Skip to main content

'Brothers': Family Ties, Unraveling In Wartime.

Tobey Maguire and Jake Gyllenhaal are Sam and Tommy Cahill, one an upright Army captain on his way back to Afghanistan, the other a delinquent, newly paroled after a three-year sentence for robbery. But the real center of Jim Sheridan's movie isn't the brothers, but their whole teetering clan, which will collapse and rebuild itself in complicated new ways.



Related Topic

Other segments from the episode on December 4, 2009

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, December 4, 2009: Interview with Eugene Hutz; Interview with Ed Helms; Review of the film "Brothers."



This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, senior writer for the Philadelphia Daily News, sitting in for Terry Gross. Fans of our guest Eugene Hutz's group, Gogol Bordello, can be pretty passionate.

(Soundbite of movie, "Gogol Bordello Nonstop")

(Soundbite of rhythmic grunting, hands clapping)

Unidentified Man: (unintelligible) Gogol Bordello, my favorite band.

(Soundbite of roaring)

DAVIES: That's a couple of fans from the documentary "Gogol Bordello Nonstop," which is now being shown in cities around the country. The band's also featured in a 3D concert film with The Dave Matthews Band and Ben Harper and Relentless7, called "Larger Than Life...In 3D," which will be released next week.

Gogol Bordello is most often described as a gypsy punk band. Their concerts are wildly energized, mixing gypsy abandon with the driving force of rock. There's a band of musicians on stage with two masked go-go girls who dance around, singing and playing washboards and drums. Hutz, the group's front man, often performs shirtless and always gets sweaty.

You may also know Hutz from a memorable acting role as a Ukrainian translator in the movie "Everything is Illuminated." Hutz grew up in Ukraine and came to the U.S. with his family as a teenager. I spoke to him in 2007, when the group's most recent album, "Super Taranta" was released. Here's the opening song, called "Ultimate."

(Soundbite of song, "Ultimate")

GOGOL BORDELLO (Rock Band): (Singing) If we are here not to do what you and I wanna do and go forever crazy with it, why the hell we are even here? Da!

There was never any good old days. They are today, they are tomorrow. It's a stupid thing we say, cursing tomorrow with sorrow. Go!

When we stand here in a row, looking like a bunch of heroes, I know that deep inside nothing more but bunch of zeros. Yah!

DAVIES: Eugene Hutz, welcome to FRESH AIR. You know, your band is described as gypsy punk. If I wanted to convince my friends to come to me with a Gogol Bordello concert, what should I tell them to expect? What are they going to see?

Mr. HUTZ: Complete orgasmo-hysteria.

(Soundbite of laughter)

DAVIES: OK. You want to fill that in a little bit? What does the act look and sound like?

Mr. HUTZ: Well, I guess, I mean, you can tell them whatever the hell you want to tell them, really, but it's all going to end up in a peak experience of, I guess, emotional kind for them. And a show is a show, but this show would never work that well without the music and its foundation, which is gypsy music of, you know, of my origin.

And the power of that music is quite known to its fanatics, but for me, it was always obvious that gypsy music can become very much appreciated in subculture, you know, because it was always marginalized in this world music can of marketing and all these things that I can't stand, really.

You know, it just was basically locked up all these years, when in its spirit, it's basically rock and roll. It's probably the closest thing to rock and roll you can find in the history of music before rock and roll as we know it appears.

DAVIES: Traditional gypsy music, you're saying, is like rock and roll. Yeah.

Mr. HUTZ: Yes, absolutely, and it's probably the most passionate, the most flamboyant, the most merry and gay music that there was before rock and roll. It's a scientific fact, basically.

DAVIES: Somebody described a Gogol Bordello concert as something like standing next to a 747. And I can say, you sing every syllable of every song with your whole body. I mean, you just don't stop moving. Have you always performed that way?

Mr. HUTZ: Basically, I mean, basically that's why I'm not a real singer, because I never learned how to sing just with that one mechanism. And I never really was schooled in any way, really, either, and it all kind of came from just growing up around music that's basically acoustically made by my own family.

Well, my father was quite an - you know, and still is - quite an entertainer. Just give him a guitar and a party, and there he will have it, a prototype of Gogol Bordello, you know. He is still pretty much an entertainer of a refugee community, where he resides now with - you know, with my mom in Vermont.

DAVIES: As a kid, did you perform for your parents?

Mr. HUTZ: No, not really. I mean, my dad always stole the show. It was not until in school - I think it was about sixth or seventh grade. There it was some school competition, and where - you know, when they have these things where school competes against school in wit and skits and all these kinds of things. Anyhow, we had those things back in the Soviet Union.

I wasn't even participating, but our team was losing, and they just decided to throw me out on stage like a last reserve because I was into punk rock and I had green hair and they thought it might do some good. And along with that, I did some improv, and that's how we won, basically.

So that was my, like, a first taste of little stage victory, and that's kind of - basically, from then on, I decided that that's a pretty powerful place to be, and that's where it all kind of makes sense for me.

DAVIES: And where was that that all this happened? Was this in Kiev?

Mr. HUTZ: It was in Kiev. It was in my school, (Russian spoken).

DAVIES: What was it like to wear that - wear your hair green then and have all those - have that lifestyle? Did you get in trouble?

Mr. HUTZ: Well, it was perestroika time. So Gorbachev just came to power, and it was considered to be OK suddenly. So we got away with - I mean, in school, I didn't get in much trouble for it, but I would get beat up on the street up a couple times by other youth organizations, they're called Luberin(ph), all these pro-Soviet, idiotic, bodybuilder, neo-Nazi kids who would basically pull us in the alley and hit us once in the face, and we were done. It didn't take that much effort to put us away back then. We were, like, 15 years old, just one hit on the head.

DAVIES: So when you formed a band, I know you emigrated to Burlington, Vermont, which is a college town, and there is a music scene there.

Mr. HUTZ: Yeah.

DAVIES: And you formed a band, and then you came to New York and started playing this - for lack of a better word - fusion of punk and more traditional gypsy music and all the other influences that you have. Were your audiences just American kids who were turned onto this, or were you finding gypsies everywhere?

Mr. HUTZ: No. Actually, when I first came to Vermont, to the States, I played in a - you know, basically, in hard-core metal bands before I formed my own band, and in bands that were much more straightforward punk rock. And the process of getting back into my own, you know, DNA music, it took us some years, I tell you, and I also didn't want to do it in a stupid way, as some bands do it.

You know, I didn't want it to be exploitation of stereotype, on any rate. So that had - you know, it was quite a process to find an angle of what it's going to be like, and actually the turning point was, for me, the music of Bela Bartok, of Hungarian composer, who worked with a lot of ethnical music, turning it into his own symphonic, avant-garde music.

So after getting kind of load of how does he process that information, I was able to step up to it without quoting and without just reusing the tunes, you know what I mean?

DAVIES: Mm-hmm. Do you want to pick another song from "Super Taranta" to listen to and tell us about?

Mr. HUTZ: I don't know, "American Wedding," I think.

DAVIES: I was thinking "American Wedding." Tell me a little bit about the song. Then we can hear it.

Mr. HUTZ: Well, you know, I've been here for a couple years already, to be exact, 12, and I've gone to some of them, American weddings, and it just was a pretty amazing experience. I mean, I just could not believe that people actually would celebrate - would even call it celebration. And the funny thing is that I wasn't even going to put this song on the album. I just - I literally wrote it to entertain somebody in five minutes, in 10 minutes in an after-party. I just polished up some rhymes later on.

But the funny thing about it is that it's the Americans who get the biggest kick out of it because once it was done, they're like, you have to put it on the album. It's - everybody can relate to it. It's just - it's just - it is what it is. I can't believe nobody wrote it before.

DAVIES: And the thing about...

Mr. HUTZ: Like, how can we do it like that? You know, it just was such a contrast to me because the wedding in Eastern Europe is three-days-long experience, you know. And just going to conference room rented out until one in the morning, you know, it's like - in a hotel. It's like, argh.

DAVIES: It's lame by contrast. All right, so let's hear the song. This is "American Wedding" by Gogol Bordello.

(Soundbite of song, "American Wedding")

GOGOL BORDELLO: (Singing) Have you ever been to American wedding? Where is the vodka? Where's marinated herring? Where is the musicians that got the taste? Where is the supplies that's gonna last three days? Where is the band that like fanfare, gonna keep it goin' 24 hours?

Instead, it's one in the mornin', and a DJ is patchin' up the cords. Everybody's full of cake, staring at the floor. Proper couples start to mumble that it's time to go. People gotta get up early. Yep, they gotta go.

DAVIES: That's "American Wedding" by Gogol Bordello and our guest, Eugene Hutz. He'll be back after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

DAVIES: We're speaking with Eugene Hutz, leader of the gypsy punk band Gogol Bordello. He grew up in Ukraine, and his family emigrated to Vermont when he was a teenager.

Your life was affected by the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, right? I mean, how close were you to the accident? How did it affect your family?

Mr. HUTZ: Well, Kiev was 60, what, 65 kilometers away from Chernobyl. So as thousands and thousands of other people, it's like, of course, we're affected by it in every way, in mental way and in geographical dislocation way. And, you know, I feel always hesitant to talk about it because there are people who suffered from it much, much, much, much more.

I mean, it was close, but, you know, we still had our things together enough to listen to BBC radio promptly and receive a message that we need to get out. Other people stayed there for weeks and weeks later on. And, you know, that's how Soviet government was working, you know.

DAVIES: You mean it wasn't the government that informed you, you picked up a BBC broadcast and knew to hightail it out of there, right?

Mr. HUTZ: Oh, absolutely. There was no official news for six days after the thing. There was nothing. I mean, kids kept going to school, and my dad and I, being rock and rollers that we are, you know, always tuning in to BBC, listening to music programs in the Russian language, you know, that was basically a forbidden thing to do. And eventually, my dad was busted for that, and it's actually one of the things that helped us to get out, but...

DAVIES: Your dad was busted for what?

Mr. HUTZ: For listening to that, to BBC. He was busted for it several times during his youth. They actually caught him listening to that in the army, and, I mean, it's - there is nothing - it's just a cultural programs, just in the Russian language, and they're broadcast from London by this DJ, Sergenov Garostov(ph). And my dad, as other young kids, you know, at that time, was tuning into that and just listening to, you know, Rolling Stones.

DAVIES: Right.

Mr. HUTZ: And eventually, somebody ratted on him that he tunes into this stuff, and...


Mr. HUTZ: ...the file started, and the file continued for a couple decades till so much stuff accumulated that, you know, that he was interrogated a couple times. And we threw a bunch of other stuff together and said listen, we can't stay here anymore. It's like, what's next? They going to lock him up? Or - we've got to get out of here.

DAVIES: And that's what led to your family moving to Vermont, as political refugees. You weren't - it wasn't simply fleeing the Chernobyl accident, right?

Mr. HUTZ: All of it was like accumulation because once we were - left Kiev because of Chernobyl, it was already like - even when we came back to Kiev, it wasn't like - we were kind of unsettled there. It was like the move was done. We came back, stayed a couple years and basically, those years were spent on making sure we're getting out for good.

But the thing about, you know, when we were evacuated, as bizarre as it sounds, that actually led me to a major discovery, you know, for my own, for my life because I was a little kid, and as I said before, I didn't think anything about the fact that, you know, my grandmother is gypsy and, you know, that my uncle is complete fanatic of gypsy music. And when we left and stayed with our relatives, that's where I was actually submerged in the full-on Romani environment for the first time in my life.

So after a year of living with them, it had a lot - I mean, maybe because I was so young and impressionable, but I think, you know, your DNA is going to play a part in it, too. My identification, like, psychologically changed, actually, and it's an important age for anybody, 13, 14, 15 years old, you know. And suddenly, I was hanging out with totally different kind of kids who had other things on their mind. And when I lived with them, I experienced different things that - just the feelings that I never had because the general intelligence and emotional life of gypsies is very different.

I mean, everybody talks about, like, gypsy spirit, and it's kind of become this cliche, but more important thing is gypsy psychology, and it's something that nobody, really, who is not - nobody can really describe it because gypsies wouldn't care to describe it to you, and other people just can't understand it.

DAVIES: Well, I guess I have to ask you to describe it. What do you mean by gypsy psychology?

Mr. HUTZ: Well, I don't even know if I could fully describe it, but it's - something has to do with immediacy of their perception. You know, it's an interesting thing that in gypsy, for example, something I found out, they had no - the word for - there is word for today, akana(ph), and then there is word for - the word for tomorrow and for yesterday is the same, it's atacera(ph).

You know, and it's like - because that's just not today. In a way, what you see in Gogol Bordello is it's me recreating what I saw when I lived with them. It's our spirit. It's how we survive. It's our rising above the pressures and contradictions of life.

DAVIES: Well, I wanted to play a song from your new record, "Super Taranta."

Mr. HUTZ: Sure.

DAVIES: And the one I was going to play was the third track, "Zina-Marina." This song really rocks, and I liked it a lot, but then...

Mr. HUTZ: Oh, thank you.

DAVIES: When I got clued into what it's about, it had a whole different feel to me. Tell us about the lyrics and what this song is about.

Mr. HUTZ: You know, I mean, it's about sex trafficking, and Ukraine is the center of all of that. You can actually - it's as obvious as walking through the streets because even five, six, seven, eight years ago, I would still go back, and there would be still tons of hot girls on the streets everywhere you look. That's Ukraine.

You know, now you go there, and it's like, where did they all go? Where did they all go is that they're all busy working in Dubai and Istanbul and other places, where they are all tricked in. And most of these girls, they're actually from rural areas, and they're not educated about anything. They just answer ad about do you want to be a model, which is any girl in Ukraine will do in a second.

DAVIES: Well, Eugene Hutz, thanks so much for speaking with us.

Mr. HUTZ: Yeah, of course. Thanks for having me.

DAVIES: Eugene Hutz is the front man for the group Gogol Bordello. The group's in Europe now, but you can see them in some American cities, in the documentary "Gogol Bordello Nonstop," and they'll be featured in a 3D concert film called "Larger Than Life...In 3D," which will be released next week.

We'll close with the track Hutz was just talking about, the Gogol Bordello song about sex trafficking called "Zina-Marina." I'm Dave Davies, and this is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of song, "Zina-Marina")

GOGOL BORDELLO: (Singing) Zina-Marina, Tasha, Valentina, Sasha, Anastacia, Anna Sophia.

It is easier to see evil as entity, not as condition inside you and me. I did not invent it, just in charge of it, simple businessman with simple, practical plan.

So do you wanna be a model, yeah? All you got to do is show up, wow. We'll be leaving soon for a breaking room. For there will forever be poverty and there forever be cruelty.

Zina-Marina, Svenya(ph), Balina(ph), Katya, Maria...


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

Our next guest, comedian and actor Ed Helms, is known to TV audiences for his role on the NBC comedy "The Office," where he plays the jocular and clueless Andy Bernard. A few years back, he was a correspondent on "The Daily Show with Jon Stewart." But this year, Helms has been getting laughs on the big screen in the comedy, "The Hangover," which is just coming out on DVD. It's about four guys who go to Las Vegas for a bachelor party. Three of them wake up to discover their hotel suite trashed, the groom missing, and their memories of the evening blank. Starring with Helms are Bradley Cooper and Zach Galifianakis.

I spoke to Ed Helms in June when "The Hangover" was released in theaters. In this scene, the three revelers are at breakfast. Helms' character, Stu, is wondering why he's missing a tooth and can't bear the thought of Jagermeister, the booze they'd been guzzling the night before. The three friends are trying to figure out what happened and where the groom, Doug, is.

(Soundbite of movie "The Hangover")

Mr. ED HELMS (Actor): (As Stu Price) I looked everywhere, gym, casino, front desk, nobody's seen Doug. He's not here.

Mr. BRADLEY COOPER (Actor): (As Phil Wenneck): Okay. All right let's, let's just track this thing.

(Soundbite of cough)

Mr. COOPER: (As Phil Wenneck): All right, what's the last thing we remember doing last night?

Mr. HELMS: (As Stu Price) Well, the first thing was we were on the roof and we were having those shots of Jager.

(Soundbite of cough)

Mr. HELMS: (As Stu Price) And then we ate dinner at the Palm. Right?

Mr. ZACH GALIFIANAKIS (Actor): (As Alan Garner) That's right. And then we played craps at the Hard Rock, and I think Doug was there.

Mr. HELMS: (As Stu Price): That sounds right.

Mr. GALIFIANAKIS: (As Alan Garner): No. No. No. He definitely was.

Mr. COOPER: (As Phil Wenneck): What is this?

Mr. HELMS: (As Stu Price) Oh my God. That is my tooth. Why do you have that? What else is in your pocket?

Mr. COOPER: (As Phil Wenneck) No, this is...

Mr. GALIFIANAKIS: (As Alan Garner) This is a good thing. No. No. No. Check your pockets. Check your pockets.

Mr. HELMS: (As Stu Price) You have anything?

(Soundbite of coins falling)

Mr. COOPER: (As Phil Wenneck) I have an ATM receipt from the Bellagio, 11:05 for $800.

Mr. HELMS: (As Stu Price) What's on your arm? Phil, you were in the hospital last night.

Mr. COOPER: (As Phil Wenneck) I guess so, yeah.

Mr. GALIFIANAKIS (Actor): (As Alan Garner) You okay?

Mr. COOPER: (As Phil Wenneck) Yeah, Alan, I'm fine.

Mr. HELMS: (As Stu Price) What the hell is going on?

DAVIES: Ed Helms, welcome to FRESH AIR. In the film, you four guys get an overly, extravagantly expensive suite atop Caesar's Palace in Las Vegas, and then wake up in the morning remembering nothing. But the scene at the hotel room is just - well, the suite - is just hilarious. Do you want to just describe a little bit of what - the wreckage that you and your friends awaken to?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HELMS: Thank you. I love that scene too, and it really is, I think, a production designer's dream come true. It's - somewhere the assignment was given out, figure out as many ways as possible to completely mess up and destroy a hotel suite. And the details, if you really pay attention and look around sort of in the backgrounds of the shots as we wake up that morning, you just see such glorious detail. For example, there is a bowling alley set up with champagne bottles...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HELMS: ...which cannot end well. There's a card house, miraculously. Somehow in this insane party there's - we managed to erect a very delicate card house. There's just a lot of fun little details.

DAVIES: Well, and you look up and then you see a chicken walking around.

Mr. HELMS: Yeah. Of course, chicken, the universal sign of chaos...

(Soundbite of laughter)

DAVIES: Right, right.

Mr. HELMS: ...the chicken. Anywhere you see a chicken, it's chaos.

DAVIES: And then, of course, and this is not giving away too much because this is in the trailer, but when Zach Galifianakis goes to the bathroom to relieve himself, first thing, he looks up and sees a live man-eating tiger. You actually used a real tiger for these scenes, is that right? What's it like working with a tiger?

Mr. HELMS: Yes, we used a real tiger and it is crazy to work with a tiger. I feel like you're just buying time. When you're working with a tiger, it's only a matter of time before something horrible happens. And there's a little voice in the back of your head that's just saying, stop doing this, leave, get away from the tiger.

DAVIES: Were there any particular instructions you got on working around a tiger?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HELMS: The first day that we worked with the tigers, we got this whole long safety speech, you know, don't be - don't hide behind things because then the tiger will perceive you as prey. Act confident. Act like, you know, don't turn your back on the tiger. Be sure of yourself around the tiger, which is sort of like asking you to fly. It's just like, you know...

DAVIES: Right, right.

Mr. HELMS: ...and then a lot of sort of just protocol about how the trainers will be handling the tiger, this, that, and the other. Cut to like a half hour later, it was all pretty much out the window. Like everyone...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HELMS: ...was just, everyone just got comfortable. Once the tiger hadn't killed anyone for about a half hour, everyone just got too comfortable. And you had to sort of constantly remind yourself that this is a man-eating creature and it is a wild animal. So I - overall the tiger was exciting, exhilarating, but I still can't shake this feeling that we just got away with something.

DAVIES: You're a dentist in the movie and when you wake up in the morning you're missing a tooth. And it looks like you actually stick your tongue into the hole. It looks so real. How do they do that?

Mr. HELMS: Dave, it is completely real. I had an implant when I was a teenager, I lost a tooth and I had an implant put in, and I hadn't touched it in 20 years. It was perfectly healthy. And when we started to kind of try to figure out how to give me a missing tooth, because it was always in the script, we tried a couple of things. We tried to black it out. We tried to - they made a prosthetic for me that sort of looked like a gap in my teeth and - but it actually made the rest of my teeth look like a donkey...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HELMS: ...mouth, so I vetoed that very quickly. And then very reluctantly, I admitted, well, I do actually have an implant here. And Todd was like, oh great, then we can take it out.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HELMS: And I was like, well, I don't know. And I called my dentist and he said, you know what, I think we can actually do that. So, my dentist, who's a great guy and actually came to the premiere...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HELMS: ...took it out. And I was toothless there for three months while we shot the movie. And then I got a nice new implant.

DAVIES: Wow, you really were made for this role weren't you?

Mr. HELMS: Yep.

DAVIES: Ed Helms film, "The Hangover," is out on DVD later this month. More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

DAVIES: My guest is Ed Helms. He plays the character Andy Bernard on the NBC comedy "The Office." Here's a scene from last night's episode where he's called in to talk with his boss Michael Scott, played by Steve Carell.

(Soundbite of TV show "The Office")

Mr. HELMS: (As Andy Bernard) You wanted to see me?

Mr. STEVE CARELL (Actor): (As Michael Scott) Yeah, have a seat.

Mr. HELMS: (As Andy Bernard) Is it serious? Wow. Andy is a widdle scawed.

Mr. CARELL: (As Michael Scott) Okay, right there. Right there is the problem. There have been reports around the office that you have been talking baby talk.

Mr. HELMS: (As Andy Bernard) Why would people say that?

Mr. CARELL: (As Michael Scott) Well, I have it on good authority that you said the following, can you read that back to me.

Mr. HELMS: (As Andy Bernard) Andy have a boo-boo tummy.

Mr. CARELL: (As Michael Scott) Mm-hmm.

Mr. HELMS: (As Andy Bernard) Would you rather me say, hey, guys my irritable bowel syndrome is flaring up?

Mr. CARELL: (As Michael Scott) Okay.

Mr. HELMS: (As Andy Bernard) ...crazy diarrhea happening right now. Cause things can get real adult, real fast.

Mr. CARELL: (As Michael Scott) You are also on record as saying - Widdle iddle, footy wooties, num-nums, jammies, make boom-boom, widicuwous and Wode Island.

Mr. HELMS: (As Andy Bernard) Do I sometimes replace r's with w's? Do I sometimes repeat a word to get my point across? Well, if I do, Andy sowwy.

Mr. CARELL: (As Michael Scott) You can't be a baby in the office. It makes me look like I hire babies.

Mr. HELMS: (As Andy Bernard) Well, if we're complaining, a lot of people think your Elvis voice is annoying.

Mr. CARELL: (As Michael Scott) Okay, who said that?

Mr. HELMS: (As Andy Bernard) Just people. For the record, I think it's pretty fantastic.

Mr. CARELL: (As Michael Scott) Thank you. Thank you a lot. And for what it's worth, I think your baby voice is tops.

Mr. HELMS: (As Andy Bernard) Tank you, Mr. Ewvis.

Mr. CARELL: (As Michael Scott) You're welcome, baby.

DAVIES: Tell us about this character. He's kind of a hard guy to figure out, Andy Bernard, your guy in "The Office."

Mr. HELMS: Yeah. He's a bit of an enigma. He's actually pretty simple, when you think about it. He's desperate to be liked. He's eager, very eager to impress. A little bit hot-tempered, but ultimately, very earnest and eager to love, and wants to share himself with other people.

DAVIES: You know, you did a lot of years of standup and sketch comedy where you have an audience and the feedback is live and you know what works and what doesn't. I mean, "The Office" is so different. I mean, A, because you're in a TV studio and you're not in front of an audience. But it's also that the humor is sort of often in these sort of awkward spaces and silences. Is it kind of harder to know when you've nailed it on that - with that kind of a show?

Mr. HELMS: It's funny, because "nailed it" is one of Andy Bernard's sort of...

(Soundbite of laughter)

DAVIES: Right.

Mr. HELMS: ...trademark lines. But, you know, we laugh a lot on that "Office" set and usually the shots, the scenes are pretty quick. So even if there's no laughter in an actual take, if it's a great take, people are laughing right afterwards. And a lot of times people are laughing during takes, myself included.

I'm pretty bad at ruining a lot of takes. So there is a lot of laughter. And you can tell on the page when something - when the writers have nailed it and all you got to do is say it. There's instantaneous feedback even on a TV set or a movie set.

DAVIES: The other thing that's interesting about Andrew Bernard is that it uses another tool in your kit, which is your music. I mean, you sang a cappella and you play the banjo. And there are various points...

(Soundbite of laughter)

DAVIES: the series at which...

Mr. HELMS: The two most annoying musical forms on Earth.

(Soundbite of laughter)

DAVIES: How did that get into the show more? Was that something they just kind of saw you had or did you ever improvise, just break into song?

Mr. HELMS: Well, yeah, well it - though that's a great - one of the great things about "The Office" set is the - it's so open to improvisation. You really don't need to very often because the writing is so good. But if you're inspired or want to, it's just an open field and you can kind of mess around. So those first eight episodes, the writers endowed Andy with such fun, funny little traits, one of which was being an a cappella singer and obsessed with a cappella music. It just so happens that I, too, Ed Helms, am kind of obsessed with a cappella music.

And so, I just sort of massaged that character trait and kept bringing it up - just inject little pieces of music here and there into my lines in very inappropriate places. And so it became this fun sort of symbiotic feedback loop with the writing staff of, I would give Andy some trait and then they would play with that and expand it in some way. And with regards to the banjo, the show runner, Greg Daniels, was just so tickled that I played the banjo and wanted to stick it in the show.

What I love about that is that it doesn't make any sense. My character, Andy Bernard, is a preppy, Connecticut yacht club kid. Why on earth would he play the banjo? But for some - it's just one of those fun mysteries about Andy Bernard, I guess.

DAVIES: Right. Don't think about it too much.

Mr. HELMS: Right.

DAVIES: If you're just joining us, our guest is comedian and actor Ed Helms. His new film is "The Hangover." You grew up in Atlanta, right? And went to...

Mr. HELMS: Yes.

DAVIES: at Oberlin in Ohio?

Mr. HELMS: Yeah. That is correct.

DAVIES: Were you the kid breaking up the class in school? Was comedy always a big part of your life?

Mr. HELMS: Comedy has always been a huge part of my life. I was not particularly funny, I don't think, in school. I wouldn't consider myself the class clown, by any means. But comedy just was always something I was obsessed with, comedy television and movies. And, you know, when I was eight years old, I started watching "Saturday Night Live" and it was Eddie Murphy and Joe Piscopo and Martin Short and all those guys. And I didn't even understand it. It was just an energy that I wanted to be a part of. I really think Eddie Murphy's stuff is what sucked me in. I just really wanted to be a part of that.

DAVIES: And you went to New York after college, right, and started just doing sketch comedy and standup?

Mr. HELMS: Mm-hmm.

DAVIES: How hard was it to get started, to make a living, to know that you could do this?

Mr. HELMS: You know, it was hard logistically but I never questioned it. It was always sort of like just what I had to do. And I was so excited to be in what I thought was sort of the center of the comedy universe. And, you know, going to comedy clubs and there's Jim Gaffigan right there, you know, one of my standup sort of heroes. Or there's Dave Attell. And before a long, you know, after a few years, I'd had sort of carved out an actual place for myself in the New York comedy community.

And, you know, looking back, they were maybe sort of lean years and a little tough, but it was so fun and such a exhilarating, optimistic time. The stakes were very low, no agents or moviemakers or dealmakers were coming to shows. It was just a bunch of really eager, young comedians trying to impress each other and support each other.

DAVIES: So, there came a point where you got into a tryout and became a regular on "The Daily Show with Jon Stewart." And I thought we would listen to a cut from one of your field reports. This is about a small town in Texas that changed its name to get a commercial benefit. I don't know if you remember this one. It was called...

Mr. HELMS: Of course.

DAVIES: It was the town of Clark. And in this case, you're interviewing Bill Merritt, who is the mayor of this town of Clark, population 125. And I'll just mention for reasons that'll be clear in a minute that it's hundreds of miles from any coast. Let's listen to you interviewing the mayor.

(Soundbite of TV show, "The Daily Show with Jon Stewart")

Mr. HELMS: In recent years, rural communities have suffered as residents have left in favor of places that offer things like stimulation, or (beep) to do. In the north Texas town of Clark, a sleepy backwater with 125 residents, it has become a matter of survival.

Mayor BILL MERRITT (Clark, Texas): When I first moved here, this town was not a place that people were inclined to move to. There were very few positives, and it was pretty sad.

Mr. HELMS: Really? It looks like you did a great job cleaning up after the hurricane.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mayor MERRITT: No hurricanes hit here.

Mr. HELMS: I looked around. It looks like...

Mayor MERRITT: Uh-uh. No.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HELMS: Any mayor could mask a town's flagging appeal by courting industry or tourism. But Mayor Bill had a more innovative solution.

Mayor MERRITT: I brought everybody who lives here free satellite service for 10 years.

Mr. HELMS: And all the town had to do in return was change its name from Clark to Dish - as in Dish Satellite TV.

Mayor MERRITT: You know, this is very progressive. There's - as you're aware, there's very few people and towns out there that have ever done anything like this.

Mr. HELMS: And while NFL Package Wisconsin and Adult On Demand Missouri might take exception to that, it's clear Bill's initiative has revived the town.

DAVIES: That's our guest Ed Helms on a piece from "The Daily Show." And this brings up something that I've often wondered about in these field reports, where you're going out and you're doing a comedy piece on somebody who feels very strongly about whatever they're doing. In this case, he's the mayor of a small town. It might be somebody who has an attachment to a fringe political cause or some obscure product they've invented. And you're there, really, to poke fun at them. And I'm wondering, do you tell him beforehand, look, I'm going to kind of make some fun of you here? Or do you just do it and apologize afterwards? Or what - how does that go?

Mr. HELMS: Well, first of all, I want to contextualize that clip a little bit, because the mayor of that town actually sold out that town and was a pretty cynical character. So, I would always approach those interviews with - it wasn't as much about making fun of a person as much as trying to kind of expose some hypocrisy somewhere or make myself look stupid.

But to answer your question, no. I mean, we would not prep people for the interviews in any way. But that said, a lot of people obviously are familiar with "The Daily Show," and had some sense of what we might be up for. This particular guy was just happy to get some publicity for his town, so he would have done anything.

DAVIES: Before we let you go, Ed Helms, I wanted to ask you a couple other things. You do voice work - voiceover work for commercials or did do it. Do you still do that for - I mean, you did Burger King and Doritos and stuff.

Mr. HELMS: Yeah, I did a - when I was doing standup in New York, that's - that ultimately became how I supported myself, was just doing voiceovers for TV commercials and radio commercials.

DAVIES: Do you have a favorite pitch?

Mr. HELMS: You know, I did hundreds of them, and I can't - they just all sort of blurred together.

DAVIES: It's interesting, because in a lot of your characters you are often sounding all-knowing and authoritative but in a way that's kind over the top and self-mocking.

Mr. HELMS: And ultimately not knowing of anything.

DAVIES: Right.

(Soundbite of laughter)

DAVIES: And I wondered if it's ever tempting when you're selling the Whopper to - I don't know, just throw a little irony in there, like, do you really believe this?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HELMS: No, Dave. I'm a professional. If I'm recording a commercial voiceover, I try to make it sound like I believe in it, whether or not I do, I guess.

DAVIES: All right, all right. Thanks so much for speaking with us.

Mr. HELMS: My pleasure. Thanks for having me.

DAVIES: Ed Helms' film "The Hangover" is out on DVD this month. This is FRESH AIR.


The new movie "Brothers" is a remake of a 2004 Danish film by Susanne Bier. Like the original it centers on a pair of very different siblings and the ways in which they switch roles when one comes back damaged from war. It's made by the Irish director Jim Sheridan, who made "My Left Foot" and "In America." The film stars Tobey Maguire as a Marine captain from a military family, Natalie Portman as his wife and Jake Gyllenhaal as his brother. Film critic David Edelstein has this review.

DAVID EDELSTEIN: In "Brothers," Tobey Maguire and Jake Gyllenhaal are Sam and Tommy Cahill. Sam is about to be redeployed to Afghanistan to be with his men. That's what he always says, my men. Tommy is his opposite, grizzled, shambling, a drinker. He just got out of prison after three years for armed robbery. The movie is called "Brothers," but the center, the fulcrum, is the whole Cahill clan. Natalie Portman is Sam's wife, Grace, an ex-cheerleader. She barely stands the sight of Tommy.

The extended family features Sam Shepard as the brothers' alcoholic dad, who also barely stands the sight of Tommy, Mare Winningham as their patient stepmother and, as Sam's young daughters, Bailee Madison and Taylor Geare, who compete for attention and react to deadbeat Tommy in different ways. When, early on, Sam's chopper goes down in Afghanistan and word comes back he's dead, the family structure collapses -predictably. What isn't so predictable is how Tommy will react and move in to fill the gap. You certainly can't guess it from how he takes the news, when Grace catches him drunk in the middle of the night, returning keys to his brother's truck.

(Soundbite of movie, "Brothers")

Mr. JAKE GYLLENHAAL (Actor): (As Tommy Cahill) Grace. I'm sorry, I didn't mean to wake you. Look, you know, just say it, you know what I mean, all right. He told me I could borrow the car whenever I want.

Ms. NATALIE PORTMAN (Actor): (As Grace Cahill) Sam's dead.

(Soundbite of sobbing)

Mr. GYLLENHAAL: (As Tommy) What are you talking about?

Ms. PORTMAN: (As Grace) He's dead, Tommy, (unintelligible).

Mr. GYLLENHAAL: (As Tommy) Why didn't you call me? Why'd you let him go over there, Grace?

Ms. PORTMAN: (As Grace) Tommy.

Mr. GYLLENHAAL: (As Tommy) Well, what now, huh?

EDELSTEIN: It's not a spoiler to say top-billed Tobey Maguire does not, in fact, die in the first 15 minutes. But for much of "Brothers," he's thought by his family to be dead. Director Jim Sheridan skips among the three protagonists - Sam in Afghanistan, and Tommy and Grace back home -but he never loses the story's pulse. That's because the story isn't Sam or Tommy or Grace individually but the family unit. It's how Sam's actions when he's captured relate to how his dad raised him and what he owes Grace. And how Tommy's assumption of responsibility is partly because Grace is so pretty and her older daughter so needy, and partly to prove something to his dad that he couldn't when Sam was alive.

Who'd have guessed the stars who made their names as nerd heroes Peter Parker and Donnie Darko could be so credibly messed up and volatile? Maguire isn't big physically, but his tautness radiates power. Responsibility is his mantra. When he's thrown in a pit with one of his men, he coldly orders the soldier to forget his family, forget everything but his name. But as we jump back to Sam's wife and daughters, we wonder, can he really forget his own?

Sheridan has gotten the best performances from his other two leads of their lives. Gyllenhaal's Tommy turns out to be as tightly wound as his brother, only too scared to focus. He looks pitifully vulnerable as he begins to take on his brother's role. Natalie Portman has the kind of part that turns actresses into dullards, the wife who looks stricken while her man rages. But she's so grounded, so in the moment that as others carry on, your eyes keep drifting to her.

Sheridan pulls you in so deep, so fast, there isn't time for the alarm to go off that says, warning, another traumatized vet movie. It is that, ultimately, but it doesn't stop dead for Maguire to emote. The crosscurrents keep you scanning the frame, to watch the subtly vibrating face of Shepard, who's never been better, or the two wonderful girls. Up-and-coming English actress Carey Mulligan has a small role, and I liked her better than in her showier turn in the film "An Education," where she has to exaggerate her character's naivete.

Actors in Sheridan's movies are fully engaged, thinking hard in character, and you feel as if you're inside their heads. For this great director, empathy seems to come as naturally as breathing.

DAVIES: David Edelstein is film critic for New York Magazine. You can download podcasts of our show at And you can follow us on Twitter at nprfreshair.

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.

You May Also like

Did you know you can create a shareable playlist?


Recently on Fresh Air Available to Play on NPR


Daughter of Warhol star looks back on a bohemian childhood in the Chelsea Hotel

Alexandra Auder's mother, Viva, was one of Andy Warhol's muses. Growing up in Warhol's orbit meant Auder's childhood was an unusual one. For several years, Viva, Auder and Auder's younger half-sister, Gaby Hoffmann, lived in the Chelsea Hotel in Manhattan. It was was famous for having been home to Leonard Cohen, Dylan Thomas, Virgil Thomson, and Bob Dylan, among others.


This fake 'Jury Duty' really put James Marsden's improv chops on trial

In the series Jury Duty, a solar contractor named Ronald Gladden has agreed to participate in what he believes is a documentary about the experience of being a juror--but what Ronald doesn't know is that the whole thing is fake.

There are more than 22,000 Fresh Air segments.

Let us help you find exactly what you want to hear.
Just play me something
Your Queue

Would you like to make a playlist based on your queue?

Generate & Share View/Edit Your Queue