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Maureen Corrigan's Love of Reading

Book critic Maureen Corrigan's memoir about her lifelong love of reading is Leave Me Alone, I'm Reading: Finding and Losing Myself in Books. This interview originally aired on Sep. 12, 2005.

21:24

Other segments from the episode on January 19, 2007

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, January 19, 2007: Interview with Maureen Corrigan; Interview with Greg Kinnear; Review of the film "Venus."

Transcript

DATE January 19, 2007 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
NETWORK NPR
PROGRAM Fresh Air

Interview: Book critic and author Maureen Corrigan discusses her
career and new book "Leave Me Alone, I'm Reading"

DAVE DAVIES, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, senior writer for the Philadelphia Daily
News, sitting in for Terry Gross.

Just about every week on FRESH AIR our book critic Maureen Corrigan leads us
to a novel or work of nonfiction she thinks is worthy of our time. Her
reviews are so interesting and well crafted that many listeners weren't
surprised in 2005 when Maureen published her first book. It's called "Leave
Me Alone, I'm Reading: Finding and Losing Myself in Books," and it's now out
in paperback. It's about her life as an obsessive reader. She writes: "My
own book is my attempt to figure out some of the consequences of my prolonged
exposure to books and to explore how reading has transformed my life mostly
for the better, sometimes for the worse."

In addition to her work on our show, Maureen writes a mystery column for The
Washington Post and teaches literature at Georgetown University. Maureen
spoke to Terry when "Leave Me Alone, I'm Reading" was first published. She
began with a reading.

Ms. MAUREEN CORRIGAN: "The roots of my own yearning to read are easy enough
to trace. I was a shy kid, an only child who grew up in a two-bedroom walk-up
apartment in Queens. Reading offered companionship as well as escape. It
also gave me a way to be more like my dad whom I adored. Every weeknight
after he came home from his job as a refrigeration mechanic and ate supper, my
dad would go to his bedroom and read. Mostly he read adventure novels about
World War II. He had served first in the Merchant Marine and then after Pearl
Harbor in the Navy on a destroyer escort. Those Navy years were the most
intense of my father's life although he never said so. My dad belonged to
that generation of men forged by the Great Depression and World War II whose
unspoken motto was, `The deeper the feeling, the fewer the words.' He didn't
talk a lot about the war but I knew it haunted his memory because every night
he cracked open a paperback, usually one with an embossed swastika on its
cover, and sat smoking and reading. Near his chair was a framed photograph of
his ship, the USS Schmidt. To read was to be like my dad and maybe to get a
glimpse of his experience, to me as wide and unfathomable as the sea.

My mom, on the other hand, would rather try to talk to just about
anybody--Minnie Mouse, Alan Greenspan--than read a book. She used to grow
restless on those long ago evenings when my dad and I would be lost in our
separate fictional worlds. Because she knew better than to bother him, she'd
invariably sidle up to me and complain that I was ruining my eyes by reading
in the perfectly adequate light of the living room lamp. Or she'd feel my
head and tell me that I was getting bumps from too much reading. Sometimes
I'd give in and watch TV with her for a while but at some point I'd always
pick up my book again, leaving her, as she'd complained, all alone. My poor
mother. How did she get stuck with the two us reader loners for company?"

TERRY GROSS, host:

That's Maureen Corrigan reading from her new memoir "Leave Me Alone, I'm
Reading."

Maureen, congratulations on the book.

Ms. CORRIGAN: Thank you, Terry.

GROSS: You know, reading that I was really wondering, did you get mixed
messages about reading when you were growing up? On the one hand, it's good
for you, you know, reading is good for you. You have to learn to be a smart
girl. But on the other hand, it's anti-social. Put down the book and talk to
your family. Put down the book when we're visiting relatives.

Ms. CORRIGAN: Yeah, I definitely got mixed messages. I think, you know, for
a lot of women we're supposed to be the connectors. We're supposed to be the
socializers. We're not supposed to be the people in the family who isolate
ourselves and sit alone in a room and read. My mother definitely saw too much
reading as a sign of trouble and almost like a personality disorder. What was
the matter with me? Why didn't I get out more and talk to people? And, you
know, for my mother reading is just a mystery. She is one of those
people--and there are a lot of people out there like this--who just can't
respond to books. She doesn't get their magic. She doesn't understand why
someone would want to spend hours lost in a book.

My dad, on the other hand, would have been quite happy, I think, to spend most
of his life sitting in his bedroom, as I say, smoking and reading and, you
know, coming up for air once in a while. He wasn't a misanthrope, but to him
there was no greater pleasure than to be a reader.

GROSS: Now you write in your book that you realize there's a certain risk of
reading, that it can make you estranged from real life. What do you mean by
that?

Ms. CORRIGAN: You know, we hear so much about reading as being beneficial,
and, of course, I'm not going to argue with that. Reading is one of the
greatest pleasures of my life and it's opened up worlds to me. But I do think
there is a risk to reading and that, especially for those of us who get
carried away by stories, and that possibly--and certainly for me this was the
case--that it intensifies our own passivity. I know that there have been
periods in my life where I've sort of sat back and waited to be rescued or,
you know, waited for some kind of author god to write a better script for
whatever was going on in my life at the moment. And I think that, you know,
getting lost in books as a refuge is sometimes a way not to deal with life.
And, again, I think I've experienced that, that books were a great place to
hide out when things weren't going so well for me in the real world.

GROSS: One of the things you've done is gone back to some of the books that
you read as a girl when you were in Catholic school. And one of those books
was called "The Brooklyn Catholic Reader." Would you describe this book.

Ms. CORRIGAN: "The Brooklyn Catholic Reader" is--wow, it's a great time
capsule of pre-Vatican II Catholicism. First of all, the pub date on "The
Brooklyn Catholic Reader" is 1939, and I was in Catholic grammar school in the
'60s, pre- and post-Vatican II. So it's a little scary to think of, you know,
what the resources of my little Catholic school were in Queens that we were
still reading something published in 1939. It's filled with poems, short
stories all with a message of `Suck it up,' you know, `stiff upper lip, don't
complain.' To be a whiner was to endanger your soul and to not be a complainer
was to be considered, you know, closer to God, closer to heaven. And so all
of these stories and poems preach against pridefulness and having too much
ego, thinking too much of yourself. And that was definitely the message that
I got growing up--not only from Catholic school but coming from a working
class background. You know, who do you think you are? Don't walk around
thinking that you're somebody with a capital S.

You know, Terry Eagleton wrote, I think, a great little autobiography a couple
of years ago called "The Gatekeeper." And for those of you who don't know who
he is, he's a very prominent British literary critic and scholar. And
Eagleton also comes from a working class background in England, an Irish
Catholic one. And he, for me, crystallized that attitude when he described
the tombstone that he could imagine his family adopting when they all passed
away. And on the tombstone he said the slogan would be written `We didn't
cause too much trouble.' I mean, that's sort of, you know, the attitude of not
causing too much trouble, not asking for too much. And I have mixed feelings
about that attitude because these days I feel like I spend way too much time
with people who think way too much of themselves, you know. And so there's
something to me endearing and admirable about self-deprecation and not putting
yourself forward but it also can be damaging.

GROSS: Well, how do you think it affected you as a girl who was already shy,
and was probably already a bit unsure of yourself, a little insecure...

Ms. CORRIGAN: Mm-hm.

GROSS: ...so--to constantly get this message in literature that, you know,
who do you think you are?

Ms. CORRIGAN: Yeah, yeah, who do you think...

GROSS: Don't inconvenience anybody with your presence. How do you think that
helped shape you?

Ms. CORRIGAN: Oh, gosh. I think, first of all, it gave me the comforting
sense, in a way, that somebody was always watching, somebody with a capital S,
you know, a divine somebody. So that no matter how alone I felt or how much
of in a jam I might be I did have that sense that a religious background gives
you that, you know, I was not alone. I think being shy and getting that
message of not putting yourself forward probably set my career back as a
writer and as a scholar, I don't know, by years and years. You know, you
learn to kind of keep yourself in the background. And, you know, I think,
too, as a teacher, as a reviewer, that's what I'm used to. I'm used to being
a handmaiden of literature. I'm used to especially cheering other people's
books and so this situation of having, you know, finally written a book of my
own and talking about my own book is weird and uncomfortable for me because
I'm really used to promoting other people's works and I'm more comfortable
doing that.

GROSS: A lot of the early reading you did, back when you were in Catholic
school, was about the lives of the saints and martyrs...

Ms. CORRIGAN: Mm.

GROSS: ...and these are stories that often involve violent, bloody death and,
as you put it, for the women these stories are often about trying to defend
virginity at all costs. Were these stories appealing to you? Did you--and
were they frightening to you?

Ms. CORRIGAN: I remember loving the lives of the saints stories whenever we
got to them in religion class. You know, the life of Christ we all knew it,
and, you know, we went to mass every Sunday. We were familiar with the gospel
stories. The lives of the saints, right, were gory. They were bloody. And
this business about virginity, I know this is going to sound just impossible
probably, especially to any listener under 30 out there, but I think it took
me probably an extraordinarily long time to figure out what virginity was. I
remember huddling with my best friend Mary Ellen Moore from St. Rayfields,
which is the Catholic school we both went to, and we had gotten, you know, a
book out of the library, the local library, when we were both in about 7th
grade and it was a medical textbook. And we were looking at the male and
female anatomy and, you know, the chapters on procreation and making faces and
being appalled. I mean, we really didn't have a clue. My mother explained
menstruation to me by saying that this was the way your body got rid of bad
blood. So I thought everybody menstruated, you know. And this was at age 13.
So, you know, it's uncomfortable to admit that but I think coming from that
Catholic background where we were still growing out of the changes in
Vatican--that Vatican II wrought, and the sexual revolution certainly didn't
hit my corner of Queens until probably the mid-'70's. I think we were still
growing up more like probably kids grew up in the '40s and '50s than in the
swinging '60s.

DAVIES: Book critic Maureen Corrigan speaking with Terry Gross. We'll hear
more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Announcements)

DAVIES: Let's get back to Terry's interview with our book critic Maureen
Corrigan. Her own book "Leave Me Alone, I'm Reading" has just come out in
paperback.

GROSS: Now, you've talked about how, in some ways, you think reading
encourages passivity and how some of the early Catholic literature you were
exposed to kind of reinforced your shyness. At the same time you loved Nancy
Drew books and, you know, here's like a heroine who is assertive. I mean,
she's solving mysteries. She's putting her life in danger to solve those
mysteries. What appealed to you about Nancy Drew books?

Ms. CORRIGAN: Well, first of all, I loved the trappings of the Nancy Drew
books. When I opened up Nancy Drew--and I vividly remember getting my first
Nancy Drew. I was eight years old. It was Christmas, "The Secret of the Old
Clock" was in my Christmas stocking. When I opened up those books I became
Nancy Drew of River Heights with the patrician lawyer father and with Hannah
Gruen the loyal what--what do you want to call--a housekeeper who kept
everything in order and with the two adoring sidekick friends. So, you know,
part of the great appeal of those books for me was that Nancy was always
dressed appropriately. She always knew what to say. Absolutely she could
hold her own against thugs and jewel thieves, but it was--for me I think it
was more the social ease that those books conveyed, that it was just a great
fantasy for me to be so on top of your own world.

GROSS: You loved the Nancy Drew books as a girl and then as a woman you fell
in love with hard-boiled fiction and you fell in love with that while you were
in graduate school studying literature.

Ms. CORRIGAN: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: Why is it that when you were studying literature and going for a
graduate degree did you fall in love with just the kind of book that probably
wouldn't be studied at that point in time in graduate school?

Ms. CORRIGAN: Yes.

GROSS: I mean, you'd teach courses on detective fiction now, but I don't
think that there were such courses when you were studying.

Ms. CORRIGAN: No, when I was--when I began graduate school in the mid-'70s
the kind of--the cultural studies tsunami was just starting to hit grad school
programs. So, no, definitely you wouldn't talk about detective fiction. I
was doing a dissertation on 19th century nonfictional prose writers, social
critics like John Ruskin and Thomas Carlyle and William Morris. And really
for diversion one night I opened up a paperback of Dashiell Hammett's "Red
Harvest." And somebody had recommended it to me. They said I might like it
and I saw that the plot had to do with something about union busting. And
since my dad had been a shop steward almost all his working life, I kind of
thought, `Well, maybe I'll be interested in this.' And I started to read "The
Red Harvest." It's narrated by one of Hammett's detectives called the
Continental Op and I fell in love with the voice, the voice is a tough,
working class voice that was the kind of voice I wasn't hearing in graduate
school.

And it's not as though I'm--you know, I'm not a big fan of identity politics
in literature. I don't think that we're just attracted to stories that are
about us or sound like people we know. I think that's a really limiting way
to regard literature. But I was so starved for the kind of voice I would have
heard around my old neighborhood in Queens--you know, trapped as I was in this
elite graduate school program--that I really began to fall in love with
hard-boiled American detective fiction. And then I began to see some
connections between the British--19th century British writers I was studying
and people like Hammett and Chandler who, you know, in Chandler's immortal
phrase, `We're investigating a world gone wrong.' That's what these social
critics in the 19th century were doing. So I really began to feel like there
was more to detective fiction than, you know, than meets the eye, than people
had usually credited the form with.

GROSS: Now one might think that you were in heaven going to graduate school
to study literature, but it sounds from your memoir that you were not in
heaven at all. You felt terribly uncomfortable. You say at your first
academic dinner party you were drenched in self-loathing. What was so
off-putting about graduate school for you?

Ms. CORRIGAN: I think I came to grad school with a lot of expectations that
were probably impossible to meet. I think I imagined graduate school the way
people talk about their reading groups, you know, as this great community of
like-minded readers who I would spend years with and we would talk about books
and it would just be heaven. And it wasn't. I was accepted into the grad
program at the University of Pennsylvania in 1977. And when I arrived at Penn
I went to my first sherry hour that the English department hosted, and there
were a lot of these kind of Oxbridge customs around the place, one of them
being a sherry hour. And I was--at the sherry hour one of the professors I
was working with got up and announced to all of us first-year students that
none of us would ever be as brilliant as Ira Einhorn.

And, again, for the non-Philadelphia listeners out there, Ira Einhorn was
probably one of the most famous characters to emerge out of Philadelphia in
the '70s. He was a kind of a New Age celebrity. He had been earlier a
fixture in the new left in Philadelphia. In 1977 his girlfriend, Holly
Maddux, had disappeared and Einhorn was fingered as the number one suspect in
her disappearance. Two years later, her decomposed body was found in a trunk
in Einhorn's West Philadelphia apartment. And he eventually skipped bail and
went on the run for 20 years all over Europe.

So when I got to Penn to hear that none of us would ever be as brilliant as
Ira Einhorn who was, as I said, just the number suspect in this poor girl's
disappearance, it should have told me a few things. I mean, it should
have--that announcement should have told me that, first of all, men really
mattered more than women, you know, here was this brilliant man and, well, his
girlfriend had disappeared but who cared about her. He was the one who
mattered. And then secondly, that really brilliance was really the only value
in this kind of amoral universe I had entered--brilliance or the appearance of
brilliance. And that's why Einhorn was still celebrated at Penn when I got
there.

GROSS: So did things ever get better for you in graduate school?

Ms. CORRIGAN: Things got better when I left. You know, graduate school is
miserable for a lot of people. It's a lonely experience. You're mostly on
your own reading and writing and you're constantly trying to prove yourself,
and you're a student way beyond probably the age when you should still be a
student. And in my case I was competing for jobs as an English--a literature
scholar in an ever-shrinking job market. So it was an atmosphere filled with
anxiety.

Eventually deliverance came in the form of a friend who had landed a job at
The Village Voice literary supplement and she said to me, `Would you like to
try to write a review?' And I said, `Yes.' And wow, the idea of writing about
literature in a way that was accessible to an informed, but not a scholarly
audience, that just--that idea just energized me. So I eventually finished my
dissertation and got out of Penn but I also found this other way of talking
about books that was much more congenial.

GROSS: Maureen, thanks so much for talking with us and congratulations on the
book.

Ms. CORRIGAN: Thank you very much, Terry.

DAVIES: FRESH AIR book critic Maureen Corrigan speaking with Terry Gross.
She teaches literature at Georgetown University. Her book "Leave Me Alone,
I'm Reading" has just come out in paperback. I'm Dave Davies and this is
FRESH AIR.

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

Interview: Actor Greg Kinnear discusses his career and movies
DAVE DAVIES, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave DAVIES, filling in for Terry Gross.

My guest Greg Kinnear didn't get into acting until he was 31, after he'd
hosted a late-night TV talk show and an E! program called "Talk Soup." But he
soon delivered an Oscar-nominated performance as Jack Nicholson's gay neighbor
in the film "As Good As It Gets," and found there was plenty of work for him
in Hollywood.

A review from the Times of London said that while he often played the straight
man in films, Kinnear, "through his unconventional depiction of the ordinary
was matching his flashier co-stars shot for shot, line for line." Kinnear's
films include "Auto Focus," "Nurse Betty," "Stuck on You," and the hit "Little
Miss Sunshine." Kinnear shared a Critics Choice Award for best acting ensemble
for his performance in the film, which is now out on DVD.

Kinnear also stared in "Fast Food Nation," a dramatization of Eric Schlosser's
book about the fast-food and meat-packing industries. In the film he plays a
new marketing executive for a fast-food franchise called Mickey's. In this
clip he's at the company's lab smelling renderings of some new artificial
flavors.

(Soundbite from "Fast Food Nation")

Mr. GREG KINNEAR: (As Don Anderson) That's wonderful.

Unidentified Actor: Yeah, you like that. That's the Barbecued Big One.

Mr. KINNEAR: (As Don Anderson) Wow, it tastes like it's right off the grill!

Actor: You don't think it needs like liquid smoke or any other kind of
flavorings?

Mr. KINNEAR: (As Don Anderson) No, no, no, no. I think it's perfect. Let's
test that.

Actor: OK. Try this one.

Mr. KINNEAR: (As Don Anderson) I don't know.

Actor: Yeah, I mean these Caribbean seasonings are kind of tricky.

Mr. KINNEAR: (As Don Anderson) Well, we're calling them Calypso Chicken
Tenders. I think people are going to have an expectation for maybe a touch of
lime.

Actor: Oh, lime. Lime's easy. I just held back on the terpinolene on this
to keep the flavoring subtle, but I can always go back and add more.

Mr. KINNEAR: (As Don Anderson) Yeah, why don't you try that?

Actor: I'll keep working on it.

(End of soundbite)

DAVIES: Greg Kinnear and many in the cast of "Fast Food Nation" visited
meat-packing plants and shot some scenes there. I asked him what he saw that
surprised him.

Mr. KINNEAR: Well, the first thing I was surprised at was the sort of covert
nature that the production was being operated under. We had gone under a
fictitious production name. Instead of going by "Fast Food Nation," we went
as "Coyote," and that was because, I believe, Eric doesn't have a lot of fans
in the meat-packing industry, and they control and obviously have total
control over a lot of the warehouses and the slaughterhouses where we wanted
to get access to. So that caused us to head south of the border, and they
managed to secure a plant about 400, 300 miles south of El Paso, in an area of
Chihuahua, and we went down there and used those facilities.

DAVIES: So you were in a Mexican meat-packing plant. Did the folks running
the plant know what the movie was about or what you were up to?

Mr. KINNEAR: Yeah, yeah. They did, and they were--I mean, they were
comfortable with it, comfortable enough that once we got down there, there was
no secrecy about what it was we were doing. But they were, you know, really
cooperative, and the truth is there are--and it's explained neatly in the
movie and it's explained in the book, you know, there's two different worlds
in the meat world. I mean, there is the packing facilities where the beef is,
you know, frozen in huge, huge machines that I couldn't believe the size of
these things and so quickly. I mean, it's 40 below zero. This patty starts
out as a little piece of ground beef and comes out just as a brick of, you
know, like a rock. And these facilities where, you know, the meat is ground
and then frozen and then prepared to be shipped off are pretty clean, pretty
impressive operations. And, you know, Kris Kristofferson's character who's an
old cattle rancher in the movie talks about, you know, talks to Don as he's
sort of naively kind of going through this whole world and he says, `Did they
show you the kill floor?'

DAVIES: Right.

Mr. KINNEAR: That's my Kris, by the way. It's not dubbed in.

DAVIES: Not bad. Not bad.

Mr. KINNEAR: And I sort of naively say, `Well, no, they didn't.' He says,
`They didn't show you anything.' And the truth is, you know, where those
cattle are kept and the kill floor themselves are, you know, bloody, tough
conditions, obviously.

DAVIES: Well, Greg Kinnear, you're also starting in "Little Miss Sunshine,"
which is this terrific story of this crazy, dysfunctional family in a VW bus
taking their daughter to a beauty pageant. We've got the grandfather, kicked
out of the nursing home for snorting heroin; the teenage boy who's quit
talking; your brother-in-law, the Proust scholar who's recovering from a
suicide attempt. Well, let's hear a clip from the film. This is one where
you're on your way to--it's Los Angeles, I guess, for the beauty pageant.
You're driving...

Mr. KINNEAR: Yes.

DAVIES: ...and your wife, Toni Collette, is there, and you're describing your
hopes for becoming this very successful motivational author and speaker, and
you're talking about the guy who's going to promote your stuff, and you get
into a little thing with your brother-in-law who's in the backseat. He's
played by Steve Carrell...

Mr. KINNEAR: Right.

DAVIES: ...who's this brooding Proust scholar. Let's listen.

(Soundbite from "Little Miss Sunshine")

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. KINNEAR: (As Richard Hoover) So finally I'm just sitting there, and I
decide, you know, this is Stan Grossman, what the hell, and I start pitching
him the nine steps and about, I don't know, two minutes in, he stops me. He
says, `I can sell this.'

Mr. STEVE CARRELL: (As brother-in-law) Mm-hmm. Interesting.

Mr. KINNEAR: (As Richard Hoover) Yeah, and this is the guy who knows how to
do it, you know. You start with the book and then you do a media tour,
corporate events, DVD/VHS series. I mean, there's a whole fascinating science
into how you roll these things out.

Mr. CARRELL: (As brother-in-law) Wow!

Mr. KINNEAR: (As Richard Hoover) Yeah, so he's in Scottsdale right now, you
know...

Mr. CARRELL: (As brother-in-law) Ah!

Mr. KINNEAR: (As Richard Hoover) ...building the buzz and kind of getting
the whole pipe thing going. He's doing what the pros call a "ticking-clock
auction."

Mr. CARRELL: (As brother-in-law) Oh, how about that!

Mr. KINNEAR: (As Richard Hoover) Yeah, and I can detect that note of sarcasm
there, Frank.

Mr. CARRELL: (As brother-in-law) What sarcasm? I didn't, I didn't hear...

Mr. KINNEAR: (As Richard Hoover) But I want you to know something. I feel
sorry for you.

Mr. CARRELL: (As brother-in-law) You do? Good.

Mr. KINNEAR: (As Richard Hoover) Yeah, I do. Because sarcasm is the refuge
of losers.

Mr. CARRELL: (As brother-in-law) It is? Really?

Mr. KINNEAR: (As Richard Hoover) Yep. Sarcasm is losers trying to bring
winners down to their level, and that's step four in the program.

Mr. CARRELL: (As brother-in-law) Wow, Richard, you've really opened my eyes
to what a loser I am! How much do I owe you for those pearls of wisdom?

Mr. KINNEAR: (As Richard Hoover) Oh, that one's on the house, buddy.

Mr. CARRELL: (As brother-in-law) It is?

Ms. TONI COLLETTE: (Sheryl Hoover) OK, you guys, that's enough.

Mr. KINNEAR: (As Richard Hoover) Yeah, it's on the house. That's on the
house.

Mr. CARRELL: (As brother-in-law) Wow!

(End of soundbite)

DAVIES: And that's my guest Greg Kinnear, the motivational speaker there
arguing with his brother-in-law played by Steve Carrell in the new film
"Little Miss Sunshine."

You have all these wacky characters and this terrific cast with Alan Arkin and
Toni Collette and Paul Dano and Steve Carrell, and you, and then kind of a
fulcrum in the middle of it is this 10-year-old actor Abigail Breslin, who
plays the seven-year-old Olive. And I know that this was not a big budget
film, and you had a 30-day shooting schedule, I believe.

Mr. KINNEAR: Yeah, 30 days with one day reshoot. So we really made it up
all in a day.

DAVIES: What's it like working with a child actor, who--I mean, did you have
to develop a particularly close relationship with her?

Mr. KINNEAR: You know, I had a good relationship with Abigail immediately.
I think anybody who would meet her would instantly warm to her. I mean, that
comes across on the screen, just that incredible humanity of hers. She is
such a sweet girl. And a girl, by the way. You know, the amazing thing is
that her acting is so wonderful. She is such a, you know, has such a presence
on camera that you kind of lose sight--I mean, there were six of us. We'd be
sitting around talking and, every once in a while, you'd glance over and
Abigail would be, you know, munching down a Twinkie and playing with a yoyo,
and you'd be like, `Oh, my God, that's right! She's nine.' And you would have
to remind yourself because she just doesn't have the presence of a child.

DAVIES: And the other interesting thing in a modest budget film like that is
you did have some action sequences here because one of the funny gags is that
the bus is semicrippled...

Mr. KINNEAR: Yeah.

DAVIES: ...and you kind of have to push-start it every time. What was it
like shooting those sequences?

Mr. KINNEAR: Well, you know, of course, I was--I'm driving...

DAVIES: Right.

Mr. KINNEAR: ...this old rickety 1969 bus, and we're not ever pushing it
because they're heavy and they're hard to push. Note to those who think you
can push your VW bus is it takes more than three people--three or four people.
So I would actually have my foot on the accelerator and just try and get it up
to enough speed to sell the joke that they were pushing it and that it wasn't
being run by a motor, and, of course, the great fear was that I would
accelerate too fast and that the people who had to then all jump on the bus
wouldn't be able to jump on the bus.

We didn't have a big stunt coordinator budget on this movie as you can
imagine, so somebody came up to me and whispered shortly before the first time
we tried this little trick, you know, `We think Abigail can go about three
miles an hour,' so take it easy on the speed.

So it was--more stress in this movie came from not ever acting--I never had a
moment where I was worried about that. It was all about driving, because we
didn't have the budget obviously to shut down freeways, and if you were
driving around LA on a freeway last summer, there's a hell of a good chance
you're in our movie, cause we were everywhere, and I was always behind the
wheel.

DAVIES: Actor Greg Kinnear.

We'll hear more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Announcements)

DAVIES: My guest is actor Greg Kinnear. His film "Little Miss Sunshine" has
just come out on DVD.

Well, I do want to talk about one of your films which is memorable to me.
That's "Auto Focus," directed by Paul Schrader, which is this remarkable story
of Bob Crane, who starred in "Hogan's Heroes" in the late '60s, and his life
essentially unravels with a sexual addiction and this friendship with this
character John Carpenter, no relation to the film director, but who was his
partner in scoring women, and Carpenter equipped him with videotaping
equipment to capture his sexual exploits. You were the lead. You played Bob
Crane. Tell us what appealed to you about this role and how you got into the
character.

Mr. KINNEAR: Well, I was very intrigued with the story. I mean, Bob
Crane's, you know, sexual addiction was something that I was very unfamiliar
with and unaware, as I think a lot of people were. I knew him as Hogan and a
kind of fun-loving presence on television, but the fact that he had that kind
of sort of dual personality, you know, and those kind of underlying demons was
obviously just interesting off the bat. And then there was a very dark,
subversive side to this relationship between Bob and Carpenter that started
kind of fun and playful but, like all things, started to move into the area of
getting a little sordid.

DAVIES: One of the many interesting and weird things about the Bob Crane
story is his family's kind of connection to--he is now dead. He was killed in
1978.

Mr. KINNEAR: Right.

DAVIES: But his son Bob Crane Jr. was a consultant on the film...

Mr. KINNEAR: That's right.

DAVIES: ...and, in fact, has a cameo appearance, I believe, interviewing
somebody.

Mr. KINNEAR: He does. Me.

DAVIES: You. That's right. That would be you. I'm just curious. Did you
talk--I'm sure you must have talked to him about his dad and...

Mr. KINNEAR: Yeah.

DAVIES: How did he perceive...

Mr. KINNEAR: Well, he became aware of it in his latter years, and certainly
when he was, you know, in high school and college, or, you know, right out of
high school, he started to get a real sense of what a problem this was, and
you know, faced, you know, other kids who were aware of it. It was pretty
much under wraps around Hollywood, but, you know, slowly started to come out a
little bit. But, you know, Robert Crane Jr. he was, you know, he was a real
helpful guy, just in terms of giving me some sense of who exactly his dad was.
He had a lot of, you know, old, you know, tapes, not porn tapes but tapes of
his father performing and a few interviews and things that I thought were very
revealing from his early radio days, by the way. He was a big disc jockey out
here in Los Angeles, kind of the Rick Dees of his time at one point. And he,
you know, had that, again, that sort of ability to keep everything snappy and
happy. And the fact that, you know, these two people existed in him was
pretty amazing, and we needed that kind of insight along the way, and Robert
helped us with that.

DAVIES: Well, you know, I wanted to play a clip from the film which captures
a moment in Bob Crane's life when he's really come unraveled and his career,
which was really soaring when he did "Hogan's Heroes," had descended to dinner
theater and was now at the point where the best gig he could get was going on
a show called "Celebrity Cooks." And this is you as Bob Crane going on this
cooking show and behaving badly, and I'll note, since it's not clear from the
audio, that at some point in the scene we'll hear him notice a woman in the
first row of the studio audience who has a very low-cut blouse. Let's hear
this cut from "Auto Focus."

(Soundbite from "Auto Focus")

Mr. JOHN KAPELOS: (As Bruno Gerussi) Welcome to "Celebrity Cooks." My name
is Bruno Gerussi.

(Soundbite of applause)

Mr. KAPELOS: (As Bruno Gerussi) Today we'll be cooking with Colonel Hogan
himself, Mr. Bob Crane.

(Soundbite of applause)

Mr. KINNEAR: (As Bob Crane) Thank you, Bruno. It's a pleasure to be here.

Mr. KAPELOS: (As Bruno Gerussi) Wonderful to see you. Now what has Hogan
been up to?

Mr. KINNEAR: (As Bob Crane) Pretty much the same old thing. I'm still
trying to pull the wool over Klink's eyes...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. KINNEAR: (As Bob Crane) ...and trying to get into Hilda's pants.
Actually, I did get into her pants, I married her, but now she's divorcing me
so...

Mr. KAPELOS: (As Bruno Gerussi) Oh.

Mr. KINNEAR: (As Bob Crane) ...that's not worked out, but I will be next
month in Long Beach performing a show called "Beginner's Luck."

Mr. KAPELOS: (As Bruno Gerussi) Wonderful. So, Bob, what recipe have you
brought us today.

Mr. KINNEAR: (As Bob Crane) It is a pasta dish...

Mr. KAPELOS: (As Bruno Gerussi) Mm-hmm.

Mr. KINNEAR: (As Bob Crane) ...with chicken...

Mr. KAPELOS: (As Bruno Gerussi) Mm-hmm.

Mr. KINNEAR: (As Bob Crane) ...and fettuccine, they tell me. I
don't--that's what they told me to say anyway.

Mr. KAPELOS: (As Bruno Gerussi) It sounds delicious.

Mr. KINNEAR: (As Bob Crane) You got a balloon smuggler here in the audience
today. You got a license to carry those things? Here's a little tip on how
to remove the wrinkles from your face, just take off your bra.

Studio Audience: (In unison) Ahhh!

Unidentified Woman: Oh, what?

Mr. KAPELOS: (As Bruno Gerussi) Oh!

Mr. KINNEAR: (As Bob Crane) Sh-sh-sh-sh. Calm down. Boo. Calm down.
They'll cut all this stuff out. They edit it, and they take all this stuff
out.

(End of soundbite)

DAVIES: That's my guest Greg Kinnear playing Bob Crane in the film "Auto
Focus."

Do you know if that scene was based on a real incident?

Mr. KINNEAR: It is. There was a cooking show up in Canada. It was a live
broadcast, and there is--or, at least, Paul Schrader was not able to locate
the tape of it, but it was a pretty talked-about incident that people were
aware of where Bob had gone on to the cooking show and just, you know, there
was an indication in his presence there that he was starting to maybe lose his
way a little bit, and, of course, that was the beginning of a lot of things in
his life.

DAVIES: You know one of the other films that's an interesting role for you is
the Farrelly brothers' film, "Stuck on You," where you played conjoined twins
with Matt Damon, which is really actually a sweet movie, but, you know, I
wondered if you had any reservations about taking that role when it could be
seen as being in such terrible taste?

Mr. KINNEAR: Well, I thought that Peter Farrelly and Bobby Farrelly, who I
know, who actually have done a lot on behalf of, you know, handicapped people
and have done a lot to try to put characters in their movies who may have
physical challenges and let them be part of the joke. In other words, not
treat them with kid gloves and not say, you know, it's almost like a reverse
discrimination, where, `OK, well, they're handicapped, so we're not allowed to
have any--they're not allowed to be part of the joke. There's not allowed to
be any humor when dealing with somebody like that.' And I think that that is
an ongoing issue that you can kind of find pieces of in all of their films.
So, you know, I felt like they would treat it properly, and moreover, when I
read the script, you know, the fact that they're--you know, that Bob and Walt
are conjoined is really secondary for them. They don't see any challenges.
They don't see any difficulties, and I think that that's, you know, I think
that's true of a lot of, you know, people who might have, you know, any kind
of handicap that the issue is in the people around them and less about them.

DAVIES: The other thing that's interesting about that film from the Greg
Kinnear point of view is, in this film, you get to belt out a showtune with a
big band at the end of the song, "Summertime."

Mr. KINNEAR: That's right.

DAVIES: It must have been fun.

Mr. KINNEAR: It was great actually. I'd never recorded anything before, and
I was half--you know, Pete sent me, you know, the Billy--who's that?

DAVIES: The Billy Stewart that did that version.

Mr. KINNEAR: Yeah, the Billy Stewart, right. He sent me the original Billy
Stewart, and he said, you know, `You need to start listening to this,' right
as soon as I signed onto the movie, and I was thinking, `What the hell am I
listening to this for?' And then he sprung it on me that I was going to go
down to somebody's garage and do a recording of it. But the real highlight
was, of course, Meryl Streep agreeing to come on and do the dance number with
me at the end of the movie. It was a very surreal couple of days, and she was
a great sport for playing along.

DAVIES: Well, Greg Kinnear, we're happy you were able to find some time for
us. Thanks a lot.

Mr. KINNEAR: Thank you for having me.

(Soundbite from Greg Kinnear's song "Summertime")

Mr. KINNEAR: (Singing) "Brrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr up, chup, chup,
chu, chup, chup, huh! Summertime, huh! And the living is easy. Fish are
jumping, don't you know, my darling, I'll settle right down in the cotton is
high. Like-a like-a like-a your life is richer. And your mama's
good-looking, yeah. So hush, pretty baby, don't you cry. One of these, one
of these, one of these mornings coming, you're going to rise, you're going to
rise...

(End of soundbite)

DAVIES: Greg Kinnear singing in the Farrelly brothers' film "Stuck on You."
He starred in the recent movie "Little Miss Sunshine," which is now out on
DVD. His film "Fast Food Nation" will be out on DVD in March. I spoke with
him last year.

Coming up, David Edelstein on the new Peter O'Tooele film "Venus." This is
FRESH AIR.

(Announcements)

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

Review: Film critic David Edelstein on the movie "Venus" with
Peter O'Toole

DAVE DAVIES, host:

At age 74, Peter O'Toole has what some have called the role of a lifetime as a
terminally ill actor who's longing for the young niece of a friend forces him
to re-examine the way he lived his life. The film "Venus" was written by
Hanif Kureishi, best known for his script of "My Beautiful Laundrette," and
directed by Roger Michell, whose work includes the comedy "Notting Hill" and
Kureishi's bitter drama "The Mother." Film critic David Edelstein has a
review.

Mr. DAVID EDELSTEIN: It's possible that no male actor has ever been as
beautiful as Peter O'Toole in Lawrence of Arabia. At age 29, he was slim and
straw-haired, with full lips and blue eyes that had an unearthly glow, and his
manner was giddy, like a schoolgirl in bloom. He made you understand, in a
way that transcended the rather literal script, how Lawrence's penchant for
self-dramatization drove him both to glory and to madness. That was in 1962,
and O'Toole was marvelous after that, but usually in roles that exploited his
nuttiness and dissipation, like the 1982 comedy "My Favorite Year."

Now the new movie "Venus" exploits his skeletal visage in a way that's
heartbreaking. By exploits, I don't mean the filmmakers abuse him
necessarily. The screenplay, by Hanif Kureishi, is a serious meditation on
what's happened to that face, on the way its glamour, like most glamour, has
given way to a kind of ghoulishness. "Venus" is about an actor a little like
O'Tooele, a matinee idol called Maurice, who's lived his life through women
and through flesh that's now gray, almost translucent, pulled tightly over his
bones.

Did I mention that Venus is a comedy? It's billed that way and it does have
its share of bittersweet laughs. The film centers on Maurice's relationship
with a teenage girl called Jessie, played by Jodie Whittaker, the
working-class niece of his old acting chum Ian, played by Leslie Phillips.
Ian can't stand her but Maurice is intrigued. He even attempts to engage her
in conversation.

(Soundbite of "Venus")

(Soundbite of music and people chatting)

Mr. PETER O'TOOELE: (As Maurice) What are you doing? In London, I mean.

Ms. JODIE WHITTAKER: (As Jessie) Looking for work.

Mr. O'TOOELE: (As Maurice) What sort of work?

Ms. WHITTAKER: (As Jessie) Work. You know, work.

Mr. O'TOOELE: (As Maurice) Yes, yes, I know all about it. Any particular
kind?

Ms. WHITTAKER: (As Jessie) Modeling.

Mr. O'TOOELE: (As Maurice) Well, there can't be much call for that.

Ms. WHITTAKER: (As Jessie) Call for what?

Mr. O'TOOELE: (As Maurice) Yodeling.

Ms. WHITTAKER: (As Jessie) Not yodeling. Yodeling. Modeling. You know?

Unidentified Actress: Oh, and by the way...

Ms. WHITTAKER: (As Jessie) Do you know anyone of the modeling field?

Mr. O'TOOELE: (As Maurice) Yes. I know everyone. Do you have a fallback
position?

Ms. WHITTAKER: (As Jessie) No. No, I don't need one.

Mr. O'TOOELE: (As Maurice) Right.

Ms. WHITTAKER: (As Jessie) Are you saying I do?

(End of soundbite)

Mr. EDELSTEIN: Jessie might or might not be a "muddling" prospect, but to
Maurice she's youth incarnate. And so he begins to dog her. No, he can't
have sex with her. His medications, he says, make him impotent. He only
wants to look and to touch. He brings her to the famous sculpture of Venus
and explains, quote, "A woman's body is the most beautiful thing a man will
ever see." And gradually this untutored child, who Maurice now calls Venus,
begins to grasp the depth of his need. The ratio of creepiness to poignancy
seesaws. You think, `Eeew,' and then `Aww,' and then `Eeew.'

Venus is directed by Roger Michell, and it's a sort of companion piece to his
and Kureishi's film "The Mother," in which an aged widow, played by Anne Reid,
has an affair with a studly handyman, a pre-Bond Daniel Craig. But I had
mixed emotions about what Michell does here. His clammy, clinical tone was
more suited to "The Mother," in which the characters were all vaguely rancid.
Now he forces us to study O'Toole's actual decrepitude while his camera hugs
Whittaker's bare thighs and shoulders, and the exploitation does begin to seem
unseemly.

The movie is schematic. Maurice will have to pay for his unsavory attentions.
It's only a surprise when Jessie's thuggish boyfriend begins to knock the
frail old man around because it's hard to believe the filmmakers would stoop
to such a crude device. But I can see some viewers will regard that
creepiness and violence as a mark of the filmmakers' integrity.

On the comic side, there's some wonderful banter involving Leslie Phillips and
the alarmingly rotund Richard Griffiths, also onscreen as a pederast teacher
in "The History Boys," as acting colleagues who meet for lunch and comb the
obituaries for friends. We get a glimpse of a world of middle and
upper-middle class repertory actors going cheek by jowl into that good night.

Even better are the scenes between O'Toole and a luminous Vanessa Redgrave, as
the woman he abandoned, the mother of his children. Her anger at Maurice for
putting his pleasure first lingers, but you can see in her eyes she knows he's
dying, so even her criticisms come out tenderly, less to get her own back than
to let him know she understands the unquenchable hunger he's feeling.

At times "Venus" seems less of a pedestal for O'Toole than a headstone, but
opposite Redgrave his spirit is undying.

DAVIES: David Edelstein is film critic for New York Magazine.

(Credits)

DAVIES: For Terry Gross, I'm Dave Davies.
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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