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'Fresh Air' Remembers Actor Eli Wallach.

Wallach made a career of playing the villain in films like The Good, the Bad and the Ugly and The Magnificent Seven. He died Tuesday at the age of 98. Wallach talked with Terry Gross in 1990.

20:31

Other segments from the episode on June 27, 2014

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, June 27, 2014: Obituary for Eli Wallach; Interview with Tom Perotta; Review of films "Transformers: Age of Extinction," and "Snowpiercer."

Transcript

June 27, 2014

Guests: Eli Wallach - Tom Perrotta

DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli, editor of the website TV Worth Watching, sitting in for Terry Gross. Eli Wallach, the veteran stage and screen actor, died Tuesday. He was 98 years old. Wallach appeared in more than four dozen films over the past five decades and received an honorary Oscar in 2010. He won a Tony Award for starring in the Tennessee Williams play, "The Rose Tattoo," and made his film debut in another drama written by Williams, "Baby Doll." He appeared in such films as "The Magnificent Seven," "The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly" and "The Misfits." He also was a charter member of the Actors Studio, where the actors practiced a technique that became known as the Method. When Terry Gross interviewed Eli Wallach in 1990, here's what he had to say about the Method.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ELI WALLACH: All of it, basically, was an antidote from the cliche, from the conventional. You know, when an actor says, I remember, and he always looks up at the sky, you think, what is he seeing up there? But that was a signal that he's remembering. And the Method basically was to destroy all that and to get to the truth of a situation. So the studio was like a laboratory. We were professional actors in the theater, but we could go there and work out. I could go and do a scene from "Hamlet" with Billy Dunning(ph), for example. I'd do the closet scene. I wouldn't get to do that on Broadway, and I did it there.

TERRY GROSS, HOST: Let's go back to the cliched way of I remember when, and the actor looks at the sky. If you had a scene where you were remembering something, what would you do differently to get into it, I mean?

WALLACH: Well, I would actually try to remember. I - although I know the next line - it says, it was that time of - have you ever forgotten something, and the person says, it's like having water in your ear. You go to sleep, and it'll come out. The water will come out of your ear later. And you've heard people say, ten minutes after they try to think of something, oh. And then they'll say, Palm Beach. That's what you - that's what I look for - the true situation, not the cliche.

GROSS: Yet, there were cliches about actors who studied the Method at the Actor Studio, right? What was the cliche that you had to resist about actors from the Actor Studio?

WALLACH: Well, there's a myth that all members of the studio mumbled. All members of the studio paid no attention to the other person. They were so involved in dredging up the truth of what they had that they paid no attention to the other person. Those are myths. We were impossible. We discovered a new religion, and we had no patience for other actors. I never forget taking Sir Laurence Olivier to the Actors Studio. And he said, well, I can see you're nitpicking now, you know. And I said, well, you did it, too. You have your way of working. Olivier, for example, gets into a character by putting on the externals. He puts on the nose and the robe and so on, and that's the way he gets it. Others say, which comes first? Do you find the truth of the situation? I've played all sorts of characters. Bandits - I've played a lot of bandits. And one time, I figured out you always see them holding up the train or breaking into the bank. You never see what they do with the money. It's always the pursuit of it. I wanted to show the reverse side of the coin. I wanted to show the wealth this guy ostentatiously had. So I put on red silk shirts and gold teeth and silver saddles. And that - that's the way the method helps - a kind of a technique that you work at to bring a character to life.

GROSS: Is that "The Magnificent Seven"?

WALLACH: That was "The Magnificent Seven." Yeah.

GROSS: Since you've brought up how many bandits you've played, let me bring up a couple of films you've played them in. One was "The Magnificent Seven," and you played the head of a band of Mexican outlaws...

WALLACH: Right.

GROSS: ...Who raids a village and keeps this village under the outlaw's controls - control. And the Magnificent Seven is a group of kind of renegade, freelance fighters who save the - this Mexican village. How'd you get cast in that role?

WALLACH: I don't know.

GROSS: First of all, you were Mexican, and...

WALLACH: I don't really know. I know that when I first read the script, I said, well, I want to play the crazy - it was based on the "Seven Samurai." I want to play the crazy samurai. Oh, no, they said, that's the love interest. Horst Buchholz is going to play it. What do you want me to play? They said, the head bandit. I said, well, in the Japanese movie, you just see his horse's hooves, and he's a man with an eye patch. I don't want to play that. Then, I read the script carefully, and I come in - ride into town in the first minute of that movie, shoot somebody and ride out. The next 50 minutes of that movie are devoted to me, saying, is he coming back? When is he coming? I said, I'll do it. I'll do it. And I loved - I used to arrive on the set early in the morning, put on my outfit, get on my horse with my 35 bandits and we'd go for an hour ride through the brush in Tepotzotlan in Mexico. And I loved it. I loved it.

GROSS: Did you have to learn gunplay and horse-riding for the role?

WALLACH: No. If it says I shoot somebody, I shoot them. I'll never forget what my son said. Yul Brynner shot and killed me in this movie. And my son was about seven, and he said to me, gee, Dad, couldn't you outdraw Yul Brynner? I said, Peter, when you read the script, you read whether you're shot or not shot. So I loved - I love those kind of films. They're fun.

GROSS: Now another famous Western that you did is "The Good, the Bad and the Ugly."

WALLACH: Right.

GROSS: Now this was the - this is the most celebrated of the spaghetti Westerns.

WALLACH: Correct.

GROSS: And the director, Sergio Leone, is now considered one of the great directors of our time. He was not known, though, when you worked with him on the "The Good, the Bad and the Ugly." Did you think of him as a great or potentially great director then?

WALLACH: No, I - when - I was making a film in California when the agent out there said, there's an Italian here who wants you to be in a movie. I said, what kind of movie? He said, a Western. I said - he said, a spaghetti Western. I said, that's an anomaly. That's like Hawaiian pizza. I don't know. He said, he wants you to look at a few minutes of one of his other movies. And I looked at a few minutes, and I said, I'll do it. Where do you want me to go? He said, I want you in Rome on such and such a date. And I arrived, and I spent the next four and a half months working every day on that movie. And it was an exhilarating experience.

GROSS: Now what had he seen of yours?

WALLACH: Evidently, "The Magnificent Seven." So that - I don't know how - you never know how things happen in the movies.

GROSS: You played a Mexican in "The Good, the Bad and the Ugly."

WALLACH: Yup.

GROSS: So once again, you had to do a Mexican accent, but it was a light one. It was...

WALLACH: Yes.

GROSS: ...kind of light Mexican accent.

GROSS: I want to play a short clip from the movie.

WALLACH: Oh.

GROSS: OK. And this is the scene - if anyone remembers the story - I'm sure a lot of our listeners do - you and Clint Eastwood have this scam going. There's a big price on your head.

WALLACH: Right.

GROSS: So Clint Eastwood brings you into the law. And just as they're about to hang you, he cuts you loose. And you both ride away, and you split the bounty.

WALLACH: Exactly.

GROSS: So you split the price that was on your head. So this was after - this is after the first time, when you're about to be hung. Clint Eastwood frees you, and you're splitting up the bounty.

WALLACH: Right.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE GOOD, THE BAD AND THE UGLY")

WALLACH: (As Tuco) There are two kinds of people in the world, my friend - those with a rope around their neck and the people who have the job of doing the cutting. Listen, the neck at the end of the rope is mine. I run the risks. So the next time, I want more than half.

CLINT EASTWOOD: (As Blondie) You may run the risks, my friend, but I do the cutting. We cut down my percentage - cigar? - liable to interfere with my aim.

WALLACH: (As Tuco) But if you miss, you had better miss very well. Whoever double crosses me and leaves me alive, he understands nothing about Tuco. (Laughing) Nothing.

GROSS: I love that little sadistic laugh at the end. (Laughing).

WALLACH: But I don't think it's a very good Mexican accent. I - you know, it's standardized. It isn't - I didn't do the cliche of - I think, maybe I do like that. You know, I don't - I didn't do that. I wanted specifically to be clear in what I was saying.

GROSS: So where did you get the accent from?

WALLACH: I went to school in Texas as a young man. I went to the University of Texas in the '30s. In my class were John Connolly, Walter Cronkite...

(Laughing)

WALLACH: ...Zachary Scott and Elaine Steinbeck. And I used to ride horses down there, and I used to go to Mexico as often as I could. I loved Mexico. I think Mexico is a pure country. It's a good country. And so I picked up - accents always frighten me, but I once played an Oriental on the stage in London - "Tea House of the August Moon." And I was convinced that, at some point in the play, some Japanese man would stand up in the audience and point at me and say, faker. That man is not an Oriental, see?

GROSS: (Laughing).

WALLACH: And I'd get terrified that I'd get discovered.

GROSS: In the Italian Westerns that you made, especially in "The Good, the Bad and the Ugly," everything's dubbed, right?

WALLACH: Right.

GROSS: Afterwards?

WALLACH: Right.

GROSS: So what language did you do it in initially?

WALLACH: Oh, I'd do it in English.

GROSS: You'd do it in English.

WALLACH: And I've played with Italians, French, German. They play in their language. I play in mine.

GROSS: So in these international casts, everybody's talking in their own languages.

WALLACH: Exactly.

GROSS: And it's dubbed in afterwards.

WALLACH: It's the Tower of Babel. It really is. But you wait until they stop speaking or you know what the sense of what they're saying. But then you have to go in the studio and dub it. And I kept thinking of scenes on horseback, riding through the dessert. Now I'm in a studio. I have to match the essence of what he's saying. It's not easy.

GROSS: Why did they do it that way?

WALLACH: Because it's easier and cheaper. An airplane flies over - they don't stop a scene. They drop a wrench in the middle of a scene. It makes a noise. They don't care. Two other Italians over in a corner will be arguing about something.

One director said to an Italian actor who's playing with me - he said to me - the Italian actor said, I don't like Americans. I said, why? He said, I lost my arm in the war. I said, well, I don't know. What could I do? He was not an actor. So the director said, I want you to count from one to 10, angrily. So the man said (Italian spoken). And then when they dub it in, he's playing a wonderful scene, an angry actor.

GROSS: (Laughing).

WALLACH: Well, that's movies.

BIANCULLI: Eli Wallach speaking to Terry Gross in 1990. More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)

BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to Terry's 1990 interview with Eli Wallach. The veteran stage and screen actor died Tuesday at age 98.

GROSS: "The Good, the Bad and the Ugly" is really one of the most kind of brutal, sadistic Westerns, in a way.

WALLACH: No, it's done with tongue in cheek.

GROSS: I know.

WALLACH: It's not brutal.

GROSS: I know. It is - I know there's a lot of humor in it. But what kind of mood did Leone tell you that he wanted?

WALLACH: One of the things he said to me - he said, I want every shot to be done like Vermeer. I want the light to come in from the side windows. And he said to me, I don't want you to have your gun in a holster. I said, where will I put it? He said, with a lanyard around your neck. I said, oh, and then it dangles between my knees, right?

GROSS: (Laughing).

WALLACH: He said, yeah. He said, when you want it, you twist your shoulders. And I cut, and the gun is in your hand. I said, show me. He put it around his neck. He twisted his shoulder. He missed the gun. It hit him in the groin. He said, keep it in your pocket. So that's - that's...

GROSS: (Laughing) It's interesting that you became a kind of action hero when you were - what? - probably in your 50s already.

WALLACH: When - "The Good, the Bad and the Ugly"?

GROSS: And "The Magnificent Seven."

WALLACH: Yeah. I was - I was a little younger.

GROSS: No, you must have been in your 40s in "The Magnificent Seven."

WALLACH: Yeah. Yeah.

GROSS: But you know, like, today most action heroes are a lot younger. It's like they start off in their 20s and 30s playing that kind of role.

WALLACH: Yeah.

GROSS: Did you - did you feel like it was an odd match?

WALLACH: Well, you wear very tight pants in these - in these movies.

GROSS: (Laughing).

WALLACH: And to get up on a horse, they'd always have to cut. I'd put my foot in the stirrup, but then they'd cut away to somebody looking at me. And the next thing, I was on the horse.

GROSS: (Laughing).

WALLACH: So, no - I'll tell you.

GROSS: (Laughing).

WALLACH: In "The Good, the Bad and the Ugly," I did most of the stunts, and they were very dangerous. I was sitting on a horse with a noose around my neck, and Clint's supposed to shoot the rope. Then, they put a little charge of dynamite in the rope, and it would explode. And, then, I would ride off on this horse.

I said, did you put any cotton in the horse's ears? They said, what do you mean - cotton in the horse's ears? I said, he can hear the explosion. He's going to be terrified. My hands are tied behind me. Well, they didn't do it. They shot the rope, and that horse took off. I - and I'm riding not using reins, just using my knees and praying that that horse would eventually stop. And eventually, he did, but it was frightening.

GROSS: Oh, I'm really impressed because, I mean, that horse really takes off...

WALLACH: Oh, yeah.

GROSS: ...After the gun goes off.

WALLACH: Oh, yeah.

GROSS: And I assumed there was some kind of trick there or something because I figured it would really need a stunt rider to ride like that with their hands tied behind their back.

WALLACH: No, I rode. I rode. But you have to be very careful. Horses are not - you know, I just came from Lexington, Kentucky, in the horse country. We did the play down there. And horses are not supposed to be too smart. They're - thoroughbreds are very frisky. They're angry most of the time.

GROSS: Yeah.

WALLACH: The horses I get in America - in American films are trained. They know how to hit their marks. They shift their weight. They look great.

GROSS: (Laughing).

WALLACH: But when you get into a foreign movie, and they bring out a horse, I say, I want the gentlest, sweetest horse. And he usually turns around and looks at me when I sit on him and thinks, oh, God. I've got this guy for three weeks.

GROSS: (Laughing).

WALLACH: But I like - I like riding.

GROSS: I want to get back to something you were saying before. You were describing how you learned how to ride a horse and how you learned a Mexican accent when you were at the University of Texas. I can't think of a lot of people from Brooklyn who went to Texas to go to college in - this must have been - what? - the 1940s.

WALLACH: In the '30s.

GROSS: In the '30s. What got you to Texas to go to college?

WALLACH: The tuition was $30 a year. The University of Texas was an oil-rich college - university. It's a huge plant now with 40 - 50,000 students. When I went it, it was 4,000 students. And I couldn't get into City College. I didn't have the grades. I never liked high school. And I finally wound up down in Texas. I'll never forget - after the first semester, I went back up to New York to make some money for my tuition. And I wore a big belt that said Tex - Texas on it. And they used to call me Tex. Here I was from Brooklyn. And so they assigned me as a horseback-riding counselor, and so I had to ride. That's one the reasons I rode a lot.

GROSS: When did you start acting?

WALLACH: As a boy. As a little boy. I - and before the war, I went into the Neighborhood Playhouse. I failed the teacher's exam. Everybody in my family were teachers. Thank god I failed it. And I went and got a scholarship to the Neighborhood Playhouse School of the Theater. It's a wonderful acting school. I finished - one of the teachers was Martha Graham. Sanford Meisner, so on. I finished in 1940. And I - we did - our senior project was a dance from "Look Homeward, Angel." We choreographed it. Tony Randall was in the class. We choreographed "Look Homeward, Angel."

And at one point, Uncle Sam stands on a thing and points a finger at me and says, Uncle Sam wants you. And sure enough, I got a low number in the draft, and Uncle Sam got me. So I went in the army at the end of 1940 and got out at the end of 1945. So I spent five full years in the army, not acting. I kept thinking, Broadway, here I come. And Uncle Sam kept saying, wait a minute. We've got problems here. So I spent five years as a medical administrator in the army.

GROSS: You've, throughout your career, divided your time between theater and movies. Have you had a - have you had a preference? How have you - what kind of balance have you wanted to keep?

WALLACH: Well, I've got the appetite, still, to act. I love to act. And I don't care where it is. It could be in a tiny theater in Chicago, or it can be on a huge stage in New York or a movie in the middle of the jungle in Cambodia. The fact is that I'm acting in each one of those media - in the media. But if given a choice - if I were told by a judge, you can only practice one of television, movies or the theater, I'd choose the theater without hesitation.

GROSS: Why?

WALLACH: Because the gratification is immediate. There's a connection between me and an audience. I have control over what you see. In a movie, you only see what's put on the screen. I did that movie, "The Two Jakes," with Jack Nicholson. When they cut it and edited it, they had - I had a long scene in a courtroom that was cut out. Now, no one knows about that. In "The Good, The Bad, And The Ugly," there's 20 minutes of me tracking down Clint Eastwood in a cave. It's beautiful - brilliantly shot. No one has ever seen it. So I don't like that. I like to have control over what you see.

GROSS: Eli Wallach is my guest. We'll be seeing you soon in "Godfather III."

WALLACH: I play a character called Don Altobello.

GROSS: You're Italian again.

WALLACH: Yes. Tall and handsome. Don Altobello, an old, old friend of the Corleone family. So I said to - I said to Coppola, the director, if I'm such an old, old friend of the family, why wasn't I in "Godfather I" and "Godfather II"?

GROSS: (Laughing).

WALLACH: He says, well, you were away in Sicily. And it was very sweet. The second day I was going to work on this movie, he said, you're going to play it all in Sicilian. I said, now I don't know Sicilian. He said, well, get a guy, get a cassette. You'll memorize it. So I memorized it, and there'll be subtitles under that scene. That specific scene I play - it sounds like this. (Sicilian spoken) - like that.

GROSS: Had you seen "The Godfathers I and II"?

WALLACH: Oh, yeah.

GROSS: So you felt you could just pick up on the story and...

WALLACH: Well, no. When we - when I got the script, the last ten pages were omitted.

GROSS: Why?

WALLACH: Because he didn't want anybody to know their fate in this movie.

GROSS: Oh, like Woody Allen.

WALLACH: Well, I had no idea where I was going. I didn't know what was going to happen to me. And it's very interesting not to know. It's like life. And he's a fascinating director because he would - he'd tighten a screw here and tighten a screw there with just a word or two. And he'd leave me alone pretty much. I played an old man with an hour and 20 minutes of these rubberized make-up thing on. Now to go from Cinecitta in Rome back to my hotel at the Spanish Steps would take an hour by car, so I rode the subway. So the first day, I finished. I got on the subway, which was 20 minutes - very fast. And I'm sitting there, looking at my script. And I'm peeling off all this rubberized make-up. And I look up, and there - the opposite side of the car on the subway - they're all staring at me. I had - half my chin was ripped off with this rubberized - and I put it back on, and they applauded. (Laughing) That's in Italy.

GROSS: Did they realize you were an actor?

WALLACH: Oh, they realized that.

GROSS: Did they think something very grotesque was happening?

WALLACH: They knew I was coming from Cinecitta, so they know all the actors come out of that studio.

GROSS: I want to thank you so much for talking with us.

WALLACH: A pleasure.

BIANCULLI: Eli Wallach speaking to Terri Gross in 1990. The acclaimed actor, who received an honorary Oscar in 2010, died Tuesday. He was 98 years old. I'm David Bianculli, and this is FRESH AIR.

DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm TV critic, David Bianculli, sitting in for Terry Gross. Our next guest, Tom Perrotta, is a novelist whose latest book, "The Leftovers," is being turned into an HBO series of the same name which premieres Sunday. Perrotta adapted it along with Damon Lindelof, one of the stars of ABC's "Lost." The story of HBO's "The Leftovers" is the same as in Perrotta's novel.

One day, with no warning and no explanation, 2 percent of the world's population just vanishes into thin air - old people, parents, children, even babies. The HBO drama starts with the disappearance, then jumps to three years later, as those who are left behind - the leftovers - struggle to carry on and make sense of it all.

Some start as a religious cult called the Guilty Remnants. Here's a scene from Sunday's premier when the mayor of a small town is explaining her plans for a third anniversary parade, while the chief of police listens skeptically. The mayor is played by Amanda Warren, the police chief by series star, Justin Theroux.

(SOUNDBITE OF HBO SERIES, "THE LEFTOVERS")

AMANDA WARREN: (As Lucy Warburton) The DSD has proclaimed a federal holiday of remembrance. And that's what they're calling our departed because that's how we want to remember them. Everyone loves a hero. So we're all going to have a nice walk through town, have a good cry and then move on. It's time. Everybody's ready to feel better.

JUSTIN THEROUX: (As Kevin Garvey) Not the Remnant.

AMANDA WARREN: (As Warburton) At last, the chief speaks.

THEROUX: (As Kevin Garvey) I would've said something sooner, but I was so riveted.

WARREN: (As Warburton) So we're going to do this again?

THEROUX: (As Kevin Garvey) The whole town - the same place at the same time on the anniversary? You're inviting them to show up.

WARREN: (As Warburton) The GR isn't a threat. If they want to stage a nonviolent protest, that's their right.

THEROUX: (As Kevin Garvey) You were at the homecoming. They walked right onto the field.

WARREN: (As Warburton) And then they walked right off, no harm done.

THEROUX: (As Kevin Garvey) They are trying to provoke us.

WARREN: (As Warburton) Then don't get provoked.

THEROUX: (As Kevin Garvey) A year ago, these people didn't even exist. Now there's almost 50 of them. They bought up an entire cul-de-sac.

WARREN: (As Warburton) You know, you're saying this to me as if I didn't already know it.

THEROUX: (As Kevin Garvey) I don't know [bleep], Lucy, do you? Where did they come from? What do they want? You don't even know who they are.

WARREN: (As Warburton) We know who they were.

BIANCULLI: Also starring in HBO's "The Leftovers" is Amy Brenneman, playing the sheriff's wife, Laurie. Tom Perrotta also wrote the novels "Election" and "Little Children," both of which were adapted into films. Terry Gross spoke to Tom Perrotta in 2011 and asked him about the idea behind "The Leftovers."

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

TERRY GROSS, HOST: Tom Perrotta, welcome back to FRESH AIR. Your book isn't about the Rapture, per se. But to understand what's in the book, you have to understand what beliefs about the Rapture are. So why don't we start with that? What is your understanding of the Rapture?

TOM PERROTTA: Well, the Rapture is part of pre-millennial end-times theology. It's actually a pretty recent part of Christianity. I think it was a 19 century invention or formulation. And it's the beginning of the Second Coming which is a seven-year period.

So basically, the Rapture is the first real occasion the Christians on Earth rise to meet Jesus in the sky. And the people who are left behind suffer through a seven year period of tribulation - which is wars, plagues, all kinds of suffering. And there's a big battle that involves the Antichrist and Armageddon and, finally, the Second Coming and the Millennium, which is Christ's kingdom on Earth for 1,000 years.

GROSS: So in the Rapture, the believers rise to heaven, and the nonbelievers stay behind and have to deal with the tribulations, the plagues and floods and all that.

PERROTTA: Exactly.

GROSS: OK. So I want you to read an excerpt of the prologue to your novel, "The Leftovers." And this is from the point of view of Laurie, who's an agnostic who lives with her husband. They have two children - a boy in college and a girl in high school.

She never believed in the Rapture. She says it always seemed like religious kitsch to her - kind of like one of those black velvet paintings. And then she's kind of hit with the fact that all these people have disappeared. So why don't you pick it up from there?

PERROTTA: OK. (Reading) Then it happened. The biblical prophecy came true - or at least partly true. People disappeared - millions of them at the same time, all over the world. This wasn't some ancient rumor - a dead man coming back to life during the Roman Empire or a dusty homegrown legend - Joseph Smith unearthing golden tablets in upstate New York, conversing with an angel. This was real.

The Rapture happened in her hometown to her best friend's daughter, among others, while Laurie, herself, was in the house. God's intrusion into her life couldn't have been any clearer if he'd addressed her from a burning azalea. At least you would have thought so.

And yet, she managed to deny the obvious for weeks and months afterward, clinging to her doubts like a life preserver, desperately echoing the scientists and pundits and politicians who insisted that the cause of what they called the Sudden Departure remained unknown - and cautioned the public to avoid jumping to conclusions until the release of the official report by the nonpartisan government panel that was investigating the matter.

Something tragic occurred, the experts repeated over and over. It was a Rapture-like phenomenon, but it doesn't appear to have been the Rapture.

Interestingly, some of the loudest voices making this argument belonged to Christians themselves, who couldn't help noticing that many of the people who'd disappeared on October 14 - Hindus and Buddhists and Muslims and Jews and atheists and animists and homosexuals and Eskimos and Mormons and Zoroastrians - whatever the heck they were - hadn't accepted Jesus Christ as their personal savior.

As far as anyone could tell, it was a random harvest. And the one thing the Rapture couldn't be was random. The whole point was to separate the wheat from the chaff, to reward the true believers and put the rest of the world on notice. An indiscriminate Rapture was no Rapture at all.

So it was easy enough to be confused, to throw up your hands and claim that you just didn't know what was going on. But Laurie knew. Deep in her heart, as soon as it happened, she knew. She'd been left behind. They all had.

GROSS: That's Tom Perrotta reading from his novel, "The Leftovers." So at the center of this is the idea - if something inexplicable happened, would you attribute it to God or would you find a scientific, secular reason to explain it? Who believes this is an act of God? Who believes it's some kind of scientific or just inexplicable phenomenon that is not related to religion? Why did you want to pose that question in your novel?

PERROTTA: That's a very good question. I think when you write a book, you start, I think, in a much vaguer place. You're not really sure what question you're posing. So in this case, I think - I wrote a book called "The Abstinence Teacher." It was my last novel, and it was about the culture wars in the U.S. centered around sex education.

And I spent a lot of time thinking about contemporary Christianity and reading about it. And, obviously, the Rapture kept coming up. And my first impulse was to sort of laugh it off. It's a sort of a funny idea - people just floating away.

But I also kept thinking, well, what if it did happen? I thought, three years later, everyone would have forgotten about it - that no matter what horrible thing happens in the world, the culture seems to move on and keep flowing into the present moment.

And so the more I thought about it, the more it seemed like a really rich metaphor for thinking about the way that we react to, as you say, incomprehensible events, horrible events, things that we can't completely understand. There are these dueling impulses, you know, to remember and bear witness and to forget and move on. And this was the scenario that I chose to explore those impulses.

GROSS: Now, your book is being published very close to the 10 anniversary of 9/11, and, in a way, that seems like no coincidence 'cause I kept thinking about 9/11 when reading your book because many people in New York, you know, did disappear. They disappeared into the rubble of the towers. Their remnants, their remains were never found.

PERROTTA: And, you know, I certainly was thinking about it as I wrote it. I didn't write the book as a kind of direct response to 9/11, but I did keep getting hung up on this idea of seven years. And that's the period of the tribulation mentioned in end-times theology. And I kept thinking, you know, seven years is such a long time.

You know, I remember, 10 years ago, feeling like, you know, the world will never be the same. We'll never forget this. And I think, you know, even four and five years later, it started to seem like something that had already been absorbed by history - that we had moved past it.

Now obviously for people who were directly affected, it's never absorbed by history. It's always present. And so it was one of the really contemporary examples I had of this process. But you can name any number of traumatic 20 century events and think about, you know, how quickly people managed to - many people managed to move on.

GROSS: The mother in the book, whose point of view we heard represented in the reading that you did, she joins this cult-like group called the Guilty Remnant. Would you describe the group?

PERROTTA: The Guilty Remnant represents a very extreme reaction to this event - the Rapture, the Sudden Departure. These people are kind of a home-grown suburban cult. They dress in white, and that makes them distinctive. They travel in same-sex pairs throughout the town. The thing that makes them most distinctive is that they are smoking constantly. This is a sort of declaration of faith, and also a sense that they have that there's no future - that they don't have to worry about their health or anything like that.

And what they do is just follow people around, and they see themselves as living reminders. They devote themselves to bearing witness, and there is this guilty sense. They believe that they were, in some way, rejected by God.

They don't necessarily identify as Christians, but they have absorbed that viewpoint on the Rapture - that they were, in a sense, left behind, judged and found wanting. And they dedicate themselves to preventing a return to normalcy in the town.

BIANCULLI: Tom Perrotta speaking with Terry Gross - more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(MUSIC)

BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to Terry's 2011 interview with author Tom Perrotta. He's just helped adapt his latest novel, "The Leftovers," into a TV series for HBO. It premieres Sunday.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

GROSS: Do you know why the people in your own novel disappeared?

PERROTTA: (Laughing) No. No, I didn't. Partly I'm always impatient in science fiction movies or books where there's this explanation, well, there was a temporary disturbance in the Earth's magnetic field or...

GROSS: (Laughing) Yeah.

PERROTTA: ...You know, tons of industrial waste were dumped into the river, and that's why this monster was created.

Yeah, I understand that there may be social criticism embedded in those sort of explanations, but they always seem kind of cheap and easy. And in any case, for me, the book was really about the experience of not knowing.

As I say, I'm a skeptic myself or an agnostic, whatever word you want to put on it. And I do feel like, you know, the burden of living with that sort of skepticism is that you are confronted with not having a story about why terrible things happen or, you know, what the meaning is of our time on Earth.

And so to me - you know, and the apocalyptic religious stories are always about imposing a final meaning on the mysteries of life. And this is an agnostic's apocalypse where even this event that should make everything clear just makes it all murky.

GROSS: Did you grow up with religion?

PERROTTA: Yes, I grew up Catholic in the 1970s. And it was not a very rigorous religious upbringing. I stayed in the church right up to the point where I got confirmed at age 13, and that was basically considered - that was basically what we did. It was like just stay in, get confirmed. It was almost like I graduated from church.

GROSS: (Laughing) Right. Right, so you didn't even need to have a falling out. You just graduated.

PERROTTA: Yeah, you didn't have to go anymore.

GROSS: Since you're not someone who turns to the Bible for explanations about life and death and other mysteries, do you find that fiction is helpful in, if not comprehending the world, at least finding people who help explain living in the face of mystery?

PERROTTA: Oh, yeah. I mean, I would probably have to say that reading fiction - those stories fill the space that, you know, other people might use religious stories for. You know, the bulk of what I know about human life, I've gotten from novels.

And I think the thing about novels that make them important to the people who love them is that there's always another perspective. There's no novel that I think really works unless it has a kind of internal dialogue and a tension.

And I think that is obviously, you know, a real alternative to religion which tends to give you a unified perspective and isn't that interested in the idea that there are competing ideas that are equally valid - or valid if you are a person in, you know, one set of circumstances and less valid if you're a person in another set of circumstances.

It's very relative in that sense and - as opposed to absolute. And that's what drives, you know, religious conservatives crazy. They don't like this idea that there are multiple truths for multiple people.

GROSS: So your new novel, "The Leftovers," is being adapted into an HBO series. Are you working on the adaptation?

PERROTTA: Yeah, I'm going to write the pilot.

GROSS: So what are you going to have to do to make this into television?

PERROTTA: That's a very good question. I think the book has an interesting time frame. It basically does not focus on the Rapture-like event that's at the center of it. It begins about - some months after it happens, and the bulk of the action takes place three years after the event. So, you know, one of the things I'm really pondering is just where do I begin my story? And the thing I love about serial TV drama is that you can really let a story breathe.

And, you know, when you're adapting a book for a film - a feature film that's two hours - you're just always compressing and cutting. And I think what TV offers you is the ability to maybe open things up, take events that are just mentioned in passing in the novel and develop them. So I'm really thinking that there's a lot of material that takes place in this three year period that I kind of skip over that I might be able to, you know, break open and explore and let breathe.

GROSS: You know, when I first opened your new novel, "The Leftovers," I was kind of expecting it to be a social satire about the Rapture and people who believed it. And I don't think that's what it is.

I mean, there are satirical elements in it, but I think what you're really doing is looking at why some people believe, why some people don't believe, how we live in the face of mystery, how we grieve for people who we've lost.

Can you talk a little bit about the tone you wanted and the tone you wanted to use to describe those people who do believe in the Rapture?

PERROTTA: Yeah, no, that's a - I'm really glad you said that because I don't feel like I'm a satirist. I don't even think I ever was. But that label has stuck to me probably because the movie "Election" was a brilliant satire, and it kind of amped up some elements that were muted in the book to do that. And that was the first way people became familiar with my work. And so labels tend to stick, and first impressions tend to stick.

But I will say that I think what happens for me is that I do start in a place that feels like it might lead to a satire, and then the process of spending time with characters, getting inside their heads, trying to see the world the way they see it, pulls me away from satire.

And I think a lot of times, you know, you can't see where you're going to end up. So I think I did - if you asked me the day I started writing this book, I think I would have told you that it was going to be a lot funnier then it turned out to be. The problem was - to choose the Rapture as your subject matter means that you're dealing with characters who are grieving for the missing.

And the story is the story of an epidemic of grief and loss. And if there's a religious impulse in the book, it's, to me, you know, what must have been the original religious impulse which is, you know, that faith is a response to incomprehensible loss. And so I don't think that any of the characters who embrace the various faiths that are available in the book are ridiculous. I think that that feeling of loss and that need for comfort is a completely human response to what's happened.

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

PERROTTA: Oh, thank you, Terry. I really enjoyed it.

BIANCULLI: Tom Perrotta speaking to Terry Gross in 2011 - his newest novel, "the Leftovers," is the basis of a new HBO series premiering Sunday which Perrotta helped adapt. This is FRESH AIR.

DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. Opening today, in many theaters, is the fourth in Michael Bay's "Transformer" series, "Transformers 4: Age Of Extinction." It's inspired by the Hasbro toys that turn mostly cars and trucks into robots. Another very different kind of apocalyptic, action movie that rolls out today is "Snowpiercer" by South Korean director Bong Joon-ho, who made the acclaimed giant monster film, "The Host." Film critic David Edelstein has these reviews.

DAVID EDELSTEIN, BYLINE: Summer's the season when millions of people go to movies to experience their own extinction. Eco-catastrophes, alien invasions, post-apocalyptic battles to the death - fun, fun, fun - or so you'd think given how these scenario sell. Most people go for the sheer spectacle, of course, which is why "Transformers 4: Age Of Extinction" will make a billion dollars.

But there's another, lower budget dystopian film in a limited release that's more invigorating. It's called "Snowpiercer," and it's the first English-language movie by the South Korean director Bong Joon-ho. Based on a French graphic novel, it's set on a long, long, long train carrying the frozen Earth's only survivors after an attempt to stop global warming backfires spectacularly. The problem is the population is cruelly subdivided. The Richie Richs lead lives of luxury in front, while the back cars are filled with ragged proles forced to eat protein mush and watch as, seemingly at random, soldiers drag off their children.

"Snowpiercer" centers on a revolt led by Curtis, played by Chris Evans, his pal, played by Jimmy Bell, and others, including John Hurt as Curtis' one-legged mentor and Octavia Spencer as a woman whose son was plucked from her. Their destination is the engine that runs the train called the Eternal Engine in leader's songs and speeches which bring to mind North Korea's tributes to assorted dictators. But first, the rebels must get past the soldiers, bolted steel doors and an especially vicious enforcer, played by Vlad Ivanov.

The action scenes in "Snowpiercer" are choppy and graceless, and many of the actors ham it up. But the combination of B-movie tackiness and broad social satire is strangely potent. As the rebels push through more and more surreal settings - greenhouses schoolrooms, health spas - and rebels fall by the wayside shot, stabbed, disemboweled, the film is like a class-warfare version of "The Poseidon Adventure." The best thing is a barely recognizable Tilda Swinton as a snaggle-toothed authority figure who regularly rebukes the underclass with a portable microphone.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "SNOWPIERCER")

TILDA SWINTON: (As Mason) Happy Yekaterina Bridge,

you filthy ingrates. You people who would suck up the generous titty of Wilford ever since for food, shelter. And now, in front of our hallowed water supply section no less, you repay his kindness with violent hooliganism. You scum. Precisely 74 percent of you shall die.

EDELSTEIN: Speaking of the end of the world, many people think director Michael Bay represents the end of movies. Shh, (whispering) don't tell anyone, but I like him. I think the third Transformers film and last year's satirical crime movie "Pain And Gain" were seriously underrated. But "Transformers 4: Age Of Extinction" is nearly three hours, mostly painful. Two words sum up Bay's touch - bloat and chop. Many of his images are amazingly layered. He doesn't sprinkle in computer imagery like MSG, the way George Lucas did in his last Star Wars pictures. The way the alien Transformers turn from cars to behemoths brings out the 12-year-old in me. They're awesome. Those transformations end with a flourish, as if the robots are bodybuilders showing off their muscles.

But Bay has too much testosterone. These are war movies in which the action is indiscriminately show-offy and confusingly scrambled. Noise substitutes for coherence. Speaking of incoherence, the plot involves Kelsey Grammer as a Dick-Cheney-like neo-con who wants to wipe out the Transformers, even the ones who saved Earth in three previous installments. Trying to stop him is flaky inventor Mark Wahlberg, his blonde, teenage daughter in short-shorts and the daughter's Irish boyfriend, who has the distinction of being must more mush-mouthed than Wahlberg. I'm sure there are people less suited to playing scientists than the former Marky Mark with his swollen biceps and streetwise Boston persona. Maybe Justin Beiber? That's all I can think of right now. But I like Wahlberg, and he humanizes the movie. Stanley Tucci is splendidly silly as a billionaire industrialist who's more and more sympathetic to Wahlberg's cause.

But really, "Transformers 4" is a hash. If you do see it, try to appreciate each image as the work of CGI art it is, and forget making sense of the movie. But I suggest passing it up and waiting for the next cinematic apocalypse. Another will come along any day now.

BIANCULLI: David Edelstein is film critic for New York Magazine. For Terry Gross, I'm David Bianculli.

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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