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Pride And Sensibility: Jane Austen's Literary Ambition

Jane's Fame, Claire Harman's book about the author of Emma and Sense and Sensibility, reveals the gap between her legacy -- modest, indifferent to fame and devoted to her characters -- and her ambition.

05:52

Other segments from the episode on March 22, 2010

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, March 22, 2010: Interview with Ben Stiller; Obituary for Liz Carpenter; Review of Claire Harman's book "Jane's Fame."

Transcript

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TERRY GROSS, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

My guest, Ben Stiller, has starred in a wide range of movies, mostly
comedies, from big comedy hits like "There's Something About Mary,"
"Meet the Parents" and "Night at the Museum" to indie films like "The
Royal Tenenbaums" and "Your Friends and Neighbors." He directed and
starred in the comedies "Zoolander" and "Tropic Thunder" and produced
and starred in "Dodgeball." He's the son of comic actors Anne Meara and
Jerry Stiller.

In the new film "Greenberg," Stiller plays Roger Greenberg, a 40-year-
old whose life hasn't turned out the way he'd hoped. He's just had a
midlife crisis/mental breakdown. After recovering in a hospital, he's
spending a few weeks at his brother's house while his brother and family
are on a trip to Vietnam. When people he meets ask what he's been doing,
he tells them he's trying to do nothing for a while.

In this scene, he's with Florence, the young, attractive woman who works
as the personal assistant for his brother's family. Florence is played
by Greta Gerwig.

(Soundbite of film, "Greenberg")

Ms. GRETA GERWIG (Actor): (As Florence Marr) I'm impressed by you.

Mr. BEN STILLER (Actor): (As Roger Greenberg) In what way?

Ms. GERWIG: (As Florence) I don't know. I mean, you seem really fine
doing nothing. It’s like you don't feel the pressure to be successful, I
mean by other people's standards.

Mr. STILLER: (As Roger) I'm – you know I almost had a record deal when I
got out of college. I haven't done nothing.

Ms. GERWIG: (As Florence) Cool.

Mr. STILLER: (As Roger) I want to be doing nothing. I'm doing nothing
deliberately.

Ms. GERWIG: (As Florence) That's what I'm saying. I don't know that I
could do nothing and be that cool with everything.

GROSS: Roger Greenberg is very cynical and alienated, and that really
comes out when he's the only 40-year-old at a party of people in their
20s.

(Soundbite of film, "Greenberg")

Mr. STILLER: (As Roger) The thing about you kids is you're all kind of
insensitive. I glad I grew up when I did because your parents were too
perfect at parenting, all that Baby Mozart and Dan Zane songs. You’re so
sincere and interested in things. There's a confidence in you guys
that's horrifying. You're all ADD and carpal tunneled. You wouldn't know
agoraphobia if it bit you in the (BEEP) and it makes you mean. You know,
you say things to someone like me, who's older and smarter with this
life air. I'm freaked out by you kids. I hope I die before I end up
meeting one of you in a job interview.

GROSS: Ben Stiller, welcome back to FRESH AIR. Congratulations on the
film. I really liked it a lot. Your character is kind of taking a break
from life after having a nervous breakdown. Why do you think he had a
nervous breakdown?

Mr. STILLER: I don't – I guess he did. You know, I don't think he looks
at it as that. I think I even have trouble saying it. You know, I feel
like he – I feel like he just spent some time in the hospital. You know,
he had a psychosomatic condition where he couldn't move his leg, and it
probably was a result of not dealing with a lot of things over the
years.

You know, he's a guy who hasn't really gotten to where he wanted to be
in life and hasn't been able to accept that. And he's very critical of
everybody else in the world, and he's really probably too smart for his
own good. And so, when the movie picks up, he's sort of at a place where
he’s having to accept some things in his life that he's denied for a
long time.

GROSS: Yeah, like he doesn't know whether he really is a carpenter or
that's just his day job.

Mr. STILLER: Yeah, he was in a band when he got out of college, and the
band had a moment in time where they were playing out and probably, you
know, doing okay. And then they had a shot at a record deal, and he was
the one in the band who didn't want to sign the deal and probably
thinking there would be a lot more offers, and he was pretty self-
important and very idealistic.

And then it didn't happen, and since then, he's been just slowly, year
by year, sort of just going through his life and he's become a carpenter
to make money, and it's just not really happened for him the way he
thought it was going to happen.

GROSS: Having been successful at a very young age, what do you relate to
about this character?

Mr. STILLER: Well, I think everybody's had failures in their life and
decisions that you regret and relationships that didn't work out. And I
think I've been really fortunate in my life to have had great things
happen, and friendships and love and family in my life over the years,
but I've still had those bad decisions and things I've done in the past
that I just still regret.

But for Greenberg, he hasn't had a lot of successes since the bad
decisions, and he hasn't had anything to sort of temper that, and so
it's a lot harder to get through the day. So I could identify with - on
that level I think there are a lot of people I know who have had bad
luck and are very talented and good people, and it just hasn't worked
out for them, or you know, their life isn't quite what they want it to
be, and they have to figure out a way to get through the day.

And we all have to. I mean, I have days like that, too. And I think it
was just a matter of empathizing with this guy, not looking at him as a
guy who had really screwed up or anything but just a guy who was trying
the best he can to, you know, just to get through.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Ben Stiller, and he's
starring in the new movie "Greenberg."

Let's talk about some of the movies that you've made. And let's start
with "Tropic Thunder," which you co-wrote, you directed and you starred
in, and it's such a funny premise. It's about actors making a Vietnam –
well, a jungle war movie, where...

Mr. STILLER: Yeah, it's a Vietnam movie.

GROSS: Yeah, Vietnam movie, where an elite Army team is sent to rescue
one man. And so it's both the movie within the movie that's being made,
but you know, we also see, like, the actors who are making that movie
and how they get into character and all that. So it's a parody of movies
and of actors.

Were Vietnam War movies important to you when you were starting out?

Mr. STILLER: Yeah. Some of my favorite films are of that genre. I mean,
I remember seeing “Platoon” and just being deeply affected by it. I love
"Deer Hunter," Apocalypse Now." You know, those movies - in terms of
generationally, those movies were very important movies because that era
was when I was younger, and those are the movies that influenced me a
lot.

You know, in a way I wanted to be doing those kinds of movies. I think
that's a lot of what "Tropic Thunder" is, like, my sort of stab at being
able to do one of those films.

GROSS: Did you ever try for real to be in one of those war films?

Mr. STILLER: I had a meeting with Oliver Stone for "Platoon." I think I
was, like, 20 or 21. I had a go-see, as they call it.

GROSS: What was that like?

Mr. STILLER: I was – I remember I was doing a play at the time, I think
he thought I looked too clean cut or something.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. STILLER: He said something like, oh – he looked at my picture, said,
oh, you're cute or something like that.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. STILLER: And then...

GROSS: Not knowing that you'd eventually do "Zoolander."

Mr. STILLER: Yeah, exactly. I think he was just being generous.

GROSS: So you get so much – some of this so perfectly right. Like,
there's a scene toward the beginning where your character in the movie,
like your character the actor in the movie shot, is getting, like, shot
up.

Mr. STILLER: Right.

GROSS: And as the bullets riddle his body, it's shot in slow motion, and
he's just kind of almost like dancing, you know, as the bullets hit him,
and with the music behind him, it's the music you always hear when that
happens. Can you talk to me about that shot and why you knew you had to
use it?

Mr. STILLER: Yeah, well, I mean, that was pretty much directly ripped
off from "Platoon." I mean, that was, you know, that's that incredible
moment in "Platoon" near the end with Willem Dafoe, and you know, the
idea...

GROSS: At his most Christ-like.

Mr. STILLER: Yes, for sure. He was - definitely went into that pose. And
you know, in this, the context of "Tropic Thunder," it's like, it's a
movie that's being made obviously post-"Platoon," and you know, it's
probably very derivative and, you know, because they've already done
that, and it's an actor trying to be taken seriously. And he probably
saw that movie, and he's doing his best guy-getting-riddled-with-
bullets-in-a-Christ-like-pose ending. And he's not really doing that
great at it.

So, you know, it’s sort of the idea of a guy trying to do something
because he's not – in the movie, the character's an action star, and he
hasn't been taken seriously, and he really wants some credibility.
That's a lot of what the movie's about is actors taking advantage of
people's – you know, realized people's suffering to try to further their
own careers.

GROSS: Yes, and one example of that is that your character has also
starred in a movie called "Simple Jack."

Mr. STILLER: That's right.

GROSS: And why don't you describe what "Simple Jack" is.

Mr. STILLER: "Simple Jack" is a mentally challenged farmhand who can
talk to animals. And it was - the character in the movie that I played,
Tugg Speedman, it was his attempt to do a role that was going to be
taken seriously and win him an Oscar, and it ended up having the exact
opposite effect and being derided by everybody, critics and audiences,
and being a huge failure.

GROSS: Now, I want to play a scene from the film, and in this scene from
"Tropic Thunder," you're in the jungle making a movie and you're taking
to another actor, played by Robert Downey, Jr. And his – he plays an
actor who's, like, this serious, multi-Oscar-winning actor, and he's so
into getting into character and being De Niro-ish about it that he's
gotten this special pigmentation procedure so that he can look African-
American because he's playing a black man in this.

Mr. STILLER: Yeah, that's right, he never goes out of character.

GROSS: And he never goes out of character. So here you are, you know,
walking through the jungle with him, and you're both out of character
here. You're not – but - so you're just talking as yourself, but he's
still, you know, quote, “talking black” because he never gets out of
character. And what you're talking about is the "Simple Jack" role, and
so this ended up being a very controversial scene because of the use of
the word retarded. So I just want to warn our listeners, for anybody who
finds that word, like, really, you know, insulting, that this is a
comedy. This is a parody. You know it's an insulting word, and you're
using it – you, the writer-director of this movie, are using it knowing
that. So here's the scene.

(Soundbite of film, "Tropic Thunder")

Mr. STILLER: (As Tugg Speedman) There were times when I was doing Jack
that I actually felt retarded, like really retarded. I mean, I brushed
my teeth retarded. I rode a bus retarded.

Mr. ROBERT DOWNEY, JR. (Actor): (As Kirk Lazarus) Damn.

Mr. STILLER: (As Tugg) In a weird way, I had to sort of just free myself
up to believe that it was okay to be stupid or dumb.

Mr. DOWNEY: (As Kirk) To be a moron.

Mr. STILLER: (As Tugg) Yeah.

Mr. DOWNEY: (As Kirk) To be moronical.

Mr. STILLER: (As Tugg) Exactly, to be a moron.

Mr. DOWNEY: (As Kirk) An imbecile.

Mr. STILLER: (As Tugg) Yeah.

Mr. DOWNEY: (As Kirk) About the dumbest mother(BEEP) that ever lived.

Mr. STILLER: (As Tugg) When I was playing the character.

Mr. DOWNEY: (As Kirk) When you was the character.

Mr. STILLER: (As Tugg) Yeah, I mean, as Jack, definitely.

Mr. DOWNEY: (As Kirk) Yeah, Jack, stupid-ass Jack, trying to come back
from that.

Mr. STILLER: (As Tugg) In a weird way, it was almost like I had to sort
of fool my mind into believing that it wasn't retarded. And by the end
of the whole thing, I was like, wait a minute, you know, I flushed so
much out, how am I going to jump-start it up again? It's just like...

Mr. DOWNEY: (As Kirk) Yeah, yeah.

Mr. STILLER: (As Tugg) Right?

Mr. DOWNEY: (As Kirk) You was fartin' in bathtubs and laughing your ass
off.

Mr. STILLER: (As Tugg) Yeah.

Mr. DOWNEY: (As Kirk) Simple Jack thought he was smart or rather didn't
think he was retarded. So you can't afford to play retarded being a
smart actor, playing a guy who ain't smart but thinks he is, that's
tricky.

Mr. STILLER: (As Tugg) Tricky.

Mr. DOWNEY: (As Kirk) It’s that working the mercury. It's high science,
man, it's art form. You an artist.

Mr. STILLER: (As Tugg) It's what we do, right?

Mr. DOWNEY: (As Kirk) Yeah, it's awful going there, especially knowing
the Academy (unintelligible) (BEEP).

Mr. STILLER: (As Tugg) Wait, about what?

Mr. DOWNEY: (As Kirk) Are you serious? You don’t know? Everybody knows
you never go full retard.

Mr. STILLER: (As Tugg) What do you mean?

Mr. DOWNEY: (As Kirk) Check it out. Dustin Hoffman, “Rain Man” looked
retarded, act retarded, not retarded, count toothpicks, cheat at cards.
Autistic, not retarded. Tom Hanks, “Forrest Gump.” Slow, yes. Retarded?
Maybe. Braces on his legs, but he charmed the pants off Nixon, and he
won a ping-pong competition. That ain't retarded, and he was a God damn
war hero. You know any retarded war heroes? You went full retard, man.
Never go full retard. You don't buy that? Ask Sean Penn, 2001, "I Am
Sam." Remember? Went full retard, went home empty-handed.

GROSS: So that's my guest, Ben Stiller, with Robert Downey, Jr., in a
scene from "Tropic Thunder," which Ben Stiller directed, co-wrote and
starred in. So what kind of blowback did you get from that scene?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. STILLER: Had a little blowback.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. STILLER: Yeah, I mean, you know, to me it was pretty clear that this
was, in the context of the movies, you know, ridiculing the actors who
were taking advantage of other people's real struggles to try to further
their own careers.

So, to me, that was always clear in the context of these actors speaking
in a way about – in a really very uninformed way about something and
sounding like kids talking about a mental disability and all that being
– in the context of talking about, you know, how you win an Oscar for
doing that. So I don't think it could've been any clearer what the
context was, but I guess some people still had a problem with it.

GROSS: Now, Robert Downey, Jr.'s character, I feel like a lot of people
didn't get it. You know, a lot of people said: it's so wrong for a white
actor to be playing a black man. But that was the whole point. This is a
parody of somebody who's so into, like, his method that he has the
pigmentation changed so he can, like, be black, and he's black even when
he's not in character.

Mr. STILLER: I think that – again, that was the point in the movie was
that, you know, there's no reason that a white actor should be playing a
black character, other than his own ego to think that he could do it.

And you know, and that's – so that was why it was ridiculous, and the
fact that he ended up actually getting an Oscar nomination for it to me
is the sort of the ultimate irony of the whole thing, which I was very
happy about. But, I mean, that’s - you know, I think only Robert could
really pull that off, too.

GROSS: Now, you know, he's trying to be very like De Niro in the movie,
in terms of, like, going to extremes to physically embody the character
he's playing. You've actually worked with De Niro in "Meet the Parents."
So that's not the kind of movie you'd have to go to extremes for. It's
like a family comedy.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: But what did you learn about how he gets into character by
actually working with him? Because you're obviously fascinated by those
kinds of extremes that some people go to.

Mr. STILLER: Yeah, yeah. Well, I think De Niro is obviously, you know,
he’s had a total commitment to those roles that he did when he needed to
get into that head space.

GROSS: Like "Raging Bull."

Mr. STILLER: Yeah, like "Raging Bull," and I – sometimes I ask him about
that. Like, you know, I heard that you used to run from your hotel to
the studio in the morning, you know, do your roadwork. And it's true. He
did all that stuff, but he also has a really good sense of humor, too,
about all of it. But I think he just has, like, he doesn't know how to
do it any other way. I think that's just, you know, the way that he
approaches it is he has to understand where the character is coming from
and feel as connected as possible – I would assume. You know, every once
in a while, I'll get up the courage to ask him stuff about movies he's
been in. But you know, I think he just has a – you know, it's just about
integrity and I think in feeling like he wants to be as close to the
character as possible.

GROSS: Was there anything really surprising about doing scenes with him?

Mr. STILLER: Well, just how funny he is. I mean, that, to me, the first
time we did it on "Meet the Parents," I remember doing the first scene
and how funny and how reactive he is because he really listens.

And there was a scene where I'm meeting him for the first time, and
we're standing in front of his house and I was, you know, shaking his
hand saying hi to him. And then I looked at something in the house
behind him because I looking up at the house, and he, like, he
literally, like, turned all the way around to look at what I was looking
at on the house. It wasn't even in the script or anything, and I
immediately started cracking up because, first of all, I couldn’t – I
was nervous because I was in a scene with Robert De Niro for the first
time ever, but also I couldn't believe how sensitive he was to what I
was doing and how he just picked up on it and went with it.

I think he has a really great sense of being in the moment. And I think
he just has a sense of humor, and he's always had it in his serious
roles. I mean, you go back to "Mean Streets" and all those movies, he's
very funny in those movies. You always enjoy and laugh at him in any of
these films, even while he's scary and intimidating and, you know, all
those other things. So that – it's not surprising to me that he has that
sense of humor in the comedy stuff, too.

GROSS: My guest is Ben Stiller. He stars in the new movie "Greenberg,"
which was directed and co-written by Noah Baumbach, who made "The Squid
and the Whale." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guest is Ben Stiller. He stars in the new movie "Greenberg."
When we left off, we were talking about co-writing, directing and
starring in the comedy "Tropic Thunder."

In "Tropic Thunder," which you directed and co-wrote, there's a scene in
which the special-effects guy, the special-effects guy in this movie
set, you know, in Vietnam, he misunderstands a cue, and he thinks that
that's the cue to, like, set off the climactic explosions. And so he
sets them off, the cameras aren't rolling, nobody's in position. In
fact, some of the actors are in jeopardy of getting, like, blown up. And
it's a very funny scene.

But I'm wondering what it was like for you to be directing a movie in
which there really were explosives, and you really had to blow up, like,
part of the set. I mean, that's a huge responsibility. People really can
get hurt. It's very funny in the movie, but you, you had to deal with it
for real. It's not like really your thing. You don’t make, like, big
special-effects movies, but...

Mr. STILLER: Right. Well, I mean, I think that goes back to what I said
earlier about, you know, it’s my chance to do one of those movies, you
know, in a context that sort of made sense for me because I really love
those kinds of movies. And so it was really fun to have the opportunity
to do that and to figure out what that process is and to get to work –
first of all, safety-wise, you just have to work with the best people,
and that's the most important thing. And we did and, you know, so that
was what it was.

But the opportunity to, like, blow stuff up and to have helicopters and
do all those scenes, I mean, I never had more fun as a director, ever.
And the hard part really wasn't shooting that stuff, I found. It was
really more once we got in that scene after everything, after the scene
ends and the director yells cut, before that explosion happens, to film
a movie set, to film, like, the actual geography of people standing
around a movie set in the scene, that was actually harder than shooting
the action scenes.

GROSS: Why?

Mr. STILLER: Because a movie set is such a weird, amorphous place where
it's just people standing around. You realize, there's no – there's
where the camera is, there's some lights, but then after that, it's
trailers, they could be anywhere. There's a Kraft service table where
people get food, and that's it. So it's, like, it was actually harder to
sort of navigate that cinematically and figure out how to film that
because it just looks like an amorphous blob, and that ended up being a
much more stressful few days than all the other stuff which we got to
plan out and do storyboards on and was very, you know, much more sort of
movie-like.

GROSS: You have really big muscles in this movie. When you start working
out and get those, like, really big muscles?

Mr. STILLER: 1973 for this movie.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. STILLER: No, I don't know. I just – you know, I figured I was
playing the action guy in it, so I - and I wasn't going to get any
taller. So I should do something that showed that I could be an action
guy. So I just did as many curls as I could before the camera rolled.

But also, you know, the character's just such a – you know, he made a
point of wearing the sleeveless vest in the movie, you know, because
that's – you know, 'cause obviously that's his thing, but, yeah, just a
lot of curls, no 'roids or anything like that, though.

GROSS: Just the showy stuff?

Mr. STILLER: Yeah.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: So do you still have what you had in that?

Mr. STILLER: No, I do not.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. STILLER: I'm a flabby 44-year-old.

GROSS: Ben Stiller will be back in the second half of the show. He stars
in the new movie "Greenberg." I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I’m Terry Gross, back with Ben Stiller. He
stars in the new movie "Greenberg," which was directed and co-written by
Noah Baumbach, who also made "The Squid and the Whale."

Stiller has starred in lots of hit comedies including "There's Something
About Mary," "Meet the Parents" and "Night at the Museum." He co-wrote,
directed and starred in the comedies "Zoolander" and "Tropic Thunder."

Let's get back to talking about "Tropic Thunder." I just want to play a
clip from "Tropic Thunder." And this is so funny. The movie starts with
an ad and then three trailers. And the ad - these are all, it turns out,
things that the actors within the movie have done. So it's three
trailers for movies that the actors within the movie have made...

Mr. STILLER: Right.

GROSS: ...then an ad that one of the actors in the movie is famous for.
But I didn’t know that when I went to the theater and I thought, oh,
god, another ad.

Mr. STILLER: Yeah, right.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: And I thought another trailer. Oh, wait a minute, Ben Stiller's
in that trailer. You know, it took me a minute to realize, oh, this is
all - this is the movie, this is comedy. So I want to play the trailer
for your actor that we see...

Mr. STILLER: Okay.

GROSS: ...before the movie starts. And I think it will speak for itself.
Here it is.

(Soundbite of movie, "Tropic Thunder")

Unidentified Announcer: In 2013, when the earth's rotation came to a
halt...

Unidentified Woman: And have declared all of North America a disaster
area.

Unidentified Man: My fellow Americans to come together.

Unidentified Announcer: The world called on the one man who could make a
difference. When it happened again, the world called on him once more,
and no one saw it coming three more times. Now, the one man who made a
difference five times before is about to make a difference again. Only
this time, it's different.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Trailers that drive me crazy...

Mr. STILLER: Yeah.

GROSS: ...because sometimes they're written exactly like that. It's like
one cliché after another and sometimes...

Mr. STILLER: Yeah, it's ridiculous.

GROSS: It's ridiculous, I know. And there's always things blowing up and
there's always that Carmina Burana kind of music behind it.

Mr. STILLER: Uh-huh.

GROSS: What’s the music that you use?

Mr. STILLER: That was - we actually scored that. We just made our own
music.

GROSS: Oh, I swear I've heard that in every trailer.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. STILLER: Yeah. Yeah. We wanted to make it sound...

GROSS: You can't have written it. I've heard it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. STILLER: ...like every trailer. But yeah, no, I mean, that was
really fun as a way to sort of try to set up the characters before the
movie. And the only thing that frustrated me in that process was I
wanted to get the real green band before each trailer, you know, that
the Motion Picture Association of America shows?

GROSS: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. Uh-huh.

Mr. STILLER: And they wouldn’t give it to us and it drove me crazy
because I actually got the studios, like that, you know, would have like
a Universal logo at the beginning. The movie, you know, the movie was a
DreamWorks movie, but Universal gave us their logo for that. And New
Line gave us the logo for "The Fatties," which was Jack Black's
character's comedy and Fox Searchlight gave us their logo for the
"Satan's Alley," which was sort of like the serious, you know, gay
priest movie that Danny's character was in.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. STILLER: So we actually won this, you know, great battle of getting
these other studios to put their logos in front of a movie that wasn’t
from them, but then we couldn’t get the Motion Picture Association to
give us the real green. In fact, they told me that the color - the shade
of green that they use we weren't allowed to use, which I wanted to like
take to the Supreme Court or something.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: That's right.

Mr. STILLER: Because I felt like, you can't tell me what shade of green
to use.

GROSS: If you’re just joining us, my guest is Ben Stiller and he's
starring in the new movie "Greenberg."

Let's talk about another movie that you co-wrote, directed and starred
in, and this is "Zoolander," which came out in 2001, just a few days
after 9/11. And this is such a funny film about, you know, a famous male
model who's kind of on the outs. It must've been so - I don’t know what
word to us, but nobody was going to go and see this movie after 9/11. I
mean, the country was in shock and in mourning and this is like a funny
comedy about the world of modeling and fashion.

Mr. STILLER: Yeah. Yeah, it was very strange. It was a really weird
experience, so...

GROSS: Can you describe what that experience was like for you?

Mr. STILLER: Well, it was confusing, mainly. I mean, it was sort of
surreal because like, at the time, the last thing really that I ever
thought, you know, as I was working on the movie that there would be,
you know, be something - some sort of event like this that would happen
that in any way would have anything to do with the release of the movie.
I mean, just something you would never think of. And then, of course,
when that happened, it felt really wrong in any way to be caring at all
about how this event was going to affect the release of the movie.

It just, you know, that just seemed - I think it just was inappropriate
and, yet, there's those feelings when you’ve been working on something
for like a year and a half and you’re like, oh, my God. So I think it
was the feeling of what everybody was feeling after 9/11, being a New
Yorker and, you know, just experiencing that, and then on top of that,
trying to figure out what to do with the movie.

And, you know, there was a discussion at the studio about whether or not
to release it. And, you know, when it came down to it, there was just no
reason not to release it other than it might not make as much money. And
to me, that was the wrong reason to not release it. You know, I felt
like if anybody wanted to see a comedy they should have the option of
going to see a comedy.

GROSS: I want to play a short scene and this is a scene with your
father, Jerry Stiller, and your father plays Maury Ballstein, head of
Balls Models.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. STILLER: That's right.

GROSS: And this is a model agency that he helped build with Zoolander.

Mr. STILLER: Yeah, the male modeling agency - Balls Models. Yeah.

GROSS: Male modeling agency. Yeah. So at this point in the movie, your
character, Derek Zoolander, wants to take a break from the fashion
world. And so, here's you with your father, Jerry Stiller, in a scene
from "Zoolander."

(Soundbite of movie, "Zoolander")

Mr. STILLER: (as Derek Zoolander) I want to do something meaningful with
my life, Maury. I have deeper thoughts on my mind. The other day, I was
thinking about volunteering to help teach underprivileged children to
learn how to read. And just thinking about it was the most rewarding
experience I've ever had.

Mr. JERRY STILLER (Actor): (as Maury Ballstein) Derek, I don’t think
you’re cut out for that kind of thing.

Mr. STILLER: (as Derek Zoolander) I mean, maybe I could have my own
institute. We could call it the Derek Zoolander Center for Kids Who
Can't Read Good.

Mr. JERRY STILLER: (as Maury Ballstein) What about us? We built this
place together. Look out. Tushy squeeze.

Unidentified Actress: Ooh, Maury.

Mr. JERRY STILLER: (as Derek Zoolander) Derek, when I met you, you were
a junior petite who couldn’t book a goddamned Sears catalog and who
couldn’t turn left to save his ass. Now look at you.

Mr. STILLER: (as Derek Zoolander) I can turn left.

Mr. JERRY STILLER: (as Derek Zoolander) Yeah, right. Derek, please some
male models go left at the end of a runway, others go right. You got a
lot of gifts but hanging a lowey(ph) just isn't one of them.

GROSS: It must have given you such pleasure to say, okay, I'm now going
to write a role for my father and direct him in it.

Mr. STILLER: Oh, yeah. I mean, that's why I was laughing listening to
that, just because he's just so - first of all, the character of Maury
is so far afield from my dad's actual personality...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. STILLER: ...in terms of like, you know, ever squeezing the tushy of
a lady. I couldn’t picture him doing that. But that was what was fun was
getting him into those situations. And he, you know, he really goes with
it and goes for it, and it was great. I'm really happy. Like, I'm kind
of looking forward to some day my kids being able to see their
grandfather in that movie. Yeah, because he's just - he's awesome.

GROSS: What was it like for you when your father was co-starring on
"Seinfeld" and everybody was watching the show?

Mr. STILLER: Well, you know, it really changed his life. I mean he, you
know, for years and years my parents, you know, were successful as a
comedy team and, you know, did the "Ed Sullivan Show" I think over 30
times and nightclubs and TV shows and all that. And they, you know, did
really, really well. But then I think when "Seinfeld" happened for my
dad, it just changed people's perception of him and it reached so many
people. And I was really very, very happy to see that for him because I
think he's really deserving of it.

As I think my mom is, too. I mean, she hasn’t had her "Seinfeld" but
she's an incredibly talented actress. And so, you know, and I think for
him, you know, he thrives on work. I think he loves to work. It keeps
him going. And then, you know, out of that came "King of Queens" for him
and people love him. He's a naturally funny human being and he's
incredibly loved from that show. And so, it was great. It was great to
see that.

GROSS: Now, just something about movies that you’ve been in. You’ve been
in a lot of like pretty broad comedies. But you’ve also been in movies
that are very kind of quirky in their own way. I'm so sick of that word
but I don’t know what other word to use.

Mr. STILLER: Right.

GROSS: But they're also like in their own way very sad. And I'm thinking
here of Wes Anderson's film "The Royal Tenenbaums" and also of your new
movie "Greenberg." I mean, they're funny, they're about reasonably
eccentric people, but there's a sadness underneath. I mean, whenever I
see "The Royal Tenenbaums" I mean, I'm kind of in tears at...

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: ...at the end. There's just something so emotional about it. And
I guess I wonder if you’ve thought about that at all - about that
undercurrent of sadness in some of the films that you’ve been in? Even
though there's something...

Mr. STILLER: Right.

GROSS: ...you know, comic about them.

Mr. STILLER: You know, I mean, I haven't thought about it in that way. I
mean, I think that's what I really like about "Royal Tenenbaums," that
there's a real sort of emotional sort of vulnerability there. And I
think in "Greenberg," you know, that world and the people in it, you
know, I can relate to that. I feel like a lot of people can relate to
that in terms of just trying to get through the day, you know.

That's what I thought was sort of amazing about what Noah attempted in
this movie is that he really just tried to make a movie about real
people trying to get through their lives every day with their sense of
self intact and all, and it's hard and, you know, it's lonely. And, you
know, Greenberg, you could look at him as sort of like, you know, a guy
who's, you know, really unhappy and hard to deal with and critical and,
you know, and angry and all those things.

But at the heart of it, he's - I think he's a lonely guy who's, you
know, looking for something, looking for a connection and he doesn’t
have it. And that is really sad, I think, and kind of beautiful, too,
that - what Noah decided to embrace in this movie. So I'm happy to be a
part of that and I like movies that are that open in that way.

GROSS: Well, it's been great to talk with you. Thank you so much.

Mr. STILLER: You too, Terry. Good talking to you.

GROSS: Ben Stiller stars in the new movie "Greenberg." You can find
clips from the film on our Web site, freshair.npr.org.
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Liz Carpenter, Feisty LBJ Aide, Dies at 89

TERRY GROSS, host:

The health care debate and last night's House vote passing health care
reform brought President Lyndon Johnson to mind because of his work
pushing through passage of Medicare and Medicaid.

We're going to remember Liz Carpenter, who worked closely with him. She
died Saturday at the age of 89. Carpenter began her career as a
journalist covering Washington. She was Johnson's executive assistant
when he was vice president. She was one of the first women to hold such
a position. She wrote the 58-word text that Johnson read the evening
President Kennedy was assassinated. She had been in the Kennedy
motorcade.

After LBJ became president, Carpenter became press secretary for
Johnson's wife, Lady Bird. She later became active in women's rights
issues. She was one of the founders of the National Women's Political
Caucus and lobbied for passage of the Equal Rights Amendment.

I spoke with Liz Carpenter in 1987, after the publication of her memoir.

GROSS: You wrote LBJ's speech after - it was a short speech - after the
Kennedy assassination.

Ms. LIZ CARPENTER (Journalist): Yes.

GROSS: Boy, that must've been a very difficult thing to write. I mean,
who would know what to say after a national tragedy of that magnitude?

Ms. CARPENTER: You know, it was - it came and I cannot say it came from
in me. It came from above or genes, something. But somehow at the time
of a terrible day you’re called upon to be survivor. And my role had
been - being a writer, writing remarks for LBJ, and so as we were moving
out of Dallas to Air Force One, somehow my hand went into my purse,
pulled out a pencil and a pad, knowing as a reporter that I had been,
that he would be faced with a battery of reporters when we stepped off
the plane in Washington and he'd need some words.

And so the words just began to come and I don’t think I rewrote them. I
think that they just came. And without any real conscious effort, and I
can't help but feel they were God-given. And this was true also I think
to other people. All of us were moving around in a sort of a trauma, we
still trying to reject what had happened.

And I remember the two wire service reporters just automatically moved
to telephones at Parkland Hospital and grabbed the phones. But that's
their profession, telling them more than any conscious effort. The White
House photographer knew he had to have the picture of the swearing in,
and he set about doing that. So you kind of went about your work in a
trance.

GROSS: You started that message for Johnson with a very simple and very
moving line. You wrote: This is a sad time for all people.

Ms. CARPENTER: Yes.

GROSS: Why did you open with that?

Ms. CARPENTER: I guess - I first started thinking this is a sad time for
all Americans, but Kennedy was beloved around the world, and so it
seemed to be too limiting.

GROSS: So you came up with this is a sad time of all people.

Ms. CARPENTER: For all Americans, and for all people. And then I ask
your help and God's at the end.

GROSS: You became Lady Bird's press secretary, and you say you saw the
job as helping her help him - of helping the first lady help the
president.

Ms. CARPENTER: That encompasses everything, doesn’t it?

GROSS: Yeah. Well, but I wonder what can you really do? As the press
secretary for the first lady, what's your best way of helping the
president?

Ms. CARPENTER: Well, by making her his translator. And he deserved one,
and he - a president is terribly busy doing their things, and Lady Bird
could go out and walk through the Head Start projects in Newark, New
Jersey, or the Job Corps in Kentucky. And she had been a reporter
herself briefly, but she had been a trained journalist with a Bachelor
of Journalism degree from the University of Texas. So she really knew
what the five W's and the H are. She knew the difference between an AM
and a PM, and if she could go and help kind of be the catalyst that
brought out the story of what the kids in the Head Start were like
before and after the program, it certainly was helpful in selling the
program to Congress and to the people.

GROSS: What were some of the greatest crises that you had to cope with
as press secretary to the first lady?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. CARPENTER: Well, two that kind of dropped in on me were the weddings
of the two daughters. And this is because I'm not, by nature, a press
spokesman about weddings, but I was thrust into that. And there were
about 85 to 100 women reporters who were eager to know every tedious
detail about the plans for the weddings. And it was a joyous kind of
relief, I think, from the steady barrage of stories about Vietnam that
were certainly full of our front pages.

And all the world does love a lover, so romance was ripe in the White
House, and that was some of it, that you would get cornered on small
things like: Did Lucy's wedding gown have a union label in it? And this
would be - drop out of the sky. You didn’t even know, and you'd have to
find out: Did it? And if it didn’t, it'd better.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: When you were first secretary to Lady Bird Johnson, I'm sure that
there were plenty of times when she was out on one of her beautification
campaigns when she was met by anti-war demonstrators, and when that
became a part of the story that the press covered. Actually, I'm sure
you must've run into that a lot, where anti-war demonstrations were
receiving more coverage than the message that you and she wanted to get
out. What was your stand on the war then?

Ms. CARPENTER: Well, after 1966, when things began to get worse in
Vietnam and you were getting more demonstrators, well, that's when the
signs began to go up. And she would be out trying to tell not just about
beautification, but about many other things like the war on poverty, and
suddenly these signs would appear. And the newswomen would just - and
the picture would be the sign. All you did was try to plead with them.
You could not manage their news, but you would try to hope that somehow
the story of the Job Corps camp of the boy that had been improved by it
would get in. But often, it was taken away from you, and that made it
very difficult and discouraging. But she still kept on keeping on.

GROSS: You found out that Johnson was resigning like most of us did, by
watching television. You saw his speech.

Ms. CARPENTER: Absolutely.

GROSS: And later learned that his speech had two endings, one in which
he resigned, and one in which he didn’t.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. CARPENTER: That's the one I'd read earlier that afternoon, the one
in which he didn’t.

GROSS: The one in which he didn’t resign. Well, did you feel angry that
you had to find out about this from television?

Ms. CARPENTER: Not at all. And I went right down to the White House.
Lady Bird called me and said they'd wanted to tell me, and they made a
point of calling staff real quickly after the broadcast so you wouldn’t
have this. But I was sorry that he decided not to, because I think that
- well, we went into the Nixon period, and so - and ultimately,
Watergate. But it would've been tough for him to get reelected, because,
as he realized, he was not the person to rally people together when
everyone was so divided on Vietnam.

GROSS: Liz Carpenter, recorded in 1987. She died Saturday at the age of
89.

This is FRESH AIR.
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Pride And Sensibility: Jane Austen's Literary Ambition

TERRY GROSS, host:

Claire Harman has written acclaimed biographies of the novelists Sylvia
Townsend Warner and Fanny Burney. In her latest book, "Jane's Fame,"
Harman considers the mostly posthumous career of the biggest female
novelist of them all: Jane Austen.

Book critic Maureen Corrigan has a review.

MAUREEN CORRIGAN: At her death in 1817 at age 41, Jane Austen had
published four novels, anonymously, which had sold a few thousand
copies. A few years later, those novels - along with two more, published
posthumously - were out of print. Austen's reputation compared to that
of her contemporaries - blockbuster lady novelists like Fanny Burney and
swaggering celebs like Sir Walter Scott and Lord Byron - was faint, as
faint as the candlelight in the sitting room of the cottage she shared
during the final years of her short life with her mother, sister and a
close friend. There, according to the now-famous legend, Austen
scratched out her novels, modestly concealing the latest pages of "Emma"
or "Mansfield Park" whenever a squeaking hall door alerted her to the
casual interruptions of servants or visitors, or any persons beyond her
own family party.

Austen's first biographer, her nephew James Edward Austen-Leigh, drummed
in this reassuring image of Austen as a mouse, who wrote without regard
to fame or fortune, when he equated her writing to her skill with
embroidery. In his 1869 biographical sketch of Aunt Jane, Austen-Leigh
approvingly noted that the same hand which painted so exquisitely with
the pen could work as delicately with the needle.

Can you hear the chortling from beyond the grave? That's Austen - or at
least the Austen Claire Harman gives us in her lively new book called
"Jane's Fame." Harman's Austen is a dogged literary workhorse who
coveted the bottom line of big sales. After "Pride and Prejudice" was
published in 1813 and the secret of its author's identity began to leak
out, Austen wrote to her sailor brother Frank that: The secret has
spread so far as to be scarcely the shadow of a secret now, and I
believe whenever the third novel appears, I shall try to make all the
money rather than all the mystery I can of it. People shall pay for
their knowledge, if I can make them.

Harman's shrewd critical study, brimming with Brit wit, freshens up our
impression of Austen - an enterprise always hampered by the overarching
fact that Austen's life, like Shakespeare's, left behind few
biographical fossils - not even a decent portrait to bow down before and
worship. The primary aim of "Jane's Fame," however, is to tackle the
great literary mystery of how this parson's daughter who was happy to
limit her scope to three or four families in a country village came to
conquer the world.

With nimble steps, Harman dances through 200 years' worth of critical
reception of Austen's novels, sharing the good, the bad and the
brainless. Austen's own mother thought her son James, a failed poet, was
the real writer in the family. Oh, mom. And then there were those, like
Mark Twain, who found Austen's work representative of the most
stultifying aspects of English literary taste. Twain growled: Every time
I read "Pride and Prejudice," I want to dig her up and hit her over the
skull with her own shin bone.

But even during the bleak half-century between Austen's death and the
publication of her nephew's biography, when Austen's cool, ironic
sensibility seemed so out of fashion with Victorian earnestness, Austen
was admired by a discerning few. After the biography was published, the
first wave of Austen-mania hit, with Janeites - like Rudyard Kipling and
the Bloomsbury set - leading the cheers.

Subsequently, she's become the darling of feminists, queer theorists,
Merry Olde England hucksters, post-colonial critics, romance addicts and
pornographers.

The 1990s witnessed another variant on Janeite fanaticism with the
proliferation of Austen films, which Harman says maximized the erotic
potential in Austen's novels. Think of actor Colin Firth as Mr. Darcy in
that dripping wet shirt, and you know she's right.

Harman's informed and elegant chronicle of the rise of Divine Jane, as
the late Victorians called her, is an eye-opener. The fact that Austen's
posthumous success is also an affirmation of the ideal of a literary
meritocracy - the notion that the canonical cream always rises to the
top - makes "Jane's Fame" as happy a fairy tale as any of Austen's own
novels.

GROSS: Maureen Corrigan teaches literature at Georgetown University. She
reviewed "Jane's Fame" by Claire Harman.

I'm Terry Gross, and I'd like to end today's show by wishing Stephen
Sondheim a happy 80th birthday, and I want to thank him for his
extraordinary music.

(Soundbite of song, "Pretty Women")

Unidentified Man: (Singing) Pretty women, fascinating. Sipping coffee,
dancing. Pretty women are a wonder. Pretty women, sitting in the window
or standing on the stair. Something in them cheers the air. Pretty
women, silhouetted. Stay within you, glancing. Stay forever, breathing
lightly, pretty women.
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Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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