DATE September 30, 2002 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
PROGRAM Fresh Air
Interview: Christopher Reeve discusses his new book and his life
since his horseback riding accident
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
My guest, Christopher Reeve, has been back in the news. Earlier this month,
he announced that he could voluntarily move his index finger and has regained
some movement and sensation in other parts of his body. This is basically
unheard of for someone with his type of spinal injury. His 1995 horseback
riding accident broke his neck just below the brain stem, which prevents his
brain from sending messages to his body. Reeve and his doctors attribute his
new movement to his rigorous long-term physical therapy. His results have
provoked many doctors to challenge their assumptions about the limitations of
spinal cord rehabilitation. Reeve has also been in the news because of his
support of controversial stem cell research, which may benefit people with
spinal cord injuries.
In his new book "Nothing is Impossible," he reflects on his life in the years
since his accident. With the help of his medical aides, Reeve went to NPR's
New York bureau so that we could record an interview. I asked him first to
describe the movement and sensation that he has regained.
Mr. CHRISTOPHER REEVE: Well, to sum it up, I now have movement over about 20
percent of my body and sensation over almost 70 percent, and that's up from
virtually 0 when I was first injured.
GROSS: And the movement that you have, a lot of that is in the water, when
you're not fighting gravity the way you are outside of water.
Mr. REEVE: Or it can also be lying on a table or lying in bed. But I have
the ability to move fingers, my wrist, to extend my legs and my arms. And,
you know, we just started working to see what would happen, and there really
was no limits, and who knows where it's going to go.
GROSS: What are the immediate implications of this for your ability to, say,
sit up or eat, breathe, speak? What are--how has that--those aspects of life
changed with this new added movement?
Mr. REEVE: Well, I'd like to say that it means a different wheelchair or it
means a really, you know, huge difference in the quality of my life, but the
fact is that the real benefit for somebody with my level of injury, which
is--it's a very high, very severe injury--is that I'm healthy. I've not had
to go to the hospital for more than four and a half years. And before, you
know, the exercise had really kicked in, I was, you know, suffering from blood
clots, collapsed lungs, pneumonia, skin breakdowns, you name it. So it's been
a real relief to stay out of the hospital and to save my insurance company all
those associated costs. And one of the reasons that I've gone so public with
my recovery is to encourage the insurance companies to pay for the kind of
therapy that I've had.
GROSS: Now I had asked you about the implications of this for daily living.
What about, like, your breathing and your speaking? How much do you have to
be on the ventilator now? Is speaking easier than it used to be?
Mr. REEVE: Yes, speaking is easier, it's stronger. I can go for longer
periods of time off the ventilator and...
GROSS: Are you on the ventilator now?
Mr. REEVE: Oh, yes, I'm on the ventilator now and--I'm sorry, I'm probably a
little bit hoarse today because I've been doing a lot of talking, doing
interviews. So I do fatigue a little bit, but no, my endurance is much
greater than it was, and I can be off the ventilator as much as 90 minutes if
I want to. And the main thing is that my diaphragm is now working, and that's
really huge, because without the diaphragm working, you'll never get off the
ventilator. Now I have a very good chance of getting rid of the dreaded hose.
GROSS: Because of your broken neck and paralysis, you really have to live in
the mind. I mean, I know you're living in the body, too, and you're probably
exercising more than the rest of us are...
(Soundbite of laughter)
GROSS: ...in hopes of getting more movement back, but still, I mean, you had
been an incredibly physical person, doing all kinds of athletics and
parasailing, horseback riding, jumping. Are there things about your mind that
you've been exploring or have wanted to explore since you lost the movement of
Mr. REEVE: Oh, yes. Of necessity I've discovered things within the mind or
within the spirit--I don't know exactly where it's located--that never
probably would have made themselves known to me without the accident. But,
for example, I have survived two near-death experiences, the one when I was
injured, and then the other one was because of a reaction to a drug that was
given to me while I was in a rehab center. And I went into anaphylactic
shock, then I ended up flat-lining briefly, and I literally had an out-of-body
experience. Now in the past, I would have been very cynical about those
things, but it is quite true that--I mean, I vividly remember being up on the
ceiling and looking down at my body and all the people around working on me
and thinking that I was slipping away. And fortunately, at the last second,
they gave me a shot of epinephrine, and that brought me back with a crash into
my body and I stayed in this world. But I would have been very skeptical of
GROSS: How'd you feel then about the possibility of slipping away? I mean...
Mr. REEVE: It was dangerously welcome. What was happening is sort of like
people describe as when you're drowning, is that at first you fight, and then
gradually you resign and sort of let yourself go. And I remember being on the
border--as a matter of fact, apparently, the last thing that I said before
they brought me back is that, `I'm sorry. I have to go now.' I know that
sounds a little bit melodramatic, but people, I guess, do say things like this
in those circumstances.
GROSS: So the thought of dying at that moment wasn't upsetting?
Mr. REEVE: It almost seemed welcome, yeah.
GROSS: So why did you--I mean, do you feel like you consciously decided to
live or that it was, like, the drug reaction and it was going to happen
regardless of your will?
Mr. REEVE: Well, what happened is I was fighting as hard as I could to
breathe and struggling and struggling. I was on 100 percent oxygen, and still
my oxygen saturation level was going down and down and down and down, and my
blood pressure was probably something like 40/20 and then it went lower, and
then I flat-lined. Then I was fighting all along to stay alive and just fight
it, and then after a while, I was just feeling--you know, I just couldn't do
any more, then it just felt--you know, what a relief it would be, you know,
just to not have to fight so hard anymore. So I remember just kind of letting
go, this sort of acceptance. And then what happened is with this epinephrine
stick, suddenly I was back, and then when everything had settled down later
that night and I was stabilized, I was so, so thankful that I was still here
and my family was around me and I realized that it wasn't my time to go yet
and I realized yet again just how fragile our existence is and how much love
GROSS: Getting back to the idea that, you know, you've been kind of forced to
really live in your mind a lot, do you have the kind of mind that ever turns
against you? Do you have the mind of mind that you have to be careful of, I
mean, that you have to consciously try to prevent from turning against you, or
are you OK with that?
Mr. REEVE: Well, oddly enough, my mind probably turned against me more before
the accident than afterwards. When I was on my feet, I remember being very
self-critical and, you know, particularly because I was an actor, a performer
and, you know, I was always competitive, trying to do my best. You know,
after a performance some evening, I'd say, `Oh, that wasn't the best I could
do,' or, `I should have been doing this,' `Could do that better.' And so I
beat myself up a lot more before the accident. And then after I was injured,
I had to learn some patience, I had to learn forgiveness of myself, first of
all, because frankly, my first reaction after being injured was that I'd done
the unthinkable. I'd injured not only myself, but those around me, because
they would be affected--my wife, my children. It was not, you know, my own
mess, but a mess for everybody. So at first I was very guilty, and then I
found that, no, my family loved me just the way I was, that we were all still
together, although things would be different, and I learned a lot about
finding peace and patience and about being rather than doing as the essential
component of relationships. So I actually benefited in an unexpected way.
GROSS: My guest is Christopher Reeve. His new memoir is called "Nothing is
Impossible." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: Christopher Reeve is my guest. He has a new book called "Nothing is
Impossible: Reflections on a New Life."
Now you wrote--I think this was in your earlier book, "Still Me"--you wrote
that, you know, because there was so much going wrong with your body and so
much you had to pay attention to, you had to be aware of your body all the
time and you were forced to become a serious student of yourself. And, you
know, it's funny about injury or disease, it can force you into a level of
self-absorption and self-consciousness that you've never had before. And I
guess I'm wondering about that experience for you, too, the level of
self-absorption that is forced on you.
Mr. REEVE: That was the thing I was striving most to get rid of, and that's
one of the most satisfying aspects of my recovery, because in the beginning,
when I was suffering from ulcers and blood clots and skin breakdowns and, you
know, pneumonia, collapsed lungs, etc., yes, then I had to really pay
attention all the time. For example, every 30 minutes I had to make sure to
shift my position in the chair, to tilt it back or tilt it forward to change
the weight distribution. I used to have to go to bed at 6:30 in the evening
in order to get the weight off of my, you know, rear end and lie flat. I had
to be turned every two hours. You know, being forced to pay attention to your
body in ways like that, you know, just to recover your health, that drove me
nuts. And finally, because of the exercise that I did, because of the
excellent wheelchair seat--believe it or not, the quality of the cushion that
you're sitting on in a wheelchair makes tremendous difference. Because of all
the exercise, now I'm at the point where basically I'm much more freer from
that kind of self-absorption, and that makes a tremendous difference.
GROSS: What are some of the things you've been able to turn to or to rely on
for pleasure? I mean, no matter how hard you're working to try to get better
and regain injury, I mean, I think one has to have things that they can turn
to for pleasure.
Mr. REEVE: Well, the first thing I had to learn to do was to appreciate
watching other people do things that I would normally do. For example, with
my children--they're now 22, 18 and 10--and particularly my older kids, I was
always, you know, very, very involved with them physically, teaching them
things, everything from music to sailing to riding to them skiing to just
doing activities together. And with my youngest son, he was only just turning
three when I was injured, and now he's 10, and he's quite an accomplished
hockey player and saxophone player and, you know, I had to figure out, now how
am I going to be a decent parent if I can't, you know, do things with him in
the way I used to?
And there was a wonderful example one day, that he was trying to learn to ride
his bike without the training wheels and very frustrated because it just
wasn't going well. And my wife Dana had been spending a lot of time the way
parents usually do, going around bent over, you know, holding on to the back
of the seat, which was tough on your lower back, and I decided to see if I
could help. And I went out in the driveway with him, and I just talked to
him, and I said, `Well, OK, now you're going to put the right pedal in the up
position and put your foot on it and then give it a big push. Now don't look
down at your feet. Then when you're moving, bring the other foot up and don't
wobble the steering wheel, the bars, the steering bar, and just look straight
ahead and just go, and it'll happen. And we're going to do it on three.' And
believe it or not, I counted to three and he did it. And then he rode around
the driveway about 15 times in a row. So I thought, this is really wonderful.
I've found a new way.
GROSS: You know, you said you had to learn how to get pleasure watching
people do things that you used to be able to do yourself. I imagine that
would be hard to get over the jealousy or resentment or anger...
Mr. REEVE: Yeah.
GROSS: ...over watching people do things that you can't do anymore, even
people you love, even watching your kids do something that you can't do.
Mr. REEVE: Yeah. I don't want to sound so noble, either, because there's
times. There's times when I just get so jealous, I have to admit. You know,
I see somebody just get up out of a chair and stretch and I go, `No, you're
not even thinking about what you're doing and how lucky you are to do that.'
So, no, you know, I do the best I can but I have moments where I wish just
people, don't take it for granted because, you know, God forbid, you know, you
could slip on a wet floor and, you know, be in my position in a heartbeat.
GROSS: Christopher Reeve is my guest. He has a new book called "Nothing is
Impossible: Reflections on a New Life."
You write a little bit about your father in your book.
Mr. REEVE: Yes.
GROSS: And something you said about your father is that he was into theater,
and he was into a more kind of political activist kind of theater.
Mr. REEVE: Right.
GROSS: And it sounds like he expected you to go that route, too. And it
sounds as if your rebelling against your father was fighting for the right to
be in the mainstream.
Mr. REEVE: Well, I felt that I wanted to be--I mean, I didn't want to be a
starving artist. I didn't want to be, you know, someone, you know, that never
has, you know, a secure roof over his head and struggling. But on the other
hand, you know, I didn't want to just sell out. Then I feel actually looking
back at my career, that, you know, it ranges from big commercial films like
"Superman" to a couple of...
GROSS: To Merchant Ivory Films, yeah.
Mr. REEVE: ...to Merchant Ivory. And I mean, "The Bostonians" and the
"Remains of the Day" are two films that I'm extremely proud of and my father
was, too, as a matter of fact. So I think he just didn't want me to become an
GROSS: Did he put you down for accepting "Superman"?
Mr. REEVE: No. It was very funny that actually, I was doing a play off
Broadway. We went out for dinner afterwards and then he said to me--this is
back in 1977. He said, `So what are you doing next?' And I said, `Well, I
think I'm going to be doing "Superman,"' and he said, `Great. Well, who's
playing Ann?' And I said, `Ann? Oh.' And I realized he thought I meant
Shaw's "Man and Superman" and the female lead's name is Ann. And I said, `No,
actually, Dad, this is the other "Superman," and the female lead is Lois
Lane.' And there was a dead silence at the table, but anyway, you know, he
was not at all thrilled by my going off to do this, you know, big budget,
quote, "cartoon." And yet, when he saw the film and saw the dignity of the
film and great actors like Gene Hackman and Marlon Brando and Terence Stamp,
he changed his mind. He enjoyed it as much as anybody else.
GROSS: You had to pump up to play Superman. Do you think the muscles that
you developed for that role ended up coming in handy after your injury? I
mean, did they help you?
Mr. REEVE: I'd like to say that, but "Superman" was 25 years ago. I mean...
Mr. REEVE: ...the discipline to pump up muscles, though, remained. In fact,
I had a deal. I had to transform myself from a skinny 6'4", 185-pound
weakling--well, not a weakling, but nevertheless, I was very, very thin and a
very unlikely candidate to play Superman. In fact, I'll never forget the
reaction of the press when I was introduced at a, you know, press conference
at Sardi's by the producers. I walked in the room wearing a blue blazer, a
button-down shirt, khakis and loafers. I mean, I'm a preppy from Princeton, I
hate to say. And I'm sure the media took a look at me and said, `This is
So anyway, I had to train very, very hard. And then I had an agreement. They
gave me a driver in London because--I don't know--they didn't want me driving
on the left side of the road, and I said to him, `Look, at the end of the day,
when I get finished with work, even if I say, "Take me home," take me to the
gym anyway.' So I would doze off in the back of the car and I'd find myself
at the gym. And once I was there, there was no choice but to go in and
exercise. And that's what I did, two hours a day, seven days a week.
GROSS: Do you ever watch your old movies?
Mr. REEVE: I do sometimes, you know, particularly when they come out on DVD
because, you know, on DVD, they have extra footage or behind the scenes or...
GROSS: Right. Right. Is it creepy for you to watch your movies because it's
Mr. REEVE: No. Believe it or not, in spite of the fact that the accident was
a defining moment of before and after, in the seven years since my injury,
I've learned to see my life as a continuum. And I think that's a good sign of
mental health. I mean, I think it's a sign of adjustment so that I am able to
look at myself, you know, from the past and see it as one line.
GROSS: Christopher Reeve has a new memoir called "Nothing is Impossible."
He'll be back in the second half of our show. I'm Terry Gross, and this is
(Soundbite of music; credits)
GROSS: Coming up, we continue our conversation with Christopher Reeve. Rock
critic Ken Tucker considers the recent resurgence of guitar-based bands. And
we meet actor Martin Donovan. He stars in the new romantic comedy "Pipe
(Soundbite of music)
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with more of our interview
with Christopher Reeve. He has a new memoir called "Nothing is Impossible" in
which he reflects on his life since the 1995 horseback riding accident that
left him with a broken neck, paralyzed from the waist down. This month, Reeve
announced he had regained some movement, which he and his doctors attribute to
his rigorous long-term physical therapy.
You know, what you've been able to achieve in spite of your injuries is really
pretty amazing. I'm wondering, in your own mind, what balance you've tried to
maintain between positive thinking and believing, you know, that anything is
possible, and, you know, realistic thinking, knowing that in some ways
everything isn't possible.
Mr. REEVE: Right. Well, when I say nothing's impossible, I don't mean that
pigs are gonna fly. But I'm talking about inner resources that we may not
know much about, but that we can draw on, and you don't need to nearly die in
order to discover these resources. That we are capable of so much more than
we know. We're just sometimes afraid to venture in that direction. And the
book is meant to encourage people to avoid paralysis, and by that I...
Mr. REEVE: By that I don't mean literally, you know, try not to end up in a
wheelchair. I mean just avoid paralysis of indecision brought on by low
self-esteem or by feeling that the world is an overwhelming place or that
we're inadequate or that we can't reach our goals. Just let go of that
negativity. Let go of feelings that we aren't enough, because we are and
because we have strength, perseverance. We have--all that is available to all
of us. As I say, you know, you don't need to be a Superman, or you don't need
to become paralyzed in order to maximize your potential, but I do think that
inaction is the worst. I think that, in a way, paralysis is a choice. I'm
physically paralyzed, but in some ways I'm freer than ever, and I think that
the same can apply to other people.
GROSS: In what way do you think you're freer than ever?
Mr. REEVE: Well, because I'm free to say what I want, which--I think perhaps
I used to edit myself more. I was very self-critical in the past, when I was
younger. I was very competitive. All of those things--you know, once you've
nearly died a couple of times and really faced your own mortality, you realize
that's all negative. That's all the wrong way to think. So you learn
tolerance, you learn understanding. I'm much less judgmental about myself and
others. And that's a message that I'd want to pass on to other people. Don't
beat yourself up, don't beat up on other people, you know, and just go as far
as you can in the direction of your dreams, and you can go farther than you
GROSS: One last question. In your dreams, do you walk still or do you have
dreams now where you're in the same physical condition that you are in
Mr. REEVE: No, this is really fascinating. I have never had--in the
seven-plus years since I've been injured, I've never once had a dream in which
I'm disabled. I don't know why. I think it's probably because I'm firmly
convinced that I am gonna walk again. But scientists have been working on a
study, and the results will be published at some time, but apparently in your
dreams, if you dream very actively--if you're sailing, if you're running, if
you're climbing a mountain or going for a bike ride or whatever--you are
firing motor neurons in your brain the same way as if you're actually doing
that activity. So perhaps part of my recovery is due to the fact that even
while I'm asleep, I've been exercising my body. And I think that's pretty
GROSS: That's an interesting way to look at it.
Mr. REEVE: Well, it seems to be a scientific fact, and since scientists are
having a hard time explaining why I'm getting so much physical recovery and
why it began five years after the injury--see, the common wisdom is that
whatever recovery you're gonna get will happen within the first six months to
a year, and after that you're finished. Well, you know, I started getting
recovery--the first, well, sensory function for sensory--recovery first, but
the first motor recovery, the ability to move that index finger happened five
and a half years after my injury, and apparently that's pretty much unheard
of. So I think that all of that dreaming, you know, was part of the process.
GROSS: How do the doctors explain the movement that you've been able to
regain in the past couple of years?
Mr. REEVE: The most likely explanation, they say, is that the exercise that
I've been doing is causing the reawakening of dormant pathways in the nervous
system. It's just that they're still intact, but they've been asleep, really,
since the injury. And over time, with exercise, they've been reawakened.
Another theory is that the exercise has caused some kind of regeneration to
occur, a little bit of sprouting of nerves and some form of regeneration. And
scientists are now finding that the spinal cord is much more plastic than--by
that I mean that it can rebound, there's more plasticity in it than they ever
knew. They've also found that there are stem cells in the spinal cord, so
perhaps they are working to some extent.
But I think that there are now programs coming into being around the country
that are called activity dependent recovery programs, and these are programs
at various rehab facilities and universities where they take patients and get
them to exercise and find that recovery comes from it. For example, it's the
latest approach to dealing with people with strokes. They tie down or strap
down the good part of the body, then force the disabled part to work, and
they're getting surprising results. And it's a whole new field of
rehabilitative medicine which is showing a lot of promise.
GROSS: Well, Christopher Reeve, a pleasure to talk with you. I wish you
continued success with your recovery, and thank you so much for talking with
Mr. REEVE: Oh, thank you. It's been a pleasure.
GROSS: Christopher Reeve's new memoir is titled "Nothing is Impossible."
Coming up, independent film star Martin Donovan. This is FRESH AIR.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Interview: Martin Donovan discusses his acting career
TERRY GROSS, host:
Martin Donovan is a terrific actor whose work isn't nearly as widely known as
it deserves to be, because he's starred in independent films that have not
been that widely seen. He's the star of several films written and directed by
Hal Hartley, such as "Trust," "Simple Men" and "Amateur." In the comedy "The
Opposite of Sex," Donovan played a high school teacher whose devious
half-sister, played by Christina Ricci, steals his gay boyfriend. Donovan won
the National Society of Film Critics Award for best supporting actor for his
role in Jane Campion's adaptation of Henry James' "Portrait of a Lady."
In the new romantic comedy "Pipe Dream," Donovan plays a plumber who spends
the night with the attractive woman whose pipes he just fixed. The woman,
played by Mary-Louise Parker, is an aspiring screenwriter. After Donovan
overhears her telling a friend that their relationship can't go far because
he's only a plumber, he comes up with a scheme designed to boost his status
with women. He proposes the scheme to one of his clients, whose owes him a
lot of money, a client who happens to be an aspiring casting director.
(Soundbite from "Pipe Dream")
Mr. MARTIN DONOVAN: You will set up a casting session for a movie of which I
am the director.
(Soundbite of laughter)
"R.J.": Oh, no wait, wait, wait. No, you're serious.
Mr. DONOVAN: You treat me like I'm the director, I get to meet a bunch of
"R.J.": What would make you think that I would bring in a bunch of hungry
young aspiring actresses...
Mr. DONOVAN: Eleven hundred and fifty bucks, R.J.
Mr. DONOVAN: I'll throw in the Peruvian steam jet.
"R.J.": The Duke of Kents? Oh, Nancy would flip. Oh, no, wait...
Mr. DONOVAN: And everyone, R.J., will think that you are casting a movie.
Much better perception category.
GROSS: Martin Donovan, welcome to FRESH AIR. How do you think the people,
like the casting directors in Hollywood, see you? What kind of type do you
think you'd be perceived as in Hollywood?
Mr. DONOVAN: Yeah, I--it's a really slippery slope to insanity to try to get
inside the heads of the people, you know, in the business and what their
perceptions of you are. It's not to say I haven't done it, but I haven't come
up with an answer. I mean, it depends on who you're talking to. It depends
on what my last film was and what they've just seen. I think from the
Hollywood perspective, you know, I'm probably thought of as being--well,
they're convinced I can't do comedy, for instance, and I'm probably too
cerebral for their tastes.
GROSS: But, I mean, you're really funny in the new comedy you're in.
Mr. DONOVAN: Well, thank you. I consider myself funny.
GROSS: And what about "The Opposite of Sex"? That was very funny.
Mr. DONOVAN: Yeah, but see, you know, I sort of played the straight man
around all the crazy characters. The straight gay man...
GROSS: That's right. That's right. Now you've mostly worked in the world of
independent cinema. Do you think that your idea, or, you know, filmgoers'
ideas of independent cinema has changed since you got started in it?
Mr. DONOVAN: Well, I think the economics have changed. I think, for
instance, when I did my first Hal Hartley film, which was "Trust"--we shot
that in 1990. I mean, there was definitely a different environment there at
that time, although "Sex, Lies, and Videotape" had already been made and
released and had, you know, been quite a splash. And that sort of had an
impact, I think, on the economics of independent filmmaking. So that now if
you're doing, you know, a let's say, under a $5 million budget, the pressures
now to cast major stars in that are enormous, more so than 10 years ago. Hal
Hartley has told me, when dealing with financial people, his tactic is when
they want to make a change, when they want a different actor, or they want a
different DP or whatever, his response is, `OK, how much less money do you
want to give me so I can retain the person I want to use?' And he seems to
have a lot of luck in, you know--he wins doing that. He'll just find a way to
take less money from them in order to use the people he wants to use. But
he's a rare example of that.
GROSS: He'll really do that? He'll take less money to give somebody else...
Mr. DONOVAN: Yeah. I mean, but, you know, he's also very economical in
his--he's very precise about what he needs and he's an exception, I think, to
GROSS: You grew up in California. What part of California did you grow up
Mr. DONOVAN: Oh, I grew up in the San Fernando Valley of Los Angeles.
GROSS: What are some of the movies or TV shows that you loved the most when
you were young? Or the movies that you saw over and over or the TV shows that
you wouldn't miss?
Mr. DONOVAN: Well, there's a range of films but, you know, the ones that I
always think of that really had a huge impact on me were very hard, actually
kind of very serious films. I was very young, there was a film called "Crime
in the Streets," which I later found out was a Don Siegel film and it starred
John Cassavetes and I forgot who else. A young John Cassavetes; it was made
in the '50s. And it was set in, I think, New York City. It was very gritty,
kitchen sink kind of drama, and John Cassavetes played this--which he does
very well--extremely angry young man with such bile and bitterness and realism
from what I could tell as a kid. It completely--I mean, it had a huge impact
on me in terms of what the whole art form and what acting, you know--what was
capable. You know, what you could do with the form and with--as an actor. I
mean, it didn't--it seemed to shatter my whole conception of what it was to be
an actor and what, you know, you could do as an actor. That had a huge impact
on me. It was on--it played like every day. It was one of those movies
that--used to have what was called a million dollar movie.
GROSS: Where it'd play over and over?
Mr. DONOVAN: Over and over again every day. And we'd watch that over and
over again. I do remember--and then later on, I remember seeing John
Cassavetes, "Woman Under the Influence." When that came out, I saw that,
like, three times, and I was like 14 years old. So I don't know what that
means. I was a very troubled child.
GROSS: Gena Rowlands is having a nervous breakdown. She's kind of like
burning slowly through the movie.
Mr. DONOVAN: Yeah. Yes. And I saw it three times, so I don't know. I don't
know what that means.
GROSS: And you ended up going to New York.
Mr. DONOVAN: Yup.
GROSS: What propelled you to get--or what was the moment where you decided to
go and try your luck?
Mr. DONOVAN: A friend called my future wife, who I was living with at the
time, called and said he was gonna be out of town and we could stay in his
apartment. So it was as simple as that. We jumped on it and went. We went
for what we thought was gonna be three months and stayed for 18 years so far.
GROSS: And I think you fell in with a theater group while you were there?
Mr. DONOVAN: Yeah, I started working with a company called Cucaracha, which
is no longer around, but it was a great place at the time. This was back in
the '80s. It was downtown. It was really kind of what got me out of my sort
of, at the time, seclusion. I'd been studying so long in Los Angeles, I
really needed a break from studying and from the whole thing, and I just was
really using the experience of New York City to further my education. And
someone asked my wife and I to join this company and it was really a great
thing because we were doing interesting pieces, sort of post-performance art
kind of cabaret theater, and there was a period there where we had a derelict
warehouse down on Greenwich Street, just about 10,000 square feet that was all
ours and we performed in there. It's now a luxury condominium, but at the
time it was this dusty, asbestos-laden warehouse ...(unintelligible). And it
was great. It was a great experience. And it's actually where Hal came
and--Hartley--saw me in a production there and how I hooked up with him.
GROSS: So the first movies you made were with Hal Hartley?
Mr. DONOVAN: Well, I did do one theatrical film when I first arrived in New
York called "Hard Choices," which was a pretty good film actually, written and
directed by John--Rick King, excuse me. And John Sayles appeared in that
film, among other people, and Gary McCLeary and John Seitz, a lot of New York
actors. Interesting film. And then I didn't really work for several years
until I did "Trust," yeah. I mean, I did bits and pieces on television here
and there, and then I was working at Cucaracha and then Hal came along.
GROSS: What was it like the first time you saw yourself on screen?
Mr. DONOVAN: Pretty awful. Pretty awful. I'm trying to remember the first
time I saw myself. It was probably way back when I did a television show when
I was still in LA, but certainly watching "Trust" was positively nauseating
and, you know, I was cold sweats and, you know, I was--gut-wrenching. It was
GROSS: What was so awful about it? Why was it so horrible?
Mr. DONOVAN: Well, it's just, you know, it's everything that anyone
experiences when they, you know, hear or see themselves if they're not, you
know, used to it, and I sort of really suffered with that for years. I'm
better at it now. I don't beat myself up like I used to, so I'm not as bad.
I mean, I have friends who've been doing it for years and refuse--won't see
dailies and will not even see the films they're in. I'm not that bad. I'm
just trying to be more forgiving. I mean, I've spent most of my life beating
myself up so badly that I just decided that I needed to give myself a break.
GROSS: Most of the films you've done have been independent films, and one of
your recent films, "Insomnia," was--not sure if that was independent or
studio, but it was made by the same person who made "Memento." Al Pacino and
Robin Williams were in...
Mr. DONOVAN: Right.
GROSS: ..."Insomnia," so you've got two really big-name, you know, Hollywood
actors there. I guess Robin Williams was still making his comeback when he
made that film. But does it change the nature of a set a lot to have somebody
like, you know, Pacino on the set as opposed to doing an independent film
where, you know, it's all about the work and there isn't that level of fame,
you know, possibly intruding on the work?
Mr. DONOVAN: No. You know, I tell you, I found that it's the director who
sets the tone of the set, and also in concert with the producers, and if
they're serious people who have intelligence and taste and, you know, have got
their priorities straight, you know, it doesn't matter who's in the film. I
found that there's really no difference between a small-budget film and a
large--you know, an independent film and a studio film other than, you know,
the craft services, the food and the trailers, you know. I mean, obviously
there's that difference. And also with Chris Nolan, I mean, in "Memento," you
had a guy who comes out of, you know, his only--this was his first
big-budgeted film. He's a very smart guy. He's very focused. He's got a
great head and Al Pacino, also, is a guy who's very serious about the work,
and it was actually one of the classier productions I've ever been associated
with. I mean, I really enjoyed working on that film.
I think the big misconception about independent movies is that people seem to
equate independent movies with some sort of higher artistic standard, and I
don't think that's necessarily the case at all. I mean, I've been on--or have
seen "independent films," quote-unquote, you know, made outside the studio
system that were made for all the wrong reasons, and the people involved were
more interested in making money than anything, you know, artistic. So it
really depends who you're working with. The money doesn't necessarily have to
corrupt the proceedings as far as I'm concerned. Although it's very tempting.
GROSS: Well, Martin Donovan, I want to thank you a lot for talking with us.
Mr. DONOVAN: It's been my pleasure. Thanks for having me.
GROSS: Martin Donovan stars in the new romantic comedy "Pipe Dream." It
opens this weekend in New York and LA and opens in more cities later in the
Coming up, rock critic Ken Tucker on the resurgence of guitar-based bands.
This is FRESH AIR.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Profile: New bands helping to revive guitar rock
TERRY GROSS, host:
A recent cover of Rolling Stone proclaimed rock is back, and featured the new
band The Vines. After years of hip-hop and teen pop, there's a resurgence of
guitar-based rock 'n' roll, with bands such as The Strokes, The Vines, The
Hives and a few more experienced bands like Spoon and Apples in Stereo. Ken
Tucker has a look at this phenomenon.
(Soundbite of music)
Unidentified Group: (Singing) I'm feeling happy, so highly evolved. My
time's a riddle that'll never be solved. Dreaming for somethin, reaching for
somethin else. Just waitin for the sun to carry me in. If you feel low you
can buy love from a payphone. I don't feel low.
KEN TUCKER reporting:
At the recent MTV Music Awards, the music channel tried to trump up a battle
of the bands between the Swedish combo The Hives and the LA by way of
Australia group The Vines. There was no contest, really. The Hives'
controlled frenzy, their impeccable early Rolling Stones brashness, easily
defeated The Vines' more erratic squawking attack. But merely by framing the
competition this way, when combined with that issue of Rolling Stone, so eager
to proclaim that there's a reactionary force ready to rescue Jann Wenner's
readers from the past decade's hip-hop and teen pop, well, all this signaled
that something's up and has been for a while now.
(Soundbite of "The Way We Get By")
SPOON: (Singing) We get high in backseat circles. We break into mobile
homes. We go to sleep too shook up and we wake up on our own. That's the way
we get by to where we get by. Oh, that's the way we get by to where we get
by. We go out in stormy weather. We rarely practice discern. We make love
to some with sin. We seek out the taciturn. That's the way we get by to
where where we get by. Oh, that's the way we get by to where we get by.
TUCKER: That's Spoon, an Austin, Texas, band that's been around since the
mid-'90s and is not usually lumped in with this `rock is back' crowd, but I'm
lumping them here anyway because their new release, "Kill the Moonlight," is a
good example of what's missing from the music of some of the newer bands.
That is, content. By which I mean the catchy guitar hooks have a purpose
beyond making you thrash your head to the rhythm, and the lyrics are about
something more than having a broken heart or a hung-over brain. In "The Way
We Get By," Spoon creates music about persevering in music despite the
waywardness of touring, arguing and the vicissitudes of the biz. Contrast
this with yet another bunch of pop-rockers, Apples in Stereo.
(Soundbite of music)
APPLES IN STEREO: (Singing) Please tell me what to do, please, to get in
touch with you. There I tried to call your satellite, but, baby, you would
not receive, oh no. And I tried to call your satellite, but baby, you would
not believe. Oh, no, no. Please, please...
TUCKER: For Apples in Stereo lead singer and producer Robert Schneider, it's
enough to throw up a wall of guitar and drum sound and sing plaintively over
it. A lot the time I nod my head to the beat and dig his escapism, just as I
do the more dolorous stuff of The Vines, and the more headlong escapism of new
rock bands that I've been reviewing steadily here over the past few months,
like The Strokes and The Hives. But ultimately, most of these bands fall prey
to the usual limitation of what we used to just call pop-rock. Its
disposability doesn't permit for the sort of emotions or thoughts that might
give their catchy tunes some staying power. I'm as happy as the next Rolling
Stone reader, or more likely editor, that guitars, drums and white boy yelling
is back in vogue. But I also like the way the progenitors of this entire
genre, The Beatles, appreciated black voices and R&B rhythms and made their
heartache sound like pain lived, not just imagined.
GROSS: Ken Tucker is critic at large for Entertainment Weekly.
GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.
(Soundbite of music)
Unidentified Group: (Singing) Sunshine and rain drying the warm and
(unintelligible) coming. Don't try and fool ...(unintelligible). Yeah. Oh.
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