Skip to main content

Sidney Lumet: A Director Who Gave Actors His All.

Fresh Air remembers director Sidney Lumet — who died Saturday at age 86 — with excerpts from a 1988 interview. One of Hollywood's most prolific directors, Lumet created more than 40 films, including Network, Serpico, Fail-Safe, Dog Day Afternoon, The Wiz, The Verdict and Prince of the City.

32:01

Other segments from the episode on April 15, 2011

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, April 15, 2011: Obituary for Sidney Lumet; Interview with Will Ferrell; Review of film "The Conspirator."

Transcript

*** TRANSCRIPTION COMPANY BOUNDARY ***
..DATE:
20110415
..PGRM:
Fresh Air
..TIME:
12:00-13:00 PM
..NIEL:
N/A
..NTWK:
NPR
..SGMT:
Sidney Lumet: A Director Who Gave Actors His All

TERRY GROSS, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

The film director Sidney Lumet died of lymphoma last Saturday. He was
86. We're going to listen back to my interview with him.

The New York Times obituary described Lumet as a director who preferred
the streets of New York to the back lots of Hollywood, and whose stories
of conscience - "12 Angry Men," "Serpico," "Dog Day Afternoon," "The
Verdict," "Network" - became modern American film classics.

Lumet also made the 1964 film "The Pawnbroker," starring Rod Steiger as
a Holocaust survivor who owns a pawn shop, and "Fail-Safe," about a
nuclear showdown between the U.S. and the Soviet Union. Lumet directed
Michael Jackson and Diana Ross in the 1978 musical "The Wiz." He was
given an honorary Academy Award in 2005.

Let's start with a scene from Lumet's final film, "Before the Devil
Knows You're Dead," which was released in 2007. It stars Philip Seymour
Hoffman and Ethan Hawke as two brothers whose parents own a jewelry
store. Hoffman plays a businessman and addict who's embezzled a large
amount of money from his company. Facing an audit, he's in desperate
need of cash. He's trying to rope his younger brother into helping him
pull off a heist.

(Soundbite of movie, "Before the Devil Knows You're Dead")

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. ETHAN HAWKE (Actor): (As Hank Hanson) What are we doing, and when?

Mr. PHILIP SEYMOUR HOFFMAN (Actor): (As Andy Hanson) It's a jewelry
store. This ring a bell?

Mr. HAWKE: (As Hank Hanson) No.

Mr. HOFFMAN: (As Andy) What if I tell you it's got a Footlocker on one
side and a Claire's Accessories on the other? Yeah, that's right. You
got it. Now listen. We don't want Tiffany's. We want a mom-and-pop
operation in a busy place on a Saturday with a week's take still in the
safe.

We both worked there. We know the safe combinations. We know the burglar
alarm signals. We know where everything is. And I figure between the
week's take, the jewelry in the cases, the vault, there's a $500,000
haul. I figure probably six. That old dumb old lady that works there,
she's alone till noon. She's not going to be a problem.

Mr. HAWKE: (As Hank Hanson) Andy.

Mr. HOFFMAN: (As Andy) Yeah?

Mr. HAWKE: (As Hank Hanson) That's mom and dad's store.

Mr. HOFFMAN: (As Andy) That's what I said, a mom-and-pop operation.

GROSS: I spoke with director Sidney Lumet in 1988.

You've made about 38 movies in a little over 30 years. And it reminds me
of the old studio days, in a way, when there were a lot of movies being
made and when directors and actors used to do a lot of movies per year.
How have you managed to keep that pace up, especially considering how
the movie industry has changed?

Mr. SIDNEY LUMET (Film Director): Lucky, Terry.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. LUMET: No, I love work, and I love movies. I would - I think if I
had - if I could ever - these things are clearly impossible, but if I
could have had the artistic freedom that I enjoy now under the old
studio system - which would have been impossible, by the way - I think I
would've been very happy working at a studio, because I love going from
one project to another. I love - when I work with actors who I find
exciting to work with, I love repeating with them and working with them
again and again.

GROSS: So you think of yourself as having more artistic freedom now than
you did when you were starting, because of how the movie industry has
changed?

Mr. LUMET: Not - partially. I don't...

GROSS: Or because of your stature?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. LUMET: Part of it is muscle.

GROSS: Yeah.

Mr. LUMET: You know, you get a couple of hits behind you, and you can
slowly start encroaching into that area. And - but I think you're right.
I think the studio system has changed. I don't think that Louis B. Mayer
would've given me final cut, no matter how many hits I'd had. He would
have never given up that prerogative.

GROSS: And you insist on that, right, when you take on a movie?

Mr. LUMET: Yeah, yeah. (unintelligible).

GROSS: You must have final cut? Which means what, exactly?

Mr. LUMET: Well, it means there can be nothing - the film cannot be
touched after you finish editing it, whether in the soundtrack or
visually. It's yours.

GROSS: What kind of problem had you run into with previous movies that
taught you you needed to demand final cut?

Mr. LUMET: Well, as an example, many, many years ago, I did a very, very
interesting picture - I think a very good picture. It's one of the few
that I like better now than at the time that I did it - a picture called
"The Hill" with Sean Connery.

And it was not much of a success in America, but a good picture. And at
that time - I did it through Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, and at that time, they
were being owned by a new person. They were changing hands almost daily.
There were three new managements in the period of a year.

And at one point, they just said it, as a matter of company policy, that
a picture had to run one hour and 55 minutes, because they thought that
this would work well for their relationships with the exhibitors.

And the picture ran two hours and two minutes, and they just insisted
that I take seven minutes out. They didn't care where it came from. It
didn't matter to them that there were no seven minutes to take out
without destroying the movie.

And it was a hell of a battle, and the only reason I won it, actually,
was because management changed hands again, and the new management came
in, which was - listened with slightly more sympathetic ears.

But if the old management had continued running Metro, they simply would
have taken the film and removed seven minutes, period.

GROSS: Right.

Mr. LUMET: And that kind of thing goes on constantly. A great many
directors have suffered very severely from that.

GROSS: And that's still going on.

Mr. LUMET: Oh, yeah.

GROSS: Mm-hmm. Let's talk a little bit about your first film, made in
1957, and this was "12 Angry Men," a courtroom drama. You had, before
that, been directing television, live television dramas. Was this a good
transition to make, since it was basically a one-set movie? It's a
courtroom drama. It's a jury drama. They're in the deliberation room
most of the movie. Was that a good place to start?

Mr. LUMET: It was good, and it was a great problem, except that I was
dumb enough not to know what the problem was. I found out - after I had
done the movie and people liked it - that it was very difficult to shoot
a movie in one room. That never occurred to me.

GROSS: Really?

Mr. LUMET: I had just plunged in with complete ignorance, knowing what I
wanted to do with camera, knowing that I could make the camera a good
interpretive part of the movie itself, and just blithely went ahead,
shot it in 19 days, happy as a lark, and didn't know what the problem
was.

I may have felt enormously secure at the confinement of it, because my
background, as you say, had been live television and the theater. So the
idea of staging something in one room was something that came very
easily to me.

GROSS: Well, the movie starred Henry Fonda and Lee J. Cobb. Fonda is the
only juror initially convinced of the defendant's innocence. Cobb is the
last holdout. I want to play a clip from this movie, "12 Angry Men."

(Soundbite of movie, "12 Angry Men")

Mr. HENRY FONDA (Actor): (As Juror #8) Did you ever see a woman who had
to wear glasses and didn't want to because she thinks they spoil her
looks?

Mr. LEE J. COBB (Actor): (As Juror #3) Okay. She had marks on her nose.
I'm giving you that. From glasses, right? She didn't want to wear them
out of the house so people would think she's gorgeous. But when she saw
this kid killing his father, she was in the house, alone. That's all.

Mr. FONDA: (As Juror #8) Do you wear glasses when you go to bed?

Mr. COBB: (As Juror #3) No, I don't. No one wears eyeglasses to bed.

Mr. FONDA: (As Juror #8) It's logical to assume that she wasn't wearing
them when she was in bed, tossing and turning, trying to fall asleep.

Mr. COBB: (As Juror #3) How do you know?

Mr. FONDA: (As Juror #8) I don't know. I'm guessing. I'm also guessing
that she probably didn't put her glasses on when she turned to look
casually out of the window. And she herself testified the killing took
place just as she looked out. The lights went off a split-second later.
She couldn't have had time to put them on then.

Mr. COBB: (As Juror #3) Wait a second...

Mr. FONDA: (As Juror #8) Here's another guess: Maybe she honestly
thought she saw the boy kill his father. I say she only saw a blur.

Mr. COBB: (As Juror #3) How do you know what she saw? How does he know
all that? How do you know what kind of glasses she wore? Maybe they were
sunglasses. Maybe she was farsighted. What do you know about it?

Mr. FONDA: (As Juror #8) I only know the woman's eyesight is in question
now.

Mr. GEORGE VOSKOVEC (Actor): (As Juror #11) She had to be able to
identify a person 60 feet away, at night, without glasses.

Mr. JOHN FIEDLER (Actor): (As Juror #2) You can't send someone off to
die on evidence like that.

Mr. COBB: (As Juror #3) Oh, don't give me that.

Mr. FONDA: (As Juror #8) Don't you think the woman might have made a
mistake?

Mr. COBB: (As Juror #3) No.

Mr. FONDA: (As Juror #8) It's not possible?

Mr. COBB: (As Juror #3) No, it's not possible.

GROSS: It's a heck of a cast. In addition to Fonda and Lee J. Cobb, you
have Jack Warden, Jack Klugman, E.G. Marshall, Ed Begley. You were - you
directed them your first time out on film, and you've since directed
Paul Newman and younger actors like Al Pacino and Treat Williams.

Is there a difference in the acting styles of the actors who you were
directing in the '50s and the actors who came of age in, say, the '70s?

Mr. LUMET: Not really, Terry. They - the basic craft of acting is, in
the United States, has been set for some years, really, even before the
Method came in. Basically, people like Fonda worked out of a profound
sense of truth.

In fact, a man like Fonda didn't know how to do anything falsely and
used himself, used himself brilliantly. Both of those elements are
foundations of the Method, and even though he wasn't called a Method
actor in the sense of having studied the method, he basically worked out
of that, as most good actors did.

GROSS: Do you think of yourself as a Method director?

Mr. LUMET: No. I become the kind of director that becomes whatever his
actors need. When I did "Murder on the Orient Express," I could work the
way the English actors work. When we did "Long Day's Journey into
Night," there was a perfect example, Kate Hepburn has a very specific
way of working, her own technique. Ralph Richardson is a prime example
of British technique, which is primarily from what we call the outside-
in.

Dean Stockwell works completely Method, from the inside out. And Jason
has his own glorious world of creating something from inside himself,
and heaven knows where it comes from.

But I think part of the job of directing is to not make the actors work
your way, but for you to work, as a director, any way that makes them
comfortable.

GROSS: You directed Al Pacino in two of his first big movie roles,
"Serpico" and "Dog Day Afternoon." I want to play a short scene from
"Dog Day Afternoon," and maybe you can tell me what you think Al Pacino
needed when he was getting started.

This is a scene from the very opening of the movie, when Pacino walks
into a New York bank and he holds it up, and he wants the money to buy a
sex-change operation for his lover.

(Soundbite of movie, "Dog Day Afternoon")

Mr. AL PACINO (Actor): (As Sonny) Freeze. Nobody move. Get over there.
Okay, all right, get away from those alarms. Now get in the center. He
moves, take his head off. Put the gun on him. Get out of the center.

Mr. JOHN CAZALE (Actor): (As Sal) Sonny? I can't do it, Sonny.

Mr. PACINO: (As Sonny) What?

Mr. CAZALE: (As Sal) I'm not gonna make it, Sonny.

Mr. PACINO: (As Sonny) What are you talking about? Put it on.

Mr. CAZALE: (As Sal) I can't do it, Sonny.

Mr. PACINO: (As Sonny) Sal. Sal. What? Where are you? You can't make it.

GROSS: It's an interesting performance, because Pacino is so manic in
it, and yet so insecure and incompetent at robbing this bank.

Mr. LUMET: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: What did he need when he was getting started? You were talking
before about giving actors what you think they need.

Mr. LUMET: Primarily, what he needed was he needed a great sense of
freedom and a great sense of restriction. That - the creation of the
character is really Al's own. He understood something about that man
that is irreplaceable, and I don't think a director can ever give - he
understood him down to his bone marrow.

The - what he needed was a sense of release, the confidence to know that
as extreme as he got in the performance, that it was right, that it went
- for example, there's a scene toward the end of the movie where he's
talking to his female wife, his real wife, on the telephone, trying to
decide what to do.

And the scene is extraordinary in the sense that it requires a level of
emotion that I've seen very rarely in movies. We did the scene in one
take, because I - with two cameras, because I didn't want him to have to
repeat that emotion over and over again.

And when he finished it the first time, it was wonderful. And without
waiting an instant, I didn't even cut the cameras, I said: Al, go again.
And he looked at me like I was crazy, because he was exhausted. He was
spent.

And I said: Right now. Action. And what I was driving at was that he had
reached such a height at the end of the first take, such an emotional
peak, but that's really where I wanted the scene to begin.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Mr. LUMET: And he - it's really one of the best pieces of movie acting
I've ever seen. It was blinding in its intensity, agonizingly painful
and just reached a level of emotion that I - as I say, that I don't
think I've seen often in movie acting. And that knowledge that he could
go as far as he wanted to within the confines of this situation and that
man - the situation created by the script, the man created by Pacino.

But that confidence to know that he could go as far as his feelings
would carry him was very important to him, and that was really the
biggest single directing relationship to his performance.

GROSS: We're listening back to an interview with Sidney Lumet. He died
Saturday at the age of 86. Here's the scene from "Dog Day Afternoon"
that Lumet was just talking about.

Al Pacino's character, Sonny, is doing his best to keep it together. The
bank robbery is falling apart. He has a bank full of hostages, and he's
dealing with the police and the hostage negotiator. In the midst of the
chaos, he calls his wife.

(Soundbite of movie, "Dog Day Afternoon")

Mr. PACINO: (As Sonny) I'm dying, you know that? I'm dying here.

Ms. SUSAN PERETZ (Actor): (as Angie) Sonny, I blame myself. I notice
you've been tense, like something is happening. Like night before last,
you're yelling at the kids like a mad man. And then you want to go on
that ride, that caterpillar, from here to there, full of those kids?
It's ridiculous. I'm not about to go on the ride. So you yell at me. You
pig. Get on the (bleep) ride.

Well, everything fell out of me. My heart and my liver just sunk to the
floor. I mean, everything, just...

Mr. PACINO: (As Sonny) Angie, dear...

Ms. PERETZ: (as Angie) ...you know what it felt like, you yelling at me
like that in front of all them people?

Mr. PACINO: (As Sonny) I want to...

Ms. PERETZ: (as Angie) I mean, because you never talked to me like that
before, Sonny. I think, he's gonna shoot me. He's gonna dump my body
and...

Mr. PACINO: (As Sonny) Angie, will you just shut up?

Ms. PERETZ: (as Angie) I mean, I was scared of you. I was scared.

Mr. PACINO: (As Sonny) Will you shut the (bleep) up and listen to me?
Just listen to me.

Ms. PERETZ: (as Angie) You see? You see this, with the language and
everything?

Mr. PACINO: (As Sonny) We're not talking. I'm trying to talk to you, and
you...

Ms. PERETZ: (as Angie) A person can't communicate with you.

GROSS: A scene from the 1975 film "Dog Day Afternoon," directed by
Sidney Lumet. We'll hear more of our 1988 interview with Lumet after a
break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: We're remembering Sidney Lumet, the prolific film director who
made "12 Angry Men," "The Pawnbroker," "Fail-Safe," Dog Day Afternoon,"
"Serpico," "Prince of the City," "Network" and "The Wiz." He died
Saturday at the age of 86. We're listening back to a 1988 interview.
Lumet typically shot only one or two takes of each scene.

I wonder if you ever run into conflicts where there's one actor in a
scene who works really well on that first or second take, and another
actor who sees it as their style to go for 15 or 16 takes, until they
really get it perfect. What do you do if you run into that?

Mr. LUMET: I have run into it, and so far - if there were piece of wood
around the studio, I'd knock on it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. LUMET: But so far, I've been able to convince the 15-or-16-take
actor that the other works.

The early takes are not imperfect. They are usually the freshest,
truest. The repetition, I find - and I think for most good actors - the
repetitions tend to become mechanical. One doesn't find more truth in it
as it goes on.

Now, that partially has to do with the way I work, because, as you know,
or may know, I rehearse very heavily. I rehearse two to three weeks,
depending on the complexity of the characters, before we begin. And
those rehearsals are conducted like theater rehearsals in the sense that
people learn their lines completely, are working without scripts.
They're completely blocked, to the degree that we're having run-throughs
by the end of it. So it's not as if once we get on camera, that this is
their first exposure.

GROSS: Is that uncommon?

Mr. LUMET: Yes, it is. It is. It is not done often. I think mostly,
those of us who were trained in television do it. I think Arthur Penn
does it. I know Arthur Penn does it, John Frankenheimer, and so on.

GROSS: Oh, because you had to do it for the live drama.

Mr. LUMET: That's right. And - but it turned out for all of us, I think,
in movies, to have other advantages.

GROSS: You know, between "12 Angry Men," "The Verdict," "Serpico" and
"Prince of the City," you've done your share of police and legal dramas.
Is this a special interest of yours, or did you just like those scripts
and want to do them?

Mr. LUMET: It's funny, Terry. You know, I don't really analyze these
things. I just respond instinctively to a piece of material. But
obviously, something in me somewhere is very involved with that level of
life. Where it comes from, I don't know, but on looking back on it, boy,
there are an awful lot of what I call justice stories. They somehow
involve me very viscerally.

GROSS: Have you been affected by the new craze of market research?

Mr. LUMET: Yes. And fortunately, I've had my artistic controls in place
before they ever came along, because I think they are disastrous. I
think they're destructive. I also think they're untrue. I think a person
changes as soon as you ask them something.

GROSS: So do you have a no-market-research clause when you take on a
film?

Mr. LUMET: No, because I can't prevent the studio from doing it. But I
sure in hell don't let it affect any of my decisions about what I'm
going to do with a picture.

GROSS: You obviously love film directing. What - when you're doing a
movie, what's the part that you most look forward to and the part that
you know you have to do, but you really don't enjoy at all?

Mr. LUMET: There's only one part that I have to do - all of it is a
thrilling process to me: pre-production, shooting, post-production,
editing, music. The only part that's a bit of a drag is what we call the
mix, which is when we come in and do the final soundtrack and put every
chair squeak in and every door slam in.

It requires enormous concentration, because it's largely a mechanical
process rather than a creative one - although some directors use it very
creatively. The soundtrack that I keep remembering particularly is the
soundtrack of "Apocalypse Now," which was a brilliant piece of work and
a totally creative piece of work.

However, you do have to do it - I feel I have to do it myself, because
if the mix is a bad mix, if the wrong thing is emphasized, it can
seriously affect the movie and be very destructive to a movie. So I have
to do it, but it's the only non-joyful part of moviemaking to me.

GROSS: We'll hear more of my 1988 interview with Sidney Lumet in the
second half of the show. He died of lymphoma Saturday. He was 86.

I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR. Here's music from Lumet's 1964
film, "The Pawnbroker," composed by Quincy Jones.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. We're remembering the film
director Sidney Lumet. He died of lymphoma last Saturday. He was 86. His
films include: "12 Angry Men," "The Pawnbroker," "Fail-Safe," "Serpico,"
"The Wiz" and "Network."

Let's here a scene from Lumet's 1981 film, "Prince of the City," adapted
from a memoir by a New York City narcotics detective officer who exposed
corruption in the unit. Jerry Orbach played one of the dirty narcotics
detectives. In this scene, he storms into the office of one of the
people in charge of the corruption investigation.

(Soundbite of movie, "Prince of the City")

(Soundbite of door opening)

Mr. JERRY ORBACH (Actor): (as Gus Levy) You indict me on a squawk of a
dope dealer who tried to buy out of (bleep) bust. You want to break up
another federal operation that'll put away more quality mob guys in a
year that you'll tough pissant career?

Unidentified Actor: Detective Levy, you're hardly in a position...

Mr. ORBACH: (as Gus Levy) Why...

(Soundbite of smashing, banging)

Mr. ORBACH: (as Gus Levy) I'll tell you what I'm in a position to do,
and that's throw you out the (bleep) window. It's only the fifth floor,
but I'll try to aim you so you'll land on your pointed little head.

Unidentified Actor: Levy, you can easily avoid trial. All you have to do
is cooperate.

Mr. ORBACH: (as Gus Levy) You got your mind made up to try me, go ahead
and try me, but not for a lousy $400. At least get me for assault.

(Soundbite of grunting)

(Soundbite of footsteps)

GROSS: Let's get back to our 1988 interview with director Sidney Lumet.

I want to play another short scene from another movie you directed, and
this is "Network," which came out in 1976. Peter Finch won a posthumous
Academy Award for his performance in this. And in this scene, he plays a
lunatic, self-styled, messianic broadcaster who is basically preaching
his editorial.

(Soundbite of movie, "Network")

Mr. PETER FINCH (Actor): (as Howard Beale) I don't know what to do about
the depression or the inflation and the Russians and the crime in the
street. All I know is that first, you've got to get mad. You've got to
say I'm a human being, dammit. My life has value.

So I want you to get up now. I want all of you to get up out of your
chairs. I want you to get up right now and go to the window, open it and
stick your head out and yell: I'm as mad as hell, and I'm not going to
take this any more.

GROSS: And right after, as he's doing that editorial, people all over
Manhattan, in high-rise apartment buildings, open up their windows,
stick their heads out and start yelling that they're mad as hell and
they're not going to take it anymore.

I thought that scene really tapped into something, and for me, what it
tapped into is the fear is that in Manhattan, there are so many high-
rises filled with so many people with all this pent-up anger, and if it
were ever let loose, we'd really be in big trouble.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. LUMET: Well, Paddy Chayefsky had that unique ability to tap the most
fundamental truths in people, in the individual characters, and also in
terms of his own - the situation that he's observing. Did you ever see a
picture that he wrote called "Hospital"?

GROSS: No, I didn't.

Mr. LUMET: Well, it's hilarious, as "Network" is, with, fundamentally, a
deeply serious idea behind it. And he did it in that, too. He's - I miss
him every day.

GROSS: "Network" was one of your many movies that was shot in New York
locations. Now, I think you were really one of the first directors to
actually do location shooting in Manhattan.

Mr. LUMET: Yeah. Kazan first, and me right behind him. But at that time,
it wasn't fashionable at all. It was very difficult to put together more
than one good movie crew, because there was that little work going on
here.

GROSS: Why did you want to shoot on location in New York?

Mr. LUMET: Well, once you were shooting in New York, it was almost no
choice. We had very limited studio space in that - in those days, so
that you had no choice. But also, it coincided clearly with the kind of
picture we were doing, which were usually very realistic pictures,
pictures that benefited visually from being done on location.

GROSS: Were there problems when you were one of the pioneers doing that,
since crews weren't used to it? The people on the streets weren't used
to having movies shot outside their homes or their offices.

Mr. LUMET: Yeah. But they were all good problems. The problems are much
more severe now, because everybody's so sophisticated. So they not only
charge you a hell of a lot more to use their facility...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. LUMET: ...but they're also a little bit more contemptuous and
irritated by the inconvenience that shooting makes. In those days, it
was glamorous. People were amazed by it, were diverted by it and
enchanted by it, so that the problems in those days were actually less
severe than the problems now.

GROSS: Now, you really came from a theater family. Your father acted in
the Yiddish theater. You acted when you were very young. I think you
either performed in or were a standby in "The Dead End Kids" on
Broadway?

Mr. LUMET: I wasn't one of "The Dead End Kids." I was in a play. There
were other children's parts in it.

GROSS: Oh, it was a play called "Dead End" on Broadway.

Mr. LUMET: Right. Right.

GROSS: Okay. Now to this experience with the Yiddish theater, via your
father or your own performances, help you understand actors as a
director?

Mr. LUMET: I think so, Terry. The biggest thing about actors is that
they really are the infantry. They are the most exposed. And most good
work - not just acting, but really any creative work - is a matter of
use of self, self exposure. And as I say, actors are the infantry, in
that it's their emotions, their physiognomy that's being examined,
rejected, accepted at the actual moment that they're doing it. They're
right up there.

GROSS: Why did you give up acting for directing?

Mr. LUMET: I found that process very invading. When I got out of the
Army, I'd been acting since I was five years old. And I got out of the
Army in 25 - at 25, and went on with it for about another three years,
and that - and I was primarily a theater actor. I knew that good acting,
as I say, it is self exposure, to a large degree. And I got sort of
embarrassed about revealing those parts of myself to 1,500 strangers a
night - if you were in a hit, that is. Otherwise, it was to 50 strangers
a night. But there was something about acting that no longer worked for
me, and I just slowly drifted into directing.

GROSS: Did having a father in the Yiddish theater help you love
performance, drama?

Mr. LUMET: Absolutely. Absolutely. The peculiar thing is there's a sort
of a strange, post-World War II American problem. Children don't -
children of actors and writers and directors tend to be nervous - and
more than nervous, they're terrified of going into their parents' work.
And yet the history of the world is going into your parents' work. I
mean, last year, two years ago, I did a movie with Jane Fonda and Jeff
Bridges, and I'd worked with both of their fathers. I'd worked with
Henry, and I worked with Lloyd.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Mr. LUMET: And I found that very moving. I was thrilled at working with
the two of them, because that sense of continuity is lovely. It's the
way it should be. And I'm quite sure that my father being the actor he
was and bringing me into the theater at a very early age was an
enormously beneficial and happy-making thing to happen to one.

GROSS: My interview with film director Sidney Lumet was recorded in
1988. He died Saturday at the age of 86.

Coming up: an interview with Will Ferrell. Last night, he started his
four-episode arc on "The Office."

This is FRESH AIR.
..COST:
$00.00
..INDX:
135409975
*** TRANSCRIPTION COMPANY BOUNDARY ***
..DATE:
20110415
..PGRM:
Fresh Air
..TIME:
12:00-13:00 PM
..NIEL:
N/A
..NTWK:
NPR
..SGMT:
Will Ferrell: The Comedian Reflects On 'Fiction'

TERRY GROSS, host:

Will Ferrell guest-starred on the NBC series "The Office" last night in
his first of four episodes this season playing the temporary replacement
for Steve Carell's character Michael Scott, the manager of the Scranton
branch of the Dunder Mifflin paper company. Steve Carell only has two
more episodes left before he leaves the show, and fans of the show are
wondering who his final replacement will be.

We're going to listen back to an interview with Will Ferrell. Let's
start with a scene from last night's episode of "The Office." Ferrell is
trying to assert his own management style, starting by giving some tips
to the receptionist. Then Steve Carell walks in, trying to maintain
control.

(Soundbite of TV show, "The Office")

(Soundbite of phone ringing)

Ms. ELLIE KEMPER (Actor): (as Erin) Dunder Mifflin. This is Erin. Okay,
let me transfer you.

Mr. WILL FERRELL (Actor): (Deangelo Vickers) Why do you use your name
when you answer the phone?

Ms. KEMPER: (as Erin) Oh, that's how Pam does it. I just copy her. She's
sort of a living legend.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. FERRELL: (Deangelo Vickers) Try it without using your name.

Ms. KEMPER: (as Erin) Dunder Mifflin. This is – oh, yeah, I like it.

Mr. FERRELL: (as Deangelo Vickers) Dunder Mifflin, how may I assist you?

Ms. KEMPER: (as Erin) Who is this?

Mr. STEVE CARELL (Actor): (as Michael) I sort of like the old way.

Mr. FERRELL: (as Deangelo Vickers) Oh.

Ms. KEMPER: (as Erin) Oh.

Mr. FERRELL: (as Deangelo Vickers) Just - I just prefer it without the
name, and I thought, okay.

Mr. CARELL: (as Michael) No, no, no.

Mr. FERRELL: (as Deangelo Vickers) I got to start doing some managing at
some point, right?

Mr. CARELL: (as Michael) I know. I know. I'm sorry. But if it's not a
big deal, we should just do the old way.

Mr. FERRELL: (as Deangelo Vickers) And it really isn't.

Mr. CARELL: (as Michael) Okay. We're good?

Ms. KEMPER: (as Erin) Yeah, okay.

Mr. CARELL: (as Michael) Fine.

Mr. FERRELL: (as Deangelo Vickers) Well, I'd like to change it,
actually.

Mr. CARELL: (as Michael) Well, you know, whatever.

Mr. FERRELL: (as Deangelo Vickers) Yeah.

Mr. CARELL: (as Michael) Whatever you think would work.

Ms. KEMPER: (as Erin) What do you...

Mr. FERRELL: (as Deangelo Vickers) Yeah. I think a change would be nice.

Mr. CARELL: (as Michael) You could do the old way or the - you know,
whichever one you want to do.

(Soundbite of phone ringing)

Mr. FERRELL: (as Deangelo Vickers) Mm-hmm.

(Soundbite of phone ringing)

Mr. FERRELL: (as Deangelo Vickers) Change it.

(Soundbite of phone ringing)

Ms. KEMPER: (as Erin) I'm so sorry. Sorry.

(Soundbite of phone hanging up)

GROSS: When I spoke with Will Ferrell in 2006, he told me about an
office job he had early on.

Mr. FERRELL: You know, I had a period of time kind of post-college, when
I moved back home for three years, a long three years, and I worked as a
bank teller.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: No, really?

Mr. FERRELL: Yeah. And, you know, I was just starting to explore, you
know, taking theater classes and stand-up and those sorts of things. But
for the most part, I was kind of back at home, driving from point A to
point B, and counting money. And I didn't have much of a social life
and...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. FERRELL: ...because a lot of my friends had gone on to real jobs and
things like that.

GROSS: Did you do shtick when you were a bank teller? Did you, like,
impersonate your version of what a bank teller would be?

Mr. FERRELL: No. In fact, I was so - I found the job so nerve-racking
that I got so quiet, because I had to focus with every aspect. I would
make one transaction, and then shut my window down for 15 minutes to
make sure everything was still there.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. FERRELL: And one day, it slipped out that I did stand-up comedy, and
one of the managers came up to me and just stared at me. He was like,
you're funny? I don't believe it. And I said, well, yeah, I can be. And
- but I...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. FERRELL: I go, you'll have to come see a show. And so it was kind of
my alter ego that, outside of work, I had this place to kind of, you
know, go crazy up on stage.

GROSS: So when you went to, like, audition for "Saturday Night Live,"
the story goes that you took a trunk of - like, a suitcase of Monopoly
money with you, so that you could do what?

Mr. FERRELL: Well, I had read somewhere that Adam Sandler had gone and
had a meeting with Lorne Michaels, and had gone into this meeting kind
of sight unseen and had done this really funny bit and - where he, I
don't know, mimicked having sex with a chair or something, and was hired
on the spot.

And I thought, well, I'm going to follow that, like be funny in the room
and kind of take advantage, you know, of the moment, the kind of seize-
the-day type of attitude. So I thought what would be really funny is
that I walk in with a briefcase full of toy money and just start piling
it on his desk and say Lorne, look. We can talk, you know, till the cows
come home, but we really know what talks, and that's money.

And I'm going to walk out of this room, and you can either take this
money or leave it on your desk. I'll never know the difference. And then
and hopefully, he'd think it's funny that I stacked all this fake,
counterfeit money. And, but when I got in, the atmosphere was so intense
that I never got to my big joke, and I just sat there with my briefcase
in my lap.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. FERRELL: Which when I left, it felt insane, because I remember I was
thinking, well, he must be thinking what comedian walks in with a
briefcase and just sits there nervously?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. FERRELL: And so I never – and then we had another meeting where I
tried to do it again, and the assistant said, oh, leave you briefcase.
You don't need that.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. FERRELL: And then I - and then that was - lo and behold, that was
the meeting where he told me I got the job. And then as I left, I gave a
handful of the fake money to the assistant. I was like, can you please
give this to him? It's kind of symbolic, and I tried to do this twice,
but I could never do it. So can you give him this fake money? And in
hindsight, he thought it was really funny that I tried twice to do this
gag, and it never kind of came to fruition.

GROSS: One of the impressions that you did on "Saturday Night Live," one
of the characters you did was James Lipton from the "Actors Studio"
broadcast.

Mr. FERRELL: Yes.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: And that was always so much fun.

Mr. FERRELL: It was kind of amazing how much James Lipton loved the
impression, so much so that he had become on his 100th episode as him,
and we did an interview back-and-forth where we...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. FERRELL: ...he asked me questions.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. FERRELL: Which was very surreal, as he stood over my shoulder,
watching me get into make up saying: Yes, the transformation has begun.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. FERRELL: I'm watching you becoming me. And narrated - it was very -
and he watched the whole 30 minute it takes me to get in that makeup.
And I was like it's - you can go get a sandwich, if you want, at some
point, you know. And he was like no. This is fascinating. And...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. FERRELL: But...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. FERRELL: One of the many interesting things that has happened to me
by far.

GROSS: Did you notice things, sitting across the table from him, that
you hadn't noticed watching on TV?

Mr. FERRELL: Not really. I don't know. I think, if anything, I noticed
was I felt like God, I think I slightly underplay him.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. FERRELL: I could go even bigger.

GROSS: Let's actually hear you doing James Lipton on "Saturday Night
Live." So this is Will Ferrell.

(Soundbite of TV show, "Saturday Night Live")

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. FERRELL: (as James Lipton) On the 13th of January...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. FERRELL: (as James Lipton) ...1931, right here in New York City,
magic happened. An artist was born that would rival Leonardo da Vinci or
Michelangelo.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. FERRELL: (as James Lipton) But his tools would not be pen, nor
brush, nor chisel, nor palette. His tools would be his comically over-
sized glasses and his soul. So please, welcome, the greatest performer
ever to have graced this Earth...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. FERRELL: (as James Lipton) ...Charles Nelson Reilly.

(Soundbite of laughter, applause)

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: That's Will Ferrell...

Mr. FERRELL: That's pretty funny.

GROSS: ...doing James Lipton. And later in the sketch, Charles Nelson
Reilly is played by Alec Baldwin.

Mr. FERRELL: Yeah.

GROSS: So how do you study somebody like Lipton when you're doing an
impersonation of him? Like, what is your process of watching somebody,
whether it's Lipton or President Bush?

Mr. FERRELL: I usually have to just pick one key thing and then
emphasize that again and again and again, and then hope that the rest
kind of fills in. But with, you know, you know, with Bush, as I tried to
work on him vocally, I really just worked on it more from the way he
kind of scrunched up his face and kind of squinted his eyes, and almost
started from that approach. And with Lipton, I just tried to over-
annunciate and...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. FERRELL: So I usually try to key on one thing where - you know, when
you speak to someone like Darrell Hammond, who's still on "Saturday
Night Live," he is such a - kind of a scientist about it. He can tell
you that a person has had, you know, dental work because of the way they
pop their T's, and this and that. He can listen to every single thing.
And I'm not able to do that. So I would just kind of find one key thing
to hone in on.

GROSS: Do you ever have anxiety dreams about your work?

Mr. FERRELL: Oh, yeah. Yeah. I think anyone who has, you know, is in any
sort of artistic pursuit, kind of goes up and down with the way they
feel about their work. And I, for the most part, am pretty happy person.
But, yeah. I go through definite periods of time where I'm not funny.
I'm not good. I'm - I don't feel original. I'm always joking with my
wife that, you know, when I get kicked out of show business, I'm trying
to think of - I'm always trying to think of alternate careers. And so
far I've come up with cab...

GROSS: Bank teller.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. FERRELL: ...cab driver. I can go back to bank teller - maybe UPS,
too. UPS in high on the list. But, yeah. You definitely have anxiety.
And yet I...

GROSS: So can you share an anxiety dream? Like the kind of dream that
you have about comedy and something going terribly wrong?

Mr. FERRELL: Well, I'll still have, like, "Saturday Night Live" stress
dreams, where the show has started and I'm making a quick change
backstage and no one - the microphone in my dressing room wasn't on, so
I didn't hear that the show started - or the speaker, I mean. And I have
to run out in the middle of a sketch and figure out where I am and
things like that.

GROSS: What's the worst thing that actually did happen to you live on
the air on "Saturday Night Live?"

Mr. FERRELL: You know what? I was doing an "Update" feature where - on
"Weekend Update," on the fake news section, you know, characters will
sometimes come out. And I was - my glasses started fogging up, to where
I couldn't read the cue cards. And then I started laughing, and it was
this kind of this wonderful, kind of crazy situation of I was having
this laughing attack, and I can't see anything. And I literally kind of
had to just stop and wipe off my glasses and then get back to reading
the cue cards. So it was actually kind of a really fun...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. FERRELL: ...freefall of, like, oh, wow. There's no way to rescue
this. But the audience kind of loves it, in a way, when they're watching
that happen.

GROSS: So did you stay in character while you were wiping off your
glasses?

Mr. FERRELL: Yeah, I did. It was - I was - I did this character who
suffered from a voice immodulation, which was someone who - I could only
speak like this. I had no control of the volume of my voice. So, whether
I was speaking intimately...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. FERRELL: ...or shouting, it was the same voice level. So I would
have asides to myself, like boy, I don't think - you know, she doesn't
smell very good, you know.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. FERRELL: So the - so I could never have a private moment, and that I
was afflicted with this disease. And people didn't think it was a real
disease, and I was the champion of this thing.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. FERRELL: It was very - it's bizarre.

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

Mr. FERRELL: You, too, Terry. Thanks. It's been my pleasure.

GROSS: Will Ferrell, recorded in 1990 - in 2006 - I should say. He guest
stars on the next three episodes of "The Office." His new movie,
"Everything Must Go," will be shown at the Tribeca Film Festival next
week. It opens in theaters in May.

This is FRESH AIR.
..COST:
$00.00
..INDX:
135414397
*** TRANSCRIPTION COMPANY BOUNDARY ***
..DATE:
20110415
..PGRM:
Fresh Air
..TIME:
12:00-13:00 PM
..NIEL:
N/A
..NTWK:
NPR
..SGMT:
'The Conspirator': A Trying Trial For Lincoln's Foes

TERRY GROSS, host:

Many of us know little about the aftermath of the Lincoln assassination
beyond the killing of John Wilkes Booth in a barn. Robert Redford's new
film, "The Conspirator," focuses on the months of post-assassination
arrests and trials, particularly on Mary Surratt, the woman alleged to
have aided the plotters.

Film critic David Edelstein has this review.

DAVID EDELSTEIN: "The Conspirator" centers on the real-life trial of
Mary Surratt. She ran a Washington boarding house that was regularly
visited by men involved in the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. Among
them: Surratt's son, and the assassin himself, John Wilkes Booth.

The government charges Mary, played by Robin Wright, with being a
participant in the plot, which is a crime punishable by death. But there
will at this time of heightened emotions, with so many people rounded
up, being no jury of her peers. A military tribunal will hear her case,
and normal rules of evidence won't apply. It falls to Surratt's lawyer,
Frederick Aiken, played by James McAvoy, to argue not merely for his
client, but also a principle: that the U.S. Constitution must apply to
everyone, guilty or innocent, in times of peace or peril.

It would be easy to call "The Conspirator" a dramatized civil-liberties
lecture. Director Robert Redford is not a man who keeps his political
convictions to himself, and his agenda could hardly be plainer.

Because Redford makes the defendants' legal case, it's important to say
he does nothing to make them admirable. They're fools and monsters. "The
Conspirator" opens with Lincoln's assassination and the mayhem that
follows. On his makeshift deathbed across from Ford's Theater, the
president is barely glimpsed - only his shoes and the bowls of blood
carried from the room. We want vengeance for this crime as much as the
mobs onscreen.

Wright's Mary isn't likable, either, at least at first. She admits to
being a Confederate sympathizer, but is otherwise so starkly private, so
withholding, that we can't blame Aiken for hating her. He fought for the
Union and didn't want her case, which has made him a social pariah. He
wants to know about the son she's protecting, who's still on the lam.

(Soundbite of movie, "The Conspirator")

Ms. ROBIN WRIGHT (Actor): (as Mary Surratt) My son was in Canada that
day.

Mr. JAMES MCAVOY (Actor): (as Frederick Aiken) Can you prove that?

Ms. WRIGHT: (as Mary Surratt) I received a letter on April 14th, same
day as the assassination, sent from Montreal.

Mr. MCAVOY: (as Frederick Aiken) Where is this letter?

Ms. WRIGHT: (as Mary Surratt) I don't know.

Mr. MCAVOY: (as Frederick Aiken) I'm done, done defending your lies.

Ms. WRIGHT: (as Mary Surratt) You're so blind with hatred, Mr. Aiken,
you can't even see the truth. Yes, my son hated the North. We all did.
How can a Southerner feel anything but bitterness towards your side? But
my son did not conspire to kill your president. He conspired to kidnap
him.

EDELSTEIN: What did Mary know, and when did she know it? It's hard to
say. Wright makes her vividly uncommunicative, torn in too many
directions to make anything but her essential decency plain.

Evan Rachel Wood plays her daughter, Anna, who hasn't been allowed to
see or speak to Mary, and you believe they're related: They have the
same mixture of fear and anger, the same tightness. Because both
actresses give such tough, unsentimental performances, the moment when
Anna testifies in court and soldiers line up to block Mary from her from
view is so cruel it's devastating.

Where Redford and screenwriter James Solomon fail is in making a
compelling case for the other side, the one that says the survival of
the nation takes precedence over individual rights. The spokesman for
that view, who's transparently eager to orchestrate Mary's hanging, is
the Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, played by Kevin Kline.

Mr. MCAVOY: (as Frederick Aiken) It's not justice you're after. It's
revenge.

Mr. KEVIN KLINE (Actor): (Edwin Stanton) I would never go to such
lengths out of vengeance. But to ensure the survival of this nation, I
would do anything. Mary Surratt was a party to the most grievous crime
in our history. Necessity demands that she be given a swift, sure and
harsh sentence. I, too, hold sacred our rights, counselor, but they
count not at all if our nation ceases to exist.

McAvoy carries that scene. He gives real dramatic urgency to what might
have played like lecture notes. But Kline is as bad as his material, as
only a liberal playing a reactionary can be.

This conflict between civil liberties and national security is endlessly
current, and in 1865, with the nation barely recovered from being torn
asunder, the national-security side deserves a spokesman of stature. It
doesn't get it.

"The Conspirator" is a graceful film with a heartbreaking climax, but
instead of a great and timeless drama, it's just a powerful melodrama.

GROSS: David Edelstein is film critic for New York magazine. He reviewed
"The Conspirator."
..COST:
$00.00
..INDX:
135343816

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.

You May Also like

Did you know you can create a shareable playlist?

Advertisement

Recently on Fresh Air Available to Play on NPR

16:53

Filmmaker Finds An Unlikely Underwater Friend In 'My Octopus Teacher'

Craig Foster spent a year diving — without oxygen or a wetsuit — into the frigid sea near Cape Town, South Africa. His documentary is now nominated for an Oscar. Originally broadcast Oct. 20, 2020.

44:00

'Dance Can Give Community': Twyla Tharp On Choreographing Through Lockdown

Neither the pandemic nor age can keep legendary choreographer Twyla Tharp from her work. During the height of the COVID-19 lockdown, Tharp, now 79, choreographed several dances through through Zoom. She's the subject of a new PBS American Masters documentary.

There are more than 22,000 Fresh Air segments.

Let us help you find exactly what you want to hear.

Playing

Just play me something
Your Queue

Would you like to make a playlist based on your queue?

Generate & Share View/Edit Your Queue