May 3, 2012
Guest: Julia Louis-Dreyfus - Steven Moffat
DAVE DAVIES, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in for Terry Gross. Our first guest, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, will forever be known to millions as Elaine Benes, the character she played for nine seasons on "Seinfeld." But she was an early cast member of "Saturday Night Live" and won an Emmy for Best Comedy Actress starring in the CBS series "The New Adventures of Old Christine," which ran for five seasons after "Seinfeld."
Now she's starring in a new HBO comedy series called "Veep," in which she plays Vice President Selena Meyer, a former senator struggling to exert power and influence from an office much of Washington regards as irrelevant and powerless. The series finds comedy in the awkwardness of the vice president's role, and in the interactions between Meyer and her staff, who are alternately fawning and cynically ambitious.
Here's a scene from "Veep" in which the vice president, played by Julia Louis-Dreyfus, has discovered an opening in her schedule she wants to fill. Her staff are played by Anna Chlumsky, Matt Walsh and Reid Scott.
(SOUNDBITE OF TELEVISION PROGRAM, "VEEP")
JULIA LOUIS-DREYFUS: (as Vice President Selena Meyer) Come on, let's go somewhere. Let's meet the public.
MATT WALSH: (as Mike McLintock) You want to normalize it?
LOUIS-DREYFUS: (as Meyer) Yes, exactly. I want to meet some regular normals. Where are we going to find them?
WALSH: (as Mike) Photo-ops with the normals and the normalistas.
ANNA CHLUMSKY: (as Amy Brookheimer) There's a book fair in, um, Adams Morgan.
REID SCOTT: (as Dan Egan) Oh my God, that's too dull.
WALSH: (as Mike) You're not going to get a good photo holding a book. You need something active.
CHLUMSKY: (as Amy) Kids read or something, like read.
WALSH: (as Mike) Kids are unpredictable. They wet their pants.
SCOTT: (as Dan) Keep it simple, keep it simple, ma'am, frozen yogurt is huge in this town right now. All right, it's hot out. Let's go to a store. There's one that I know that I go to all the time on U Street. It's owned by three generations of African-Americans. I mean, there's a narrative built right in.
LOUIS-DREYFUS: (as Meyer) Done, excellent, it's perfect, done deal. We can totally normalize with those guys. That's what we're going to do. Make it happen, guys.
DAVIES: Julia Louis-Dreyfus, welcome back to FRESH AIR.
LOUIS-DREYFUS: Thank you.
DAVIES: Or should I say welcome back, Madam Vice President?
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
LOUIS-DREYFUS: Yeah, I prefer that.
DAVIES: OK, we'll try and stick with that or at least maintain a certain amount of respect and protocol.
LOUIS-DREYFUS: I've gotten very used to being called that. It's rather peculiar.
DAVIES: Yeah, a little heady. How did you prepare for this role, being the vice president?
LOUIS-DREYFUS: I met with a lot of people on Capitol Hill. I met with a couple of vice presidents, speechwriters, lobbyists, chiefs of staff in various offices, senators, schedulers, you know, the list goes on. I watched a lot of C-SPAN, and I've met some politicians, you know, along the way in my life, even prior to this project.
DAVIES: As you had these conversations with politicians and political operatives and staff members, give us a sense of what you learned that - what kind of questions you asked and what tips you picked up or insights that helped inform your performance.
LOUIS-DREYFUS: I was very much struck by how insular Capitol Hill and the land of politics is, not dissimilarly from show business, to tell you the truth. You know, it sort of feels like it's the only universe when you're there.
I remember that a woman who was a scheduler for a senator saying, really very proudly, that she slept with her BlackBerry on her pillow right next to her head, just in case she was needed while she was sleeping. And I thought that that was extraordinary and that she was boasting about it. And I just thought that is amazing.
DAVIES: It occurs that your character is - she's the vice president. We don't learn what political party your character Selena Meyer is, not that much about her political career and kind of inherently has ambitions that maybe exceed her talents. But she can't be a fool, either. I mean, nobody who gets to be vice president doesn't have something on the ball and some accomplishments.
I wonder, as you developed this, was there sort of a sweet spot you had to find between someone who is competent but maybe not too competent and kind of neurotic?
LOUIS-DREYFUS: Yeah, totally. I mean, you know, buffoonery is funny, let's face it, and you'll see as the series sort of unfolds, you will see her behave competently in certain situations. But she's betwixt and between, you know. She is somebody who's used to power. She's in a powerful position, and yet she's powerless at the same time.
And it has a - that circumstance, I play it as if that circumstance has a way of paralyzing her. So that's how I sort of justify certain so-called hiccups that she has. You know, her agenda is often clashing with the agenda of the president. And how does one survive under those circumstances? It's a mess, and if it weren't a mess, it wouldn't be funny, of course. So, you know, we keep it messy.
DAVIES: Right, right. I thought we'd listen to another clip. In this scene, you have just, as the vice president, have just met with a senator who you're trying to get to support a bill that you're backing. And it kind of didn't go as planned, and you've just come back from the meeting and are kind of confessing what happened to your staff.
LOUIS-DREYFUS: The staff members here are played by Reid Scott, Anna Chlumsky and Matt Walsh, and you speak first, let's listen.
(SOUNDBITE OF TELEVISION PROGRAM, "VEEP")
LOUIS-DREYFUS: (as Meyer) I think I did the right thing, but I just need you to confirm that I did the right thing. I said something to someone...
WALSH: (as Mike) What exactly did you say, ma'am, and to who?
SCOTT: (as Dan) To whom.
DAVIES: (as Meyer) Senator Doyle(ph) said that he would sponsor the bill if we keep oil off of clean jobs, and there was an implication, perhaps...
CHLUMSKY: (as Amy) You didn't say yes?
DAVIES: (as Meyer) No, I didn't say yes. I said yeah.
WALSH: (as Mike) OK, well, we told oil we'd put one of their guys on clean jobs. That's why we got away with the cutlery tweet.
DAVIES: (as Meyer) I know, I know, I know.
CHLUMSKY: (as Amy) She's aware of that.
LOUIS-DREYFUS: (as Meyer) OK, I was charmed by Doyle. He's got that little twinkle in his eye. He just niced me. I got niced, all right. And where were you, Amy, by the way? Where were you?
CHLUMSKY: (as Amy) No, you said you had it covered.
LOUIS-DREYFUS: (as Meyer) No I didn't have it covered, and it's your job to know that if I say I have it covered, I don't have it covered, and you cover me. I need you all to make me have not said that. I need you to have make me unsaid it.
DAVIES: That is our guest, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, as the vice president in the new series "Veep," there, trying to straighten things out with her staff, I mean very funny scene.
DAVIES: You can imagine this character as a senator, when she had her own base of power and kind of more sure of where she was handling a negotiation with another senator well. But here, she's kind of undermined by her position and gets frantic and does stupid things.
LOUIS-DREYFUS: Exactly, in fact in the first episode, when she has a meeting with Senator Hallowes, played by the marvelous Kate Burton, and she comes in, and she says: Barbara, what have I been missing here? And Senator Hallowes says power. And there's this - when she says that, I sort of played it like it was a punch to the gut because - I mean, it was a very brief, tiny punch to the gut that was sort of relayed, but it was in fact that because she's sort of speaking the truth, and that throws Selena off her game, and she's off her game for the rest of that scene as a result.
She's sort of struggling to get her balance back, and she doesn't quite recover it.
DAVIES: If you're just joining us, our guest is Julia Louis-Dreyfus. She stars in the new HBO series "Veep," in which she plays a vice president. It airs Sunday nights at 10 o'clock.
You were - now if I have the story right, folks at "Saturday Night Live" saw you in the Practical Theater Company and invited you to join the cast at the age of 21. Is that right?
LOUIS-DREYFUS: Yeah, that's it.
DAVIES: Yeah, I mean, this must have been a dream come true.
LOUIS-DREYFUS: Well, it was - because also, understand that I was in high school watching "Saturday Night Live" when it was - had just begun, you know, when it was Belushi and Gilda and Danny Aykroyd and all those guys. And so I was, you know, their audience. And then all of a sudden to be, you know, however many years later picked to be on the show, it was just - it was Cinderella going to the ball time, you know.
DAVIES: But I gather the ball wasn't so much fun for you.
LOUIS-DREYFUS: Yeah, it wasn't that great.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
DAVIES: Why not?
LOUIS-DREYFUS: Well, I was very young, OK, and I was very, very naive. And I was coming from college and doing theater work with my friends, and we would all work really hard as an ensemble to make the best possible show. So there was sort of an earnestness that I took with me to doing SNL that really had no place.
I didn't understand the politics of - and the dynamics of the show. I also went in thinking I would just work with writers and, you know, you just sort of - I didn't go in with characters that I worked and worked and worked on. I was not a writer myself. I was somewhat unprepared.
Larry David was there my third year, he was a writer on that show for the, what, third, my last year. And it was his only year. And we became friends during that period of time. We sort of - he was miserable. He didn't get a single sketch on. He did get one sketch on, but it was cut between dress and air.
And so we sort of bonded in misery, and there you go.
DAVIES: And that's what led to "Seinfeld," right?
LOUIS-DREYFUS: Yeah, pretty much. I mean, there was a period of time in between, but yeah, it did.
DAVIES: If you're just joining us, we're speaking with actress Julia Louis-Dreyfus. She stars in the new HBO series "Veep," which airs Sunday nights at 10.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
DAVIES: If you're just joining us, we're speaking with Julia Louis-Dreyfus, who stars in the new HBO series "Veep." She's best known for playing Elaine Benes for nine seasons on "Seinfeld."
Let's listen to a clip. This is I think from Season 5, and it's a moment where Jerry arranged a date with a - for you with a friend of him, and then on the date, the guy exposed himself, and you're in - do you remember this one?
DAVIES: And you're in the apartment after the date, and Jerry asks you about it. Let's listen.
(SOUNDBITE OF TELEVISION PROGRAM, "SEINFELD")
JERRY SEINFELD: (as Jerry Seinfeld) Come on, how was your date?
LOUIS-DREYFUS: (as Elaine Benes) Oh, the date, the date.
SEINFELD: (as Jerry) Yeah, how was it?
LOUIS-DREYFUS: (as Elaine) Interesting.
SEINFELD: (as Jerry) Really?
LOUIS-DREYFUS: (as Elaine) Ooh yeah.
SEINFELD: (as Jerry) Why, what happened?
LOUIS-DREYFUS: (as Elaine) Let's see. How shall I put this?
SEINFELD: (as Jerry) Well, just put it.
LOUIS-DREYFUS: (as Elaine) He took it out.
SEINFELD: (as Jerry) He what?
LOUIS-DREYFUS: (as Elaine) He took - it out.
SEINFELD: (as Jerry) He took what out?
LOUIS-DREYFUS: (as Elaine) It.
SEINFELD: (as Jerry) He took it out?
LOUIS-DREYFUS: (as Elaine) Yessiree, Bob.
SEINFELD: (as Jerry) He couldn't.
LOUIS-DREYFUS: (as Elaine) He did.
SEINFELD: (as Jerry) Were you involved in some sort of amorous...?
LOUIS-DREYFUS: (as Elaine) No.
SEINFELD: (as Jerry) You mean he just...?
LOUIS-DREYFUS: (as Elaine) Yes.
SEINFELD: (as Jerry) Are you sure?
LOUIS-DREYFUS: (as Elaine) Oh quite.
SEINFELD: (as Jerry) There was no mistaking it?
LOUIS-DREYFUS: (as Elaine) Jerry...
SEINFELD: (as Jerry) So you were talking, you were having a pleasant conversation, and then all of a sudden...
LOUIS-DREYFUS: (as Elaine) Yeah.
SEINFELD: (as Jerry) It.
LOUIS-DREYFUS: (as Elaine) It.
SEINFELD: (as Jerry) Out.
LOUIS-DREYFUS: (as Elaine) Out.
SEINFELD: (as Jerry) Well, I can't believe this. I know Phil. He's a good friend of mine. We play softball together. How could this be?
LOUIS-DREYFUS: (as Elaine) Oh it be.
(as Elaine) Have you got any other friends you want to set me up with?
DAVIES: And that is our guest Julia Louis-Dreyfus as Elaine Benes on "Seinfeld" there with Jerry. Gosh what a fun scene.
DAVIES: The premise of the bit is funny, but the back-and-forth with you and Jerry and the way you read those lines are really what make it. I mean, did you - I don't know, did you practice a lot? Did you develop those different, you know, vocal inflections and expressions?
LOUIS-DREYFUS: I love the compliment, and thank you very much, but I will say that I think that scene is exceptionally well-written, and it was really a question of how not to mess it up because that was just - that was just so artful, that writing, as I was listening to it.
And I remember the tricky part with that scene was it - you know it's - that scene in particular is all about timing in a weird kind of way. I mean, obviously all comedy is about timing, but this scene in particular had a rhythm to it. And then you had to factor in the laughs into the rhythm, the laughs of the audience.
And I remember that that night, shooting it, thinking: This is not how we rehearsed it because of the laughs. And believe me, I'm not complaining, but it did alter things a little bit, you know. There are pauses there that we didn't really have, as I recall, in rehearsal because, you know, we weren't holding for the laugh.
But it had a sort of a - it was a little bit arch, that scene, I think, the way it was written, a good arch, by the way, but arch.
DAVIES: Now someone said that, you know, the character of Elaine evolved a bit over the course of the series, and someone wrote found when they started writing for Elaine as if she was just one of the guys, it somehow really clicked. Does that make sense to you?
LOUIS-DREYFUS: Totally, yeah, and I loved that because it opened up everything. All of a sudden, we were all on the playground together. You know, I wasn't in a separate area. And the whole idea of gender sort of not being an issue was one of many strengths of the "Seinfeld" show. And I think in particular I think of the episode "The Contest," and that was the episode in which all four characters entered a contest in which they would try to refrain from masturbating.
And by the way, never used the word masturbate in the entire show, which was lots of fun, too.
DAVIES: Yeah, it's a memorable episode.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
LOUIS-DREYFUS: Yeah, memorable episode. But what was great is that Elaine was a part of this contest, and that was just how it was. And I was very proud to be a member of the contest.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
LOUIS-DREYFUS: And by the way, when we were shooting that episode, I swear to you I was - every instant, looking over my shoulder waiting for somebody from NBC to come and shut us down, and they didn't, inexplicably.
DAVIES: Well, maybe we should just listen to a bit of that scene in the coffee shop, where you guys are making plans. Let's listen.
(SOUNDBITE OF TELEVISION PROGRAM, "SEINFELD")
JASON ALEXANDER: (as George Costanza) All right, I'll tell you this, though: I am never doing that again.
LOUIS-DREYFUS: (as Elaine) What, you mean in your mother's house or altogether?
ALEXANDER: (as George) Altogether.
LOUIS-DREYFUS: (as Elaine) Oh, give me a break.
SEINFELD: (as Jerry) Oh yeah, right.
ALEXANDER: (as George) You don't think I can?
SEINFELD: (as Jerry) No chance.
ALEXANDER: (as George) You think you could?
SEINFELD: (as Jerry) Well, I know I could hold out longer than you.
ALEXANDER: (as George) Care to make it interesting?
SEINFELD: (as Jerry) Sure, how much?
ALEXANDER: (as George) $100.
SEINFELD: (as Jerry) You're on.
MICHAEL RICHARDS: (as Kramer) Wait a second, wait a second. Count me in on this.
SEINFELD: (as Jerry) You?
RICHARDS: (as Kramer) Yeah.
SEINFELD: (as Jerry) You'll be out before we get the check.
LOUIS-DREYFUS: (as Elaine) I want to be in on this, too.
SEINFELD: (as Jerry) No, no, no...
ALEXANDER: (as George) Oh no...
LOUIS-DREYFUS: (as Elaine) What? Why? Why?
SEINFELD: (as Jerry) Because you're a woman.
LOUIS-DREYFUS: (as Elaine) So what?
SEINFELD: (as Jerry) It's easier for a woman not to do it than a man. We have to do it. It's part of our lifestyle.
(as Jerry) It's like shaving.
LOUIS-DREYFUS: (as Elaine) Oh, that is such baloney. I shave my legs.
RICHARDS: (as Kramer) Not every day.
ALEXANDER: (as George) All right, look, you want to be in?
LOUIS-DREYFUS: (as Elaine) Yeah.
ALEXANDER: (as George) You've got to give us odds, at least two to one. You've got to put up $200.
RICHARDS: (as Kramer) No, a thousand.
LOUIS-DREYFUS: (as Elaine) No, I'll put up $150.
ALEXANDER: (as George) All right, you're in for $150. All right, now...
DAVIES: And that's our guest, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, with the cast of "Seinfeld" in a famous episode from the series. You know, after you left, there was a very funny episode of "Curb Your Enthusiasm," the Larry David series, where Larry needs some permission from his neighbor for something, and the neighbor is a big fan of yours.
And so to help Larry out, you agree to come over and meet him. And there is his wife, she's aiming a video camera at you, and you're saying, you know, gosh, I really don't like these things. And, you know, these are the kinds of things I guess celebrities have to deal with.
But it occurred to me that your character, Elaine on "Seinfeld," was such a, sort of, in some ways, down-to-Earth, you know, approachable sort of person that I can imagine people might feel more comfortable coming up to you than they might, you know, I don't know, pick a name, you know, Judi Dench or somebody. Do people see Elaine on the street and want to come up and chat just like you're old buddies?
LOUIS-DREYFUS: Oh yes, definitely. People feel very comfortable coming up to me and talking to me and hugging me and engaging. And of course, I understand that. You know, I'm in their living rooms, and I get it, I really do. I'm also very short, and I think, you know, I don't have a, sort of, physically imposing presence, you know.
And the reality is that the vast majority of people who come up are unbelievably gracious and, you know, for the most part, I'm happy to engage. Maybe not the hugging so much, but talking is certainly fine.
DAVIES: Well, you had a hit with "The New Adventures of Old Christine," you won the Emmy for Best Actress in a Comedy Series," and this ran for five seasons. Elaine Benes and Christine from "New Adventures" are both, you know, working women and really kind of insecure. Is the - is there a comedy in the insecurity?
LOUIS-DREYFUS: Absolutely. There's no comedy in security, and I don't think there's any comedy in things working out well. Conflict is where - what's interesting. And I love playing that undercurrent of a lack of confidence. I think I can tap into it very easily.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
LOUIS-DREYFUS: And - but yeah, insecurity is great fun.
DAVIES: You know, I have to ask: Are you really insecure as an actress? I mean, most people will never have a hit like "Seinfeld."
LOUIS-DREYFUS: Yes, there is - I do have - I am insecure, of course I am. Who isn't? Who isn't insecure? Can I just say that? Who isn't? And also in show biz, particularly, you know, you sort of - it's kind of an unforgiving business, in case you hadn't noticed.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
LOUIS-DREYFUS: So it's like whatever your last job is is sort of like - is, you know, are you in, are you out. I mean, it's very fickle, and it can be very nasty. And so that plays into the security thing, for sure, you know. I mean, I fight it. I try not to give it any credence or anything like that, but, you know, easy come, easy go.
DAVIES: Well, I wish you success with the series. Julia Louis-Dreyfus, it's been great having you. Thanks so much.
LOUIS-DREYFUS: Thanks for having me. This was really fun.
DAVIES: Julia Louis-Dreyfus stars as the vice president in the new HBO series "Veep." It airs Sunday at 10:00. I'm Dave Davies, and this is FRESH AIR.
DAVE DAVIES, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies in for Terry Gross. Our next guest, TV writer and producer Steven Moffat, has made a specialty lately of injecting new life into old characters and stories. The creator of the British sitcom "Coupling" has written and produced recent installments of the "Dr. Who" series, which is coming up on its golden anniversary. And simultaneously he and Mark Gatiss have co-created a well-received modern update of the Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes stories.
Called "Sherlock," the series stars Benedict Cumberbatch as Sherlock and Martin Freeman from the original British version of "The Office" as Dr. Watson. Season two of "Sherlock" premieres on PBS on "Masterpiece Mystery" this Sunday. Our TV critic David Bianculli spoke to Steven Moffat earlier this week. They began with a scene from the new season. Here Sherlock and Dr. Watson are being briefed by the police - one of whom is Sherlock's brother Mycroft, played by the series co-creator, Mark Gatiss. They're discussing a new case involving Irene Adler, a dominatrix whose website bears the slogan Know When You Are Beaten. Holmes is looking through photos taken from the site.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SERIES, "SHERLOCK")
BENEDICT CUMBERBATCH: (as Sherlock Holmes) And I assume this Adler woman has some compromising photographs.
MARK GATISS: (as Mycroft Holmes) You're very quick, Mr. Holmes.
CUMBERBATCH: (as Sherlock Holmes) Hardly a difficult deduction. Photographs of whom?
GATISS: (as Mycroft Holmes) A person of significance to my employer. We prefer not to say any more at this time.
MARTIN FREEMAN: (as Dr. John Watson) You can't tell us anything?
GATISS: (as Mycroft Holmes) I can tell you it's a young person - a young female person.
CUMBERBATCH: (as Sherlock Holmes) How many photographs?
GATISS: (as Mycroft Holmes) A considerable number, apparently.
CUMBERBATCH: (as Sherlock Holmes) Do Ms. Adler and this young female person appear in these photographs together?
GATISS: (as Mycroft Holmes) Yes, they do.
CUMBERBATCH: (as Sherlock Holmes) And I assume in a number of compromising scenarios.
GATISS: (as Mycroft Holmes) An imaginative range, we are assured.
CUMBERBATCH: (as Sherlock Holmes) John, you might want to put that cup back in its saucer now.
GATISS: (as Mycroft Holmes) Can you help us, Mr. Holmes?
CUMBERBATCH: (as Sherlock Holmes) How?
GATISS: (as Mycroft Holmes) Will you take the case?
CUMBERBATCH: (as Sherlock Holmes) What case? Pay her, now and in full. As Ms. Adler remarks in her masthead, know when you are beaten.
GATISS: (as Mycroft Holmes) She doesn't want anything.
FREEMAN: (as Dr. John Watson) She got in touch?
GATISS: (as Mycroft Holmes) She informed us that the photographs existed. She indicated that she had no intention to use them to extort either money or favor.
CUMBERBATCH: (as Sherlock Holmes) Oh, a power play. A power play with the most powerful family in Britain. Now, that is a dominatrix. Ooh, this is getting rather fun, isn't it?
FREEMAN: (as Dr. John Watson) Sherlock.
CUMBERBATCH: (as Sherlock Holmes) Hmm. Where is she?
GATISS: (as Mycroft Holmes) In London. Currently she's staying...
CUMBERBATCH: (as Sherlock Holmes) Text me the details. I'll be in touch by the end of the day. (Unintelligible)...
DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:
That's Benedict Cumberbatch as Sherlock Holmes in the "Masterpiece Mystery" series "Sherlock." Steven Moffat, welcome to FRESH AIR.
STEVEN MOFFAT: Thank you. Hello.
BIANCULLI: There's so many questions I want to ask about this. But let me just start with the fact that rather than hide from the updating and the difficult things that you have to do when updating, which is acknowledge phones, cell phones and computers and laptops, you embrace it all and use it. Can you talk about that?
MOFFAT: Well, the thing about Sherlock Holmes in the original is that he's very, very techno-literate. I mean to a contemporary Victorian reader he was a sort of cutting-edge scientist. He was well up with all the stuff. He was also born for the Internet age because he loves research. He loves acquiring knowledge. So I just imagined that, you know, the Sherlock would be lurking on the chat rooms and forums and finding out what's going on. So far from being a difficult thing to embrace, it was a joy because he would love it.
Also one of the marvels of it is in the original stories, even once the telephone becomes a possibility for Baker Street, he doesn't really like the telephone. He prefers to send telegrams. Now, what are texts except telegrams? You know, brisk, to the point, with no actual personal contact.
BIANCULLI: How did you come up with this Sherlock character? I mean the particular edginess of this version as you had written him and adapted him?
MOFFAT: To be honest, I think we did it by going back to the original. I mean this is, this is - Cumberbatch's Holmes is pretty close to the Doyle version. You can find most of those ingredients in the original stories. He seems edgier because we've put him in the modern day. You can sort of put up with Sherlock Holmes' peculiarities when his distant from you, when he's this sort of historical relic in Victorian London. But put them in the modern day and you think, bloody hell, he's a bit frightening, isn't he? He's a scary man. Wouldn't want to get stuck with him. So that edginess comes just when he's in your face, he's living in your town(ph), and he's living now and I think that's what makes him scary.
BIANCULLI: The production style that you have for Sherlock is as high-tech as all of the machines that you feature in it, from laptops to cell phones. And part of it seems sometimes like a graphic novel, but it's always moving fast, it's always going there. Why that production style and how hard is that to implement?
MOFFAT: We always wanted it to be stylish. We didn't want it to be sort of like other television. We wanted it to have a filmic sense. Now, everybody says that about the TV show. Everybody always says that. But then my wife, Sue, got a hold of Paul McGuigan to direct it, and he is the one, I think, who brought that tremendous beauty to it. And one of the very first things he said, having read the scripts and seen the original version of the pilot, was you want to think Sherlock Holmes is behind the camera too. You want to see the world as Sherlock Holmes sees it. And that informs an awful lot of his work on the show, is to, you know, is to give you the Sherlock's eye view of the world all the time. And, you know, I suppose in some way my answer to this...
BIANCULLI: I love that.
MOFFAT: ...my answer to this is, you know, get a very, very good director. But I did and that worked out.
BIANCULLI: Is it a stretch to think that Sherlock Holmes really does belong on television, because they were originally written, like started with Strand Magazine as episodic adventures?
MOFFAT: Well, this is a really interesting thing, actually. It's not too much of a stretch to say that Arthur Conan Doyle invented the TV series. The reason he came up with the Sherlock Holmes short stories, having already created the character in a couple of novels, was he looked to all the fiction magazines and they were all serialized novels or short stories. And he sort of picked up a gap in the market. He thought to himself, well, look, the short stories are great but they don't bring you back next week or next month. The serialized novels are great because they bring you back next month but if you miss the beginning you might not want to join in the middle. So he thought, and this is the first time anyone had done this, what about a continual series of short stories featuring the same character? You can start anywhere you like, but you'll always have a reason to come back next month. Now, that is the TV series. So yes, Sherlock Holmes fits very happily into the medium of television - partly because I think he's the precedent for it.
BIANCULLI: Our guest is Steven Moffat, writer and co-creator of the new "Sherlock" series, returning on "Masterpiece Mystery" on PBS. We'll continue our conversation after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
BIANCULLI: Our guest is Steven Moffat, writer and co-creator of the new "Sherlock" series, returning on "Masterpiece Mystery" on PBS.
I think that in this project in particular, the richness of the casting throughout, not only the writing of the characters but the casting of the primary roles and then of the secondary roles is so crucial. So talk about that process for a while.
MOFFAT: Well, obviously number one is Benedict Cumberbatch as Sherlock Holmes. There are very, very few people who can play Sherlock Holmes, and there have in so many and so few good ones. That's the truth.
MOFFAT: You've got, you know, the mighty Basil Rathbone, the mighty Jeremy Brett and a few others. There's just not that many who are - who transcend the role and actually change the role. So we were very, very aware that getting the modern-day Sherlock Holmes was going to be hell, and after he read for it and we taped it, we just said, well, look, there is really no point in us looking anywhere else, there just isn't.
BIANCULLI: And I have to say, one of the best names of all time...
MOFFAT: And he's real.
MOFFAT: That's his name. Benedict Cumberbatch is actually his actual real name. I know, isn't that great?
How often is Sherlock Holmes played by someone with an even stupider name?
BIANCULLI: It's wonderful.
MOFFAT: Sorry, Benedict if you're listening. It's a great name.
BIANCULLI: And then Martin Freeman, whom some but not enough American listeners would know as one of the stars of the original British version of "The Office."
MOFFAT: Well, there - what we had to do there was we had to find someone who would be the ideal other half. Because if you look at the stories, you look you look at any good version of Sherlock Holmes, Dr. Watson is every bit as important a character as Sherlock Holmes, and some would argue more so because he's our conduit to Sherlock Holmes. He's the person to whom the story in a way happens. We are more emotionally resonant with Dr. Watson that we are with Sherlock Holmes because Sherlock Holmes is, you know, a hard man to empathize with. So what we did was we got - we auditioned an awful lot of people. Bizarrely, the one of the very - the very first person we auditioned for Dr. Watson was Matt Smith, who we later cast, a few weeks later cast as Doctor Who, and we got a bunch of really, really good people to come in and we thought, well, let's get them all in to read with Benedict and see if magic happens with one of them. And I have to say, brilliant though they all were, and they all were brilliant, the moment Benedict and Martin were in the same room, you just thought, well, there it is. That's it. It's sorted.
BIANCULLI: Well, here's an example of that chemistry from the first season of programs. Benedict Cumberbatch as Holmes, Martin Freeman as Watson, and they're discussing Watson's chronicling of Holmes' adventures. And I love this, that he's not doing it in articles that he did in the original short stories, but on a blog.
BIANCULLI: So let's play it and then talk about it.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SHERLOCK")
CUMBERBATCH: (as Sherlock Holmes) So you've written up the taxi driver case?
FREEMAN: (as Dr. John Watson) Yes.
CUMBERBATCH: (as Sherlock Holmes) "A Study in Pink." Nice.
FREEMAN: (as Dr. John Watson) Well, you know, pink lady, pink case, pink phone. There was a lot of pink. Did you like it?
CUMBERBATCH: (as Sherlock Holmes) Um, no.
FREEMAN: (as Dr. John Watson) Why not? I thought you'd be flattered.
CUMBERBATCH: (as Sherlock Holmes) Flattered? Sherlock sees through everything and everyone in seconds. What's incredible, though, is how spectacularly ignorant he is about some things.
FREEMAN: (as Dr. John Watson) Now, hang on a minute. I didn't mean that in a...
CUMBERBATCH: (as Sherlock Holmes) Oh, you meant spectacularly ignorant in a nice way. Look, it doesn't matter to me who's prime minister or who's sleeping with who.
FREEMAN: (as Dr. John Watson) Or that the Earth goes around the sun...
CUMBERBATCH: (as Sherlock Holmes) Oh god, that again. It's not important.
FREEMAN: (as Dr. John Watson) Not - it's primary school stuff. How can you not know that?
CUMBERBATCH: (as Sherlock Holmes) Well, if I ever did, I've deleted it.
FREEMAN: (as Dr. John Watson) Deleted it?
CUMBERBATCH: (as Sherlock Holmes) Listen. This is my hard drive in it only makes sense to put things in there that are useful, really useful. Ordinary people fill their heads with all kinds of rubbish and that makes it hard to get at the stuff that matters is. Do you see?
FREEMAN: (as Dr. John Watson) But it's the solar system.
CUMBERBATCH: (as Sherlock Holmes) Oh, hell. What does that matter? So we go around the sun. If we went around the moon or round and round the garden like a teddy bear, it wouldn't make any difference. All that matters to me is the work. Without that, my brain rots. Put that in your blog. Or better still, stop inflicting your opinions on the world.
BIANCULLI: That was Benedict Cumberbatch as Holmes, Martin Freeman as Watson. All right. What in that scene captures the essence that you wanted to capture of those two characters?
MOFFAT: Well, I think that's - there's a very lovely scene written by Mark Gatiss. It's - and it combines two moments from "A Study in Scarlet" and "The Sign of Four," actually, about Sherlock's very peculiar attitude to learning. I love the idea that Sherlock Holmes gives bad reviews to Watson's stories. That's from the original, is that every time you read a Sherlock Holmes story, at the beginning of the run in particular, Sherlock Holmes is saying, well, last week was terrible.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
MOFFAT: You know (unintelligible) absolute hash of that, and just the - I don't know, the pleasant exasperation between the two of them, the domesticity, the sense of a friendship conveyed by the fact that they never have to be kind to each other. They have absolute confidence.
MOFFAT: You can imagine those conversations rolling on and on into the night.
BIANCULLI: We're speaking with Steven Moffat, who is redoing Sherlock Holmes stories for television now, and also tackled another iconic character for television, Doctor Who. Explain what "Doctor Who" is, you know, in general before we get into the specific.
MOFFAT: OK. Well, "Doctor Who" is a grand old British tradition and actually in my view the best television series of all time. The format is incredibly simple. It's a human looking alien who can travel in a machine called the TARDIS to anywhere in time and space. He's called the Doctor. He travels about. We don't know a lot about him or where he came from so the show is called "Doctor Who," and where he meets people he helps them. He rides into town like Shane, never quite explains who he is, saves everybody and rides out again, though in his case (unintelligible) survives. The part has been plagued by a number of different actors because the doctor has the ability when he's injured or dying to sort of rebirth himself, to regenerate into a new physical form and really a completely different character as a Doctor. It's been running for nearly 50 years in the U.K. (unintelligible) and it's - and if you haven't sampled so far, it is a joy awaiting you.
BIANCULLI: Well, let's play a clip with Matt Smith as the Doctor; Karen Gillan, who is going to become his new companion, Amy Pond. And in the opening episode of this particular series, he visits her in childhood and she gives him an apple with a face on it and then he says he'll be back in five minutes and he returns 12 years later, and this is the scene when he's trying to convince her that he is who he was.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "DR. WHO")
MATT SMITH: (as the Doctor) I'm Doctor. I'm a time traveler. Everything I told you 12 years ago is true. I'm real. What's happening in the sky is real. And if you don't let me go right now, everything you've ever known is over.
KAREN GILLAN: (as Amy Pond) I don't believe you.
SMITH: (as the Doctor) Just 20 minutes. Just believe me for 20 minutes. Look at it, fresh as the day you gave it to me and you know it's the same one. Amy, believe for 20 minutes.
GILLAN: (as Amy Pond) What do we do?
SMITH: (as the Doctor) Stop that nurse.
BIANCULLI: That's Karen Gillan as Amy Pond and Matt Smith as the Doctor. And again, I listen to these clips and I watch what's going on and I think that casting is so key. How central is that to how you create a show and then how you and your staff write it for them?
MOFFAT: Well, you know, everything else about a show, other than the casting, other than the central actors, however great it is, however admirable and accomplished and excellent it is, can only ever really sort of be admired. People don't have a relationship with great writing or great production or great art direction or great direction.
They just sort of admire it. What people fall in love with, oddly enough, is other people. So the difference between a beautifully made failure and a beautifully made hit is who you've got playing the leads. And in the case of Matt Smith as the Doctor, I'd been very, very adamant that we'd have an older doctor, that he'd be in his 40s. I wasn't going to have any young Doctors on my watch.
And on the very, very first day of auditions he was the third one through the door. Any fool would've cast him. It was dead easy. And you just think, well, god. And I remember asking what age is he. He was 26.
BIANCULLI: Oh, my.
MOFFAT: And he was just instantly the perfect Doctor because he does do that thing of combining the old man and the young man. As I keep saying, he looks like a young man assembled by old men from memory.
BIANCULLI: Well, both of your productions of "Dr. Who" and "Sherlock," I've noticed are about, like, brilliant loners who are accompanied by single loyal companions. And in the "Dr. Who" series especially you've written very often and very well from the point of view of outcasts and lonely kids. What was your childhood like?
MOFFAT: Well, I'm a geek. I'm a writer. I spent all of my time in my childhood obsessing about Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Who. I was alone. I was an outsider. What do you expect?
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
MOFFAT: I was that bullied kid at the back of the class weeping for loneliness. I mean, I don't think, generally speaking, people become writers because they were the really cool attractive kid in class. I'll be honest. Sorry, other writers, but we weren't, were we? Come on.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
MOFFAT: So I was a bit like that, I suppose. Yeah. I mean, that makes it sound far too wretched and sad. It wasn't that bad.
MOFFAT: Heroes quite often are loners. You very rarely have, bizarrely enough, heroes who are sort of with a huge peer group, do you? I mean even James Bond, who hasn't got the slightest reason to be alone, is, you know. You'd think he'd be a popular guy, but no. He lives his life alone. With a succession of very beautiful women, so that probably helps.
BIANCULLI: I think that you have cast "Sherlock" perfectly, but my question is, after - we're seeing season two now in the States. After season three, I'm wondering if you're going to be able to keep your stars of "Sherlock," because Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman are both big stars in the two new "Hobbit" movies. So...
MOFFAT: Yes, but we have their families trapped in a cellar.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
MOFFAT: They are both, I can honestly say, very, very keen to carry on with "Sherlock" as it stands. Thing is, we do a limited amount of "Sherlock." That's the way we do it. Every year or so we get together and do three movies. So you are free to do other things. And I think it'll do them both good to descend from their mighty star status in L.A. and New Zealand and get back in a small caravan in Wales and make some more "Sherlock."
BIANCULLI: Steven Moffat, thank you for being on FRESH AIR.
DAVIES: Steven Moffat, speaking with David Bianculli. Moffat is co-creator of the PBS series "Sherlock." Its second season premiers on "Masterpiece Mystery" this Sunday. David Bianculli teaches TV and film history at Rowan University in New Jersey and is founder and editor of the website TV Worth Watching. Coming up, David Edelstein reviews the new film "The Avengers." This is FRESH AIR.
DAVE DAVIES, HOST: In the comic book series "The Avengers," Marvel brought together some of its famous superheroes to fend off intergalactic threats. The characters - Iron Man, the Hulk, Thor, and Captain America - has each had his own blockbuster movie or movies and they now unite in what, on the basis of advance ticket sales, promises to be a huge hit. "The Avengers" is written and directed by Joss Whedon and will be shown in some theaters in 3D. Film critic David Edelstein has a review.
DAVID EDELSTEIN: Two spheres merge in "The Avengers": the Marvel Comics universe and the Whedonverse, fans' name for the nerdy wisecracking existentialist superhero world of writer-director Joss Whedon. The Whedon cult is smaller but maybe more fervent, inspiring academic conferences on such subjects as free will vs. determinism in "Buffy the Vampire Slayer." I find a lot of Whedon's banter self-consciously smart-alecky, but I love how he can spoof his subjects without robbing them of stature.
For Whedon, the heart of "The Avengers" clearly isn't the predictable, whiz-bang computer-generated battles between good and evil, but scenes in which our superheroes hang out, spar with words as well as weapons, and weigh the merits of individualism versus teamwork. It's not unlike Howard Hawks' iconic gunfighters taking one another's measure in "Rio Bravo".
And it's fun to watch Tony Stark, a.k.a. Iron Man, say to Bruce Banner, a.k.a. the Hulk, something like, hey, Banner, come see the nifty stuff in my lab; and Banner say, sounds good, Stark. See ya later, Captain. Bye, Thor. And I'm, like, that's so cool. OK, I'm geeking out too.
I had a blast at "The Avengers." For the uninitiated - I know there are a few of you - the Avengers are a collective of four male Marvel superheroes: Iron Man, played by Robert Downey, Jr., with a heavy dose of CGI; Captain America, played by Chris Evans; Thor, which is Chris Hemsworth in Norse get-up; and the gigantic lime-green Hulk, a special effect with Mark Ruffalo as its human alter ego.
We also get a female hero, played by Scarlett Johansson: Natasha Romanoff, a.k.a. Black Widow, who doesn't get as much fan attention because she's not supernaturally or scientifically enhanced, but whom Whedon gives a ton of screen time. They've been called together by one-eyed superhero-wrangler Nick Fury, played by Samuel L. Jackson, to save the Earth after Thor's adopted brother Loki hurtles through a space portal from the mythical realm of Asgard.
Loki thinks that deep down humans long to follow orders and he boasts he will, quote, "free the world from freedom." As played by Tom Hiddleston, Loki is a magnificently theatrical presence and easily out-glowers Downey's snide Stark when dropping by unexpectedly.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE AVENGERS")
TOM HIDDLESTON: (as Loki) What have I to fear?
ROBERT DOWNEY JR.: (as Tony Stark) The Avengers. That's what we call ourselves. Sort of like a team. Earth's mightiest heroes type thing.
HIDDLESTON: (as Loki) Yes. I've met them.
JR.: (as Tony Stark) Yeah. It takes us awhile to get any traction, I'll give you that one. But let's do a head count here. Your brother, the demigod, a super-soldier, a living legend who kind of lives up to the legend, a man with breathtaking anger management issues, a couple of master assassins. And you, big fella, you've managed to piss off every single one of them.
HIDDLESTON: (as Loki) That was the plan.
JR.: (as Tony Stark) Not a great plan. When they come, and they will, they'll come for you.
HIDDLESTON: (as Loki) I have an army.
JR.: (as Tony Stark) We have a Hulk.
HIDDLESTON: (as Loki) Oh, I thought the beast had wandered off.
JR.: (as Tony Stark) You're missing the point. There's no throne. There is no version of this where you come out on top. Maybe your army comes and maybe it's too much for us but it's all on you. Because if we can't protect the Earth, you can be damn well sure we'll avenge it.
EDELSTEIN: Downey fares least well in "The Avengers," being obnoxious beyond the call of duty, but it's not all his fault - the part has taken a weird turn. For some reason, Whedon has Stark haranguing Banner not to suppress the Hulk but let that giant, wildly destructive part of himself out, as if their flying battleship were some kind of EST seminar. Fortunately, Ruffalo's Banner shrugs it off. The actor is sly and shambling and attractively mussed, and steals every scene by underplaying.
That's not the only conflict. The Avengers drive one another so loco, it's a wonder they get to Loki. They pick fights - Captain America's shield fending off Thor's hammer, Thor's hammer smashing Iron Man's suit, Iron Man's suit deflecting Hulk's fist. Nobody wins, but trees and man-made structures lose. As I watched, I thought, wow, that must have cost a lot of money.
But it's not just money on the screen. The frames have the zing of good comic-book illustrations, and Whedon picks his moments to come at you with 3-D, a spear here and there tickling your nostril hairs. Multiple protagonists means by the time you've had your fill of snotty Iron Man, you get the over-earnest Captain America, and when you're bored with the Captain, you get the Norse hottie. Always something to see.
Along with Ruffalo's Hulk, it's Johansson's Black Widow who's the biggest treat, her deadpan prickling with rage and hurt. Whedon never lets us forget that, in the words of one government bureaucrat, the fate of the human race has been left to a handful of freaks. Prepare yourself, earthlings - for the next few weeks, we'll all be living in the Whedonverse.
DAVIES: David Edelstein is film critic for New York magazine.
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