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SHOW: Fresh Air
DATE: December , 2005
DAVID BIANCULLI, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli, TV critic for the New York Daily News,
sitting in for Terry Gross.
In a moment, we're gonna hear an interview Terry recorded earlier this year
with two great actors who are also married: Felicity Huffman and William H.
Macy. Huffman has become a household name and an Emmy winner as a result of
her role on "Desperate Housewives" as Lynette. She also starred in the
critically acclaimed but short-lived series "Sports Night." William H. Macy
received an Oscar nomination for his role in "Fargo" and won writing and acting
Emmys for his telemovie "Door to Door." His other movies include "Seabiscuit"
and "Boogie Nights."
Now Macy is the executive producer of a new movie called "Transamerica." It
stars Felicity Huffman, who won the best actress award when the filmed played
earlier this year at the Tribeca Film Festival. Huffman plays a transsexual
man preparing to have final gender reassignment surgery and already passing as
a genetic female. In this scene, she's being evaluated for the surgery by a
psychiatrist. A heads-up to parents: This scene has a passing reference which
may not be appropriate for young children.
(Soundbite of "Transamerica")
Unidentified Man #1: Do you consider yourself a happy person?
Ms. FELICITY HUFFMAN: (As Sabrina Claire Osborne) Yes. I mean, no. I mean, I
Unidentified Man #1: Ms. Osborne, there's no such thing as a right answer in
Ms. HUFFMAN: (As Sabrina) Yes, I'm a very happy person.
Unidentified Man #1: How can I help you if you won't be honest with me?
Ms. HUFFMAN: (As Sabrina) You can sign that consent form. Please.
Unidentified Man #1: The American Psychiatric Association categorizes gender
dysphoria as a very serious mental disorder.
Ms. HUFFMAN: (As Sabrina) After my operation, not even a gynecologist will be
able to detect anything out of the ordinary about my body. I will be a woman.
Don't you find it odd that plastic surgery can cure a mental disorder?
Unidentified Man #1: How do you feel about your penis?
Ms. HUFFMAN: (As Sabrina) It disgusts me. I don't even like looking at it.
Unidentified Man #1: What about friends?
Ms. HUFFMAN: (As Sabrina) They don't like it, either.
Unidentified Man #1: No, I mean, do you have the support of friends?
Ms. HUFFMAN: (As Sabrina) I'm very close to my therapist.
Unidentified Man #1: What about your family?
Ms. HUFFMAN: (As Sabrina) My family is dead.
TERRY GROSS, host:
Felicity Huffman, William H. Macy, welcome to FRESH AIR.
Ms. HUFFMAN: Thank you.
Mr. WILLIAM H. MACY (Actor): Thank you.
GROSS: Felicity, Now the kind of woman that you're playing as a man who's
becoming a woman is a different kind of woman than I suspect you are. In other
Ms. HUFFMAN: What are you saying, Terry?
GROSS: Well, here's exactly what I'm saying, that he's kind of inhabiting a
kind of woman who is probably female in a way that's slightly different than
Ms. HUFFMAN: Yeah.
GROSS: ...with an almost studied wiggle in the walk. And you know, we'll talk
about learning the voice in a second. But he's learned how to be a woman, and
you just are a woman. And there's a certain type of female manner that I think
people who are transsexuals adopt that's a little different than a lot of women
who are just women, who are in some ways less feminine.
Ms. HUFFMAN: Well, it's a journey, because most transgendered people who are
transgendered do it later in life when they actually have the finances to do
it, 'cause it's very expensive. And also, you know, after quite a few years,
30 or 40, of struggling with this decision because, you know, they're caught
between a rock and a hard place--either they can be alienated from themselves,
you know, not presenting who they really are, or they can have the sexual
reassignment surgery, and then they're going to be alienated from society. So
it takes a long time before you're willing to sacrifice society for yourself,
if that's clear.
And the reason I preface that is because you take a 40-year-old guy and you
say, `All right, starting tomorrow, I want you to wear a dress and earrings and
makeup and present to the world as a woman,' because you have to dress as a
woman for a year before you are OK'd for the sexual reassignment surgery. And,
you know, they're--they don't know how to do that.
Mr. MACY: A lot of women don't know how to do that.
Ms. HUFFMAN: Yeah, myself included. So, yeah, I think what I chose for Sabrina
Claire Osborne, which is what my name was in the movie, Bree, it was a very
studied, learned, almost beauty-pageant kind of femininity because she had to
go to that extreme to learn it before she could find it in herself. I think in
the last scene of the movie, you can see her being a little more settled in her
own femininity. I also happen to know a lot of transgendered women who, you
know, are completely comfortable being a woman and aren't that sort of
mannerisms--don't have those kind of mannerisms that I adopted in the movie.
GROSS: Felicity, your--the movie starts with your character watching a
videotape of a woman demonstrating for pre-op transsexuals how to place their
voice so that they sound more like a woman. And that's the kind of thing you
try to--your character tries to achieve through the movie. And there's
something that's so convincing about what you've done with your voice for this
film. Could you talk a little bit about placing it for the movie?
Ms. HUFFMAN: Sure. Let me give you some background, though. Sexual
reassignment surgery and hormone therapy does not alter the vocal cords. So
you can have someone that looks like Kate Moss sound like James Earl Jones. And
it's one of the most difficult challenges they have, because it's hard to find
your female voice. And the woman at the beginning of the movie who you see in
the videotape is Andrea James, and that's one of the things she does is she
coaches--as you said, she coaches men how to sound like women. And, you know,
you want to sound authentic. You don't want to sound like a guy, but you also
don't want to sound like Tony Curtis in "Some Like It Hot."
So I--women don't even have the chest cavity or the head cavity that men have
to drop it down. I mean, you saw Andrea on that film go (makes vocal sound
descending in pitch) you know, finish up for me, Bill. She went, like...
Mr. MACY: (Makes low-pitched vocal sound)
Ms. HUFFMAN: Yeah, she went down like that. So I couldn't find a way to do
it, and I knew it was key. And I finally went to--we were rehearsing in New
York, and I went to a wonderful voice coach named Katie Bowle(ph). And,
through a bunch of work, we figured out how to find a voice that sounded like
it was in transition, which is as close as I could get.
Mr. MACY: The thing that Felicity did that's so great in this film is that
you--we now all know her very well because of "Desperate Housewives," and you
look at this character and you know it's Felicity in there somewhere, but it's
just all a little wrong. It was perfect. She really has done a number. She
erased her face somehow. I don't know she did it.
GROSS: Oh! No, exactly, yeah.
Mr. MACY: And then painted it back on. So it's her face, but it's just not
GROSS: I noticed that, actually, just watching it. And what I was thinking
about was that--Felicity, tell me if you think this is right--that you do want
to--your face is almost like a mask in the movie, as if you're trying to not
betray too much of what you're feeling, 'cause what you're feeling at this
point is such kind of confusion. And so...
Ms. HUFFMAN: No, she's not feeling confusion. What she's feeling is
intense--and I can't think of the right word--it's like intense, Mach 4, of
self-consciousness, because she doesn't represent to the world the way she
feels inside, so all she can hope is she comes in under the radar, you know,
`Just don't look at me. I'm not tall. I'm not big.' You know, she doesn't
know how to do her makeup. You know, her hair's a little funky from hormones,
which happens. And so it's not that she's lost; it's that...
Mr. MACY: What's the phrase they use when they're made or when they're...
Ms. HUFFMAN: Clocked.
Mr. MACY: Clocked. When someone realizes that it's a transgendered person,
they're clocked. And that's the biggest fear.
Ms. HUFFMAN: Yeah. They just--yeah, they live in--yeah, it's horrible, because
you're pointed out as, ooh, a freak.
GROSS: Now, Bill Macy, the last time you were on FRESH AIR...
Mr. MACY: Oh.
GROSS: ...this was, like, 1993--we talked a lot about your approach to acting
and what you'd learned from working with David Mamet in theater and in movies.
And I remember you talking about how you're not into the Method and you're into
always asking, like, what's your motive, like, what do you want the other
person to do, what action are you trying to get them to do with what you're
saying. And it's kind of different from, like, the Method approach of, like,
drawing on your deepest emotional memories that, like, approximate what the
character's going through. Do you both have the same approach to acting? Do
Ms. HUFFMAN: Yeah.
Mr. MACY: I think we do, and I think "Transamerica" is an excellent example of
that. Felicity has a serious characterization to do. Her voice is different;
her walk is different; her look is different. Every physical thing about her
is different. But why the film works so well is that she doesn't forget to
act, and that happens so often for an actor; when it's a high-wire act with
this characterization, you forget to act. You forget to look at the other
person. And the reason the film works so well is that it's just her,
Ms. HUFFMAN: Yeah, I think we approach work the same way. I mean, I was
constantly--'cause Bill was home a lot with the girls. I would say several
times a day I was calling Bill for coaching on a scene, and we work that way a
lot. I call him from "Desperate Housewives," and he solves it for me.
GROSS: What kind of advice do you ask?
Ms. HUFFMAN: Oh, I read the scene over--I fax him the scene or the rewrites and
we read it together, and I sort of say, `What do you think it means? What do
you think she wants? How should I approach it?'
Mr. MACY: We do it with each other. Sometimes you can miss the forest for the
trees. When it's a scene...
Ms. HUFFMAN: Yeah, me, I can, yeah.
Mr. MACY: When it's a scene, you have to act in moments, really. An outsider
can look at it with a little bit fresher eye, really.
BIANCULLI: William H. Macy and Felicity Huffman speaking with Terry Gross.
Huffman stars in the new movie "Transamerica," which Macy produced.
More after this break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
BIANCULLI: Our guests are Felicity Huffman and William H. Macy, two great
actors who are also married.
GROSS: How did you both meet, Bill?
Ms. HUFFMAN: The Atlantic Theater Company.
Mr. MACY: We met through the Atlantic Theater Company in New York City.
GROSS: And you were both acting in it?
Mr. MACY: I was teaching and Felicity was a student. But I didn't touch her,
Terry. I didn't touch her...
Mr. MACY: ...until long after she had graduated, hours after she had graduated.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. HUFFMAN: I can't believe you said that. I was so willing to, like, (makes
whooshing noise) go right around it.
Mr. MACY: Let it go. The word's out. It's no hiding anymore.
GROSS: Right. Was that awkward while you were her teacher?
Ms. HUFFMAN: We didn't get together until after--it was I was graduated.
Mr. MACY: The company had been formed for a while.
Ms. HUFFMAN: It was the theater company.
Mr. MACY: Our relationship was really more of company members.
Ms. HUFFMAN: Yeah.
Mr. MACY: And I...
Ms. HUFFMAN: Except that all the girls had crushes on Bill, I have to tell you.
Mr. MACY: Now she tells me.
(Soundbite of laughter) ***** GROSS: Let me play a scene of you together, and
this is from the series "Sports Night," in which, Felicity Huffman, you played
a producer of an ESPN-type sports show. And, Bill Macy, for a few episodes,
you played a consultant who's brought in to boost the ratings, and you have
very strong opinions of how to do that, and you're trying to tell the producers
what they should be doing to improve the show. So here's a scene where you've
come into the control room and you're telling the producer, Felicity Huffman,
what she should do.
(Soundbite of "Sports Night")
Mr. MACY: (As Sam Donovan) Hey.
Ms. HUFFMAN: (As Dana Whitaker) Good evening.
Mr. MACY: (As Sam) Sure seems a little stiff tonight, don't you think?
Ms. HUFFMAN: (As Dana) Yes, I do.
Mr. MACY: (As Sam) Maybe even stiffer than last time.
Ms. HUFFMAN: (As Dana) I believe it is.
Mr. MACY: (As Sam) You know why?
Ms. HUFFMAN: (As Dana) 'Cause you're freaking everyone out?
Mr. MACY: (As Sam) Could it be?
Unidentified Man #2: Stand by, 57 and 58.
Mr. MACY: (As Sam) You know what I'd do if I were you?
Ms. HUFFMAN: (As Dana) Kill myself?
Mr. MACY: (As Sam) No, I'd whisper in your ear.
Ms. HUFFMAN: (As Dana) I beg your pardon?
Mr. MACY: (As Sam) The two of you, whisper something in their ear.
Ms. HUFFMAN: (As Dana) What are you talking about?
Mr. MACY: (As Sam) Men like the sound of a woman whispering in their ear. They
Ms. HUFFMAN: (As Dana) Why don't we just go do a lap dance?
Mr. MACY: (As Sam) No, we don't have that kind of time, but I like your
Ms. HUFFMAN: (As Dana) Listen...
Mr. MACY: (As Sam) Whisper in their ear.
Ms. HUFFMAN: (As Dana) I'm not whispering in their ear. Natalie's not
whispering in their ear.
Ms. KAYLA BLAKE: (As Kim) If you want, I...
Ms. HUFFMAN: (As Dana) Kim's not whispering in their ear. You've gotten
everything you've wanted. We've been totally cooperative. But I'm afraid from
11 to 12, this is my show, and I'll deal with things the way I deal with
Mr. MACY: (As Sam) OK.
GROSS: That's William H. Macy and Felicity Huffman in a scene from the former
ABC series "Sports Night," which is out on DVD.
So when you worked on that together, did you talk--again, you know, like your
approach to acting has to do with what are you getting the other person to do
by saying what you say. Did you talk about that kind of thing to each other,
or should you not show your cards to each other when you're going to be in a
Ms. HUFFMAN: No, we totally show our cards to each other. Yeah. It's not a...
GROSS: It doesn't, like, diminish the power or anything 'cause the other
Ms. HUFFMAN: No, because...
GROSS: ...how you're trying to manipulate them?
Ms. HUFFMAN: No, no, no, because it lives in the moment. It doesn't live in
what you practiced in the dressing room or rehearsals in the afternoon. It
lives in the moment. And if Bill does something different, I'll react
differently. And if I do something different, he reacts differently. So you
don't bring in something you rehearsed earlier. You live in the moment, and
that's constantly changing.
Mr. MACY: And it's not as if it's a secret. I mean, if a scene is
well-written, it's pretty clear what's going on. The playwright is not out to
trick us; he's out to make it as clear as possible.
Ms. HUFFMAN: Yeah. And Aaron Sorkin--wasn't it fun to hear that?
Mr. MACY: Oh, that guy can write.
Ms. HUFFMAN: That guy can write.
Mr. MACY: He could do it professionally.
Ms. HUFFMAN: He could.
GROSS: So this scene sounds like it was a lot of fun to do.
Mr. MACY: That whole series was fun to do.
Ms. HUFFMAN: It was fantastic. It was so great to have Bill come on. And we
got to make out and get paid for it.
GROSS: (Laughs) You know, I always think that when you start out doing David
Mamet plays, as you both did, that in some ways it's got to be all downhill
from there. I mean, how many people write dialogue on that level? Have you
ever felt, either of you, in roles where, like, you know, it was a good part,
you should be doing it, but it just wasn't kind of reaching that level that you
Mr. MACY: I think when you're--I think various scripts bring various things to
the table. David can certainly write dialogue as well or better than anybody
else. But sometimes there's a great story to be told, or sometimes it's a
great character to play, or sometimes the dynamic with all the characters.
There's different elements to the party each time. It doesn't have to Mamet
dialogue each time. Also, Mamet dialogue is a double-edged sword. On one
hand, it's fun to speak, but it's impossible to learn and very complicated.
Ms. HUFFMAN: And difficult to do well.
GROSS: Why is it complicated and difficult?
Ms. HUFFMAN: He writes in iambic pentameter most of the time, and it's a
very--the wording is very specific. And it's not casual.
Mr. MACY: It's not casual at all. Sometimes when you read a Mamet script, it
takes you three or four readings just to understand exactly what the characters
say. And interestingly, when you read it, you'll read a sentence on the page
and you're not sure of what it means, but the second you say it out loud, it's
Ms. HUFFMAN: Yes.
Mr. MACY: He has a tendency to cut some of the words out of a speech, as we do
in natural speech.
GROSS: Bill Macy, in one of your recent movies, "The Cooler," you had a sex
scene with Maria Bello.
Mr. MACY: I did?
Ms. HUFFMAN: `A' sex scene? `A' sex scene?
GROSS: Yeah, right. OK, several. And we also got to see you naked from
behind. And I guess I'm wondering if, you know--I think that was, like, the
first time on screen that you were naked from behind. Was that, like, an issue
for you? And I ask you this, in part, because it got so much attention. Like,
people were saying, `Oh, Macy's doing a sex scene,' you know (laughs). But I
guess I'm wondering whether that was something that made you uncomfortable, how
you reacted to the reaction to it.
Mr. MACY: I was nervous about it. I'm north of 50 years old, so the idea of
taking off my clothes in front of all the world was daunting. But Maria Bello
is very, very cool about it, and she said it was no big deal. Felicity was
supportive about it. She said, `You've got a nice rear end.' And ultimately,
just like anything, if it advances the plot, if it's good story-telling, I'm
willing to do it. And I--the only thing that I wish is that I'd started
working out a little bit earlier for that, before I had to do that. But, yeah,
it made me nervous. I had a--my acting teacher was on set with me; his name's
Ms. HUFFMAN: (Laughs)
Mr. MACY: And that helped a lot.
GROSS: Oh, oh, I get it. I was going to say, what a coincidence.
Mr. MACY: Yeah.
(Soundbite of laughter)
GROSS: Well, but that could really dull your senses, that Jim Beam.
Mr. MACY: That's what I needed...
Mr. MACY: ...dulled senses. It looks like it would be--I just had to watch
Felicity making out for an hour on ABC the other night.
Ms. HUFFMAN: Oh, my God, I kissed. I kissed Doug Savant. That's all I did.
Bill is naked with Maria Bello, who's--What?--10 years younger than me...
Mr. MACY: You didn't kiss Doug Savant.
Ms. HUFFMAN: ...and stunning. And...
Mr. MACY: You did...
Ms. HUFFMAN: Shut up. Shut up.
Mr. MACY: ...surgery on his mouth.
Ms. HUFFMAN: And, like, 10 pounds lighter than me. Bill's running around
naked. She's, like, got her hands on young Will and the twins. I mean, it's
Ms. HUFFMAN: But suddenly he can't look at me because I happen to be kissing
GROSS: Now I know you're kidding each other now, but is it--does it really make
you uncomfortable when you see that?
Mr. MACY: I hate it.
Ms. HUFFMAN: Oh, he's so sweet.
Mr. MACY: I hate it. I just don't watch. I sort of look away and hum so I
can't even hear the dialogue.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. MACY: I don't need to see that. What am I going to say to her? `Hey, good
job, honey. Boy, that guy's going to stay kissed for a while.'
(Soundbite of laughter)
GROSS: Well, I think you're both great, and I really appreciate your talking
with us today. Thank you so much.
Ms. HUFFMAN: Thank you.
Mr. MACY: Thanks, Terry.
Ms. HUFFMAN: I love your program.
Mr. MACY: We think you're great, too.
Ms. HUFFMAN: Yeah.
GROSS: Oh, gee, thanks.
BIANCULLI: William Macy and Felicity Huffman speaking with Terry Gross.
Huffman co-stars in the TV show "Desperate Housewives" and has the starring
role in the new film "Transamerica," which Macy produced.
Here's a song from the "Desperate Housewives" companion CD. It starts with a
clip of Felicity Huffman as Lynette. I'm David Bianculli, and this is FRESH
(Soundbite of song)
Ms. HUFFMAN: (As Lynette) And I started taking the pills because they gave me
energy. It's so humiliating. Other moms don't need help. Other moms make it
look so easy. All I do is complain.
Unidentified Woman: (Singing) What a drag it is getting home. Kids are
different today I hear every mother say. Mother needs something today to calm
her down. And though she's not really ill, there's a little yellow pill. She
goes running for the shelter of her mother's little helper, and it helps her on
her way, gets her through her busy day. Things are different today I hear
every mother say. Cooking fresh food for her husband, just a drag. So she
buys an instant cake and she burns a frozen steak and goes running for the
shelter of her mother's little helper to help her on her way, gets her through
BIANCULLI: Jazz composer and pianist Dave Brubeck turns 85 years old next week,
but there'll be no time out for him. He's still playing and performing. Coming
up, we feature an interview with Dave Brubeck. Also, David Edelstein reviews
the new film "Syriana," and we'll have a review of the new Showtime miniseries
DAVID BIANCULLI, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli sitting in for Terry Gross.
George Clooney hasn't shied away from political and social issues off or on the
screen. His film "Good Night, and Good Luck" was about the McCarthy era and
the news media. Now, as an executive producer and star of "Syriana," he looks
at the US involvement in the Persian Gulf. The film is the directorial debut
of Stephen Gaghan, who won an Oscar in 2000 for his screenplay of "Traffic."
David Edelstein has a review.
DAVID EDELSTEIN reporting:
That handsome rogue, George Clooney, must have been eager to transform himself
into a burnout with a messy beard and a potbelly. In "Syriana," he plays Bob
Barnes, a Persian Gulf CIA operative often under cover and never much concerned
with the big picture, only with the minutia of his missions, which include
arranging assassinations of foreign leaders. When we meet him, he's making an
arms deal with--well, I'm not sure--terrorists of one stripe or another. They
get blown up--or their car does. I think this is a flashback. Look, to explain
the plot of "Syriana," I'd need a blackboard and flow charts.
The writer and director, Stephen Gaghan, is a student of British miniseries
like, well, "Traffic," which he adapted for the American screen. He likes
narratives with multiple characters and multiple twisty subplots. And he's
probably right to think a linear technique wouldn't fully serve the story of a
tangled alliance between US intelligence agencies and big oil companies to
control the fate and the oil of a Persian Gulf kingdom. He's just a tad remiss
in giving us our bearings. So it's hard to distinguish the pointedly jumbled
from the totally inept.
"Syriana" hinges on two energy companies that are merging to create a
corporation with revenues greater, we're told, than the Gross Domestic Products
of Pakistan and Denmark. An unusually low-key Jeffrey Wright plays an
investigator for a private law firm hired to keep the Justice Department at
bay. I was never entirely sure who hired him. It's hard to distinguish among
the old white men who lecture him throughout the movie.
Well, there's no mistaking Christopher Plummer, who plays some kind of military
industrial intelligence complex kingpin and who summons Wright in secret to
establish a back channel of communication. Plummer is amazing, so sleek, so
saturnine, so redolent of malevolent power. I never did figure out who he was,
Maybe we should hear a scene from the movie. Here's Clooney's Barnes trying to
toe the CIA line on Iran for the Condi Ricelike representative of the
administration. He's stuck between his agency's agenda and, well, reality.
(Soundbite of "Syriana")
Mr. GEORGE CLOONEY: (As Bob Barnes) And our analysis seems to be on the mark.
We're getting good satellite coverage. We're reprogramming resources into
Unidentified Woman: Thank you for coming over, Mr. Barnes. Welcome back. And
forgive me if I wade right in, but forgetting for a second your bureaucratic
checklist, I'm trying to get undigested information.
Mr. CLOONEY: (As Bob Barnes) Well, to the best of our ability...
Unidentified Woman: India is now our ally, Russia is now our ally. Even China
will be an ally. Everybody between Morocco and Pakistan is the problem, failed
states and failed economies. But Iran is a natural cultural ally of the US.
Are we going to have a nice, secular, pro-Western, pro-business government?
Mr. CLOONEY: (As Bob Barnes) It's possible. It's complicated.
Unidentified Woman: Of course it is, Mr. Barnes. Thank you for your time.
Mr. CLOONEY: (As Bob Barnes) They let young people march in the street. The
next day they shut down 50 newspapers. Put a few satellite dishes up on the
roofs, let them have "My Two Dads." That doesn't mean that the ayatollahs are
surrendering one iota of control over that nation.
Unidentified Man #1: Mr. Barnes, the reform movement in Iran is one of the
president's great hopes for the region and crucial to the petroleum security of
the United States.
Unidentified Man #2: These gentlemen are with the CLI. The Committee for the
Liberation of Iran, Mr. Barnes.
EDELSTEIN: You get a sense from that of all the interests in conflict, and
there are many more. Hang on. Let me find my flow chart. There's a Pakistani
oil field worker who's bruskly fired from his job after the giant merger and
who drifts steadily into radical Islamist politics. And the film's other big
star, Matt Damon, plays an ambitious but fundamentally decent energy analyst
who sells his services to a Persian Gulf kingdom. The aging emir has two sons,
both potential heirs. One, played by Alexander Siddig, is an intellectual and
reformer, who makes a pipeline deal with the Chinese instead of the Americans
because their offer is much better. The other is a lazy, ignorant, corrupt
playboy who's happy to jump into bed with anyone who'll give him kickbacks.
Guess which brother the US administration supports and which brother it wants
"Syriana" depicts an incestuous link between America's private and public
sectors, both rife with cronyism, arrogance and incompetence. It's what some
on the right would call a left-wing Chompskyite `hate America first' movie. And
parts of it are laughably simplistic, not to mention incoherent. But in the
last half-hour, when the threads finally do coalesce, when Gaghan draws a
straight line, the only straight line in the movie, from US malfeasance to the
birth of a terrorist, "Syriana" feels so spooky and dead on that I found myself
thinking, `Hmm, maybe the most cynical and convoluted explanation is actually
the most plausible one.'
BIANCULLI: David Edelstein is the film critic for the online magazine Slate.
Coming up, Dave Brubeck. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of "Three to Get Ready")
DAVID BIANCULLI, host:
Fifty-one years ago, polls in the two leading jazz magazines, Metronome and
Down Beat, selected pianist Dave Brubeck's group as the best instrumental group
of the year. Five years later, Brubeck was on the cover of Time magazine. In
1959, the Dave Brubeck Quartet recorded "Time Out," which included the tune
"Take Five." It became the first jazz album to sell a million copies. The
album illustrated the group's approach to counterpoint and lightly swinging,
eccentric rhythms as in the song we're listening to now, "Three to Get Ready."
(Soundbite of "Three to Get Ready")
BIANCULLI: There have been many milestones in Dave Brubeck's life and career.
He'll mark another one next Tuesday when he celebrates his 85th birthday. Terry
spoke with him in 1999. She asked about his childhood in California. His
mother was a music teacher and pianist, his father was a cattle rancher. The
family took over a large cattle ranch when Dave Brubeck was 11 years old.
(Soundbite of 1999 interview)
Mr. DAVE BRUBECK (Musician): My dad was the manager of the 45,000-acre ranch
but he owned his own 1,200-acre ranch and I owned four cattle that he gave to
me when I graduated from grammar school, from the eighth grade. And those cows
multiplied and he kept track of 'em for years for me. And that was my herd.
TERRY GROSS, host:
You know, I'm used to seeing you behind the piano. It's hard for me to imagine
you as a cowboy.
Mr. BRUBECK: Well, I could send you pictures. And there even are some, what we
call, movies in those days, some of the very first kind of home movies where
I'm with my dad lassoing and branding and big round-up. So it is documented.
GROSS: Did you sing cowboy songs?
Mr. BRUBECK: Oh, all of 'em. Yeah, when they were real cowboy songs like
"Strawberry Roan," and "Little Joe, the Wrangler," tunes that people don't sing
anymore. Oh, I loved those songs. The words can still make me cry and I used
to make my kids cry by singing, `Joe, you take my saddle, Bill, you take my
bed, Jim, you take my pistol after I am dead. And think of me, please, kindly
when you look upon them all. For I'll not see my mother when the work's all
done next fall.' Now that's a cowboy tune.
GROSS: Did you like singing?
Mr. BRUBECK: Oh, yeah. I used to sing that, play my ukelele.
GROSS: Ukelele, no, wow.
Mr. BRUBECK: Some of my friends played guitar, cowboy songs. Yeah.
GROSS: Let me get back to what we were talking about, which was life on the
cattle ranch. And there were two cattle ranches in your life, the one that
your father owned and the larger one that he managed. Did you have really
strong arms and hands from the work and do you think that that helped you as a
Mr. BRUBECK: It didn't hurt. My mother would not allow my dad to have me rope
anything larger than a yearling because she didn't want my fingers to become
hurt. And my uncle, who was also a rodeo roper, got his finger caught between
the saddle horn and the rope and it took his finger right off. And he used to
kid the other cowboys and said, `I would have been a great pianist like my
nephew, Dave, had I not lost this finger.'
GROSS: Now I think in spite of the fact that you studied piano with your mother
as a boy, you weren't very good at reading music. How well could you read when
you started majoring in music in college?
Mr. BRUBECK: I couldn't read and that caused a lot of trouble in the
conservatory. So I hid it until I was a senior by not taking piano. I'd take
the other instruments where cello and clarinet and--so that I was just playing
scales and getting by and doing the subjects I had to pass in. But in my
senior year they said, `You have to take piano.' And the piano teacher in five
minutes ran downstairs to the dean and said `Brubeck can't read at all.' So the
dean said, `You know, you're a disgrace to the conservatory and we can't
And when some of the younger teachers heard this they went to the dean and they
said, `You're making a big mistake because he writes the best counterpoint that
I've ever had,' said Dr. Brown. And Dr. Bodley went in and said, `You're
wrong, you know, this guy is talented.' So they convinced the dean to let me
graduate if I--and the dean said, `You can graduate if you promise never to
teach and embarrass the conservatory.' So that's the way I graduated and that's
the way I've gotten through life is having to substitute other things for not
being able to read well. But I can write, which is something very few people
GROSS: Now your first record that I think really made an impression on a
record-buying public--I mean that got bought a lot--was "Jazz Goes to College."
Mr. BRUBECK: Mm-hmm.
GROSS: And it was sessions recorded at three different colleges.
Mr. BRUBECK: Yeah.
GROSS: And, you know, there's a picture of you on it. And you're wearing your
glasses and those glasses were really a central part of your image and I think,
in part, because that record was "Jazz Goes to College" and, in part, because
those kind of thick, plastic glasses you maybe had the image of being what was
known in those days as an egghead.
Mr. BRUBECK: I wish I had. I'm not that smart. But people forget that at the
same time we had a huge following at places like the Apollo Theater...
Mr. BRUBECK: ...the Howard Theatre in Washington and the universities that they
used to call black universities--Afro-American universities. We played the
so-called black clubs all through the South where there were no white people
came in. And in some of the black clubs we were the only white group that came
in. This is what I wish people would remember.
Mr. BRUBECK: And we integrated many, many universities in this country and
those are important things to remember. It wasn't just Ivy League places. We
were really doing some work that people seem to forget how hard it was to do
where you had to have a police escort to the concert. The president of the
college refusing to let you go on and the students demanding you go on. I can
tell you a lot of stories about that.
GROSS: The problem was that you were white or that one of the musicians in the
band was black?
Mr. BRUBECK: Eugene Wright was black, yeah.
GROSS: So that was a problem?
Mr. BRUBECK: We couldn't do some television shows because in those days you
couldn't have black and white together. One show I had to turn down Duke
Ellington took because he--at the moment he had an all-black band. Sometimes
Duke would have a white drummer like Louis Bellson and that would maybe give
him problems. They just didn't want mixed groups on television.
GROSS: Let me play what might be the most famous of the Brubeck Quartet
recordings and that's "Take Five," which you recorded in 1959. Would you talk
about this composition? It's a Desmond composition, but I think you worked
with him on it.
Mr. BRUBECK: Yeah, Paul has done a radio show in Canada before he died where he
said, `I'm so fortunate that Dave assigned me to do the section in 5/4' because
that was the one track that I wanted Paul to do as a solo for my percussionist,
the great drummer Joe Morello 'cause Joe would often play in 5/4 time
backstage, which a time signature that was very rarely, if ever, used in jazz.
So I would hear Paul start to improvise over Joe playing on a drum pad before
he'd go on stage.
And so I said, `Just write some of the melodies, the ideas that you're doing,
and bring it to rehearsal in a few days.' Now that's what happened. He came
and he had some ideas that I thought were great. The first thing he said, `I
can't write anything in 5/4. I've tried and tried.' I said, `Let me see what
you've got.' So he showed me what he had. And I said, `I can put this together
and it'll be great.' And I put the--what he had together as theme one, theme
two and that's how the thing was born. And I named it "Take Five" and he
objected to that name and I said, `Why, Paul?' And he said, `Nobody knows what
"Take Five" means. What does it mean?' I said, `Everybody knows but you, Paul
Desmond, what "Take Five" means.' So I argued with him and I kept that title,
which I think is a great title. Then, of course, I later wrote the words to
it. So I had a little bit to do with this tune.
GROSS: Well, before we hear it I want to thank you very much for talking with
us about your early career. It's really been a pleasure. Thank you so much.
Mr. BRUBECK: Thank you, Terry.
BIANCULLI: Dave Brubeck speaking with Terry Gross in 1999. Next Tuesday
Brubeck celebrates his 85th birthday. He's still performing. Tonight he plays
in Munich. He'll celebrate his birthday next week at a concert with the London
Symphony in London.
(Soundbite of "Take Five")
BIANCULLI: Coming up, I'll review a new Showtime miniseries. This is FRESH
DAVID BIANCULLI, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli, TV critic for The New York Daily News
sitting in for Terry Gross.
Now I'd like to end the show by putting on my TV critic hat and reviewing a new
miniseries I really like. It's called "Sleeper Cell" and it's a 10-hour drama
from the Showtime cable network. And like a sleeper cell, whose strength comes
from its invisibility until it strikes, this miniseries is an out-of-left-field
surprise. It comes from writer-producers who have no hint of such complexity
and ambition in their resumes. It stars people whose faces, for the most part,
are unfamiliar. And by delving into the motives as well as the moves of
Islamic terrorists operating in the United States, "Sleeper Cell" ends up being
both instructive and unsettling.
In framing "Sleeper Cell," creators Ethan Reiff and Cyrus Voris borrow the
basic template from the 1980s TV series "Wiseguy." In that show, Ken Wahl
played an undercover FBI operative who spent time in jail to deepen his street
cred, then emerged from prison to join the crew of a rising mob figure.
In "Sleeper Cell," Michael Ealy stars as Darwyn, an undercover FBI agent whose
personal background and convictions--he's black and a devout Muslim--make him
the perfect agent to try to place with Farik, an Islamic terrorist assembling a
crew of intentionally diverse holy warriors. The team includes a temperamental
Frenchman played by Alex Nesic, a hip-hop-loving Bosnian played by Henri
Lubatte, and a fair-haired American convert played by Blake Shields. Farik,
the charismatic leader of the group, is played by Oded Fehr from "The Mummy."
His hold over his small, but loyal team is as magnetic as it is firm. It's a
wonderful performance, matched in intensity and subtlety by Ealy as Darwyn, the
agent risking his life to befriend Farik. Here are Darwyn, then Farik
explaining the origins of sleeper cell funding to the rest of the crew members.
(Soundbite of "Sleeper Cell")
Mr. MICHAEL EALY: (As Darwyn) So most of our funding comes from the wages of
Unidentified Man #1: What are you talking about, man?
Mr. EALY: (As Darwyn) Poetic justice, using the appetite of your enemy to raise
the funds you need to wage war against him. You're my man.
Mr. ODED FEHR: (As Farik) In our case, from the sales of guns, Afghan heroin
and bootleg CDs and DVDs all brought in through Mexico. Unfortunately the
brother who was in charge of protecting those interests of ours has died in a
traffic accident in Tijuana and that's reason the money has dried up. No
money, no mujaheddin.
Mr. EALY: (As Darwyn) Judgment day.
Mr. FEHR: (As Farik) I'm driving down tomorrow. I'm going to meet Beck.
Unidentified Man #2: (Foreign language spoken)
Unidentified Man #3: (Foreign language spoken)
Unidentified Man #2: (Foreign language spoken)
Mr. EALY: (As Darwyn) All right, gentlemen, Samuel, Ilija lay low, blend in,
nothing that would attract attention from the authorities. Have a Big Mac or
watch a movie in your multiplex cinemas. Just spend the weekend like a couple
of average Americans.
Unidentified Man #4: No problem, Dude.
BIANCULLI: Like Vinny in "Wiseguy," Darwyn in "Sleeper Cell" has an FBI
handler, a responsibility shared in this miniseries by James LeGros and Sonja
Walger. Together they try to unlock the plans and targets of the people
they're investigating and move in time to save lives. "Sleeper Cell" is as
involved as "The Wire," as intense as "24" and, like both of those wonderful
shows, leads to plenty of dead ends, sudden turns and thrilling climaxes.
The canvass explored by "Sleeper Cell" is centered in Los Angeles but makes
side trips to Canada, Mexico, Las Vegas and elsewhere. Commendably, the drama
is careful to shatter stereotypes and present varying extremes of commitment,
compassion and competence on both sides of the battle line. Best of all, it
uses the miniseries format to put all its characters in palpable danger. Even
the lead roles in "Sleeper Cell" can die at any time and some of them do. And
when the terrorists' master plan is revealed and set into motion, it's not just
must-see TV, it's must-see-leaning-forward TV.
Showtime already had made one giant leap forward this year with the quality
comedy series "Weeds" starring Mary Louise Parker. Now it's got a dramatic
miniseries to match and is rolling it out in the aggressive way ABC once
presented "Roots," lots of hours, lots of nights in a row. "Sleeper Cell" runs
Sunday through Wednesday for two straight weeks, an hour a night, then
concludes the following Sunday with a two-hour finale I promise will be worth
the wait. "Sleeper Cell" is itself a sleeper, but if you tune in there's no
way you'll be sleeping through it.
BIANCULLI: For Terry Gross, I'm David Bianculli.