news networks covered the event as though a head of state had
died suddenly. On MSNBC, Keith Olbermann fought back tears as he read the
latest incoming bulletins, like Walter Cronkite announcing the death of JFK.
And the tributes continued: a prime time NBC special on Friday, a "Today"
show devoted to Russert on Saturday, and on Sunday a special edition of "Meet
the Press," the program over which Russert had presided for 17 years, hosted
by old friend and colleague Tom Brokaw.

Brokaw choked up, too, at one point, when trying to describe how much Tim
Russert loved his country, his hometown of Buffalo, and politics in general.
Everyone from Maria Shriver to James Carville spoke openly, tenderly and
fondly about Tim Russert the man, as well as Tim Russert the journalist. It
was very clear they were genuinely impressed by both.

My own personal memories of Tim Russert are less intimate, but no less fond.
I first met him and interviewed him when he was a behind-the-scenes executive
at NBC, before he had been persuaded to take all his obvious knowledge and
enthusiasm and infectious personality and put them to better use in front of
the camera. He was smart and focused, and accessible then, and he stayed that
way over the decades, no matter how big his star rose at NBC. I greatly
respected his devotion to both his father and his son, but what I admired most
about Tim Russert, speaking as a TV critic, was the high standard with which
he approached his job as political interviewer and analyst. Each week on
"Meet the Press" Russert would throw out question after question, often in a
sequence designed to lead somewhere specific, betraying his early training in
law school. More often than not, he elicited answers that became an important
part of the public historical record.

Brokaw played some samples of that yesterday, including this interview with
Hillary Clinton early into her tenure as the junior senator from New York.

(Soundbite from "Meet the Press")

Mr. TIM RUSSERT: Do you ever want to be president?

Senator HILLARY CLINTON: No. You know, I...

Mr. RUSSERT: Ever?

Sen. CLINTON: No. I really...

Mr. RUSSERT: Never? You'll never run?

Sen. CLINTON: You know, Tim, I have no intention of running for president.

Mr. RUSSERT: Oh, but that's a--that's--no intention? Either "I will never
run" or "I might run."

Sen. CLINTON: You know, your good friend and mine James Carville told me,
`Tim will ask you this 900 different ways.' But the answer is the same. I,
you know, I do not intend to do that.

(End of soundbite)

BIANCULLI: All the mourning for Tim Russert the past few days may seem out of
proportion, but I don't think it is. Russert not only was one of the good
guys. In tribute after tribute, he was celebrated for his seriousness at
work, for his preparation, for both the respect he commanded and the respect
he gave his guests. But he was compared time and time again to Edward R.
Murrow and Walter Cronkite. And while Russert never was a wordsmith like
Murrow or commanded huge audiences like Cronkite, he spoke seriously and
plainly about people and things that mattered. He never condescended, he was
always prepared, and he had a gift for reducing complex issues to
understandable, bite-sized pieces. Just remember his dry-erase board back in
2000 when he went deliberately and brilliantly low-tech and explained the
pivot point of the presidential election by writing "Florida, Florida,
Florida."

"Meet the Press," which began in 1947, is television's longest-running
continuous program. Tim Russert was a big part of that show's legacy, and no
small reason why it still exists. Whoever succeeds Russert as host of that
show will have huge shoes to fill; but if he or she does half as good a job,
viewers will continue to be well served.
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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