DATE September 5, 2003 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
PROGRAM Fresh Air
Interview: Actor Joe Pantoliano on his new book "Who's Sorry Now"
and life on "The Sopranos"
DAVID BIANCULLI, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli, in for Terry Gross.
The last time we saw Joe Pantoliano on TV, he lost his head. More
specifically, his character of loose-cannon mobster Ralph Cifaretto, one of
the best things about the HBO series "The Sopranos" last season, had been
killed by James Gandolfini's Tony Soprano. Not just killed, but decapitated,
with his head stuck in a bowling bag. Now Pantoliano is about to return to TV
as the star of his own CBS series "The Handler." It's the best new series of
the fall reason, and this time Pantoliano plays the good guy. He plays the
head of a group of FBI undercover agents and not only dispatches them,
"Mission: Impossible" style, but trains them.
(Soundbite of "The Handler")
Mr. JOE PANTOLIANO: We're going to have to go in somewhere where we can talk.
Unidentified Woman: We can talk right here.
Mr. PANTOLIANO: Look, you think you can just sell on my corner and my
customers because you want to?
Unidentified Woman: I didn't see any sign that said that you own this street.
Mr. PANTOLIANO: You weren't looking close enough.
Unidentified Woman: Do you got a map in your car?
Mr. PANTOLIANO: What?
Unidentified Woman: Why don't you just show me what part of the city you
don't own and I'll go sell over there.
Mr. PANTOLIANO: Lady, get in the car, I'll give you a ride and show you
Unidentified Woman: Why don't you just front me some dope and I can stay
where I am, and we can both be happy. What?
Mr. PANTOLIANO: No, no. You can't do that. No, that's entrapment. You
gotta get him to make the suggestion. Let him come to you. But the attitude
was good. I like that. You're not a pushover and you didn't get in the car.
That's important. And listen, what you did, getting sexy with me...
Unidentified Woman: Yeah.
Mr. PANTOLIANO: ...don't do it unless you're planning on going all the way
BIANCULLI: If "The Handler" catches on, it'll be a nice payoff for a reliably
entertaining actor who has appeared in more than 60 films, including "Risky
Business," "The Fugitive," "The Matrix" and "Memento." He's also done great
work for TV, including Frank Sinatra's role in a miniseries version of "From
Here to Eternity" and a pre-"Sopranos" role as a mob boss in a brilliant but
short-lived CBS series, "Easy Streets." Pantoliano also has written a memoir
called "Who's Sorry Now" about growing up in Hoboken in the '50s and early
'60s. It's now out in paperback. His parents were on the fringes of
crime--his stepfather was connected. Pantoliano spoke with Terry Gross last
TERRY GROSS, host:
Now your new memoir, "Who's Sorry Now," is about your coming of age. And
although you're not from a Mafia family and your family is nothing like "The
Sopranos," you weren't unfamiliar with crime when you were growing up, and
neither was the rest of your family.
Mr. PANTOLIANO: Mm-hmm.
GROSS: Did they know about that, the people at "The Sopranos"? Did they know
about that when they asked you to be in the cast?
Mr. PANTOLIANO: No, not at all. David Chase knew me from 1979 when I did
"From Here to Eternity," the remake of the novel, and I played Maggio. And he
had seen me in that, and was interested in putting me in a pilot that was kind
of a spinoff when he was working on "The Rockford Files." I didn't get the
job, and I saw him infrequently over the years through a mutual friend. And
then he called me and I was available to come, and that's how it happened.
But there was never any kind of flushing out or interviews or `Tell me about
where you came from,' background. I don't think, to my knowledge, that he had
even an idea that I was from New Jersey.
GROSS: Now tell us what your mother and father did for a living.
Mr. PANTOLIANO: Well, Daddy worked at Standard Brands up until 1962, when he
had a heart attack. Mommy...
GROSS: At Standard Brands?
Mr. PANTOLIANO: At Standard Brands in Hoboken, New Jersey, which is now
called the Lipton Tea Building. It's actually high-rise apartments. And
Mom--she worked at her father's seamstress shop. She was a sewer and she--I
remember we would do patches--she would do piecework. They would cut the
sergeant patches and corporal patches off of a whole sheet of material, and
then she'd get X amount of cents for each piece that she cut. When we went
down to the shore, for a time she acted as a bookie, working for a local
bookie in the area, and that way she could make $4 or $5 a week and enable us
to stay down the shore for the summer. I worked for her. I was a runner.
She would give me the receipts and the money, and I'd go down to the bakery on
the way to the swimming pool and give them their money.
And one of the reasons why I wanted to tell this story is in my culture--that
is, the culture of a New Jersey kid growing up--and I've started to see movies
like "The Godfather" or I read books like "The Fortunate Pilgrim"--the women
for me were always in the background of these assertive, strong men. And my
feeling was, is that the women in my life were much more assertive than the
men. And the idea that, you know, "Who's Sorry Now" is taken from the song
that my mother would sing, the Connie Francis song that my mother would sing,
when she would get the men in her life to blow their stack. She would needle
them to the point where they would blow their stack.
And I wrote a screenplay, first, based on my life called "Just Like Mona."
And the point that I was making in that--and I hope that that's the
point--that it took me 45 years to realize that I am just like my mother, that
the strengths that I have and the tenacity that I was born with or inherited
was from her, not from the men in my life.
GROSS: Now when she recruited you when you were a kid to run numbers for her,
did you ever think to yourself, `How could she do this to me? This is
illegal. This is the kind of thing we could get busted for'?
Mr. PANTOLIANO: No. I mean, it was so simple, `Take this down to the store.'
It was done ever so lightly. You know, with cousin Florie--before he died
several years--he was older now, 75, 76, and starting to become frail from
emphysema. You know, tobacco killed my entire family--my father from lung
cancer, my mother from several strokes and a heart attack, and Florie from
emphysema. But Florie, one time, was telling me that when he was a kid at,
like, 11 years old, he was delivering heroin, that his grandmother and father
and uncle would cut heroin on their dining room table and they would stick
cotton swabs in their nose as to not get the fumes from the heroin. And then
little Florie put it in little brown vials, glass vials, with a cork. And he
would go down Maude Street(ph) and Hester Street and deliver it. And at that
point, that wasn't illegal. In 1922, heroin and cocaine was still legal sale.
GROSS: Well, you mentioned your cousin Florie. He was your mother's third
cousin, and then later in life, became your mother's lover and your
stepfather, or perhaps father. When you were--I don't know--about 12 maybe,
your mother said to you...
Mr. PANTOLIANO: Yeah. Yeah.
GROSS: ...`Your father, he's not really your father. Cousin Florie's your
Mr. PANTOLIANO: Yeah.
GROSS: Was cousin Florie really your father? Did you ever...
Mr. PANTOLIANO: I don't think so. I think although he was a father figure to
me--somebody asked me this question recently and said, `Why haven't you ever
done DNA to find out for sure?' And the truth is, is that I was blessed with
two fathers, and that this man, Florio, came into my life just at the right
time when I was just about to fall off the edge of the table, and he was there
to catch me. And he saw in me innocence and a future that was robbed from
him. He was born into a lifestyle that he never had a chance, especially...
GROSS: Well, he did a lot of time in a federal penitentiary.
Mr. PANTOLIANO: He spent, combined time--over 21 years of his life he spent
inside federal penitentiaries. So, you know, he got out of the life at 51
years old, and so he spent the last 20--What?--seven years of his life outside
prison working as a working stiff, driving a truck, whatever it took to
provide for the family that he chose.
GROSS: What did he do to land him in the pen?
Mr. PANTOLIANO: Well, the last one was heroin trafficking, but he did a
variety of things--counterfeiting, hijacking. You know, in doing the research
for doing the book, I tried to find his papers. I called the FBI and tried to
get his rap sheet, but it's gone too far back. It's too old.
GROSS: So here's this guy who was, you know, selling heroin and hijacking
trucks, etc., etc., and he's the guy who prevented you from falling off the
edge. What did he do for you? What was going wrong in your life, and how did
he help you?
Mr. PANTOLIANO: Well, you know, when Mommy said that Florie--cousin Florie
was my real dad, I think she did that to protect herself, because she was
riddled with guilt about taking Florie over Daddy. And she was afraid--and,
you know, looking back now, that she was afraid that I was going to take
Daddy's side, and it was really important for her to be the victim of this.
When I talk to my cousin Antoinette(ph)--and I reflect on that in the end of
the book--when Antoinette said several days before Mommy died, or weeks, she
said that she was wrong for doing what she did to Monk. And...
GROSS: Monk's the name of your father.
Mr. PANTOLIANO: Yeah, my father was Monk, Dominic "Monk" Pantoliano. But
Florie really loved me and he really wanted the best for me to the point where
he threatened me if I did something wrong, that there would be serious,
serious repercussions, and I believed him.
GROSS: And you hadn't had that before. You hadn't anybody who cared
Mr. PANTOLIANO: I never had--by that point, teachers had written me off, my
parents were afraid. You see, my mommy and daddy were afraid to go out and
reach out and grab at the gold coin. They wanted the best for me, but they
didn't want me to be so ambitious, because they felt that I'd be hurt. Who
was I to think that I was entitled to be an actor? You know, that wasn't
there for us or our kind. And I think a lot of my family members felt that
way and frightened. Mommy didn't want me--you know, what were people going to
say that I was going to move to New York as a single male at 19 years old? I
mean--and they were also really superstitious about all of that stuff.
So Florie kept saying, `Don't worry about it. Do this. You got to do this.
Go.' He found an actor and he introduced me to him, and they took me down to
HB Studios and I met Herbert Bergoff. And I was still in high school when I
started studying acting.
BIANCULLI: Actor Joe Pantoliano speaking with Terry Gross last year. We'll
hear more of their interview after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
BIANCULLI: Let's get back to our interview with Joe Pantoliano. His memoir
"Who's Sorry Now" is out in paperback, and this fall, he stars as an
undercover agent in the new CBS series "The Handler."
GROSS: How connected was your cousin Florie--or your stepfather Florie?
Mr. PANTOLIANO: Well, Florie was never made. He was never indoctrinated into
the organization known as Cosa Nostra. But he was--Bilidino Morano(ph), who I
talk about in the book, was my great-uncle. He was a descendant of the
Genovese family. Mommy and Uncle Pete used to run the Italian lottery.
That's what Grandpa Gus, Dopey Gus, my grandfather--he organized that, and
that was Vito sanctioned. So Uncle Pete and Mommy would have to take the
money from the Italian lottery to Vito when Vito was a young man. So they all
loved Vito and Vito was a part of their lives. He would go down the shore
with them. And Florie was being groomed to be in that.
Joe King was a mentor of Florio's, and I remember meeting Joe King when Florie
came home from prison. And Florie loved him like a father. Florie also had a
father that--Joe Isabella, Joseph Isabella, who had become a user of the same
poison that he was selling on the street, heroin, and he died a junkie. So
Florie had really strong issues about the use of it. And, you know, I
didn't--as a young adult, I was totally conflicted by what he had done, but I
would never have the courage to confront him on it.
GROSS: Mm-hmm. Because your stepfather Florie was pretty connected, although
he wasn't a made man, and you knew that he'd spent time in the pen, you knew
he did a lot of crimes, were you in awe of his status in the crime world or
was that an embarrassment for you? I mean, how did you feel about that?
Mr. PANTOLIANO: No, it had serious cachet in the neighborhood to have a guy
who was a known wise guy from New York. I mean, New York City? It was a big
deal. People would whisper and the kids in the neighborhood treated you with
respect. It was like having an athlete, you know, or a movie star staying
over your house.
GROSS: How much did you want to know about what he'd really done?
Mr. PANTOLIANO: Nothing. He never brought it home. We didn't know. He was
in it very shortly. You know, in the book, I describe when they got
arrested--Mommy, my sister Mary Ann and Florie--that Sunday afternoon. And it
was at that point where we had moved out of the projects, we had moved off of
welfare, we were living in Ft. Lee. He had spent $10,000 in cash on
furnishing this new apartment, and he was waiting to work a deal with his
cousins, who were in the gas station business, that he wanted to get that
money. He had 40,000 in cash. In '60--What?--'4 or '5, that was a lot of
money. And while he was waiting to start a life with that money, he lost it
all at the track. He'd go to the Big A every day, and within four or five
months, we were broke again. We were back in the same situation, this time
with a lot of fancy furniture.
GROSS: Well, you know, you say in your book that because you were a fat kid
and on the short side, you were a real target for abuse from the other kids.
Mr. PANTOLIANO: Mm-hmm.
GROSS: So sometimes you would, like, entertain them, and that would prevent
them from beating you up. And sometimes when you got beaten up, your mother
would insist on you telling her who was responsible for it, and she'd go after
them, which was really embarrassing for you.
Mr. PANTOLIANO: Yeah. I mean, she just took over. You know, it's kind of
hard to come home when your shirt's all torn up and your nose is bleeding and
you've got a big black eye, and she's going, `What happened?' `Nothing.'
`Don't tell me nothing, you son of a bitch! Get over here!' And she'd grab
one of my friends and put them up against the wall like, you know, James
Cagney. `Tell me who did this!' Right? And then she'd go down with a stick,
you know, the broomstick, and just whack the hell out of the kid. And then,
GROSS: Was it embarrassing or what?
Mr. PANTOLIANO: It was horrifying. It was humiliating. And, you know, she
was like a battle-ax. I mean, she was this big steam engine. She wasn't
afraid of anybody.
GROSS: Now in your memoir, you describe how your mother fought with your
father all the time, lots of four-letter words when they were fighting. No
one was going to think about protecting you from that language. And then when
your mother lived with your stepfather, again, lots of big fights. Did you
have any sense that two people could live together and actually get along
without fighting all the time?
Mr. PANTOLIANO: No. In fact--I mean, after 15 years of therapy, I didn't
want to be attached to a girl. I mean, during high school, I never had a
girlfriend, and I didn't go to the prom when I graduated. And the only reason
why I graduated high school was, is I thought that I'd be around my
that way. At least I didn't have to deal with her until 3:30 or 4 in the
afternoon. And, in fact, by then--I started working when I was 12 years old.
I worked at my uncle's station, gas station, and then I worked at the A&P.
And then when I moved to New York, I was a waiter. And I always had a job.
But I thought that all women were like my mother and I would expect them to
turn into that. I'm still waiting for my wife to turn into my mother. I've
got one of the sweetest, kindest wives, my wife, Nancy. We've been together
13 years. When I married her, I thought, `Well, now that we're married, she's
going to turn into my mother.' You know, I'm still waiting for the other shoe
GROSS: This is...
Mr. PANTOLIANO: And she hasn't yet.
Mr. PANTOLIANO: And I'm surrounded by women, Terry. Everyone. I have three
daughters, a nanny. I have my wife Nancy. The cats are female. And the only
male is Abbott, my dog, and me, and we've both been neutered. My wife had me
fixed two years ago, and Abbott was fixed eight years ago.
GROSS: Now when you were growing up, school was really hard. You didn't do
very well in school, and you had an undiagnosed case of dyslexia, which was
diagnosed later, so that explains why reading was so difficult. When did you
end up getting it diagnosed?
Mr. PANTOLIANO: Well, I never got it diagnosed. It was just assumed that it
was dyslexia because of the way I was spelling things and the fact that--I
mean--presently, when I was 18 years old--see, I'd been left back three times.
When I was a kid in the Hoboken school system, there were six-month graduating
terms, like 1A, 1B; 2A, 2B. When I was in the third grade, I was in 3A, and
then they said, `Well, we're just going to combine it to yearly graduations
going on to the next class.' So then I got skipped six months. So by then I
was really screwed up. I was already behind in the 3A part, right? I should
have been in 2B. But it got to be such--I was so riddled with anxiety, I
started getting boils.
And then I--so by the time I reached high school, I was almost 19, 'cause I'm
born in September. So when I graduated my senior year, it was in June; I was
gonna be 19 in September. And it was in the middle of the year, in February,
I think it was, is when I did the high school play and never had a need for
reading. You know, I watched television all the time, so I didn't really have
a need for reading. I watched the nightly news and I got my information from
that. And it got to a point where I realized that this reading thing was
something--my teacher, Ms. Damiano(ph) and Mr. Fredericks(ph)--they said,
`Look, you have an aptitude for this acting thing. This is something that you
could work at and maybe be successful at. But if that's the case, you're
going to need to learn how to read.'
So I read my first book my senior year in high school, and he gave me--I was
at gym class, and Mr. Fredericks came and gave me "Soul on Ice" by Eldridge
GROSS: That was your first book?
Mr. PANTOLIANO: Yeah, he thought I'd--and it took me three weeks, four weeks
to read it.
GROSS: Did you like it?
Mr. PANTOLIANO: Yeah. I mean, after that, the next book I read was "The
Valachi Papers," then it was "The Godfather," you know, things that I could
relate to, relatable things. And then I...
GROSS: Uh-huh. So was reading a problem for you when you started acting
seriously or were you good enough by then that you could...
Mr. PANTOLIANO: No, it was--I mean, it took seven years. It took a long time
to--I would have to prepare for an audition--I'd have to put two or three
hours into each audition. And then I would go in--it was like double acting.
I would go in and pretend that I was reading off the page when, in fact, I had
BIANCULLI: Actor Joe Pantoliano. We'll hear more of his interview in the
second half of the show.
I'm David Bianculli, and this is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of Who's Sorry Now")
Ms. CONNIE FRANCIS: (Singing) Who's sorry now? Who's sorry now? Whose heart
is aching for breaking each vow? Who's sad and blue? Who's crying, too?
Just like I cried over you. Right to the end, just like a friend...
BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli. Let's return to our
interview with actor Joe Pantoliano recorded last year. He starred in "The
Sopranos" as Ralphie until he was decapitated for his evil deeds. This fall
he returns to TV in a new series, "The Handler," as a good guy, an undercover
When Pantoliano spoke to Terry, he just published his memoir about growing up
in Hoboken in the '50s and '60s. It's now out in paperback.
GROSS: You know, I think your real breakthrough film part was in "Risky
Business," which was also the movie that launched Tom Cruise's career. And in
this movie, Tom Cruise plays a high school kid whose parents are leaving him
alone in their big suburban home for a few days while they're out of town, and
then he befriends a woman who he doesn't realize is a prostitute who's had a
fight with her pimp. She and her girlfriend, who's also a prostitute, are
staying at Tom Cruise's house when you, Guido the pimp, shows up to take these
two girls home. Let me play a clip form that scene.
(Soundbite of "Risky Business")
Mr. TOM CRUISE: (As Joel) I'm afraid I'm going to have to ask you to leave.
Mr. PANTOLIANO: (As Guido) Joel, the door is locked. You're starting to give
me a stomachache.
Unidentified Woman #1: Good. I hope it hurts.
Mr. PANTOLIANO: You gonna open the door or what?
Unidentified Woman #2: Guido, go home. We don't need you anymore.
Mr. PANTOLIANO: Look, shut your mouth.
Unidentified Woman #1: No. Listen. Maybe we don't work for you anymore.
Mr. PANTOLIANO: Oh, yeah?
Unidentified Women #1 and #2: (In unison) Yeah.
Mr. PANTOLIANO: OK, fine.
Unidentified Woman #1: Right.
Mr. PANTOLIANO: Then who do you work for, huh? Who? You don't work for me.
Unidentified Woman #2: (Imitating Guido) `Who? You don't work for me.'
Unidentified Woman #1: Maybe we work for Joel now.
Mr. CRUISE: She's only kidding.
Mr. PANTOLIANO: I hope so. Look, Joel, you look like a smart kid, so I'm
going to tell you something which I'm sure you'll understand. Now you're
having fun here, right? Right, Joel? Time of your life? In a sluggish
economy, never, ever (censored) with another man's livelihood. Now if you're
smart, like I hope you are, you're not going to make me come back here.
(Soundbite of dog barking; birds chirping)
GROSS: Joe Pantoliano and Tom Cruise in a scene from "Risky Business."
What's the biggest leap that you took in changing your look for a film, your
look or your manner?
Mr. PANTOLIANO: Oh, gosh, I did a Western called "El Diablo," and I played a
Truman Capote-type writer of Western novellas. And that was really fun. I
mean, I was imitating Katharine Hepburn, and--(imitating Katharine Hepburn)
and I talked like this. And I was with Anthony Edwards and Lou Gossett Jr.,
and I had a really wonderful time working on it.
GROSS: That's great. So what's it like now when you're given a new script?
Can you read it pretty well?
Mr. PANTOLIANO: Yeah. Yeah. I would say that I'm probably--it takes me a
couple hours. I would say it takes me a minute--no, it takes me about a half
a minute a page, depending on how much dialogue. But, you know, I read a lot
now. I enjoy reading. And that was the greatest thing is the world of books.
I collect first editions now. I have a modest collection. But...
GROSS: Really? Uh-huh. Of what?
Mr. PANTOLIANO: Modern-day, 20th-century authors.
GROSS: Huh, interesting.
So how has being a movie star changed your standing in the old neighborhood?
Do you know anybody else there, or have they all been driven out by
Mr. PANTOLIANO: See, I don't look at myself as a movie star. I always
thought that a movie star is somebody that makes, you know, $5 million, $2
million, $1 million a movie. People see me and because I'm a personality and
I'm someone that's recognized, they think that I've lived this gorgeous life
and I'm driving Maseratis and I'm living in a palace. And I'm here to tell
you, Joey Pants doesn't own a palace. I'm just a working actor, and my
friends and my family are proud of me.
One of the nicest things that was said to me yesterday is my friend Joey
Fiano, who I talk about in the book, who's lost his father and a week later he
lost his mother and, at 18 years old, raised his siblings. And he called me
up yesterday, and I hadn't talked to him in 10 years. And he said to me, `I'm
gonna go get the book.' And he said, `Joey, you got to live all of your
dreams. All of your dreams came true.' And they have, you know. And now I
get to tell this story. So whether nobody reads the book, this is something
my kids could read someday and it's a document of where they came from, and I
think that's great.
GROSS: It sounds like your book really was like therapy for you. Have you
actually been in therapy?
Mr. PANTOLIANO: Yeah, I was in therapy for 15 years. Oh, God!
GROSS: Did that--I mean, did you understand the role that, for instance, your
mother had played in your life and how overbearing she was in your life and
what impact that had on you?
Mr. PANTOLIANO: Well, I'll tell you how I got into therapy.
GROSS: Yeah, yeah, go ahead.
Mr. PANTOLIANO: We were working at O'Neal's(ph) Blue, and I was a waiter and
Florie was the manager.
GROSS: That's a restaurant right near Lincoln Center in Manhattan.
Mr. PANTOLIANO: That's right. It's not there anymore. But it's owned by
Patrick O'Neal, an actor. And here I am now, an actor who owns a restaurant.
I have a restaurant in South Norwalk called Bamboo--Connecticut.
But Mommy took--my sister Mary Ann quit school at 15, and she was beside
herself, my mother. And I was going to acting school with John Lan(ph), and
one of the kids was taking this group therapy thing. So I said, `Ma, there's
this guy, he's a group therapy thing. Maybe you should take Mary Ann and talk
to him. Maybe he can help her out.' So she did, and they were going to come
and meet us at O'Neal's Blue.
Well, my mother was fit to be tied. And I said, `What's the matter?' She
goes, `This no-good SOB said that your sister's problems are my fault.' And I
just went, like, `Somebody said this to her?' And the next day, I called the
guy up and I go, `I gotta meet you, because if you're telling my mother that
she's the reason we're so screwed up, I have to meet you.' And that's how I
started in group therapy.
GROSS: So one last thing: When did you first start being called Joey Pants?
Mr. PANTOLIANO: The kids called me Joey Pants, and it was always because
people couldn't say the name. In Hoboken...
GROSS: Even in an Italian neighborhood?
Mr. PANTOLIANO: They'd call you Pantliana...
Mr. PANTOLIANO: ...Pantlione...
Mr. PANTOLIANO: ...Pumpliana. I mean, they murdered the English language in
that town. And so they would call me Pants. They'd say Pants--'cause, you
know, pantaloni means `pants' in Italian.
GROSS: Right. Well, thank you so much for talking with us.
Mr. PANTOLIANO: I had a ball.
BIANCULLI: Actor Joe Pantoliano. His new memoir about growing up in Hoboken
is now out in paperback, and his new TV series, "The Handler," premieres on
CBS later this month.
Coming up, author Jeffrey Eugenides.
This is FRESH AIR.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Interview: Jeffrey Eugenides discusses his new novel, "Middlesex"
DAVID BIANCULLI, host:
You may know Jeffrey Eugenides as the author of the novel "The Virgin
Suicides," which was adapted into a film. He won the Pulitzer Prize this year
for his second novel, "Middlesex." It's now out in paperback. The narrator
of the story was born in 1960, and starts life as a girl named Callie, but as
she approached puberty, she realizes that she isn't like other girls.
Eventually she discovers that she was born a hermaphrodite, and she is
becoming more physically masculine with age. In her early teens, she abandons
her identity as a woman and changes her name from Callie to Cal and begins to
live as a man. The story also covers the two preceding generations of the
narrator's family, starting with his Greek immigrant parents. When the book
was released last year, The New York Times said, `The novel turns the story of
Cal's coming of age into an uproarious epic, at once funny and sad, about
misplaced identities and family secrets. Eugenides has delivered a deeply
affecting portrait of one family's tumultuous engagement with the American
Terry spoke with Jeffrey Eugenides last year. Let's start with the author
reading a passage from "Middlesex."
Mr. JEFFREY EUGENIDES (Author, "Middlesex"): `I was born twice, first as a
baby girl on the remarkably smogless Detroit day in January of 1960, and then
again as a teen-age boy in an emergency room near Petoskey, Michigan, in
August of 1974. Specialized readers may have come across me in Dr. Peter
Luce's study "Gender Identity in 5-Alpha-Reductase Pseudohermaphrodites,"
published in the Journal of Pediatric Endocrinology in 1975. Or maybe you've
seen my photograph in chapter 16 of the now sadly outdated Genetics and
Heredity. That's me on page 578 standing naked beside a height chart, with a
black box covering my eyes.
My birth certificate lists my name as Calliope Helen Stephanides. My most
recent driver's license from the federal republic of Germany records my first
name simply as Cal. I'm a former field hockey goalie, long-standing member of
the Save-the-Manatee Foundation, rare attendant at the Greek Orthodox liturgy
and, for most of my adult life, an employee of the US State Department. Like
Tiresias, I was first one thing and then the other. I've been ridiculed by
classmates, guinea pigged by doctors, palpated by specialists and researched
by the March of Dimes. A red-headed girl from Grosse Point fell in love with
me, not knowing what I was; her brother liked me, too. An Army tank led me
into urban battle once. A swimming pool turned me into myth. I've left my
body in order to occupy others, and all this happened before I turned 16.'
TERRY GROSS, host:
That's Jeffrey Eugenides reading the beginning of his new novel "Middlesex."
Jeffrey, why did you want to write about a contemporary hermaphrodite?
Mr. EUGENIDES: Well, the first kernel of the idea came to me when I read an
actual memoir of a 19th century hermaphrodite that Michelle Foucault found in
the archives of the French Public Department of Hygiene. And I thought this
would be a very interesting book, and went and read it and was filled with
frustration, because the hermaphrodite in question, Herculine Barbin, was a
convent schoolgirl, or at least in her early years, and when she came to write
the story of her life, she wrote very much like a convent schoolgirl. I
actually brought the diary with me in case you wanted to hear some of it. But
GROSS: Oh, you bet.
Mr. EUGENIDES: Oh, OK.
GROSS: Why don't you read a few lines from it?
Mr. EUGENIDES: I will. This is midway through her memoirs when she has
fallen in love with her best friend at the convent school, and this is the
first night they spend together.
`Happy about this pretext, which was only too true, one evening I asked my
friend to share my bed. She accepted with pleasure. It would be impossible
to express the happiness I felt from her presence at my side. I was wild with
joy. We talked for a long time before going to sleep, I with my arms
encircling her waist, she with her face resting near my own. My God, was I
guilty? And must I accuse myself here of a crime? No, no, that fault was not
mine. It was the fault of an unexampled fatality which I could not resist!!!
Henceforth, Sarah belonged to me!! She was mine!!!'
It sort of goes on in that fashion, and I was just terribly frustrated because
she was evasive about her story, and all of the things I wanted to know about
a hermaphrodite's life she was unable to tell me. And I got the idea of
writing my own story, and in contrast with the way most hermaphrodites in
literature have been handled, usually as mythical creatures or as fanciful
creations like Orlando in Virginia Woolf, I wanted to write a story about a
real-life hermaphrodite and be as accurate as I could about the medical facts
and the biological circumstances.
GROSS: What's the medical explanation for your main character's condition?
Mr. EUGENIDES: Well, it's a very rare genetic mutation, and the condition is
called 5-alpha-reductase deficiency syndrome. And it occurs in very isolated
communities. What it basically is, if you inherit this mutation, your body is
unable to respond to certain androgens, or male hormones, for a long time, and
as you're formed in the womb, if you would have an XY chromosome, you would be
male, and you would be born looking very, very much like a girl, almost
undetectably so. And at puberty, as testosterone gets stronger in your blood,
you would then virilize and become quite masculine in appearance. So it's one
of the most dramatic hermaphroditic conditions that exists, and that's one of
the reasons it appealed to me. But in that it was usually occurring only in
inbred communities and isolated communities, I then saw a chance to broaden
this story from a fictional memoir of a hermaphrodite to a story about an
entire family, a Greek American family in this case, and the transmission of
this gene down through the generations until it finally is inherited by the
narrator and flowers in her body, and later as a man, she tells the story.
GROSS: And since this genetic condition happens in inbred populations, you
have this character's grandparents being not only husband and wife, but also
brother and sister, and the character's parents are not only husband and wife,
but also second cousins. Why did you want to explore that kind of familial
Mr. EUGENIDES: Well, the inbreeding was demanded by the genetic condition I
was using, and to bring in mythology again, of course, Zeus and Hera, I
believe, are brother and sister in Greek mythology, and so I was playing with
some of these ancient ideas in literature. I needed to dramatize inbreeding,
and inbreeding is actually quite boring. It takes generations and generations
and centuries, and so in order to dramatize that, it required me to speed up
the process and to actually have grandparents be siblings. It seemed to me to
be the best way to dramatize, you know, what was going on at a cellular level.
GROSS: Now in the beginning of your book "Middlesex," the narrator explains
that he was born as a girl and reborn as a teen-age boy in an emergency room
at the age of 14. What happens in the emergency room?
Mr. EUGENIDES: Well, in the emergency room is the first time when someone
other than Callie sees her anatomy in bright light. At that point, Callie is
14, she still looks like a girl, though a flat-chested one, but after an
accident, she's taken to the emergency room and in undressing her to see if
she has any broken bones, the doctor does see her genitals which, at that
point, would be not characteristic, or entirely characteristic, of a girl of
GROSS: And why does your character decide to be a boy?
Mr. EUGENIDES: Well, it's a long process and a difficult one for her. The
condition that she has, of course, is so virilizing that after she goes
through puberty, she would basically have musculature, facial hair and a deep
voice and would appear to be male. So it would be easier at least to operate
in society as a male. And Cal, as he talks about his life in Berlin as an
adult, he's careful to say that he operates in society as a male. It's not
clear whether he considers himself a regular man or a regular guy, but it is
the way that he most easily can get along.
GROSS: He seems to have a consciousness of what he is, which is something
that's strictly neither a hundred percent male nor a hundred percent female.
Mr. EUGENIDES: Right. But I think in terms of the book itself, because
Callie falls in love with her best friend, that that did provide a certain
impetus for her decision to be a boy. But then, of course, when she goes to
the sexual gender identity clinic, she does find out about her chromosomal
status being XY, and that is another reason why she finally decides to adopt a
male gender identity.
GROSS: When she decides to adopt a male gender identity, she has to learn the
outward characteristics of men. I want you to read a paragraph--this is on
Page 449--in which your main character describes that kind of transformation
of learning to walk and talk like a male.
Mr. EUGENIDES: `Like a convert to a new religion, I overdid it at first.
Somewhere near Gary, Indiana, I adopted a swagger. I rarely smiled. My
expression throughout Illinois was the Clint Eastwood squint. It was all
bluff, but so was it on most men. We were all walking around squinting at
each other. My swagger wasn't that different from what lots of adolescent
boys put on trying to be manly. For that reason, it was convincing. Its very
falseness made it credible. Now and then I fell out of character. Feeling
something stuck to the bottom of my shoe, I kicked up my heel and looked back
over my shoulder to see what it was, rather than crossing my leg in front of
me and twisting up my shoe. I picked correct change from my open palm instead
of my trouser pocket. Such slips made me panic, but needlessly. No one
noticed. I was aided by that. As a rule, people don't notice much.'
GROSS: I wonder if when you wrote that, you thought back to your own puberty
and when you were going through the process of turning into a man from having
been a boy, and if you felt that you were acting in a way, acting the role of
Mr. EUGENIDES: This continues to be something that I feel like I do. In
order to get those characteristics that I thought were more common amongst
females than males, I didn't think back to my early years. I actually walked
around my room trying to imagine how do girls usually look at things when
they're stuck to their shoe? How do they count change? And it actually took
me a long time to come up with just those few examples that seemed to me
evidently female or male.
GROSS: Well, Jeffrey Eugenides, thank you very much for talking with us.
Mr. EUGENIDES: Thank you. I really enjoyed it.
BIANCULLI: Jeffrey Eugenides, speaking with Terry Gross last year. He won
the Pulitzer Prize this year for his novel "Middlesex."
Coming up, a review of the British film "Once Upon a Time in the Midlands."
This is FRESH AIR.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Review: Shane Meadows film "Once Upon a Time in the Midlands"
DAVID BIANCULLI, host:
The young director Shane Meadows sets his low-budget films in the dried-up
mining towns on the British Midlands, where he grew up. His latest, "Once
Upon a Time in the Midlands," has gotten critical attention here. But film
critic David Edelstein says the film's great performances aren't enough to
carry the film.
DAVID EDELSTEIN reporting:
The joke of the British comedy "Once Upon a Time in the Midlands" is the way
it gives middle-class life a whiff of a Sergio Leone epic Western. Bingo
parlors and dumpy pubs become, in a single composition, Wild West saloons.
There are brawls over Barcaloungers, and the music is suddenly twangy, with a
lone harmonica and clip-clops. It's fun to see middle-class life on screen,
even when it doesn't measure up to our movie myths and turns into a clown
show. The sheer novelty of the middle-class milieu on screen can be elating.
That might be why the film has gotten rave reviews when it's actually kind of
It's directed by Shane Meadows, whose last two films, "24/7" with Bob Hoskins
and "A Room for Romeo Brass," had a semidocumentary style and were low on
whimsy. "Once Upon a Time in the Midlands" is whimsy city. Its cuteness
softens every edge. Meadows' other movies were plainly influenced by his
countryman Mike Leigh, but this one comes at middle-class life from the
opposite direction. In a Leigh film, the faceless housing developments and
identical town houses grind a person's individuality down. Here Meadows wants
to show that inside those samey houses and uniforms are people styling
themselves in hilariously different ways, like the overweight, underemployed
chap in the 10-gallon cowboy hat or the three central characters played by
actors who transcend the movie's predictability through sheer weirdness.
First, we meet Shirley, played by Shirley Henderson, who has been corralled to
appear on a nationally televised talk show to comment on the strange
estrangement of her sister-in-law Carol, who loves her husband Charlie but
won't let him live with the family. It's a ruse, though. Shirley's boyfriend
Dek, played by Rhys Ifans, shows up to propose marriage on the air, whereupon
Shirley gets flustered and says she can't marry him. And far away in Glasgow,
her ex-husband, a criminal called Jimmy, played by Robert Carlyle, watches the
show and decides to come back to town to reclaim his woman.
In this scene, Dek engages in epic self-pity the morning after their
nationally televised fiasco.
(Soundbite of "Once Upon a Time in the Midlands")
Mr. RHYS IFANS: (As Dek) I know what you're doing, talking about me.
Ms. SHIRLEY HENDERSON: (As Shirley) Can we talk, please?
Mr. IFANS: (As Dek) I can't now, Shirley. I'm late for work.
Ms. HENDERSON: (As Shirley) Don't go off like this, eh?
Mr. IFANS: (As Dek) I can't fake it, Shirley. You've wounded me.
Ms. HENDERSON: (As Shirley) (Laughs)
Mr. IFANS: (As Dek) See, I'm a laughingstock, aren't I?
Ms. HENDERSON: (As Shirley) No, you're not.
Mr. IFANS: (As Dek) Yes, I am, Shirley! Yes, I am!
Ms. HENDERSON: (As Shirley) Come and sit down with me.
Mr. IFANS: (As Dek) Sit down? Sit down in me own house to be laughed at?
No way, Shirley! I'm going to work now. At least there I'm going to get a
little bit of respect. Have a nice day.
EDELSTEIN: You can hear in that scene the limitations and the charm of the
material. On one hand, it's sitcom grandstanding. On the other, Ifans
grandstands gloriously. You might remember him, and laugh remembering, as
Hugh Grant's skinny Welsh flatmate in "Notting Hill." And if you're lucky,
you saw him as a jungle boy turned aristocrat in Charlie Kaufman's "Human
Nature." Here he's put on weight, and he looks helpless and befuddled in that
big new body. He's like a Welsh Fred Gwynne, which isn't a slight because
Gwynne was a great clown.
And that voice of Shirley Henderson's, it's magic. She was unforgettable as
the junkie soprano in Mike Leigh's "Topsy-Turvy," and she had small parts
in "Bridget Jones's Diary" and as the ghost in the girls' loo in the last
Harry Potter movie. And here, she's a dark, squirmy, twittery little thing, a
As the outlaw ex-husband who marches through the non-swinging pub door to get
her back, Robert Carlyle gives one of his riotously contained performances.
This wiry little guy just stands there smoldering in his leather jacket and
ponytail and looks like he could rip the head off Arnold Schwarzenegger.
I couldn't understand half the dialogue, but I didn't care, because the sounds
coming out of the actors' mouths were so funny and expressive. And I loved
that the violence, just fisticuffs, is shot from a distance to make it look
clumsy and idiotic.
But the structure of the movie is a mess. The sister-in-law subplot has no
follow-through, and it gets more and more humdrum as it goes along. The final
showdown between Dek and Jimmy, which should be crazy and scaled big--Why
else invoke Sergio Leone?--is cozy Lifetime TV movie stuff. What happened? I
think Meadows tried to find a compromise between his edgy documentary
instincts and his desire for a lovable art-house US hit. So you could call
this movie "Once Upon a Time in the Middle of the Road."
BIANCULLI: David Edelstein is film critic for the online magazine Slate.
(Soundbite of music)
BIANCULLI: For Terry Gross, I'm David Bianculli.
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.