DATE April 6, 2004 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
PROGRAM Fresh Air
Interview: Actor Don Cheadle discusses his new movie, "The United
States of Leland"
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. My guest is actor Don Cheadle. In the
film "Traffic," he played an agent of the Drug Enforcement Administration. In
"Boogie Nights," he played a porn actor who loved country music and called
himself Buck. In "Ocean's Eleven," he was a pipe bomb specialist. In the HBO
movie "The Rat Pack," he played Sammy Davis Jr. And in "Devil in a Blue
Dress," he was Mouse, an ex-con on a short fuse. Now he's starring in the new
movie "The United States of Leland" as Pearl, a teacher in a juvenile hall.
He's taken a special interest in the student Leland Fitzgerald, who is
awaiting trial for murder. Pearl is trying to counsel Leland and help him
understand his own actions. Pearl is also considering writing a book about
Leland. Leland's father is a famous novelist played by Kevin Spacey. The
novelist has come to town to see his son, and in this scene he meets with
Pearl at a hotel bar.
(Soundbite from "The United States of Leland")
Mr. DON CHEADLE (Actor): (As Pearl) I work at the juvenile hall where
Leland's being detained.
Mr. KEVIN SPACEY (Actor): How's he holding up?
Mr. CHEADLE: He's fine, but you know, he's in special handling so he's
Mr. SPACEY: Can you get me in to see him?
Mr. CHEADLE: Oh, I don't have that kind of juice. I'm just a teacher there.
Visiting day's next Sunday if you want...
Mr. SPACEY: You don't think I'm aware of that? Did he do it?
Mr. CHEADLE: I'm not really allowed to talk about that outside of the
Mr. SPACEY: Perhaps he told you something.
Mr. CHEADLE: Yeah. Yeah, he says he did it. But I don't know why.
GROSS: Don Cheadle, welcome to FRESH AIR. Your father worked as a
psychologist with children and teen-agers. Were you able to draw on his
experiences at all?
Mr. CHEADLE: Not really, because he wouldn't talk about them. I mean, only
in a very vague, general sense did he ever talk about his clients or his--you
know, his work. He was very sort of devout about the whole client, you know,
doctor privilege, and he never revealed anything that he specifically spoke
with about any of his clients. It's more a manner that he has and more just a
general way that he discussed problems and tries to get to the root of things
that I think, you know, rubs off on me.
GROSS: You went to the California Institute of the Arts.
Mr. CHEADLE: Mm-hmm.
GROSS: Now, you know, it sounds like you had a great drama teacher in high
school. Early in your career, you were--you had a regular part on the
television series "Fame," based on the movie "Fame." How did, you know, high
school for the performing arts in a TV series compare to the drama class life
that you were used to in high school?
Mr. CHEADLE: Well, I had--I wasn't a regular on that show. I did two--I did
a two-part--you know, one early in the year and one much later in that same
Mr. CHEADLE: But the reason I even got attached to "Fame" was one of my
college suite mates, Jesse Borrego, who played Jesse on the show and still one
of my great friends today, went to--we all went to this open call where they,
you know--they're looking--out of 3,000 people, they cast two people and it
was Jesse Borrego and Nia Peebles. And Jesse was--in his inimitable way,
didn't leave any contact information. All he had was a snapshot. So they
were literally putting his picture on the news, saying, `Have you seen this
person? If you have seen this person, please tell him to call in because, you
know, he has a job.' So people were coming up to us at school going, `I just
saw your picture on the news.' And we're like, yeah, right. You know, he
didn't believe it. And then finally, they tracked him down and took him down
there. So that's kind of how I got involved with that, just from, you know,
going to the set with him and hanging around and meeting the people that were
on the set.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is actor Don Cheadle, and he's
starring in the new movie "The United States of Leland."
The role that really got you a lot of attention early in your career and won
you an award from the Los Angeles film critics is your role in "Devil in a
Blue Dress," which is a film adaptation of a Walter Mosley private eye novel,
you know, with the main character Easy Rawlins, who in the movie was played by
Denzel Washington. And you played Easy's old friend Mouse, who's an ex-con
and is quite crazy and really kind of gets off on violence.
Mr. CHEADLE: Mm-hmm.
GROSS: In fact, let me play a scene from that movie. In this scene, Easy is
being--Easy is on the floor with a guy holding a knife to his throat, and the
guy's already started cutting. He's already bleeding.
Mr. CHEADLE: Mm-hmm.
GROSS: And then you walk in. This is a surprise. You walk in as Mouse and
you pull out a gun. The guy drops his knife and then Easy wants to kind of
question him and get to the bottom of the story, but, no, you shoot him and he
runs away. So let's hear that scene.
(Soundbite from "Devil in a Blue Dress")
Mr. DENZEL WASHINGTON (Actor): (As Easy Rawlins) Where's Daphne Monet, Frank?
All right, look, all right, maybe you don't know where she is, but hey, we can
help each other find her, man.
(Soundbite of gun being cocked)
Mr. CHEADLE: (As Mouse) You heard him.
Mr. WASHINGTON: Mouse, no!
(Soundbite of phone ringing; footsteps; phone being picked up)
Mr. CHEADLE: Rawlins residence.
Unidentified Man #1: Sit down.
Mr. CHEADLE: No, he's busy right now. You're gonna have to call back.
(Soundbite of phone being hung up)
Mr. WASHINGTON: Look, a rich man is willing to pay $1,000 just to talk to
this girl. A thousand dollars! That's a hell of a lot of money, man! Frank.
Mr. CHEADLE: Wait, wait, wait, wait, wait. Let me try.
(Soundbite of gun)
Mr. CHEADLE: Now look here, Frank. It's Frank, right?
Unidentified Man #1: Yeah.
Mr. CHEADLE: Frank...
(Soundbite of gun being cocked and fired)
Mr. WASHINGTON: What the hell are you--oh my God!
Unidentified Man #1: Let go of me!
Mr. WASHINGTON: Frank! Damn it!
Mr. CHEADLE: What the hell is wrong with you, man? Don't you ever grab me
when I got a gun in my hand.
GROSS: That's Denzel Washington and my guest, Don Cheadle, in a scene from
"Devil in a Blue Dress." How did you feel about taking this role, given of
how skeptical you were of all the kind of crime roles that were available to
you at that time? This one seemed qualitatively different.
Mr. CHEADLE: Well, it was. I mean, it was a great writing piece and a great
director, Carl Franklin, and Denzel, a great actor to work with. It was a
no-brainer. And he was such--he wasn't just a pat sort of cookie-cutter
character. That's the other thing about Mouse is he wasn't these bad
television, you know, portrayals of gangster X. He was sort of a complex and
interesting person to me, you know, which is always fun to play. And I don't
mind playing a character like that as long as they have shades, you know. So
often, these roles that I was talking about that we were offered earlier,
there was no--they were just the guy that was there to hold the gun and, you
know, `In this scene, scare this white woman,' you know, or, `In this scene,
you're being chased by the'--you were more a function than you were a
character, and Mouse was very much a character.
GROSS: How did your portrayal of Mouse change your career and the kind of
roles that you were offered?
Mr. CHEADLE: There were some people who wanted me to come, you know,
kill--be a psychopath in their movie, and I kind of just rejected those roles
because a lot of them were, again, underdeveloped and not as well realized.
In the hands of people who aren't as talented as Carl, I just thought this is
not going to be anywhere near the same sort of--we're not going to get
anywhere near the same sort of product. And I don't need to start going down
that road, you know, getting typecast as that. So I strayed away from that.
Like right after "Devil," I think I did "Boogie Nights" and I did "Volcano"
and I did "Rosewood" and I did, like, five movies that next year, and they
were all very different roles and they were all very different characters,
which is really exciting, you know, to me. But I think it did sort of put my
name out there in a way that hadn't happened before.
GROSS: "Boogie Nights" is such a great film. This is Paul Thomas Anderson's
film that's set in the pornography trade in--it's the '80s, isn't it? The
'70s or the '80s? I can't remember.
Mr. CHEADLE: Seventies, '80s; it spans between both.
GROSS: Yeah, yeah, yeah. And you play--you play this character named
Buck--Buck because you love country music--and sometimes kind of dress in
country, country-kind of clothes. And you're one of the porn actors, but you
also sell audio equipment. And I'm going to play a scene where you're selling
audio. You're in the store selling audio to a customer. Here you are.
(Soundbite from "Boogie Nights")
Mr. CHEADLE: (As Buck) This is hi-fi, OK? High fidelity. Do you know what
that means? This is the highest quality fidelity, hi-fi. Those are two very
important things to have in a stereo system.
Unidentified Man #2: It's the price. For the four twenty...
Mr. CHEADLE: I have this very unit in my home.
Unidentified Man #2: Really?
Mr. CHEADLE: Yes, I do. But, of course, I got it modified with a TK421,
which cheeks it up another, I don't know, maybe three or four quads per
channel, you know, but that's really technical talk. That doesn't really
concern you. Still a little uncertain, aren't you?
Unidentified Man #2: Yeah.
Mr. CHEADLE: You need a test drive. That's what you need. You need a test
drive. I mean, it's one thing to hear it from Buck's mouth. It's another
thing to hear it from the TK421. So let me just pop in this eight-track, and
you just give a listen and tell me what you think, OK?
(Soundbite of music)
Mr. CHEADLE: Whoo! You hear that? You hear the bass, right? It kicks. It
turns. It curls up your belly, makes you freaky deaky, right? You got that?
GROSS: That's my guest, Don Cheadle, in a scene from "Boogie Nights." That
is such a great scene. I love your--the three of four quads per channel.
Mr. CHEADLE: Yeah, yeah.
GROSS: What the heck are quads per channel?
Mr. CHEADLE: That was the most fun sitting on the set with Paul and going,
`Now what is the exact wrong--what's the most perfect incorrect thing for you
to say?'--and trying to come up with, `Should it be, you know, quads per--What
is it?--channels?' So when we lit up on quads per channel, it was like, `Yeah.
Go do that. Go say that.'
GROSS: There's a great scene towards the end of "Boogie Nights" in which
you're buying doughnuts and, you know, you're choosing two of the chocolates
and two of the old-fashioneds. And suddenly this guy walks in with a big gun
and it's an armed robbery and another guy shoots him and everybody's dead
except for you. Their blood is all over your clothes. But, you know,
watching your face in that scene is really interesting because you're just
like, `Oh, boy, the chocolate doughnuts.' And then you're watching in shock
and fear as all this stuff happens around you, and you're trying to kind of
make yourself invisible, which you can't really do. Can you talk a little bit
about shooting that scene?
Mr. CHEADLE: That was--that was a doughnut shop, I believe, on Magnolia
Boulevard or one of the big, you know, Valley streets, east-west streets. And
it was--it was just a Paul--another one of these Paul visions where he's just,
`How can we put this guy in a situation where he can come up but he had
nothing to do with it? He's the hapless victim of something.' But then, you
know, because at the end of that scene, obviously, he gets that money that
this guy was trying to rob, and he takes it. And it was that whole moral
question of: Should he take the money, should he not? And he does that real
long push in to Buck as he's standing there thinking about what to do...
Mr. CHEADLE: ...you know, and he's in this sort of moral dilemma about is
this right of wrong and kind of forgets that he's got bodies all around him,
blood all over him and goes, `Hey, I can get my store.' And I just think it's
great because it's really convoluted and very jangly. Things don't make
sense, but it makes perfect sense, which is kind of what Paul does the best,
GROSS: My guest is actor Don Cheadle. He stars in the new movie "The United
States of Leland." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: My guest is actor Don Cheadle. His films include "Traffic," "Ocean's
Eleven," "The Rat Pack," "Boogie Nights" and "Devil in a Blue Dress." He
stars in the new movie "The United States of Leland."
You're, I think, about 5'7". Do I have that right?
Mr. CHEADLE: Five-eight.
GROSS: Five-eight and...
Mr. CHEADLE: And a half, thank you very much.
GROSS: OK. Excuse me. I think you can use your size to different effects.
I mean, you--you're very muscular. And in some roles, like in "Boogie
Nights," you could have a kind of physically vulnerable look. And then in
roles like "Traffic" or "Out of Sight," you can look really strong and able to
use that strength. Can you talk about making your body work in both
Mr. CHEADLE: Well, I never felt--I mean, it's funny, because I didn't--I
think it's something that happens inside, too, that just kind of permeates. I
think strong people--when you see someone and you go, `That person's strong,'
some--very often it doesn't have anything to do with their physicality, you
know. It has to do with something that's behind their eyes or something
that's inside them that emanates or some way that they move through a room or
move through people. You just go, `That guy is not to be messed with,' or
`That guy is very forthright, you know, in his direction.' There's just
something that's very grounded about people like that. And for Buck, I really
didn't think about doing anything physically for him. I just really sort of
tried to feel kind of wrecked inside, you know, kind of like a house of cards
inside that can be toppled, you know, real easily and always trying to
find--he's trying to always find the--you know, because he was a cowboy, then
he had sort of his Earth, Wind & Fire look, and, you know, and then he trotted
out the whole Curtis Mayfield thing, the Sly Stone.
I mean, he didn't know what--he had no idea what he wanted or who he was. The
only thing he did know is that he wanted to have Buck's Super Stereo World,
you know, that that was very important to him and that he was an actor. You
know, he was a legitimate person. And that kind of thing--I don't know how
that comes off physically, but that's what I was trying to work with him on
the inside. And, you know, something like--a part like "Out of Sight" or a
part like, you know, "Traffic," you go, `Oh, I'm going to be in the short
T-shirt and these guys probably do exercise, so I better,' you know? It's
just--that's just the basic--just go work out.
GROSS: Don Cheadle is my guest, and he's staring in the new movie "The United
States of Leland."
A few years ago you were in the HBO "Rat Pack" movie playing the role of Sammy
Davis Jr. Joe Mantegna was Dean Martin. Ray Liotta was Frank Sinatra. What
did you think of Sammy Davis when you were young? Was he on your map at all?
Mr. CHEADLE: He wasn't. He wasn't really on my map. The only--the only time
that he was on my map is when I would hear my parents and family talking
about him in not necessarily the most glowing of terms about what he
represented at that time. You know, what was right around the time when I was
growing up that he was--that, you know, with Nixon and, you know, there was
that whole thing about him hugging Nixon and that was a big flap, you know, in
the community. And I just never really felt--from even seeing his
performances, I thought, `This dude is incredible. This dude us an
unbelievable performer.' But as a person, he always seemed kind of slippery
to me, you know. That's how I would always think of him, as this guy who's
just too slick for school, but undoubtedly incredibly, incredibly talented.
GROSS: Did your opinion of him change when you played him?
Mr. CHEADLE: I wouldn't say that my opinion of him changed, because it was
never really that strongly formed, but I did learn more about him, what made
him tick, from his own words, from his own viewpoint, which is also very
interesting, you know, to see what he wrote about himself in his two books,
you know, "Yes, I Can" and--I forget the name of the other book.
But anyway, both of those books were very interesting, inasmuch as he left out
as what he put in, because there were some moments that I thought would have
given rise to a lot of discussion about, you know, moments that he had with
the Panthers and things that went down with he and Frank, things that you
thought, `Well, obviously, you're going to talk about your anger at this
situation or how you'--like when you spoke about his anger to Frank, it never
had anything to do with any sort of racial anything. It was about Frank's
sort of pejorative viewpoint of his lifestyle which, you know, he'd completely
turned around. They didn't talk for many years, and then the wives got them
together and they sort of patched it up. But he never spoke about things that
I thought, `He has to have some sort of feeling about, you know, what went
down with those guys and the sort of, you know, the situation of them being
able to perform in places that you couldn't get in and your family had to come
in the back door.' I mean, all of those things, I thought, those have to show
up some place emotionally in his book, and he never really dealt with them.
GROSS: Did you do your own singing for the part?
Mr. CHEADLE: In a couple of songs, yeah.
GROSS: And did you try to get his voice?
Mr. CHEADLE: Yeah, as close as I could, yeah. On the live--the stage, when
we were singing the "Hey, There," that we were doing live, that was live.
GROSS: Mm-hmm. Well, why don't we hear that song, as performed in "The Rat
Pack" movie. And this is Don Cheadle in the role of Sammy Davis.
(Soundbite from "The Rat Pack")
Mr. CHEADLE: (As Sammy Davis Jr.) Hey there.
Group of Singers: (In unison) Hey!
Unidentified Man #3: Hey, you want a ...(unintelligible), go sit out in the
audience. Got a show to do here.
Mr. CHEADLE: (Singing) You used to be ...(unintelligible). Hey, there.
Unidentified Man #4: What the hell is it, Sam?
Unidentified Man #5: Sing us another tune, Sammy.
Mr. CHEADLE: (Singing) You think someday she'll run to you.
Group of Singers: (Singing) Better forget her.
Mr. CHEADLE: ...(Unintelligible). (Singing) She'll have you dancing on a
string. Break it and she won't care. Won't you take this advice, I hand you
like a brother?
Unidentified Man #3: Your mother, you mother.
Mr. CHEADLE: Oh, jeez, ladies and gentlemen, he said half a word. After the
show, you're gonna hear the other half.
(Soundbite of laughter and applause)
Mr. CHEADLE: ...(Unintelligible), please.
Unidentified Man #4: Whoa, whoa, Zelda, Zelda, Zelda, whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa.
I'll sing with you, I'll dance with you, I'll pick cotton with you. I'll even
go to a bar mitzvah with you, but don't touch.
GROSS: Don Cheadle in "Rat Pack" with Cheadle as Sammy Davis and Joe Mantegna
and Dean Martin, Ray Liotta as Frank Sinatra.
Was it fun to be part of "The Rat Pack," if only in the movies?
Mr. CHEADLE: Oh, yeah. It was a lot of fun, I mean, whenever you have a
fraternity like that, and everybody in the movie was cool to work with, you
know. And in the movie, you know, Sammy twirls guns and obviously he has to
tap dance and sing and plays the drums and, you know, plays the trumpet. It
was like, `Jesus, I've got to get, like, all of this stuff down to a
reasonable facsimile of believability.' So every day it was--actually, it was
great because every day it was like I was back in school, 'cause I had, you
know, a drum tutorial at 11 and I had a trumpet, you know, session at one, and
then from three to six I was working with Savion Glover to get the tap dancing
numbers down, and the next day I would had to do the gun twirling and then,
you know. So every day it was sort of this intensive Sammy Davis Jr. school,
but it was great. It was great. It was a lot of fun. That's when it's
really fun being an actor, because you get to sort of touch on all these
different aspects of yourself and of other people that you normally wouldn't,
you know. Why would I ever be gun-twirling, you know?
GROSS: To hold a gun on somebody, like you do so well.
Mr. CHEADLE: Exactly. Another gun, another clip where they could just put
Sammy in there twirling a gun.
GROSS: Don Cheadle. He's starring in the new film "The United States of
Leland." I'm Terry Gross and this is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Interview: Jennifer Beals and Ilene Chaiken discuss Showtime's
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
The Showtime series "The L-Word" concludes its first season on Sunday. It's
the first TV series to focus on a group of lesbians and their friends and
lovers. The series was recently renewed for a second season. My guests are
Ilene Chaiken, the creator of "The L-Word," and Jennifer Beals, one of the
stars. Beals' movies include "Flashdance," "Devil in a Blue Dress," "Roger
Dodger" and "Runaway Jury."
"The L-Word has been somewhat controversial because of its sexual content, but
largely it's about relationships and some of the issues facing lesbians today.
Jennifer Beals plays Bette, a museum director. Early in the series she and
her partner, Tina, agree to have a baby. Then Tina tries to get pregnant with
the help of a sperm donor, so they search for just the right man. Bette, who
is from a mixed-race family, found an African-American artist who was willing
to be the donor. But she didn't mention to Tina, who is white, that he is
black. So Tina was surprised and confused when she met him. Here she is with
Bette after that meeting.
(Soundbite of "The L-Word")
Ms. LAUREL HOLLOMAN: (As Tina) You put me in a (censored) awkward position.
How could you not tell me that Marcus Allenwood(ph) is black?
Ms. JENNIFER BEALS: (As Bette) God, I don't know. I guess I should have. I
just didn't think it would be a problem for you to use a black donor.
Ms. HOLLOMAN: (As Tina) But I didn't say I didn't want a black donor. I
just think we should have discussed it.
Ms. BEALS: (As Bette) We absolutely discussed it, Tina. Right in the very
beginning we said that if you were going to be the birth mother, that we
should consider finding an African-American donor. That way the child would
be more like our child.
Ms. HOLLOMAN: (As Tina) But I wasn't prepared.
Ms. BEALS: (As Bette) I don't understand. Other than being committed to
spending the rest of your life with me, what more do you need to do to
Ms. HOLLOMAN: (As Tina) Look at me, Bette. I don't feel qualified to be the
mother of a child who's half African-American. I don't know what it means to
Ms. BEALS: (As Bette) I think I can make a contribution in that department.
Ms. HOLLOMAN: (As Tina) Then don't you think, on top of everything else, to
also have two moms, that is a lot of otherness to put on one child?
GROSS: I asked Jennifer Beals, who, like her character, is biracial, about
dealing with the subject on the show.
Ms. BEALS: One of the things the series does is it serves to represent people
who don't often see themselves represented and certainly not represented in a
multiplicity. And I thought for myself growing up there weren't very many
images, certainly none of them positive, for me to see on television of people
of mixed race. And I thought I--was something that I wanted to give to
GROSS: Have you played someone of mixed race before?
Ms. BEALS: Oh, yes, but it's always sort of the tragic mulatto character,
which is not unlike the tragic homosexual character, you know, the person who
is historically wrought with sexual perversion, and ultimately, you know,
their lives lead only to suicide. That's really sort of the original model.
GROSS: I'm interested in the timing of this series. You wouldn't have known
that this would happen, but "The L-Word" has had its debut season in the same
period that the whole issue of gay marriage has just become, you know,
front-page news. And it's in the courts. The president's talking about a
constitutional amendment. Did you have any idea that coinciding with the
first, you know, lesbian TV series like this that's about a group of lesbian
characters, that gay issues would be in the news in quite the way they are?
Ms. ILENE CHAIKEN (Creator, "The L-Word"): Certainly not when I began. I
began developing this something like four years ago. It seems to me that
there really is such a thing as a zeitgeist; that it all came about in one big
moment in which all of these issues conflated, has been intriguing, in some
ways lucky for us because it focused even more attention on our show. When I
began developing it, it still seemed like a risky outside proposition.
GROSS: The main characters on "The L-Word" are, without exception, quite
attractive. And I wonder if you've been criticized for that, Ilene Chaiken,
in the sense that I know, like, the sensible shoes, flannel-shirt lesbian is
a stereotype. On the other hand, it's kind of undeniable that a lot of
lesbian women aren't exactly fashion plates and aren't glamorous and, you
know, have kind of perfect figures and everything, just as like most straight
women aren't that glamorous or have perfect figures either.
Ms. BEALS: Like the women on "Sex and the City."
GROSS: Right. Exactly, exactly.
Ms. CHAIKEN: Well, that's...
GROSS: Right. Most straight women don't look like "Sex and the City." But,
nevertheless, I wonder if you've gotten flak from any lesbian women for not
representing lesbian women who aren't, you know, gorgeous.
Ms. CHAIKEN: Everything that you can imagine might have been said has been
GROSS: Right (laughs).
Ms. CHAIKEN: So, yes, I've gotten some flak. And at the same time so many
people have come forward and said how fabulous it is to be represented by
beautiful women or have commented that not everybody looks like the characters
on "Friends" either. On television, we tend to cast people who are just a
little bit better looking than the people we encounter in our day-to-day
lives, but I think of these characters as very, very real.
Ms. BEALS: Do you think there'll be a future episode where Bette finds a
softball in her closet?
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. CHAIKEN: I think Bette's got a few flannel shirts hidden away.
Ms. BEALS: I think she does, too.
GROSS: (Laughs) You know, I interviewed the writer Ann Bannon, who wrote a
few of the lesbian pulp novels of the '50s. And she was saying that, you
know, in that era the covers of those lesbian pulps were for men. The idea
was that the lesbian women would buy the books because there really was no
other lesbian fiction, and they were really hungry for it. But the men would
buy these pulps because, `Hey, there's two, like, sexy chicks on the cover.'
And some men get turned on by the idea of two women having sex with each
other. So I wonder if that's something, Ilene, that you've thought about at
all in how the series would be perceived.
Ms. CHAIKEN: I certainly thought about it in terms of how the series would be
perceived. I didn't think about it in terms of how I put forward the stories
I was telling. I think that those Ann Bannon books are a genre unto
themselves. Whereas I always recognized that possibly--in fact, most
likely--some straight men would come to the show because they found the idea
of women together to be sexy and that there would be a larger perception about
that than the actual phenomenon itself, it isn't something I thought about
when writing the stories. I didn't think, `Oh, I have to do that in order to
appeal to those men.' I didn't think, `Oh, I mustn't do that because I don't
want to, you know, stir up the wrong kind of excitement.'
GROSS: Jennifer, a lot of actors and actresses say that they really hate
doing the love scenes; it's the most uncomfortable part of doing a movie. Is
it any more uncomfortable when the sex scene is of a sexual orientation that
you're not? Does that matter in terms of the comfort level?
Ms. BEALS: Well, it's interesting because at first I didn't really consider
it a love scenes when I took the part and when I was researching the part. I
was much more obsessed by the work that Bette did because she was so obsessed
by the work that she did.
GROSS: As a museum director, uh-huh.
Ms. BEALS: As a museum director. So I was busy researching what it takes to
run a museum. And then along came this love scene that I had to shoot in
about a week or so...
Ms. BEALS: ...and I thought, `OK, how do I do this?' And then I just started
breaking it down as an actor. You know, not all love scenes are about love.
I mean, sometimes they're about intimidation. Sometimes they're about
possession. Sometimes they're about fear. And I realized that this scene was
about Bette and Tina reconnecting after having a difficult period of time
together. And when I broke it down that way, there was a scene to play. And
every single thing, every single movement, in the scene was choreographed to
the point where in the middle of the scene Laurel Holloman, who plays Tina,
just started laughing. She said, `I feel like Fred Astaire.' And I'll tell
you one thing. In some ways it's easier to have a love scene with a woman
because there are parts of your body that you are certainly less than thrilled
with; at least there are parts of my body that I'm certainly less than
thrilled with. And if I ask my scene partner to put their hand in a certain
place to disguise something, men generally forget in the heat of the moment,
whereas a woman knows what that means.
(Soundbite of laughter)
GROSS: That's really interesting.
Ms. BEALS: And she'll move her hand. She doesn't--because she knows that
there will one day be a quid pro quo. So it's interesting. You know, we do
the scene, and we laugh and talk about clothes.
GROSS: Now you said you wanted to do research, you know, about being a museum
director. Did you feel any need to do research about, you know, being a
lesbian in a love scene, or is that something that...
Ms. BEALS: Not really. I mean, I figured I know how I love someone, and I
know how I like to be loved, so I think that was information enough. And when
we were about to start the series, Rose Troche put together a tape of love
scenes, both homosexual and heterosexual, that--she thought some of them
worked and some of them didn't. And she wanted us to look at it and judge for
ourselves what worked and why and what didn't work and why. And we watched
the tape, as the cast watched the tape together, and we really analyzed all
these different scenes. And we realized that, at the end of the day, when an
actor was fearful, it was so clear and it so interrupted the storytelling that
we all vowed to one another that we would do our best to abandon any kind of
fear and sort of dive headlong into these scenes because otherwise you
interrupt the story. And that's just not really forgivable.
GROSS: My guests are Jennifer Beals, one of the stars of "The L-Word," and
Ilene Chaiken, the creator of the series. We'll talk more after a break.
This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: My guests are Ilene Chaiken, the creator of the Showtime series "The
L-Word" about a group of lesbian friends and lovers, and Jennifer Beals, one
of the stars of the series.
Let's hear another scene from "The L-Word." The central characters are
meeting for drinks, as the regularly do, and giving advice to their friend,
Alice, who they think is being used by her girlfriend. Jennifer Beals'
character, Bette, speaks first.
(Soundbite of "The L-Word")
Ms. BEALS: (As Bette) It has to end.
Ms. HOLLOMAN: (As Tina) Seriously, Alice, you can't let Gabby continue to
treat you this way.
Ms. LEISHA HAILEY: (As Alice) You guys don't know where--I know it looks like
she's treating me like (censored). But she's just, you know...
Ms. BEALS: (As Bette) Treating you like (censored) now.
Ms. HAILEY: (As Alice) Maybe. It's just I...
Ms. BEALS: (As Bette) No. It's just you deserve better.
Ms. HAILEY: (As Alice) I do? All right, I do. But I just feel like at times
she's, like, so right there, and I feel like we connect. And then all of a
sudden she acts like I don't even exist.
Ms. BEALS: (As Bette) That's because she's an emotional cripple.
Ms. HOLLOMAN: (As Tina) Yeah.
Ms. BEALS: (As Bette) Emotional cripple/narcissistic personality disorder.
Ms. HOLLOMAN: (As Tina) And the next time she calls you, you have to end it.
Ms. HAILEY: (As Alice) I know. It's just...
Ms. BEALS: (As Bette) It's just nothing. What are you going to do?
Ms. HAILEY: (As Alice) Well, I was going to ask her...
Ms. HOLLOMAN: (As Tina) No asking.
Ms. BEALS: (As Bette) No, you've got to tell her.
Ms. HAILEY: (As Alice) Oh, my...
Ms. HOLLOMAN: (As Tina) You've got to say, `Gabby, I really enjoyed the time
we spent together, but it is obvious to me that we are in different places in
our lives, and we want different things out of a relationship. And I respect
myself too much to let you continue treating me this way.'
Ms. BEALS: (As Bette) `It's clear to me now that you are an emotional cripple
without any kind of capacity to understand true love.'
Ms. HOLLOMAN: (As Tina) And I'm no longer willing to waste my valuable time
Ms. BEALS: (As Bette) `So step off, bitch.'
(Soundbite of laughter)
GROSS: Ilene, I laughed when I read that you used to work for Aaron Spelling
Ms. CHAIKEN: I do that, too, sometimes.
GROSS: Do you? OK (laughs). And, you know, Aaron Spelling produced shows
like "Fantasy Island," "Love Boat," "Love, American Style," "Beverly Hills,
90210," "Melrose Place." And they're all so in the kind of fantasy world.
And where did you fit in in that?
Ms. CHAIKEN: (Laughs) I actually worked for Aaron Spelling for a number of
years but during what I would have to confess was probably the most fallow
time in his history as a television producer. There were no new shows on the
air. It was just before "Beverly Hills, 90210." The only television show
that I was involved in putting together that I actually liked to talk about is
"Twin Peaks," which was actually Spelling's show. Nobody really remembers
that it was distributed by Spelling.
Ms. BEALS: Oh, that's interesting.
Ms. CHAIKEN: But I am sure--I know that I learned a great deal from Aaron
Spelling, and he was fascinating to work for. I'm sure that I absorbed some
lessons from that time. My approach to storytelling certainly isn't modeled
after anything, you know, that he does. But I'm sure it seeped into me
GROSS: Were you out at the start of your career in television?
Ms. CHAIKEN: Unwittingly. My partner and I have been together for 20 years,
and we just always went everywhere together. And I never made big
declarations about being a lesbian, but I think that it just sort of came to
GROSS: Did it affect your career in any way?
Ms. CHAIKEN: I'm sure it did from time to time.
GROSS: It's hard to tell, right?
Ms. CHAIKEN: It's hard to tell. I know that there were moments when I felt
very much on the outside because people were uncomfortable with me because I
simply wasn't one of them. But I don't think that I was ever, with maybe one
small exception, overtly discriminated against for being a lesbian.
GROSS: And what was that exception?
Ms. CHAIKEN: It was a moment, and I won't get specific about it, when a very
powerful executive and I butted heads over a business issue. And he called me
up and threatened to out me.
Ms. BEALS: Oh, my God.
Ms. CHAIKEN: And I was kind of mystified by it because I was already out.
(Soundbite of laughter)
GROSS: So what did you say?
Ms. CHAIKEN: I was tongue-tied. I was kind of horrified and frightened, not
because I thought he was going to out because that wouldn't have been of any
consequence, but just because somebody much bigger and more powerful than me
was obviously really angry with me, and he saw fit to threaten me. He took
the time to call me on the phone and to tell me that he was going to make an
issue of my sexuality.
GROSS: Did you stay working with him?
Ms. CHAIKEN: I had no choice.
GROSS: Meaning that he fired you or meaning that you stayed?
Ms. CHAIKEN: No, meaning he wasn't in a position to directly fire me. He
possibly could have gotten me fired if he had wanted to. But he didn't fire
me, and I had to go on working with him.
GROSS: Jennifer Beals, I want to ask you--I know you're probably really tired
of talking about "Flashdance," but I'm curious. You know, you started your
career right out of high school. Am I right?
Ms. BEALS: Right. That's correct.
GROSS: And you get this part in a movie that, like, becomes a phenomenon.
And then you kind of leave acting for a while and go to college.
Ms. BEALS: Well, I loved school. It's very simple. I really loved, loved,
loved school. And I loved university. And to me, getting the little blue
book to take my test was really exciting.
GROSS: No (laughs).
Ms. BEALS: The moment that they handed out the blue books...
GROSS: I hated those books.
Ms. BEALS: ...I was very excited. There was a slight terror, but it was
overcome by excitement. So I knew that I would go back to college. That was
never an issue. And I just knew that I loved reading, I loved being in class.
I was good at it. And I think, in some kind of Skinner way, I just went to
where I was being rewarded most often. And so I went back to school and then
started working again. I think my senior year in college I took some...
GROSS: Well, I think Skinner would have noticed that you were rewarded quite
well for being in "Flashdance": financially and, you know, all the other
materialistic ways, fame.
Ms. BEALS: Right. But I think that Skinner would have also noted that from
the time of junior kindergarten through my freshman year in college, I'd been
rewarded all that time for academics. So...
Ms. BEALS: And there were times in Hollywood where it was very difficult
because I was very shy, and so I was very quiet on the set. And I didn't
realize at that time that when you're the lead of the movie, you're also the
hostess of the party. Nobody told me that. So I spent a lot of time in my
trailer, and, you know, I was reading Durkheim's "Suicide" I think at the time
(laughs) because it was just so very, very lonely. I mean, I loved Adrian
Lyne. I loved the script and a lot of the people I worked with. But for the
most part I was really, really shy and really quiet and didn't know anybody.
So school was truly a haven.
GROSS: And how does that shyness affect you now as an actress?
Ms. BEALS: Every now and again it comes up. When I'm at parties with other
actors, I get very shy. When I meet athletes whom I admire, I get shy. But
on the set, it's much easier. You know, it's much easier because I realized
that all of us are making the film, all of us are making the TV series. It's
not just me. It's not just another actor. It's not just the director. And I
really love the group effort; I love the idea that it takes a village. And I
love the magic of film. So I have such high esteem for all of the people that
I work with, all of the technicians, all of the other actors that it's much
easier for me now.
GROSS: Do you like to dance a lot?
Ms. BEALS: Not really.
GROSS: Is it--do people assume that you do because of "Flashdance"?
Ms. BEALS: You know what's interesting is that I learn a lot about the person
from what film they reference when they meet me.
Ms. BEALS: Some people talk about "Flashdance." Some people want to talk
about "Devil in a Blue Dress."
Ms. BEALS: I had a guy on the subway not long ago quoting long passages from
"Vampire's Kiss." And somebody came up to me at the gym just two days ago
about "Roger Dodger." So it's interesting. I think people have different
images of me from different films.
GROSS: You've gotten the green light for a new season of "The L-Word." Are
you both pleased that it's going to continue?
Ms. CHAIKEN: I think we're both pretty happy about it. I, speaking for
myself, would love to go on telling these stories for some time to kind.
Ms. BEALS: Yes, Granny Bette.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. BEALS: Then maybe we could break out a flannel robe.
Ms. CHAIKEN: I want to keep telling these stories until Bette gets as old as
(Soundbite of laughter)
GROSS: I want to thank you both very much for talking with us.
Ms. CHAIKEN: Thank you. It was a pleasure.
Ms. BEALS: Thank you.
GROSS: Ilene Chaiken is the creator of the Showtime series "The L-Word."
Jennifer Beals plays the character Bette. This season's finale will be shown
on Sunday. "The L-Word is being renewed for another season.
Coming up, Maureen Corrigan reviews the new book "A Chance Meeting:
Intertwined Lives of American Writers and Artists 1845-1967." This is FRESH
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Review: Rachel Cohen's "A Chance Meeting"
TERRY GROSS, host:
The novelist Willa Cather once said that, `Sometimes entering a new door can
make a great change in one's life.' That quote could serve as the motto for
Rachel Cohen's new book "A Chance Meeting," which is about the
often-accidental, real-life friendships among American writers, artists and
photographers from the Civil War to the 1960s. Book critic Maureen Corrigan
has a review.
MAUREEN CORRIGAN reporting:
Rachel Cohen's book, "A Chance Meeting," is in no way naive or fusty, so I'm
not damning it with feint praise when I say that the word that kept running
through my mind as I was reading it was `charming.' Cohen sets out to trace
the sometimes-obscured history of friendships between American writers,
artists and photographers in the period 1854 to 1967. In 36 short, often
poignant essays, she focuses on the fateful encounters between, among others,
Henry James and Mathew Brady; Mark Twain and Willa Cather; Willa Cather and
Edward Steichen and Katherine Anne Porter and on and on, until the later
breathless pairings of W.E.B. Du Bois and Charlie Chaplin and John Cage and
The dizzying effect here is like watching a "Twilight Zone" square dance in
which James Baldwin do-si-dos with Norman Mailer, who then twirls away to
switch partners with Marianne Moore. Sometimes what's being exchanged as
these luminaries grasp hands is nothing more than palm sweat and casual
greetings. But other times there's an electric shock of recognition that
marks the passing on of an artistic inheritance, a star-spangled spark of
distinctly American genius. That's what's so charming about Cohen's book.
She intelligently reaffirms the importance of the lives of writers and
artists, particularly their friendships to their art. Post-modern,
deconstructive irony is barred from this dance hall. That's not to imply that
a chance meeting is just a chattier version of, say, those biographical essays
that introduce the selections in "The Norton Anthology of Literature."
For one thing, Cohen calls upon critical history, gossip and scrupulously
delineated, fictional guesswork to flesh out the relationships here. And
Cohen's canon of crucial American cultural figures is more eccentrically
inclusive than any you would find in a traditional anthology. In her
introduction, Cohen says that she chose the 30 people she did because they
were all city dwellers who spent a lot of time visiting and writing letters to
each other and because she felt she had an instinct for their company. So she
sometimes skips over superstars, like Hemingway and Fitzgerald, to focus on
minor, fascinating figures who turn out to be at the center of a web of
Annie Adams Fields is one of these revelations, a poet, an essayist who
befriended Nathaniel Hawthorne, Harriet Beecher Stowe and William Dean
Howells. She was the wife of the publisher of The Atlantic Monthly and, after
his death, the intimate companion of novelist Sarah Orn Jewitt. By the way,
Cohen discusses the now-overlooked writings of Howells, Jewitt and others with
such passion that I found myself adding to that ever-swelling must-read list
that I and so many other readers guiltily carry around in our heads.
Throughout the course of her book, Cohen also revisits familiar company, like
Walt Whitman, Gertrude Stein and Robert Lowell. Judiciously citing sentences
from their correspondence and diaries, Cohen restores a sense of all-too-human
emotions lurking within these icons. Grousing about old age, Whitman wrote
that he was `each successive fortnight getting stiffer and stuck deeper, much
like some hard-cased, dilapidated, grim, ancient shell fish.' Grousing about
the garrulous wife of his friend, William Dean Howells, Mark Twain wrote in a
letter to his wife that, `When Eleanor Howells entered the room, dialogue died
and monologue inherited its assets.'
Cohen is no slouch with a pen herself. Describing Ulysses S. Grant, she says,
`He was shy, taciturn and self-assured, qualities that were frequently
mistaken for each other.' Through the elegance of her own writing and the
conviction of her interpretations, Cohen here fashions an alternative descent
line of American artists and writers linked not just by creative influence but
by letters of introduction, drunken encounters at parties, decades of
correspondence, notes of constructive criticism and encouragement, cards
containing much needed cash.
"A Chance Meeting" is the history of intertwined friendships, but it's also
the history of a virtue that's often thought to be in short supply among
ambitious people. It's the history of a generosity of spirit.
GROSS: Maureen Corrigan teaches literature at Georgetown University. She
reviewed "A Chance Meeting" by Rachel Cohen.
GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.
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.