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Dustin Lance Black, Inspired By Harvey Milk

Dustin Lance Black's original screenplay for Milk has been nominated for an Oscar. In Nov. 2008, Black talked with Terry Gross about Harvey Milk's inspirational influence.

13:48

Other segments from the episode on June 20, 2009

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, February 20, 2009: Interview with Philip Seymour Hoffman; Interview with Dustin Lance Black; Review of the film "Two lovers."

Transcript

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Philip Seymour Hoffman On The Benefits of 'Doubt'

DAVE DAVIES, host:

This is Fresh Air. I'm Dave Davies, senior writer for the Philadelphia Daily News, filling in for Terry Gross. The Academy Award presentations are Sunday, and our first guest, Philip Seymour Hoffman, could come away with his second Oscar in three years. Hoffman is nominated for Best Supporting Actor for his performance in the movie "Doubt," which has earned four other nominations, including Best Actress for Meryl Streep. Hoffman won the Oscar for Best Actor in 2006 for his portrayal of Truman Capote in the movie "Capote." He's also given memorable performances in "Charlie Wilson's War," "The Savages," "The Talented Mr. Ripley," "Happiness" and "Boogie Nights."

Terry spoke to Philip Seymour Hoffman in December. "Doubt" was adapted for the screen by John Patrick Shanley from his hit play of the same name. It takes place in 1964 in a Catholic school. Meryl Streep plays the strict and old fashioned principal. Hoffman is a priest and gym teacher who wants a more open atmosphere in the school.

The principal distrusts him and urges and new young teacher, played by Amy Adams, to keep and eye on him. The young teacher suspects the priest has an improper relationship with a 12-year-old boy named Donald Miller who's the school's only African-American student. In this scene, the principal and the young teacher have summoned the priest to talk about the school's Christmas pageant, but they have other things on their minds.

(Soundbite of movie "Doubt")

Ms. MERYL STREEP: (As Sister Aloysius Beauvier) The Christmas pageant. We must be careful how Donald Miller is used.

Mr. PHILIP SEYMOUR HOFFMAN: (As Father Brendan Flynn) Easy there, sister. What about Donald Miller?

Ms. STREEP: (As Sister Aloysius Beauvier) We must be careful in the pageant that we neither hide Donald Miller nor put him forward.

Mr. HOFFMAN: (As Father Brendan Flynn) Because of the color of his skin?

Ms. STREEP: (As Sister Aloysius Beauvier) That's right.

Mr. HOFFMAN: (As Father Brendan Flynn) Why?

Ms. STREEP: (As Sister Aloysius Beauvier) Come, father.

Mr. HOFFMAN: I think he should be treated like every other boy.

Ms. STREEP: (As Sister Aloysius Beauvier) Well, you yourself singled the boy out for special attention. You held a private meeting with him at the rectory a week ago.

Ms. AMY ADAMS: (As Sister James) Yes.

Mr. HOFFMAN: (As Father Brendan Flynn) Who are we talking about?

Ms. ADAMS: (As Sister James) Donald Miller.

Ms. STREEP: (As Sister Aloysius Beauvier) The boy acted strangely when he returned to class.

Mr. HOFFMAN: (As Father Brendan Flynn) He did?

Ms. ADAMS: (As Sister James) When he returned from the rectory, a little odd, yes.

Ms. STREEP: (As Sister Aloysius Beauvier) Can you tell us why?

Mr. HOFFMAN: (As Father Brendan Flynn) How did he act strangely?

Ms. ADAMS: (As Sister James) He - I'm not sure how to explain it. He - he laid his head on the desk and so...

Mr. HOFFMAN: (As Father Brendan Flynn) Do you mean you had some impression?

Ms. ADAMS: (As Sister James) Yes.

Mr. HOFFMAN: (As Father Brendan Flynn) And he'd come from the rectory, so you're asking me?

Ms. ADAMS: (As Sister James) That's it.

Mr. HOFFMAN: (As Father Brendan Flynn) Hm.

Ms. STREEP: (As Sister Aloysius Beauvier) Hm.

(Soundbite of clearing throat)

Mr. HOFFMAN: (As Father Brendan Flynn) Did you want to discuss the pageant? Is that why I'm here? Or is this is what you wanted to discuss?

Ms. STREEP: (As Sister Aloysius Beauvier) This.

(Soundbite of WHYY's Fresh Air, December 10, 2008)

GROSS: Philip Seymour Hoffman, welcome back to Fresh Air.

Mr. HOFFMAN: Thanks for having me.

GROSS: The story in "Doubt" is all about doubt versus certainty, about whether you are a predator or a protective mentor. And the audience is left with doubts about this, too.

Mr. HOFFMAN: Mm hmm.

GROSS: Do you have to know when you're performing in this film if you abused the boy or not?

Mr. HOFFMAN: Yeah, yeah, because if I didn't, I'd be playing the janitor or something, you know.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: But that's what I was wondering, right.

Mr. HOFFMAN: You know what I mean. It's …

GROSS: Yeah, I do know what you mean.

Mr. HOFFMAN: I get that question a lot, and it's odd, because I've never gotten that question about any other part I've played because everyone - every other part just assumes because I'm playing the part. But for here, people somehow think I'm an audience member when actually - no - I played the guy. So, I have to have filled in his history, but that history is mine, and I would never share it because it would just so destroy the experience of the moviegoer. But yes, I do have to fill that history in, in the way that I feel is - that I found more - most compelling.

GROSS: So, you're confident that you know what the character - what your character did and didn't do. Do you know that because you decided or because you spoke to the playwright, John Patrick Shanley, and he told you?

Mr. HOFFMAN: Well, he - I mean, again - again, I have to know because I'm playing the man, or else he'd be psychotic.

GROSS: An amnesiac. Yes or psychotic.

Mr. HOFFMAN: Yeah, I'd be playing a guy who has a memory problem...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HOFFMAN: Which is so, you know, he then - and he's not psychotic, and he doesn't have a memory problem. So, you know, John - I - yeah, I talked to John in private, and he - you know, we had a conversation about it. And I took what was helpful from that and what I was thinking about and kind of filled it in. And it's a wonderful thing, because it really could be anything. You know, it's this amazing thing how he set it up where, you know, the stakes are so high that you realize if the stakes are so high that it could be anything, it could be so many things.

And that's what I found so interesting, because ultimately it becomes about his past. Do you know what I mean? Because she says that she's delved into his past, when we find out later that that's not true. But he's led to believe that she did. So, he's really - he could be hiding something from his past that has nothing to do with anything that she's accusing him of. And I just found that fascinating and I could really, you know, use my imagination.

GROSS: Since you were privy to some of the playwright-dash-screenwriter's thoughts on what your character did and didn't do, was Meryl Streep privy to those thoughts, too, or was she kept in the dark as her character?

Mr. HOFFMAN: No, of course not.

GROSS: Uh huh.

Mr. HOFFMAN: Of course not, no. No, Meryl - no one.

GROSS: No one but you?

Mr. HOFFMAN: Yeah, yeah. I mean, again, the fact that she would even be privy to anything like that would be detrimental.

GROSS: So did...

Mr. HOFFMAN: Because then she would know something, and she shouldn't know anything.

GROSS: Did you talk about…

Mr. HOFFMAN: Because she doesn't know anything.

GROSS: Did you talk about scenes with her before doing them?

Mr. HOFFMAN: Yeah, the scenes we were in.

GROSS: So, what kind of discussion do you have about a scene before doing it when you're working with her?

Mr. HOFFMAN: Well, you're with a director, too, so it's not like it's - you're talking about it through a director and together, you know. And it's a lot of problem solving, you know, how do I get from here to there? How do I get from that beat to that beat and what's the event, you know? What's our relationship? How long have we been working here, you know? When did we first meet? When did this start, this antagonism, you know? What - was it that something else that happened? Where did I come from, you know? Those are all things that, you know, you talk about and - but that very issue of whether, you know, what she's accusing him of is true or not? Never, because I wouldn't, because I won't, because it doesn't happen.

GROSS: The late Anthony Minghella directed you in a couple of films - "Cold Mountain" and "The Talented Mr. Ripley." And he was quoted in an article as saying this about you: Philip is an extraordinary actor, cursed sometimes by his own gnawing intelligence, his own discomfort with acting. Does that sound right to you that you have like…

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: …your intelligence is sometimes like a curse, and that you're uncomfortable sometimes with acting?

Mr. HOFFMAN: I miss him.

GROSS: I bet you do.

Mr. HOFFMAN: I really do.

GROSS: Yeah.

Mr. HOFFMAN: I really do. Wow. You took me by surprise with that. I know - you know, I think I'm as intelligent as the next guy. I think that the amount of concentration, sometimes the amount of personal exploration it takes to do something well, can be not pleasant, you know, like hard work is. That doesn't mean that you don't want to do it or that you don't love it or that it's not ultimately satisfying. You know that old cliche - you know, nothing's worth it unless it's hard to do kind of thing. I wear that on my sleeve sometimes when I'm working.

And I think because I trusted Anthony so much and I think - you know, and he got to know me, you know, like all really, really fine directors do; they allow you to be who you are. The best and the worst of you is allowed to show up at work, and they are OK with that because they know that they need it and that the actor needs an environment of trust, and he was one of those people. So he gets to know me probably better than some people that might have known me longer. So he's probably referring to that, and he's a very intelligent man and obviously very insightful, and he's right. You know, I think I do wear that discomfort of sometimes the process, that - the creative process of something and how sometimes it's not pleasant on my sleeve, and I think that's what's he's talking about.

GROSS: What is that discomfort with?

Mr. HOFFMAN: Well, you know, it's - you're - when you're shooting a film, the day can be 10, 12 hours long, usually. And you have to stay in a certain place through that time because you're - at any moment, you'll be called to do what you do. And you've done a lot of work and prepared a lot of things, and the level of concentration it takes to kind of keep those plates in the air is - it can be - that's what's tiring about the job. Like any job, everything has - there's always something about that job that's exhausting, and that's what's exhausting about acting, is the level of concentration over a very long period of time.

And if there's something emotional about what you're doing that day, you're carrying that emotion on one level or another for a long period of time. If you think about life, first off, we don't want to - we're not too introspective. We don't walk around our lives just constantly trying to delve into the understanding of ourselves unless you're in therapy or something. And - but that's what actors do, you know? We really explore ourselves and other people and all that stuff.

And if you're carrying that around and the emotional life of that around over a period of time, it can be burdensome. But it's part of the work, and you're trying to create something artful out of it. And so, it's not therapy. So, you're not there to be in thera - you're there to take, you know, what you know and the experiences and behavior and emotional life of yourself and others and try to make something artful out of it. But the carrying of that around and the focusing of that can be - it can be tough.

GROSS: Have you been in therapy? And if so, was that useful or not for acting?

Mr. HOFFMAN: No. I've never been to therapy for acting.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: No, no. I don't mean therapy for acting but therapy.

Mr. HOFFMAN: Buy you know - but that would be my answer though, you know what I mean?

GROSS: Oh, OK. OK. Fair enough.

Mr. HOFFMAN: (Laughing) No, but I've never been in therapy for acting, that's for sure.

(Soundbite of laughter)

DAVIES: Philip Seymour Hoffman speaking with Terry Gross. More after a break. This is Fresh Air.

(Soundbite of music)

DAVIES: Let's get back to Terry's interview with Philip Seymour Hoffman recorded in December. Hoffman is nominated for an Oscar for his role in the movie "Doubt."

(Soundbite of WHYY's Fresh Air, December 10, 2008)

GROSS: Let's talk about your performance that won the Oscar for Best Actor in 2006, and this is the film "Capote" in which you played Truman Capote. What it's like to play somebody who's real and we have documentation of how he looked and sounded? When you agreed to take the role, were you at all worried that you would end up doing, like, an impersonation as opposed to, you know, that kind of interior acting that you're used to doing?

Mr. HOFFMAN: Well, it's - I wasn't worried about that because I'm not good at impersonation, so I knew that I wouldn't be able - I knew that that wouldn't (Laughing) be my forte, you know. I think there's other people that probably do a much better - and that do a much better impersonation of Truman Capote than I ever will. I just knew because his behavior is so extreme that I had to have some semblance of what it was, some sense of behavior and voice that - what it was, so people would follow me, you know. So, I got a sense of it to the best of my ability that still allowed me to connect to an inner life and of my understanding that his would be and just kind of jumped, you know, and went for it.

But no, I was never scared of that, because I knew I never really would do that as well as I would hopefully do the acting of the part, you know. I had to let go of that after a certain point. But I knew I had to do something. And so what you see is as specific as I could get and still be able to act the part as well as possible, because that stuff isn't really acting. That stuff is technical stuff that you kind of have to weave into the personal life and the intention and the drive and the passion of the character.

GROSS: Let's talk about the technical stuff for a moment, like developing the voice that you used for "Capote." How did you find the voice you were going to use?

Mr. HOFFMAN: By just watching stuff on him, you know what I mean? And just kind of - I have a very low voice, lower than most, and I - it's not very singsong-y. And I remember the first time I - you know, I'd heard him before when I was kid on the "Tonight Show" and stuff I guess, but it had been a while, you know. And so when Bennett showed me this documentary about the...

GROSS: This is the director?

Mr. HOFFMAN: Yeah, Bennett Miller. I remember he put it on, and I was just like, oh, Christ! Oh, no. And I literally thought like, oh, this is a disaster. What did I do? I mean literally I was like, what did I do? Because I had already said yes. And I was kind of a - my head went - my head bowed, you know.

GROSS: Because what?

Mr. HOFFMAN: Because it was so extreme. I - the minute I saw him and saw his behavior and saw him talk and I was just like, I'm never going to be able to get a sense of that, to get people to follow me, you know. And then I just started - I said, all right, you know, and I just got all the tapes I could - audiotapes, videotapes - and I just started training in a way, you know, to get as close as I could a sense of his behavior, you know.

And that - it's like - because all you have to do is really get close enough, you know, get a sense of something, and the people kind of will, you know - people go - they see - and they'll immediately. It's - you're getting a sense of something and there's a true - and there's true acting going on, they give over, you know what I mean, because they want to give over, because what they're watching is true.

The impersonation is really not interesting anymore. It's really about your belief in the circumstances of this character and what they're going through and that you buy that story and that character's journey, as long as what you're doing is honest. And so my - you know, that was just me doing the best I could to facilitate that transfer of belief, you know, that leap of faith for everybody in the audience.

GROSS: Why don't we hear a scene from the film? I mean - and the film "Capote" dramatizes the period of Truman Capote's life when he's writing "In Cold Blood," his non-fiction book about two killers who massacred a family in cold blood. And so, in this scene, you're in prison visiting with one of the alleged killers, Perry Smith, played by Clifton Collins, Jr. And you've kind of befriended him and, you know, your friendship is paying off because the more of a friendship there is, the more comfortable he feels with you, the more he tells you about himself. And you've also just done him a favor. You've found a lawyer - a different lawyer for him, and he's very grateful for that. And this scene happens just after you've hit on the title "In Cold Blood" for your book. So, here you are in the prison cell with Perry Smith right after you've found him the lawyer, and he's grateful.

(Soundbite of movie "Capote")

Mr. CLIFTON COLLINS, JR.: (As Perry Smith) Thank you.

Mr. HOFFMAN: (As Truman Capote) Hey, it's as much for me as for anyone. I couldn’t bear the thought of losing you so soon.

Mr. COLLINS: (As Perry Smith) We're going to be able to use your book for our case. You'll write we never got to raise an insanity plea. You wrote how terrible the lawyers was.

Mr. HOFFMAN: (As Truman Capote) I haven't written a word yet.

Mr. COLLINS: (As Perry Smith) What have you been doing?

Mr. HOFFMAN: (As Truman Capote) Research, talking to you.

Mr. COLLINS: (As Perry Smith) All right.

Mr. HOFFMAN: (As Truman Capote) I had hoped…

Mr. COLLINS: (As Perry Smith) What are you calling it?

Mr. HOFFMAN: (As Truman Capote) The book? I have no idea. Perry, if I'm going to write about you, if I'm going to determine how to write about you, we need to talk about, you know, why you're here - hm - you know, the murders that night at the Cutter house. Do you worry what I think? Is that it?

Mr. COLLINS: (As Perry Smith) Dick says you know Elizabeth Taylor.

Mr. HOFFMAN: (As Truman Capote) I know a lot of people. Perry, I have invitations to be in Morocco and Greece. And I prefer to be here with you.

GROSS: That's Philip Seymour Hoffman as Truman Capote in the film "Capote." That's the role he won an Oscar for. You play Capote with this really interesting mix of, like, empathy and manipulation, and it's hard to tell where one ends and the other begins.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Did you read a lot about Capote before figuring out how to portray him and what you thought his limitations were?

Mr. HOFFMAN: Yeah. Yeah, I did, and it was helpful because what you said I think is very accurate. I don't think you could tell what his empathy - where his empathy ended and where his manipulation began. I think that became worse and worse. It became more and more detrimental and affected a lot of people, you know. There's a lot of people that I've run into since I made the movie who knew him, who either adored him or hated him. There wasn't many middle ground - (Laughing) a lot of middle ground.

And that scene is a perfect example - that scene he's lying. He's lying. He's just lying. It's the beginning of the really harsh betrayal, you know, and not that, you know, Perry Smith needs, you know, empathy. But the fact that Truman Capote was getting - was empathetic and was getting close to this person and was ultimately using this person for his own gain, he - that lying started to become something that was soul-eating, you know. It was - it was - that's the movie, you know. And in that scene, you see him being incredibly empathetic, but his empathy is littered with lies right to his face. So, it's a very troubling story, very troubling character, you know, and yeah, all that stuff I wanted to know about, you know, and all the ways he kind of did it. And I did read and talk to people and stuff like that.

DAVIES: Philip Seymour Hoffman speaking with Terry Gross. Hoffman's nominated for an Oscar for his role in the movie "Doubt." He'll be back in the second half of the show. I'm Dave Davies and this is Fresh Air.

(Soundbite of music)

(Soundbite of ads)

(Soundbite of Fresh Air preview)

(Soundbite of music)

DAVIES: This is Fresh Air. I'm Dave Davies filling in for Terry Gross. Let's get back to Terry's interview with actor Philip Seymour Hoffman. He's up for an Oscar as Best Supporting Actor for his role as the priest in the film "Doubt."

(Soundbite of WHYY's Fresh Air, December 10, 2008)

GROSS: Now, before you started acting, you were a wrestler in high school. I mean, that was, I think, your main sport?

Mr. HOFFMAN: I was a wrestler - baseball was my thing. I was a baseball player till I was probably, like, a sophomore. And I was a wrestler seventh, eighth and ninth grade. And it was in ninth grade when I was on the junior varsity wrestling team - that's when I injured myself. And that's when I started going out for plays, but I was - yeah, I was a big athlete up till like freshmen, sophomore year of high school. I loved sports. I still love sports. Sports is still a huge passion of mine. I was a baseball, football, wrestled - football only two years, though. I didn't like getting hit.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: What was your injury when you were a wrestler?

Mr. HOFFMAN: It was a neck injury. I was in a neck brace for a while. I almost had to have surgery on it. It was a serious thing that, you know, basically the doctors just said, you know, you really - you can't get hurt like that again. You know, it was kind of - he was saying, there's enough of a weakness that's in your neck now because of that that, you know. So, I didn't wrestling anymore. I probably would have kept doing it if I hadn't got injured. Anyway, I went out for a play, and the rest kind of just unfolded, you know?

GROSS: So, did the neck injury that made you give up wrestling lead to acting?

Mr. HOFFMAN: Well, that - I just, you know - because I went to the theater when I was young with my mother. It always comes back to the mother, doesn't it?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HOFFMAN: My mother took me to the theater when I was probably - started - seriously started taking me when I was probably 12. And she took me to the, you know, the Geva Theatre in Rochester, New York, which was the Equity house there. It was in a small house at that time, and the first play I saw was "All My Sons." So, she took me to serious stuff, new plays, you know, stuff - American classics and stuff like that. So - and I just adored it. I thought it was a miracle. I thought it was magic, you know? I just couldn't get enough of it.

But I was still, you know - there wasn't anything I wanted to do. I just thought, I'm just going to go to theater all my life and, you know, and maybe watch baseball (Laughing), you know. And so when I injured my neck, my mom was like, go out for a play, you know? She has huge passion. She has huge passion for athletics. Huge sports fan. And she's a huge theater fan. So, she was all for it, you know, both and so…

GROSS: So you didn't see a big dichotomy between sports and theater?

Mr. HOFFMAN: No, no. I think they're the same. The same - when I - what it takes to be a great athlete is the same thing it takes to be a great actor, I think - that kind of concentration and kind of privacy in public and that kind of unselfconscious kind of experience are very similar and that kind of pressure of the people watching and finding privacy in front of - and all that stuff. So, you know, I find it very similar.

GROSS: Now, I read - and I don't want to dwell on this - but I read that when you were 22, I think it was right after you got out of the - NYU's Tisch School for the Arts that you had been drinking and using pills and went into rehab. So, I assume that you don't drink anymore, is that - because a lot of people who do that, like, feel like they can't drink. So, my question is, if it's true that you can't drink, what do you do when, like, you see people, like, really enjoying their wine or their beer or their, you know, cognac or whatever - like do you resent it? Do you know what I'm saying? (Laughing) Like, do you have to…

Mr. HOFFMAN: Well, I think...

GROSS: Does it make you feel resentful that there's this like great pleasure out there and, like, you can't have any?

Mr. HOFFMAN: Well, I don't think it's a great pleasure. Do you know what I mean? Meaning like I understand - I mean, I think - I mean I do think it's a great pleasure, (Laughing) but I think that anyone who's enjoying that pleasure too much, you know - (Laughing) I'm always like, OK, well, that's good. I'm glad you're enjoying that, you know. People who don't have a problem with alcohol don't have a problem with alcohol, you know. They have their couple of glasses of wine, and they go on their way. You know what I mean? And that's just the way it is. I'm just not one of those people. So it's, you know - a couple of glasses of wine is, you know, not interesting to me at all. You know what I mean? That's what I meant by it's not a great...

GROSS: Right, right.

Mr. HOFFMAN: It's not always a - it's not a great pleasure for me to have couple of glasses of wine. That just - that's kind of annoying. (Laughing) Do you know what I mean? Like, why aren't you having the whole bottle?

GROSS: Right. I got it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HOFFMAN: (Laughing) That's much more pleasurable. Do you know what I mean? So it's - somebody who doesn't understand that, they just don't understand it. You know, they're just - so if I see somebody really enjoying their one glass of wine and walking away, then that's what they enjoy. So - but I can't be resentful of that, because that's not enjoyable to me.

GROSS: Why have you decided in your career to use three names - Philip Seymour Hoffman?

Mr. HOFFMAN: It's a union thing. I wish it was more romantic or special or obnoxious, but it's not. I was - when I started out, there was another Philip Hoffman - and it's spelled exactly like me - who was successful in musical theater, always on Broadway. And at that time, the union asked you to change your name. And so I thought, well, I'll put my middle initial in, you know. And that wasn't enough. And so eventually, it was either change it - you couldn't change just a letter. I remember all that, going through all that. Because what happens is that you end up getting each other's checks and stuff, like things get messed up.

GROSS: Oh, oh.

Mr. HOFFMAN: And I, in fact, remember back then getting his checks or him getting mine. I remember that actually happening. And so that's why. So, it was like, well, you know, that was my grandfather's name. So I'll put that in there, and we'll go from there.

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

Mr. HOFFMAN: You're welcome. Thanks for having me.

DAVIES: Philip Seymour Hoffman. He's up for an Oscar for his role in the movie "Doubt." Coming up, Dustin Lance Black, who wrote the screenplay for the film "Milk." This is Fresh Air.
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Dustin Lance Black, Inspired By Harvey Milk

DAVE DAVIES, host:

The movie "Milk" has been nominated for eight Academy Awards, including Best Actor for Sean Penn and Best Original Screenplay for our guest, Dustin Lance Black. Black is the writer and executive producer of "Milk," which tells the story of Harvey Milk, who became the first openly gay man to be elected to public office in the U.S. when he won a seat on San Francisco's Board of Supervisors in 1977.

Dustin Lance Black is gay and grew up in a Mormon family. Black drew on his experiences growing up Mormon when he wrote for the HBO series "Big Love." Terry spoke to Black in November. Harvey Milk was assassinated, along with San Francisco Mayor George Moscone, in 1978. The killer was Milk's fellow supervisor, Dan White, who opposed Milk's campaign for gay rights.

Here's a scene from the film. Milk is working to enact an ordinance making it illegal to fire anyone because of their sexual orientation. At the same time, anti-gay rights activist Anita Bryant has been crusading across the country for the repeal of local gay rights ordinances. Milk is talking with his staff, and their conversation is interrupted when supervisor Dan White walks in. White is played by Josh Brolin. Milk is played by Sean Penn.

(Soundbite of movie "Milk")

Mr. SEAN PENN: (As Harvey Milk) OK. First order of business to come out of this office is the citywide gay rights ordinance, just like the one that Anita shot down in Dade County. What do you think, Lotus Blossom?

Mr. KELVIN YU: (As Michael Wong) I think it's good. It's not great.

Mr. PENN: (As Harvey Milk) OK, so make it brilliant. We want Anita's attention here in San Francisco. I want her to bring her fight to us. We need a unanimous vote. We need headlines.

Mr. BRANDON BOYCE: (As Jim Rivaldo) Dan White is not going to vote for this.

Mr. PENN: (As Harvey Milk) Dan White'll be fine. Dan White is just uneducated. We'll teach him.

Mr. JOSH BROLIN: (As Dan White) Hey, Harv, committee meets at 9:30. Hey, you guys. Say, did you get the invitation to my son's christening? I invited a few of the other supes, too.

Mr. PENN: (As Harvey Milk) Oh, well, I'll be there.

Mr. BROLIN: (As Dan White) Great. Thanks.

Mr. JOSEPH CROSS: (As Dick Pabich) Did he hear you?

Mr. BOYCE: (As Jim Rivaldo) What the (bleep)?

Ms. ALISON PILL: (As Anne Kronenberg) Are you going?

Mr. PENN: (As Harvey Milk) I would let him christen me if it means he's going to vote for the gay rights ordinance. We need allies.

Ms. PILL: (As Anne Kronenberg) I think he can hear you.

Mr. PENN: (As Harvey Milk) We need everyone.

Mr. CROSS: (As Dick Pabich) Jesus, I don't think he heard you.

Mr. EMILE HIRSCH: (As Cleve Jones) Is it just me or is he cute?

(Soundbite of WHYY's Fresh Air, November 20, 2008)

GROSS: Dustin Lance Black, welcome to Fresh Air. Would you start by just explaining the place of Harvey Milk in the gay rights movement?

Mr. DUSTIN LANCE BLACK (Writer, Executive Producer, "Milk"): Well, Harvey was sort of a closeted gay man when the gay rights movement started. He was living in New York, and all around him, people were starting to come out and become active in trying to, you know, attain gay rights. And he was still preaching to his longtime boyfriends to stay in the closet. He was sort of uncomfortable of the idea of gay activism for a long, long time. And it was only after he came to San Francisco on a trip that he started to engage in the gay movement. And it took him quite a long time. And he was, you know, in his early 40s when he finally decided he would move permanently to San Francisco and start to get engaged in politics. And it wasn't necessarily gay politics. It was just politics, kind of a populist platform.

GROSS: Well, among the things he did, too, was help start the Castro as a gay neighborhood.

Mr. BLACK: Right, I think most people know Harvey as the first openly gay man elected to public office. There had been two women who had been elected to public office, but he was the first openly gay man. And he did that in the Castro, in San Francisco, and through district elections, which was a new idea then, which was you could be elected in your district as - instead of running citywide.

And a lot of people looked at him as the leader, and he really did, once he took public office, became the leader of the gay movement, this movement which he was very late to join in on, and became a hero through a number of things that he did early on. One of them was passing gay rights legislation for San Francisco. But the other more famous accomplishment was defeating Proposition 6, which would have fired all gay and lesbian teachers in schools, but also all, you know, gay and lesbian people working in schools. So if there was a gay or lesbian janitor, he or she would also be fired.

And it went further. It was also going to fire anyone who supported those gay, lesbian people in the schools. And it looked like it was going to pass in 1978. And Harvey Milk was able to defeat it, and it was a very unexpected win for the gay movement.

GROSS: The framing device of your movie is Harvey Milk speaking into a little microphone at home in his kitchen and recording his voice on his cassette player. And what he's doing is making a tape, reminiscing about his life and his motivations and the movement he helped lead in case he's assassinated. So, this is to be played only if he's assassinated. That's the framing device of your movie. It keeps cutting back to Harvey Milk recording this tape. Was there such a tape in real life?

Mr. BLACK: There was. There was a tape. It was one of the first recordings I ever heard of Harvey. I had someone who had a copy and played it for me, and I put it on a CD and played it in my car over and over because it's so intensely intimate. He does use those exact words at the beginning. You know, the entire opening of the film is directly from the transcripts of that recorded will and - as is the ending.

I thought it was important in this movie to really get inside of, you know, Harvey's head. And Harvey understood that what he was doing was very dangerous and that it could cost him his life, but he did it anyway. That tape was recorded one week after he was elected to public office. I think he was very aware that what he was doing could cost him his life.

He had just moved himself from being a hero - a gay hero for the city of San Francisco to being this national figure by defeating Proposition 6, by defeating Anita Bryant. Anita Bryant, you know, was marching across this country defeating gay and lesbian protections, starting in Florida moving to Wichita, Eugene. And he made the stand in California and surprised, I think, the entire country. So, he had become a national figure, and the bull's eye was on him, and I think he really felt that.

GROSS: He was killed by one of his fellow supervisors, Dan White. And this was somebody who opposed Harvey Milk, he opposed gay rights. And there's the implication in the movie, I think, that Harvey Milk thought that Dan White, who was married and had a baby - that Dan White might be a closeted - deeply closeted gay man who was so in denial about his own identity that it came off as antagonism toward other gay people. Did you mean to imply that? And is there any belief that that was true?

Mr. BLACK: Well, that came from several accounts where Harvey said that to friends and co-workers in City Hall. He mentioned it to a newspaper at one point. But it was all in the last couple of weeks. You know, there's no proof of what Dan White's sexuality was. I don't really have a strong opinion of that. I can never know; I will never know.

You know, Dan White was in over his head in City Hall. He's a very sad man, I think. Whether it came from being closeted, I'm not sure. I'm really not sure. I really tried not to draw any conclusions in that way. I just wanted to observe the man for who he was and what he did, and for the most part, he was just extremely frustrated.

You know, Dan White had spent his life trying to live up to the expectations of a father and a family who had been heroes in San Francisco. His father was very much a hero in the San Francisco Fire Department. And Dan White never attained that. He had been a policeman. He'd been in the Fire Department. He'd been in the Army and gone to Vietnam. You know, he'd tried time and again to be that hero that I think he was expected to be, and he was never able to get there, you know. So in that way, it's like - in that way, I feel for him, but what he did was monstrous and inexcusable.

GROSS: And in addition to assassinating Harvey Milk, he assassinated the mayor of San Francisco, George Moscone.

Mr. BLACK: Right. George Moscone, who was also an ally to the gay movement in a time when it wasn't easy to be an ally to the gay movement - Moscone really stood up for gay and lesbian people in San Francisco. So, he was an ally, too. It was a devastating day - devastating day almost 30 years ago to the day here.

GROSS: Josh Brolin gives a terrific performance as Supervisor Dan White. Sean Penn in the movie gives a great performance as Harvey Milk. Did you watch Sean Penn prepare for the role?

Mr. BLACK: I watched Sean Penn, you know, bring Harvey Milk to life. I was on set every day. What was really exciting about watching Sean prepare for this role was finally having the opportunity to share all of this research I'd been doing for, at that point about four years - almost four years. And I, you know, I had stacks and stacks of research articles, transcripts of all the people that I'd met, and he seemed to be really hungry to see all of it, get through all of it, and to hear Harvey's voice. And it was great to have someone who was that excited to see the things that I'd been so excited to find.

And what he does, you know, behind closed doors, in private, I have no clue, but it really is magical. I mean, he really inhabits the soul of Harvey Milk. I know that on those first days of shooting when he's completely transformed and he's got his hair done and he's in the old secondhand suit, Cleve Jones and Anne Kronenberg were on set - you know, the real life people who were sort of Harvey Milk's protegees - and they had to leave set. Cleve had to go out and get a cigarette because it was just uncanny. It was really uncanny.

GROSS: You're gay, and so is Gus Van Sant who directed the film. And I'm wondering in the casting if you preferred, when possible, to give the parts to gay actors because they'd be playing gay actors or whether that was irrelevant.

Mr. BLACK: No, we talked a lot about that. I think it's very important that, you know, gay actors get to play gay characters, but I think it's also important that gay actors get to play straight characters. And so, we have a lot of that in the film. We have, you know, openly gay people playing fervently straight characters, and we have the opposite. We have straight people playing gay people, which, you know, as we go through that that you know - I think like Dennis O'Hare, who is openly gay, playing homophobe John Briggs is really exciting. And then on the other hand, Sean Penn playing such a wonderful sort of hilarious, beautiful character like Harvey Milk is really fantastic. You get to see these transformations. What I didn't want to see - what was important to me is not to have any closeted gay actors playing, you know, these out gay heroes. I thought that would have been, you know, a travesty.

GROSS: Why? I mean, say they were a great actor. Why would that have bothered you anyways?

Mr. BLACK: Well, I think because it's - it was Harvey's message. I think for other films, I guess it would be fine; that's their right, their right to privacy. But Harvey's message was that gay people will only attain power and equality in this country if they come out. We have to come out and make our voices heard and share our stories and let people know who's being affected. And so, because that was Harvey's message, it just would have been difficult for me to see a closeted actor play Harvey Milk.

GROSS: And in the movie, Harvey Milk also wants people to come out so that straight people will know that they know somebody gay and they'll be more invested in making sure that there isn't discrimination against gays, because they'll understand it's discrimination against their family and friends and colleagues.

Mr. BLACK: Right, I think that's - that was one of the things that - it wasn't just Harvey that came up with that idea, but he really utilized it and utilized it to gain political power and you know, political power for equality, really - just to have equal rights and stop being arrested when you go to a bar or when you're walking down the street with someone that you care about. You know, there are so many gay and lesbian people, and you might not know that you know, you know, as many as you do, but once you do, it's more and more difficult to vote against them, because you do realize that they are your family members.

GROSS: Thank you so much for talking with us, and congratulations on the film.

Mr. BLACK: Oh, thank you so much, Terry.

DAVIES: Dustin Lance Black speaking with Terry Gross. Black is up for an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay for the movie "Milk." Coming up - David Edelstein on the new film "Two Lovers." This is Fresh Air.
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'Two Lovers': Love And Trouble, All In One

DAVE DAVIES, host:

Actor Joaquin Phoenix recently surprised the world by announcing he was retiring from acting to become a rap musician. Then, while promoting his new film on "The Late Show with David Letterman," he squirmed, chewed gum and said almost nothing about the film or anything else. But what about that new film? "Two Lovers" is Phoenix's third with director James Gray. Set in Brooklyn, the film also stars Gwyneth Paltrow. Film critic David Edelstein has this review.

DAVID EDELSTEIN: Joaquin Phoenix prompted a lot of nasty speculation last week for his aggressively taciturn performance on "The Late Show with David Letterman," in which he wore a heavy beard and took his sweet time with his non-answers. Was he on drugs? Is he really giving up acting to be a rapper?

I thought it was obviously a stunt connected to a mock documentary he's allegedly making with his pal, Casey Affleck. And I have no problem with that. It made for better TV than another routine promo appearance. But couldn't Phoenix have done some promotion? At least made it seem as if he gave a hoot about a new movie he obviously put his heart into - James Gray's "Two Lovers"?

Phoenix has acted for Gray three times. The other films are "The Yards" and "We Own the Night," and each performance has been, along with "Walk the Line," a high-water mark in his career. "Two Lovers" deserved better. Phoenix's own performance deserved better. He's stupendous. He plays Leonard, a thirty-something depressive who, after a broken engagement, has moved back with his Jewish family in Brighton Beach, Brooklyn, where he works as a delivery boy for his dad's dry-cleaning store.

In the opening, he attempts suicide - he drops some dry-cleaning he's carrying and jumps off a footbridge. We see him underwater on the verge of drowning, and then he heads back to the surface and lurches home sopping wet. But there's an underwater quality to the whole performance. Phoenix has pudged himself up, and his words come out half-slurred, befogged, with no push. At dinner, he meets Sandra, played by Vinessa Shaw, the daughter of his father's prospective business partner, and sitting with her in his bedroom he recognizes in their meeting a certain inevitability.

(Soundbite of movie "Two Lovers")

Ms. VINESSA SHAW: (As Sandra Cohen) You know, our parents wanted us to meet. Well, no. I have to tell you the truth. Actually, I wanted to meet you.

Mr. JOAQUIN PHOENIX: (As Leonard Kraditor) Hmm?

Ms. SHOW: (As Sandra Cohen) Yeah. I saw you at your parents' store, and I just - you were asking your mother to dance with you. It was very cute.

Mr. PHOENIX: (As Leonard Kraditor) It sounds like something I would do.

EDELSTEIN: Leonard seems likely to yield to the inevitable, but then in his apartment building, a woman backs into his line of sight and, hoo-boy, it's a shiksa goddess. It's Gwyneth Paltrow. And Leonard's attraction to the woman she plays, Michelle, is seismic.

(Soundbite of movie "Two Lovers")

(Soundbite of dog barking)

Unidentified Man: Michelle. Get back up here. Do not disrespect me.

Ms. GWYNETH PALTROW: (As Michelle Rausch) Hi.

Mr. PHOENIX: (As Leonard Kraditor) Hi.

Unidentified Man: Spoiled brat.

Ms. PALTROW: (As Michelle Rausch) Sorry.

Mr. PHOENIX: (As Leonard Kraditor) For what?

Unidentified Man: Don't think you're living up in (unintelligible).

Ms. PALTROW: (As Michelle Rausch) My father, he's - he's a little crazy.

Unidentified Man: (unintelligible) I know it.

Mr. PHOENIX: (As Leonard Kraditor) You OK?

Ms. PALTROW: (As Michelle Rausch) Yeah.

Unidentified Man: Yeah, I can hear your talking. Who you talking to down there?

Ms. PALTROW: (As Michelle Rausch) You live here, right?

Unidentified Man: (unintelligible)

Mr. PHOENIX: (As Leonard Kraditor) Yeah, well, my parents do. I'm staying with them.

Ms. PALTROW: (As Michelle Rausch) Oh, right.

Unidentified Man: Michelle, come back here. Don't be like this.

Mr. PHOENIX: (As Leonard Kraditor) You want to come in for a bit?

Unidentified Man: Honey, (unintelligible).

Ms. PALTROW: (As Michelle Rausch) Yeah, maybe just - that'd be great. Just until he calms down, maybe. I don't want to like everybody to call the cops.

Mr. PHOENIX: (As Leonard Kraditor) Yeah, it's... I'm Leonard.

Ms. PALTROW: (As Michelle Rausch) I'm Michelle…

Mr. PHOENIX: (As Leonard Kraditor) You're Michelle…

Ms. PALTROW: (As Michelle Rausch) Yeah...

Mr. PHOENIX: (As Leonard Kraditor) Yeah…

Ms. PALTROW: (As Michelle Rausch) (unintelligible).

EDELSTEIN: It's not her dad, it's her married lover she's dodging. And for much of the film, Leonard trails after the flighty Michelle and listens to her romantic woes while remaining half-heartedly involved with Sandra, the nice Jewish girl he's clearly supposed to marry. In outline, "Two Lovers" resembles the original "The Heartbreak Kid," but the social satire is absent, and so is the social climate. Leonard wants Michelle because she represents freedom from his prescribed destiny.

Director James Gray has a bit of a self-indulgent drama queen in him, but the worlds he creates have weight and texture. You understand why his heroes have such a hard time not going with the flow. Instead of shallow, overbearing parents, he gives us thoughtful and sensitive ones whose only fault is being too fearful for their son's happiness. Isabella Rossellini plays Leonard's mother, and because of who she is, you can't see her as one of those smothering, anti-life-force Jewish moms out of Philip Roth, Woody Allen and Neil Simon. She's beautiful and cultured, and her love is selfless.

And Vinessa Shaw's Sandra, is domestic bliss on a platter. But Leonard, in spite of everything, wants the crazy blonde. Gwyneth Paltrow makes Michelle at once radiant and toxic, ditzy with a dangerous sense of entitlement. What makes her alluring is that we see her through Phoenix's yearning eyes as Leonard trails her and clutches at her hand. She's like an E.T. in a Spielberg movie. He thinks she can transport him out of his miserable underwater life to another realm. It's daft, but Phoenix makes those longings momentous. That's what's depressing about last week's TV appearance. On screen, Phoenix can make lack of direction fiercely poetic, but on "Letterman," it was only schtick.

DAVIES: David Edelstein is film critic for New York Magazine. Fresh Air's executive producer is Danny Miller, our engineer is Audrey Bentham. Dorothy Ferebee is our administrative assistant. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. Our digital production project supervisor is Julian Herzfeld. For Terry Gross, I'm Dave Davies.
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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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