DATE February 23, 2005 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
PROGRAM Fresh Air
Interview: Actor Seth Green discusses his work and career
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
By the time my guest Seth Green became famous for his role in "Austin Powers"
as Dr. Evil's son Scott Evil, he was already a veteran. Green started making
movies when he was eight and landed a part in "Hotel New Hampshire." When he
was 12, he got a leading-role as the boy in Woody Allen's film "Radio Days."
His other movies include "Without a Paddle," "The Italian Job," "Party
Monster" and "Enemy of the State." On TV, he had a recurring role as Oz in
"Buffy the Vampire Slayer," starred in "Greg the Bunny," and does the voice of
the son Chris on the animated comedy series "Family Guy." Now Green is doing
lots of voices for a stop-action animated series that he co-created. It's
called "Robot Chicken," and it debuted Sunday night on the Cartoon Network as
part of the block called Adult Swim. Green describes the show as the
fast-paced, stop-motion sketch variety show, "Saturday Night Live meets The
Nightmare Before Christmas."
You know, stop-motion animation seems pain-staking...
Mr. SETH GREEN (Actor): Yeah.
GROSS: ...because basically you're moving--since you're photographing
it--you're moving every figure--What?--like a quarter of a inch or something
and then photographing it again?
Mr. GREEN: Oh, less than that. I mean, we photograph it frame-by-frame, and
it's 32 frames per second. So, depending on the speed of the movement, the
animators adjust the puppets within that time ratio. Luckily, I don't have to
do that. We have the top team of animators. We just have some of the best
people in the business that come to work on the show, and that's what they
love to do. Just like, you know, you're great at interviewing and I like
acting, these people are happiest when they're isolated in a booth with their
music in their ears, adjusting puppets for, you know, 12 hours at a time.
GROSS: One of the early parodies in "Robot Chicken" is a parody of the `This
is your brain on drugs' commercial?
Mr. GREEN: Yeah. We actually--we went round and round with the Partnership
for a Drug-Free America to get consent to use Rachel Leigh Cook in the voice
because it's considered intellectual property. This is one of the things that
we've learned a lot about producing the show is where using the actual person
who did the original project, how you can parody that using them. We just had
to go clear it legally with each one of these parent companies.
GROSS: So the Partnership for a Drug-Free America gave you permission to use
the actor who actually did the `This is your brain on drugs' commercial?
Mr. GREEN: Yeah, Rachael Leigh Cook, before she was in "She's All That" and
all the movies that she's done since then, did this commercial, that, `This is
your brain; This is your brain on drugs,' you know, `This is what happens when
you snort heroin,' that kind of thing. And we just amped it up. We have her
running around the neighborhood, smashing up grandmas and microwaves and cats
and cars and just flipping out, 'cause it's silly.
GROSS: Let's talk a little bit about your acting career, your movie career.
Mr. GREEN: It doesn't get any bigger, Terry. Seriously, I mean, I may not be
winning awards, but, you know?
GROSS: Well, you certainly started young enough.
Mr. GREEN: I know.
GROSS: I mean, you were in "Hotel New Hampshire"...
Mr. GREEN: Yeah.
GROSS: ...at the age of eight. And then at the age of 12, you were in "Radio
Days," the Woody Allen movie.
Mr. GREEN: It's all true.
GROSS: And this is a film that's narrated by Woody Allen, so--and it's a
flashback, so the--you play the young version of the character who's
narrating, so it's as if you're the young Woody Allen.
Mr. GREEN: Yeah, a distinction I shared with many red-headed kids.
GROSS: Well, why don't we play a short scene from the movie? This is from
early in the film. You're in the living room, your parents are listening to
the radio, your father's reading Life magazine and your parents are played by
Julie Kavner and Michael Tucker.
(Soundbite from "Radio Days")
Mr. SETH GREEN: (As Joe) Hey, can I have 15 cents for the new Masked Avenger
Mr. MICHAEL TUCKER: (As Father) What am I, made of money?
Ms. JULIE KAVNER: (As Mother) Pay more attention to your school work and
less to the radio.
Mr. GREEN: (As Joe) You always listen to the radio.
Ms. KAVNER: (As Mother) It's different. Our lives are ruined already. You
still have a chance to grow up and be somebody.
Mr. TUCKER: (As Father) You think I want you working at the job I do?
Mr. GREEN: (As Joe) I don't even know what your job is.
Mr. TUCKER: (As Father) You've got to get an education.
Mr. GREEN: (As Joe) While I'm getting it, can I get the secret compartment
Ms. KAVNER: (As Mother) We don't have money to waste.
GROSS: That's a scene from "Radio Days." Seth Green, did you see yourself as
playing the young Woody Allen?
Mr. GREEN: You know, he's been very--he's not very forthcoming with
information when you're working with him, plus I was 12, so I didn't have a
lot of character questions to ask him. I was more concerned with getting my
school work done so I wasn't obligated to it and figuring out what new GI Joe
doll has come out. Yeah, it was a blast. I had no idea that that was the
character until months and months later. Actually, Mia Farrow introduced me
to somebody as playing young Woody in his new movie and that was kind of when
I--the first time I heard it.
GROSS: What are some of the ways that "Radio Days" changed your life once it
Mr. GREEN: I got to do "The Tonight Show" and I got to meet Johnny Carson
and Angie Dickinson and that was about the coolest thing in the world.
GROSS: What was the story that you told on "The Tonight Show?" Everybody
gets to tell a great story.
Mr. GREEN: I don't remember. I just--I've seen--the last time I saw the
tape was about seven years ago, and I'm such a horrific fashion victim. I--it
was the year that I let my sister dress me, because I was sick of getting beat
up in school. And she put me in, like, Cavaricci jeans rolled up under the
calf with socks and Reeboks and a Coca-Cola sweatshirt. I had, you know, a
skater flop in the front with a mullet in the back. I was just tragic. And I
came on telling Johnny Carson stories about Toy Fair and gave him some
"Ghostbusters" ectoplasm. So I don't know how good of an impression I made.
GROSS: So did you get a lot of offers for other movies?
Mr. GREEN: I guess I did. I don't know. I--it wasn't a big--I mean, I
worked. I worked pretty consistently until I was about 15 and then I had a
year of just nothing because I was kind of transitioning into older parts and
people were expecting this young kid who looked a specific way and who played
a specific character and I was suddenly doing--I just went through a rough
time in my life. Like, my parents were getting divorced and school was really
awful and, you know, the common things I think that kids go through when
they're that age. And grew my hair out long, got really into Gun N' Roses,
got my ears pierced, and all of a sudden started playing tougher kids, you
know, and got into the concept of being a more character actor, like, as
opposed to aiming for being Tom Cruise in "Risky Business," being more like
Joe Pantoliano in "Risky Business."
GROSS: What happened to the money that you made? Did you have any say in
what was done with it?
Mr. GREEN: Yeah, you know, there's great laws in effect because of the way
kids got taken advantage of in the, you know, careers before me. The Jackie
Coogan Law insists that kids' money be put into a trust fund with certain
allowances made to keep you functioning. Like, you can receive a portion of
it to pay your bills, but for the most part you're set aside and guaranteed to
have money when you're 18.
GROSS: So that meant...
Mr. GREEN: I didn't make a lot as a kid, though. I never made a lot as a
kid. I was never an in-demand star. I didn't have a top-grossing movie and I
was never--you know, like, you look at Macaulay Clukin, who at 10 years old
was making $3 million to $8 million. And we were just in very different
positions. But I think that benefited me later in life because it gave me the
ability to transition kind of seamlessly and without prejudice from a teen
actor to an adult actor.
GROSS: My guest is actor Seth Green, and he's co-created a new stop-motion
animation series that's going to be on Adult Swim on the Cartoon Network, and
it's called "Robot Chicken."
Let's talk about one of your really famous movies or series of movies, and I'm
thinking of "Austin Powers"...
GROSS: ...in which you are the son of Dr. Evil. How did you get the part?
Mr. GREEN: That was a total luck shot. I was working in San Diego on the
first and only full-length play I've ever done and couldn't leave to audition
and the word that I got was that they'd been all over town and kind of looked
at a bunch of people and hadn't quite found what they were looking for and
wanted to meet me, which--so I went and met with Jay Roach and we just hit it
off. And he like what I did and I got that job, which was great. And the
funniest legend of this movie is that I got offered Carrot Top's "Chairman of
the Board" on the same day that I got offered Mike Myer's "Austin Powers." And
it was a heavy debate for a second because they were both equally--they were
just debatable projects. You know, Mike I knew from "SNL" and had had some
success with "Wayne's World," but the last movie he'd done was "So I Married
an Axe Murderer," which was kind of a misunderstood conception, and Carrot Top
was being poised to be the next big comedian and the script. They were both
equally--you could just screw it up in a million different directions. It was
completely subject to interpretation as to how these were going to be done.
And the scripts were--what's the word I'm looking for?--They were just a tough
sell. If you read "Austin Powers" on paper, you'd think it was funny, but
until you see it executed, you don't know if it's going to work and the same
with "Chairman of the Board." But lucky for me, I picked "Austin Powers."
GROSS: Yeah, you made the right choice, didn't you?
Mr. GREEN: Well, you never know. It could have gone 100 percent the other
GROSS: So what did Mike Myers tell you about the movie and about your role?
Mr. GREEN: We--I mean, we talked more about the legitimate dynamics of these
personalities, and that's what I think people reacted to is the fact that in
spite of the notion that this guy is this evil doctor or this mad scientist,
this, you know, world-dominating dictator, that he has a very traditional and
relatable awkward relationship with his son. And we just played the reality
of that. And I think that's why I got that job was because I really played it
like a kid who was meeting his Dad for the first time. And just--you ignore
all the details and make those just part of the reality of the character, you
know? We play it all straight. I think that's what's so funny.
GROSS: So how did the popularity of "Austin Powers" affect your movie career?
Mr. GREEN: Yeah, that--it was just a weird thing that happened. Because
I've never really been part of anything that's financially successful. So the
fact that that movie made money was weird. And I had people coming up to me
about it. It gave me--I just had a lot of things happen at the same time. I
did this movie called "Can't Hardly Wait"," which was real popular with kids.
And "Austin Powers" came out on video and I got cast as a series regular on
"Buffy" and all of a sudden, people knew my name, and that made a difference.
It got me a higher quality of audition and gave people something to reference
me from. You know, it gave me a parenthetical in Entertainment Weekly, so.
GROSS: My guest is Seth Green. Let's hear a scene from the first "Austin
Powers" film, "Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery." Seth Green plays
Scott Evil, the teen-age son of Austin Powers nemesis, Dr. Evil, played by
Mike Myers. Scott Evil was made from Dr. Evil's genes while Dr. Evil was
cryogenically frozen. In this scene, it's just after they've met for the
first time. Dr. Evil and Scott are attending a father/son group therapy
session. The therapist is played by Carrie Fisher.
(Soundbite from "Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery")
Ms. CARRIE FISHER: (As therapist) Hello, Dr. Evil. Hello, Scott.
Unidentified People: Hello, Dr. Evil. Hello, Scott.
Mr. SETH GREEN: (As Scott Evil) Hello, everybody.
Ms. FISHER: (As therapist) So, Scott, why don't we start with you? What
brings you here with us today?
Mr. GREEN: (As Scott Evil) Well, I just really met my dad for the first time
five days ago.
Mr. MIKE MYERS: (As Austin Powers) I was partially frozen his whole life.
Ms. FISHER: (As therapist) That is beautiful that you can admit to that.
Mr. GREEN: (As Scott Evil) And he comes back and now he wants me to take over
the family business.
Mr. MYERS: (As Austin Powers) But, Scott, who's going to take over the world
when I die?
Ms. FISHER: (As therapist) Listen to the words he used. `Who's going to take
over the world when I die?' Feels like that to some of use sometimes, doesn't
it? So what do you want to do, Scott?
Mr. GREEN: (As Scott Evil) I don't know. I was thinking I like animals.
Maybe I'd be a vet.
Mr. MYERS: (As Austin Powers) An evil vet?
Mr. GREEN: (As Scott Evil) No. Maybe, like, work in a petting zoo.
Mr. MYERS: (As Austin Powers) An evil petting zoo?
Mr. GREEN: (As Scott Evil) You always do that. I just think, like, he hates
me. I really think he wants to kill me.
Ms. FISHER: (As therapist) Now, Scott, we don't to kill each other in here.
We might say that we do sometimes, but we really don't.
Mr. MYERS: (As Austin Powers) Actually, the boy's quite astute. I really am
trying to kill him, but so far, unsuccessfully. He's quite wily like his old
Mr. GREEN: (As Scott Evil) This is what I'm talking about.
GROSS: Seth Green, Mike Myers and Carrie Fisher from the first "Austin
Powers" film. Seth Green will be back after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: My guest is Seth Green. And he has a new animated TV series on the
Cartoon Network that he co-created and does a lot of voices for and it's
called "Robot Chicken."
I want to talk about another movie that you made. It's called "Party
Mr. GREEN: Yeah.
GROSS: And probably a lot fewer people saw this than saw "Austin Powers,"
Mr. GREEN: I know.
GROSS: ...it's really a wonderful film.
Mr. GREEN: Thank you.
GROSS: And you and Macaulay Culkin star in this. You both play club kids in
New York. It's based on a real story about two people. You play James St.
James who was, you know, really into the scene, a real mover on the scene.
Mr. GREEN: Well, he was one of the Warhol "celebutantes" that enjoyed a
little bit of success in the revamping of the New York club scene. What
happened was this kid, Michael Alig, who was just--wouldn't take no for an
answer in the--New York, reinvented himself as the next Warhol and just took
the reins and then took control of the whole thing and became a promoter and
owned it and created a million-dollar business in the city and pioneered the
notion of--well, not pioneered it but took it to the next level. Whereas,
Warhol said everyone will have their 15 minutes, Michael said, `We're going to
create a legion of superstars that people will revere and we will be at the
top echelon of the clubs. The only thing that's separating us from the people
who run the place is the drive to take it over.' And that's what they did.
They invented these elaborate characters and costumes for themselves and
changed it every night. And it--they went on Jenny Jones and they went across
the country, they went on Geraldo and recruited kids and invented this
sensation. They really created a movement. And that's--the whole thing
imploded. You know, everyone became so consumed with their own ego and drugs,
and it just had no rules, it had no boundaries and people--you know, when you
get in that situation, people just push it further and further until it
implodes. And Michael became so crazed and drug-sick that he murdered a
friend of his, this drug dealer, Angel Melendez, and, you know, sickeningly,
murdered him and dismembered him and discarded him. And it's just a shocking,
shocking story and it's all true.
GROSS: Well, your character is his mentor early in the movie. He comes to
New York and you're teaching him how to be fabulous. In fact, let me play a
scene in which you and Macaulay Culkin as Michael Alig are in a donut shop
together and you are...
Mr. GREEN: Right.
GROSS: ...literally giving him the rules of fabulous.
(Soundbite from "Party Monster")
Mr. SETH GREEN: (As James St. James): You know, it's all about photo
placement. So if you're in a group of three, always, always, always make sure
that you're the one standing on the right, because that way, when they print
the picture, you'll be the one on the left and the caption will read: James
St. James and blah, blah, blah were seen, OK?
Mr. MACAULAY CULKIN: (As Michael Alig) OK.
Mr. GREEN: (As James St. James) Rules of press. Number one, no publicity
is bad publicity. Number two, once something is printed, it automatically
becomes true. So number three, never ever diss anyone in print, never be seen
drinking anything other than champagne, never take heroine, never wear white
after Labor Day and avoid that one like the plague.
Mr. CULKIN: (As Michael Alig) More, more.
GROSS: That's Seth Green and Macaulay Culkin in a scene from "Party Monster."
Seth Green, was it hard to get into the sensibility of being fabulous as not
the kind of character you'd played before?
Mr. GREEN: No, there's two great factors in this. The one is that I got to
audition for a movie about four maybe five years prior called "The Velocity of
Gary," where I auditioned for a Patsy Cline-obsessed drag queen. And I just
wasn't ready for it. My--like, my take on that character didn't understand
the concept of what makes people take on that lifestyle. So I played her as
kind of a shy and demure sweetie pie girl, whereas, she's meant to be, you
know, a guy who feels completely uncomfortable in his own skin until he puts
on all these details and then he feels like himself. And that was at the core
of it. And I kind of promised myself when I blew that audition that if I ever
had the opportunity to do it again that I'd really take it on.
And Randy Barbato and Fenton Bailey came to me with this project, and they'd
produced a documentary, which had all the real footage of these kids, and
James St. James had written a book called "Disco Bloodbath," which was the
true accounting from his perspective. He's a brilliant writer. That book is
really gripping. And I got both of those details and they said they wanted me
to play James. And I just looked them straight in the eye and said, `I'll do
it.' I didn't even want to ask what made them think that I could. I just said
that I want it. I'll take it and I will kill. I will rip this part apart and
make it great. And I just kind of promised to give them everything I had.
And they told me that they wanted Mac for it and he and I had met just weeks
prior--a "Saturday Night Live" party, of all things. And I've always just
liked him. I've always been respectful and impressed by him because of the
way he's handled himself. And the eye of a hurricane, this is a young boy who
took it upon himself to decide that he wanted to take a break from the mayhem
that had been created around him and wanted to kind of reclaim ownership of
his life. He's arguably the most famous person I've ever met. That's not
true. I met Michael Jackson, but we don't get to hang out. So I just--I get
the--I get to watch Mac in circumstances, social circumstances. He's
constantly approached, he's constantly touched and, you know, collected and
corralled. And just--people say the most insane, inappropriate things with
him and he is alarmingly appropriate. He just governs it, he just owns
himself so well and I'm really impressed by him. So we got to meet and have a
chat. And then when Randy and Fenton said they wanted him to play the part,
he was in LA and we sat down and had, like, a whole talk about being kids and
being kid actors and what it is to grow up in this business and what this
movie--we just really connected.
And then over the next two years that it took them to finance it, we became
good friends and both did a ton of research into these parts. Lucky for us,
the club kids were very narcissistic and filmed themselves all the time. And
plus we had--because Randy and Fenton are documentary filmmakers, they had
hundreds of hours of footage of these guys, both on talk shows, both at
parties, also, you know, them filming themselves in their private lives. And
we just had hours and hours and hours to pour through that were specific to
scenes that we were making. So it offered us a unique opportunity to really
get in the mind of these guys.
GROSS: So can you talk a little bit about finding the voice and the walk and
the attitude for your character in "Party Monster?"
Mr. GREEN: Well, like I said, I had all this great footage to study of
James, both on and off the camera, when he was on television vs. when he was
in private. And he has such a specific detail to his voice. He--from doing
all the drugs that he did, he was very nasally. And he wasn't traditionally
effeminate. You see, like, a stereotypical cross-dresser, and they always
have, like, a very "thwishy" attitude and James just wasn't like that. He's a
classy dame. This is a guy who ran with Warhol. And it was kind of slumming
for him to become second banana to Michael Alig, which was a constant source
of their rivalry. So I just really paid attention to him.
And I remember about six days into actually shooting the movie, Mac and I were
watching videotapes. We had a whole process. We would shoot everyday, we'd
come home, we'd come back to his place and relax and probably have breakfast
because we shot all night. So we shot till, like, five in the morning, six in
the morning. We'd have some breakfast and play some backgammon, sit and talk
about what we'd done and how it worked and what it meant and then we'd pour
over footage that was germane to what we were going to do the next day. And
we were watching both of the--we were watching all the club kids on Geraldo
and all of a sudden I heard James laugh, and it was so specific, and in the
same thing, Michael laughed. We just looked at each other and then we started
practicing their laughs, and then it became infectious to where we would just
be doing their laughs all the time, and that was such an easy hook and it was
a ramp-up. Any time we were on set, we could just fall into their laughter...
GROSS: What was...
Mr. GREEN: ...and it kept us in character.
GROSS: What was James' laugh?
Mr. GREEN: He just has this really kind of, you know, forced kind of laugh.
It just escapes him even though he doesn't want it to. And Michael had this
really--that's what they were, so we just started practicing that.
GROSS: Seth Green co-created and does voices for the new series "Robot
Chicken" on the Cartoon Network. He'll be back in the second half of the
show. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: Coming up, Seth Green talks about his experiences as a child actor.
Also we meet South African Archbishop Njongonkulu Ndugane, he became religious
while imprisoned on Robin Island for his anti-apartheid activism.
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with Seth Green. He
co-created and does voices for the new series "Robot Chicken," which premiered
Sunday night on the Cartoon Network. He played Dr. Evil's son in the "Austin
Powers" films. His other movies include "Without a Paddle," "Party Monster"
and "The Italian Job." On TV he had a recurring role in "Buffy the Vampire
Slayer," starred in "Greg the Bunny" and does the voice of Chris on "Family
Guy." He got his start in showbiz at the age of eight, when he was cast in
the film "Hotel New Hampshire." When he was 12, he got a starring role in
Woody Allen's "Radio Days."
You started off making movies with people who were much older than you were.
You were a kid; they were adults. What was it like for you when you started
making movies with people who were either of your generation or at least a lot
closer to it?
Mr. GREEN: It's a different level of satisfaction. But I also feel the same
responsibility to participate with anybody else who hasn't had the same amount
of experience. When I worked on "Hotel New Hampshire," Jodie Foster was like
19 years old; Rob Lowe was 19; Nastassja Kinski, I think, was 21. And they
had all had levels of success that were way bigger than anything I'd even
comprehended. And yet paying attention to what their priorities were as far
as maintaining family relationships and being kind to people that approached
them or furthering your education, those were really good influences. But
also on set with what is appropriate, the type of familial relationship you
acquire and how that's not a replacement for your own family, and just work
ethic and professionality. And I mean, I really learned a lot by good
example. I had the fortune of working with great people at a young age who
were kind enough to offer me advice, whether it was verbal advice or just by
GROSS: What was it like for you when you were young to be judged at
auditions? I mean, I think it's hard for any actor to lose a part. When
you're a kid, you're sometimes particularly vulnerable. In fact, kids are
likely to break out into tears when they're rejected or yelled at or
criticized, and that could be incredibly embarrassing, particularly if you're
trying to be professional. So what was it like to get rejected, and did you
ever cry, you know, and be really embarrassed by it?
Mr. GREEN: You know, I spent so much time getting beat up and crying in my
private life. I mean, growing up, my scholastic career was not all that
satisfying on a social level. So for me, just getting to act was a real
thrill. And of course, if you get emotionally attached to something, you want
it real bad and you don't get it, it hurts. But I never took it as a failure
on my part. I kind of had an objectivity at a young age that I really held on
to where if you believe in a director or if you believe in a project, you have
to respect their vision of what it is. And if you don't fit that vision, you
just don't fit. And there's a lot of times where no matter how good an actor
you are, you're just not right for it.
And I became very aware and Zen about that, that what I was going to get, I
was going to get, and nobody else was, and what somebody else was going to
get, I wasn't. And comparing our careers or being envious of anybody else's
salary or success or opportunities, it just didn't benefit me. I do
everything I can to chase parts that I think are important to chase after, and
if I get 'em, I do, and if I don't, I don't.
I wanted "American Beauty" real bad, and I wanted "Eternal Sunshine of the
Spotless Mind" real bad, and I fought hard, as hard as I could, for both of
them. I put my--you know, went and met with Sam Mendes, wasn't right, put
myself on tape, like orchestrated a whole tape to show him what I could do,
wrote a letter, offered my--you know, `Please, see me again.' And I just
wasn't right. And when I saw Wes Bentley, I was like, `Oh, that's why.' I'm
just not that. There's no debating it. No matter how similar our take on the
character is, that's just not me. And that's what he wanted.
And with "Eternal Sunshine," I flew to New York on my own dime, put myself up
to meet with Michel Gondry and read with Mark Ruffalo and, you know, was there
for two hours workshopping it, and it came down between me and Elijah and
Elijah got it. And Elijah's great in the movie, and the movie is beautiful
and everything that I, when reading it, would have ever hoped it could be,
even though I can't claim any kind of participation. It's something that I
can appreciate from the outside, and that's satisfying in a different way.
GROSS: Did you develop this Zen attitude on your own, or did somebody
encourage you to adapt it?
Mr. GREEN: You know, I think it just came with repeated failure.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. GREEN: And the fact that I'm aiming for longevity in the business. I
want to do this for the rest of my life, and I don't think you can if you're
sitting around cursing other people who get things that you wanted...
GROSS: Did you go...
Mr. GREEN: ...or cursing directors for not picking you.
GROSS: Did you go to high school? Did you go to college?
Mr. GREEN: Yeah, well, I went to high school; I graduated with honors from a
public school in Philadelphia. I didn't go to college. I had terrible entry
scores. And at the time when I would have been going to college, I had an
on-air series for--I think it was ABC--and just had different priorities,
watched all my friends going to college and taking two years of requirements
before they could even attempt their major. And I just thought that wasn't
for me. I went to a used-book store and bought a bunch of literature and
philosophy and religion and just started doing my own studies.
GROSS: What'd you read?
Mr. GREEN: I read a lot. You know, I read everything from Freud to Jung and
studied up on religions from, you know, Buddhism to Christianity, just kind of
paid attention to what was going on and what all--the similarities between
each of those philosophies.
GROSS: Did you have that...
Mr. GREEN: You know what? Maybe that's when I got Zen.
GROSS: So back when you were in high school, was it--did it make you more
cool to have been in movies and commercials?
Mr. GREEN: I was never cool in high school.
GROSS: No? Even being in movies? That...
Mr. GREEN: No. No, it only set me apart because if I was gregarious and
outgoing, then I was considered egotistical because I was an actor. And if I
was withdrawn and kept to myself, then I was considered stuck up because I was
an actor. There was really no winning for me. Plus, I was short and had red
hair and a funny name and a big personality and, you know, an educated
vocabulary and, you know, real points of opinion. And I'd get into debates
with teachers. And I just was not well-liked in school. But I got to a point
in high school where I just decided, screw this, I'm gonna--I had attempted to
get, you know, a conformist's makeover and wore all the things that everybody
else wore and tried to do the things that everybody else did, and it just
didn't fit and nobody bought it. And they can smell a faker a mile away, you
know, and I was a faker.
So I just kind of got to the point where I decided that I was gonna do what
made sense for me and wear what made me feel comfortable. And part of that
was, you know, shock and being outrageous and wearing an overcoat and growing
my hair long and putting it in braids and getting them to stick out to the
side just to kind of force people to deal with the fact that I was a weirdo,
you know. But I concentrated on school, and I concentrated on getting the
hell out of there and aiming towards something that was more important to me.
GROSS: So I take it that dating wasn't very good in high school?
Mr. GREEN: I actually had a pretty good social life 'cause I was involved
with a youth group that was associated with my synagogue and the summer camp.
And I was allowed the opportunity to reinvent myself without prejudice where,
you know, with summer camp I was good at sports instead of being last picked
for kickball, you know.
GROSS: Wait, so a synagogue youth group helped you reinvent yourself?
Mr. GREEN: Going to summer camp helped me reinvent myself, 'cause I had a
month away with people who didn't know me.
GROSS: OK. Right. That was...
Mr. GREEN: And I was allowed the opportunity to grow and develop skills,
whether they were sports or art or, you know, I don't know, being good in
color war. I got to meet people and I got to have a little bit of a social
life. And then I had a youth group that was less religious than just
field-trippy, like we went to "The Rocky Horror Picture Show" and you got a
bunch of people, like, 35, you know, to the movie.
GROSS: All the religious groups went to that, all the church and synagogue
Mr. GREEN: Yeah, well, it's just similarly aged kids getting to do things
that were socially relevant for, you know, growth and development.
GROSS: So when you were in camp, you know, a lot of camps have musicals
during what's called color war where you have to do pageants or shows...
Mr. GREEN: Yeah.
GROSS: ...with songs and--Did you participate in that?
Mr. GREEN: I did. I started at that camp when I was too young to be a camper
because my mom ran the art program for a couple of years. And eventually I
became a camper, but when I was really young and just a staff brat, I got to
be Woodstock in "You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown," and I also had one line in
"Hello, Dolly." And that was really when I thought, `I can do this.' You
know, I just enjoyed it. It felt really natural. And I was like five or six
years old and I just liked it. It just made sense. It was something that I'd
always done, dressing up and performing, you know.
GROSS: Well, I want to wish you good luck with the new series.
Mr. GREEN: Thanks very much. Well, this has been a lot of fun.
GROSS: Seth Green co-created and does voices for the new series "Robot
Chicken" on the Cartoon Network. It debuted Sunday.
Coming up, we talk with the Anglican archbishop of Cape Town, South Africa.
This is FRESH AIR.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Interview: Archbishop Njongonkulu Ndungane of Cape Town, South
Africa, discusses his work and his imprisonment on Robben Island
TERRY GROSS, host:
My guest is the Anglican archbishop of Cape Town, South Africa, Njongonkulu
Ndungane. He's been the archbishop since 1996. Like his predecessor, Desmond
Tutu, he was an opponent of apartheid. He did time in the notorious prison
Robben Island. His priorities now include fighting poverty and HIV. His
church won a grant from the US government for $10 million over five years for
the HIV/AIDS program. I asked him what churches around South Africa are doing
Archbishop NJONGONKULU NDUNGANE (Cape Town, South Africa): We have identified
four broad areas that need addressing. The one is the whole question of
stigma; the other is prevention; the other is treatment; and loving care and
support of people living with HIV and AIDS. I think of all those, I think
stigma has been the product of where the church is, because it decimates
families and people are not able to test themselves because of the stigma.
And also, I think the church has also peddled a false theology of saying that
if you are infected with HIV and AIDS, you must have done something wrong.
And therefore, we are pushing a Gospel that says HIV and AIDS is not
punishment from God; it is a disease that is treatable, that is manageable and
that is preventable.
GROSS: Now I know you've gotten tested for HIV. Was that to take a public
stand about the importance of being tested?
Archbishop NDUNGANE: It was part of the process of fighting stigma. We took
a decision as the church leadership in the Anglican church that we must be
publicly tested. This was to encourage people to go for voluntary counsel and
testing. And so as the archbishop, I had to lead the pack from the front.
And I deliberately chose not to go to a private clinic or to my doctor, but to
go to a clinic in a township. Now a township clinic is always full of people,
and when archbishops come and they come to be tested on HIV and AIDS, news
spread very quickly. So by the time I got there, there were cameras, the
media was there and almost the entire township was there to come and witness
to an archbishop being tested. And of course, one of the journalists said,
`The archbishop must have been naughty to come and be tested for HIV and
AIDS.' But that had a tremendous impact because if an archbishop can be
tested, it means people also have got that freedom to be tested.
And also in terms of the fight against the stigma, recently Nelson Mandela's
son has died of AIDS, and Nelson Mandela publicly stated that his son has died
of AIDS. So was another outstanding leader, Imanda Sotobotellis(ph), two of
his children died of HIV and AIDS. And that helps in the fight against stigma
if public figures do disclose that people in their families are living with
AIDS and they have died with AIDS.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is the archbishop of South Africa,
You are from really a long line of priests. Your father, grandfather,
great-grandfather and some uncles were priests. Was it always obvious to you
that you would become a priest?
Archbishop NDUNGANE: Not at all. The last thing I wanted to be was to become
a priest. When I went and entered university, I wanted big bucks. I
registered for commerce. And of course, my course was to change because I got
involved in political activism, which landed me on Robben Island. And there
that's where I wrestled with God and found the conviction to serve God in the
GROSS: What were you sentenced for? Were there particular anti-apartheid
activities that got you sentenced to Robben Island?
Archbishop NDUNGANE: Well, I was part of a movement that demonstrated against
pass laws. Pass laws were at the heart of the oppression of the black person.
And so it was my activism in the campaign against pass laws which finally saw
me go to Robben Island for three years.
GROSS: These were the passbook laws that required you to carry a passbook
with you at all times?
Archbishop NDUNGANE: Pass laws determined where black people would stay,
would work, where they would be buried, whom they could fall in love with and
whom they could get married to. And they were at the heart of our oppression.
And so it was our activism against that which saw us on Robben Island.
GROSS: You served three years on Robben Island and this was considered, I
think, probably the harshest prison during the apartheid era. It's where
Nelson Mandela served most of his 27 years in prison. You say that while you
were serving time on Robben Island, you wrestled with God. What was the
Archbishop NDUNGANE: The wrestling with God was the age-old question: How
can a good God allow so much suffering in the world, in our country, and in
particular, on Robben Island? And it was that wrestling with God, that here
we were on the side of justice, fighting for what we believe was right and our
God is a God who wills that people should live in harmony and peace and enjoy
life. And yet we are being denied fundamental, basic rights in our country of
GROSS: And what were some of the ways that you were suffering and the men
around you were suffering? What were some of the things you were forced to
do? What were your living conditions like?
Archbishop NDUNGANE: They were horrible. Robben Island was hell on Earth.
We were made to regret what we stood for. The working conditions were very
much inhumane. Our clothing, we had khaki shorts, no underwear, and khaki
shirts. We went barefoot and the working conditions were hazardous, to say
the least. And so it was those kinds of conditions--I've never seen the
levels of sadism that I saw on Robben Island in my time there.
GROSS: So getting back to wrestling with God, you were suffering, the men
around you were suffering. This was an experience that lasted three years for
you. Why did you not leave angry at God and bitter and hardened? Why did you
leave resolved to become a priest?
Archbishop NDUNGANE: It's one of those strange moments in life, and sometimes
you cannot explain certain things that happen in your life. When you looked
across the river, across the ocean and saw the beauty of Table Mountain and
knew that life was going on there and yet, we were in these harsh conditions,
and you--one finally comes to a conclusion that this must not be God's will.
It's humanity's dark side which creates this kind of moment where we are put
in such unpleasant conditions. And so it was a working of all those things,
that suddenly one had an inner peace and as if God had touched one, and a
sense of an intense feeling that God wants to use one for the ministry of
GROSS: So when you got out of prison, what did you do next? Did you go right
Archbishop NDUNGANE: I--well, I did not, not immediately. I thought when I
got out maybe this was just an emotional thing in jail, but the thing kept on
coming. It was actually three years after my release that I decided to go and
see the then-archbishop, together with my father, to say that I am offering
myself for the ordained ministry.
GROSS: And what was your father's reaction?
Archbishop NDUNGANE: He was overjoyed, of course. So was the archbishop.
And I recall meeting Archbishop Robert Sobe Taylor(ph) in the study which is
now my office, and making this declaration that I've decided to go for the
ordained ministry. And his answer was, `I've been waiting for you.'
GROSS: My guest is the Anglican archbishop of Cape Town, Njongonkulu
Ndungane. We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: My guest is the Anglican archbishop of Cape Town, Njongonkulu
I'd like to ask you a question that's a kind of awkward question to ask, but I
would just be really interested in hearing your response to this. You know,
Christianity has been, you know, your religion, your father's, your
grandfather's, your great-grandfather's religion. They were all priests. But
Christianity is a religion that was brought to Africa by the countries that
colonized Africa, and you know, by missionaries from the West. In many ways,
the people--the colonizers, the people from the West who came to Africa, took
power and resources away from Africans. Have you ever felt that the religion
of Christianity and the way it came to Africa was tainted by that at all?
Archbishop NDUNGANE: In a sense, yes, the Gospel was tainted by the
colonizers. But one of the interesting aspects of our development and growth
is that we analyze what is the authentic Gospel, the Gospel of Jesus Christ,
as proclaimed by Jesus Christ in the Scriptures, apart from the misconceptions
that were brought by the colonizers and the missionaries. Hence, the whole
area of black theology, the whole area of ...(unintelligible) theology, which
sought to find out what is the authentic Gospel as distinct from what was
colored by the missionaries and the colonizers.
GROSS: I'm not sure if you follow American politics at all, but if you do,
I'd be really interested in hearing your thoughts on the role of religion in
American politics today and the rise of the religious right.
Archbishop NDUNGANE: Well, I was there during the elections.
GROSS: Oh, really.
Archbishop NDUNGANE: And so I...
GROSS: What brought you here?
Archbishop NDUNGANE: I was on sabbatical.
GROSS: Oh. Were you teaching?
Archbishop NDUNGANE: Well, resting and reflecting, and did some speaking and
teaching at Virginia Theological Seminary near DC.
GROSS: Mm-hm, OK.
Archbishop NDUNGANE: I think human nature is human nature. What America went
through, or is going through, we experienced it here in South Africa. There
were the religious right, which supported apartheid, and bit by bit, there was
conversion and there has been a kind of a regrouping. And I think that even
in America, going through that phase, there will be time that if people
address that that they'll come to terms with what is authentically right.
GROSS: So the religious right supported apartheid in South Africa?
Archbishop NDUNGANE: Oh, yes. There...
GROSS: What was the religious justification that was given for it?
Archbishop NDUNGANE: Well, there was a justification. They had a theological
justification for apartheid that God ordained that people should be separate.
But the good news is that when some of the stalwarts who belonged to that
church which espoused that kind of theology realized that this is not of God,
they were able to stand up and say, `No, I must obey God rather than man.'
And gradually, there was a transformation amongst the leadership in that
church, and an embracement into the authentic Gospel of liberation of our Lord
GROSS: Archbishop, thank you so much for talking with us. I really
Archbishop NDUNGANE: It's a pleasure.
GROSS: Njongonkulu Ndungane is the Anglican archbishop of Cape Town.
GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.
We'll close with music by the South African composer and pianist Abdullah
Ibrahim. This is from his score from the film, "No Fear, No Die."
(Soundbite of music from "No Fear, No Die")
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.