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Film Director Todd Haynes on the Performance of Glam Rock

Haynes explores the world of glam rock in his new movie "Velvet Goldmine." This period included such artists as Lou Reed, Iggy Pop, and David Bowie. Haynes previous film "Safe" told the story of a suburban housewife who gets a rare condition and becomes allergic to nearly everything.

18:58

Other segments from the episode on November 5, 1998

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, November 5, 1998: Interview with David Hyde Pierce; Interview with Todd Haynes; Review of Sheryl Crow's album "The Globe Sessions."

Transcript

Show: FRESH AIR
Date: NOVEMBER 05, 1998
Time: 12:00
Tran: 110501np.217
Type: FEATURE
Head: Todd Haynes
Sect: Entertainment
Time: 12:32

This is a rush transcript. This copy may not
be in its final form and may be updated.

TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

The new film "Velvet Goldmine" is about the Glam Rock era of the early '70s, when it became fashionable for male rock stars to create androgynous alter egos and dress theatrically in wild colors, feathers and
glitter.

The characters in the film are inspired by such performers as David Bowie, Bryan Ferry, Iggy Pop and Lou Reed. My guest is the screenwriter and director Todd Haynes, whose previous films include "Poison" and "Safe."

The story of "Velvet Goldmine" is about a Glam Rock star named Brian Slade, who fakes his own murder, then disappears. On the 10th anniversary of his disappearance, a report who use to be a big fan investigates the disappearance by interviewing people who use to work with Slade. Her
e's the reporter, play by Christian Bale interviewing Glam Rock star Curt Wild, played by Ewan McGregor.

(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP -- "VELVET GOLDMINE")

CHRISTIAN BALE, ACTOR: I was trying to contact you, actually about a story I was doing about an old friend of yours, Brian Slade. I was trying to find out what actually happened to him.

EWAN MCGREGOR, ACTOR: Look...

BALE: I mean before he became -- such a mystery.

MCGREGOR: Look, man, I don't know who you've been talking to or what you're after here.
Listen, a real artist creates beautiful things and puts nothing of his own life into them, OK?

BALE: Is that what you do?

MCGREGOR: No. We set out to change the world -- ended up just changing ourselves.

GROSS: I asked screenwriter and director, Todd Haynes, why he's interested in Glam Rock.

HAYNES: It's a pretty unique, as far as I see it, chapter in rock and roll history. For a lot of reasons, I guess. It's -- it was this extremely flamboyant period where theatricality and costume and makeu
p and -- was being foregrounded unlike anything that had preceded it.

But, it also, very much woven into that, were a whole series of ideas about gender and sexuality and sort of a refusal for the artist to stand up there and speak from the gut to its audience -- his or her audience. It was more but dressing up into a variety of personas and constructing these ornate little narratives that, like Ziggy Stardust being probably the best-known of those, through which to communicate these various ideas.

GROSS:
There is a scene in your movie "Velvet Goldmine" in which one of the characters is describing bisexuality and homosexuality as if they were styles or attitudes. You know, it was like just another costume to put on.

HAYNES: Right. Yeah, I mean, I think that was the -- very much in opposition to '60s culture which wore its political rhetoric very much, you know, on its sleeve.

The Glam ideas were given a much more fanciful, you know, lighter kind of approach, and yet I find them still to be extremely poli
tical may be inadvertently so. And this kind of idea of sexuality, as something that you could change like your costume or your cosmetic style for that day, is actually something I find pretty progressive, in that it goes against, as all the Glam, sort of imagery does, it goes against these very -- these natural models for identity and for sexuality. And instead, suggests that, you know, it's for the -- in the hands of the young person to decide who they are; to dress up and to try this to try that.

And I fin
d that to be a pretty unique -- another thing that sort of distinguishes it from other bits of rock and roll which is so much about -- usually about, like, authenticity and the sort of notion of who you really are, you know, that you've got to find and stick to.

GROSS: What did "Glam Rock" mean to you? In its time?

HAYNES: In its time. Well, I guess, you know, like I said, it was this invitation, sort of dangerous invitation, into a series of transgressive positions in relationship to finding out who one
is in the world.

But, done so in this very, glossy, glittery, alluring, seductive manner, you know. So it became -- I mean, I was a little bit too young for it and particularly in America were it really didn't have the same kind of commercial mainstream impact that it did in the UK. And when I first encountered those images of, you know, Bowie's face on the cover of "Aladdin Sane" in the record stores or whatever, at, you know, at age 10 and 11 it was sort of too much for me, it was too dangerous, too, too fo
rbidden in a way. But, it still made a very deep impression.

GROSS: Now, why did it seem dangerous to you?

HAYNES: I think it was this androgyny. I think it was this glamorous beauty of face of a man, also in the guise of some sort of a space alien. You know, in a way, all these images were sort of thrust together in this interesting distillation of, you know, the pop icon as a sort of homosexual alien, you know, offering to take you somewhere completely new.

And this image of David Bowie and Ange
la Bowie as the sort of bisexual couple of the future brought so many things into question, you know, about sexual stability, about monogamy, what is a relationship? What is a marriage? All of these ideas are sort of challenged in one image of this sort of -- it must have seemed like a sort of space age, futuristic, you know, world that was about to unfurl -- that this would be the way we would all behave in the future. Where sexual orientation and identity would no longer be stable.

GROSS: Was it scary to yo
u because it was forcing you to confront things that you weren't ready to think about yet?

HAYNES: Yeah, definitely. I was more comfortable with Elton John's "Goodbye Yellow Brick Road." Which, you know, included a lot of the themes that were found in Glam Rock, in artists like Bowie's work and Roxy music and Alice Cooper and stuff, artists like that. But, it was a little bit easier, it was little bit more of a mainstreaming of those -- of those themes.

GROSS: Now, it's been reported that early on in th
e making of your movie the "Velvet Goldmine" you colored your hair and wore platform shoes, doing a little bit of the Glam thing, while you were directing the movie. And then you said, you gave it up because it was just too high maintenance.

LAUGHTER

It is really a lot of work to have...

HAYNES: It is a lot of work, you know. I didn't really, I wasn't really doing it while we were shooting. It was really more in the writing stage.

GROSS: Oh, oh.

HAYNES: And I was very intrigued by this wh
ole concept of kind of constructing oneself from the outside in, kind of changing oneself from the outside in. In that, you know, if you changed your hair and you started to wear different kinds of clothes, some radical sort of sensibility would follow.

And I saw that being played out, not only in Bowie's quest to find the look that would finally work in the marketplace. But in Oscar Wilde as well, the way he constructed himself as a -- as Oscar Wilde, you know, one of the celebrities to -- of his era; to do
so with such, sort of, self-consciousness, I think.

But it's funny for guys, you know, to where super-tight clothes and teetering on high heels with puffy hair that the wind sort of whistles through, you know, you feel this strange vulnerability. But also this funny kind of strength in it, as well. This sort of, like, you know, bitchy kind of conviction about who you are in the world that I guess women might feel when they are sort of made to feel vulnerable but attractive at the same time.

GROSS: See, I
think it's kind of subversive and liberating for a man perhaps to put on this mask of clothes and make-up and, you know, a new expressive hairdo and stuff. And I think it's often liberating for women not to do that...

HAYNES: Yeah, yeah, exactly.

GROSS: ... because so many of us were brought up thinking that you had to do that just to survive in the world. You had to have, you know, high heels that you can't walk on, that hurt your feet and strapless gowns and just all these, you know, strange things th
at make it very hard to function.

HAYNES: Absolutely, but for men to feel attractive through vulnerability is such a difference experience for most men. You know, that's just not what we're trained to feel ever, you know. So, it was a funny, really an interesting little experiment -- didn't last long too long thankfully.

LAUGHTER

GROSS: Because you have a choice.

HAYNES: Yeah, it's true.

GROSS: My guess is Todd Haynes, he wrote and directed the new film "Velvet Goldmine." We'll talk more
after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

BREAK

GROSS: Todd Haynes is my guest and he wrote and directed the new film "Velvet Goldmine" which is about the Glam Rock movement of the early '70s. And he also wrote "Safe" wrote and directed "Safe" and "Poison."

Now, one of your, kind of, theories in the "Velvet Goldmine" is that the pop stars of the Glam Rock era are in their own ways, well, almost reincarnations of Oscar Wilde. You know Curt Wild, one of the pop stars in your movie says, "A man's life is his im
age," kind of echo of the Oscar Wilde saying which is also in your movie, "The first duty in life is to assume a pose, what the second duty is, no one has yet found out."

And then one of the characters says, "Give him a mask and he'll tell you the truth."

Do you think that the Glam Rock people see themselves as descendants of Oscar Wilde?

HAYNES: I'm not sure that the kids of the period, and a lot of them were mainstream bands of the period, were as, sort of, aware of a lot of the literary traditions tha
t they were -- that I see them following in -- you know, in the footsteps of.

But, definitely Bowie, Bryan Ferry, Brian Eno, this arts group (ph) tradition that I was referring to earlier, were, you know, sort of inundated by literary references, cinematic references, pop cultural references, and drew from all of this stuff in the creation of these -- these looks and styles and the music that ensued.

And so when I did my research I sort of tried to retrace those steps and go back to the sources that were
inspiring these artists. And, in a way, try to find a cinematic, a visual equivalent, or a narrative equivalent to what -- to what they were doing musically.

And I could not avoid Oscar Wilde. I mean, he just kept, kind of, coming up. When you look at the ways in which they were sort of challenging natural models for the whole idea performance, the whole idea of identity and sexuality, Oscar Wilde just became the obvious sort of precursor to that an a, maybe the most articulate spokesperson for this traditio
n in England. And it's very English. It's a really English thing that I think as an American I was doubly curious about, sort of trying to understand.

GROSS: Your film made me think in part about the impact that Glam Rock must of had on a lot of sexually repressed or sexually confused teenagers who loved rock and roll, and loved the music, and saw this, kind of, great flamboyance -- this great sexual flamboyance. And what impact all that must have had on the more repressed and confused fans.

Did you find
yourself thinking about that a lot?

HAYNES: I did. I felt that obviously the film is almost exclusively rooted in the point of view of the fan, who's played by Christian Bale, he plays Arthur Stuart in the movie. And how his memories of this period sort of meant everything to him. The period opened up possibilities that he never again in his life felt close to. And, in fact, the life -- the subsequent life he lead was almost a repression, you know, necessitated by this radical moment.

And I, again, it
wasn't my direct experience with Glam Rock, but I think there were other ways, other kinds of work coming out of this period and probably films that I was seeing, more in my, in my life, that opened possibilities up to me and that made me want to become a filmmaker.

But what's really interesting about Glam Rock too, is that it wasn't exclusive to, although it was mostly men up there on the stage playing with, you know, a new kind of femininity and androgyny. Girl -- female audiences were incredibly riveted to
it. And there wasn't a sort of logical identification when David Bowie came out as bisexual, everyone was like, "Oh, you're going to lose your girl fans."

And in fact, it only, you know, excited his audiences and they increase. And girls could enter into this, sort of, fantasy world of dressing up and changing and altering oneself just as easily as guys could.

So, it wasn't directly a gay interpretation, or gay identification in a young boy that it was aimed at or that it worked on, which is curious to
me. It's sort of how pop culture works in all these illogical ways too, which are pretty amazing.

GROSS: Now, Glam Rock played with gender and sexual orientation and yet, I suspect that a lot of rock fans, at least ones in America, didn't really get all the sexual stuff that was maybe implied by it. Because I remember like when the news came out that David Bowie was bisexual, and he'd slept with men, a lot of people were like, "Oh, my God, he did?" Like, "Wow!" They were stunned, like "I'm shocked!"

HA
YNES: Right, right.

GROSS: And so it seems to me if all of this was registering about, you know, sexual identity that people wouldn't have been quite so surprised.

HAYNES: Yeah. No, I think that's true or it works at all of these sort of, you know, sort of subconscious or intuitive levels, I guess. Where, when it's literalized you can't really deal with it, but it can function in all these suggestive ways, these visual cues. And he was so camp onstage in that period, as were many of the other artists as
well. Bryan Ferry as well, who you don't really think of as playing with sexual roles to anywhere near the degree of Bowie, was just mincing around onstage at the beginning. As well, it was sort of like the rigor of this period. And yeah, I think it's almost amazing how much that can be tolerated before you name it. And then when you name it, a lot of people, particularly in America, where things maybe are still in a more Puritanistic, you know, literal context. Or maybe more at that time, would freak out.

GROSS: Some of the Glam Rock performers were bisexual and I read a quote from you in which you said that you found bisexuality very interesting and that it's harder to define than homosexuality. It's a more slippery concept, and it implicates everyone in it. You have to look at your own sexuality in some way that might not be as comfortable as a willing acceptance of homosexuality over there.

HAYNES: Right.

GROSS: Would you elaborate on that? Why you find bisexuality more interesting in that respect?

HAYNES: Well, I guess, I guess because it's not fixed. Again, I think we're most comfortable as a society with stable, concrete, you know, notions based on natural models of identity and sexuality as sort of these organic properties that you've got to find and stick to. And bisexuality, which, you know, of course is part of this whole Freudian, you know, thought which -- which defines all of us at the earliest stage as sort of polymorphously perverse, but then ultimately his theories have to take us to a place
of getting normalized into a single sexual orientation.

But, there was something really risky and almost aggressive about bisexuality in this period. And I think it's as disquieting to gay people as it is to straight people. I think the whole liberation of the gay community has found great solace in this idea of being just as fixed and identified, you know, that you see the world completely through your sexual identity. That's who you are. You're a gay person and there's something very stable and very comfo
rtable about that, as comfortable and as stable as heterosexual models.

But, there becomes at times a sort of rigidity to that, as well. Where, I have many gay friends now who have just inadvertently started relationships with women -- gay men. And there's a sector of the gay community that's like, "Wow, my God that's so weird, you know, what's going on? He's in denial."

I think it always great when sexuality surprises you and forces you to rethink the world, you know, and sort of sneaks up under our,
sort of, safe ideas of who we are. And bisexuality is certainly -- that concept, I think does that to both straights and gays.

GROSS: Well, I think some people see bisexuals almost as tourists. You know, you can have a relationship of somebody of the same sex but it doesn't mean, like, you're really gay, you're just a tourist there, it's not an authentic thing.

HAYNES: Exactly. Right. But, again, it's about -- based on authenticity and finding stability and staying in one place.

GROSS: And you are
not interested in that kind of authenticity?

HAYNES: Well, I wish I was bisexual. I'm afraid I'm not. I'm bisexual in my mind, as i know, you know, certain people have said before, and it always kind of bugs me when they say that, but it's true, I kind of wish I could be, but I'm not.

GROSS: Why do you think you wish you could be? And why do you think you're not?

HAYNES: Why do I wish I could be? Well, I have wonderful women friends who I adore, you know, and I often think they are even more or may
be a lot more emotionally sophisticated in a lot of ways than men. And, you know, I would love to be able to engage, you know, intimately with that and it's, but it's not where my desires take me, I guess, right now. But, you know, things change. We will see what happens.

GROSS: Todd Haynes wrote and directed the new film "Velvet Goldmine." Here's a song written for the film called "Ballad of Maxwell Demon." Maxwell Demon is the alter ego of the film's central character Brian Slade.

(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP --
"BALLAD OF MAXWELL DEMON")

TO PURCHASE AN AUDIOTAPE OF THIS PIECE, PLEASE CALL 888-NPR-NEWS

Dateline: Terry Gross, Philadelphia
Guest: Todd Haynes
High: Film writer and director Todd Haynes explores the world of Glam Rock in his new movie "Velvet Goldmine." This period included such artists as Lou Reed, Iggy Pop and David Bowie. Haynes previous film "Safe" told the story of a suburban housewife who gets a rare condition and becomes allergic to nearly everything.
Spec: Movie Industry; Entertainment; M
usic Industry; Todd HAYNES

Please note, this is not the final feed of record
Copy: Content and programming copyright 1998 WHYY, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by FDCH, Inc. under license from WHYY, Inc. Formatting copyright 1998 FDCH, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to WHYY, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission.
End-Story: Todd Haynes

Show: FRESH AIR
Date: NOVEMBER 05, 1998
Time: 12:00
Tran: 110502NP.217
Type: FEATURE
Head: Sheryl Crow
Sect: Entertainment
Time: 12:50

TERRY GROSS, HOST: On her way to making her latest album, "The Globe Sessions," Sheryl Crow has made a couple of standard new rock star moves. She's been linked in the tabloids with Eric Clapton. She's recorded a previously unreleased Bob Dylan track, and has put in a cameo in an indy film, the forthcoming "The Minus Man," from the director of "Bottle Rocket."

But rock critic Ken Tucker says she sounds far from distracted on this third album.

(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP -- SINGER SHERYL CROW PERFORMING)

Hey let's party
Let's get down
Turn the radio on
This is the meltdown

Get out the camera
Take a picture
Drag queens and the freaks
Are all out on the town

KEN TUCKER, ROCK CRITIC: Coming off two solid hit albums, Sheryl Crow not offers music that pulls back from singer-songwriter-ly confessionalism. "The Globe Sessions" is a sustained yearning for privacy, solace and escape, deriving from a fear that she might, as the title of one song has it, crash and burn.

Produced by Crow and mixed by Chad Blake, the entire enterprise is filled with clatter and clutter -- guitar distortion, radio static, the sound of a phone left pulsing off the hook. They combine to convey a conflicted state of mind about love, fame and the nagging feeling that she can't trust anyone's motives.

(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP -- SINGER SHERYL CROW PERFORMING "AM I GETTING THROUGH?")

I am strong (unintelligible)
I spilled milk on your (unintelligible)
Then I cry like a baby
Just to see if you'll save me

I am sweet
I am ugly
I am mean if you love me
I try hard just to please you
When I say I don't need you

TUCKER: Wise enough to avoid self-pity, Sheryl Crow keeps her dissatisfactions vague on that song, "Am I Getting Through?"

"I'm scared that I'm weird," she says. And answers the title question of whether she's getting through with a muttered: "I don't care, I don't care."

When she wants to admit to insecurity, it's cast as an aside or a pun, as in River Wide's (ph) watery refrain: "Don't Bail On Me," which isn't to say that "The Globe Sessions" is unfocused or vague or not catchy. It leads off with the devilish single "My Favorite Mistake," whose bouncy melody almost buries the fact that the title phrase is about a wayward, infuriating lover she can't quite dump.

(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP -- SINGER SHERYL CROW PERFORMING "MY FAVORITE MISTAKE")

I woke up and (unintelligible) this morning
The tone of your voice was a warning
That you don't care for me anymore

I made up the bed we sleep in
I looked at the clock when you creep in
Six a.m. and I'm alone

Did you know when you go
It's the perfect (unintelligible)
(unintelligible)
I was just beginning

When you go all I know is
You're my favorite mistake

TUCKER: Crow, by the way, doesn't get enough credit for a wily sense of humor. There are lines in "There Goes the Neighborhood," like "the photo chick made to look sickly as standing in her panties in the shower" that are a perfect description of Fiona Apple's video for "Criminal."

There's an unlisted track tacked onto the end of "The Globe Sessions" that's a Bob Dylan-ly diatribe about the persecution of Bill Clinton. And is not the ragged bluesy vocal on "Crash and Burn" a slurry, sly homage to Bonnie Raitt?

(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP -- SINGER SHERYL CROW PERFORMING "CRASH AND BURN")

I watched the sun come up on Portland
Awake I thought of all my friends
I packed my car and led it to L.A.
I gave away all my loose ends

TUCKER: It's a measure of how good "The Globe Sessions" is that I couldn't pick out the outtake from "Time Out Of Mind" that Bob Dylan gave her to record until I looked at the credits. And even then, "Mississippi" still sounds like just a nifty throw away on an album of carefully crafted keepers.

(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP -- SINGER SHERYL CROW PERFORMING "MISSISSIPPI")

Every step of the way
We walk the line
Your days are numbered
So are mine

(unintelligible)
We struggle and we stray
All boxed in
No where to escape

The city's just a jungle
More games to play
(unintelligible) in the heart of it
Trying to get away

I was raised in the country
Been working in the town
I've been in trouble
Since I set my suitcase down

I got nothing for you
I had nothing before
Don't even have anything
Of myself anymore

Skies with the fire
And the rain is pouring down
There's nothing you can sell me
So I'll see you around

And my powers of expressions
And thoughts so sublime
Could never do you justice
Or reason or rhyme

Well there's only one thing
That I did wrong
I stayed in Mississippi
A day too long

TUCKER: If you'd asked me in 1994 when Crow released her slow to click debut, "Tuesday Night Music Club," whether she'd still be making music as vulnerable, rough and tumble and irresistible by her third collection, I wouldn't have taken that bet.

In cases like this, I'm always glad to be proven wrong.

GROSS: Ken Tucker is critic-at-large for "Entertainment Weekly."

I'm Terry Gross.

This is a rush transcript. This copy may not
be in its final form and may be updated.

TO PURCHASE AN AUDIOTAPE OF THIS PIECE, PLEASE CALL 888-NPR-NEWS

Dateline: Terry Gross, Washington DC
Guest: Ken Tucker
High: Rock critic Ken Tucker reviews Sheryl Crow's newest CD "The Globe Sessions."
Spec: Sheryl Crow; "The Globe Sessions"; Music Industry; Entertainment
Please note, this is not the final feed of record
Copy: Content and programming copyright 1998 WHYY, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by FDCH, Inc. under license from WHYY, Inc. Formatting copyright 1998 FDCH, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to WHYY, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission.
End-Story: Sheryl Crow

Show: FRESH AIR
Date: NOVEMBER 5, 1998
Time: 12:00
Tran: 110501np.217
Type: FEATURE
Head: David Hyde Pierce
Sect: Entertainment
Time: 12:06

TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR, I'm Terry Gross.

"Frasier" is a great example of a sitcom at its funniest with acting at its best. My guest, David Hyde Pierce, has received two Emmys, a Golden Globe, a Screen Actors Guild award, and four American Comedy awards for his portrayal of Niles, Frasier's younger brother.

Both brothers are psychiatrists; Frasier, played by Kelsey Grammer hosts a call-in radio show although he's out of work at the moment because his station changed formats. Niles' psychological insights didn't save him from one of the worst marriages and longest divorces in history.

The brothers are snobbish, effete, egotistical, and insecure. Although they have a close relationship, they're very competitive and suspicious of each other. Here's Niles calling on Frasier.

(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP -- SCENE FROM NBC TELEVISION SERIES "FRASIER")

DAVID HYDE PIERCE, ACTOR, "FRASIER": Hello, I know I'm a bit early. I was hoping we might get a bite to eat before the theater.

KELSEY GRAMMER, ACTOR, "FRASIER": Actually, no.

PIERCE: It will be on me, of course, as a thank you for getting those replacement tickets.

GRAMMAR: You bought the tickets?

PIERCE: I know, I know I owe you money, and my gratitude; and if I keep talking you won't be able to tell me because you weren't able to get the tickets.

GRAMMAR: Just haven't been able to get them yet.

PIERCE: Oh, I knew you hadn't gotten them yet. But now it's too late; it's six o'clock.

GRAMMAR: Just calm down, I've made a few well-placed calls, I haven't heard back from a couple of people -- someone will call.

PIERCE: No, someone better call because everyone who's anyone is seeing this play. And you know who you are if you're not anyone? You're no one. And I've been someone much too long to start being no one now.

GROSS: The character of Frasier originated on the show "Cheers." I asked David Hyde Pierce if when he was cast in the show "Frasier" he studied episodes of "Cheers" to get a sense of the family traits and mannerisms.

PIERCE: Yes, in fact that's specifically what I did. I watched a lot of old episodes of "Cheers" to get the physical behavior because I felt like when I looked at my own family -- first of all, I look more like Kelsey than I look like any other member of my real family. So, physical resemblance isn't necessarily the key, but what does happen is people have the same kind of speech patterns and the same physical mannerisms.

We have all had the experience of looking in the mirror and being horrified to realize we were acting exactly like our mom or our dad. And, that kind of stuff, I thought, was what would let people know that we were really brothers.

If we moved in the same way, if we had the same tilt of the head when we spoke, if we hit words and voiced words in a similar way.

GROSS: I know Kelsey Grammer is a big admirer of Jack Benny, and you can kind of see that in some of his gestures. Did you go back to Jack Benny also to kind of better get to know what Kelsey Grammer would be like and register that family trait?

PIERCE: I didn't. That's something else that Kelsey does which was a whole new kind of acting for me which is -- I don't know if you know the term "sampling" which they can do with pieces of sound technology. You can sample the playing of an instrument with a synthesizer, and Kelsey can almost sample famous actors.

Like someone who does impressions, except what he does is he will incorporate Jack Benny or Bette Davis or James Mason or whoever into the lines that he is saying as Frasier so that it simultaneously echoes the famous person, but is really still Frasier speaking; and that gives him this enormous range; I even did a scene where he did Daffy Duck in a perfectly believable way.

GROSS: Frasier -- in a way the show is a contrast of two types of masculinity. You have a father who is the retired cop; and loves sports, and his old easy chair, and meat and potatoes. And Frasier and Niles who, you know, are impeccably dressed and are connoisseurs of wine and food and furniture; and in a way -- in a way they're almost like -- they almost embody certain of the traits that are stereotyped as gay traits, including some of their gestures. And I wonder if that's something that's ever discussed on the set of the show?

PIERCE: We don't ever discuss it on the show, although we did address it, actually, in an early episode. There's kind of a famous episode from the first season called "The Matchmaker" where a new station manager took over Frasier's radio station, and the guy was gay but Frasier didn't know it.

And Frasier...

GROSS: That's a very funny episode.

PIERCE: Yeah, well, it was a great episode. Joe Keenan (ph) wrote it; one of our very good writers, and there was a whole mix-up where Frasier thought he was setting up this guy to date Daphne and the guy thought it was a setup to date Frasier.

And near the end of it, because of a variety of confusing circumstances, this guy also thinks that Frasier's dad is gay. And finally, it all gets straightened out in the end. And he says: "So, your dad's not gay?" And he says: "No, no dad's not gay." And then the guy says: "But, Niles, come on."

And it was our away of addressing -- because a lot of people have talked about the fact -- especially with Frasier and Niles - a lot of stuff that they do together that, as you said, is sort of a stereotypical gay relationship in that they like to dress well, they like fine wine, and opera and all that stuff.

But there's one critical part of gay relationships which they are not really into, and that seems to me to be the dividing line; and that's more of the anatomical area which is that they both love women. And so, I think that the rest of it, as you say, it really is a stereotype if it necessitates them being gay because they like those things.

There's a certain sort of, as you described different kinds of masculinity, there's a very English as opposed to an English peasant, but a kind of an upper class English feeling about them also. Also, a sort of Southern gentlemen feeling -- it's a more of, I guess you could say, a feline masculinity as opposed to dad or Bulldog who's the sportscaster on the show is more of a eating hot dogs and beans and slapping people around kind of guy.

GROSS: Right. Now, the writing is so funny on the show. Can you think of an example of lines that you particularly like that kind of exemplify the quality of the writing?

PIERCE: Yes, the one that always pops into my head is there was a scene where the unseen mayoress is having a party at Frasier's apartment, and no one could find her; and I explain that she fell asleep and she's under all the coats on the bed. And my line is that she exhausts easily under the pressure to be interesting.

LAUGHTER

What I love about that line is if you look at the actual wording of it; it's a little bit wordy, it's a low bit high-faluting, "she exhausts easily." But what makes it funny is the description of his personality because in some way we've all been there. We've all been at parties and had to put on that face, and we know how you go home and it's supposed to have been a party and you're wiped out from the effort.

And she just takes it to the nth degree, so it's a combination of a skillful use of language, but also a skillful depiction of character. And I think most of the humor of the show, as it should, comes out of situations like that as opposed to jokes.

GROSS: Because there's a kind of almost ornate style of speaking that Niles has, I'm sure his cadences are a little bit different than yours. Was it hard to get into that rhythm?

PIERCE: It's a good question. It wasn't difficult, because it's well written it's easy to pick up on the speech pattern. And again, because I was sort of modeling it after the way Kelsey speaks as Frasier I had a role model there.

One of the things that we are always playing with, and one of the differences between the writers who write for our show; and sometimes when people send in scripts that they've written in hoping to get hired for the show is that the writers understand that there's a subtle difference between someone who uses language in a certain way and just simply writing a lot of big words because that somehow seems to be what the characters are all about.

A lot of times we'll find that you have to tone Niles' language down because in a given situation, a very emotional situation say, or for example he might not fall into those elevated speech patterns that he would have when he's more relaxed and he's talking about the wine club. And I think that's also what keeps him real.

GROSS: Would you compare your voice and style of speaking with Niles?

PIERCE: Well, it's hard -- you know why? Because as soon as I start getting analytical and talking about the show and being philosophical about it then I automatically almost become him. And, I mean, let's see -- there's a certain -- I guess there's a certain other placement in the voice that he speaks almost in a little higher pitch than I do.

And the pronunciation of the words is just a little bit archer, and a little bit more enunciated and oh, what's the word -- that sort of thing. And there's little reflections like that creep in. Sometimes I'll be like somewhere else in the country and people will say: oh, you don't have an English accent. Thinking that I do have an English accent because of whatever it is I'm doing as the character it sort of -- it reads that way.

GROSS: Yeah, it's arch and clipped.

PIERCE: Yeah, and a little bit operatic at times. He gets extremely agitated over not very important things. We just had -- he was just invited to a party where he brought a bottle of '81 Chateau aux briant (ph), and he wasn't there two minutes before he heard a pop, looked up and saw it being decantered into a punch bowl of sangria, canned fruit, and erotic ice cubes. So, it's sort of a higher range, I think, when he gets excited.

GROSS: It must be interesting to play a character for so long that you have to, you know, different styles of speech that you know so well; your own and your characters.

PIERCE: Well, and in fact, I think I've played him so long that when you asked me the question about what was the difference between my speech and Niles, I got extremely nervous because I suddenly thought, you know, I'm not sure there is one anymore. I think that the gap has narrowed over the last six years.

GROSS: I know you shoot in front of a live audience which means that there's real laughter that you have to deal with which will effect the timing. You can't talk over the high point of a laugh.

The trick is, I think, if the audience is laughing and it's a fairly extended laugh; the camera doesn't pan to the audience it's still on you. So, you have to be doing something while you're not speaking during the laughter.

PIERCE: Yes. Well, we've all become masters of sort of idle fiddling and, you know, stirring coffee during long laughs or you can check your shoelaces and see if they're tied. What it is -- it's just fun, you try to find behavior that the character would actually be doing in the moment.

But what your also doing is you're feeding the laughter because it just makes people laugh more when they see you riding that wave of laughter, however you choose to ride it out. If Kelsey and I are in a scene together then we can do a good ten minutes of just making faces at each other until eventually we both laugh and then it's over.

GROSS: If you're just joining us my guest is David Hyde Pierce, and he's the star of "Frasier." He plays Niles, Frasier's brother. Let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more.

This is FRESH AIR.

BREAK

GROSS: My guest is David Hyde Pierce, and he plays Niles on the series "Frasier."

Now, the story goes that, you know, no one knew that Frasier had a brother when Frasier was a character on "Cheers," and I don't think Frasier knew he had a brother.

And then when he was given a new series he still wasn't supposed to have a brother, but the story goes that the creators of the show were given a picture of you; saw this incredible facial similarity then watched tapes of you; loved your performance and thought: well, let's write him in as the brother.

Did you see the similarity when you looked at Kelsey Grammer?

PIERCE: My mom, when I first came out to L.A. which was about six or seven years ago, said to me: now, you look like Kelsey Grammer maybe you could be on his show. And that was back on "Cheers."

GROSS: Oh, really?

PIERCE: Yeah, and no one else thought that at the time. But then, totally without me having anything to do with it, this casting director, Sheila Guthrie (ph) who was working with Jeff Greenberg (ph) the main casting director for "Frasier;" she brought them my photo and they didn't know who I was - like most people.

And, like you said, she also brought them some tapes from the only other TV show I'd ever done -- the only other sitcom which was called "The Powers That Be." It was a Norman Lear political satire where John Forsythe played a Senator -- I played a suicidal congressman, and they looked at those tapes and based on those they actually met with me.

And this is the humiliating part because they met with me for about half an hour, and then they went away and wrote Niles. So, I don't know what that says about me, but that's the way it fell out.

GROSS: Right. So, it's funny because although I see certain similarities between you and Kelsey Grammer; you're a much more kind of refined version of it. Smaller, and, you know, more elegant.

PIERCE: Refined is nice. I like refined. He -- you know what? If you see pictures of him -- I saw a shot of him, he was just out of college which was taken in New York, and -- or also he was on a soap opera back then when he was still going to Julliard.

And he looks -- it's me, it isn't even he looks like me, it's me. And, so, I think we -- depending on the year of the show, we look more or less alike each other. But there's definitely a familial resemblance kind of thing.

GROSS: David Hyde Pierce is my guest, and he plays Niles on "Frasier." I'd like to run through some of the movies that you've been in, and maybe you could just say a few words about your part in each one and what it was like for you.

Let's start with your movie premiere debut of "Bright Lights, Big City."

PIERCE: Yes, that was my first ever. It cost me more to join the union than they paid me to be in the film. In fact, my agent had to advance me the money so I could do this movie. And I had one line, it was with -- Michael J. Fox was in this movie.

If you ever see it, there's a scene where he goes to disrupt a fashion show that Phoebe Cates is doing and I'm standing behind the bar, and I say: "I'm sorry the bar is closed." And that was my first memorable line.

GROSS: Did you practice saying that a thousand different ways before doing it for real?

PIERCE: Well, for one thing, I was a nervous wreck. I mean -- I had been a stage actor for many years; I'd been on Broadway, and off-Broadway, and gone all over the place. I'd never done a movie, and they don't know that, and they treat you as if you're an old pro and they say: OK, now this -- he's going to come up; the camera's going to be here; you're going to hit your mark; you're going to do that and this.

And of course, you say: yeah, right I'll be there. And your thinking: what's a mark? Who do I hit? Who's Mark? It was very disturbing, but I got through that and no one was injured. So, I think I did OK.

GROSS: "Crossing Delancey."

PIERCE: Oh...

GROSS: Let me guess, you were the non-Jewish character.

PIERCE: I did once audition for a play in New York they did called "O'Shane O'Madle," (ph) and it was for a Jewish character. And I had to say the line "you only love me for my mother's bagels."

LAUGHTER

I, you know, I didn't believe me saying it. They were very nice during the audition, no one asked me to leave or anything. But, anyway, no I was a non-Jewish character in "Crossing Delancey." I love that movie; by the way, it's a sweet film. And what I most remember about it was I had to learn to play the cello.

My character was a cellist and there was a scene where Amy Irving, who was the lead in the movie, was having a birthday and all of us who were worked in this little bookstore with her were singing "Happy Birthday" to her and I was playing it on the cello.

And I, literally -- they paid for lessons. I learned how to play "Happy Birthday" on the cello. Amy Irving, who had done a movie called "The Competition" where she had to pretend to play the cello, made endless fun of me because, you know, I was squeaking. But I finally got through the take and did it, it was all perfect.

And that scene segued into a scene on a phone from Florida where her parents friends were a barbershop quartet are finishing singing "Happy Birthday" over the phone. Well, when they put the film together, the guys singing in the barbershop quartet were in a different key. So, they dubbed the cello playing; so what I had slaved for weeks to learn - I never had to do the first-place, they were just going to lay it in anyway. So...

GROSS: Tough luck.

PIERCE: That was hard.

GROSS: "Sleepless in Seattle."

PIERCE: That was my first connection with Seattle, and that, you know, of course was a big hit movie. I had a very small part in it, but the funny thing is if you go back and watch it, the little scenes that I have -- I play Meg Ryan's brother. I'm actually married, in a very similar marriage, to the one that Niles has with Maris.

The actress who plays my wife is a little on the petite side and she's kind of shrewish the way the character's written, and we have sort of a hate-hate relationship, I think. But, it was sort of foreshadowing of my -- the rest of my life.

GROSS: In Oliver Stone's movie "Nixon" you played John Dean. What did you do to get in character?

PIERCE: I met with John Dean; had several meetings with him, and did a lot of reading about John and the whole Watergate crisis. And found out that depending on which book you read, John Dean was either a completely innocent victim of this whole thing or the evil mastermind behind the entire Watergate scenario which was a little bit of a of a history lesson.

And the other thing I did was watch the tapes of the hearings, and other than that it was just the thrill of, you know, acting scenes with Anthony Hopkins.

GROSS: What'd you do with your voice for John Dean? It's such a familiar voice for people who remember the Watergate hearings.

PIERCE: Yeah, I didn't do a lot. I -- there was some -- a little bit of -- I'm trying think of what it was -- he's from California, and it wasn't that he had a particular accent. I think maybe some of the vowels were a little flatter than mine. Again, I didn't -- none of us were trying to do exact imitations of the people.

I mean, Anthony Hopkins is the most obvious example that he -- when he did Nixon he's completely capable of doing a spot-on Rich Little quality Nixon impression. But he didn't want people to watch him do a Nixon impression because the most you get out of that is sitting there thinking: oh, he's really good doing a Nixon impression.

So, he kind of split the difference between hinting at Nixon's actual voice and certainly getting the physical mannerisms, but really making it more of a character performance for him. To my taste, I think it was a really smart choice.

GROSS: So, I want to hear about other movies and stuff that you have coming up outside of "Frasier."

PIERCE: I'm a voice in this new Disney picture movie "A Bug's Life," and that opens -- I think it opens around Thanksgiving time.

GROSS: What's the voice?

PIERCE: The voice is Slim who is a walking stick bug. It's one of those bugs that's sort of tall and has a couple sets of hands, and kind of bug-eyed -- I guess they're all bug-eyed come to think of it. But he's particularly bug-eyed, and its got a great cast. It's a -- technologically, it's awe inspiring. You just can't believe how beautiful it is.

But that's not the point of the movie, it's a really good story and it's very well told -- oh, and then I did a -- over the past hiatus, I was in Montreal shooting a movie which is a biography of Jacqueline Susann. That stars Bette Midler as Jackie, and Nathan Lane as her husband and manager, Irving Mansfield (ph). And John Cleese is in it; Stockard Channing, Amanda Peete (ph). It's a great cast, and it's a terrific script by Paul Rudnick (ph) who wrote "In and Out," and "Jeffrey," and "The Addams Family" movies, and stuff like that.

GROSS: David Hyde Pierce, it's been a real pleasure to talk with you. I really want to thank you.

PIERCE: Well, thanks Terry.

GROSS: David Hyde Pierce plays Niles on "Frasier."

I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

This is a rush transcript. This copy may not
be in its final form and may be updated.

TO PURCHASE AN AUDIOTAPE OF THIS PIECE, PLEASE CALL 888-NPR-NEWS

Dateline: Terry Gross, Washington, DC
Guest: David Hyde Pierce
High: Actor DAVID HYDE PIERCE plays "Niles Crane" on NBC's sitcom "Frasier." He has received two Emmy Awards for this role. Pierce has also appeared in the films: "Bright Lights, Big City," "Little Man Tate," "The Fisher King," "Crossing Delancey," "Sleepless in Seattle, and "Nixon." His voice also appears in the new movie "A Bug's Life." He currently lives in Los Angeles.
Spec: Entertainment; Lifestyle; Culture; David Hyde Pierce; Television and Radio

Please note, this is not the final feed of record
Copy: Content and programming copyright 1998 WHYY, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by FDCH, Inc. under license from WHYY, Inc. Formatting copyright 1998 FDCH, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to WHYY, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission.
End-Story: David Hyde Pierce
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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