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C.C.H. Pounder of 'The Shield'

C.C.H. Pounder is best known for her portrayal of Detective Claudette Wyms on the FX TV show The Shield. Recently, her character got a much deserved promotion to captain. Pounder was raised in Guyana, and schooled in Britain. The Shield is one of this year's recipients of the prestigious Peabody Award, being handed out Monday night.

42:42

Other segments from the episode on June 5, 2006

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, June 5, 2006: Interview with CCH Pounder; Review of the current works of Michael Braam.

Transcript

DATE June 5, 2006 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
NETWORK NPR
PROGRAM Fresh Air

Interview: Actress CCH Pounder discusses her career, her life,
and her current work on the FX TV series "The Shield"
TERRY GROSS, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

Today one of the most gripping, terrifically acted and violent TV cop shows
receives broadcasting's most prestigious award, the Peabody. The Peabody Web
site describes the FX TV series "The Shield" as, quote, `riveting,
densely-layered adult entertainment and more. No cop series has posed harder
questions than "The Shield" about how far we're willing to let law enforcement
officers go to keep us safe,' unquote. "The Shield" is about a police strike
team that works the streets to find drug dealers and killers. The team is
very successful, but these renegade cops can be as violent as the perps
they're stalking. The series is in hiatus on FX, but Spike TV recently
started rerunning the series Friday nights.

My guest, CCH Pounder, plays Detective Claudette Wyms, an honest and effective
cop who knows that the strike team is dirty. Before the show went to hiatus,
Detective Wym's superiors found out she had lupus. In this scene they
confront her and she confronts them about the investigator from Internal
Affairs who has ruined morale.

(Soundbite of "The Shield")

Unidentified Actor #1: Let me get to the point. I've been made aware that
you have a serious medical condition, one that could compromise your ability
to perform your duties. You needed to disclose a disease like lupus. You
didn't.

Ms. CCH POUNDER: (As Detective Claudette Wyms): Because it was a personal
matter.

Actor #1: Suppose you had taken than header out in the field. You could have
put other officers at risk.

Ms. POUNDER: But it didn't happen, and I'm not here because of how I knock
down doors.

Actor #1: I'm ordering you to see a city physician for a full medical review.
Until then, you're assigned to desk duty.

Ms. POUNDER: Then let's get it done ASAP. I've got plenty of cases to
clear.

Actor #1: I'm responsible for the health and welfare of everyone working
here.

Ms. POUNDER: Then maybe you ought to do something about the epidemic..(word
censored by station)...in this place.

Actor # 1: Claudette, don't let your frustration get to...(unintelligible).

Ms. POUNDER: This man Cavanaugh that you've just given the place over to. I
understand he's got an investigation to run, but have you any idea what he's
doing to morale?

Actor #1: You've got a point there.

Ms. POUNDER: IAD is arrogant and intrusive. It's the nature of the beast.
But this man takes intimidation to a whole other level. He's got every
officer in this place spooked. They spend more time looking over their
shoulders than they do doing their jobs.

Actor #1: That's a fair assessment.

Ms. POUNDER: Our last captain had unpopular policies so you stuck us with an
interim jellyfish that won't rock the boat, then you cut resources that we
need to do the job. Talk about putting people at risk.

(End of soundbite)

GROSS: Detective Wyms wasn't punished for that outburst, she was promoted to
captain. Actress CCH Pounder first became known for her starring role in the
1988 film "Baghdad Cafe."

CCH Pounder, welcome to FRESH AIR.

You know, although I'm steeped in the reruns on Spike right now, I can't wait
to see what happens when "The Shield" returns on FX for its new series with
you as the captain. That must be really good news, not only for your
character, but for you as an actress, because you're going to be at the center
of the show.

Ms. POUNDER: Well, actually, more for my public because I was trying to be
captain for quite a while, this character, and when I didn't get it the first
time and Glenn Close's character got it, I tell you, the news, the letters,
the e-mails, were amazing. I had no idea that it would have such an impact,
but it went to the bottom line of American racism and...

GROSS: Really, like they gave it to a white actress...

Ms. POUNDER: ...people perceived themselves...

GROSS: ...that kind of thing?

Ms. POUNDER: Absolutely.

GROSS: Uh-huh.

Ms. POUNDER: I couldn't believe it and, you know, you really forget that out
in the world there, somehow it translates to a sort of real place for many,
many people. So that was about being shoved aside, just like it is in the
real world, and people were quite angry and very pissed off. And so they have
been sending letters going `If they don't give you that job, I'm gonna...' `If
they don't do that'--they were very clear. I'm leaving the blanks out.

GROSS: Right.

Ms. POUNDER: But they were very clear about how they felt.

GROSS: Just for our listeners, for any listeners who haven't been following
"The Shield," Glenn Close was the guest star for a whole season, and when you
were passed over for captain, she became the captain.

Ms. POUNDER: Right.

GROSS: So now your character and your character's fans were resentful that
she was passed over and Glenn Close got the job as captain. Were you, as an
actress resentful? Did you expect your character was going to make captain,
and were you sorry that Glenn Close came in and took the position?

Ms. POUNDER: Oh no, far from it. As a matter of fact, our writers are--must
find me to probably be the most unusual actress that they've dealt with,
because I think many of us want to be in a position that reflects real life,
like upward mobility, they're the center of attention. And it's not
necessarily my interest as an actor. My fascination is how do human beings
get themselves out of this particular corner of a box? And usually they would
call an actress in and say, `OK, we're going to do this this season,' and I
usually say, `I don't want to know about it.' Just write the script, and I'll
figure it out. And that's very tough for a lot of other actors to believe
and/or take.

GROSS: Now, I wasn't sure you'd make it through this last season.

Ms. POUNDER: Right.

GROSS: You know, we've learned that your character has lupus. You collapsed,
and things weren't looking good. I wasn't even sure you were going to come
back. Did you worry that you were going to be written out?

Ms. POUNDER: Well, I had suggested that if--I had suggested in season five
that perhaps Claudette should just boil off because I get frustrated when
brilliant people or bright people or fairly intelligent people cannot take one
particular person down. How do you dismantle someone like a Vic Mackey? And
they keep coming up with fairly clever reasons for me to stay. And one of the
things--in the very beginning I always felt that perhaps Claudette was the one
that would take Vic Mackey down, and now it might not necessarily be that.
But in looking to my character's future, I always thought, `Well, if she took
him down, how would she do it? And just, dear God, just don't let him be shot
in the streets. I want to have him dismantled.' And that's one of the big
challenges I've had is having intelligent people around us and that man still
surviving.

GROSS: And Vic Mackey is the leader of the strike force and--I mean, he's
corrupt, he and his men. They take money from the drug dealers. They beat up
suspects to get information. And you're one of the people on the show who's
not intimidated by him at all. Why isn't your character intimidated by him?

Ms. POUNDER: I think Claudette's already been through her baptism by fire
simply by being perhaps one of the earlier black women on the force, sort of
female, black--those sort of parameters of the setup sort of becoming a
detective, going through what's required in a very all boys network for the
most part has got a tough outer layer, treats herself as one of the guys, and
doesn't make exceptions for anyone. And she's got a moral code that's very
clear, at the moment, how she's written and has not been challenged--she's not
had it challenged by anyone so far.

GROSS: What's it like being one of the women on a show that's really a very
testosterone driven show?

Ms. POUNDER: Right. Now, this is the actual great question where there is a
crossover, where, as the actress and actors working together, there is an
awful lot of testosterone on our set, and there's a lot of testosterone in the
story, and that can get very--the crossover, the gray area gets very, very,
very blurred. Thank God for Catherine Dent, who is the only other woman
that's permanently on the show, and it's--it can get very hairy. People sort
of forget that you're a woman, and they speak of all kinds of body parts, as,
you know, like cups or saucers or tissues or whatever. So I've used
Claudette's attitude a great deal of the time and sort of put my foot down and
kind of go, `Now listen, while I'm on the set I don't expect to hear that
language,' or `talking about that part of my body while I'm here' and I can
pull up Claudette every now and again and be very clear about it.

GROSS: Do--that's what you have to do.

Ms. POUNDER: But it's--it's testosterone driven. You do, you do.

GROSS: Uh-huh.

Ms. POUNDER: It's testosterone driven, absolutely.

GROSS: Now, one of the things that your character has is a piercing look.
She can almost like look through people when she's talking to them. Is that
something you can do in real life when you need to?

Ms. POUNDER: Apparently. And I'm not really aware of it, but my husband
says the same thing. It's like, Whoa! What is that about? So apparently
I've had it for a long time, too.

GROSS: How did you get the part on "The Shield"?

Ms. POUNDER: Clark Johnson, the director of the pilot, I had just finished
doing "Boycott" with him. I had one of the best experiences in filmmaking
where, once again--I guess this says a lot about me--I had no idea what the
next shots would be, even though, as a veteran actor, you kind of figure it
out fairly soon. OK, they're going to do that setup, and then it's going to
be this, that, and the other. But with Clark Johnson, I had absolutely no
idea where the camera was sometimes and how we were going to do the shot, and
I found it very exciting. And so I said to him, `I don't care what you're
doing next, please could I work with you again?' We did have a wonderful time.
Anyway, eventually he called me and said, `Well,the next thing is sort of
"Seven Guys and a Blonde, so no luck.' And I went, `OK, fine.' I mentioned it
to my agent, Judy Page, brilliant woman, who said, `Well, why can't you be one
of the guys?' And so I went, `Whoa!' I don't--I don't--I don't know how to do
that. And so she just made the arrangements. My se--I went up with several
gentleman, I was the only woman there, and I got the role that way.
(Unintelligible).

GROSS: So you read a part that was written for a man.

Ms. POUNDER: Yes. And it was written in the male vernacular, and in that
testosterone driven sound, but he was an old, sort of gumshoe, been around the
block quite a few times, and he was on his way to retirement, and I read that
role. And I remember Scott Brazil who is our--was our executive producer, I
said to him, `Well, it was kind of masculine. If you let me come back and
read it again, I'll decide what sex I want to be, because I think I sort of
got a really low voice, and I was trying something, and they said, `No, it was
actually pretty interesting.' So...

GROSS: So the part was rewritten for a woman.

Ms. POUNDER: Almost. One of my requests was that they didn't rewrite it for
a woman. It's to write the woman as one of the boys, and I think that's what
gives Claudette her edge, is that sort of no-nonsense, that tiny lack of
sympathy for people really helps her to sort of portray herself as one of the
guys, and therefore, person to be reckoned with and certainly somebody that
Vic Mackey would not cross the line over, especially when you see him in this
series with other women.

GROSS: My guest is CCH Pounder, one of the stars of the FX cop series "The
Shield." More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Announcements)

GROSS: My guest is CCH Pounder. She plays Detective Claudette Wyms, who was
just promoted to captain, on the FX TV series "The Shield."

Now, for anyone listening to you who's a fan of "The Shield," they'll be able
to hear that your accent, as you're speaking to us now, is a little different
than how Claudette sounds.

Ms. POUNDER: Right. Right.

GROSS: What's the difference?

Ms. POUNDER: I'm from British Guiana, which is now Guyana. I grew up in
England, and I came here as an adult. I spent seven years working on American
accents, and then Peggy Rogers, who is, by the way, from Philadelphia, was one
of my friends in college. And I said to her, `Peggy, I need to speak the way
you speak,' and that's how we started. And basically for the first three
years of my friendship with Peggy, I stole her voice and would use it for
auditions and so on. And then as the years have gone by, it's sort of become
that sort of mid-Atlantic, in the middle accent that I do use for work,
because a black British actress, when I arrived here, didn't have that much to
do except go to auditions and people have you called--always have callbacks
and kind of go, `Listen to this one talk,' and I always thought that was the
oddest thing. But now, you know, years have gone by, and we're much more
international and aware of the rest of the world.

GROSS: So would you show up at the audition speaking to the casting director
in your more mid-Atlantic voice, so that they wouldn't be prejudiced against
your British accent?

Ms. POUNDER: Oh, absolutely. Absolutely. Because, unfortunately, there's a
lot of things in America that sort of go with black. I mean, I've actually
been told by directors could I be more black. And I would say sort of, `Well,
just look at me and tell me what exactly do you want because I can't get much
blacker than I physically am, but what attitude would you like?' So it's
forced them to describe human feelings in a much higher range than usually
when I'm around.

You know, it's been really fascinating because--this is a kind of sidebar,
Terry--the thing about being black and having a different accent in the
beginning is that it makes you foreign, and then it does not make you, how can
I use this word? I'll say it, and then you edit it some other way, `a
nigger,' and so that, with your accent, you are somewhat protected always by
being foreign. But I wanted to be an American actress. Coming from England,
I knew that that was where the real stories would be, and it would take
England much, much longer to come up with these stories. They're just getting
their feet wet now, and this is 25 years ago. And I subjected myself to that
feeling so that when people talk to you and you receive those insults and
barbs, and I replied just the way with my same neck jerk and I gave them what
for, and you kind of become a part of society. It's part of the whole
assimilation system, really, and the moment that you're not foreign, then you
get hurts and pains and pangs that you are no longer protected by your
foreignness, which people, regardless of your color, always give you the
opportunity of giving you--graciousness, politeness. They give you the excuse
of, `Well, they're not from here so they really would not understand.'

GROSS: So...

Ms. POUNDER: Does that make sense to you?

GROSS: Yeah, and I want to ask you about that in a second. But first, I
wanted to ask you, you used what we often call `the n word.' Do you want us to
use that word or did you want us to edit it out?

Ms. POUNDER: I couldn't find another word--that--that really, that's the
word.

GROSS: That's the word. Mm-hmm.

Ms. POUNDER: That's the word. I have never been called it until I got an
American accent. That's really important. Do you understand what I'm saying?

GROSS: That's really interesting. I think that's really, really interesting.

Ms. POUNDER: Yes.

GROSS: So tell me more what you think that says about people's assumptions
about African-Americans and black people from other countries?

Ms. POUNDER: It is with the same wonderfulness that French people treat
African-Americans and the disdain that they treat Africans.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Ms. POUNDER: It is with the same difference that the British treat
African-Americans compared to how they treat West Indians, part of their
colonies, and therefore, America does the same with African-Americans because
we African-Americans here are their colonized people of--who are the
underbelly people, the lower strata people. So I hope that's really, really
clear. I really want it to be clear.

GROSS: You know it's interesting. You spend a lot of time in Africa, too,
because your husband's from Senegal...

Ms. POUNDER: I do. Right.

GROSS: ...and runs a museum there so you're in Senegal a good deal of the
time. So you're also a black person in Africa...

Ms. POUNDER: Right.

GROSS: ...and how does--what are the some of the assumptions you've run into
there?

Ms. POUNDER: Well, in Africa I would be called a "tubab," which means white
for some people, but really it means foreign, and so it's the same. I'm very
well treated in Africa because there's the assumption because I'm also
exceedingly rich, and I'm--I have the status--the first foreigners that came
were white, maybe Portuguese, and they had the--you know, the white people
were the tubabs, so--I've heard them call me `No, no, no, no, no. Not that
lady, the tubab lady.' And they know exactly who I would be.

GROSS: Do they think that you're rich because you're foreign or because you
work on television?

Ms. POUNDER: Well, they haven't seen me--oh yes, they have seen me on
television now. But in the beginning, no, because you're from outside, just
really means, you know, coming from another place.

GROSS: Now, does being an actress, and a successful one, and being on a
series like "The Shield" get you a ticket out of all of those assumptions
about how race or country define you?

Ms. POUNDER: Oh, yes, sometimes, because that makes you different. You you
know, you're more iconic so it can be--you can be in the presence of, say,
white people--you're in the presence of white people. They're talking about
black people negatively. They see you, but they don't mean `you.' You're
different, so you become iconic, and that's very common. I know many, many
people are very aware of that.

GROSS: So have you used different versions of your accent and different
versions of American regional accents in your roles in television knowing some
of the implications that accents have in terms of the assumptions people make
about others?

Ms. POUNDER: All the time, and everyone does it all the time. It's just the
difference between, like, you can speak scatologically around--amongst your
friends so they understand what you mean.

GROSS: Mm-hm.

Ms. POUNDER: You speak better towards your parents. You speak in a very
formal way towards people that you've never met before. And so imagine,
Terry, that I am from a very interracial family in terms of where we grew up,
so I was born in Guyana, which has a kind of accent like that. And everybody
speaks a little bit on the high side and, `Good morning, girl. It's so nice
to see you.' That's where I started. And then you ended up in England, so you
have--I did speak the Queen's English, and it was in a boarding school, so
it's very, very proper. And then you got to America, but you didn't land in,
say, Maryland, you landed in Brooklyn, so I've got an edge as well, so while
I'm speaking at my dinner table, you can hear all of those accents all within
one conversation. It just sounds like the Tower of Babel, but we all seem to
manage and get along.

GROSS: CCH Pounder plays Detective Claudette Wyms, who just got promoted to
captain on the FX series "The Shield." She'll be back in the second half of
the show. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(Announcements)

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with CCH Pounder. She plays
Detective Claudette Wyms on the FX cop series "The Shield." Just before the
latest round of episodes ended, she was promoted to captain. Recently Spike
TV started rerunning "The Shield," beginning with the first episode. Today
"The Shield" receives a Peabody award at the awards ceremony.

Now, in addition to your regular part on "The Shield," you've done a lot of
the crime shows. You've done "Law and Order" and "Cagney and Lacey " and
"Hill Street Blues," and--I mean, so have you done a lot of victims and, you
know, perps on those shows?

Ms. POUNDER: In the beginning, I did. In the beginning, I was the sniveling
wife with the crying baby, selling crack for medication for her children or
being accosted by her husband, abused by her husband. I spent a couple of
years, literally, just crying on cue, and I think it was actually "Miami
Vice." "Miami Vice" I played a mother on crack who sold her child for crack
cocaine and, at the end of it--I had a marvelous time, by the way, in terms of
acting, I had a great time--and at the end of it I looked back and I said, `I
never want to do this again,' because I had, by this time, discovered how
powerful television really, really is. Television is this incredibly powerful
medium that people blur the lines between reality and fiction and take it as
gospel, so I decided that after that I'm going to play some women of worth, of
character, of strength, of authority, educated. Because the people who are
watching me needed to see something that was far more uplifting than what I
had been doing.

GROSS: So what did you do, like, sit home and wait for people to offer you
uplifting roles?

Ms. POUNDER: I did, and I starved for about a year and a half. And I
remember distinctly calling my agent and saying, `OK, well, I'm really sort of
six cents in the cookie jar now, so whatever comes next, I'm going to have to
take it.' And it was a script for not "Law and Order," "Hill"--"LA Law," the
very first one, "LA Law." And I got the entire script, and there was a
miserable little person that I was meant to read for, and then there was a
character of the judge, and I said, `I want to read for the judge,' and I was
told that no black woman had read for the judge yet, and they didn't think
they would let you in to do it. And I insisted and my agents backed me up,
and I went and read for the judge, and they were all like, `Oh, I guess, yeah,
she could be a judge. She could be a judge. There are black judges, aren't
there?' That was one of the quotes I heard in the room. `There are black
judges out there, I mean that are women.' And somebody said, `I'll look it
up,' I remember, a young kid. And I got that job.

GROSS: Well, you know, since we were talking about different accents before
and different voice placements, I'm wondering if, like, in your years as a
victim, on TV shows...

Ms. POUNDER: Mm-hm.

GROSS: ...on crime shows, was there a certain kind of voice that you would
use for that?

Ms. POUNDER: Well, it was up, kind of voice high and whiney and then, `I'm
not quite sure where she went, but she was over there and I had the children
down. They were like down two stairs, and I just don't know where they are
right now but--' It was kind of like that. An endless parade of that, so you
know, so after a while, you get really nasally.

GROSS: And why that voice? What matches about that voice with the kind of
victim you had to play?

Ms. POUNDER: For some reason, high seems, I guess, in the minds of people,
female, therefore vulnerable, therefore, less than, you know--somebody who
needs aid, come to one's rescue. It's really true.

GROSS: Now, in your role on "The Shield," you use a very deep version of your
voice.

Ms. POUNDER: Right. I like the professionalism of that. I like the fact
that...

GROSS: Oh, it's power. Isn't it?

Ms. POUNDER: Yes. Yes. It is. It is a maleness that I don't have
physically, but I try to ground the--that maleness, that boys' club in the
sound of her voice. And by doing so, she gets almost instant authority. And
I'm always trying to lose weight, and they're always happy when I'm heftier.
And so it's sort of that sort of hefty look with the deep voice and piercing
eyes is like, `Yes! That's Claudette Wyms.' But you know, it's part of human
nature that we certainly recognize signage, and that really is signage.

GROSS: My guest is CCH Pounder. She plays Detective Claudette Wyms on the FX
TV series "The Shield." Spike TV has been rerunning the series Friday nights.
They're in season two now.

(Technical difficulties, overlaying of Gross' voice)

GROSS: You know I think...

GROSS: Here's a scene...

GROSS: ...a novelty act. Is that how you would like to be seen?

GROSS: Detective Wyms is interrogating a vicious drug dealer who has huge
burns across one side of his face from the burner of an electric stove.

GROSS: We seem to be having some kind of problems here, so forgive us as we
get this straightened out. So here's the clip we want to hear.

(Soundbite of "The Shield")

Ms. POUNDER: (As Detective Claudette Wyms) You've got a lot on your plate.
Where'd you find the time? Drug trafficking, consolidating a Mexican power
base, murder. Am I leaving anything out? Oh yeah. Juvenile rape.

Unidentified Actor #2: So you say.

Ms. POUNDER: Let's hope that genius IQ means you know how to help yourself.
We've got you on tape making a death threat.

Actor #2: That could be anyone's voice. I'll challenge it in court.

Ms. POUNDER: What about the testimony of a cop with his own grill mark. You
going to challenge that too? What happened to your face? You used to be so
pretty.

Actor #2: I'll only give my confession to Detective Mackey.

Ms. POUNDER: You don't make demands, not to me.

(End of soundbite)

GROSS: CCH Pounder will be back after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Announcements)

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is actress CCH Pounder, and she's
one of the stars of "The Shield." She plays Detective Claudette Wyms.

Now, you grew up in British Guiana, and I know you must be asked all the time
the question I'm about to ask you, which is did you know anybody who was
involved in any way with Jim Jones' cult group in Jonestown? Now, that might
have been French Guiana and not British Guiana.

Ms. POUNDER: No, no. It was in British Guiana.

GROSS: It was in British Guiana?

Ms. POUNDER: Yeah. It was in British Guiana. And no, I didn't know. In
fact, not many Guyanese people knew about Jim Jones until after the fact,
until the airport incident, until it was literally all over, because the
people were from the United States. And I don't know if you know the back
history. This was when Guyana was opening up its land for development and
had--was offering land, you know, for people from all over the world to come
there and develop the land, and they would get sort of 70 percent and the
government would get 30, so Jim Jones' group were the first Americans that
came and created that extraordinary tragedy. And very few Guyanese people
know about them because they were in the interior and, as you may or may not
know, Guyana is mostly occupied right at the water's edge in Georgetown.
That's the majority of the people. We don't even have a million people in
Guyana. It's a small, small...

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Ms. POUNDER: ...population, and really primordial kind of country. It's the
real deal jungle. It's the orchids hanging from the branches. It's anaconda
and all manner of strange-looking creatures and bright yellow frogs and just
an exquisite place, but that kind of raw, scary beauty that you expect King
Kong to come swinging around the corner. And so people have hugged mostly to
the edges, which is Georgetown, the biggest--the capital, the biggest city,
and that's right on the coast. And there are few interior towns, New
Amsterdam and Bartica.

GROSS: Mm.

Ms. POUNDER: Where Jim Jones was, not a lot of people knew them.

GROSS: So how much contact did you have with the jungle?

Ms. POUNDER: As I was growing up as a kid, none whatsoever because I was on
a sugar cane estate, or plantation, and that was a clear jungle. That was
miles and miles of sugar cane and canals, and lots of water everywhere.

GROSS: Did your family own the plantation or work on the plantation?

Ms. POUNDER: My father was the first African to--he was the second in
command at Versailles Estate.

GROSS: Now, I read that when you were growing up in Guiana you were struck in
the head while watching a match at school--I don't know what kind of
match--and that you suffered short-term memory loss. Is that accurate?

Ms. POUNDER: Almost. I grew up also in a--after Guiana, I left Guiana about
eight. By the time I got to England, I was in English boarding school around
nine, ten, got struck at the back of the head with a cricket ball. Did have
short-term memory--scared the heck out of the nuns. They didn't know what to
do, and so they started to give me a poem per evening to learn, and then they
would check it the next day, see how I was coming along with my memory. And
it started off with sort of one or two nuns would come just listen to see how
I'm doing, and I guess they would go back and say, `That girl, I mean, she's
really quite, quite amazing.' You know, `She's quite lovely. You'd better go
hear her.' And so I'd get three or four nuns, then five or six nuns, so I
found myself entertaining the nuns, and I think that was my first glimpse of
applause and pleasing people...

GROSS: Mm-hm.

Ms. POUNDER: ...by poems, and I think maybe those were my first
performances. I used to do also performances after lights-out. I'd play
Dracula and Superman and Hercules.

GROSS: So what poems did you have to memorize?

Ms. POUNDER: Oh, I did things like "The camel's hump is an ugly lump which
well you might see at the zoo, but uglier yet is the hump we get, when we
haven't enough to do, to do, to do, when we haven't enough to do." And I'd do
"Matilda tells such dreadful lies that made one gasp and stretch one's eyes.
Her aunt then who was often out to the theater"--can't remember the rest of
that one. Those were Ogden Nash. I did a ton of those, and then pretty
things like "in copses and woodlands soft wings were astir, mid budding of
larches and flying of fur, and a blackbird was whistling out in the ranges
over and over and over again, pretty girl, pretty girl, pretty girl." Do stuff
like that. I can't believe I actually remembered...

GROSS: You still remember a lot of this. Yeah. It's amazing.

Ms. POUNDER: ...three or four of these things. I cannot--I mean, it's
probably not all correct, but somewhere in there is a bunch of stories
that--poems that I'd have to learn.

GROSS: So how's your short-term memory now?

Ms. POUNDER: My short-term memory is awful. My rote memory is exquisite.
And so if you were sick and I had to come and do your show and memorize your
show, I would be the person to call. If I had to find my keys to get to the
office where you are, to do those lines, it would take me hours to find my
keys. I can't remember appointments. I have sticky paper everywhere. And I
don't think that memory ever got better, and I'm probably--and I don't want to
say it out loud, but I'm probably--a candidate for a memory disease that is so
literally right on my shoulder. It's a huge challenge for me right now.
Huge.

GROSS: Now, I also read that your parents didn't really want you to be an
actress. They didn't have a lot of respect for the profession.

Ms. POUNDER: Right. My parents are sort of staunch West Indians. They love
the work ethic. They believe in doctors, lawyers, something concrete,
something that does something for the world. And acting was sort of like, you
know, closer to the first oldest profession, as far as they were concerned.
They thought this was a waste of an education and somewhat sleazy...

GROSS: And obviously you disagree.

Ms. POUNDER: ...to put it nicely. I did disagree, but it--I'm telling you,
it took me a very, very long time to say out loud, `I am an actress' or `I'm
an actor.' It took me a long time. If I was working as a secretary, I'd be
proud to say `I'm a secretary,' you know. `I'm working at an insurance
company.' And I did tons of temporary jobs, as all actors do. And even when I
went to college, I did not go directly to the drama department, I went to the
French and English Department and thought I would major in English and then
minor in drama. And it took a while to say out loud, `I'm an actor,' and then
I had to do it. I was running out of time and excuses.

GROSS: You know what I think is funny, like your parents are thinking it's a
sleazy profession, it's not respectable. And you think, no, it's a fine
profession, and then you end up having to play women who are selling their
babies for crack.

Ms. POUNDER: Exactly. Exactly. But I'm proud to be able to say now that
every profession that my mother ever wanted me to do, I've done it, in acting.

GROSS: I have one more question for you. Remember earlier we were talking
about--we were talking about how, being from Guyana, you had, you know, a
British accent, and wherever you went in the world, people would evaluate you
based on your accent. And in America...

Ms. POUNDER: Right.

GROSS: ...people would treat you better probably than they would treat
African-Americans because you were an outsider...

Ms. POUNDER: Mm.

GROSS: ...and everybody has the people who they've kind of like colonialized
and look down on. What was it like growing up black in Guiana?

Ms. POUNDER: Well, we were the big cheese there. That was never knowing
what racism's about in Guiana. It's all about poverty. It's all about haves
and have-nots, and it's very, very different. It's not about the color of
your skin, because everybody's skin is black. The Indians--they're East
Indians--they're the majority of the population. They're black also. The
whites are so burnt and crispified they look like black people there, too, so
it's a sort of--everybody's basically brown in Guyana, and the differences,
there are many cultural differences--there's East Indian, there's Hindu,
there's Muslim, there's Christian, there is native Indian. So there's all of
that mix, but poverty's a great equalizer, and so that there are more people
equal there than they're nonequal. And it's really about the haves and the
have-nots, and in Guiana, I was a have.

GROSS: So it sounds like this was a good way to grow up, not being exposed to
the kind of racism--yeah.

Ms. POUNDER: Yes, because you're innocent to it. You're innocent to it, and
you don't really recognize it when it's right in your face until people tell
you, `No, that's not what he meant about that watermelon, fool. That's not
what he meant at all.' And I kind of go, `Oh, but it was a really good piece
of watermelon. I didn't realize, you know, when he called me watermelon eater
and I went "Mm, it's really good, sir."' Yeah, you know, there's stuff like
that so...

GROSS: Well, CCH Pounder, thank you so much for talking with us.

Ms. POUNDER: I've enjoyed talking with you, Terry. Thank you.

GROSS: CCH Pounder plays Detective Claudette Wyms on the FX series "The
Shield." Today "The Shield" receives the Peabody Award at the awards ceremony.

(Soundbite of music)

(Announcements)

(Soundbite of music)

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

Review: Kevin Whitehead discusses current works of jazz pianist
Michiel Braam
TERRY GROSS, host:

Jazz critic Kevin Whitehead has a review of two new trio CDs by the Dutch
pianist Michiel Braam. Braam runs the jazz program at the conservatory in
Arnhem and has been recording for the better part of 20 years as leader of a
big band and various small groups. Kevin says, "Braam is typically Dutch in
mixing serious music-making with a bit of whimsy."

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. KEVIN WHITEHEAD: You can tell right off Michiel Braam digs Thelonius Monk.
In his piano playing, you can hear some of the same creative clunkiness, the
joy in making rude sounds, like that bit that mimics a skipping record. But
Braam crosses his Monk strain with the puckish crowd-pleasing tendencies of
Errol Garner. He has an odd gift for writing tunes that are catchy and
exasperating at the same time. Braam's melody "Hotch as Ginseng" is as
repetitive as water torture.

(Soundbite of "Hotch as Ginseng")

Mr. WHITEHEAD: The Trio BraamDeJoodeVatcher has been around for 16 years.
Dutch bassist Wilbert de Joode is a world-class powerhouse. Ex-pat American
drummer Michael Vatcher peppers up with suspense-building hiccups and
hesitations. The trio started out just playing Monk tunes but long since
switched over to Michiel Braam's own material. Their new CD is "Change This
Song" on the BBB label.

Not content to lead a fine acoustic trio, Braam now has an electric
counterpart with a different rhythm section, including bass guitar. It's
called his Wurli Trio because Braam plays an old school Wurlitzer electric
piano. Their CD is called "Hosting Changes," which is an anagram of the other
album's name. In fact, all the tune titles on both CDs are permutations of
those same 14 letters: "Hagish Consent," "Can Ghosts Neigh?" "Agog
Shinstench." If that word game didn't link these albums enough, half the tunes
appear on both. A piece that sounds whimsical played by the acoustic trio can
sound even goofier on electric piano. Compare both versions of "Songs Each
Night."

(Soundbite of "Songs Each Night" from "Hosting Changes" and "Change This
Song")

Mr. WHITEHEAD: A little pizza parlor ragtime in there,too. Does anyone even
know what that means anymore? Michiel Braam also likes the electric piano's
potential for raunch like Sun Ra or 1970 Chick Corea with Miles Davis. Braam
knows amplifier distortion can be a good thing, can make that Wurlitzer sound
like 64 cracked bongos.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. WHITEHEAD: Used to be a jazz musician would be happy to lead one good
group. Nowadays, players like Braam or Ken Vandermark or Dave Douglas go out
on the road with scores of different bands, which is fine as long as they have
something to say. Trio BraamDeJoodeVatcher and Braam's Wurli Trio each pack
enough punch to justify your attention. Unlike some well-hyped European trios
these days, Michiel Bramm's are the real deal--smart and funny.

GROSS: Kevin Whitehead teaches English and American Studies at the University
of Kansas, and he's a jazz columnist for Emusic.com. Michiel Braam's CDs
"Change the Song" and "Hosting Changes" are on the BBB label. For more
information about these CDs, go to our Web site at freshair.npr.org. Trio
BraamDeJoodeVatcher is on a short tour in the US June 12th through 17th.

(Credits)

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.

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