DATE July 2, 2001 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
PROGRAM Fresh Air
Interview: Author Walter Kirn talks about his new book "Up in the
Air" and about airport and airline culture
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
If you're flying this holiday week, I hope you're on a flight that serves
than pretzels and that if you're stuck at the airport, it at least has some
shops and restaurants to help you kill time. A good book might help. My
guest, Walter Kirn, has written a new novel called "Up in the Air," that's a
satire about airports and airplanes and the airlines that control every
of your life when you travel. "Up in the Air" is about a business traveler
who virtually lives in what he describes as `air world' and has come to feel
most at home there. His ambition is to earn one million frequent flier
and he's close to achieving it. Walter Kirn is the literary editor of GQ
a contributing editor to Time and Vanity Fair. Let's start with a short
reading from "Up in the Air."
Mr. WALTER KIRN: `Planes and airports are where I feel at home; everything
fellows like you dislike about them. The dry, recycled air alive with
viruses, the salty food that seems drizzled with warm mineral oil, the
aura-sapping artificial lighting has grown dear to me over the years;
familiar, sweet. I love the Compass Club lounges in the terminals,
the flagship Denver club with its digital juice dispenser and deep suede
and floor-to-ceiling views of taxi-ing aircraft. I love the restaurants and
snack nooks near the gates, stacked to their heat lamps with whole-wheat
pizzas and gourmet caramel rolls.
`I even enjoy the sweet hotels built within sight of the runways on the ring
roads, which are sometimes as close as I get to the cities that my job
requires me to visit. I favor rooms with kitchenettes and conference tables
and once I cooked a Christmas feast in one, serving glazed ham and sweet
potato pie to a dozen janitors and maids. They ate with me in rotation on
their breaks, one or two at a time, so I really got to know them, even
most spoke no English. I have a gift that way.
`If you and I hadn't hit it off like this; if they only words we'd passed
"that's my seat" or "done with that BusinessWeek" or just "excuse me," I'd
still regard us as close acquaintances and hope that if we met again up
we wouldn't be starting from zero as just two suits. Twice last October I
in the same row on different routes, as 1989's Miss USA, the one who remade
herself as a Washington hostess and supposedly works non-stop for voting
rights. In person, she's tiny, barely over five feet. I put her carry-on
the overhead. But you know some of this already. You fly, too. It just
hasn't hooked you. You just don't study it. Hey, you're probably the
GROSS: That's Walter Kirn reading from his new novel, "Up in the Air."
Walter Kirn, how did you start studying airline culture?
Mr. KIRN: A few years ago I was on a plane, upgraded to first class for
unknown reason, and I sat down next to a businessman and, to make
conversation, I asked him where he lived. And he said, `Well, right here.'
And I said, `Well, what do you mean by that?' And it came out that the man
had no home. He traveled on business and lived from hotel to hotel. And
airplanes and airports, as in the book, were really his turf. And I asked
him, after a while, how he managed to live like this. `Wasn't it
depressing?' and so on. No, he seemed satisfied and even happy with his
And after I got off the plane I thought, `Now what kind of life would that
be?' And over the years I sort of filled in the blanks and the result was
GROSS: Well, you've kind of defined a whole culture as `air world.'
Mr. KIRN: Mm-hmm.
GROSS: Describe the culture to us.
Mr. KIRN: Well, `air world' is that conglomeration of places that are
no place, including airports, the hotels that are just off the runways that
serve them, the rental-car counter, the whole sort of attempt to satisfy the
fliers' needs without any particular offense or any particular flavor. I
mean, in air world you can come from Dallas, Minneapolis, Philadelphia or
York and know where you are, know what's on offer, know how to get it and
you're going to get.
GROSS: And you write that the hometown papers of `air world' are USA Today
and The Wall Street Journal.
Mr. KIRN: Exactly. Everything is standardized. Everything goes down
It's as though the only restaurant in the world were McDonald's and the only
hotel in the world was a Holiday Inn. And, you know, people have to be able
to rest and feel comfortable and feel at home at any moment at any time and
the result has been this kind of placeless place that I call `air world.'
GROSS: One of the things I found interesting of your whole description of
`air world' is that in defining this culture of `air world,' you've taken
of the more alienating, contemporary experiences, flying...
Mr. KIRN: Right.
GROSS: ...an experience in which everyone is a stranger to each other on
Mr. KIRN: Mm-hmm.
GROSS: And everyone is uncomfortable and you've turned it into this
community. I mean, it's not really a community, but, you know, for the
purposes of this novel it's become this, like, anti-community community.
Mr. KIRN: Well, it is a community. I mean, human beings are amazingly
adaptable. You bring in a new technology or you force people to live in a
environment and they find ways to do it. And my character has made friends
with the people who, you know, sell the juice at the counter, a person who
gives the little chair massages in the terminal. He knows the flight
attendants by name. I talked to a traveler once who said, `I knew I was in
trouble. I knew I was flying too much when I walked through the Minneapolis
airport and found myself waving to everyone.'
GROSS: Now do you fly a lot?
Mr. KIRN: I fly probably twice a month. Journalism brings me out of my
Montana home out into `air world' pretty regularly. And it's a place--`air
world' is a place that shows up in high relief when you live on a Montana
GROSS: Which is where you live.
Mr. KIRN: Exactly.
Mr. KIRN: It could be a--it couldn't be more foreign or more alien. And,
know, when you talk about it being an alienating environment, one of the
thoughts behind the novel was if a man's going to have a nervous
breakdown--and, in a way, that's what this book is about--what is the worst
place he could possibly have it? And I thought, on a plane, in an airport.
You're already half way there to psychosis.
GROSS: And what brings you halfway there to psychosis?
Mr. KIRN: First of all, I think the lighting.
Mr. KIRN: Yeah, it's--it's--you know, it's sort of like what they say about
Las Vegas. You never know what time it is. In fact, someone once posed a
riddle to me. `What time is it in the Denver airport?' And I said, `Well,
you know, whatever time it says on the clock.' But he said, `No, there are
people there who came from Europe that morning and people who are just in
from another time zone and the lighting shows no sign of weather, sun,
whatever. It's--you know, it's always. It's a little eternity in there; a
kind of hellish little eternity.'
GROSS: Right, right. I managed to read your novel, "Up in the Air," while
in the air. In my airflight magazine, on the same day I was reading your
book, the back page--I was shocked. It had an ad for enhancing your breast
size and another one for male virility-enhanced guaranteed. I thought
that was--were kind of shocking for airline magazines.
Mr. KIRN: Well, that's an odd syndrome. I think when people get on planes
they start to think about improving themselves. They start to think about
get reflective and meditative about where are they going in life? What are
they doing in life? And they're prey to these ads for, like you say, you
know, breast-enhancing creams and vocabulary-enhancing tape courses. And
you'll see those magazines are often aimed at businessmen who are insecure
about their negotiating skills and there'll be an ad for a seminar on
negotiating or whatever. I think people get a sense of possibility when
they're on a plane--even romantic possibility, wondering if the perfect
is going to sit down next to them or something.
GROSS: Now although your main character lives in `air world' and seems to
have kind of bonded with airline culture, he also realizes he hates the
airlines. The main airline in your novel is called Great West.
Mr. KIRN: Mm-hmm.
GROSS: And your character says, `For years Great West has been my boss, my
sergeant, dictating where I went and if I went; deciding what I ate and if I
ate.' Tell me about writing that sentence and writing that sense of how, if
you fly a lot, you feel like the airline really is controlling your life.
Mr. KIRN: Well, you know...
GROSS: Even when you can go to the bathroom.
Mr. KIRN: Air travel is infantilizing. You're totally dependent on often
unseen people; you know, the pilot behind that curtain up front. What's
served; you don't know until you sit down. And for the sort of high-powered
people who do a lot of business travel, it's a curious thing. They're
so in control and so powerful in their lives and used to ordering people
around and, here, they're really being told where to sit; you know, what
of beer they can drink and when they're getting there or if they're getting
there. And I think that breeds a strange sort of bitterness and resentment
and hostility, you know. You see these flare-ups of air rage in the news
nowadays and it's no surprise. They're, like, the way infants rail at their
parents. You're so powerless in that environment.
GROSS: One of the things about airports that your character does not like
the art. A lot of airports now have, like, little art displays as you're
leaving the gate. And the strangest one I saw was a collection of Madeleine
Mr. KIRN: Wow.
Mr. KIRN: Where was that?
GROSS: I can't remember which airport it was.
Mr. KIRN: Well, you know, it's a strange challenge these airport designers
have. They have to find things that are diverting to the average person;
sort of common denominator American. And they have no idea, so they put out
things like secretary of State's brooches and strange, abstract art that's
sort of not particularly compelling to anyone, but not offensive to anyone,
GROSS: My guest is Walter Kirn. His new satirical novel is called "Up in
the Air." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: My guest is Walter Kirn. His new novel is called "Up in the Air"
it's about life in the air and what Kirn describes as `air world.'
Now your main character is a career-transition counselor, which he describes
as a fancy term for coaching people to understand job loss as an opportunity
for personal and spiritual growth. What's his job like and what do you know
about that kind of work? You're a writer, so you're not in that corporate
Mr. KIRN: Well, you know, what do writers know about anything? Only what
they pick up off the ground, really. This is a real profession. These
people--these career-transition counselors come in when a company is
downsizing and they immediately take in hand the discharged executive and
attempt to convince her or him that things aren't so bad. They shouldn't
the company. No, they're not being discriminated against and here's the way
to find a new job. And they sort of coach them through the process, hoping
against hope, that the person won't become despondent or angry or whatever
it's a real profession nowadays and I've seen these people operate,
at some of the places I've worked, some of the magazines I've worked.
GROSS: And why did you want to give this job of career-transition
to your main character?
Mr. KIRN: Well, I mean, because he's in a kind of limbo, personally, and in
the way he lives. And his job is, really, to make limbo tolerable to other
people. He's found a special sort of talent in himself, which is to feel
comfortable not knowing where he's going and in between places. And so it's
natural that that talent would come out in counseling people who are in
between jobs, in between stations in life. It's a job that he comes to
loathe, but it's a job that he's especially suited for.
GROSS: Your character looks at a lot of advertising, you know...
Mr. KIRN: Mm-hmm.
GROSS: ...through television and magazines.
Mr. KIRN: Mm-hmm.
GROSS: And he says, `I know of no pleasure more reliable than consuming a
great American brand against the backdrop featured in its advertising; like
swigging a Coke on the beach in Malibu.'
Mr. KIRN: Mm-hmm.
GROSS: I was thinking, you know, since you write for magazines--you've
written for New York, for Vanity Fair. GQ is where you are now.
Mr. KIRN: Mm-hmm.
GROSS: You've written for Time magazine. Your work is always surrounded by
the kind of advertising you're describing there.
Mr. KIRN: Yeah. Well, you know, I, in a way, wanted to create a character
who's comfortable with all the things that the intelligentsia in America is
not comfortable with, i.e. the, you know, vast and oppressive consumer
culture. And he's a guy who, for whatever reason, accepts what comes to him
and feels comforted by being part of the mass market. And, you know, I
that's an emotion that people suppress. I--in America, we're constantly
surrounded by these pitches and appeals and product images. And though they
put us off a lot of the time, at certain times we feel sort of privileged
secure because they're almost like mantras or, you know, recurring dreams.
And this guy's made his peace with the kind of commercial culture that a lot
of us pooh-pooh.
GROSS: Because your character is surrounded by this culture of advertising
and franchise food and how-to cassettes and self-improvement stuff...
Mr. KIRN: Mm-hmm.
GROSS: ...did you have to immerse yourself in some of that, too, just so
could get all the language right?
Mr. KIRN: Yeah, I did. I mean, it's--we're immersed in it anyway. Really,
all I had to do was notice how immersed I already am. Once you're alert to
and not filtering it out, it's sort of the air you breathe and this was a
that really came about not through doing research or digging, but through
waking up to the fact that I lived in this sort of miasma of messages and
images, which I often felt superior to and ignored. But suddenly I decided
wake up to it; sort of like Andy Warhol became comfortable with the Campbell
Soup can, you know. It wasn't as though he'd never been to a supermarket.
just suddenly looked at a supermarket and went, `Wait. Art can happen here,
GROSS: So what were some of the things that started to strike you as
interesting, instead of filtering them out?
Mr. KIRN: Well, one thing that struck me about `air world' is that it's a
class system in a way that most of America isn't. We like to think of
ourselves as a democracy and egalitarian, but you get to `air world' and
there's a rating and a level for everyone, you know. You see the cards they
whip out at the ticket counter. `I'm a Gold Medallion member' or `I'm a
Medallion Member Plus and that entitles me to X, Y, Z.' And there are all
these distinctions being made out there between types of people and better
better customers and, you know, the kind of pillow you're going to get or
the--whether you'll get your glass cup or your plastic cup. And that class
system in `air world' I found interesting.
GROSS: Oh, it's so true. And they even call it `class.' I mean, it's like
first class or coach class. I mean, you know what class you're in and what
privileges that class allows you.
Mr. KIRN: Exactly.
GROSS: Or what miseries you're in store for.
Mr. KIRN: Well, I mean, the higher classes sort of allow the miseries to
abate somewhat, though not disappear.
GROSS: Well, a shrimp cocktail will do a lot to abate misery, yeah.
Mr. KIRN. Exactly. And people cling to those little perks...
GROSS: That's right.
Mr. KIRN: ...when they're traveling in a sort of horribly pathetic way, you
know. I've noticed that the few times I've traveled first class, myself,
you've already got your drink and you're coat has been taken by the time the
rest of the passengers file on. And it's hard not to feel sorry for them.
They're sort of trooping past you like cows to slaughter and you're sitting
there in your, you know, wide-bodied seat. And the funny about that class
system is it's not really based on money. You know, some of these guys
make more money who ride in first class. They just fly a lot and so the
airplane--you know, the airline puts them up. And so it's the one time in
their life they get to feel on top of the heap and they take it for all it's
GROSS: You know, I used to really envy the people in first class because I
figured that these people have so much money they could afford those
absolutely absurd ticket prices for first class. And then I realized, no,
they're using frequent flier miles.
Mr. KIRN: Yeah.
GROSS: And I started feeling sorry for them 'cause I realized sitting in
first class means you're flying so much that you've racked up enough miles
be able to sit there.
Mr. KIRN: Exactly. And my character is nothing, if not obsessed, with
accumulating frequent flier miles. In fact, I think it's where he draws his
self-esteem. You know, when it goes up from 800,000 to 900,000 miles, he
feels that much better about himself and his place in the world. And once
you're immersed in that world, they do become a kind of a status symbol. I
can't tell you how many conversations I've heard between people sort of
comparing miles in a `my dog is better than your dog' sort of way.
GROSS: The narrator of your story tells the story as if he's addressing the
person sitting next to him on a plane.
Mr. KIRN: Yes.
GROSS: Do you strike up conversations on planes with the person next to
Mr. KIRN: Well, I did for purposes of researching this book, but, in
nothing horrifies me more than to be seated next to a talkative, you know,
vibrant person who won't let me read my magazine. And I think that's a kind
of nightmare for a lot of people. But my character is sort of a worst-case
scenario in that way. He has no other human contact than the people he sits
next to on planes and so he has to bond with absolutely everyone.
GROSS: Oh, and he's thinking, `Maybe the woman in 3B is my soul mate.'
Mr. KIRN: Well, you know, in the old days we had this romance of shipboard
travel; that you got on a ship and sort of went first class and you were
to find romance or love somewhere along the way. Well, he has that attitude
toward airplanes. And, you know, in a sense, everybody's single when
on an airplane, espec--if they're not traveling with their family.
Everybody's sort of--it's the great singles bar in the air. And this guy
looks at it that way.
GROSS: Walter Kirn; his new satirical novel is called "Up in the Air."
He'll be back in the second half of the show.
We'll end this half with music by tenor saxophonist Joe Henderson. He died
heart failure Saturday at the age of 64. We'll hear a track that we often
play on FRESH AIR, "Isfahan," from Joe Henderson's 1992 CD of the music of
(Soundbite of Joe Henderson playing "Isfahan")
(Soundbite of Henderson playing)
GROSS: Coming up, we continue our conversation with Walter Kirn, author of
the satirical novel "Up in the Air."
Also, former casting director Joanna Merlin. She cast many of Harold
Broadway productions and Bertolucci's film, "The Last Emperor." She's
a new guide for auditioning actors.
(Soundbite of Henderson playing)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with Walter Kirn. His new
novel, "Up in the Air," is a satire about airports and airplanes and the
airlines that control every aspect of your life while you fly. Kirn is also
literary editor of GQ.
Now you've been living on a farm in Montana for about 10 years. Do you
Mr. KIRN: Yes.
GROSS: ...could have written this novel if you were living in New York and
advertising was all around you 24 hours a day?
Mr. KIRN: No, not really. You know, when I leave my farm in Montana, which
is overrun with antelope and wild birds and wild grass, and I get onto an
airplane, the contrast could not be more stark. It's like almost traveling
through time. And I think a lot of the details that I write about in the
popped out at me because they're so absent in my daily rural life.
GROSS: Why are you living that daily rural life?
Mr. KIRN: It's easier to write. It's easier to think. And I don't have to
spend time in traffic, waiting in lines, shuttling the child from play group
to play group. It's just so much more accommodating, in terms of time, to
live a little bit in the middle of nowhere nowadays.
GROSS: Do you ever feel like you're a creature from another planet in your
Mr. KIRN: Yes, I do. I mean, I live in a community in Montana which has a
history of transients. It's a railroad town. All kinds of people came
through that town. You'll see there are pictures on the wall of the
restaurant from way back, you know, Charlie Chaplin on. And so it's a very
accepting place, and doesn't ask a lot of questions. And that I make my
living in New York or writing journalism for places like Time is not ever
really remarked on. It's sort of a secret I carry around with me. And we
agree not to talk about it. But I can feel a little different from my
neighbors, for example, you know.
GROSS: On the other hand you did grow up part of the time on a farm...
Mr. KIRN: Yeah.
GROSS: ...in Minnesota.
Mr. KIRN: Well, you know...
GROSS: You're father was a lawyer...
Mr. KIRN: Right.
GROSS: ...but also had a farm?
Mr. KIRN: Exactly. My father was a man who decided at some point in life
that he was going to drop out of the modern world and become as close to
as you can without taking the vows. And we farmed with horses and lived out
really far from the Twin Cities where he worked. And I guess it was part of
that whole '70s back-to-the-land movement. The problem was that only the
children had to stay back to the land. He went to a corporate office every
day. And, you know, in the book Ryan also has a rural background. You
he's come up in a very stable, very rooted place, and he's moved to a very
transient and very ever-changing atmosphere. And I think there's a mournful
quality to the character because he can't quite get back to that sense of
rootedness and simplicity that he originally felt in life.
GROSS: As someone who grew up on a farm somewhat removed from the throbbing
of American pop culture...
Mr. KIRN: Mm-hmm.
GROSS: ...how do you feel about bringing up your own kids on a farm that's
removed from it because you write so much about pop culture.
Mr. KIRN: Well, I feel great about raising a child shielded from American
culture. You know, it's a drug out there, and you never know which drug a
child's going to fall for. Will it be the Barney drug or the Britney Spears
drug or the non-stop violence drug? And I'd rather impose myself between
and that world. When I was growing up, pop culture seemed to be less
intrusive, but it was certainly out there. And I remember the first time I,
you know, heard a pop record album, probably 12 years old--until then I'd
insulated from that kind of thing--and it hit me like a fork in the face.
was so powerful, so vibrant, so slick. And I've always felt a little
vulnerable and hyper-sensitive even to those images. And I fear for my
to be honest.
GROSS: Walter Kirn is my guest, and his new novel is called "Up in the
and it's about what he describes as `air world,' that kind of airplane and
You are not only a novelist; you're a book critic. And you've been
books for how many years?
Mr. KIRN: Oh, probably about eight years, regularly.
GROSS: And you're still doing it?
Mr. KIRN: Yeah. Now and then, but a little bit less than I used to. My
appetite has decreased slightly.
GROSS: You wrote in a recent piece that when you started reviewing books, a
friend who is a writer gave you this advice; he said, `Every time you write
bad review, you'll be hurting people in your own field. Also, what goes
around come around. Watch out.'
Mr. KIRN: Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm.
GROSS: `The next time you publish your own work they'll be laying for you.'
Mr. KIRN: Yup.
GROSS: So what is it like as a book critic to have a novel coming out, and
this isn't your first, and to, you know, get a taste of your own medicine,
Mr. KIRN: Well, I'd like to say, as I've heard other people who are critics
say, `Oh, from being a critic I know that reviewing is a bunch of baloney,
I don't even bother to read the reviews,' or `If they're negative, they
touch me.' Well, that's just not true with me. I'm a human being, and to
writing and writing criticism are like playing a sport and also being a
referee in that sport. And when you're a referee and you've got the
uniform on and you make the calls, you think, `Now don't these people
it's absolutely necessary that we have guidelines and someone calling fouls
and so on? And then when you're playing the sport and the referee makes a
call you don't like, you're outraged. And that's how it works for me. I
mean, when I get a bad review of my book, or one that I think doesn't
understand it or slights it in some way, I'm hurt. It doesn't feel good.
writing criticism of my own has not numbed that sensitivity.
GROSS: As a book critic, when you read a book, you're reading it and
about what works and what doesn't in the plot and the writing.
Mr. KIRN: Mm-hmm.
GROSS: You're reading it very analytically. Does that ever get in the way,
as a writer, that analytical approach to reading?
Mr. KIRN: Absolutely. It's terribly inhibiting to be a critic who writes.
end up reviewing my own book as I write it, and that's a very bad habit to
into. You know, I'll get to the end of a page of fiction and think, `Well,
you know, a little weak, strays from the theme, dialogue is fuzzy, nobody
talks that way.' And I've broken my own momentum. I really have to set
that critical part of my brain in order to write at all. I, you know, have
pretend that I'm sitting alone on a beach struck by inspiration.
GROSS: I think for a lot of writers there's this kind of bargain that you
make, `I'm gonna sit down and force myself to write for two more hours and
then I'm getting out of the house and I'm going to a movie or I'm...
Mr. KIRN: Mm-hmm.
GROSS: ...going to the bar, or I'm going to a friend's house or I'm taking
train and going someplace.' I mean, whatever it is that you need to
yourself you're gonna do in that two hours when you're free. Living on a
in a comparatively remote area, what do you do for that part of the bargain?
Mr. KIRN: Well, to get away from my work, I irrigate alfalfa. I go out and
make little dams on little ditches full of water and I run the water across
the hay and watch it grow, which couldn't be further than sitting at a desk.
Unfortunately, because I live on a farm, I'm able to go huge stretches
thinking about anything else but work. And when I was writing this book I
found myself at times becoming so swept up in the darn thing that I didn't
have a conversation about anything else but airports for six days. There
no one to stop me.
GROSS: Well, who would you talk to about airports?
Mr. KIRN: Oh, myself really. Just myself. I'm one of those writers who
keeps everything absolutely private until the book is finished. I don't
GROSS: All right.
Mr. KIRN: ...to hear anybody's suggestion or anybody's reaction. It'll
the spell. So I go into a very strange narcissistic dream world and try not
to let it shatter for as long as possible.
GROSS: Since you brought up airports again, let me share one of the things
that really bothers me about flying.
Mr. KIRN: OK.
GROSS: Tell me if you experience this. You know how about 15 minutes after
the meal is served and eaten, suddenly, like intestinal gas starts wafting
across the plane and you're stuck in this plane of strangers inhaling it.
there's no place to go and you don't want to be thinking about, `Well, who's
responsible for this?' And, you know, no one says anything. No one ever
anything and everybody's just...
Mr. KIRN: Yeah.
GROSS: ...kind of quietly inhaling.
Mr. KIRN: Yeah. In terms of passing gas, airplanes are a no-fault
environment. Everybody has to be willing to assume guilt and yet not
attribute it to others. I mean, one of the things that's so horrible about
traveling is that, you know, we're thrust up against each other's biological
selves. You know, we may all be dressed for business, but, you know, our
stomachs are rumbling and we have to go to the bathroom. Heck, I feel
embarrassed every time I have to stand up and ask my seat mate to move his
knees so I can go to the bathroom, especially if I do it twice on one
I can't tell you how many times I've sat there thinking, `I already made a
move once. Yes, I have to urinate terribly, but I don't want him to think
ill or have a problem,' and so I just sit there clenching every muscle until
we're let out into the terminal.
GROSS: Well, Walter Kirn, what a lovely note to end on. Thank you so much
for talking with us.
Mr. KIRN: Thank you, Terry.
GROSS: Walter Kirn's new satirical novel about air travel is called "Up in
Coming up, Joanna Merlin discusses her 25 years as casting director for
Broadway and film. This is FRESH AIR.
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Interview: Joanna Merlin discusses her career as a Broadway
actress and casting director
TERRY GROSS, host:
Most actors dread auditions where they have only a few minutes to prove
themselves to the casting director. My guest, Joanna Merlin, has been on
sides of the process. For 25 years she was a casting director for Broadway
and film. As Harold Prince's casting director she worked on the original
Broadway productions of "Follies," "A Little Night Music," "Sweeney Todd,"
"Pacific Overtures," and "Evita." She also cast Bernardo Bertolucci's epic
movie "The Last Emperor." As an actress she's appeared in the original
Broadway production of "Fiddler on the Roof," and the films "Class Action,"
"Mystic Pizza," "The Killing Fields," and "The Ten Commandments." She
co-founded the Non-Traditional Casting Project and now teaches in the
acting program of New York University. She's written a new book called
"Auditioning: An Actor-Friendly Guide." I asked Joanna Merlin how she
a casting agent.
Professor JOANNA MERLIN (Author, "Auditioning: An Actor-Friendly Guide"):
Well, oddly enough, I had never thought about being a casting person. I had
two babies and thought, `Well, I don't want to go on the road. I'm not sure
if I can act full-time anymore. What will I do?' And out of the blue, Hal
Prince called me. I had met him when he was producing "Fiddler on the
which I had done a few years before. And he got this sort of crazy notion
that because I was an actor and I was a Jewish mother and I would like
and had been around New York for a while that I might be a good casting
director. And I thought it was an insane idea. But he had two babies the
same age as mine, and he said, `I don't care when you're there. I don't
what your hours are as long as you get the work done.' And I sort of went
into it blindly and very naively because there were five shows going and
was a lot of work. But somehow or another, because he was so free about
I was there, I managed it and I really got an education, sort of learning on
GROSS: Now you did the auditioning for "Sweeney Todd," the Steven Sondheim
Prof. MERLIN: Yes.
GROSS: Did Angela Lansbury, who was one of the stars, have to audition?
Prof. MERLIN: No, she didn't. She did not, nor did Len Cariou. And Len
Cariou, who had worked for Steve and Hal before, and they knew his work. I
mean, if they know an actor's work and they feel that this actor can play
character and they don't have doubts about it, and if they know that the
range is OK. Now for Angela, you know, I don't know this for a fact, but I
wouldn't be at all surprised if Steve might have written some of the songs
within Angela's range. And that happens when you start with a star. And
frequently producers and directors will get a star before the whole show is
written, and they will write around them.
GROSS: And what did you ask the other performers in "Sweeney Todd" to do
Prof. MERLIN: Well, "Sweeney Todd" required great voices, and so everyone
to sing very, very well. Also we were looking for interesting character
types. The beetle had to be--we wanted him to be a very large man, and the
part of Tobias was to be someone a little bit eccentric looking and strange.
And a lot of the people in the chorus needed to be kind of interesting
So each show really presents a different challenge, and it's one of the
that makes it so interesting.
GROSS: What are some of the traps in auditioning you caution people to not
Prof. MERLIN: Actors tend to overcomplicate the material when it's
not required. Also they frequently don't listen to the reader, very common
mistake. They're focusing only on their own lines. Sometimes they tend to
speed through the audition. `A fast audition is a good audition,' but it
isn't necessarily. And I think the most common mistake is trying to be a
blank slate, trying to second guess the director, going in, giving a sort of
straight, intelligent reading without making a strong choice. And actors
come in and make strong choices because directors want to feel that they can
collaborate with them. They don't want to feel that the actor is totally
dependent on the director.
GROSS: I've interviewed several actors over the years who believe that they
got certain parts through sheer chutzpa, through doing something very
outrageous at the audition, or dressing outrageously or even...
Prof. MERLIN: Mm-hmm.
GROSS: ...showing up at the director's home and refusing to go away until
director promised to hear them audition. How wise is that? I mean, do you
know people who actually got their parts through that kind of brazen act?
Prof. MERLIN: Well, I think that as a rule it's a little risky because
casting directors don't like you to go over their heads. However, just--it
reminded me of one thing that happened when I was casting "Sweeney Todd."
This young woman, whom I didn't know, wanted an audition. And it's always
difficult to know how many people to bring in that you don't know because
there's a limited amount of time. In any event, one day at the office there
arrived a box with a pie in it with a plastic arm and hand sticking out of
pie. And of course the show is about the demon barber of Fleet Street, who
kills people in his barber chair and then grinds them up and so on. And I
thought, `Well, you know, this is pretty inventive,' and I did give her an
audition. She didn't get the part. You really have to make a decision on
basis of talent. And no matter what an actor does, you know, to sort of
your arm, that ultimately the decision is going to be because that is a good
actor for the role.
GROSS: Actors' agents are always trying to get casting directors to see
actors. What are some of the things agents have done to inspire you to see
Prof. MERLIN: Well, I...
GROSS: ...little gifts maybe they give or whatever? What are the ethics of
Prof. MERLIN: Well, I think ordinarily one doesn't accept gifts. I
though, when I was casting "A Little Night Music," Eric Shepherd(ph) at ICM
has asked me if we would see Hermione Gingold for the role of Madame
And she was very, very different than Hal Prince's concept of this role, and
she had read the script and wanted to audition, and her agent called several
times, but Hal's concept was totally different. And I set up the
anyway and took a chance, and of course she came in and blew everybody away,
but it was because of her persistence really that we saw her.
And the same thing happened, actually, with Mandy Patinkin for "Evita." His
agent wanted him to audition for the part of Che Guevara, but nobody had
heard him sing. And it was just on the final day, Hal called me in the
morning and said, `I looked at the list. I don't think we have enough
good people for Che Guevara. Call somebody else in. So I sort of tracked
down that morning. He came in, read the material, cold sang this incredible
song "High Flying, Adored" without ever having seen it before. And Tim
who was the composer and they had had "Evita" playing for a year in England,
said, `This was the best I have ever heard that song sung,' and of course he
got the part.
GROSS: My guest is Joanna Merlin. Her new book is a guide for actors
"Auditioning." More after our break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: My guest is Joanna Merlin, author of the new book "Auditioning."
She's Hal Prince's former casting director and she cast the Bernardo
Bertolucci movie "The Last Emperor." I asked her about casting "The Last
Emperor" in China.
Prof. MERLIN: The problem was that we needed actors who spoke English, and
there aren't a lot of actors in China who speak--at least at that time,
was 1984. Things have changed a lot since then. And I did some in New
some in LA, San Francisco, Hong Kong, Taiwan. But the auditioning in China
was really interesting because they have companies there--they have film
companies, theater companies--so the actors don't audition. And every
at 9:00 I would open the door to my hotel room and there would be about 20
Chinese actors, none of whom really spoke English, and they would all come
my room for the day and they would all smoke, and so by the end of the day
could barely make your way through the haze. And I would go around to each
one of them to see if they could say a few words in English, and then
sometimes tape something for them and then they would try to learn it and
back. But they all had a wonderful time because it was sort of a new
GROSS: Did you cast the leads in "The Last Emperor," too?
Prof. MERLIN: I did. I did. As a matter of fact, when I met Bertolucci I
had already done a lot of Asian casting. And in those years there were not
many Asians who were in the profession. First time I cast them was in
Sondheim's "Pacific Overtures," and that took me a year to find a full cast.
So Bernardo said he was looking for the emperor, Pu Yi, and the empress.
he wanted them to look like the pictures of the real people. And I said to
him, there's only one person that I know in the world who can play the
emperor, and that's John Lone. And the only other woman I know who could
play the empress is Joan Chen. And I said I'll be happy to, you know, do a
search, but that's my feeling. And they did end up playing the parts, and
they were wonderful. They were wonderful. I think he chose them because
were wonderful so that I didn't have to do a huge search.
GROSS: You said that when Hal Prince made you his casting director, totally
surprising you, that part of what he was looking for was somebody who was a
Jewish mother, which you were. Why should that be a qualification for
Prof. MERLIN: Well, I think that actors respond to casting directors who
supportive and encouraging, and that if they feel that the moment they walk
the room they're being challenged, then it's a turn-off. And there are some
people who are in casting who are not supporting and who can be somewhat
abusive, although I think most casting directors try to conduct themselves
with understanding and some graciousness. But it's very helpful to an actor
if they feel that you're on their side. And indeed, casting directors are
rooting for you. I mean, they want to cast the role. And so they're
for every actor that walks in the door, as are directors.
GROSS: You have an interesting audition story yourself about the time you
auditioned to play one of the daughters in the original Broadway production
"Fiddler on the Roof." Tell us about the audition and the role you were
initially going after.
Prof. MERLIN: Well, I had met Jerry Robbins, who was the director, when I
auditioning for him for "Mother Courage," which he did on Broadway. And he
brought me in four times and then didn't cast me. So when he was doing
"Fiddler," he remembered me and called me in for the part of Hodel. And I'm
not really a singer, but he sort of had it in his mind that I could play
role. And it was in a soprano voice, and I came in time and time again. He
kept bringing me in. I couldn't understand why, but he had this eday
that he needed me in this show.
And finally he had me work with Sheldon and Jerry, who had written the
the lyricist, the composer, to learn the song and work on it. And I came
and I sang. It was still terrible. And so he said--this was the seventh
audition--`Would you mind if I came to your voice lesson with you and heard
all the songs you sing?' And I nearly fell of the stage, but he did.
And I'll never forget, it was a rainy day and we went to this Carmen
Galyarde's Voice Studio(ph) on West 71st Street, and there was Jerry Robbins
tromping up on the elevator with me and he had me sing all these songs and
picked out a song that was in a different range. It was in my chest voice,
which was still not great, but it was better. And so he said, `That's what
you have to sing for the next audition.' So there it was, the eighth
audition. I sang the song and Jerry and Sheldon stood up in the audience
said, `She's got a chest voice. She can play Tzeitel.' So I got the part.
GROSS: Tzeitel's the other daughter.
Prof. MERLIN: Tzeitel is the older daughter who marries Motel the tailor,
and she doesn't sing very much, and they kind of wrote a section of
"Matchmaker" that had a range of about four tones that I could manage.
GROSS: Well, I want to thank you so much for talking with us.
Prof. MERLIN: Well, thank you, Terry. It's been a pleasure.
GROSS: Joanna Merlin's new book is a guide for actors called "Auditioning."
She teaches at the NYU graduate acting program.
GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.
(Soundbite of music)
Unidentified Woman #1: (Singing) Hodel, oh, Hodel, have I made a match for
you. He's handsome. He's young. All right, he's 62. But he's a nice man,
good catch. True? True. I promise you'll be happy. And even if you're
there's more to life than that. Don't ask me what. Chava, I found him!
you be a lucky bride. He's handsome. He's tall. That is from side to
But he's a nice man, a good catch. Right? Right. You heard he has a
He'll beat you every night, but only when he's sober, so you're all right.
Did you think you'd get a prince? Well, I do the best I can. With no
no money, no family background, be glad you've got a man.
Unidentified Woman #2: (Singing) Matchmaker, Matchmaker, you know that I'm
still very young. Please, take your time. Up to this minute I
that I could get stuck for good. Dear Yente, see that's he's gentle.
Remember you were also a bride. It's not that I'm sentimental.
Unidentified Woman #1 & #2: (Singing in unison) It's just that I'm
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