'Bad guys never think they're bad guys,' says veteran character actor Clancy Brown
Brown's been working since the 1980s, voicing Mr. Krabs in Spongebob and playing memorable villains in movies like The Shawshank Redemption and Highlander. He now has a supporting role in John Wick 4.
Other segments from the episode on March 14, 2023
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Our guest, Clancy Brown, has been acting in movies and TV shows since the early 1980s, often playing villains and sadistic authority figures. He now has a supporting role in "John Wick 4," starring Keanu Reeves. Our producer, Sam Briger, who interviewed Clancy Brown, has always been captivated by Brown's acting, even if he didn't always enjoy it. I'll let Sam explain.
SAM BRIGER, BYLINE: When I was a kid growing up in the '80s, Clancy Brown terrified me. Whether he was playing the juvenile prison bully named Viking in the movie "Bad Boys," Frankenstein's monster in "The Bride," or the one that really got to me, the immortal, sword-wielding psychopath Kurgan in the cult classic "Highlander," Clancy Brown caused me many sleepless nights. As I got older, I, of course, realized that Clancy Brown was just really good at his job. And he's been at that job ever since. His IMDb page credits him for over 300 performances.
You may remember him as the cruel prison guard in "Shawshank Redemption," or as the menacing preacher in the HBO show "Carnivale." Recently, he's been the main bad guy in "Dexter: New Blood" and a U.S. attorney general on "Billions." And those are only a few of his on-screen roles. Clancy Brown has had practically a whole other career as a voice actor for animated shows and movies. He played Lex Luthor, Superman's arch nemesis, for many years, and countless other villains. But his best-known role is as Mr. Krabs in "SpongeBob SquarePants."
He'll be next seen in "John Wick 4," which comes out March 24. He plays a secretive character named The Harbinger. Let's hear a little bit of Brown's distinctive voice in the role.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "JOHN WICK: CHAPTER 4")
CLANCY BROWN: (As The Harbinger) Dueling pistols, 30 paces. In the event that both parties survive, each will approach the other at increments of 10 paces until only one remains.
BRIGER: That's Clancy Brown from the upcoming movie "John Wick 4." Clancy Brown, welcome to FRESH AIR.
BROWN: Thanks, Sam. Good to be here.
BRIGER: So tell us a little bit about the character from the new movie.
BROWN: Well, let's see. Harbinger is kind of an expositional character. He sort of lets everybody know what the game is because there has to be somewhat of a plot in this fourth installment of "John Wick." Can't just be stunts and stunts and stunts, although it comes pretty close. I actually saw it recently, and it is just beautiful. And the ballet of the action is quite remarkable. And - but you have to weave it around some kind of motivation. And so this motivation is a duel that John Wick has to have with - it turns out, with one of his friends.
BRIGER: I kind of thought of your character as like a bureaucratic villain, like you have all the rules and regulations of how villains are supposed to act.
BROWN: Yeah, very good. He's absolutely that. He's sort of retired from the field, and now he's pushing paper, as it were, you know.
BRIGER: (Laughter) Sometimes bloody paper.
BROWN: Yeah, yeah. Enforcing the rules and customs of the High Table.
BRIGER: So as I said in the intro, you've had a very long career with hundreds of roles. But you know, the one thing you're known very well for is for playing bad guys. You've played a lot of bad guys. When you get a role like that, is there something you try to emphasize in the role?
BROWN: You know, as long as the script has a rationale for the bad guy - bad guys never think they're bad guys. You know, they think they're on a mission. They're doing something positive. That's the trick, actually, just finding a good character that is malmotivated and then wrapping your head around that.
BRIGER: Well, let's hear one of these iconic roles. This is from "Shawshank Redemption," which is from 1994. You play Captain Hadley, the sadistic head guard of Shawshank State Penitentiary. And this is a sort of turning point scene in the movie. You and some of the other guards are watching over a group of convicts that are tarring a roof. We can't play too much of the scene because it's laden with curses.
BRIGER: But you're complaining that your brother has left you a $35,000 inheritance, but you're not going to get any of it because of the taxes. And Tim Robbins' character, Andy Dufresne, has been listening to you. He's a convict, but he was a former banker. And he decides to go up and talk to you, which is taking a really big risk on his life. Let's hear the scene.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION")
TIM ROBBINS: (As Andy Dufresne) Mr. Hadley, do you trust your wife?
BROWN: (As Captain Hadley) That's funny. You're going to look funnier sucking my [expletive] with no teeth.
ROBBINS: (As Andy Dufresne) What I mean is, do you think she'd go behind your back, try to hamstring you?
BROWN: (As Captain Hadley) That's it. Step aside, Mert. This [expletive]'s having himself an accident.
WILLIAM SADLER: (As Heywood) He's going to push him off the roof.
ROBBINS: (As Andy Dufresne) Because if you do trust her, there's no reason you can't keep that 35,000.
BROWN: (As Captain Hadley) What did you say?
ROBBINS: (As Andy Dufresne) 35,000.
BROWN: (As Captain Hadley) 35,000.
ROBBINS: (As Andy Dufresne) All of it.
BROWN: (As Captain Hadley) All of it.
ROBBINS: (As Andy Dufresne) Every penny.
BROWN: (As Captain Hadley) You better start making sense.
ROBBINS: (As Andy Dufresne) If you want to keep all that money, give it to your wife. The IRS allows a one-time-only gift to your spouse for up to $60,000.
BROWN: (As Captain Hadley) Bull****. Tax-free?
ROBBINS: (As Andy Dufresne) Tax-free. IRS can't touch one cent.
BROWN: (As Captain Hadley) You're that smart banker what killed his wife, aren't you? Why should I believe a smart banker like you - so I can end up in here with you?
ROBBINS: (As Andy Dufresne) It's perfectly legal. Go ask the IRS. They'll say the same thing. Actually, I feel stupid telling you this. I'm sure you would have investigated the matter yourself.
BROWN: (As Captain Hadley) Yeah, I don't need no smart wife-killing banker to tell me where the bear [expletive] in the buckwheat.
ROBBINS: (As Andy Dufresne) Of course not. But you do need someone to set up the tax-free gift for you. And that'll cost you - a lawyer, for example.
BROWN: (As Captain Hadley) Bunch of ball-washing...
ROBBINS: (As Andy Dufresne) Right. I suppose I could set it up for you. That would save you some money. You get the forms. I'll prepare them for you, nearly free of charge. I'd only ask three beers apiece for each of my co-workers.
JUDE CICCOLELLA: (As Guard Mert) Co-workers - get him. That's rich, ain't it?
ROBBINS: (As Andy Dufresne) I think a man working outdoors feels more like a man if he can have a bottle of suds. That's only my opinion, sir.
BROWN: (As Captain Hadley) What are you Jimmies staring at? Back to work.
BRIGER: That's a scene from "Shawshank Redemption" with my guest, Clancy Brown, who plays Captain Hadley, the captain of the prison guards. So when you were filming that, are you actually holding Tim Robbins at the edge of a roof?
BROWN: Yeah, we - he was tied off, though. We had a - you know, he had a safety harness on and everything, and they removed that digitally.
BRIGER: So you didn't have to worry about losing the main actor.
BROWN: But it's still a little scary, I think, you know. I think Tim was actually nervous. (Laughter) I don't blame him. I was. I'm thinking, I'm holding the star of the show here. I better be - make sure I have a good grip.
BRIGER: How did you approach that role?
BROWN: It was such a good script. Everybody loved the script. And I did not read well for it because the casting director was this pretty young lady at the time, and she had, like, a flowery blouse on, and she smelled very good. And I had to say all that horrible language to her face and be angry. And I just couldn't do it. And I was convinced I had blown the part for - until they started filming, that they were making some kind of mistake. But that's kind of typical for actors. We always believe that - we can never believe that we're cast in anything.
I remember having a discussion with another actor saying, you know, what - how can somebody be this miserable and awful? And he pointed out to me that it's a script that's being told from memory. So you don't have to do any, like, really deep work. You just have to present the memory from that guy's point of view, from Red's point of view.
BRIGER: That's interesting that you said you didn't have to humanize the character because he was symbolic.
BROWN: Yeah, yeah. Most of the heavies in that show were - all the characters in that show were symbolic, except for probably Brooks and Red and Andy Dufresne. I think those - although they're symbolic in their own way, but they're the most fully realized characters. The rest of them are kind of symbols of hope or symbols of oppression or - yeah, you know, that - at least that's the way I saw it, you know?
BRIGER: You said that you felt like you were an imposter on the set. Why was that?
BROWN: Oh, there were so many great actors on there. I was sure that I was - I - that they had made a mistake. (Laughter) I was just certain that they finally chose me to do Capt. Hadley because I was taller, and Tim was - Tim is this - you know, I think he's 6-5 or so. He's a tall actor, and Morgan is a tall actor. So they needed somebody at least, you know, in stature that was close to their size, you know, and to - you couldn't have somebody under 6 feet holding him off the roof - although I guess you could. You know, there's all sorts of tricks you can do.
BRIGER: Well, I want to talk about another iconic role. This is from the 1986 cult classic movie "Highlander." And I'm going to try to give a synopsis of this movie. But basically, there are immortals walking on the earth. They can only die when they're decapitated, and they've been sword fighting each other for centuries. The last remaining immortal will be - receive something called the prize. And the tagline from the movie is, there can be only one. You're the main villain, a terrifying psychopath called Kurgan. And I just wanted to give people who may not have seen the movie a sense of you.
This is - takes place near the end where there are only two immortals left - you and the hero, who's played by Christopher Lambert. You meet in a church, which is a neutral ground. And I have to say, you look really awful at this moment. Like, you've mostly shaved your head, but there's, like, a random lock of hair coming out of the left side of your head. You have this terrible scar along your neck where you've almost been decapitated, and you've put safety pins through it. You're wearing this, like, heavy metal leather outfit that makes you look like you're, like, from the band Twisted Sister. So let's just hear a little bit of this.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "HIGHLANDER")
CHRISTOPHER LAMBERT: (As Connor MacLeod) Nice to see you, Kurgan. Who cuts your hair?
BROWN: (As Kurgan) I am in disguise. This way no one will recognize me.
LAMBERT: (As Connor MacLeod) I do. What do you want?
BROWN: (As Kurgan) Your head.
LAMBERT: (As Connor MacLeod, laughter).
BROWN: (As Kurgan) And the prize. Watch. Happy Halloween, ladies. Nuns. No sense of humor.
BRIGER: That's from "Highlander." That's my guest, Clancy Brown. This is - as I said, this is one of your most iconic roles. I hear you don't really like the movie very much. Is that true?
BROWN: Well, it's - you know, I don't think it's aged well. The best thing about that movie is the soundtrack. Soundtrack really saves that movie. And Russell's work, as a director, is really terrific. But it's - you know, it's a silly '80s romp. It - you know, I liked the script because I just thought that was a really rich world that was created there, you know, an underground of people that just play by different rules, you know? So it was fun. Plus, you got to swing swords around and stuff like that, and it was pretty cool. I was in my 20s when I did that, so, you know, it was all about having fun back then.
BRIGER: I mean, as I said, like, that performance really freaked me out as a kid. Have you heard from other people over the years that had a similar response?
BROWN: Yeah, but, you know, you were a kid, weren't you (laughter)?
BROWN: I mean, everybody was - again, my - they recently released a 4K version of it. And I went to Scotland, and they had it for their fest - film festival, the Edinburgh Film Festival. And they did a screening of it, and I hadn't seen it in a while. And my kids were there the first time. And they - you know, they had - they saw it for the first time, and I had to get up and talk about it. And I remember getting up and talking about it and looking back at my kids, and they were just in hysterics. They were just so, so amused at what a fool Dad had made of himself, you know, 25 years ago. So, you know, it's very much of its time, that movie.
BRIGER: Well, we need to take a short break here. If you're just joining us, I'm speaking with veteran actor Clancy Brown, whose next film is "John Wick 4," coming out March 24. Back after a short break, this is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF JOEL J. RICHARD AND TYLER BATES' "LA VENDETTA")
BRIGER: This is FRESH AIR. We're speaking with veteran actor Clancy Brown, who's been performing on big and small screens since the early '80s. His most recent movie is "John Wick 4," which comes out later this month.
Clancy Brown, we need to talk about your very long career as a voice actor in animated roles. Like, how did you get into that line of work?
BROWN: Well, I love animation. I've always loved animation. And so there was a time in the '90s when they were doing the DC comic characters, Batman and Superman, and so they were kind of going outside the box for casting. And I just had to get in on that. I really wanted to do animation. I think my daughter had just been born, and I wanted to stick around town. I needed to, you know, make some money, and I'm - you know, just wanted to sit there and be a dad to my daughter. And all the recording studios were in Los Angeles. So I - you know, I made a real push to try to get on those shows. And a woman named Andrea Romano saw through my nonsense and cast me as Lex Luthor in the "Superman" series, in the "Superman Animated Series" (ph). And she basically taught me how to do voiceover while on the job.
BRIGER: What did she teach you about doing voice-over?
BROWN: Oh, there's a speed element to it. You know, film is very - it's a time eater. We're very indulgent with our line readings in our work in film. Television, you have to be a little bit quicker. But, you know, you can still be an artiste. You can still pull your artiste moments. You just got to get the day. And animation, you don't have time, you know? You have to come in prepared. You don't have to memorize the lines, which is a huge load off, but you have to be able to read fast, and you have to be able to take direction, and you have to be able to execute it. And however you execute it initially - at least where I was concerned, I had to do it twice as fast.
BRIGER: So as people listening to you know, you have a very low and resonant voice. When you started doing this animated work, did you sort of train your voice or try to make your voice do different things?
BROWN: Oh, yeah. I mean, I can't do it the way some of these cats can do it, but it's - you know, it's fun to play around. This isn't, you know, what - the voice I'm talking to you now isn't Mr. Krabs. He's - (as Mr. Krabs) you know, he's up here. He's (vocalizing).
And I've done that for so many years now that, (laughter) you know, it's pretty easy to do. I have to try to get away from that.
BRIGER: So when I was researching you, I sort of read through your list of vocal performances on your Wikipedia page. And you have played also a lot of bad guys on animated shows. And I just - here's just a few of the names that stood out to me - Col. Nikola (ph), the Entity, Blotox, Baron Bone, Robert (ph) Maximus, Maximillian Spiel, Big Time Bigelow, Mascumax, Vice Principal Pangborn, Barkmeat, Yono the Destroyer. So I just - I mean, I haven't seen all these, but are these all, like, aliens and robots and stuff?
BROWN: Yeah, I guess. (Laughter) I mean, you know, Vice Principal Pangborn...
BRIGER: Yeah, except for him, yeah, right.
BROWN: ...Is a vice principal, you know?
BRIGER: But definitely - I'm assuming that's a disciplinary character.
BROWN: (Laughter) Yeah. Yeah, right. You know, it's - I'm talking to you now. Why do you think that is? Why do you think I get those roles?
BROWN: Don't get a lot of kid roles.
BRIGER: Well, although - I mean, your most endearing character is - endearing and enduring - is Mr. Krabs from "SpongeBob SquarePants." I mean, that's been a remarkably long career. I think you started doing that in 1999?
BROWN: Yeah, yeah, yeah.
BRIGER: Well, let's hear - you gave us a little bit of live Mr. Krabs but let's hear a little bit from a scene. For people who are not "SpongeBob" aficionados, Mr. Krabs is the owner of the Krusty Krab fast-food restaurant where SpongeBob and Squidward work. And Mr. Krabs is known as being very greedy and worried about losing his money, and - let's hear a clip. You'll also hear Tom Kenny, who plays SpongeBob, and Rodger Bumpass, who plays Squidward.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SPONGEBOB SQUAREPANTS")
BROWN: (As Kr. Krabs, singing) Money sweeter than honey. Money money this, money money that. Profit will make me wallet fat.
(As Kr. Krabs) What? Profits down $3 from last month? I got to start running a tighter ship around here.
RODGER BUMPASS: (As Squidward) Thank you for choosing the Krusty Krab. Here's your change.
BROWN: (As Kr. Krabs) Mr. Squidward.
BUMPASS: (As Squidward) What?
BROWN: (As Kr. Krabs) What's with all this change nonsense?
TOM KENNY: (As SpongeBob SquarePants) Over and under, grab the end, put it through here, up and around, around the horn, bring it back home.
BROWN: (As Kr. Krabs) Hmm. SpongeBob? I ain't paying you to play dress up.
BUMPASS: (As Squidward) Hmm.
BROWN: (As Kr. Krabs) Breathe on your own time. I don't pay you to breathe.
BRIGER: That's - Clancy Brown is Mr. Krabs there. That sounds like a lot of fun, to work on that show.
BROWN: Yeah, we do have a lot of fun. They write it so well, and they draw it so funny. I don't - you know, Steve Hillenburg - rest his soul - changed my life, but also is - you know, just singularly hit on something so elemental with that world and those characters that - you know, it's a mystery to me.
BRIGER: Now, as Mr. Krabs, you have to cry a lot, it seems. Do you have any tricks on how to do that?
BROWN: Yeah, it's just comedy crying. It's a lot like laughing, you know? Mr. Krabs is funny because he's supposed to be the adult, but he's really probably the most childish of all of the characters because he's so singularly focused on one thing. And he doesn't even know why he's focused on that. He just has that kind of dumb obsession with capitalism, you know? And every now and then he gets confronted with the realities where, you know, somebody's threatening to quit or, say, you know, he realizes that he needs SpongeBob. You know, I mean, it's just crazy and silly. And the most important and most full characters are probably Patrick and then SpongeBob. And the rest of us are just kind of foils and goofballs and dopes.
BRIGER: Can you give us an example of your crying? I know it's early in the morning there, and I don't want you to strain yourself (ph).
BROWN: Oh, it, you know, really depends on what the thing is. If he's just crying about money, it's very performative. It's sincere, but performative. (As Mr. Krabs, crying) Oh, me money (vocalizing). And then, he stops as soon as the dollars start rolling in.
BROWN: You know?
BRIGER: That's great.
GROSS: We're listening to the interview FRESH AIR producer Sam Briger recorded with Clancy Brown. Brown has appeared in movies and TV shows like "Shawshank Redemption," "The Crown," "Billions," and he plays Mr. Krabs on "SpongeBob SquarePants." He's also in "John Wick 4," which will be in theaters later this month. We'll hear more of their conversation after a break. I am Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FISHIN' FOR MONEY")
BROWN: (As Mr. Krabs, singing) I'm after something else, you see? This gold and silver waits for me. There's nowhere else I'd rather be than fishing for money. Pennies, nickels, dimes and next come pounds, doubloons and traveler's checks. Cast off, mateys. Clear the decks. I'm fishing for money. Fishing for money.
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to the interview FRESH AIR producer Sam Briger recorded with actor Clancy Brown. Some of Brown's best-known performances are as villains in "Highlander," "Shawshank Redemption," "Carnivale" and "Dexter: New Blood." But for some generations, his best-known and most beloved role would have to be the animated character Mr. Krabs from "SpongeBob SquarePants," the owner of the Krusty Krab fast food restaurant located in Bikini Bottom.
BRIGER: You grew up in Urbana, Ohio. Your family had a newspaper publishing business, and both your grandfather and your father had careers as politicians. They were both U.S. congressmen. Your grandfather was lieutenant governor of the state. Your dad was in Congress from 1965 to 1983. It was also in the Reagan administration.
So I'm just wondering, was there, like, a lot of talk about politics at the family dinner table? Were you trotted out for campaigns?
BROWN: (Laughter) Yeah, I mean, we were - you know, it was a political family, although, you know, the 7th District in Ohio back then was a pretty safe district. And my grandfather was named Clarence J. Brown. My dad's name was Clarence J. Brown, Jr. I'm Clarence J. Brown III. So, you know, there was a very long legacy of Republican ideology - back when they had an ideology - and, you know, sort of that noble opposition to the New Deal, and small government and all that.
I mean, so, yeah, there was, you know, there was - there were discussions at the table, but it was - you know, your home becomes your own bubble. And we all just sort of adopted Dad's views until we all went to college and realized that there's valid other views and things like that. And he did, too. My dad was a good guy. He could tolerate a lot of free thinking. He was kind of a free thinker himself in many ways.
BRIGER: He just passed away last year - didn't he? - at 94...
BROWN: Yes. Yes.
BRIGER: ...Or something.
BROWN: Yes. Yes. COVID got him.
BRIGER: Oh, really?
BRIGER: Was Urbana a pretty small town?
BROWN: Well, Urbana was - when it was founded, I think it was the second- or third-largest settlement in Ohio when it became a state. And it was considered to be one of the capitals. It didn't - I think it had, like, 12 or 15,000 people back then. And it has about that right now. It's never grown. It's remained in a little time capsule forever.
So it's a nice place to go back and visit. I don't think I could live there anymore. But it's - you know, it's very bucolic and homespun and lives in my psyche, as, you know, an idyllic small town in Ohio.
BRIGER: Was there a tradition of public service in your family?
BROWN: Yes, I would say that that is absolutely there. Yeah. My sister is probably the one that realizes the public service gene more than any of the rest of us. She works in the Historical Society and volunteers at the senior home and teaches classes at the YMCA and stuff like that. But politics has gotten too gross, so nobody's really interested in that anymore.
BRIGER: So your father won his congressional seat in a special election after your grandfather died, and the family moved to D.C. How old were you?
BROWN: Well, we were back and forth in D.C. I think I spent fourth grade, half of fourth grade in D.C. and half of fourth grade in Urbana. And then we sort of got there full-time - or at least as far as the school year is concerned, full-time, by the time I was in junior high. So - what was that? - like, 13, 14 years old. Just in time for adolescence (laughter).
BRIGER: Yeah. How was that as a transition - like, moving to D.C.?
BROWN: Well, you know, you're like - you don't really have a posse, you know. You're kind of the new kid or the - not new kid. You're the hayseed, or you're the city slicker. You know, you're never part of anything. And so, you know, you find theater, or you find athletics, or sometimes you find both, you know.
BRIGER: Which is what you did, right?
BRIGER: Yeah. Well, let's talk about how you got into acting. How old were you when you really found a passion for that?
BROWN: I got turned on to it because I lived next door to a guy whose parents were atomic scientists, and they were - lived in the house next door to us when I was in junior high or fourth grade or whatever it was. And he was probably ADD, because he had so many interests. His name was Robert Kramish (ph). And he would go on these learning jags - the Civil War, World War II or something like that, and one of his jags was Shakespeare. And I was just completely captivated by that language and that poetry at the time and really enjoyed putting on little plays, and supported him, mostly.
BRIGER: He would invite you over and say, hey, let's check out some Shakespeare.
BROWN: Yeah, he would just, like, start - he started out by telling me the stories. And it was - you know, they were all very bloody and wonderful. And then he said, let's put on the Caesar assassination scene. And he was always the - he was always a lead guy, and I was always the supporting guy. So, you know, you look back, and you're like, well, OK, that's my niche. All right. Stumbled into that.
But then I would just go in the basement and read all these plays, and the language is just spectacular. And I fell in love with that spoken word. My son also became a big spoken-word poet when he was in high school. He competed here in LA a lot. And so something in the genes is consistent about the love of language and talking out loud.
BRIGER: So were you in college when you decided that you wanted to pursue acting as a profession? And like, what did your parents think about that? Like, as you said, there was a tradition of public service. Like, did your parents have expectations of you either going into the newspaper business or the political family business?
BROWN: Well, I'm sure. You know, those paths were set up. That legacy was set up, you know, to do one or the other or several or whatever. And - but, you know, undergrad is really a place where you just kind of cast about and see what interests you. And so I, you know, I told my parents that I was just going to take a shot at doing this acting thing and that, you know, when it didn't work out - because it doesn't work out, mostly - I would go back and go to grad school - business, law, whatever - and come back in the family business. My dad actually had a health scare in the middle of my career. And, you know, I went back to him and I said, you know, I'll throw this over and help you run the business if you need it. And, you know, he didn't need it. He recovered. And so I got to carry on. But, you know, I never expected it to work out, and it did. And, you know, I still have my business school application file and my law school application file open. But I'm getting a little long in the tooth now.
BRIGER: If it doesn't work out.
BROWN: Yeah, right.
BRIGER: I wanted to end with one more role. This was a recent role that is sort of against type where you play the father of Carey Mulligan's character in "Promising Young Woman." And this is a scene where Carey Mulligan's Cassie has brought a boyfriend home for dinner. And you and Cassie's mother, played by Jennifer Coolidge, are really excited because you've been worried about Cassie for a long time. She's living at home at 30. She dropped out of medical school. Her best friend, who had also been at medical school with her, was raped and died by suicide. And unbeknownst to you guys, like, Cassie has become, like, this vigilante stalking predatory men. So you've just seen, like, your daughter as stuck. And so I just want to hear the scene from the dinner. And Cassie's boyfriend is played by Bo Burnham.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "PROMISING YOUNG WOMAN")
JENNIFER COOLIDGE: (As Susan) Ryan, I hear you're a doctor. Your parents must be very, very proud.
BO BURNHAM: (As Ryan) Not really. They wanted me to be a DJ.
BROWN: (As Stanley, laughter) He's funny. (Laughter) That's funny. You didn't say he was funny, Cassie.
CAREY MULLIGAN: (As Cassie) Dad.
BURNHAM: (As Ryan) You didn't say I was - you didn't say I was funny.
MULLIGAN: (As Cassie) No, I said you were boring but rich.
BURNHAM: (As Ryan) I am boring; not that rich.
BROWN: (As Stanley) Oh, well, in that case, thanks for stopping by, kid.
COOLIDGE: (As Susan) What kind of doctoring do you do?
BURNHAM: (As Ryan) Pediatric, so children.
BROWN: (As Stanley) What was your - what was that doctor's name, Cassie's doctor?
COOLIDGE: (As Susan) Gary (ph).
BROWN: (As Stanley) No. Dr. Katzen-something (ph).
MULLIGAN: (As Cassie) Yeah. Dad, he was, like, 80.
BROWN: (As Stanley) Yeah. Well, you don't know Dr. Katzen.
BURNHAM: (As Ryan) No.
COOLIDGE: (As Susan) I'm confused. Are there different parts of the body on a child?
BURNHAM: (As Ryan) No. It's pretty much the same thing. You're just, you know, different colored Band-Aids and things. It's not brain surgery.
BROWN: (As Stanley, laughter) I get it. Yeah.
COOLIDGE: (As Susan) Oh.
BURNHAM: (As Ryan) This sauce is absolutely unbelievable.
BRIGER: That's a very (inaudible) scene. Jennifer Coolidge has a very - great line in that.
BROWN: Oh, man. She had some awesome ones in there that didn't even make it in. It was very hard to keep a straight face during that scene - two of the funniest people on Earth, you know, Jennifer and Bo. Bo is - what a talent that guy is. But, boy, it was all I could do - I was just summoning all of my professionalism and training not to laugh out loud at the wrong moments.
BRIGER: So this is a more recent film than some of the films I asked you about earlier. But can you tell us sort of how you played that role? Like, he comes across as kind of a simple, easygoing guy just with some worries about his kid.
BROWN: Yeah. Well, I mean, you know, I'm a dad of a daughter, of a grown daughter. There's no trauma comparable to the trauma in the movie. But, you know, I can act that love. And then the rest of it was just kind of being entertained by Jennifer, I mean, to be honest, just trying to throw her the softballs that she needs to do it and give her the support that she needs to do it. You know, it was just written very sweetly. I don't - you know, there wasn't a lot of emotional heavy lifting there. It was - you know, just came from a natural place, you know, where you get to manifest your love and concern for your daughter.
BRIGER: Well, Clancy Brown, it's been a pleasure talking with you. Thanks so much for being here.
BROWN: Thank you so much.
GROSS: Clancy Brown spoke with FRESH AIR's Sam Briger. Brown is in "John Wick 4," which will open in theaters later this month. After we take a short break, jazz critic Kevin Whitehead will review the new album by pianist Fred Hersch and singer and bass player Esperanza Spalding. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF THE ROOTS SONG, "PROCEED IV (A.J. SHINE MIX)")
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. When pianist Fred Hersch invited jazz, pop and opera composer Esperanza Spalding to perform three nights with him at the Village Vanguard, he'd expected she'd bring her bass. Spalding told him she just wanted to use her voice. Jazz critic Kevin Whitehead says, did she ever.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BUT NOT FOR ME")
ESPERANZA SPALDING: (Singing) They're writing songs of love but not for me. A lucky star's above but not for me. With love to lead the way, there are more clouds of gray than any Russian play could guarantee. I was a fool to fall and get that way. Hi-ho, alas and also lack-a-day.
KEVIN WHITEHEAD, BYLINE: I'll never hear that 1930 Gershwin song the same way, not after this version where Esperanza Spalding goes off script to contemplate Ira Gershwin's lyric. She takes the opening line literally. This love song is not for me. It was written for someone from another time.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BUT NOT FOR ME")
SPALDING: (Singing) Oh, me. Oh, my. What a sad case I seem to be. It's my fault, letting love to lead the way. I should know that there'll be skies of gray. I can't say I've seen too many, but they say that Russian plays do boast of many gray skies, all right - and then some words I don't really understand because it's, like, old English - hi-ho, alas, and lackaday. That's how I feel, confused about the whole situation.
WHITEHEAD: Songs by Gershwin and company are jazz evergreens, with their sublime, blues-inflected harmony and sprung rhythms. Esperanza Spalding's confusion over that lyric reminds us that by now, those standards are also the parlor songs of a previous century. The song "But Not For Me" comes from a musical set way out west. And that hi-ho and lackaday poke fun at already archaic language. As for that gloomy Russian play, Broadway staged a few Chekhov revivals around 1930. But while lyrics grow stale, the last century's jazzy music endures.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LITTLE SUEDE SHOES")
SPALDING: (Scatting, singing) See, it's not lost on us that it's technically a Saturday night. And you generously or foolishly have chosen to spend that night in a jazz club, sitting cramped behind a table. Bless you.
WHITEHEAD: Esperanza Spalding and Fred Hersch from their singular album "Alive At The Village Vanguard," recorded in 2018. The Vanguard is Hersch's favorite place to play, practically his third living room. He makes a singer feel very much at ease and at home, letting her have the spotlight and making her sound better.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DREAM OF MONK")
WHITEHEAD: With Fred Hersch at the Vanguard, Esperanza Spalding confronts one more dated 20th century lyric. This one she understands only too well, Bobby Troup's patronizing words to 1965's "Girl Talk." Spalding sings the catty lyric almost straight while attacking the premise from the inside.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GIRL TALK")
SPALDING: (Singing) We all meow about the ups and downs of all our friends, the who, the how, the why. We dish the dirt. It never ends. Not weaker sex, just speaker sex. You mortal men, behold. For you may joke, but we wouldn't trade it for a ton of gold. You see our way. We gab away. But hear me say that after girl talk, try and decode the hidden meaning. It's OK. I know it's not for everyone. That's kind of the point.
WHITEHEAD: She's just warming up. From there, discussion advances in two moves from a drugstore sale on false eyelashes to environmental consciousness.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GIRL TALK")
SPALDING: See, dudes, you think we're talking about one thing. But y'all don't understand. We're practicing a theory of economic sustainability. Reduce. Reuse. Recycle. Am I lying?
WHITEHEAD: Esperanza Spalding is funny, charming, silver-tongued and self-assured as she unspools her disquisitions in rhythm, counting on Fred Hersch to stimulate her imagination and back every play. Little as we've talked about him, he also sounds great here. "Alive At The Village Vanguard" isn't straight-ahead jazz or a cabaret act or offbeat comedy album or impromptu guest lecture, but all that stuff is in there. I can't think of another record like it.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LORO")
SPALDING: (Scatting). Bless you. (Scatting).
GROSS: Kevin Whitehead is the author of the book "Play The Way You Feel: The Essential Guide To Jazz Stories On Film." And he writes for Point of Departure and the Audio Beat. He reviewed the album Fred Hersch and Esperanza Spalding "Alive At The Village Vanguard." After a short break, John Powers will review "Birnam Wood," the new novel by Eleanor Catton, about a guerrilla collective that seeks to fight capitalism and ecological devastation through legal and illegal means. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF KEITH JARRETT TRIO'S "CONCEPTION")
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. "Birnam Wood" is the first novel by Eleanor Catton since she won the Booker Prize in 2013 for "The Luminaries." The new book tells the story of a New Zealand environmental collective that finds an unlikely backer in an American billionaire. Our critic-at-large, John Powers, says the book is like a Victorian novel but with a pulp fiction kick.
JOHN POWERS, BYLINE: Ever since Ursula K. Le Guin and Edward Abbey lit the fuse back in the 1970s, there's been an ever-growing explosion of political eco-fiction. From Octavia Butler and Richard Powers to Amitav Ghosh and Margaret Atwood, novelists have gotten more and more fascinated with those who fight to save the environment.
One such group occupies the center of "Birnam Wood," the whooshingly enjoyable new novel by Eleanor Catton, a New Zealander whose previous book, "The Luminaries," made her, at 28, still the youngest person ever to win the Booker Prize. Where that 2013 novel was a wild-and-woolly beast, "Birnam Wood" - its title comes from "Macbeth" - is shapelier and more conventional. Filled with utopian hopes, personal betrayals, accidental deaths and profoundly unaccidental murders, this New Zealand-set book is a witty literary thriller about the collision between eco-idealism and staggering wealth.
The story begins by introducing three 20-something members of Birnam Wood, a guerrilla collective that seeks to fight capitalism and ecological devastation by, legally or not, growing things on unplanted land, public and private. There's Mira, the group's willful and charismatic founder. There's her burnt-out sidekick, Shelley, who does the grunt work and secretly wants to quit the group. And then there's Tony, the most radical thinker of the bunch who's returned to the group after several years abroad. He has romantic hopes for himself and Mira, hopes that Shelley quietly hopes to sink.
Mira hears about an unoccupied farm owned by Sir Owen Darvish and his wife, Jill, who embody the solidity and complacency of well-off Kiwis. Mira thinks it perfect for a Birnam Wood project. But when she drives there from Christchurch, she discovers that it's been bought by Robert Lemoine, an elusive, billionaire American drone manufacturer who says he plans to build a survivalist bunker. Attracted to Mira, Lemoine offers to help finance Birnam Wood. And because her group badly needs money, she's interested. But will a rich benefactor's money help the group spread its message or corrupt it?
While Catton has sympathy for the grand idealism of the Birnam Wood collective, she also sees its fault lines. Indeed, the book's at its best taking us inside the characters' heads to lay bare the illusions, desires and petty motivations that often work against their dreams. For instance, Mira emerges as something of a modern-day version of Jane Austen's Emma. Catton actually scripted a 2020 film adaptation of that novel. Mira's sense of political righteousness blinds her to her own motivations. The disaffected Shelley accuses her of, quote, "rebelling for the sake of it, acting as though the rules that bound the little people were just too tiresome and ordinary to apply to her."
Working in the tradition of the 19th century novel - one hears echoes of George Eliot as well as Austen - Catton likes to confront her characters with choices and then lay bare the consequences, often unintended, of what they've chosen. There's a great, lacerating scene in which Tony, a world-class mansplainer, falls out of favor with the group by attacking identity politics and intersectionality. Because of this split, he will wind up spying on Lemoine - a move that sends the plot caroming in a wild new direction.
You see, while our heroes in the collective are muddling their way through ordinary human issues, they're faced with a villain from a 21st century thriller. Lemoine isn't merely an amoral billionaire with all the compassion of one of his drones. He's a high-tech bad guy, complete with NSA-level spyware and mercenaries to do his bidding. Too bad to be true, he's so skillful at wielding his malignancy that, in spite of herself, Catton seems to hold him in a kind of awe.
Normally, it would be an artistic flaw that realistic characters like Mira, Shelley, Tony and the Darvishes must confront such a comic-book baddie, and I guess it is here. What starts off looking like a novel about character winds up in a climax out of a genre novel. Yet the story plays like gangbusters. I devoured all 400-plus pages in two days.
And in showing the collective's encounter with Lemoine, Catton taps into a feeling very much of our moment. We live at a time when many environmentalists feel helpless next to mega-rich forces who seem able to despoil the planet as they wish and to avoid any governmental attempts to check them. In "Birnam Wood," we see the consequences of this gap in power. And the results are not pretty.
GROSS: John Powers reviewed "Birnam Wood" by Eleanor Catton. Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, we'll talk about working as a doctor in the largest safety net hospital in Houston, one of America's most diverse cities, in the state that has the nation's largest uninsured population. Safety net hospitals treat the uninsured who aren't admitted to other hospitals. We'll talk with Dr. Ricardo Nuila, author of the new book "The People's Hospital: Hope And Peril In American Medicine." I hope you'll join us.
(SOUNDBITE OF CHICK COREA AND STEFANO BOLLANI'S "ARMANDO'S RHUMBA")
GROSS: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Roberta Shorrock, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Ann Marie Baldonado, Seth Kelley, Susan Nyakundi and Joel Wolfram. Our digital media producer is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Thea Chaloner directed today's show. I'm Terry Gross.
(SOUNDBITE OF CHICK COREA AND STEFANO BOLLANI'S "ARMANDO'S RHUMBA")
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