DATE January 6, 2004 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
PROGRAM Fresh Air
Interview: Al Franken discusses his career as a satirist and his
USO tour to entertain the troops in Iraq, Afghanistan, Kuwait and
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
My guest is the satirist Al Franken. He spent eight days in December on a USO
tour, entertaining the troops in Iraq, Afghanistan, Kuwait and Uzbekistan. He
performed in Tikrit just a few days after Saddam Hussein was captured.
Franken returned home to New York City on Christmas Eve. He was a longtime
writer and cast member of "Saturday Night Live." Franken's latest book is the
best-seller "Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them: A Fair and Balanced Look
at the Right."
Al Franken, welcome back to FRESH AIR.
Mr. AL FRANKEN (Satirist): Thank you.
GROSS: Some people may be surprised that you do these USO tours because you
don't support the war in Iraq and you don't support the Bush administration.
So what would you say to the people who are surprised that you're doing it?
Mr. FRANKEN: Well, it's not that I don't support the war in Iraq. I mean,
we're there now so I certainly support our troops that are there, and I
certainly support the mission that we've been backed into, which is to make
Iraq secure enough to become as Western style a democracy as it can be. I
mean, that's what we have to do now. So it's not that I, you know, want us to
leave. I've done four USO tours in the last five years, and I love doing them
and I love our troops. And sort of the idea that patriotism is something that
Republicans and conservatives can wrap themselves in and belongs only to them
is something I reject.
And also, by the way, it's a lot of fun and it's very moving and I really feel
like it's something I can do. I did not serve in the military. When I was of
draft age, I was in college, and the government felt that it was better for me
to complete my education to prepare me for my chosen profession, comedian,
than to actually go to war in Vietnam.
GROSS: So does the State Department have any reservations about taking you on
USO tours, since you're so outspoken against President Bush?
Mr. FRANKEN: I don't know if, actually, they get wind of it, the State
Department. I know the Pentagon did. And, you see, the USO is kind of
separate from the Pentagon, and they know me there. And as I said, I've done
three of these before, including while Bush was president as we were starting
Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan, which I did support. And the know
me. I mean, I don't do--Darryl Worley, who is a terrific country singer who
had a very big hit with "Have You Forgotten?," which is a sort of fairly
jingoistic song about justifying a war in Afghanistan, which I don't know
who--disagree with that.
When he heard I was coming, he was kind of peeved, and he told me this toward
the end of the tour, because he didn't want to have to debate Iraq with me,
because he's very pro the war there and very sort of--and he is very
jingoistic. And I said, `Darryl, were you afraid that I would like'--because
I was co-emcee--`that I would introduce you, you know, to the troops as "Your
president lied to you and you are dying for no reason. Ladies and gentlemen,
Darryl Worley"?' you know, and he laughed, and we actually just got--part of
the experience of doing a USO tour, at least the ones I've done, is I've been
part of sort of a traveling troop of show folk. I feel like show folk going
I remember we arrived at Kandahar late, because our plane took off from
Baghdad late, and we got there fairly late, and Darryl and I were taken in a
vehicle, and there was an officer there, and he said, `Now I don't know if you
guys want to do a show, you got here so late, but if you just want to do a
meet-and-greet,' and Darryl and I looked at each other like--and I said to
him, like, `No, you don't understand, we're show folk. We're a traveling
troupe of show folk. The only place we live is on the stage. You can't take
that away from us. We're show folk.'
So part of the joy is doing the show, and I had a gas. You know, I did a very
kind of Bob Hope or Mighty Carson Art Players attack on the show. I did
really dumb, stupid stuff and there was a lot of sex and a lot of stuff about
the military, and the USO knows that I do that. They know that I've done that
in the last three tours, and they totally trusted me.
GROSS: Well, what's your material like when you're doing--what was your
material like for this latest USO tour...
Mr. FRANKEN: Well, this is really fun. I brought Andy Breckman along.
Andy Breckman is a colleague, a comedy writer, a colleague of mine who wrote
on "Letterman" and wrote on "Saturday Night Live" and is the creator of "Monk"
and the executive producer of that show. He's a very high-priced comedy
writer who I brought. They had some good comedy writers. So what we did
was--again, we approached this sort of like a Bob Hope show.
So Andy wrote--my first line was--what would happen is Karri would come out,
and Karri Turner is an actress on "JAG," a show that goes on Armed Forces
Television and that the guys love. I've never seen it, but it's a very
popular show on CBS, in its ninth season, and Karri is terrific, and she's a
pretty blonde, and she would come out and say some very sincere thoughts of
her own and introduces me, and I'd come out and my first line was, `So anybody
here from out of town?' And then my next line was, `Boy, this Army chow is not
agreeing with me. You know, I've had of these MREs.' Those are meals ready to
eat. `I've had five of these MREs, and none of them seem to have an exit
And then I just do like, `But it's an honor to be here with Karri, nine
seasons on "JAG."' And she goes, `Well, yeah.' And I said, `Well, you must
have had thousands of guest hosts or guest stars on the show.' And she said,
`Well, yeah, not thousands, but we've had a lot. We've been very lucky.' And
I said, `Well, I notice that I haven't been a guest on "JAG,"' and she said,
`Well, you know, we've been very lucky.' And I said, `Well, I hope maybe by
the end of--now that we've done this together that I could be a guest.' And
she says, `Well, you know, it's a drama. It's not a comedy.' And I said,
`Well, actually, that's why I've taken the liberty of writing an audition
piece, you know, for "JAG."'
And then it's just a piece in which I play a visiting prosecutor who's been
sent to JAG Ops by the Pentagon to shake things up, Lieutenant Lance
Hardgrove. And it's just stupid. Let me see, I think I brought it so I could
GROSS: Oh, great. Oh, great.
Mr. FRANKEN: ...a little bit of it.
Mr. FRANKEN: And she goes--I give her the script and I say, `It's your line.'
She goes, `Lieutenant Hardgrove, what are you doing here in JAG Ops?' `I told
you, Harriet, call me Lance.' They laughed at that. `Lieutenant Hardgrove,
this is JAG Ops. It's all business here.' `Is it? Then why are you wearing
that negligee?' And then they cheered that. She says, `Al, my character
would never wear a negligee in the office.' `You would if you were madly in
love with Lieutenant Lance Hardgrove.' `Al, I'm married on the show to
Lieutenant Bud Roberts. I have two kids.' `Yeah, yeah, yeah, keep reading.'
And then she reads, `Lance, I'm wearing this negligee because I wanted tonight
to be very special. I want to give myself to you completely. Now kiss me.'
Then I kiss Karri. I just grabbed her and kissed her, and she fights me off,
and she says, `Now wait a minute, Al. You just wrote this so you could kiss
me.' Now they're cheering, the guys. And she says, `If I could kiss anybody,
it'd be a real soldier, like one of these brave men'--now they're
cheering--`or women. Who wants to help me out?' And then we get a volunteer,
a soldier. And I go, `OK, I guess we're here to entertain the troops.' And
then they'd read the script again and the soldier would kiss her and, you
know, we wrote in the script, they kiss a long, deep kiss. And, God, the guys
went nuts. What I loved about this was if each guy had kissed her, and then
after the kiss, I'd go, `Wait, wait, wait, wait, it's not over. There's
another line.' And Karri said, `There is?' I said, `Go ahead, read it,' to
the soldier. And the soldier would read, `You know, Harriet, a woman your age
really should have a thorough breast examination every year. Lucky for you,
Dr. Al Franken is here.' And then I'd approach her with my hands out. She'd
go, `Al, at ease,' and I'd say, `Too late for that now.' And she'd go, `Oh,
get out of here,' you know.
So that was sort of the Bob Hope thing of getting a guy on stage to kiss a
pretty girl, and we had cheerleaders. Remember I told you about the last time
I did a USO tour, doing the Taliban cheerleaders...
Mr. FRANKEN: ...and they asked me not to do it?
GROSS: Yeah. You wanted to put them in...
Mr. FRANKEN: Burqas.
GROSS: ...burqas, and the State Department--Was it?--said that that would be
insulting to people in Afghanistan, yeah.
Mr. FRANKEN: Well, this was October of 2001, late October 2001, and it was a
general from, you know, the 3rd Air Wing, or whatever, in Europe who said,
`Mr. Franken, we understand you have ordered three burqas,' and I said,
`Yeah,' and I explained the thing. `Yes, we're not going to tell you how to
do your job, but this is a war against terrorism, not against Islam. We're
trying to send that message, and we prefer that you not'--and so I didn't do
it then. Now they were fine. So I did that. So we got three tear-away
Mr. FRANKEN: ...and cheerleaders from the Washington Redskins. So I'd bring
them out and go, `Ladies and gentlemen, you know, no USO show is complete
without cheerleaders. Unfortunately, the Washington Redskin cheerleaders
missed their plane, and we were able to get a squad from M Theater, and please
welcome all the way from Kabul, the Taliban cheerleaders.' And the three came
out in burqas, and I'd say, `Ladies, would you do a number please?' and the
leader would whisper in my ear. and I said, `You're not allowed to dance?
You're not even allowed to listen to music?' and she'd shake her head, and I'd
say, `Well, wait a minute. We liberated you from the Taliban. What do you
say, guys? Don't you want to hear a number?' and they'd cheer and then the
girls would huddle and then come back to me, and I'd say, `Well, they're going
to do a number, and then I'd go, `Hit it,' and there'd be, `Everybody dance
now!,' mm, mm, mm, mm, mm, and then--that's my "Gonna Make You Sweat" by C.C.
Music--comedy. And they do this dance and it was great. And then there were
tear-away burqas, so they'd be in their uniforms, and the guys liked seeing
the cheerleaders more than even me.
GROSS: That's amazing.
Mr. FRANKEN: Isn't it? Considering my...
GROSS: Well, speaking of you...
Mr. FRANKEN: ...length and breadth of work...
GROSS: ...speaking of you...
Mr. FRANKEN: Yeah.
GROSS: ...most of the soldiers are probably too young to know you from
"Saturday Night Live," so...
Mr. FRANKEN: Well, except that...
GROSS: Oh, the reruns.
Mr. FRANKEN: ...they repeat "Saturday Night Live," yeah.
GROSS: Reruns, right.
Mr. FRANKEN: So actually more know me from that than I think from my satire.
Although a lot of them knew me from the satire, and I actually was signing
my book, which I felt was kind of odd there. But I had guys come up to me,
which was actually almost even more gratifying, saying, `I don't agree with
you politically, but I really appreciate your coming.' And then I'd say,
`It's my honor,' and they'd go, `No, it's my honor,' and then I'd go, `No,
it's my honor.' And then that was a lot of my chats with these guys.
GROSS: My guest is Al Franken. He did an eight-day USO tour in December,
entertaining the troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. His latest book is the
best-seller is "Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them." We'll talk more
after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: My guest is Al Franken, and he got back Christmas Eve from an
eight-day USO tour, which took him to Iraq, Afghanistan and Uzbekistan.
You know, hearing you do some of the material from the USO show that you did,
it's so funny. Don't you wish that it was televised the way the old Bob Hope
USO tours used to be?
Mr. FRANKEN: This was a real classic--and it was partly because I had Andy
along and I had thought about this well beforehand. It was a very sort of
classic variety show, and it could have been. It could have been televised.
And I think, you know, Saddam had just been captured the day before we left,
and so I did a Saddam piece that was actually a very sort of Mighty Carson Art
Players. You want me to do a little bit from that?
GROSS: Oh, please, yeah.
Mr. FRANKEN: OK. I'll do a little bit from that. And so Karri would go,
`Ladies and gentlemen, we didn't want to announce our next guest ahead of time
for reasons you'll understand. He's a very special, very secret surprise,
former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.' Then I'd have two MPs lead me up in
handcuffs, and I was in full Saddam uniform that I had borrowed from "Saturday
Night Live," with the moustache and everything. And I'd go, `Thank you, thank
you. If they allowed me, Karri, to carry an AK-47, I'd be firing it straight
into the air right now. That's how happy I am to be here. Karri, before you
say anything, I've been thinking about it and I've decided to let the
inspectors back in.' She'd say, `Well, I think it's kind of too late for
that, Saddam.' `Oh, I was afraid you'd say that.'
`Well, we've been looking for you, Saddam. Where have you been the last eight
months?' `Well, you know, basically in the Tikrit area, visiting family,
friends, socializing.' `Well, Saddam, we captured you in a tiny hole.' `Oh,
yes, that's true, I've been spending a lot of time in holes. I have many
holes around the country. Actually, the hole you found me in, that's one of
my favorite holes. It's my winter hole.' `Your winter hole?' `Oh, yes,
Karri, you should see, it had everything. It had the air duct. I could roll
over. The dirt was very nicely packed. As you know, Karri, I used to have
20, 30 palaces, but, you know, the kids had grown. You want to downsize, so
the holes.' `Well, I see. Anyway, I have to say you're looking a lot better
than when we first found you.' `Yes, you know, any mass murderer on the run,
Karri, sooner or later ends up looking a lot like Ted Kaczynski. But I've had
a shave, I've had a haircut, I've been deloused. I'm feeling great.' `Well,
you're looking great.'
`Well, thank you. I'll tell you what, Karri, I like you so much, I'm willing
to make you a deal. Here it is, one time only, I give you the weapons, you
leave Iraq. In exchange, you return me to power and I can resume killing and
torturing anyone I want. Take it or leave it.' `I don't know. What do you
say, guys?' and the guys go, `Boo, no, no.' And then she'd say, `Saddam
Hussein, everybody,' and then they'd boo as I left, and then I would yell at
them. So as you can see, it has nothing to do with the normal biting nuanced
satire that I do here in the States.
GROSS: That's really funny. Now tell me this. You know, you're on stage
with like cheerleaders and you're doing a lot of sex jokes because it's
soldiers who are...
Mr. FRANKEN: Right, right.
GROSS: ...kind of starved for this. Do you end up doing material that,
outside of a military context, might seem kind of like sexist to you and you
wouldn't think of going there because it would seem so kind of like
Mr. FRANKEN: Well, I think like...
GROSS: ...do you know what I'm saying?
Mr. FRANKEN: ...for example, some of the material that I've just done for
you, I would never do on NPR.
GROSS: I won't let you know...
Mr. FRANKEN: That would be suicide.
GROSS: That's right. I'd never...
Mr. FRANKEN: No. And it's just a different kind of humor. But, you know,
the women there--I mean, one out of five or one out of six, I'd say, of the
troops are women.
GROSS: True, right.
Mr. FRANKEN: And they are just...
Mr. FRANKEN: I mean, it's a bawdy atmosphere. I mean, these are young people
in their 20s. We went to Tikrit at one point. They divided us up. We were
supposed to do two shows in Baghdad, but the first night, there was something
going on in Baghdad. We couldn't do the show there, so they flew to Baghdad,
then took a Black Hawk to three different locations or six different Black
Hawks, but we went to Tikrit, and it was deemed the most dangerous place we
could go. So we divided this up, and I said I would go to Tikrit if they
would take me to the hole.
GROSS: The Saddam Hussein hole.
Mr. FRANKEN: I wanted to go to the Saddam Hussein hole.
GROSS: This is so you could get into character for the sketch.
Mr. FRANKEN: No. It was so that I could get a Christmas card for next year.
Mr. FRANKEN: ...a picture of me in the hole with the two cheerleaders, with
a Washington Redskin cheerleader. And they said when I volunteered to go to
Tikrit--and a lot of us actually went to Tikrit. Carrie went there and the
Army Band and the cheerleaders. And so I said, `I will go to Tikrit if I can
go to the hole.' And then Andy went, and my brother went. My brother was the
GROSS: Your brother was there?
Mr. FRANKEN: My brother, yes. My brother is a very, very, very good
photographer, who's done Newsweek covers and--he's a photojournalist--and Time
covers. And so this was a chance for us to spend eight days together, so he
came along. And so we were all really, really, really--and Andy wanted to go
to the hole, and they kept saying, `Yeah, we'll try to get you to the hole.'
I mean, we'd arrived in Tikrit, and they'd say, `We have heard nothing about
you wanting to go to the hole.' And I ran into a guy, speaking of the State
Department, who was from the Coalition Provisional Authority, who's fairly
high up. He said, `I'll get you to the hole.' And then, ultimately, Hickey,
the commander there, nixed it, which makes a lot of sense. I mean, the only
reason--we wanted to go to the hole for a lark, and we're in a war.
Mr. FRANKEN: (Laughs) And it would have involved a convoy...
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. FRANKEN: ...take us to the hole. So there was absolutely no reason...
GROSS: But absolutely worth it for your Christmas card.
Mr. FRANKEN: Yeah.
Mr. FRANKEN: So, you know...
GROSS: Well, listen, you know, you're in really dangerous territory.
Mr. FRANKEN: Yeah.
GROSS: What were the risks like for you to do the USO tour?
Mr. FRANKEN: Well, I have to say that I was never as afraid on the tour as I
was before I left. Before I left, I did a lot of saying `goodbye' to my--you
know, unnecessarily mawkish, maudlin goodbyes to my kids because I was
actually genuinely believing that there was a chance I could get killed. And
I guess the most danger we were in was landing in Baghdad, which took
incredibly steep and odd circular--very tight circle and very tight, steep
landing; then taking off in the Black Hawk from Baghdad. And then you fly
really low and really fast in these Black Hawks, and the reason you fly low is
so that any of these guys with these shoulder-launch grenades or those kind of
things can't get a bead on you. And in the Black Hawk you're constantly
doing, like, evasive swerving, and then every once in a while they approach a
power line and just jump up, like, 100 feet, then jump down. And a member of
the Army Band threw up; I was proud I didn't.
And then landing in Tikrit was supposedly dangerous, and that was, you
know--and then when we landed in Baghdad, in the airport, there was a lot of
always like, `Where do we put our personal stuff? Where is our other stuff?'
And they'd go, `Get off the Tarmac! Get off the Tarmac!' And we had helmets
and flak jackets and stuff like that. And then, evidently, leaving Bagram in
a cargo plane, we may have been shot at. And they set off flares, which are a
defensive mechanism to make missiles follow the flares instead of the plane.
But that might have been just being more safe than sorry.
GROSS: Al Franken will be back in the second half of the show. Here's his
co-star on the US tour, Darryl Worley. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH
(Soundbite of music)
Mr. DARRYL WORLEY: (Singing) I hear people say we don't need this war, but I
say there's some things worth fighting for. What about our freedom...
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: Coming up, we continue our conversation with Al Franken about his USO
tour performing for the troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. And we talk with
actor Benicio Del Toro. He won an Oscar for his performance as a Mexican
cop in "Traffic." He's starring in the new film "21 Grams."
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with satirist Al Franken. On
Christmas Eve he returned home from an eight-day USO tour, performing for the
troops in Iraq, Afghanistan, Kuwait and Uzbekistan. It was his fourth USO
tour in five years. Franken's latest book is "Lies and the Lying Liars Who
Tell Them: A Fair and Balanced Look at the Right."
Were there any moments on the tour that struck you as, like, particularly
Mr. FRANKEN: Well, yeah. There was one where when we flew from Tikrit in the
Black Hawk back to Baghdad. As we were getting on the helicopter, we noticed
they were loading these tin containers of stuff, and it was Saddam's money...
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. FRANKEN: ...that they had found somewhere. It was like $1.4 million in
cash. And so they put that on our helicopter. And evidently delivering that
cash was more important than delivering us because when we got to the Baghdad
airport, they went right to the place where they were supposed to deposit the
cash and dropped us off in a--this is a big airport. We didn't know where we
were. So we just got off and wandered around, and we were cut off from our
group. And we kind of walked into a bombed-out terminal, where there were
some infantry guys. These are the guys that go out and--that are in danger
all the time. And I remember running into a guy named Muncie. This is sort
of our "Apocalypse Now" moment.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. FRANKEN: So I run into a guy named, you know--and they've made these
makeshift hooches in the terminal. And I run into this guy named--I talked to
this guy named Muncie, who's from Long Island, and he looks--he has kind of a
real, you know, battle-worn look to him and--young, young guy. And he tells
me a couple weird things he's seen: a guy in his unit who killed himself.
And, anyway--so we just have this time to kill. There's nothing to do. So we
did a show. For, like, 12 soldiers, we did a few--we did the Saddam piece.
GROSS: Well, that's great.
Mr. FRANKEN: And the cheerleaders did, you know, some stuff. So, yeah. And
it was--and then somehow we were found. But that was sort of the most surreal
thing, and, you know...
GROSS: So you were on the plane with the money?
Mr. FRANKEN: It was--on the helicopter with the money. And I tried to
GROSS: Didn't that make you feel a little bit like a target?
Mr. FRANKEN: I don't think anyone knew there was money there, except for us.
Mr. FRANKEN: We also actually--this is where a guy threw up, and so we
dropped--I thought we stopped halfway in between to, I thought--I didn't know
why we were--but it turned out that we were dropping off a chaplain because a
guy at a small base had died. And we also emptied the helmet of the guy who
threw up. But, no, I don't think anyone knew we had this money. I tried to,
as a joke, steal the money.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. FRANKEN: And it was very heavy, the tins they put it in, I think
deliberately. So I couldn't steal the--there were three tins, each with about
a half a million dollars in them.
GROSS: Next time.
Mr. FRANKEN: I tried to make off with one.
GROSS: Next time, yeah.
Mr. FRANKEN: Yeah. And I couldn't break into the tins either. So I don't
know. I think it was, you know, American dollars, and it was just a drop in
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is satirist Al Franken. And he
just did an eight-day USO tour in Iraq, Afghanistan and Uzbekistan.
You spent a night of Hanukkah celebrating the holiday in one of Saddam's
palaces. What exactly was the Hanukkah celebration in the palace like?
Mr. FRANKEN: Well, it was in this huge palace. He has the--I mean, if you
fly over this country--by the way, it's a very pretty country. And north of
Baghdad anyway, which I was flying over in the helicopter, so it was easier to
see, it gets green, there are wetlands. Tikrit is a beautiful city. I think
it's his hometown, so he dropped a lot of cash in it. And, yeah, it's
obscene. These palaces are obscene: the size and the scope and the amount of
marble and just the egotism of the guy. I mean, there are these--the one in
Baghdad, every pillar of these huge marble pillars had his initials carved in
them in a huge way and inlaid with gold. And so we were in the main foyer of
this palace with the hugest cut-glass chandelier, just unfathomably big. And
there wasn't much furniture. I don't know if it was looting or if whether the
military's just taken the furniture out.
But we did have this--there was this huge, like, Samovar, or coffee-maker that
we put the menorah on and some ornate chair, and we just did, you know, the
prayer for lighting the candles. And we did it--it was both solemn and both a
big, giant F-U to the guy, who wasn't very far away. We were in this--near
the Baghdad airport. I think that's where he's being kept. And it was kind
of cool, it was kind of moving. You know, he has at one of his palaces or one
of his command centers this giant mural of Scuds being sent to Israel and
GROSS: Oh, gee.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. FRANKEN: So that's like, you know--so it was me and my brother and Steve
and Andy Breckman, you know, singing the prayer. And, also, part of the light
motif of the tour was we were two country singers and their guitarists and
their road managers, and there was a wrestler named Bradshaw who's a very
well-known wrestler who is a big, self-proclaimed redneck. So there was a
Redneck vs. Jew...
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. FRANKEN: ...light motif to the whole tour, which was just a tremendous
amount of giving each other crap. And Darryl was with us when we did
Hanukkah. He was unbelievably moved. And it was just, you know, cool.
GROSS: You got back to New York on Christmas Eve. What was it like coming
home on Christmas Eve having successfully completed this experience that you
were really worrying about because you thought that it was possible you'd get
Mr. FRANKEN: Well, I was obviously very happy to see my family, although I
found that after eight days in a war zone, I could no longer relate to them.
They had not seen the horrors I had seen. And...
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. FRANKEN: No, no, it was--that's not true.
GROSS: You're having flashbacks now?
Mr. FRANKEN: Mainly--I don't know. I was overdramatizing my eight days. We
had a very nice Christmas dinner, and I slept an incredible amount because we
were humping it the whole time. There were nights where we had, like, two,
two and a half hours of sleep, and we were just doing a lot of sleeping in
planes and traveling in very cramped cargo planes. And so when I got home, I
just--at one point I laid on the couch, and my son put my black Lab, Kirby, on
top of me, and I just lay--and was--Kirby and I just slept together for about
four hours. So there was a lot of that. There was a lot of just me being
tired, and, `We haven't seen you in eight days, Dad, and you're just tired.'
GROSS: (Laughs) Al Franken, really a pleasure to talk with you. Thank you so
Mr. FRANKEN: As always.
GROSS: Al Franken did an eight-day USO tour in December. His latest book is
the best-seller "Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them."
Coming up, actor Benicio Del Toro. He's starring in the new film "21 Grams."
This is FRESH AIR.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Interview: Benicio Del Toro on his career and latest movie, "21
TERRY GROSS, host:
It was hard to tell what Benicio Del Toro was saying when he co-starred in the
film "The Usual Suspects." That weird, mumbly speaking style he created
helped make him famous. He won an Oscar for his supporting role as a Mexican
cop in the film "Traffic." Now he's starring with Sean Penn in the film "21
Grams." The title refers to what some say is the weight we lose when we die.
Each character in the movie is facing death, their own or someone else's. The
story is told out of chronological sequence, moving back and forth in time, so
it takes a while before we understand what each character is facing and how
the lives of the characters intercept, so I won't give too much away here.
Del Toro plays an ex-con who has returned home to his wife and two children
and has turned to Jesus Christ to help him keep on the straight and narrow.
Most of the people in his church seem down and out. Early in the film he
tries to straighten out a troubled kid who belongs to his church.
(Soundbite of "21 Grams")
Mr. BENICIO DEL TORO: (As Jack) They didn't lock you up this time 'cause
you're not 18 yet. Next time they're going to lock you up, brother. Come on.
You're not thinking. Stealing might get you money, so you can have some
cheerleader's ass, show off riding in some pickle-colored Thunderbird. But
tell me what's going to happen if you shoot a pregnant woman or an old man,
huh? You know what'll happen? The guilt will suck you down to the bone.
Stealing ain't worth it. Going to church, reading the Bible and believing in
Jesus, brother, that's your ticket.
GROSS: Did playing this role make you think more about religion?
Mr. DEL TORO: Yeah. I reread Job from the Bible. I reread maybe some
sections of the Bible that I quote in the movie. And, yeah, it made me think
about religion, and, you know, I think about religion quite a bit. I mean, I
was raised Catholic, and I believe in God. You know, I don't know if I
believe it like the Catholic Church, with the rituals and all the stuff that
you have to do, but I do believe in God. I believe in something bigger than
you or me. But it was clear that the problem that I was having with the
character was not the problem of religion. It was a problem of the human
being. You know, it's a problem of a...
GROSS: And the problem of his expectations of what religion could do for him
as a kind of speedy, quick fix. Yeah.
Mr. DEL TORO: Well, yeah, the lack of knowledge of what really is happening
to him. What really is happening to him is a depression. It's a thing called
survival guilt. And I'll give you another example, which is basically what's
happening to him, but he doesn't understand this: He's not capable of doing
it. So he turns to religion for that help; you know, that, `Give me the
answer right now. I need it right now. I'm suffering.' But what really is
going on is a depression.
GROSS: Now in "21 Grams" and in "Traffic," you play very emotionally complex
characters. In the first movie that many of us noticed you in, "The Usual
Suspects," if your character is emotionally complex, we wouldn't know it. Do
you know what I mean? We just see a little bit of him, and we don't really
know his past. And, I mean, he's kind of opaque in that sense. What really
stood out in viewers' minds was the accent, that strange mumble, that you use
in the movie. And I'm wondering if you came up with that, in part, because
there wasn't much of a character written into the part.
Mr. DEL TORO: Well, when I read the script, "The Usual Suspects"--and the
script was written by Christopher McQuarrie--and I read it, and he--you know,
I read my character. The purpose of my character was it was the first one to
die. There was nothing else. He didn't add anything to the plot. He
didn't--you know, the only purpose was this is the first one that falls, and
then everybody starts to get afraid of Keyser Soze. So I went up to the
director, I said, `You know, you might as well let me run with this.' And,
honestly, I was very afraid. I didn't know if it worked at all. And when I
finished shooting the film, I felt like, `I've turned into a clown.' But it
did work out, and we've got to thank the editor.
GROSS: Why don't we hear just an excerpt of a scene from "The Usual Suspects"
with you using that wonderful mumble.
(Soundbite of "The Usual Suspects")
Mr. DEL TORO: (As Fenster) Hi. I really, really, really--I've got to do
something about this (censored). I ...(unintelligible) hold it every five
minutes. So I did a little time. Does that mean I get railed every time a
truck (unintelligible) for everybody? (Censored)
Unidentified Man: Fenster, will you relax? These guys don't have any
Mr. DEL TORO: (As Fenster) You're (censored) right. No PC, no goddamn right.
You do some time, they will let you go. You know, they treat me like a
criminal. I'll end up a criminal.
Unidentified Man: You are a criminal.
Mr. DEL TORO: (As Fenster) Now why you got to go and do that? Trying to make
Unidentified Man: Well, why don't you make your point? You're making me
tired all over.
GROSS: That's Benicio Del Toro in "The Usual Suspects."
Can you talk a little bit about how you developed that particular sound, that
Mr. DEL TORO: I was watching Dustin Hoffman in "Dick Tracy," and he did a
character called Mumbles. So I took it from--I said, `Well, I want to do my
own interpretation of Mumbles.' We'll see other actors do the mumble. But
I'm not the first, and I won't be the last.
GROSS: Right. When I saw "The Usual Suspects," I wasn't really sure whether
that was the way you talked, or that was just the way your character talked.
So I waited for your next movie to see. You know, `Is that really his voice?'
And am I alone in having had that initial reaction?
Mr. DEL TORO: Well...
GROSS: Did any casting directors have that same doubt?
Mr. DEL TORO: ...I don't know exactly about that. I don't know because I've
been, you know, running around LA doing auditions for years before "The Usual
GROSS: So people knew you already?
Mr. DEL TORO: Well, the casting directors knew me a little bit...
Mr. DEL TORO: ...some better than others. But I do remember going up to, I
think, a 7-Eleven and trying the voice and ordering something from the guy at
the counter. And I remember his look was like--immediately he saw--there was
this look of fear, of some kind of--like I was going to rob the place or
something like that. And I remember thinking, `Boy, that works, and I'm going
to try and do it.'
GROSS: Are you patient when it comes time to learn your lines and repeat them
over and over until they are really natural?
Mr. DEL TORO: I'm really bad at learning my lines, you know. I don't think
we should let everybody know. Well, I come from a--I studied with Stella
Adler, and Stella Adler's approach to acting was always, you know, `Go to the
lines last. Don't go to the lines before you understand who the character is,
what the character wants. And once you understand that, then you go to the
lines.' So I believe in that. If I was doing theater, then I would know the
lines by opening night because you go through a rehearsal process. But when
it comes to movies, you don't have a rehearsal process. So sometimes I might
catch myself the night before learning the lines like a maniac, but to me, the
lines are important, but it's the last thing that I go to.
And I really believe that if I understand what the character wants and what
the scene is about, I mean, the lines will come to me. And it does happen.
You know, it's easier to learn the lines once you understand it. But
sometimes, you know, people go straight to the lines before they understand
what the character is doing, and what happens is that you're just saying
GROSS: So why don't actors rehearse in films? Is it money? Is it just that
it's too expensive?
Mr. DEL TORO: You know, I think actors in movies are sprinters, you know, and
I think that...
GROSS: Oh, one scene at a time?
Mr. DEL TORO: Well, you're a sprinter; you go really fast. Once the
movie--it's a lot of money to make a movie, you know. So once they have the
money--and you don't know when a movie's going to get the money. You don't
know. You have that day to do it. You won't come back the next day and get a
second chance to do it. Like they say, like, `Oh, well, in movies, you get
another take.' Yeah, I get another take that day, but the next day I don't
get another take on the scene that I did yesterday. As an actor in theater, I
do the play today, but I come back tomorrow and I get a second chance to do
the whole play.
GROSS: Right. I see your point.
Mr. DEL TORO: You know?
Mr. DEL TORO: And, you know, so as an actor in movies, you have that day and
GROSS: My guest is Benicio Del Toro. He's starring in the new film "21
Grams." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: My guest is Benicio Del Toro. He co-starred in "The Usual Suspects,"
won an Oscar for his performance in "Traffic" and is now starring with Sean
Penn in the film "21 Grams."
You grew up in Puerto Rico and moved to Pennsylvania, I believe, when you were
10. Is that right?
Mr. DEL TORO: No, 13.
GROSS: Oh, 13. Oh, OK.
Mr. DEL TORO: Yeah.
GROSS: OK. What was the occasion for moving?
Mr. DEL TORO: I was sent to school, to go to...
GROSS: To boarding school?
Mr. DEL TORO: Yeah.
GROSS: Did it make you feel independent or lonely to be away from home?
Mr. DEL TORO: Both. And--but I think it did--loneliness is good, you know?
You know, maybe being alone is good; not loneliness. So I think it's more
like it made me feel independent and alone, and being alone, I think, was
very healthy for me 'cause it gave me a chance to think, daydream, you know;
to really look at myself and kind of like--it just--I found myself, you know,
in Puerto Rico--I had, like, many friends and I was never alone. And when I
found myself alone in Pennsylvania, it just gave me a chance to, like, look at
who I was and think, and I think it was very healthy. And I still like, you
know--every now and then, I need to be alone.
GROSS: I understand you have a big book and record collection. Now I've read
that you sometimes use records to help you find a character you're going to
portray and get into the character. How do you use music like that?
Mr. DEL TORO: Well, I don't know if I use it to find a character, but I do
use it to somehow, I think, relax. I think music is kind of like a pacifier
of some sort; I don't know. For me, and I'm sure for a lot of people, music
is very powerful. And, like, let's take a movie like "21 Grams." It's really
intense, so it's like--I've been asked, you know, `How did you'--`Did you take
this character to your hotel after work?' And I said, `Well, you know, I make
sure I leave it, you know, on the set, leave the character on the set.' And
maybe the only way to do that is--like, you know, for me, was listening to
music--you know, just kind of like--and, you know, I'm very specific about
what I was listening to.
I was shooting in Memphis, Tennessee, so I wanted to see Sun Records. And I'd
rediscovered Elvis Presley's 1955, '56 Sun Record album, which is like the
recordings he did in Sun Record in 1955, 1956, before he signed with RCA. And
I listened to that a lot while I was doing the movie, and I really had a fun
time listening to it in the car driving to the set. I don't know, it's just
like--it made it easier for me to get in that car to go and work on this
character, which is pretty dark. So it did help me. You know, getting in the
car and, you know, blasting a song like "You're Right, I'm Left, She's Gone,"
or "I Forgot to Remember to Forget," "Shake, Rattle and Roll." It--you know,
it's just like--I don't know, it just made it easier to drive to the set.
GROSS: Well, I understand one of the movies you'd like to make is a biography
of Che Guevara. Why would you like to do that?
Mr. DEL TORO: Why would I like to do that...
GROSS: What's Che Guevara's importance to you?
Mr. DEL TORO: Well, I think that Che Guevara has been completely
misunderstood, you know? And I'll give you an example. The fact that--the
other day, I was watching TV and I was watching the Discovery Channel, which I
like very much, and they had a two-part series on terrorism, and as they were
reporting some images of September 11th and other things, and the FBI--the
Oklahoma bombing--bang, they have an image of Che Guevara in the middle of all
this, right next to Osama bin Laden. And, you know, if they knew anything
about the guy, they'd read anything about what the guy said, you know--he
really was against terrorism. He does look like a--you know, that picture of
him with the beard is a pretty intense picture, and it's easy to use that
picture and go, like, `Hey, terrorist.' But, you know, he really--he wrote.
He was a thinker. He was a father of five, you know, and he had his ideas and
he felt for the little people in some ways and he felt like, you know,
something had to be done. And he was a warrior.
GROSS: Benicio del Toro is starring in the film "21 Grams."
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.