DATE September 30, 2003 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
PROGRAM Fresh Air
Interview: Jonathan Lethem discusses his new semiautobiographical
novel "The Fortress of Solitude"
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
My guest Jonathan Lethem won a National Book Critics Circle Award for his
novel "Motherless Brooklyn." Now Lethem has a new novel called "The Fortress
of Solitude" that's based on his own experiences growing up in Brooklyn. The
novel revolves around two best friends, Dylan Ebdus and Mingus Rude, who live
in a largely African-American neighborhood in Brooklyn. When the novel begins
in the '70s, Dylan is one of the few white students in his grade school. His
mother is a hippie; his father is a painter. Mingus is the son of a soul
singer who used to be in a popular vocal group. The novel begins in the '70s,
ends in the '90s and follows the neighborhood through the changes of hip-hop,
crack and gentrification, and follows the two main characters' diverging paths
as Dylan goes to a predominantly white college in Vermont and Mingus goes to
prison. Reviewing the novel in The New York Times Sunday Book Review, A.O.
Scott described it as `melancholy and marvelous.'
Your new book really confronts the issue of race and what it's like to grow up
as a white child in a largely African-American neighborhood. Race is a very
difficult subject to write about. Was it hard for you to take it on?
Mr. JONATHAN LETHEM (Author, "The Fortress of Solitude"): Well, I avoided it
for years. I wrote a whole series of novels that dealt with questions of
difference and alienation very indirectly. So of course it was intimidating.
And then in the doing, I was constantly afraid that I'd wander into
pontificating or sociology or trying to do something I'm not good at, and I
just kept reminding myself that I wanted to make it very much an intimate
report, kind of a testimony from one body's experience moving through time
but not try to speak for anyone.
GROSS: Now this is a semiautobiographical novel, and you're writing from the
point of view of a white kid who's growing up in an African-American
neighborhood. That calls into question what it means to be a majority group
or a minority group, because the white kid is, after all, the member of the
majority group, the theoretically more powerful group, but in his neighborhood
he's the minority group and he's the kid who's picked on a lot.
Mr. LETHEM: Right.
GROSS: So it's a very kind of confusing territory to be in.
Mr. LETHEM: It's sort of a double reverse. And yet all of the, you know,
wider context in American society was sort of present, I think, on those
streets where I grew up. And I've given Dylan the burden of those
experiences. The fact that a white kid had different kind of escape routes,
different ways to move out of those streets and those very immediate and
confusing racial conflicts that one moves through, that was never out of
anyone's mind, the fact that I was sort of free to export myself to college
and to an America where the white majority was, of course, the rule, wasn't
lost on anyone.
GROSS: Now the parents in the novel have chosen to live in this neighborhood
because--well, first of all, they don't have much money, and also as a kind of
badge of their social consciousness. The father is an artist; the mother sees
herself as a social activist. What were your parents' motivations for living
in the neighborhood you lived in? And you should describe that neighborhood.
Mr. LETHEM: Well, you know, I grew up in a neighborhood that's now called
Boerum Hill, and just before that it was either a nameless place or it was
South Brooklyn or Gowanus; it was kind of a zone between the more upright and
already gentrified or middle-class neighborhoods of Brooklyn, like Park Slope
and Brooklyn Heights. And the neighborhood was really a patchwork. It wasn't
only black by any means. It was black and Hispanic and hippie and sort of
other--there were legacies of Native Americans living in the neighborhood
because, for whatever reason, the Native Americans who built the skyscrapers
had settled in Boerum Hill.
And my parents were attracted to it, I think, in a very beautiful and, you
know, hopeful way. My mother grew up in Queens and felt like a Brooklyn
street kid herself. My father was a painter looking for a home big enough to
include a studio, and this was a place where you could buy a town house for
kind of nothing. And the contradictions of a coming gentrification and the
way that would compromise their own political ideals was something that was
hard to anticipate.
GROSS: Now the mother in your novel boasts that her son is one of only three
white children in the whole school, the elementary school. Did your mother
have that attitude, too, and are there things you thought she didn't
understand about what it meant to be one of the very few white kids in the
Mr. LETHEM: Well, that's a good question. She was proud that we were in
public school when a lot of the other white kids in the neighborhood were
being exported to local private schools. But she wasn't nearly as scattershot
or flighty as the character Rachel in the book. My mother was pretty savvy
about street life and a great guide to the neighborhood. She actually really
knew the way things were playing out on the streets and in the schools. She
was sick; she died when I was 14, and she was sick for a few years before
that. So her kind of savvy and her know-how was unfortunately taken away.
GROSS: Did you stay in the neighborhood after she died? I think your parents
were separated by then.
Mr. LETHEM: We lived in the neighborhood and my father continued to live in
the neighborhood until just a few years ago, and I'm actually back there
myself. Of course, it's a neighborhood that's become very, very fashionable
now; it's one of the nicest parts of New York City to live in, I think.
GROSS: Is that bizarre for you to experience?
Mr. LETHEM: Well, it's wonderful. I mean, the simplest thing to say is it's
a nice place for me as it would be for anyone, and if I weren't from Boerum
Hill, I very well might have ended up living there again or living there for
the first time now because it's attractive. And I see it with a kind of
double vision. I see the old stuff which is still incompletely renovated.
You know, the thing about Brooklyn that I think sets it apart from Manhattan
is that it never renovates completely; the past is always sort of lying around
in chunks in full view if you want to see it. And as much as it's changed and
as much as obviously property values have skyrocketed, there are lots of kids
I grew up with living in the houses that their parents owned. There are lots
of parts of Smith Street and Court Street that are still deeply, you know,
deep ethnic enclaves of Dominicans or Puerto Ricans or Italians. And it
doesn't feel to me that it's ever going to change completely.
GROSS: Kids are always bullying kids, and that's just the way the world
works, I guess. But when you were bullied in the neighborhood, you were
growing up, did race come into play into that bullying?
Mr. LETHEM: Oh, absolutely. I mean, the search for me in trying to write
this book was to give name to something, an experience that I'd had and never
been able to talk about, because it fell kind of between the names I was
offered. You know, when I first left New York, I was asked a question people
who grew up in New York, especially in the '70s, are asked constantly, which
is: Have you ever been mugged? And I wouldn't know what to say. It seems so
simple, but I knew what they had in mind was a kind of, you know, "Kojak" or
Batman scenario where a guy with a handkerchief on his face, you know, pulls a
gun out and makes two well-dressed New Yorkers step into an alley and, you
know, says, `Your money or your life.' And that hadn't happened to me,
But what had happened to me wasn't only bullying, it wasn't only typical
school yard stuff, that there was an undercurrent of, you know, racial hazing
in the kind of experience that I've had that was--well, it was systematic, but
it was also inconsistent; the experience changed a lot, and it was very
slippery and hard to talk about. In fact, its unnameability was almost its
primary quality. You were told at the time, `This isn't anything. You know,
I'm taking your money, but I'm your friend. You know I like you. What, do
you think I'm not your friend? Are you a racist?' And the kind of
undercurrent of, I guess, rehearsals of racial identity was everywhere in this
experience. I knew I was meant to understand that I was a white boy and that
that entitled me to certain privileges, but it also meant that, you know, I
was going to pay a kind of toll of my bus pass or whatever pocket money I had
with me pretty much every day I went to school, and that I wasn't going to get
to talk about it because to do so would be to seem to be a racist.
GROSS: You did give a name to this.
Mr. LETHEM: Yeah, yoking. You know, it's a funny story. I took that word
for local vernacular. I really thought when the kids in my neighborhood would
say, `Throw a yoke on him,' or, you know, `You got yoked,' that it was
something so specific to the '70s and to Brooklyn and to the black and
Hispanic kids. And I suppose slang always seems a lot more recent than it
really is. But it turns out yoking is kind of--it goes back to, like,
18th-century English slang. It's a synonym for mugging, having to do with
specifically kind of an arm thrown around a neck, a headlock. And it was
really liberating to me when I discovered that the word had some provenance,
that it wasn't just my own sort of personal nightmare.
GROSS: And why is yoking better than mugging?
Mr. LETHEM: Well, yoking was, as I say, this intermediate activity. It
wasn't real crime. It wasn't totally hostile. It had a conversational
quality. It was, in a weird way, a kind of act of community-making. I was
yoked by a lot of guys I knew, and I was often hanging out with them shortly
thereafter. Or, you know, I was yoked by the older brothers of kids I was
hanging out with. It was a transaction. And I ended up feeling that it was
kind of a rehearsal.
GROSS: Were you able to talk to your mother about this?
Mr. LETHEM: Barely, barely. I mean, it took me years to talk even to friends
who'd gone through it with me in school. It was something that was unnameable
in full view. My brother and my good friends were part of this experience,
too, and it was something that we were so ashamed of that we'd erase it almost
instantly; we'd erase it walking home from school before we got a chance to
talk to our parents about it.
GROSS: There's another white boy who moves into the neighborhood, but your
main character doesn't want to deal with him because his character is weak and
it gives off the sense of being oppressed. And your main character describes
this kid as practicing pre-emptive suffering. `Nobody could do much with a
kid who was already crying. He didn't have a spirit to crush.' Was that your
observation of other kids when you were growing up?
Mr. LETHEM: Actually, that's as much confession as it is an observation.
When I started to kind of research this book, which was really in some ways
like the first research I've--the first scholarship I've ever done in my life.
I was a college dropout and I'd never learned to study, but I sort of had to
write a dissertation on my own childhood to just, you know, find out what
songs were playing on the radio when I was doing this. But I also was going
back and digging up old friends. And I thought I remembered a lot about this
stuff, and I did remember a lot about this stuff, but there was one blind
spot; there was one thing I hadn't really allowed myself to acknowledge, which
was my own utter cowardice. I mean, the degree to which I bailed out on other
kids who were in threatening situations and saved my own skin, and the degree
to which I kind of cringed and keened on the ground just begging not to be
hurt. And I had a couple of friends lead me very patiently and gently to the
memory of how I would fall down before I was even hit, and that's an image
that is kind of pathetic but also funny, and I gave it to Arthur Lom(ph).
He's kind of the guy who figures out that strategy.
GROSS: So I take it you weren't a real physical kid. You were probably
reading a lot.
Mr. LETHEM: No, well, I was raised as a Quaker, so I wasn't allowed to hit
GROSS: Oh, great.
Mr. LETHEM: This was basic, basic principle. I was a pacifist. I was meant
to be solving these problems with, you know, non-violent resistance, and I
guess that's what that consisted of.
GROSS: Did that seem unfair to you that you were supposed to be non-violent?
You were from this non-violent background...
Mr. LETHEM: Yeah.
GROSS: ...but on the other hand, in a neighborhood where power and dignity
and self-respect were probably measured by your ability to physically stand up
Mr. LETHEM: Well, there were such a variety--I hope the book shows the kind
of enormous palette of approaches that kids in this neighborhood took. And
you know, I really have gathered so many--into these characters, these small
number of rather isolated characters, I've gathered the testimony and the
memory and the impression of lots and lots of different responses and
strategies. I mean, Arthur, the kid who starts as the cringer and the one who
pretends to have asthma in order not to get hit, ends up as this ultimate
assimilator, a kid who passes as though he's black himself. He's kind of an
early version of, you know, like, the Beastie Boys archetype. And the
strategies and the responses change day to day. It's why it was always so
difficult to talk about, because it was a kind of transitive experience.
Problems were being worked out in this arena, in a way, and no strategy could
ever be stable. So falling down, cringing, that was one moment in my
experience, but talking your way out of things or making friends with people
or turning situations on their ear--you know, I tried to get all of the
possible responses into the book, not just the most humiliating ones.
GROSS: My guest is Jonathan Lethem. His new novel is called "The Fortress of
Solitude." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: My guest is Jonathan Lethem. His new novel is called "The Fortress of
For the main character growing up in this novel, everything seems to have some
kind of, like, racial subtext, and certainly the music does. And there's a
great paragraph I want you to read about a record that kind of strikes terror
into the heart of your main character, Dylan.
Mr. LETHEM: Right.
GROSS: Should we say what the record is before you read it, or...
Mr. LETHEM: Well, it sort of emerges, so either way.
GROSS: Yeah. No, let's let it emerge.
Mr. LETHEM: OK.
(Reading) `It was entirely possible that one song could destroy your life.
Yes, musical doom could fall on a lone human form and crush it like a bug.
The song, that song, was sent from somewhere else to find you, to pick the
scab of your whole existence. The song was your personal crappy fate manifest
as a throb of pop floating out of radios everywhere. At the very least, the
song was the soundtrack to your destruction, the theme. Your days, reduced to
a montage, cut to its cowbell beat, inexorable double bass line and raunch
vocal, a sort of chanted sneer, surrounded by groans of pleasure, the stutter
and blurt of--What?--a tuba? French horn? Rhythm guitar and trumpet pitched
to mockery. The singer might as well have held a gun to your head. How could
it have been allowed to happen? How could it have been allowed on the radio?
That song ought to be illegal. It wasn't racist--you'll never sort that one
out; don't even start--so much as anti-you. "Yes, they were dancing and
moving to the groovin', and just when it hit me, somebody turned around and
shouted..." Every time your sneakers met the street the end of that summer,
somebody was hurling it at your head, that song. Forget what happens when you
start haunting the green-tiled halls of Intermediate School 293(ph).
`September 7th, 1976, the week Dylan Ebdus began seventh grade in the main
building on Court Street and Butler, Wild Cherry's "Play That Funky Music"
was the top song on the rhythm and blues charts. Fourteen days later, it
topped Billboard's pop charts. Your misery's anthem, number-one song in the
nation. Sing it through gritted teeth: "White boy, lay down the boogie and
play that funky music till you die."'
GROSS: And for anyone who doesn't know the record, you know, it's `Play that
funky music, white boy.'
Mr. LETHEM: Well, I later found out--my copy editor discovered that `white
boy' isn't in the title; it stops at "Play That Funky Music." So...
GROSS: But it's in the song.
Mr. LETHEM: It's in the song.
GROSS: So now later on, your character becomes a music critic.
Mr. LETHEM: Right.
GROSS: And it's only later on in life that he realizes that the band that did
"Play That Funky Music"--`white boy'--was actually a white band.
Mr. LETHEM: Those are white guys who inflicted that on him, yep.
GROSS: So what's the difference to him whether it's a black group or a white
group? How does the meaning change in his mind?
Mr. LETHEM: Well, Dylan, this character, is--he's so--he reads race and
culture and music so intensely to try to discover what's wrong with the way he
feels about himself. And he's tormented by these ironies, these kinds of
double reverses. You know, `I come from a family of right-thinking leftists,
and yet I'm constantly accused of racism just for being beaten up in school.'
He's tormented by the ironies of his own freedom to escape this situation by
hanging out with other white kids and leaving the neighborhood, including his
dear black friends, behind. And he's completely tormented by the musical
ironies, that the things he loves the most, the things that seem to tell him
how he feels about himself, don't match his apparent, you know, cultural
portfolio. And then, of course, the fact that this song that he kind of
adores and loathes for pinning him to his place in time and culture, for
being--you know, he's like the white boy in the crosshairs of this song, the
fact that it was a bunch of, you know, spaced-out Midwestern--you know, a bar
band, basically, that created this black-sounding hit, it drives him, you
know, absolutely crazy. These guys know nothing of black experience as far
as he can tell.
GROSS: Did this record mean anything to you when you were growing up?
Mr. LETHEM: Well, sure. I mean, it was sort of the bane of my existence, but
it also--it's kind of irresistible. You know, you could only laugh at
yourself for having it trapped in your head, because it was being sort of
turned against you. But it was the thing that exposed you; it made you naked
that this song was on the radio at this time in your life and that the phrase
`white boy,' which was already beginning to dog your steps, was suddenly OK;
it was in the cultural vocabulary; it was the number-one song on the radio.
GROSS: Jonathan Lethem is the author of the new novel "The Fortress of
Solitude." He'll be back in the second half of the show.
I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of "Play That Funky Music")
WILD CHERRY: (Singing) Yeah, they were dancin' and singin' and movin' to the
groovin'. And just when it hit me, somebody turned around and shouted, `Play
that funky music, white boy. Play that funky music right. Play that funky
music, white boy. Lay down the boogie and play that funky music till you die.
Heh, till you die. Yeah...
GROSS: Coming up, actress Maggie Gyllenhaal. She starred in the film
"Secretary" and acted with her brother Jake Gyllenhaal in "Donnie Darko."
She's one of the stars in John Sayles' new film "Casa de los Babys." And we
continue our conversation with novelist Jonathan Lethem.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with Jonathan Lethem. His
novel "Motherless Brooklyn" won a National Book Critics Circle Award. His new
novel, "The Fortress of Solitude," is based on his own experiences growing up
in Brooklyn, where he was one of the few white people in his school. The
novel follows the characters and the neighborhood from the '70s through the
'90s, through the eras of hip-hop, crack and gentrification.
You know, as you pointed out, the people in your life kind of related to their
world through culture, whether it was, you know, graffiti or music or, you
know, painting. And your father is a painter; Dylan's father in the novel is
a painter as well. But the father in the novel is also--instead of painting
on canvases, he's doing this experimental painting on film so his images can
have motion. And the father takes the son to a talk by Stan Brakhage, the
famous experimental filmmaker, and Brakhage is saying things like, `I would
rather see my work as an attempt to clear aesthetic areas, to free film from
previous arts and ideologies, perhaps to leave it clear to be of use to men
and women of various kinds which might help evolve human sensibility.' I'm
wondering if your father had that kind of more abstracted, intellectualized
approach to art and what that meant to you, for you. You know, 'cause Dylan
in the novel is kind of fascinated by this, and he's hanging on every word,
but he doesn't understand a word of it.
Mr. LETHEM: Yeah. Actually, my father's own painting is much more messy and
engaged than anything I've given to this father character in the book.
Abraham's film is a kind of superpurified and--he's a very hermetic artist,
and his practice is very isolated and monklike. It's actually--in some ways,
Abraham's a confession of my own work as a writer. That painted film and this
incremental progress day by day is really a description of a writer working on
a long novel. It's a self-portrait. My father's painting was, and his life
as an artist, was much more ground-level. He was really engaged with the
neighborhood, and his work is very colorful and full of content and full of
politics, and his studio was always full of live models, many of them just
people from the neighborhood. And he was very engaged. So Abraham's hermetic
style is kind of an exaggeration of, you know, the response to living in a
confusing place that I flirted with, which was to just pretend you didn't know
anything about it.
GROSS: Right. In writing about race in your new novel, were you afraid at
any point that you would be misunderstood? Because it's such a loaded
subject, and people are always reading between the lines to see what is your
motivation, what are you really saying. So were you afraid that you'd be
Mr. LETHEM: Of course.
GROSS: ...and that you might come off as sounding racist in spite of the fact
that that's certainly not your intention?
Mr. LETHEM: Well, of course. And I mean, I had to embrace that fear. You
know, I wasn't trying to write a very short, simple book that could be
purified of ambivalence or confusion. There's a lot of stuff in it that
probably kind of is racist in its way. Back and forth--you know, there are
characters who are racist. And it's an embrace of my own experience, and I
wanted to keep it kind of scrupulously intimate and, as I said at the start,
make it like a testimony of one person, one body in time, not preach or
pontificate or pretend to have figured things out that our culture hasn't
figured out. But the fear was with me all the way through, of course.
GROSS: When you were growing up, you know, your mother was a social activist,
your father a painter. You've also described your mother as a hippie. And
you know, people who are in the arts or people who were hippies, bohemians,
often see themselves as being, like, outside of class, as like the bohemian
class sometimes outside of, you know, working class, middle class, upper
class; at least that's how they're sometimes perceived by the larger culture,
and that's how they sometimes perceive themselves. As a child of that type of
family, did you feel outside of social class, or did you feel a part of it,
and where did you think you fit?
Mr. LETHEM: Well, I absolutely had a kind of beautiful, a blissful confusion
about class that came from the vitality of my parents' bohemian milieu. Their
world was so full of life and art and energy that I never thought to wonder
whether we were deprived of something. It didn't make any sense to think of
myself as being from a poor family, despite, you know, what in retrospect
might have been kind of whopping clues like the fact that I did go to public
school instead of private school. And it was more possible to sustain that
blissful confusion that surrounded my family. I didn't understand that there
was real privilege. I did understand that the kids living in the projects
down the street, you know, had less than we did. So if anything, I thought we
were probably rich. But I didn't think about it very coherently.
GROSS: Now you went to public school, and your parents are very proud of that
fact that you were in public school. What kind of education do you think you
got in the public school in your neighborhood?
Mr. LETHEM: Well, you know, the experience changed again and again. I was
pulled out of my grade school, my local grade school. The one that I leave
Dylan in, I actually left behind to go to kind of cross neighborhoods into
Carroll Gardens, which was a mostly Italian neighborhood. So suddenly I was
among a lot of other white kids who nonetheless saw me as another kind of
outsider or freak. But strictly speaking, the education there was
magnificent. I had the best teacher in my life in fourth grade, a woman named
Carmen Farina who I dedicated my first novel to, and she was as in love with
books, well, and talking and culture and life as my parents were. And so
suddenly school was very alive for me.
And that happened again when I got to high school. I went to Music and Art,
which is this great public school and, you know, it's a kind of legendary
public school in New York with a legacy of, you know, all sorts of funny,
famous people who went there. And I was part of this great tradition there,
again, one that was sort of classless and very Utopian. So I was lucky. I
mean, New York City has vestiges of, you know, the greatest public education
system ever constructed, I suspect, and I was in and out of really exciting
GROSS: Jonathan Lethem, thank you so much for talking with us.
Mr. LETHEM: Thanks for having me.
GROSS: Jonathan Lethem's new novel is called "The Fortress of Solitude."
Coming up, actress Maggie Gyllenhaal. This is FRESH AIR.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Interview: Maggie Gyllenhaal discusses her latest film, "Casa de
los Babys," and other films she has acted in
TERRY GROSS, host:
My guest Maggie Gyllenhaal starred in the popular independent film
"Secretary." She played a withdrawn young woman who is awakened by a
sadomasochistic relationship with her boss. In the movie "Donnie Darko," she
played the sister of a troubled young man who was portrayed by Gyllenhaal's
real brother, Jake Gyllenhaal. Now she's one of the stars of the new John
Sayles film "Casa de los Babys." She plays the youngest of a group of women
who have gone to an unnamed Latin American country to adopt babies, and
they're growing impatient of waiting. The ensemble cast includes Marcia Gay
Harden, Mary Steenburgen, Lili Taylor and Daryl Hannah. The actresses stayed
at a hotel during the early phase of the film, but then they moved into a
house together for the duration. Gyllenhaal told me that she thinks she and
the other actresses were unconsciously behaving a bit like their characters.
Ms. MAGGIE GYLLENHAAL (Actor): You know, the person I play in the movie, I
think, is not comfortable in her brain, which is not to say that she's not
smart; I mean, I think she's as smart as I am because otherwise, I mean, I
just don't think you can play someone who's not as smart as you are. I don't
think that's a possibility. But she doesn't feel confident and comfortable in
her brain. And it's really hard to be down there that way with all of these
actresses who I really respected, who I think, you know, all of them are
really interesting. And I was unusually quiet and unusually unprotected, I
think. And I think that each actress had an experience like that in their own
GROSS: Well, you made this John Sayles movie right before you made
"Secretary," so even though the movie's coming out after "Secretary," it was
filmed the other way around.
Ms. GYLLENHAAL: It wasn't, actually. I made "Secretary," and it came out
about a month after I finished filming the John Sayles movie.
GROSS: Well, you must have felt like all these actresses didn't know what you
had really just done.
Ms. GYLLENHAAL: Yeah, I did. I did, kind of. But Mary Steenburgen actually
I knew a little bit, and she had seen me do some theater, and she was really
supportive of it and great. Yeah, but I did. I kind of felt like, `I'm an
actress, too.' You know what I mean? Yeah.
GROSS: Well, let's talk a little bit about "Secretary." And, you know, in
this movie, for our listeners who haven't seen it, your character is a young
woman who's just come out of a psychiatric hospital. She's a cutter; she cuts
herself. And she obviously has no confidence in herself. She's miserable at
home. She takes a secretarial job with this really strange lawyer, played by
James Spader. And after a while, when he criticizes her typing, in addition
to the verbal criticism, he spanks her, and she actually likes it, and they
develop this sadomasochistic relationship that is very fulfilling for each of
them. And they even get married at the end, and it ends up being quite
romantic. What was your interpretation of this character?
Ms. GYLLENHAAL: My interpretation has shifted a lot, actually. I mean, at
the moment I think it's a really political movie. John Sayles' movie also is
very political, you know...
Ms. GYLLENHAAL: ..."Casa de los Babys." And "Secretary," I think, seems like
it's more of a, you know, really, really dark romantic comedy, and it is. But
the more I think about it, I think it's the most radical movie that I've made,
or really the most radical thing I've done in my life so far.
GROSS: So what's your political interpretation of your character?
Ms. GYLLENHAAL: Well, I think it's a complicated thing to make a movie about
somebody who is opened up and moved and, I think, woken up by playing the
submissive in an S&M relationship, because I think it makes you question what
is OK politically. Is it OK that this woman is opened up and moved by this?
Well, if she is, then it has to be OK on some level. And you know, I think
it's also in a lot of ways about moving through a kind of old-school feminism,
I guess, is what I've been calling it lately, which I think is something that
I'm resting everything I have on. You know, I mean, my grandmother on my
mother's side was a doctor, and my mother's a screenwriter, and I feel like
I'm coming from a really privileged place to be able to question some of this
old-school feminism, you know, where I think there were rules set up to
protect women against all sorts of inequality. You know, you can't act this
way; you can't say this; you have to pay a woman this.
GROSS: And a certain kind of sexuality is demeaning.
Ms. GYLLENHAAL: Yeah, and a certain kind of behavior in the workplace is
demeaning and, you know, just don't cross these lines, because if you cross
them, we'll fall off this very tenuous line we're walking. I guess I feel
like those rules--which have been really helpful, I mean, unbelievably
helpful, and I don't at all take for granted--if they're not questioned, can
start to feel just as oppressive as what they were trying to protect us from.
GROSS: In preparation for the role, did you read any of the, you know, like,
bad-girl feminist literature? 'Cause there's a whole, like, library of
feminist literature about the pleasures of dark sexual relationships like S&M
Ms. GYLLENHAAL: Well...
GROSS: I mean, there's a whole kind of a body of, like, theoretical works
Ms. GYLLENHAAL: Yeah, yeah. You know, I think Mary Gaitskill, who wrote
GROSS: She'd kind of be part of that, right, yeah.
Ms. GYLLENHAAL: She would totally be part of that.
Ms. GYLLENHAAL: "Secretary" is actually the mildest, I think, of her bad-girl
literature. You know what I mean? In the book, the story, "Secretary," it's
about a girl who--I mean, it's very short; it's like five pages long. It's
about a girl who gets a job in a lawyer's office. He ultimately spanks her
and she feels degraded and strange and somewhat turned on by feeling degraded
and strange and doesn't know how to order it I think is really more what the
story says. And the movie says not sh--I don't think I feel degraded and
strange. I know I didn't feel degraded and strange, you know. I felt
complicated things and I think that's what's interesting about it, is that
there are dark things as well as light things in the sex and the love that
they have in that movie. But I think it's mostly opening and moving.
GROSS: Obviously, you have this kind of interesting and complicated analysis
that takes into account feminism, you know, analysis of the film and of your
character. Some of the people who see the movie probably just see it as,
`Hey, it's a cool movie about sadomasochistic sex,' you know...
Ms. GYLLENHAAL: Yeah.
GROSS: ...and aren't kind of operating on that level. I wonder if you've
gotten feedback from any of them and whether that more like superficial and in
some instance maybe even crass interpretation, how that affects you
personally. Because it's not only, like, your acting that's on the line here,
it's your body because there's, you know, a nude scene and so on and so, you
know, what's it like to not be interpreted on the level that you are operating
Ms. GYLLENHAAL: I think it is scary to me in some ways. I think it's so
scary to me how the movie could be interpreted, how my body could be
interpreted that I have put up a really strong defense against feeling that
fear, to be honest. You know, I did an interview awhile ago and this guy who
was interviewing me said, `Yeah, you know, I watched "Secretary" and--in the
movie theater and then I came home and a friend of mine said, "Oh, here, here
I've got a tape of it. Let's just fast forward to the sexy parts."' And I
didn't feel anything when he said it. I mean, I didn't like, you know, giggle
and say that's fine or something, I just sort of shut it out completely and
went on with the 10-minute interview I had to do with him. And afterwards, I
just took a breath and felt that. And I was--I mean, I think that such a sort
of strange, awful thing for him to have said to me, I almost couldn't take it
in at the moment that he said it. And when I did take it in--I mean, it's a
level of having my body and my mind be out of my control that it's hard to
GROSS: Right. Right.
Ms. GYLLENHAAL: At the same time, though, you know, I feel like it's kind of
worth it. And I thought about it. I thought, you know, yeah, I've had some
weird responses to having been naked in "Secretary." I think that I really
clearly chose to be naked to say something that I think was important and
worth saying. I don't know if I'll continue to feel that way as I get older
and continue to do this.
GROSS: Well, just--like, another thing about "Secretary," in preparation for
the role in addition to, you know, like, reading what you read, did you also,
like, read just, like, straight out S&M pornography or rent, you know,
straight out S&M videos...
Ms. GYLLENHAAL: Yeah.
GROSS: ...just to get a sense of, like, that world, that culture?
Ms. GYLLENHAAL: Well, I started out reading some S&M pornography and also
some S&M, like, theory stuff. You know who I really liked from that is Robert
Coover, who wrote this book, "Spanking the Maid." It was really interesting.
He's a novelist.
GROSS: Yeah, oh, he's, like, a real, like, literary guy. He's...
Ms. GYLLENHAAL: Yeah, he's a real literary guy, yeah, yeah. But I did. I
started out reading that stuff and I was totally unmoved by it. I mean, I
just wasn't moved by it. And actually the stuff that I was reading, and maybe
it wasn't the best stuff and I probably could have done better research and
found better stuff, was, you know, stuff like this unnamed person likes to do
this sexy, kinky thing. And, you know, it all felt really `other' and exotic
and, you know, different from me somehow, very separate from me, and it wasn't
helping me. And then I got this porno which was, at first, I felt the same
way about it. I felt like, you know, it's these two women and was really
intense S&M stuff. This girl was really being sort of beaten up by this other
woman. And at first I felt like this is not helping me. This is making me
feel like this is so far from my sense of sexuality and my sense of love; at
first, I thought that. And then this porno, I mean, I've never seen a porno
where they done this before. They zoomed in on the woman who was being hurt.
They zoomed in on her face, and I was just looking at her face and it was
undeniable that she was overwhelmed with feeling. And I think that--I mean,
I've never seen a porno where I felt like anyone was feeling anything really
GROSS: Was the real feeling pain?
Ms. GYLLENHAAL: Well, you know, it's hard to distinguish. It was an
overwhelming feeling of something. And, you know, if, you know, in the movie,
in "Secretary," Lee, the character I play, is so dead in the beginning of the
movie, I think she's sleepwalking. And she's kind of OK to do that 'cause
she's seeing no other option. I think it takes something undeniable, like
physical pain, to wake her up.
GROSS: Well, she's been afflicting it on herself. She's been a cutter up
Ms. GYLLENHAAL: I know, and ta...
GROSS: ...the point where she gets involved in the relationship, yeah.
Ms. GYLLENHAAL: I think it's sort of different. I think the cutting stuff
is--you know, there's a lot of pain in her life, which I think, you know,
there's the stuff about her parents fighting and her dad's a drunk and, you
know, beat her mom up and stuff like that. And I think that's what causes,
you know, in the movie anyway, a lot of the cutting stuff. But I think, you
know, her family is just uninterested in dealing with it. Her mother's, like,
happy, great. You know, in the script, her mother used to offer her candy
anytime anything would go wrong. So I think, you know, she has no way of
ordering this really complicated, real human emotional pain that she's dealing
with. So she puts it into a little cut and, you know, gets to sort of keep it
all in one physical place and watch it heal, whereas, I think the S&M stuff in
the movie is more about exploding feeling into her body and then I think
ultimately her mind and her heart. And I can't tell you why those two
different kinds of pain work in such different ways, but they do.
GROSS: My guest is Maggie Gyllenhaal. She played the title role in the film,
"Secretary." Now she's one of the stars of John Sayles' new film "Casa de los
Babys." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: Maggie Gyllenhaal is my guest and she starred in the film "Secretary."
She's now co-starring in the John Sayles' film "Casa de los Babys."
I'd like to talk a little bit about your family. Your mother, Naomi Foner, is
a screenwriter. Your father, Stephen Gyllenhaal, is a director. Your
brother, Jake Gyllenhaal, is like you, a new star. So when you were growing
up, did you have--like overhearing your parents' conversations and then
hearing what they told you about movies...
Ms. GYLLENHAAL: Mm-hmm.
GROSS: ...did this sound like the kind of thing you wanted to do when you
grew up? Did it sound like a good deal? Did it sound like interesting work
or did it sound like a lot of, like, headaches?
Ms. GYLLENHAAL: I remember Debra Winger--all right, this was when I was a
little older. I was probably like 14. But they made "A Dangerous Woman" with
her, and I remember her coming over for lunch and my dad or my mom--I can't
remember--one of them saying, `Look, she's dressing like the person that she's
playing.' I thought that was really fascinating, and I've thought about that
a lot since then. You know, just--I mean, what an interesting thing and
especially if it's unconscious so, you know, then, how interesting. 'Cause
that happens to me, I think. I'm realizing more and more. You know, I won't
realize while it's happening, but, you know, I made a movie last winter where
I was playing someone really glamorous and interested in herself as a sexy,
well-dressed woman. And I'd found the way I wanted--what I wanted to adorn
myself with shifted. Or when I made "Casa de los Babys," I mean, really
shifted, you know, the way I--what I felt was beautiful, what I felt was not
beautiful, how I felt about myself as a person, as a, you know...
GROSS: Is this a transitional period for you where people in the movie
industry are figuring out that you're--I guess, they've figured this out
already, that you're not just, you know, Naomi Foner and Stephen Gyllenhaal's
kid, that you're an adult, you're your own person now. 'Cause when people
know you as the son or daughter of somebody, it's sometimes hard to have them
see you as who you really are beyond that?
Ms. GYLLENHAAL: Mm-hmm. The person in my family that it's gotten the most
complicated with is my mother. You know, there was a point last year when I
was going--it was during all this award stuff and I was, you know, it was the
first time I've ever had--you know, gone to any of this, you know, this party
and that party and this thing and that thing. And it was both exhausting and
thrilling to me, all of it. But some of these places where I was invited to
go or interested in going, like, you know, there's a film company called
Keller Films(ph), and some of my good friends work there. And my mother is
working with one of my good friends on developing a movie. And so I was, you
know, invited to this party. It was a party of people who I felt were my
contemporaries. My mother was also invited to this party. She felt it was a
party of people who were her contemporaries, you know, 'cause there were all
sort of different ages of people at this party. And I felt really conflicted,
you know. I'm going to go to this party and my mom's going to be there, you
Ms. GYLLENHAAL: And I thought it was really great that my mother said, `I
want to do everything I can to respect you.' I mean, this was finally what
she said. It was much harder at first, but finally, she said, `I want to
respect you. I also need you to respect me,' which is much more kind of
give-and-take adult conversation than, you know, any kind of conversations
we'd ever had before. You know, with my brother, it's easier. I mean, he's
my brother, it's fine. He goes to a party with me, it's great. He's my
friend, you know, or he...
GROSS: Right. Right.
Ms. GYLLENHAAL: ...and he and I have had to deal more with being competitive
and getting jealous. I mean, there have been times when, you know, it seems
like we wouldn't be up for the same things, but we're both interested in, you
know, the one good movie that's being made and, you know...
Ms. GYLLENHAAL: ...for a couple of months' time and the two characters that
we could play are lovers. So on...
GROSS: Can't do that.
Ms. GYLLENHAAL: No.
GROSS: Can't go there.
Ms. GYLLENHAAL: So only one of us can do it and, you know, but I think we've
actually been doing pretty well. I mean, I think all of this stuff we've
been--and this is in retrospect, but, you know, we've been using as a way of
communicating about more complicated things.
GROSS: Well, I hate to end it here, but we're out of time. Thank you so much
for talking with us.
Ms. GYLLENHAAL: Sure.
GROSS: Maggie Gyllenhaal is one of the stars of John Sayles' new film "Casa
de los Babys."
GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.