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Bluegrass Musician Earl Scruggs

Earl Scruggs, who turned 80 on Jan. 6, originated the staccato three-finger, five-string banjo technique that became known as the "Scruggs style." He got his start playing with Bill Monroe's band in the 1940s, and then teamed up with guitarist Lester Flatt (fronting The Foggy Mountain Boys). The two penned and recorded the tune "Foggy Mountain Breakdown" which was used on the Bonnie and Clyde film soundtrack and was one of the first crossover hits of the genre. They also recorded "The Ballad of Jed Clampett," the theme song for the sitcom The Beverly Hillbillies. It topped the charts in 1962. In 2001 he released his first album in 17 years, "Earl Scruggs and Friends" featuring his work with Elton John, John Fogerty, Dwight Yoakum and others. Scruggs teamed up with Doc Watson and Ricky Skaggs for the new CD The Three Pickers. This show is rebroadcast from Oct. 16, 2003.


Other segments from the episode on January 9, 2004

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, January 9, 2004: Interview with Earl Scruggs; Interview with Adrien Brody; Review of the film "Monster."


TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A

Interview: Earl Scruggs talks about his life and bluegrass music

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, senior writer at the Philadelphia Daily
News, filling in for Terry Gross.

Earl Scruggs, one of the most important banjo players in the history of
bluegrass, celebrated his 80th birthday Tuesday. President Bush and Dolly
Parton were among those who sent greetings.

Scruggs perfected the three-finger style of banjo picking that became standard
for bluegrass musicians. In 1945, Scruggs met guitar player Lester Flatt
while they were playing in Bill Monroe's band. They left to form their own
group in 1948. Flatt and Scruggs became one of the most popular acts in
country music. Their hit "Foggy Mountain Breakdown" became even more famous
when it was used on the soundtrack of the movie "Bonnie and Clyde." They also
crossed over by playing the theme for the TV series "The Beverly Hillbillies."

Lester Flatt died in 1979. Scruggs has been inducted into the Country Music
Hall of Fame, and last year he got his own star in the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

Terry Gross spoke with Earl Scruggs last fall after the release of the CD "The
Three Pickers," where he performs with Doc Watson and Ricky Skaggs. Let's
start with a track. This is "Feast Here Tonight."

(Soundbite of "Feast Here Tonight")

Mr. DOC WATSON, Mr. RICKY SKAGGS and Mr. EARL SCRUGGS: (Singing) There's a
rabbit in the log and I ain't got my dog. How will I get him? I know. I'll
get me a briar and I'll it twist in his hair, that way I'll get him, I know.

Unidentified Man #1: (Singing) I know...

Mr. WATSON, Mr. SKAGGS and Mr. SCRUGGS: (Singing) I know...

Unidentified Man #1: (Singing) I know...

Mr. WATSON, Mr. SKAGGS and Mr. SCRUGGS: (Singing) I surely know, that way
I'll get him, I know. I'll get me a briar and I'll twist it in his hair, and
that way I'll get him, I know.

Unidentified Man #2: All right, Earl!

(Soundbite of banjo and guitar)

Mr. WATSON, Mr. SKAGGS and Mr. SCRUGGS: (Singing) I'll build me a fire and


Earl Scruggs, welcome to FRESH AIR.

Mr. SCRUGGS: Thank you.

GROSS: Now you grew up during the Depression. Your father died when you were
four. How did your family make a living when he died?

Mr. SCRUGGS: He was a farmer also, so I stayed on the farm until I got old
enough get a job in the factory. And on the farm you worked from daylight
till dark and in the factory you worked eight hours, so I thought that was

GROSS: Right. Who did you hear play banjo before you started playing
yourself? I mean, I've read that there was no radio in your house when you
were growing up.


GROSS: So who did you hear? How did you hear them?

Mr. SCRUGGS: We had a banjo in our home. My father played old-style banjo,
so I had a banjo there, and my brother Horace had a guitar, and so we just
started playing just old tunes that we'd heard before. And then a little
later we'd got a Sears, Roebuck radio and started listening to some--mainly
the "Grand Ole Opry" and some programs like that.

But as far as the style of banjo that I play, nobody had played it before me,
and the only thing that is different from my playing and what I'd heard is
that I had a three-finger roll that has later been called Scruggs style, but
it seemed to help me to play slow tunes as well as up-tempo tunes. Most of
the banjo playing in the old days were hoedown-type tunes, up-tempo tunes.

GROSS: So could you put into words what your style of picking is, the
three-finger style?

Mr. SCRUGGS: Well, it's just what you hear. It involves--it's a little
misleading to say three fingers. It's actually two fingers, middle and index
finger, and your thumb, and it's kind of--some of the rolls will go, if you
number your thumb one, the index two and your middle finger three, it's like a
one-two-three roll, over and over. But to do a tune, it's like trying to say
every word with the exact same amount of syllables in the word. You've got to
alternate the roll some to make the tune flow.

GROSS: Since you didn't have a radio when you were very young and you didn't
have a record player...

Mr. SCRUGGS: Yeah.

GROSS: ...and so you were just, like, hearing, you know, musicians who may
have been, you know, living where you were, how did you come up with your
style of playing, with your style of picking?

Mr. SCRUGGS: Oh, we--I guess the old days, you have one main room you'd take
company to when they come that you don't use every day, so I was in what we
called the front room with a banjo one day, and I was in the mode where if
somebody had asked me what was I thinking about--I bet you've been in that
mode yourself--you couldn't tell them what you was thinking about. You was
just kind of sitting there, and I was picking the banjo, and I was playing a
tune that I still play today called "Reuben." And when I realized what I was
doing, I was playing the way that I play now. It was like having a dream and
waking up, you was actually playing the tune. So that was the mode I was in
and what I was doing when I learned exactly what I'm doing today.

GROSS: So did you think, like, `Oh, my God, this is a breakthrough,' or did
you just not make, you know, much of it at the moment?

Mr. SCRUGGS: Well, my brother said I came out of the room, saying, `I got it,
I got it.' So I didn't know what I had, but he said that's what I was saying.
But anyway I played the--to play "Reuben," it's a tune in a different key from
standard tuning, and I played that one tune the rest of the week and my oldest
brother, Junie, came over on Saturday, he came walking up the road and then I
got out on the edge of the porch and started playing "Reuben" and as he
started to go in the house, he said, `Is that all you can play?' And that
shocked the fire out of me. Because I hadn't retuned the banjo to another key
and tried another tune.

GROSS: Now you joined Bill Monroe's Bluegrass Boys in 1945. This was the
group that basically created the sound that's become known as bluegrass. When
you joined the band, could you hear that something different was happening

Mr. SCRUGGS: Oh, yeah. He had--nobody'd had the style of banjo in the group,
and he just did the type tunes that would make the banjo sound good. So it
was a good shot to start with 'cause he had the Grand Ole Opry exposure and
that gave me a lot of exposure when I went to work with him. And it got
immediate attention because nobody had heard that kind of a banjo picking. So
it caught on real fast with the public.

GROSS: Why don't we hear one of your recordings with Bill Monroe from 1947.
This is one of the famous ones, "Blue Grass Breakdown" with Bill Monroe on
mandolin; Lester Flatt, guitar; my guest, Earl Scruggs, banjo, recorded in

(Soundbite of "Blue Grass Breakdown")

GROSS: Bill Monroe and his Bluegrass Boys recorded in 1947 with my guest Earl
Scruggs on banjo.

You're considered one of the first banjo players to be a serious musician and
to not be a comic with a banjo. A lot of banjo players before you...

Mr. SCRUGGS: Yeah.

GROSS: ...would tell comic monologues, or sing comic songs with banjo
accompaniment. And in fact, there's...

Mr. SCRUGGS: Yeah.

GROSS: ...a story that may be apocryphal that "Uncle" Dave Macon, the banjo
player, said after hearing you the first time, `He ain't one damn bit funny.'

Mr. SCRUGGS: Yeah.

GROSS: Did you realize that you were a departure from that, a departure from
the kind of comic tradition of banjo playing?

Mr. SCRUGGS: Well, I used to try to study and see if there's some kind of
routine I want to do as being a comedian because everybody--player, and there
were very few, but they all were comedians and kind of used the banjo as a
prop to get into their comedy routine. But all my interest was just in
picking. Not only tunes but songs behind singers. Not only in the lead part
but doing a backup. You know what I mean by backup? Playing an alto or
something to support the singer. So that's where my interest was, was as a
lead picker with the banjo but also a supporter with the banjo.

GROSS: What was life on the road like with Bill Monroe?

Mr. SCRUGGS: It was terrible. If I hadn't have been 21 years old and full of
energy, had just came off of a farm and a thread mill where I could--you know,
I thought to do an hour show on the road was a pushover compared to eight
hours in the mill or from sunup to sundown on the farm. And music was my
love, so to get into a group that had good singing and playing, and Bill had
that, especially good singing, and had a good fiddle player, so I went in, and
it just seemed to make a full band, especially for that style of music. That
was long before anybody had tagged it as bluegrass. It was just country music
but it really made an outstanding group, for that day and time, especially.

GROSS: But why did you hate traveling so much with the band?

Mr. SCRUGGS: Why did I hate it? It was because we did it 24 hours a day
practically. Back then there was only two-lane highways and he traveled in a
'41 Chevrolet car and we'd leave after the Opry on Saturday night and maybe
work down south Georgia was about as far as you could get for a Sunday
afternoon show. And on down to Miami someplace for Monday or Tuesday and
worked till about Thursday and started working back to Nashville. So it was
just--you'd only be in Nashville long enough to do the Grand Ole Opry and to
get a change of clothes and pack your suitcase and head out again. I was
single at the time so I was living in a hotel and had one suitcase and so
it--I had to really work on it to keep clean clothes for every night doing a
show on the road.

DAVIES: Earl Scruggs speaking with Terry Gross. He turned 80 this week.
More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

DAVIES: Let's get back to Terry's interview with banjo player Earl Scruggs,
one of the pioneers of bluegrass music. When we left off, they were talking
about playing with Bill Monroe and the Bluegrass Boys in the mid-'40s.

GROSS: Now it was in the Bill Monroe band that you met guitarist Lester
Flatt, who became your long...

Mr. SCRUGGS: Yeah.

GROSS: ...musical partner. What did--what were your first impressions of
him, when you first heard him play and sing?

Mr. SCRUGGS: Well, I liked his singing and his playing fit in good with that
style of music, and we palled around together. You know, in a group, you kind
of find one or two guys that you like better than the other part of the group
or the other may be interested in things that you don't care for, so anyway
Lester and I got along with each other and roomed together and so we did that
for two and a half, three years, and that's when really we never had talked
about starting a show ourselves, but I had made up my mind that I was going to
just get off the road. So I worked two weeks' notice and when I started to
leave that night Lester turned in his notice. And while he was working his
notice, he gave me a call over in North Carolina and said, `Why don't we get
on the radio station over close to your home and try it as a group ourselves.'
So that's how we got started with the Foggy Mountain Boys.

GROSS: Now you started recording, you and Lester Flatt started recording in I
think it was 1948 and for the first couple of years you recorded for Mercury

Mr. SCRUGGS: Yeah.

GROSS: During that period, you recorded what became one of your best-known
songs, "Foggy Mountain Breakdown."

Mr. SCRUGGS: Yeah.

GROSS: Is there a story behind the song?

Mr. SCRUGGS: Well, that's just a simple song that I probably wrote in 10 or
15 minutes and it--and I've written several other tunes and had some pretty
big hits, but nothing like "Foggy Mountain Breakdown." You'll have a ringer,
as I call it, one that might make a hit with just about everybody, and so
"Foggy Mountain Breakdown" was one of them and it got a lot of support like in
the film "Bonnie and Clyde," the movie. They used it as a chase song. And
that supported that tune a lot. So the tune did a lot for not only me, but it
did a lot for a situation like that in a movie like "Bonnie and Clyde."

GROSS: How did "Foggy Mountain Breakdown" end up being used in the movie
"Bonnie and Clyde"?

Mr. SCRUGGS: He called and wanted me to write a tune for...

GROSS: Who called?

Mr. SCRUGGS: Warren Beatty, who wrote and starred in the show. And so he
called back, I think I'm quoting this exactly the way it was, in a few days,
and he said he didn't want me to write anything because he'd found a tune that
he thought fit what he wanted. See, we recorded that tune before they got
what I say good equipment. I mean, just plain everyday microphones in a radio
station and no--to start making tunes sound fuller or something. It was just
raw material. By that, I mean it didn't have no echo chamber or anything on
it. So that's what Warren Beatty heard in that tune, so he didn't want to try
to record another tune because he thought that the equipment that they had
then was probably--would give it a more modern tune than what we had recorded,
which turned out to be "Foggy Mountain Breakdown," and the sound that we got

GROSS: So you're saying that he used the original recording and he didn't
want you to re-record it?

Mr. SCRUGGS: Yeah. He took the Mercury recording, and that was it.

GROSS: Why don't we hear that original recording of "Foggy Mountain
Breakdown," and this is Lester Flatt and my guest Earl Scruggs.

(Soundbite of "Foggy Mountain Breakdown")

GROSS: The original recording of "Foggy Mountain Breakdown," which was later
used in "Bonnie and Clyde," featuring Lester Flatt on guitar, Earl Scruggs on
banjo. My guest is Earl Scruggs. And his latest CD is called "Three Pickers"
and it features him, Doc Watson and Ricky Skaggs performing together.

Now you mentioned what--when you got off the road with Bill Monroe what you
wanted to do was a radio show, and first you did one in Bristol. Then in
1953, you ended up doing a radio show in Nashville at a station there. And...

Mr. SCRUGGS: WSM, yeah.

GROSS: Yeah, and it was, I think, a 15-minute program every morning at 5:45,
which is pretty darn early to have to perform.

Mr. SCRUGGS: Yeah, that--we'd come in 2:00 and go to bed and get up at 4 to
try to get awake enough to do a live radio program. But that was your bread
and butter in those days. By that, I mean, we made really our living by the
road work that we did. We'd go out and do shows and charge admission and get
a percentage of that and also some flat rate, too, but that just put us to
working in bigger auditoriums and bigger crowds.

GROSS: The show was sponsored by Martha White Flour.

Mr. SCRUGGS: Yeah.

GROSS: And I understand the jingle for that became pretty well known and you
were even requested to play it at some of your concerts. I've never heard it.
How did it go?

Mr. SCRUGGS: (Singing) Now you bake right with Martha White, goodness
gracious, good and light, Martha White. For the finest biscuits, cakes and
pies, get Martha White self-rising flour--(speaking) then the group
says--(singing) the one all-purpose flour--get Martha White self-rising flour.
It's got Hot Rise.

Hot Rise was actually a baking soda that went into the bread. It would--it
makes bread rise; you know that yourself, being a lady.

GROSS: (Laughs)

Mr. SCRUGGS: So--but I thought it was pretty cleverly written.

GROSS: So did you get, like, a lifetime supply of free Martha White flour?

Mr. SCRUGGS: Oh, no. Oh, no. They would have probably have done that, but I
got a lifetime of work with Martha White. It was a great company. And they
helped us just more than I could total up, I guess.

GROSS: How long did that show last?

Mr. SCRUGGS: Oh, I wish my wife was in here; she could tell you better than
me. But it lasted for a lot of years, and then we went into television.
Television came in in about 1955, so they put us--we started transcribing the
morning show, radio show, and we'd sleep late, but we'd have to do a live
television show at a different city each night. And the reason I say a live
radio--television, that was before they had cameras to film you with. So we'd
have to--we'd leave 4:00 Monday morning to go to down in Georgia. Had two
cities in Georgia, Atlanta being one, and, let's see, Wednesday was Florence,
South Carolina, and Thursday was Huntington, West Virginia; and Friday was
Jackson, Tennessee, down in west Tennessee. And Saturday back at
WSM-Television and do the Grand Ole Opry on Saturday night. And if we weren't
working on Sunday, we were free until 4:00 Monday morning, and we started that
2,500-mile tour again.

DAVIES: Earl Scruggs speaking with Terry Gross. Scruggs turned 80 on
Tuesday. He plays with Doc Watson and Ricky Skaggs on the new CD "The Three
Pickers." We'll have more of their interview in the second half of the show.

I'm Dave Davies, and this is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, filling in for Terry Gross.

Let's get back to Terry's interview with bluegrass pioneer Earl Scruggs. He
turned 80 this week. Scruggs created the three-finger style of picking that
became standard in bluegrass. In 1948, he and guitarist Lester Flatt left
Bill Monroe's band to form their own group, Flatt and Scruggs, which became
one of the most popular acts in country music and had the crossover hit "Foggy
Mountain Breakdown."

GROSS: Well, I want to ask you about another crossover hit that you had, and
this, of course, was the theme for "The Beverly Hillbillies," "The Ballad of
Jed Clampett"...

Mr. SCRUGGS: Yeah.

GROSS: ...which got you, like, the number-one record on the country music
charts. It crossed over to the pop charts. And, of course, it was on TV
every week for years and it's still on a lot in reruns. How were you asked to
write the theme for "The Beverly Hillbillies"?

Mr. SCRUGGS: I didn't write the theme.

GROSS: I mean, to record the theme, yeah.

Mr. SCRUGGS: Yeah. Well, I wish my wife was in here because she does all my
business things and she could tell you exactly how it came about. But we had
done a show...

GROSS: Wait, let me stop you. She's in the control room listening to the
interview, right?

Mr. SCRUGGS: Yeah.

GROSS: Why don't we invite her in and she can tell us the story about the
phone call. How's that?

Mr. SCRUGGS: She's on her way in.

GROSS: OK, great.

Mr. SCRUGGS: So just hold that question. She'll be in, in a little bit.
Now, Louise, say something, see if she...


GROSS: Ah, that's much better.

Mrs. SCRUGGS: One, two, three.

GROSS: Great.

Mr. SCRUGGS: Now I can hear you in my headphones, too.


GROSS: OK. OK. Is this Louise Scruggs?

Mrs. SCRUGGS: Yes, it is.

GROSS: OK. Well, can you tell us the story about the phone call inviting
your husband to record the theme for "The Beverly Hillbillies"?

Mrs. SCRUGGS: Well, Mr. Paul Henning, who wrote and directed "The Beverly
Hillbillies" show, called, of course, before it went on the air. He had
written a show and he called and wanted Earl and Lester to do the theme music.
And I turned it down at first because of the word "Beverly Hillbillies." I
didn't know what connotation that was going to take with country people and
didn't want to offend them. So he said, `Well, the premise of this show is
that the Beverly Hillbillies are going to always be outsmarting the city

So anyway, we talked about that two or three times, and he ended up sending
the pilot to Nashville for us to see. And after we looked at it, we thought,
`OK, that looks all right.' So they went ahead and recorded it, and while
they were doing the theme music, I said to Perry Botkin, who was the music
director at the time, `I think that would make a great single.' And so I
called Mr. Henning and I said, `What do you think about them recording that
for a single for Columbia Records?' and he said, `I think it's a great idea.'
So I spoke to their A&R director, Mr. Don Law, who was doing their records at
the time, and so they recorded it three weeks later. And then on--it was
released in October, and December 8th, 1962, it hit number one in Billboard.

GROSS: On the country chart?

Mrs. SCRUGGS: Yeah, right. And then it was up in the pop chart, too.

GROSS: Louise Scruggs, you handled the business end of Flatt and Scruggs.
How did the theme song from "The Beverly Hillbillies" affect business for the

Mrs. SCRUGGS: Well, I started getting--after the show started airing, I
started getting calls for them for dates and concerts. And within about a
month, I had them booked up for a year in advance.


Mrs. SCRUGGS: And so what it did actually insofar as spreading country
music, it helped country music and it helped, well, the banjo in particular
because Earl gets mail from people all over the world.

Mr. SCRUGGS: What will happen, too, I might interject here, that if you do
something that makes a big hit, it's going to help all country music in
general. So I think it really helped everybody that was on the road because
it made more people aware of country music. And you're not going to get it
all yourself. So it put a lot of people on the road to playing bigger dates.

GROSS: Well, Louise Scruggs, thank you for stopping in for part of the
interview. We really appreciate it.

Earl Scruggs, you're still there?


GROSS: Great. So you and Lester Flatt do not sing on the theme at all,

Mr. SCRUGGS: No, we just did the music part.

GROSS: Just the music. Right. Good. OK.

Mr. SCRUGGS: Jerry Scroggins, a West Coast person, did the vocal on the theme
that you hear on "The Beverly Hillbillies." We did record it for Columbia
Records, but that was later.

GROSS: And when you recorded it, you sang it?

Mr. SCRUGGS: Lester did, mm-hmm.

GROSS: And why don't we hear the theme from "The Beverly Hillbillies" with
Lester Flatt and my guest, Earl Scruggs.

(Soundbite of "The Beverly Hillbillies")

Mr. LESTER FLATT: (Singing) Come and listen to my story about a man named
Jed, poor mountaineer, barely kept his family fed. And then one day he was
shootin' at some food and up through the ground come a-bubblin' crude. Oil,
that is. Black gold. Texas tea. Well, the first thing you know...

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is banjo player Earl Scruggs.

Now why did you and Lester Flatt split up?

Mr. SCRUGGS: Well, the biggest thing for me--see, I had three boys coming
along, Gary, Randy, and Steve was my youngest boy. And they were good
musicians. And as a matter of fact, Randy had been recording with Lester and
me as far as the guitar work ever since he was seven or eight years old. So I
just had a band in my home, and one of the biggest thrills a person will ever
get is to go on stage with his children, especially if they're good musicians.
And I'll have to brag on them. Even though they are my boys, I thought some
of the best musicians I'd ever played with because they had grown up listening
to me. They knew everything that I did and could play it. Plus, they knew
younger people's material, new material. And, still, they kind of made it
sound like they was a Scruggs boy when they played it. So it was a great
outlet for me to start working with my boys.

GROSS: Did you stay close with Lester Flatt? And what kind of terms were you
on when he died in 1979?

Mr. SCRUGGS: Oh, we were friends. I just didn't see him that much because I
was on the road so much in the direction we were going. And, of course, he
kept a show himself and he worked as long as he was able to work, really.
Yeah. So I always--and still today, though he's been dead for several years,
I still have a warm spot in my heart and cherish the days that we worked and
traveled together.

GROSS: There is a Gibson banjo that is named for you. It's called the Earl.

Mr. SCRUGGS: Yeah.

GROSS: It has a portrait of you...

Mr. SCRUGGS: Yeah.

GROSS: ...on it and your signature. Is it a lot of fun to have, you know, a
banjo that's dedicated to you, that bears your name and likeness?

Mr. SCRUGGS: It is. And as a matter of fact, they're making five different
models with my name on it, from the plain banjo--which they're all basically
the same banjo. What runs up the cost is, like, gold plating and engraving
and things of that nature.

GROSS: Do you play one of those Gibsons or do you play something else?

Mr. SCRUGGS: Well, yeah, I play a Gibson banjo.

GROSS: Is it an Earl?

Mr. SCRUGGS: Well, basically, it is. I'm playing a banjo that I've been
playing since back in the late '40s, I guess, early '50s. But they're still
making basically the same banjo they were making way back there.

GROSS: When you say you're still playing the same banjo, do you mean it's
literally the same instrument or that it's the same model?

Mr. SCRUGGS: Yeah. Same banjo.

GROSS: Same banjo.

Mr. SCRUGGS: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: So do you have to get it, like, redone occasionally?

Mr. SCRUGGS: Well, the only thing you're going to wear out on the banjo is
the head. The head used to be skin but now it's plastic. They will wear out
on you, and the strings; outside of that, you could play one for a thousand
years unless you got it broke in some way.

GROSS: Now what do you love so much about this banjo? Is it just a
sentimental attachment or is there something special about the sound?

Mr. SCRUGGS: Well, it produces the sound that my ear's looking for. Maybe
I've just gotten used to it, but I like the sound that I get out of that
particular banjo. I feel at home with it when I take it out of the case and
start--you know, when you start with another instrument, they all have their
feel, and playing the same instrument, you know what it's going to feel like
when you take it out of the case and start to perform.

GROSS: Well, I want to thank you so much for talking with us.

Mr. SCRUGGS: Been my pleasure.

DAVIES: Terry Gross speaking with Earl Scruggs last fall. Scruggs celebrated
his 80th birthday Tuesday.

Coming up, Terry's interview with Oscar-winning actor Adrien Brody.

This is FRESH AIR.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Interview: Actor Adrien Brody on his role in "The Pianist"

Roman Polanski's film "The Pianist" is based on the true story of Wladyslaw
Szpilman, a Jewish pianist in Warsaw who survived the Holocaust by hiding from
the Nazis in the ruins of the Warsaw ghetto. The role of Szpilman was played
by Adrien Brody who won an Academy Award for his performance. In describing
the portrayal of a man who is wasting away from a lack of food, warmth, human
contact and the chance to play music, FRESH AIR film critic David Edelstein
wrote, `This is a major performance by Adrien Brody.' Brody lost 30 pounds
from his already skinny frame. `I don't think that torturing your body and
mind and great acting go hand in hand. But, in this case, you can feel as if
you're watching someone actually suffer and, in that suffering, hit notes
you've never heard before.'

"The Pianist" has just been released on DVD. Terry Gross talked with Adrien
Brody about the film last fall.


How did Roman Polanski choose you for "The Pianist"? Was he familiar with
your work?

Mr. ADRIEN BRODY ("The Pianist"): I'm not sure how familiar he was. He knew
of my work, but his casting director thought that I would be a good person to
meet, and I was actually in Paris shooting "Affair of the Necklace," and we
sat down for coffee, and the only information that I had was that Roman was
going to be doing this new film about a pianist who survives in Nazi-occupied
Poland. And we sat down and we spoke and had a lovely time, and we met again
and he got his script to me and we discussed it. And it was an incredibly
challenging role, and even on the page it was challenging but impossible to
understand what an ordeal it would be to...

GROSS: Oh, sure, look...

Mr. BRODY: Yeah.

GROSS: ...I have trouble watching Holocaust movies because you know what the
characters are in for, and you know how horrible it's going to be, and, you
know, in some ways, you want to protect yourself from even living through it
as a viewer watching a movie.

Mr. BRODY: Right.

GROSS: So even living through it as an actor, you know, must be pretty rough.

Mr. BRODY: Well, there was a huge responsibility, I felt, because how does a
young man from Queens, who has not really experienced hunger on that level,
who has not suffered on a real level like that, truthfully portray these
things and these emotions, and there are so many people who have experienced
this firsthand and whose families have--you know, whose lives have been
permanently changed by these events, and it was also such a personal story for
Roman, who had lived through these experiences himself.

GROSS: How did you answer that question that you just posed? You know, how
does, like, a young man from Queens, who's never experienced anything close to
that level of suffering--how do you convey in an honest way that experience?

Mr. BRODY: Well, Roman helped me suffer. That was one thing, but basically,
before I left to do the movie, I--basically when I started the film, I
understood that I had to experience a few key things and understand them well.
One is loss and loss of comfort and loss of safety and hunger, and so before I
left, I gave up my apartment. I had a place in New York. I gave up my
apartment, put whatever I had in storage, sold a bunch of things. Sold my
car, disconnected my phones, got rid of my cell phone, and I left and I went
to Europe for about seven months with a few bags and my own keyboard.

And when I got there, I had to do a crash diet because we shot in reverse
chronology, and I had to lose a lot of weight because there was a physical
transformation that was necessary which also gave me a greater connection not
only to understanding hunger, which made me understand the sense of emptiness
and loss that I wouldn't have known, but I was practicing piano for four hours
a day at that time, and interestingly enough, the piano playing was a perfect
distraction from the hunger, which allowed me to identify with the music in a
way that I had never really grasped before.

And I should also say that Roman, when I say that, you know, Roman made it
tough, he did make it tough in a sense, but he toughened me up in a way
because he wouldn't tolerate any kind of what he would call as Hollywood actor
behavior, which would, you know, essentially be asking for something like a
piece of bread. That was intolerable, but, no, he reminded me, you know, of
what is important, and I admire him tremendously.

GROSS: How much weight did you lose? I mean, you're already pretty thin by
anybody's standards.

Mr. BRODY: I lost 30 pounds. I'm 6'1". I went to 130.

GROSS: Wow. OK. So that's a lot. Did you ever ask yourself when you were
making the movie, like, `Am I ruining my body? Am I breaking my body? Am I
doing, like, irreparable harm for a role'?

Mr. BRODY: Yeah, it frightened me afterwards. It kind of became--I have a
really strong willpower, and it's something that I am proud of, and it was
kind of like an experiment that I was having with myself to see how thin I
could get, which was the plan. It wasn't, like, `OK, 130 is a safe weight.'
It was, like, I really couldn't get below that, and you know, it may have
fluctuated below that or above that here and there, but I pretty much stayed
at that weight for the time that I needed to stay there. And then I would
gradually increase it because we would have to slowly shoot in reverse
chronology and slowly get thinner. So I would slowly gain weight, and then I
had to gain a lot of weight towards the end. And that was--yeah, it did have
an effect on me, but...

GROSS: Well, what's the point of shooting in reverse chronology, of shooting
the end of the movie first?

Mr. BRODY: Most...

GROSS: It seems so counterintuitive...

Mr. BRODY: Yeah.

GROSS: ...especially for a movie like this, where you're experiencing a
constantly diminished life and you're in constant growing danger.

Mr. BRODY: It basically comes down to what works for the production. You
know, any time I've done a film, it's usually your most difficult scenes come
first. Your love scene comes first. Your death scene comes first.

GROSS: Well, do you ever come out the other end and think, `If I had only
gone through this in chronological order, I would have played that ultimate
scene differently'?

Mr. BRODY: Well, the advantage in this film--I mean, part of the reason was
they had to have seasons, and the war, at the bleakest moment, was at winter.
And we shot at wintertime, and then spring in Poland is actually beautiful and
becomes very green and lush, and that took place prior to the war to give it
this kind of more serene, happier environment.

The advantage of shooting in reverse chronology was that I understood this man
in a way that I wouldn't have understood playing a man who was extremely
talented and lived a very normal, kind of happy yet non--it wasn't very
specific, his existence prior to that. You don't know what defines this human
being. You don't know what he's capable of, and the challenge came later in
trying to let go of all the kind of pain that I absorbed and tried to absorb
and create a sense of lightness and stubbornness and hope of humanity, but I
think it was completely advantageous to me to shoot in reverse chronology in

DAVIES: Adrien Brody, speaking with Terry Gross. He won an Academy Award for
his performance in Roman Polanski's film "The Pianist," which has just come
out on DVD.

Coming up, a review of two new films based on the true story of serial killer
Aileen Wuornos.

This is FRESH AIR.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Review: Aileen Wuornos' life story portrayed in "Monster"
and "Aileen," both worth seeing

The serial killer Aileen Wuornos was executed in the autumn of 2002 for
killing six men. Wuornos is now the subject of two films, the drama
"Monster," starring Charlize Theron, and the documentary "Aileen: The Life
and Death of a Serial Killer" co-directed by Nick Broomfield. Film critic
David Edelstein has a review of both films.


In the new movie "Monster," the former South African model Charlize Theron
pulls off the kind of transformation that wins golden statuettes, but it's
Nick Broomfield and Joan Churchill's documentary, "Aileen: Life and Death of
a Serial Killer," that eats into your mind, and makes you question your
understanding of any infamous crime that's filtered through a tabloid

"Monster," which is provocatively directed by Patty Jenkins, is the one you
should see first. It opens with a monologue in which Wuornos recounts her
girlish dreams of becoming the next Marilyn Monroe, while the audience
observes the cruel reality: boys having sex with her and then hurrying away
for fear of association. Next, we see the mousy lesbian Selby, played by
Christina Ricci, sitting in a gay bar when Wuornos, now a roadside hooker,
strides in. Ricci has the biggest eyes in movies and they pop out of her
head. So will yours.

You'll spend the first few minutes searching for Theron under all that makeup.
Some critics have expressed amazement that Theron can act at all, as if Cindy
Crawford had just pulled off "Medea." But she's always been a nervy
performer. But more important than the impersonization here, Theron gets
inside Wuornos' bizarre hopefulness in a way that makes you pull for her.
Both "Monster" and Broomfield's documentary agree on a turning point in
Wuornos' career, that she met up one night with a convicted sexual predator
who handcuffed, tortured and sodomized her. And that she killed him before he
could kill her.

Although she could have reported what happened, she had no faith in the
justice system. And something had snapped. In "Monster," Aileen projects her
rage onto a series of men who pick her up along the interstate. She taunts
them, accuses them of wanting to rape and murder her, then shoots them in an
escalating fury. Here she is defending her crimes to Ricci who has become her
frightened lover.

(Soundbite of "Monster")

Ms. CHARLIZE THERON: (As Aileen Wuornos) People kill each other every day.
And for what? Hmm? For politics. For religion. And they're heroes. No.
No, there's a lot of (censored) I can't do anymore. But killing's not one of
them, and letting those (censored) bastards out there go and rape somebody
else isn't either.

Ms. CHRISTINA RICCI: (As Selby Wall) But, Aileen, that was one man. They
can't all have been bad.

(Soundbite of commotion)

Ms. THERON: (As Wuornos) You know me. You think I could do it otherwise?
I'm not a bad person. I'm a real good person. Right? So don't feel bad.
It's life, Sel. People like me and you go down every (censored) day.

EDELSTEIN: These are powerfully dramatized scenes but a little clunky. With
Wuornos' accounts of her horrible past shoehorned into the dialogue, "Monster"
ends with a cynical bit of narration and a crawl that gives you the date of
Wuornos' execution, which is the starting point for "Aileen: The Life and
Death of a Serial Killer," which begins with Broomfield traveling to Florida
to testify at Wuornos' appeal of her death sentence on the grounds that her
original lawyer was, to put it euphemistically, `incompetent.'

Broomfield's 1992 documentary "The Selling of A Serial Killer" focused on
Hollywood's attempt to snare the rights to Wuornos' story, and the impact of
that money on Wuornos' lawyer, ex-lover, and the cops. This time, he goes
back to her Michigan hometown and puts names and faces to the events only
clumsily recounted in "Monster," the mother who abandoned her to an abusive
grandfather, the boys who used and shunned her, the friends who can't believe
how little they did when Wuornos was thrown out of her house after giving
birth to a baby and was forced to live in the woods. The emotional core of
"Aileen," of course, is the interviews with Wuornos, who seems even more
deranged than the character portrayed by Theron. It's her view that the
police knew who she was after the first killing, but let her do six more
because they knew she'd become American's first female serial killer, and they
knew that Hollywood would come bearing money.

Now she wants desperately to be executed. She comes off as a sick and unhappy
woman who never got anything, and that makes you grieve more, not less, for
her victims. The English Broomfield regards the Florida criminal justice
system with dry irony. Asked, as he's about to enter the prison if he has
concealed cameras, he says, `No, only this rather large one.' I found his
point of view absolutely compelling. He is appalled that the state of Florida
and its re-election-seeking governor, Jeb Bush, has no interest in examining
Wuornos, only making a show of her execution. And he turns a withering eye on
movie production companies which loom over the second part of Wuornos' life
like a giant vampire bat.

Considering the warping influence of Hollywood, it's a miracle that "Monster"
is as clear-eyed as it is.

DAVIES: David Edelstein is film critic for the online magazine Slate.


DAVIES: For Terry Gross, I'm Dave Davies.
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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