DATE October 27, 2005 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
PROGRAM Fresh Air
Interview: Cam Simpson discusses his series of articles on
kidnapping and execution of 12 men from Nepal by terrorists in
Iraq in August 2004
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
You may remember the story of the 12 men from Nepal who were kidnapped and
executed by terrorists in Iraq in August 2004. The Nepali men had just
arrived in Iraq and were on their way to their new job, jobs they were
deceived into taking. According to an investigative series in the Chicago
Tribune, these men are an example of the exploitation of foreign workers that
is underpinning the American war effort in Iraq. The US and its main
contractor in the war zone, Kellogg Brown & Root, a subsidiary of Halliburton,
is leaving the hiring of foreign workers to Middle Eastern subcontractors, who
use fraud and coercion to lure unsuspecting workers to Iraq.
My guest Cam Simpson wrote the series which ran earlier this month. For this
series, he retraced the roots of several of the executed Nepali men. Simpson
is a Washington-based correspondent for the Tribune. He won a George Polk
award in 2003 for an investigative series he co-wrote called Tossed Out Of
America about the deportation of Muslims in America. One of the Nepali men
whose journey Simpson followed was Bishnu Hari. Hari had responded to an ad
for a job, a deceptive ad making no mention of Iraq.
Mr. CAM SIMPSON (Correspondent, Chicago Tribune): The ad advertised more than
a hundred job openings in Jordan--at a hotel in Jordan. In fact, Bishnu Hari
and the 12 other men all had paperwork promising them jobs at the Le Royal
Hotel in Jordan, which is a fancy five-star hotel. It's at the top of one of
the seven hills in Jordan, in Amman, that the city's built on, and it towers
over much of the rest of the city.
And, you know, the ad is part of how the government in Nepal tries to regulate
overseas employment. It's really more like what you would think of as a
public notice in the classified sections of American newspapers. And it
simply invited candidates to come in and try their luck to land these jobs in
Jordan. It also carried a steep fee for each job, which is part of the big
picture that we uncovered and I think was also fairly significant. It's
illegal for people in Nepal to go to Iraq for work, and it's illegal for job
brokers in Nepal to send them, as it is now in the Philippines and in India
and has been for about the last year and a half for those two countries. It's
been illegal in Nepal since the very beginning of the war.
GROSS: And why is it illegal?
Mr. SIMPSON: It's illegal because of the dangers. I mean, countries that try
to regulate overseas employment--as you know, there's just millions of guest
workers, especially in the Middle East, especially from South and Southeast
Asia. And there have been problems for years with these workers being
exploited, being trafficked illegally, their rights being violated. There's a
catalog of horrors that have happened to these people over the last, say,
And so the countries that provide these laborers that are more or less the
source countries tried at least some limited way to regulate it. And in the
case of Iraq and Nepal, they said, `Look, the situation is far too dangerous.
We're not going to grant any permission for any agency to send any worker to
Iraq.' And they found ways around it. As we show in the story, I mean, they
were trafficked illegally into Jordan with false paperwork filed with their
government promising them jobs at this five-star hotel, the Le Royal Hotel in
Amman. And then they were sent into Iraq, and we know what the outcome was.
GROSS: Cam, let me ask you to just, like, describe the flow chart here of
who's getting money from who and who's...
Mr. SIMPSON: Yes.
GROSS: ...answering to who.
Mr. SIMPSON: Sure. These 12 Nepali men changed hands, each of them, a
minimum of four times before they wound up in a convoy delivering them to a
job for a fifth link in their chain, who was working for a sixth link in their
chain, which was Halliburton, which was working for the US military. So they
changed hands a minimum of four times. That process starts in their villages
with men called dalals, a Hindi-derived word that in Nepali used to mean pimp.
Now it's generally accepted as a term for a middle man or a subagent.
The next step in the process is an agent in Nepal, a main agent, a licensed
job broker, who accepts money--takes huge sums of money from these workers.
The dalal below him gets a huge commission and sends them overseas. He's
working in concert with his counterpart somewhere in the Middle East--in this
case, in Amman, Jordan, in a firm called Morning Star. That man accepts the
workers and, literally in this case, was selling them to another company, a
subcontractor to a subcontractor for the US government in Iraq. And he got,
he told us, 300 to $500 per head per worker. Adds up to quite a bit of money,
money that comes from you and me, from our taxes ultimately. And then the
next step for them is they go to work for the Halliburton subcontractor in
Iraq at a US military base. And in this case, they never got there.
GROSS: 'Cause they were executed.
Mr. SIMPSON: Because they were kidnapped and executed on their way in, as
they were brought in by one of these subcontractors in an unprotected caravan
on one of the most dangerous roads in the world. It's kind of a predictable
outcome of what really is a rotten system top to bottom.
GROSS: And is this an example of how, like, the labor is so cheap, it would
be too expensive to bother to protect them?
Mr. SIMPSON: Exactly. I mean, I think if you kind of look at a cost-benefit
analysis from the perspective of these 200 subcontractors that are carrying
out the bulk of the privatization in the military support operations for us in
Iraq, it doesn't make much sense to spend a lot of money on these guys. They
pay them a couple hundred bucks a month and, you know--I think, like I said,
this was the obvious and predictable outcome of this entire system.
GROSS: So the poor and exploited foreign workers, whose paths you're
following here, end up being executed on their way to ultimately work for KBR,
Kellogg Brown & Root, the subsidiary of Halliburton that is contracted by the
United States to supply food services and cleaning services for the US
military in Iraq. How aware is KBR, Kellogg Brown & Root, of the kind of
exploitation that you documented in your series?
Mr. SIMPSON: Well, you know, Terry, there have been stories about abuses of
these workers. First, I think it's important to point out that KBR itself
says there are about 35,000 of these workers working for them in Iraq. KBR is
the Halliburton subsidiary that has this contract. So they know they're
there. They're working for 200 subcontractors, most of them based in the
Middle East. KBR obviously knows that four of these countries that it's
getting the bulk of these workers from are on the top tier of the US human
trafficking watch list for forced and coerced labor. There are no standards
in their contracts, nothing, to deal with these issues.
So the key in this case, I think, and in the case of workers from India, in
the case of workers from Nepal and the thing that we wanted to focus on the
most is: How do they get there? And, you know, what we found was each of
these workers is issued a badge from the US military--and we actually
reprinted a picture of one of these badges in the newspaper--that lists his
nationality. Now Halliburton and the US military know that it's illegal for
job brokers to be bringing people from Nepal or the Philippines or India into
Iraq. Yet there--badges are issued every day for these workers that clearly
list their nationality. And nobody says, `Wait a minute. How did you get
here? Who brought you here?' It's kind of just everybody looks the other
GROSS: Can I ask a kind of obvious question? Why are there so many foreign
workers who are being brought into Iraq to do, you know, a lot of the, like,
menial work when there's so many Iraqis who are out of work?
Mr. SIMPSON: You know, it's a great...
GROSS: Unemployment is so high there.
Mr. SIMPSON: Yeah. No, it's a great question. And originally, you know, we
got some of the early KBR subcontracts in Iraq for these services. In fact,
we got a major one, and it's kind of--they're just template documents. And
they state that you will have to hire what they call TCNs--or third-country
nationals is the term of art for them--in the event that the US military
determines that it's too dangerous to employ Iraqis on the bases. So it was
mandated from the beginning that they were going to have to employ workers who
were not Iraqis. And they kind of needed the cheapest labor that they
possibly could get. And so this is--they just tapped a pipeline that's really
existed for decades, sending laborers and all kinds of workers into the Middle
East from South and Southeast Asia.
GROSS: So KBR is not hiring Iraqis because of the possibility of sabotage.
Mr. SIMPSON: Exactly, yeah, because they're worried about insurgent
infiltration. The US military actually is worried about insurgent
infiltration on the bases.
GROSS: OK. So the foreign workers, or at least the Nepalese workers who you
investigated, they were brought to Iraq on false premises.
Mr. SIMPSON: Fraudulent premises actually.
GROSS: Fraudulent premises. But once you're there, it's like you can't--the
conditions, the way you describe them, you can't say, `Oh, this is a terrible
situation. I'm going to go home.' Why can't you do that?
Mr. SIMPSON: Well, in the case of these guys, they never had the chance
obviously, although some of them probably when they were in Jordan...
GROSS: Because they were killed before they had that chance.
Mr. SIMPSON: Exactly. But some of them when they were in Jordan--I mean, we
cataloged this kind of dramatic phone call home from Bishnu Hari Thapa, who's
the main character that we focus on, in which he leaves this fractured message
for his family which is literally, `I am done for.' And it's just a couple of
weeks later that he's brought in this convoy into Iraq, and there's no
explanation, although I think his family, unfortunately, tragically figured
out later what he meant. As we talked about, you know, all of these workers
had to pay these huge sums up front to get these jobs to the brokers in their
home countries, and they have to take exorbitant loans at really loan shark
interest rates to come up with the money in the first place. So once they get
there, there's not a lot of choice. It's kind of the de facto death bondage
In reality, three of the 12 men whose journey that we cataloged, we found they
faced this very problem. Three of these 12, even though there was false
paperwork for them, knew absolutely, positively that they were ultimately
bound for Iraq, and they knew that because the dalal in their village told
them that, and their families just were very up front about that. But they
were lied to about how much money they were going to make. They were told
they were going to make $700 a month, which doesn't seem like a lot to you and
me, but it's a huge amount of money in Nepal. And they based their
calculations on that.
The dalal charged them $3,500 a head, and like I said, that's a lifetime of
earnings there. But the math--you know, they figured out very carefully, `OK,
we can still make this work.' They get to Amman, and they call their families
from a little phone shop around the corner from the house where they were
being kept and said, `You know, this is horrible. We've been lied to. Now
they're saying we're only going to make $300 a month. They're saying they're
going to keep two months of our pay for their own commission. We want to come
home.' And their families make a joint decision. Together on the spot, they
say, `Look, this is horrible. We want you to come home, too, but there's no
choice now. You have to go just so we can pay back these loans.'
GROSS: What would happen if they didn't pay...
Mr. SIMPSON: And that...
GROSS: ...back the loan?
Mr. SIMPSON: They'd be wiped out. In some cases, they actually put up--you
know, we interviewed one worker who had put up his family's farm. And more
than 80 percent of Nepalese rely on subsistence farming just to survive, and
he put that up to go and he was also lied to. He was told he had a job in
Kuwait and wound up at Anaconda, you know, the most attacked base in Iraq, at
least at the time it was. And after two months, he said, `I can't take this
anymore. I've got to get out of here.' And he literally gave up the family
farm just so he could come home and get out of danger.
GROSS: So how do you explain the fact that, on the one hand, the US condemns
the type of human trafficking that you're describing here that's supplying
workers for KBR's support services to the military in Iraq and, at the same
time, the US isn't doing anything to stop it?
Mr. SIMPSON: You know, I wish I could explain it, Terry. Those issues were
covered in some of the 32 written questions I submitted to Halliburton with, I
think, you know, like, 20-plus more subquestions, very few of which,
unfortunately, were answered, in addition to a boatload of follow-up questions
I sent them that I never got any response on. And they were also sent to the
Army, which runs this contract, and, unfortunately, they didn't answer them
either. So I wish I could tell you what the answer is. I think--and this is
just supposition in my own mind--I think the reality of the situation was that
in 2003 the US military really needed these services very badly, and there was
kind of a feeling of, `We have to do this. We have to get this done at any
cost. Just make it happen.' And I think it's probably a casualty so to speak
of that climate and that situation that things like this were allowed to
happen and that people looked the other way on a lot of these practices.
GROSS: My guest is Cam Simpson, a Washington-based correspondent for the
Chicago Tribune. We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: My guest is Cam Simpson, a correspondent for the Chicago Tribune.
We're talking about his investigative series about the illicit pipeline that
is bringing cheap labor to Iraq to work for the US' main military contractor.
He retraced the journeys of several workers from Nepal who were kidnapped and
executed in Iraq.
Without, you know, getting too gruesome, what can you tell us about what
happened to these 12 workers the day they were executed?
Mr. SIMPSON: Well, before they were executed, they made a couple videotapes.
One videotape was really chilling, and it's--they were allowed to give
statements in Nepalese, which I found to be very interesting. You know, at
one point they read a statement--one of them tried to read a statement in
English. His English was horrible, and it was almost impossible to figure out
what he was saying and clearly had been written by the army of Ansar al-Sunna,
which was the group responsible for kidnapping these men. But then they were,
like I said, allowed to give these statements in Nepalese. And 10 out of 12
of them gave statements in Nepalese in their own language, which was
interesting to me because it clearly wasn't something that was written by
their captors. And I doubt that any of the members of army of Ansar al-Sunna
who had them spoke this subsecure language.
But their statements were really terrifying. And one of them--I mean, Bishnu
Hari Thapa, who's the main character that we kind of follow in the story, an
18-year-old boy--he said, you know, that he was trapped; that he had been
offered employment in Amman, `But today I was sent to Iraq.' And he names the
agency that sent him. In fact, almost all of them talked about the brokers
who were involved in their journeys and made statements and lashed out at
them. Another one, you know, was so distraught he made almost no sense. He
said, `Trapped by Moonlight,' and that was the name of the brokerage firm in
Nepal that had sent him. And then he just said, `In Jordan. In Jordan.' And
he completely broke down. Another man said, `I do not know when I will die,
today or tomorrow.' So the stakes were clear.
When they were actually executed is unclear. The video was released on August
31st. They were kidnapped on August 19th as they were being driven into the
country. But the execution video itself is especially gruesome, if I can say
that. I mean, it was especially brutal and really horrific, and it was aired
in Nepal and it was aired throughout the Middle East.
GROSS: After the 12 workers from Nepal were taken hostage in Iraq and then
executed, word got back to Nepal that this had happened, and there were riots
in Nepal. What happened in these riots?
Mr. SIMPSON: Oh, there were horrible riots in Nepal, but, you know, the
interesting thing is the riots were incredibly focused. They were focused on
the machinery that delivers desperate Nepalese overseas for foreign
employment. I mean, this is the major source of income in that economy, as
it's becoming throughout that part of the world a major source of income.
They attacked 350 Manpower agencies, including the one that sent these men and
other agencies just like them. They burned them. There was black smoke in
the air over the whole city. People were terrified, afraid to leave their
homes. They attacked the offices of Qatar Air and Gulf Air, which give cheap
tickets to deliver these men. One of them even runs a plane, Gulf Air, called
The Gulf Traveler in which all the seats are configured for economy class to
accommodate this flow of workers in the Middle East. Those are the kind of
things that the riders focused on.
Now there was also some damage. A mosque was attacked, and there were some
unfortunate things that had a bit of religious overtone to it. But the vast,
vast majority of the damage was done to the very industry that sent these men
to Iraq and to their deaths.
GROSS: The 12 workers from Nepal who were executed by their kidnappers in
Iraq died owing a lot of money to the brokers who had gotten them the jobs.
And what happened...
Mr. SIMPSON: Their families.
GROSS: Yeah, their families had paid the money.
Mr. SIMPSON: Yeah, their families owed the money. Right. Right.
GROSS: Yeah. What happens to the debt that the families had?
Mr. SIMPSON: Well, in this case, immediately in the wake of the riots, the
Nepalese government announced that they would give roughly the equivalent of
$14,000 compensation to each family. So a lot of that money that they got
went to paying off those loans. But, you know, there are probably many
similar cases, Terry, that frankly we know nothing about. You know, Iraq is
kind of the Wild West when it comes to this stuff. In fact, I know--and I'm
pursuing other similar cases like this that I know about where there are
unreported deaths of these workers.
You know, one of the interesting things--and we only briefly touched on it in
the story just because you can only talk about so much. But there's a
mandatory insurance compensation program. KBR and its subcontractors are
required to carry insurance for all of these workers and their families in the
event that they're hurt or they die. And it's a law in the United States.
It's been on the books since about World War II, and it's taken very
seriously. In fact, it can be prosecuted as a federal crime if these benefits
aren't provided. But we found that these families didn't hear the first word
about this program. They knew nothing about it. I think, in fact, actually
there's a Supreme Court case that when workers are being transported into the
country to do a job like this, they're covered. So there's little question
about that. But the fact that the system is so opaque and no one takes
responsibility has just left these families in limbo when it comes to this
issue of how and who should compensate them.
GROSS: Have you gotten any response from the government, from KBR,
Halliburton, the military?
Mr. SIMPSON: Dead silence. Dead silence. I mean, we had overwhelming
response from our readers and from people who read us on the Internet, so
that was very gratifying. But absolutely no response from KBR, no response
from Halliburton, no response from the US government.
GROSS: Well, Cam Simpson, thank you very much for talking about your story
Mr. SIMPSON: Terry, it was my pleasure. Thanks for having me.
GROSS: Cam Simpson is a Washington-based correspondent for the Chicago
Tribune. You'll find a link to his series on our Web site, freshair.npr.org.
I'm Terry Gross and this is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: Coming up, we talk with actor Adam Goldberg. His movies include
"Saving Private Ryan," "Dazed and Confused" and "The Hebrew Hammer." He wrote
and directed the new film "I Love Your Work" about the culture of celebrity.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Interview: Adam Goldberg discusses his TV and film career
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
If you saw "Saving Private Ryan," you probably remember the scene toward the
end of the film in the bell tower where a Jewish private is stabbed to death
by a German soldier. The private was played by my guest, Adam Goldberg. His
other films include "How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days," "The Hebrew Hammer," "A
Beautiful Mind" and "Dazed and Confused." On TV, he had a recurring role on
"Friends" and starred in the short-lived series "The $treet" and "Head Cases."
He wrote and directed the new film "I Love Your Work." It stars Giovanni
Ribisi as a young, famous actor who's finding that being a celebrity isn't
such a good life. In fact, the constant buzz of the media and fans is giving
him a nervous breakdown. He thinks that one of his fans is stalking him. At
the same time, the actor starts to envy the life of one of his fans who works
in the video store, and the actor starts stalking the fan. Here's the scene
where they first meet. The video store clerk is played by Joshua Jackson.
(Soundbite of "I Love Your Work")
Mr. JOSHUA JACKSON: (As John) I'm sure you hate this, but I just
wanted to tell you that your work--it really means a lot to me. It's had an
impact on my life.
Mr. GIOVANNI RIBISI: (As Greg) Thank you.
Mr. JACKSON: (As John) This probably sounds crazy, but I actually--I wrote
you one of those letters a couple of weeks ago.
Mr. RIBISI: (As Greg) Oh, you did, eh?
Mr. JACKSON: (As John) Yeah. My name's John. John Eckley(ph).
Mr. RIBISI: (As Greg) Greg.
Mr. JACKSON: (As John) It's nice to meet ya. Can you sign there? Yeah, I've
never done anything like that before, but I'm a filmmaker. Well, a grad
student right now, but truly you are one of the few guys whose work actually
Mr. RIBISI: (As Greg) Well, thank you. That means a lot to me. Thank you.
Mr. JACKSON: (As John) Hey, you went to film school, right?
Mr. RIBISI: (As Greg) What?
Mr. JACKSON: (As John) You used to be in film school, right?
Mr. RIBISI: (As Greg) Yeah, yeah. I went to a film school and then I became
an actor. Yeah.
GROSS: Adam Goldberg, welcome to FRESH AIR. Let me ask you...
Mr. ADAM GOLDBERG (Actor): Thank you.
GROSS: ...in your words to describe what the movie's about.
Mr. GOLDBERG: I think the film at its sort of simplest level is really an
allegory, really, for the cliche `The grass is always greener on the other
side.' But to me it's really largely about this guy who in this case is a
movie star, but again, sort of I'm using movie star as kind of a metaphor for
something that somebody had always wanted to be, something that somebody had
always wanted to attain--you know, a certain status--and kind of realizes at
some point that he's made a bit of a Faustian deal and he kind of wants to
turn back time. And it's not everything that he bargained for, so--you know,
so he thinks or feels, and kind of deals with this in not the healthiest way,
you know, kind of coupled with an increasing paranoia and self-consciousness
and self-awareness, which is certainly also perpetuated by kind of a
real-life, you know, invasiveness that takes place when you're, you know, in
the public eye. He begins to kind of recoil, kind of go into himself and
specifically and ultimately become obsessed with these--with this young
couple, one of whom is a fan of his. And this fan, although in many ways he
wants to become the movie star, the movie star wants to become this fan. And
this fan reminds him of a sort of a simpler time in his life, a sort of
pre-fame kind of fantasy existence that he has kind of begun to live in,
really, in a sense.
GROSS: So what happens, in a way, is that this young star is afraid he's
being stalked in the first part of the movie, but by the second part of the
movie he's kind of stalking this guy who works in the video store who wants to
be a filmmaker. He's stalking this kind of regular guy who wishes that he was
well-known and making movies. What make you think about this reverse
Mr. GOLDBERG: Well, it's twofold, really. I think that the sort of germ, I
guess, of the idea came to me when I myself was doing a television show. And
when you're on television shows, it kind of doesn't matter how well-known you
are to begin with; you get a series of what are really form letters--you know,
`Dear'--fill in television, you know, actor's name--`could I get an
autographed head shot?' sort of, you know, kind of thing. And I looked at
this very generic letter and I thought, you know, `I wonder if this guy really
does care. I wonder if he really does enjoy my work, you know, or if he's
just doing this because, you know, he writes down the name of every single
person who, you know, he sees on television.' And then I noticed that the
return address wasn't far from where I was working at the time and I thought,
`Oh, well, it might be kind of funny and perverse to deliver--hand-deliver
this head shot--autographed head shot to him,' you know? And then I thought,
`Wow, that'd be an interesting idea for sort of a genre movie or a thriller,'
you know, a movie star who be--you know, stalks a fan, very simply.
And so some years went by and I moved to New York and I started to imagine
that this character--this movie star character was surrounded by all these
people in New York and he was no longer able to tell the difference between
the people who were saying his name legitimately as he walked by them, which
happens if, you know, you're recognizable--oftentimes people will sort of
mutter your name to a friend of theirs, you know--or, in fact, if he was
becoming increasingly paranoid. And then the idea sort of blossomed from
there that this was a guy who probably to begin with was predisposed of a
certain amount of--if you want to call it paranoia or disassociation or
perhaps even schizophrenia. And you, you know, again, took that kind of
cliche, just because your paranoid doesn't mean people really aren't following
GROSS: Well, if you're just joining us, my guest is Adam Goldberg, and he's
an actor and he also wrote and directed the new film "I Love Your Work."
Now you had a TV series that premiered this fall, and I thought, `OK, this is
it for Adam Goldberg. He's gonna get--he's got his movie. He's got the TV
series. This is his year. It is the year of Adam Goldberg.' And the series
was canceled after two episodes, was it?
Mr. GOLDBERG: Yeah, but see, the thing is that that's exact--I knew this was
going to happen. And everybody says, `Oh, you're being so cynical. Oh, no,
it's not. Oh, no, this is going to be different.' And I either have a sixth
sense about these things or I am fact in a curse. I'm not sure which. But I
tried to tell these people, like, you know, because, you know, you're working
on something and everybody's kind of, you know, really spirited and everything
and they can't wait till the premiere. You know, and I said back in
whenever--March or April--as soon as they, you know, gave us our time slot,
which was up against "Lost," I said, you know, `Well, they don't like us and
we'll be off the air in a matter of weeks'--I didn't think it would be two
weeks--because I'd been through the same thing on the same exact network,
literally in the same time slot--Wednesday, 9 PM--five years ago on a show
called "The $treet," which was a kind of at the time highly touted new Darren
Star series. And...
GROSS: About stockbrokers, right?
Mr. GOLDBERG: About stockbrokers.
Mr. GOLDBERG: We all moved to New York, except for Tom Scott and Jennifer
Connelly, who lived there. We all moved to New York to do the show. I wanted
to move to New York, so I, you know, looked at it as an excuse to move to New
York, but--and we were off, I think, five episodes later or something, and
because at that time we were up against "The West Wing," which was sort of the
monster to go up against. So one's kind of enthusiasm about kind of minor
successes--for instance, you do a pilot and, oh, the pilot the gets picked up.
Oh, and that's exciting. And it was. It actually was exciting 'cause I was
really looking forward to doing it. And--you know, and it's kind of sad
because I know what I used to possess, which was a real youthful optimism
about things. But...
Mr. GOLDBERG: So it's all--you know, when the show got canceled, I was like,
`Of course, it did. And now I'll get back to my life,' you know?
GROSS: Well, you know, you say that you used to be more optimistic, but I
think sometimes you can't afford to be optimistic because it leaves you too
vulnerable, so you have to protect yourself by bracing yourself for the worst
and expecting the worst...
Mr. GOLDBERG: That's what I told everybody.
GROSS: ...and telling everybody to expect the worst.
Mr. GOLDBERG: I did. And I would go around and I would--like, proselytizing
misery. I would go around on the set of this TV show and I would tell people
to stop it, you know? So you can enjoy yourself, enjoy your day, but stop
talking about what the results are going to be because you have absolutely no
idea what the results are going to be, and you're going to feel so much better
if the show does get canceled and you expected it to. And--or if it's a
success, you'll feel twice as good as you would have felt if you had expected
it would be successful.
GROSS: Let's talk about some of your earlier roles. In 1993, you were one of
the stars of Richard Linklater's movie "Dazed and Confused," which takes place
on the last day of high school--the last day of a term of high school--and
describe your character in this.
Mr. GOLDBERG: My character was, I think, largely a 1976 version of probably
what I myself was like in high school. What--I mean, what's great about
Rick's films is that I suppose typically you could say, well, we were part of
the nerd clique or the geek clique, but I mean there's something else going on
here, which is that this is a guy who's dying for visceral experience. You
know, he's cerebral but can't stand that he's cerebral, and that's
just--that's something I could really relate to. You know, they spend the
whole movie essentially driving around, and that is really quite literally how
I spent my high school career.
GROSS: Well, let's hear a driving-around scene. And this is a scene where
you're driving around with two friends. They're in the front seat; you're in
(Soundbite of "Dazed and Confused")
(Soundbite of "Low Rider," whistling)
Mr. GOLDBERG: (As Mike) Hey, look, I got a confession to make.
Mr. ANTHONY RAPP: (As Tony) What do you mean, a confession?
Mr. GOLDBERG: (As Mike) Look, you know how for the last year or so I've been
talking about going to law school so I can be an ACLU lawyer and be in a
position to help people who are getting (censored) over and all that?
Mr. RAPP: (As Tony) Uh-huh.
Mr. GOLDBERG: (As Mike) Well, I was standing in line at the post office
yesterday, you know, and I'm looking all around, and everybody's looking
really pathetic. You know what I mean? They're like--people have, like, got
drool just sort of st--and, like, this guy's bending over. You could see the
crack of his--it was--dressed up like a...
Ms. MARISSA RIBISI: (As Cynthia) Ohhh...
Mr. GOLDBERG: (As Mike) ...wife beater. It was--anyway, it was...
Mr. RAPP: (As Tony) Ewww.
Ms. RIBISI: (As Cynthia) My God.
Mr. GOLDBERG: (As Mike) And I realized I just don't wanna do it, you know
what I mean? I mean, it sounds good and all, but I just have to confront the
fact that I really don't like the people I've been talking about helping out.
You know what I'm saying? I don't think I like people period. I mean, you
guys are OK. I'm just trying to be honest about being a misanthrope.
Mr. RAPP: (As Tony) So you're not going to go to law school? What you want
to do, then?
(Soundbite of "Low Rider")
Mr. GOLDBERG: (As Mike) I wanna dance!
(Soundbite of horn)
GROSS: That's Adam Goldberg in a scene from the 1993 movie "Dazed and
Confused." That's a really funny scene...
Mr. GOLDBERG: Mm-hmm. Yeah, yeah.
GROSS: ...to hear a cerebral guy like you say, `No, but I wanna dance.'
Mr. GOLDBERG: Yeah.
GROSS: Were you in high school productions?
Mr. GOLDBERG: Oh, yeah. Yeah, I was. Yeah, I was definitely--I went to a
high school that really kind of prided itself on these big-time, like, sort of
Rushmore-like productions. And so, yeah, I mean, I did quite a few plays,
which, you know, looking back it's kind of amazing to me because now if I step
on stage I'm just completely paralyzed with fear. I mean, once I'm on the
stage, I suppose less so. But leading up to it, I mean, the sense of nausea
is so overwhelming it's a mystery I've managed to make it on the stage the
couple of times I've had to since high school. But that's definitely where I,
I guess, began acting, if you want to call it that, yeah.
GROSS: My guest is Adam Goldberg. We'll talk more after a break.
This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: My guest is actor Adam Goldberg. His films include "Saving Private
Ryan," "The Hebrew Hammer," "A Beautiful Mind" and "Dazed and Confused." He
wrote and directed the new film "I Love Your Work."
Let's move on to the 1998 movie "Saving Private Ryan," in which you played
Private Stanley Mellish. And you were in the Jewish soldier in it?
Mr. GOLDBERG: Yes, I was the Jew. Yes.
GROSS: And you had really what I think is one of the most memorable scenes in
the movie and it's towards the very end of the film. You're in a bell tower
with a German soldier and you're just--you're literally fighting each other to
the death. Describe the scene from your perspective.
Mr. GOLDBERG: Yeah, this is a scene where a German soldier has me pinned to
the floor and I manage--I mean, I'm not quite sure how long it goes on, but it
seems like it goes on quite a while in a sort of real-time sort of way--where
we're rolling over actually the injured and dying body of a fellow soldier of
mine. And, you know, I'll regain control, he'll regain control and ultimately
I think it's my knife that he manages to...
GROSS: It's your knife. You pull out a knife as if you're going to stab him
when you're on top. But then he gets the knife and then he's on top of you
and--take it from here.
Mr. GOLDBERG: You've seen it more recently than me.
Mr. GOLDBERG: And you know, then he sort of starts speaking to me and I kind
of start speaking to him and I'm sure he knows what I'm saying because I'm
saying, `No, no, you know, please don't,' you know. And he's saying something
in German to me, which I took to mean, you know, just be quiet, just relax,
you know, it'll be over soon. I--but it's this incredibly personal, you
know--oh, I'm sure--you know, maybe some psychotherapists have had fun saying
that it was sexual. Let's say it's sexual, what the hell. He's on top of me.
We're sort of--you know, we're kind of whispering sweet nothings into each
other's ears as he plunges a knife into my chest, you know.
GROSS: Well, that's the thing. He doesn't plunge it. It's very--he's
Mr. GOLDBERG: Well, it's very slowly.
GROSS: ...very slowly, like an quarter of an inch at a time.
Mr. GOLDBERG: Right, that's right.
GROSS: He puts that knife into your hear--your chest and your heart and at
first, as he touches the knife to you--we've all seem movies and we're
thinking, well, you know, Adam Goldberg's gonna wrestle the knife from his
Mr. GOLDBERG: Right, right.
GROSS: ...and he's gonna be on top again...
Mr. GOLDBERG: Right.
GROSS: ...and he'll win. But that's--but slowly that knife keeps going into
Mr. GOLDBERG: Till I'm dead.
GROSS: ...until you're dead, yeah.
Mr. GOLDBERG: Expired, yeah. My mother, after she went to the premiere--you
know, I took her to the premiere of that movie--and I believe the first thing
she said to me after the movie ended was, `If you ever have a scene like that
in a movie, please don't invite me.' I'm like, `OK, sorry.' But, yeah, I
think it was upsetting, yeah, to--well, to--many people actually told me that
was very upsetting, and it was actually a bit upsetting to watch--for me to
To shoot, however, I found it to be this very--very strangely cathartic
process. I mean, first of all, the scene--I mean, initially in the script I
was supposed to die running--I was supposed to have been running and kind of
randomly I'm shot and I'm dead and that was it. And over time it developed
into this kind of scene and Steven had said that he had wanted it to be very,
very personal and very, very realistic. And I had said, too, that I really
wanted to sort of speak and really probably do what I imagine I would do if I
were in that situation, which is just to beg and plead for my life, you know.
And he really encouraged that and really, really let the camera roll.
Apparently there was a much longer sort of more gruesome version of it, but he
had told me--Steven had told me that at the--I guess when they were screening
the dailies of it that the projectionist, who had seen everything Steven had
ever shot, he said, you know, he said, `You can't put this in the movie. It's
just too upsetting, you know.'
GROSS: When I was growing up, World War II movies were constantly on
television, so I saw a lot of World War II films growing up. And they really
scared the heck out of me. I know some people watch war movies and they
think, `When I grow up, that's what I'm going to do.' But I watch war movies
and I thought, like, I just can't imagine surviving this. I can't imagine
having to endure war, either as a civilian or a soldier.
Mr. GOLDBERG: Yeah.
GROSS: Did it affect your sense of war at all to participate in the making
of, you know, one of the most, you know, praised and authentic-looking war
movies ever made?
Mr. GOLDBERG: It affected me very, very deeply for a while, I have to say. I
don't know. I mean, I'm a tad sensitive and when I got home it took me a
while to even physically recover from the experience, which was not an easy
experience, you know, just for essentially a pampered and privileged pansy
little actor boy, you know. And it was, you know, a grueling physical
experience. So you have that and that kind of blows your kind of emotional
resistance in a way.
And emotionally I found myself being very, very connected to this thing of
militia and military life, war, in a way that I had absolutely no connection
to in the past. But because we were acting these things out, you know, I felt
very, very sympathetic towards--I guess you might say the military whereas in
the past I had a very black-and-white kind of knee-jerk, you might say,
liberal response to even the mere mention of the military or military
GROSS: But that's one of the wonderful things, I would imagine, about acting
but also about watching movies or seeing books is that it puts you in the
position where you start identifying with and empathizing with characters who
you would otherwise maybe not even meet or know nothing about and think of as
being very different from you.
Mr. GOLDBERG: Oh, absolutely. That was one of the rare opportunities that
I've had as an actor--'cause, frankly, I haven't had that many where I can
say, `Well, I went and I was a fireman for two months.' You know, I mean,
that's not been the nature of my career. But this was something where I took
this incredibly valuable lesson with me and I felt incredibly fortunate to
have had that. And it was really just more a sort of a slightly spiritual,
kind of profound experience.
And I'll tell you something else. This--the military adviser--this gentleman
named Captain Dale Dye, who I think to this day if I were to run into him
would just say, `Hi, Captain Dye.' I wouldn't say, `Hi, Dale.' And he--you
know, we really were role-playing. And at first it seemed ridiculous, you
know. They put us in this boot camp and we're not supposed to use our real
names and we're not supposed to refer to--we have to call this guy Captain.
We have to call the sergeant, you know, his assistant, Sergeant and this sort
of thing. And at first a guy like me thinks this is all ridiculous, you know.
And a very strange thing happened by the end of this five-day--after five days
of, you know, sleeping in a pup tent. And that's just five
days--Right?--which is that I have an incredible amount of respect for this
man and all I want is to earn his respect. And finally I felt I had. And he
had said something like--he tapped my chest and he said, `You know, you got
more in that chest of yours than you give yourself credit for,' because I was
having a hard time in the beginning. And I really had to work very hard to
sort of--to kind of get myself up to speed and up to snuff physically and all
that for that part. And it was just as important to me throughout the
duration of that shooting to impress and to be in the good graces of Captain
Dye as it was, you know, Steven Spielberg. And that's, I think, when I fully
understood this idea of military as family.
GROSS: My guest is Adam Goldberg. We'll talk more after a break. This is
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: My guest is Adam Goldberg. His films include "Saving Private Ryan,"
"The Hebrew Hammer," "A Beautiful Mind" and "Dazed and Confused." He wrote
and directed the new film "I Love Your Work."
I can think of at least, you know, two movies where you played somebody
who's--who is Jewish and being Jewish was an essential part of the character.
There's "Saving Private Ryan" and since you were--you're fighting in Germany
being Jewish is an essential part of your character.
Mr. GOLDBERG: Certainly.
GROSS: And the other was an opposite kind of movie. It was an independent
film that was a satire called "The Hebrew Hammer."
Mr. GOLDBERG: Right.
GROSS: And you were this, like, Orthodox Jewish parody of, say, Shaft or a
number of other...
Mr. GOLDBERG: Shaft, right, yeah.
GROSS: ...blaxploitation films and you were saving Hanukkah
Mr. GOLDBERG: From that--well, Santa Claus' evil spawn.
GROSS: OK. OK.
Mr. GOLDBERG: Of course, I mean, come on.
Mr. GOLDBERG: Yeah.
GROSS: ...so I want to ask you about how relatively important Jewish identity
has been in your life, though I should preface this by saying your father's
Jewish and I think your mother's Catholic. So I suppose officially you're not
Mr. GOLDBERG: Well, officially I'm not. My mother was--this is very
important because my mother had seen this in interviews, you know, and she
said, you know, `Please tell them I'm not Catholic.' I'm like, `OK.' So, for
my mother, she was brought up Catholic and then, you know, then she--then she
became not Catholic--basically, whatever, you know.
Mr. GOLDBERG: Then she became, what is it?
GROSS: Lapsed, is that the word?
Mr. GOLDBERG: Lapsed Catholic, Gentile, shiksa, I don't know. So, yeah, the
Jewish identity thing has become more and more of a focal point of both, I
guess, my career as well as my--it seems like the focal point of many
interviews I do these days and that's understandable. It's become, I think, a
bit of a problem only because as you develop a career you don't shape it, you
know. It's not--I think people think that--particularly in interviews a lot
of times you'll hear--or I'll read, not so much interviews that I do--but
people will say, `Well, how do choose these roles?' And really unless you're
really, really, really a very powerful actor--and I mean, like on a kind of a
Tom Cruise level--you really don't have that much say in how you shape your
career. You really--I mean, you can pass on certain things and--but for the
most part these things kind of find you. And so you--one starts to lose track
over a period of time of what their kind of oeuvre looks like, you know, or
how it's perceived.
And sort of--I swear to you. I woke up one day and I was like, `My Lord, have
I played a lot of Jews.' And, you know, I will tell you this goes all the way
back to--I mean, and I'll tell you something else. It doesn't matter if I'm
playing a Jew or not. They think I'm playing a Jew. People think I'm playing
a Jew in "Dazed and Confused." I didn't know I was. The guy's name is Mike
Newhouse. You know, I don't know if that's a Jewish name in Texas. But the
thing of it is that my last name is Goldberg. I look Jewish. I act Jewish,
you know, and again I'm doing air quotes here. But that has sort of been a
source of a bit of, I think, a glitch really in my career. I mean, I'm sure
that I have yet to have the opportunity that I had, let's say, in high school
to express myself fully as an actor. I've given myself the opportunity to do
so as a filmmaker but certainly not as an actor, you know.
GROSS: I am now going to blank out on the names of all actors I'm referring
to, but during the studio days of Hollywood there were a lot of Jewish actors
who changed their names...
Mr. GOLDBERG: That's right.
GROSS: ...and no one knew, outside of their friends, that they were Jewish.
And they got to play all kinds of roles.
Mr. GOLDBERG: Right, right.
GROSS: And decades later we find out that they were Jewish.
Mr. GOLDBERG: They're--right. Well, I will tell you this. I grappled with
this a lot. I never wanted to change my name. I thought it was appalling
that people changed their last name. Right before "Dazed and Confused" came
out, I suddenly was struck with fear that this might be the nature of my
career, you know, and I wanted to change my last name and considered it. I
have a journal filled with potential last names from that era: Smith, Johnson
and White. But anyway, you know, in the end when I actually finally made the
call to, I think, my agent at that time, they said, you know, they
struck--they already shot the title sequence, you know, which means it says
Adam Goldberg as Mike. And I said, well, that's it 'cause I knew this would
be the film that would make me somewhat recognizable. Up until that point I
had just done, you know, a few television parts and that kind of thing. So,
you know, I kind of just went with it from there.
And, you know, you'd pick up a little kind of a Jew part here and there and
then, you know, before you know it you're "The Hebrew Hammer" now. So when I
got the script for "The Hebrew Hammer," I thought long and hard about this.
And I thought, you know, I can't fight this and this is really funny and it's
a way to kind of ironically because in the movie it's sort of a parody of
these blaxploitation movies where they were really kind of owning it, you
know. They were owning the N-word. They were owning, you know, their own
exploitation, in a sense. And I thought, well, that's sort of metaphorical.
Even though this movie is a satire, I personally, Adam Goldberg, will
just--will own it and take it back. And then the next thing you know you're
on the cover of Time Out and it says `Super Jew.' But the article, if you
read it, says you're half Jewish and, you know, you weren't even bar
mitzvahed. And, you know, so it's like I find myself portraying myself as one
thing and then saying, `No, no, no, I'm not,' you know, in interviews.
And I think people have a certain perception about Jews, you know. They're
fast-talking. They're--you know, they're, you know, fraught with neuroses and
all this kind of thing. And, hey, that might be generally true and maybe that
is why I--maybe why half of me talks fast and is fraught with neuroses and the
other half is, you know, detached and cold. I don't know.
GROSS: Well, one more question. Your new film, which you wrote and directed,
is called "I Love Your Work." Can people no longer come up to you and say, `I
love your work'?
Mr. GOLDBERG: Well, the funny, and, again, vainglorious thing about me is
that while I was writing it and in the time that it's taken to get it out
there, people have said that to me a few times, `I love your work.' And I
forget--and I think they're saying the name of the movie. I think they're
just saying, `Hey, "I Love Your Work,"' like, you know, `Hey, "Saving Private
Ryan,"' or something like that. And then I remember that the film hasn't come
out and it hasn't been seen. But--so initially I was just flattered because
of that. You know, and then I would walk away and I'm like, `Oh, no, the
movie's not even out.' And then recently people seem to be having fun because
they've heard of it and they'll say it and so they're having fun with it. So
in that regard that's fine, too.
GROSS: Adam Goldberg, it was really great to talk with you. Thank you very
Mr. GOLDBERG: I--yeah, a real honor. Thank you so much.
GROSS: Adam Goldberg co-wrote and directed the new film "I Love Your Work."
It opens in LA next week and a few weeks later in New York.
GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.
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