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Curtis Sittenfeld: Fictionalizing A First Lady

Curtis Sittenfeld's new novel American Wife is about a kind, bookish, young woman who marries a wealthy charismatic young man who eventually becomes president. It's based on the life of Laura Bush. One reviewer calls it "a compassionate, illuminating, and beautifully rendered portrait."


Other segments from the episode on October 13, 2008

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, October 13, 2008: Interview with Josh Brolin; Interview with Curtis Sittenfeld.


Fresh Air
12:00-1:00 PM
Josh Brolin: Playing The President


This is Fresh Air. I'm Terry Gross. Our guest, James Brolin, plays George W. Bush in Oliver Stone's new movie "W." Brolin portrays Bush as a young man, drinking and carousing before finding Jesus and launching his political career.

And he's also President Bush, surrounded by familiar White House figures, including Dick Cheney played by Richard Dreyfuss, Donald Rumsfeld played by Scott Glenn, and Karl Rove played by Toby Jones.

Josh Brolin followed his father James Brolin into acting. He had a respectable career in film and theater for more than 20 years, but wasn't a marquee name. That began to change last year with attention-getting performances in "American Gangster," "In the Valley of Elah," and "No Country for Old Men."

Before we hear Brolin's interview with Fresh Air contributor, Dave Davies, let's hear a clip from "W." Bush is preparing to take on the incumbent governor of Texas, Ann Richards. He's sitting on a park bench, being coached by Karl Rove.

Mr. TOBY JONES (Actor): (As Karl Rove) What do you say that George W. Bush is a rich, spoiled jerk, his wealth was produced by stock swaps and bailouts arranged by his daddy?

Mr. JOSH BROLIN (Actor): (As George W. Bush) Ann Richards can bad mouth me all she wants. I've created successful small businesses, I'm on a major league baseball team, I'm in touch with real people in Texas, work with them everyday at the ballpark, talk with the fans, hotdog vendors, get to know what they think. Because truly, deep down inside, you know I'm a guy like you. A guy you can trust.

Mr. JONES: (As Karl Rove) Fabulous, fabulous, W. What it all comes down to is who Joe Voter wants to sit down and have a beer with. And guess who that is?

Mr. BROLIN: (As George W. Bush) Just remember, make mine non-alcoholic.

Mr. JONES: (As Karl Rove) So, anything about the issues, you come to me first, I'll tell you what to say.

Mr. BROLIN: (As George W. Bush) Oh, you're not going to tell me what to say Karl, I’m going to tell you what I want, because you're the word man. This campaign starts and ends with me and what I think.

Mr. JONES: (As Karl Rove) You’ve got it W. I'm just a little fairy, putting down a little magic dust for you.

Mr. BROLIN: (As George W. Bush) Karl, this time I'm going to have Texas, Texas.

DAVE DAVIES: Well, Josh Brolin, welcome to Fresh Air. When you thought about taking this role on of George W. Bush, I wonder, did it seem risky? What did you consider in whether - in deciding whether to say yes?

Mr. BROLIN: Yeah, when somebody like Oliver Stone with the resume that he has came to me, and said, I see George W. in you. It was disconcerting to say the least.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BROLIN: I didn't quite understand why and what, and even when he told me, you know, I - you know, you guys grew up on a ranch together, you have followed in the same footsteps as your fathers and very strong mothers, you know, whatever cosmetics he had read in the press.

And I still didn't get it and you know, without reading the script, I was very reactionary. I imagined it to be something, you know, in the present and having to do with the war, and it wasn't until I read it that I finally understood, you know, it was one of the great acting challenges for me, at least up until this point, to follow this guy's life from 21-years-old to 58-years-old.

So, it seemed like a great challenge and you know, it put me into a fear that I enjoy, which is, can I live up to this character? As opposed to my first reaction, which was looking down on him, and saying why would I want to do that?

DAVIES: So, it was a challenge. How did you prepare?

Mr. BROLIN: Insanely. I mean, I - through my family for sure, and I talked to myself a lot, I watched a lot of videos, I, you know, practiced a lot of different types of body language, because we covered a lot of different times in his life, and I thought they would be different, how he walked, how he sounded at 21, how he sounded at 31, how he sounded at 47 when he became - you know, when he started to run for Congress and the gubernatorial thing.

And so, there were a lot of different milestones I wanted to really get specific on. And I watched a lot of video, I read a lot of books, I learned a lot about the other party, and I learned a lot about the Evangelical movement, I learned a lot about just the Right, and there's some things, that's to my surprise, I respected, and glad I'm more educated on now, because now I can make a more educated decision on who I want to be in office.

DAVIES: Well, you know, it's - I knew that you'd - would've of course spend an awful lot of time watching video of him and reading about him, and I'm wondering, what did you notice when you really looked at George W. Bush, that hadn't occurred to you before?

Mr. BROLIN: I don't know. You know, I had heard things, because my reaction was just political with him, you know, and again, I believe it was a cosmetic reaction, I'd had written him off by the time Oliver had come to me, which I - you know, I've - since then learned and feel very - that is incredibly irresponsible to do that. He's still...

DAVIES: But maybe we should be explicit and tell us what your view of him was before.

Mr. BROLIN: I don't know if I want to get into that, because then it's very political...


Mr. BROLIN: Which people feel that that's what this movie is, when it really is a biopic. You know, the politics is absolutely a part of it, because it's a huge part of his life, but we follow him through - you know, how does a guy who's floundering through most of his life, and obviously and admittedly so a big drinker, you know, stop that, turn his life around, deepen his relationship with Jesus, and become President of the United States twice?

You know, I don't think I really need to get specific on how I feel about George W. Bush, because I think the majority of the country, going from the highest approval rating of any president to the lowest, and you look at our economy now, and I don't think it's just him, I think it's the entire administration.

So, you know, I had very strong feelings about it, and then you start to do your research, and then there's things that I felt were very positive and very interesting about his life...

DAVIES: Yeah, like what?

Mr. BROLIN: The milestones. You know, I mean, the more - the most obvious are how he dealt with his drinking at 40 years old. It's, my life is not going the way I want it to, you know, you drink in order to loosen up, to feel more humorous and all that, and it backfires, and you end up embarrassing yourself and embarrassing your wife, and your kids, and your friends, and I think it takes a lot of will to what I think he believed is exorcising those demons, and again, using Christ as a new foundation in order to hold strong to that not drinking anymore.

And the way I see it is, you don't exorcise those demons ever, they'll just manifest in a different way if you don't keep tabs on them. And you know, he had a great opportunity through the war to manifest those, or they had the great opportunity to spite him.

DAVIES: So what demons do you see emerging as he pursues the war?

Mr. BROLIN: I just - I feel that, you know, whatever demons that you're dealing with, in his case the drinking, or in his case his relationship with his father, or wanting to live up to something, or constantly feeling like you're failing with the oil business, with wanting to be baseball commissioner, and things not panning out the way you want them to and then therefore - I mean, not therefore, but then suddenly you're - you know, you're President of the United States after only being governor, losing a Congressional race, becoming governor and then, bang, you're in the presidency and there's nothing to do.

I mean, they really had - there wasn't a lot going on, Clinton had set it up regardless of you know, his trials and tribulations. He had set up a pretty decent economy, and rescued us for the most part, and then suddenly 9/11 happens.

It gives you direction, it allowed direction for him, and a very directionless guy his entire life, with the exception of stopping drinking and a relationship with Christ, and the process of that, and I think it was a great ability for him - it gave him great ability to be able to focus, and to use his steel will and gift of conviction, and give him purpose.

DAVIES: Talk a little bit about getting Bush down physically. What would - what did you have to work on?

Mr. BROLIN: There was everything, you know, I watched him, I watched videos and watched the difference between when he was tired and not tired, when he was in public, when he was in private, how he was with, you know, Tony Blair as opposed to some prime minister or premier over in the...

DAVIES: And what differences did you see?

Mr. BROLIN: How he held himself, how he compensated, how erect he was, how you know, his hands - I don't know why he had this kind of, he does this apish thing that he does, where the back of his hands are always facing forward, which I though was really interesting.

He's always moving, this kind of ADD thing, what we do in the movie, and you've seen the movie, we chose to eat a lot, to be busy during scenes, which you know, if you look at something like "No Country for Old Men," it's the opposite.

DAVIES: Right.

Mr. BROLIN: You know, it's all about the quiet, it's all about how do you convey ideas through subtleties, whereas Bush I think was - is the opposite. You know, there's a lot of talking going on, there's a lot of movement going on.

So, there were a lot of different things that I did, I drove my wife crazy, because we went on vacation, and I was just studying the whole time, and I had to memorize a lot of different names, and I was using people in the plane as mnemonics, and I was talking to myself a lot on the plane, and my wife's just kind of saying, hey, do you realize that people can see you, do you realize that you're not invisible, you know?

And we would be walking on the beach and I - without - honestly without me consciously thinking about it, because you know, it was out of fear. It was a very subconscious, unconscious, somewhat conscious fear that was happening, can I live up to this role, can I do this role?

So I'm sure even in my sleep, I was always trying to question myself, you know, what am I missing? What am I missing? What am I not getting?

DAVIES: Well, you know, the film opens with a scene of you in the Oval Office with the cast of characters, you know, Cheney, and Rumsfeld, and Powell, and it's the scene where you're coming up with the phrase "axis of evil" for the State of the Union Address, and I have to say that when you see you opening up in that scene, you get a sense that you really nailed this.

I mean, it really looks like George W. Bush conducting a meeting, and making a decision. But you know, there's a difference between doing an impression of somebody and then inhabiting the character, and I wonder if that was a struggle for you to be - to get his mannerisms and voice so familiar that then you could kind of forget about it, and then interpret him as a character?

Mr. BROLIN: No. I know what you're saying and yeah - I mean, you never know until it's out there. I mean, now it's going to be out there, or the beginnings of it being out there have happened, press have seen it and now, the public is going to see it in a couple of weeks and you know, it's always a struggle, because especially with this character, you're not just doing one voice.

You're not just doing the present, or 2002, or to 2004, you know, this kind of tight-diaphragm breathy, you know, thing that he has, that we all know so well. You know, there's a lot of different voices in this movie.

There's, you know, how western is he when he's 21 years old, and he's in his second year of Yale, or his first year at Yale? You know, how much was he affected and influenced by, you know, eastern dialects? Or did he fight it completely and actually the western dialect came out even more, because he wanted to overcompensate, because he wasn't having a good time during his school years or - you know what I mean?

So, you're constantly questioning these possibilities and the levels. So, I think, you know, part of what you're asking is, you know, there was a moment where when I finally came down to the voice that we know so well, and it was the scene where Hudd walks in when he's - when W's governor, and he's become governor and he says, you know, hello, you know, Hudd, come on in. Why don't you take a seat?

And that's when we did the full blown voice for the first time, and when we went through it after they said cut, you know, all of us, me and Oliver and the whole crew started cracking up, because it was nerve-wracking, you know? Obviously, I want to do a good job and I want it to be accurate, and I don't want to do necessarily some caricature of it, but you want it to feel right. And that partially comes with body language, that partially comes with not overdoing it, it partially comes with subtleties, and breath, and voice and so, you know, as you can hear in my voice right now, it's - this is what I went through every minute of every day, not knowing, so I can't answer your question.

DAVIES: Well, you said, Hudd came in?

Mr. BROLIN: Don't ask me anymore questions.

DAVIES: All right.

(Soundbite of laughter)

DAVIES: You said Hudd came into the room, you're referring to who?

Mr. BROLIN: Stacy Keach.

DAVIES: Oh, oh, OK. And he was playing the minister. Right, right, right.

Mr. BROLIN: Yeah, exactly.

DAVIES: Right, right. OK. We're speaking with Josh Brolin. He plays George W. Bush in the new movie, "W." We'll talk more after a break. This is Fresh Air.

If you're just joining us, our guest is actor Josh Brolin. He plays George W. Bush in the new Oliver Stone film, "W." He kicked alcohol, I guess, at about 40, which is your age, right?

Mr. BROLIN: Exactly 40. Which is exactly my age.

DAVIES: And I read that you swore off alcohol during the shooting, is that right?

Mr. BROLIN: Yeah. But I do that anyway for the most part. You know, I mean, part of it had to do with the weight. You start drinking alcohol, I lost a lot of weight in the beginning, and if you drink, there's so many calories in alcohol, and it's hard to keep the weight off.

So that was part of it, and the other part of it was I needed to truly to be massively focused that I was in - on every page I think with the exception of five pages in a 120-some-odd-page script, and so I really needed to keep the focus, you know, and then that was part of it.

I mean, I had this actually - I had this idea that I didn't follow through with, was that I'll do the opposite. I won't drink while he's drinking in the movie, and then I will start drinking, because to me, once he becomes President, or once he stops drinking at 40, because there's something that happened at 40 even though he stopped drinking, there was some - I don't know, there's more of a confusion at least I see in his eyes later in life. So I thought maybe that would help. I mean if I'm drunk a lot, that'll help.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BROLIN: But I decided not to...

DAVIES: To drink when he's President, not when he...

Mr. BROLIN: Yeah, exactly. To do the opposite, you know, and then on I thought maybe it'd have an interesting effect, but I chose not to drink at all, and because I needed to be sharp...

DAVIES: Right.

Mr. BROLIN: And I'm glad I didn't.

DAVIES: Just a couple more things about - so the demands of playing this role, you eat a lot in this movie. I mean, you have conversations where you're eating, and I noticed that it's not these things where people sort of pretend to eat or have a plate in front of them. You're really downing the sandwich.

(Soundbite of laughter)

DAVIES: And I wondered if - did you get stuffed in multiple retakes, or...

Mr. BROLIN: Well, you know, I mean, it led to - I told you, Oliver and I had made the decision that we want him to keep moving, you know, and this kind of ADD quality. And finally, you know, I had lost again just to look younger, not because it sounds cool, because it's no fun, but you know, you lose weight, and I cut my hair and to look, to be able to look 21, because I was very afraid that I wouldn't, being 40 years old. And right after that first week of young - the youngest scenes from 21 to 25, I had then eight, nine weeks to gain as much weight as I could as fast I could, and my body was so used to losing weight that it was very, very difficult. We were eating banana and avocado shakes, about 12 a day.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BROLIN: And I was going to McDonalds right before I went to sleep. So, my sleep pattern changed. I felt awful and - wait, what was your question again?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BROLIN: No. I was getting to it. I was getting to it.

DAVIES: How could you?

Mr. BROLIN: What was the point?

DAVIES: How could you stay...

Mr. BROLIN: Oh, the eating. The eating, right, right, right, right.

DAVIES: The eating so much on the set. Yeah.

Mr. BROLIN: So, that - the scene with Richard Dreyfuss, I ended up eating 15 sandwiches, which was horrible. You know, it's horrible, but it was good, because I was forced to do it in the scene, which you know, lent to me gaining another I'm sure three or four pounds for that day.

DAVIES: You immersed yourself in this character. You said, you know there were times when you would be walking on the beach or just sitting on an airplane, and you'd lapse into it. Have you gotten that out of your system?

Mr. BROLIN: No, you know. It's been eight weeks. You know, I'd say, I think it sounds for an actor to say, no I think it's still in there, you know we all want to be Brando, right?

DAVIES: Right.

Mr. BROLIN: But it's - I think that, you know, it's only been eight weeks. I don't like telling jokes right now, because it comes out like, OK, so a guy walks into a bar, you know. And you go, oh man, the kids are like, would you stop? The movie's finished. It's over, you know? But, it wasn't the fact that I was walking - that was more out of, you know, finding it. It was when I finally started working on the movie, that I didn't go out. I was very afraid to go out. So we would work, and we would come home and we would study. I think I went out to dinner twice.

That was it. I just ate at home for the two months that we were in Shreveport. So I'm sure there's still residual there.

DAVIES: Well, I have to tell you...

Mr. BROLIN: I don't know where, which kind of scares me.

DAVIES: I have to tell you.

Mr. BROLIN: But I'm sure it's still there.

DAVIES: When I hear you start that joke, I want to hear the rest of it. It's just so much fun to hear you do that.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BROLIN: It's funny. You know, we're going to do Saturday Night Live soon, and we're still - we're in the process of figuring out the skits and all that, and it'll be fun to be able to do it, you know, with this new resurgence of Palin and you know, everybody's watching Saturday Night Live now, because of Tina Fey. I can't wait, and I hope to be able to do something with her, you know a Palin-W something.

DAVIES: Oh. I'm sure.

Mr. BROLIN: I don't know when it will be.

DAVIES: Now, I read you are, of course, the son of the actor, James Brolin, and I read that you grew up on a ranch. And I was trying to picture whether your childhood was more Hollywood or more ranch life. Which was it? Or both?

Mr. BROLIN: Well, my mother - no. It was definitely more ranch life. My parents, I would assume consciously, kept me away from Hollywood. My mother was very distrustful of Hollywood and those types, who I guess is me now, I don't know. And she - well, I was raised in Paso Robles, Templeton, California, and we had 65 horses. You know, give or take a few, at different times, and my father went back and forth to Los Angeles, and my mother's from Texas, and she loved the country, and she didn't want to spend any time in the city, so I'm very grateful for that.

I did the same thing for my kids. My kids grew up about three miles from where I grew up, and it was nice to be able to keep them out of Los Angeles.

DAVIES: So you grew up in a ranch, but you found your way into acting, you know as a young adult. Did you always think you'd want to follow your dad's footsteps?

Mr. BROLIN: No, not at all. I was very against it. When my friends found out that that's what I finally wanted to do or I was willing to experiment with, they were all very surprised. No, law was something that I loved. I love debate. I love law and through high school taking Youth and Society in Law I through Law VI, or whatever it was from freshman to a senior. My acting was - but that's - you know, there's a connection there I'm seeing now obviously, between law and being a lawyer, and being an actor.

But no, I wasn't interested at all, and then around 11th grade I had the opportunity to take an acting class or in school, it was an improv class, an improvisational class, and that's, you know, when I finally said, yeah, I'll do it and see what it's like, and just out of curiosity. And I wasn't interested because I saw my father, you know, he'd have money one year and he wouldn't have any the next year, and he would have some the next year, so the fluctuation, no security, and - but when I did it, the improvisational, I don't know, experimenting with voice, and character, and all that, was really a turn-on for me.

It was like a drug, you could really lose yourself, and be writing your own dialog and the whole delving into storytelling was really profound and interesting.

GROSS: Josh Brolin and Fresh Air contributor Dave Davies will continue with their conversation in the second half of the show. Brolin portrays George W. Bush in the new movie, "W." Dave Davies is a senior writer for the Philadelphia Daily News. I'm Terry Gross, and this is Fresh Air.

This is Fresh Air. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to our interview with Josh Brolin who stars as George W. Bush in Oliver Stone's new movie, "W." Brolin spoke with Fresh Air contributor Dave Davies.

DAVE DAVIES: You've had a string of very well received performances in the last few years. I mean, you did "American Gangster" with Ridley Scott where you played the corrupt cop, and then you were another cop in "The Valley of Elah" with Paul Haggis. And then there is of course "No Country for Old Men," and I thought we should talk about that a little bit, the Cohen brothers film. And I thought we'd begin with by listening to a little bit of you from that film. This is your character Llewelyn Moss who has found $2 million in cash after a drug shootout and is trying to get away with it, but a very, very scary killer, Anton Chigurh who is played by Javier Bardem is after you. You've sent your wife off to her mom's place in Odessa and in this conversation, Bardem has caught up with you on the telephone. Let's listen.

(Soundbite of "No Country for Old Men")

Mr. JAVIER BARDEM: (As Anton Chigurh) Yeah, I know where you're going.

Mr. JOSH BROLIN: (As Llewelyn Moss) All right.

Mr. BARDEM: (As Anton Chigurh) You know she won't be there.

Mr. BROLIN: (As Llewelyn Moss) It doesn't make any difference where she is.

Mr. BARDEM: (As Anton Chigurh) So what are you going up there for? You know how this is going to turn out, don't you?

Mr. BROLIN: (As Llewelyn Moss) Nope.

Mr. BARDEM: (As Anton Chigurh) I think you do. So this is what I'll offer. You bring me the money and I'll let her go. Otherwise, she's accountable. The same as you. That's the best deal you're going to get. I won't tell you you can save yourself because you can't.

Mr. BROLIN: (As Llewelyn Moss) Yeah, I'm going to bring you some, alright? Decided to make you a special project of mine, you ain't going to have to come look for me at all.

DAVIES: And that's Josh Brolin with Javier Bardem in "No Country for Old Men." What's interesting about you in this character - I mean you play this - he's a welder who lives out in rural west Texas who happens upon this chance for a score. I mean, you're on the screen a lot in this movie. Often without lines, there's just a lot of shots of you observing and figuring out stuff. What is - how is acting different when you're really not doing it verbally so much?

Mr. JOSH BROLIN (Actor): It was for me, it was a great challenge just because, you know, dialogue is, especially from the theater, a lot of the work that I've done is dialogue motivated. So this was a nice challenge to be able to figure out how to convey ideas through body language and through grunts and groans. I mean, I remember I had - there was a moment where I find the money - Llewelyn finds the money and he opens up the satchel and looks down, and he looks at the dead guy and he looks up, and I actually had a full blown conversation with the Cohens about adding Mm hmm because there was this dialogue and to me in his head about should I take it? You know, should I go with this? Should I not go with this? There was this constant dialogue in his head that he would answer monosyllabically, and so we had, you know, the fact that we had a conversation about going, Mm hmm or Mm or Mmm. You know, seemed a little ridiculous to me, but that was the nature of the movie, and I liked it. I like it, I mean, it was a nice experiment and seemed to work which I'm most very happy about.

DAVIES: Was it hard to get that part?

Mr. BROLIN: You mean, get the...


Mr. BROLIN: To get the job?

DAVIES: Yeah, to get the part.

Mr. BROLIN: Or understand the part?

DAVIES: No. I mean.

Mr. BROLIN: Or to cast?

DAVIES: Getting cast yeah about the Cohen brothers.

Mr. BROLIN: Yeah. It was very difficult. I had auditioned for it and I was doing "Grindhouse" with Robert Rodriguez, and Quentin was on the set, Quentin Tarantino and we ended up doing an audition tape. I ended up doing an audition tape with them that Quentin directed and Robert shot. We sent it to the Cohens, and the Cohens' response was who led it? It's the most beautiful audition tape we've ever seen, but we're not interested in the guy acting in it.

DAVIES: Oh no!

Mr. BROLIN: And they didn't know my work and I went, Mm, and I read the book and I thought it was an amazing character, and I just told my agent, I said just keep on it. You know, I just - if I can just get in a room with that's all I want to do, if it doesn't work out, that's fine. I just want to be able to get in the room. And during their last audition, they finally called my agent and they said, listen, we'll give him a shot, you know, he can come in if he can make it at 9:00 tomorrow morning, and it was 11:00 the night before. So they sent me six scenes and I studied, and I got down there, two hour drive, I got down there at 9:00 and that morning and - that next morning, and I got the part the next day.

DAVIES: Well, you know, I was born in Lubbock and have a lot of family in west Texas, and one of the things about that movie, it just seems to get those folks and the accents so dead-on, and I'm wondering if your experience with a mother from Texas and growing up on a ranch, do you think gave you an edge or some - informed it in some way?

Mr. BROLIN: No because as you know, my mother, you know from southwest Texas, she was in Corpus Cristi.

DAVIES: Uh huh.

Mr. BROLIN: So it's very different. Very, very, very different nationalities. Texas is a big state, you know, and as you know west Texas is very, very different than east Texas. So, I'm - you know, I played that up with the Cohens, hey, you know, by the way, you know, my...

See, everything I do is Bush! You see, what I started to do? I started to tell a joke and it came out as Bush?

DAVIES: Go ahead. Do it, do it.

Mr. BROLIN: No. It's awful. I'm so sick of it. I'm starting - telling these stories about Llewelyn and he comes out sounding like "W." It's the weirdest thing. I remember in Lubbock - you know, it's just wrong. Anyway, I played it up for the Cohens that my mom was from Texas, and I grew up on a ranch and that I'm perfect for this part. You know, but you do that with Ridley, I'm sure I said you know, I was in the Mafia, and I grew up in, you know, South Bronx and all that.

DAVIES: So, you get the job and then you work it around.

Mr. BROLIN: And then you work it, you know, and then you'd become it as best you can.

DAVIES: You know, I read that you have had a pretty serious side career as a day trader in stocks, is that right?

Mr. BROLIN: Mm hmm. Yeah, there was a point in my career that I didn't - I mean I knew the stock market, and I knew how to play a little bit. I didn't know a lot. I was more interested in it. I was always a good math student when I was a kid in school. And there came a point in my career where I wasn't - I didn't like really the jobs that I had to do in order to pay for my kid's school or you know, whatever, put food on the table, and we sold our ranch about four years ago. And it gave me an opportunity to really focus on the work that I wanted to do and not work when I didn't have to, and just do theater and you know, just keep playing with the craft in any way that I could. But the movies, you know, they're indelible, and I really - it was important to me to be able to look back on my resume and like what I saw and remember the experiences with fondness, you know. And so during that time, I started - I met a guy, Brett Markinson and he really taught me a lot about trading and we started a company together, Market Probability. And we've done very well. I mean, just in the last - and obviously we're not trading right now because of the uncertainty. But before this whole debacle started to happen in the last - I mean, it's happened in the last year, but really in the last two or three months, you know we were 73 percent for the year. So we were doing very, very well.

DAVIES: Yeah. You know, it's hard to think of two pursuits more disparate than acting where you're, you know, delving into the human soul and then all the kind of technical analysis that comes with being an effective stock analyst or trader.

Mr. BROLIN: I see only the connections. I don't see -


Mr. BROLIN: I can see how you would see that it would be on opposite in the spectrum, but I see it like golf, you know. You have to technically figure out exactly when to swing and how to hold your hands and you know visualize this and do all this. And there's so many things to learn, technically, with golf. But when it comes down to it, when you're finally going to take that swing, you have to completely erase it all from your mind and just let it happen. Otherwise, if you're thinking too much, you won't even be able to hit the ball.

DAVIES: When I look at some of the roles you've had, like in "American Gangster" where you play the corrupt cop and "Valley of Elah" where you play a police - another cop and then "No Country for Old Men" where you play Llewelyn Moss. It seems to me that you bring a sort of classic sort of masculinity kind of, I don't know, Robert Mitchum sort of feel to some of these roles. And I'm wondering, you just so easily play a tough guy. Do you think of yourself as a tough guy?

Mr. BROLIN: No, not at all. And I don't think anybody who knows me thinks of me as a tough guy. I think the public perception is that, but these roles, I mean look, you know, Bush - is Bush a tough guy? You know, he may come across as a tough guy. What I like about these roles is the fallibility of the role, you know. With Llewelyn Moss, he comes across as a tough guy, but he turns out to be extremely fallible, you know. And he's very sensitive especially with is wife. You know, why is he doing what he's doing? Because he wants to give his wife a better life. You know, that's wonderful. It's sensitive, you know. But it is manly, I think in the end. I think with Detective Trupo, you know, I worked very closely with Ridley on the arc of that role and we changed - we wrote the ending together because I wanted him. He was such an extreme ego and so overconfident and so, you know, bloated with his own, you know, success that I wanted it to be as severe at the end of, you know, the movie where he takes his own life, which was not how it was written. We did that. And then - you know, so the machismo factor is wonderful, just Mitchum was always macho from beginning to end.

DAVIES: Right.

Mr. BROLIN: I like the fallibility of machoism. I like how fragile it all is. I like exploring that, so I like to be able to fluctuate within that idea of things and turn it on its head hopefully.

DAVIES: Well, it'll be great to see where you go next. Josh Brolin, thanks so much for speaking with us.

Mr. BROLIN: Thank you so much, Dave.

GROSS: Josh Brolin plays George W. Bush in Oliver Stone's new movie "W." He spoke with Fresh Air contributor Dave Davies, a senior writer for the Philadelphia Daily News. Here's a scene from "W." in which George and Laura meet for the first time at a barbecue. Laura is played by Elizabeth Banks.

(Soundbite of movie "W.")

Unidentified Woman: Come here. I'd like you to meet my George Bush Jr.

Ms. ELIZABETH BANKS (As Laura Bush): Laura Welch.

Mr. JOSH BROLIN (As George W. Bush): Call me anything but Junior. What do you do, Laura?

Ms. BANKS (As Laura Bush): Oh, I read, I smoke, I admire.

Mr. BROLIN (As George W. Bush): You admire what?

Ms. BANKS (As Laura Bush): People who write, who read. I'm a librarian.

Mr. BROLIN (As George W. Bush): Uh oh.

Ms. BANKS (As Laura Bush): Uh oh?

Mr. BROLIN (As George W. Bush): No, actually I'm reading something right now. Yeah, very engaging book.

Ms. BANKS (As Laura Bush): Oh, what is it?

Mr. BROLIN (As George W. Bush): Barry Goldwater's "Conscience of Conservative."

Ms. BANKS (As Laura Bush): Uh oh, it's him.

Mr. BROLIN (As George W. Bush): No, don't tell me.

Ms. BANKS (As Laura Bush): Oh, I worked Jim McCartney's scam buying. I voted for LBJ.

Mr. BROLIN (As George W. Bush): Oh, no, no! Well, it looks like we're hitting it off like grease as to skillet, huh?

Ms. BANKS (As Laura Bush): Well, I don't think politics should define a human being. There was more to people than just how they vote.

Mr. BROLIN (As George W. Bush): Hmm, I like that. I like that, you're open-minded. You know, much more so than me, I have to say.

Ms. BANKS (As Laura Bush): I read in the paper that you're running for Congress.

Mr. BROLIN (As George W. Bush): Yes, ma'am. I am. And I don't believe in forcing myself on people, so that's why I'm just going to ask for your phone number, not your vote.

Ms. BANKS (As Laura W. Bush): You're a devil. Devil in a white hat.

GROSS: The life of Laura Bush is the inspiration for the new bestselling novel "American Wife." Coming up, we'll talk with the author, Curtis Sittenfeld. This is Fresh Air.
Fresh Air
12:00-1:00 PM
Curtis Sittenfeld: Fictionalizing A First Lady


Laura Bush has not discussed her private thoughts or her inner life with the press, but novelist Curtis Sittenfeld has tried to imagine what would go on in the mind of a first lady, like Laura Bush. In Sittenfeld's new bestseller, "American Wife," she's created a fictional first lady named Alice Blackwell, who marries a man with no political ambitions, and watches him rise to become a very popular president, only to lose support as a result of a war and his other policies.

Although those who hate Blackwell's husband, hate her by extension, she secretly disagrees with many of his policies too. Many of the details in Alice Blackwell's life come from the biography of Laura Bush, but many don't. Curtis Sittenfeld is also the author of the bestselling novel "Prep."

Curtis, the novel is so much about the thoughts, the often hidden thoughts in the mind of your main character. Why did you want to imagine through fiction what Laura Bush is really thinking?

Ms. CURTIS SITTENFELD (Author, "American Wife"): Well, I really admire Laura Bush, which I think - some people who know me think it's strange, because I'm a very liberal Democrat.

But when I first read articles about her, you know, this would be early in 2001, she was very different from her sort of obvious or stereotypical public persona. And I think people see her as sort of stiff, and proper, and heavily made up, but she's actually supposed to be very down to earth, very unpretentious.

You know, there's these stories about at the governor's mansion, there would be parties, and she would leave the party and go play with the dogs in the yard. And you know, she's - supposedly she would fly Southwest all over Texas, visiting her friends, she would shop at Wal-Mart, she would go to the post office herself to mail letters.

So, I felt like she was a very sort of sincere, down-to-earth person, and then also, all through her 20s, she was a Democrat who worked at low-income ethnically-diverse schools, which, you know, she intentionally sought out. And it was very intriguing to me how someone who is still a Democrat into her early 30s, would feel marrying into this you know, staunch Republican family.

GROSS: The prologue to your novel begins with the question, have I made mistakes? And the prologue ends with the line, I lead a life in opposition to itself. What does your character Alice think she's living a life in opposition to itself?

Ms. SITTENFELD: Well, one important distinction I have to make is that I don't consider Alice Blackwell an American wife to be the same as Laura Bush. But the character that I've created, Alice Blackwell does remain a Democrat, sort of a quiet, secret Democrat, even after she marries into a Republican family.

And so for decades, she has different political leanings than her husband, and she doesn't anticipate that he'll ever be elected to office, let alone that he'll become president. And she also has, you know, again a kind of quiet sense of morality and so she has to - she's not someone who can just make decisions, or act falsely and disregard them, you know, she does take things seriously and she tries to live on her own terms, but that becomes increasingly difficult.

GROSS: You imagined that she married a man and ended up being a - married to a president, something she's completely unprepared for, and she feels very kind of guilty and responsible for decisions he's made that she doesn't agree with.

Ms. SITTENFELD: Yeah. I think that's exactly right. And at the same time, he's always still her husband and he's always still a man, but then, you know, it's almost like he's leading a double life as their marriage - I mean, not a double life in a secretive sense, but just that a public life and a private life, and that she still loves him privately. But she feels increasingly uncomfortable with some of the political decisions he makes.

GROSS: Some conservatives have described your book as a smear book, because it's a book that imagines or appears to imagine what Laura Bush is and her life is like. In your novel, the first lady when she's a teenager, long before she's first lady, has an abortion, something that needs to be kept secret.

There are sexual scenes between the first lady and her husband, and so for some people that makes the whole book into a smear. Why would you argue that it's not, you know, that they're - what do you think they're seeing inaccurately about it?

Ms. SITTENFELD: Well, I'm fairly sure that you know, 99 percent, if not a hundred percent, of the people who are saying the book is a smear, haven't read it. So, you know, I can see that someone might have an idea of it or an impression of it, but the book, you know, could be different from what they think.

You know, the point of a novel - or to me, the point of a novel, the gift of a novel is to go really deeply inside people's lives and inside their personal experiences. And that includes things like sex, you know this is a 30-year marriage, of course they have sex, and there are all sorts of other things depicted, you know, like fights or you know, feeling sick or you know, their experiences with their daughter, and it's just part of their life together and you know, there's a lot of sex in a lot of books, it's not an unusual thing to have sex scenes in a novel.

GROSS: If I were Laura Bush, here's something I think I'd be worried about, about your book, because you give the character an abortion when she's a teenager. I think I would be worrying - will that plant the seed in reader's minds that maybe I had an abortion, and I covered it up when I didn't. And although it's fiction, and it's clearly labeled fiction, and it's just so obviously fiction, it's also inspired by the story of Laura Bush, and suddenly there's this idea that's planted. You know...

Ms. SITTENFELD: Well, I definitely...

GROSS: When that line between reality and fiction is a little blurry.

Ms. SITTENFELD: I definitely don't think that Laura Bush had an abortion, and I'm not trying to make anyone else think that. I mean again, this is a novel I had to create a plot, because that's what you do when you write fiction.

I mean, I feel like, if this book makes people curious about Laura Bush, and want to know more about her, there are lots of biographies about her out there. There's - the one that I relied on most, that I think is really great is called "The Perfect Wife: The Life and Choices of Laura Bush."

And it's by someone who works at the Washington Post named Ann Gerhart(ph). I feel like if you read something, and it makes you so curious about a topic that you then go read something else, that's exciting. And that's - I don't know. I mean, the information is very easy to find about Laura Bush's real life.

GROSS: Do you see the Bushes differently after imagining Laura Bush's inner life for your novel?

Ms. SITTENFELD: Well, sometimes when I read about Laura Bush, when I read an article, I feel more of a sense of - I don't know, connection. I don't know if that sounds too creepy. But I feel more of a sense of connection than when I see her on television. She seems very distant on television.

You know, she sort of holds herself just kind of apart, which in a way is one of the things that I admire about her. I admire the fact that she doesn't just give her soul away or even worst, pretend to give her soul away.

So, I mean, I definitely see the Bushes as real people and not just as kind of these two-dimensional political figures that exist for me to mock or disagree with, even though I often do disagree with, you know, especially with President Bush.

But I think, you know, they're real people with sort of likes, and dislikes, and fears, and little daily habits, and you know, they have sort of these relationships with their children or their friends, their family members that are probably a lot like the ones that I have with my friends and family members.

GROSS: My guest is Curtis Sittenfeld. Her new novel, "American Wife," is loosely based on the life of Laura Bush. We'll talk more after a break. This is Fresh Air.

GROSS: Let's get back to my interview with Curtis Sittenfeld. Her new best-seller "American Wife," is loosely based on the life of Laura Bush. Your first novel, "Prep," was based on your experiences in prep school. And you were how old when it was published?

Ms. SITTENFELD: I was 29.

GROSS: Twenty-nine. Oh, I was thinking you were really, really young. It's really not that young anymore.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. SITTENFELD: I was over the hill.

GROSS: Well, she goes - your character goes to prep school, because the campus is beautiful and she imagines meeting an athletic, attractive boy, who loves books as much as she does, who can take walks on overcast days, with them both wearing warm, wool sweaters. Was that an appealing image for you, too, before you went?

Ms. SITTENFELD: Sure. I mean, I would say there's sort of a pattern clearly with my books. But I don't feel like the book is based on my own experiences. Although, I did go to boarding school.

You know, I certainly feel like I borrowed from the setting, and the kind of, you know, dynamic, and tone of boarding school, but I don't feel like it's an autobiographical novel. You know, which I think, you know, there's - I can see these parallels emerging between the ways that I would say, you know, perhaps not about me. And now I'll say "American Wife" is not about Laura Bush.

And of course, I mean they sort of are, but in a lot of ways, they sincerely aren't. But in terms of the idea of boarding school, I think that there are plenty of, you know, 13 or 14-year-old girls and probably 13 and 14-year-old boys who sort of think, oh, boarding school, so glamorous, so romantic.

GROSS: You know, I've asked you some questions about false assumptions people might make about Laura Bush, based on fictitious portrayal of her in your novel. I'm wondering what false assumptions people have made about you, based on your novel "Prep," because you went to prep school, and the novel is about a girl who goes to prep school and who isn't from the wealthy backgrounds that most of the students in the school are?

Ms. SITTENFELD: Well, I think in my first two novels, both the characters are pretty neurotic, which I would say that I am. And - but they're also - I mean they're sort of - I suppose you could say that sometimes their negative moods or thoughts outweigh their positive ones.

And so I think actually a lot of people who meet me, you know, readers at events at bookstores or something, might say, you seem so normal or you're so friendly, or you know, like I thought you'd be crippled by awkwardness, and I mean, I think that I'm a more average person than people might imagine, because people assume that I'm my characters, which - you know, I feel like I've created my characters.

GROSS: Your name is Curtis, which is almost always a male name. My name is Terry, and I spell it T-E-R-R-Y, so just looking at my name, or just reading my name, you have no idea whether I'm male of female.

And I've gotten many, many, many Mr. Terry Gross letters over the years. What's it been like for you to go through life with a name that appears to be the name that belongs to a guy?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. SITTENFELD: Well, actually, the amazing thing - you know, sometimes I try, you know, not to look at stuff online. But occasionally, there will be, you know, I - whatever - it will appear on the screen before me, and people will say things like, one of my favorite comments ever, it was something - it was about "Prep," and it said, this book is set at boarding school.

You know, it's by a person who clearly has never been to one, written from the perspective of a girl by someone who never was one. You know, like that was sort of saying - you're like, what gives you the authority to write from the perspective of a woman or conversely, I think, there have been times in my life when people have assumed I'm a man, and they've said, you know, the way that he gets into the heads of his female characters is so sensitive and extraordinary.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. SITTENFELD: And then of course they're actually way less impressed when they realize my gender.

GROSS: Well, Curtis Sittenfeld, thank you very much for talking with us.

Ms. SITTENFELD: Thank you for having me.

GROSS: Curtis Sittenfeld's new book is the best-seller "American Wife." You can download podcasts of our show on our website,
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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