DATE February 4, 2002 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
PROGRAM Fresh Air
Filler: By policy of WHYY, this information is restricted and has
been omitted from this transcript
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Interview: Mark Webber discusses his career and spending a part of
his childhood homeless
TERRY GROSS, host:
At the age of 21, my guest Mark Webber has starred in the teen comedies "Snow
Day," with Chevy Chase, and "Drive Me Crazy", and has appeared in the films
"The Animal Factory" and "The Boiler Room." He starred with W.H. Macy and
Philip Baker Hall in the New York and London revivals of David Mamet's
"American Buffalo," and is in forthcoming films with Woody Allen and Al
Now he's starring in the new Todd Solondz movie "Storytelling." He plays
Scooby, a suburban high school kid who becomes the subject of a film
documentary. In this scene, Scooby is talking with his guidance counselor
about college. The guidance counselor has asked Scooby if he has any hobbies,
reads books or even comics. After Scooby answers `No,' the guidance counselor
asks if Scooby has any long-term goals.
(Soundbite from "Storytelling")
Mr. MARK WEBBER: (As Scooby) Well, I mean, I want to be on TV; maybe have a
talk show or something like Conan or early Letterman.
Unidentified Man: Aha! And how is it you hope to achieve this goal?
Mr. WEBBER: (As Scooby) I don't know. See if I have any connections.
GROSS: Mark Webber, in a scene from "Storytelling."
Webber is from Philadelphia, where his mother is a homeless activist. They
were homeless during part of his childhood. He was born in Minneapolis; his
mother was 15.
Mr. WEBBER: We were on welfare. She got a grant to go to college, and she
actually started going to college to become a teacher, a high school teacher.
And slowly, we started getting our stuff back together. We got an apartment.
My mom had finished up college and started teaching at a local high school in
Minneapolis, and things were going great. We had this apartment, and then
basically what happened is one day, the state police walked into her
classroom--she was teaching a women's studies class--and they arrested for
Now what happened was is she basically didn't report the grant money she was
receiving to the welfare department to go to college, and the welfare system
is set up where you--literally, if you get a birthday card with $10 in it from
a relative, you have to report that as income and it's deducted from your
welfare check. So basically, my mother was arrested in her school and got
fired. Later, you know, went to trial for this case, and it was dropped. But
basically, the staff there just didn't hire her back. I guess it didn't look
right for her to be arrested in front of her students.
GROSS: And then what happened to you financially?
Mr. WEBBER: Well, basically, you know, my mom lost that job and, you know,
one thing just started leading to another. We, you know, weren't able to pay
our rent, and we were served with an eviction notice and then we lost our
place. And we were then living in my mom's car for a while. I mean, it was
just like that. And, you know, after my mother was fired, you know, she
really had this revelation that she was going to dedicate her life to ending
poverty and homelessness in this country, and was going to make sure that no
other women or children would have to go through what we went through.
GROSS: When you were homeless in Minneapolis, did you live in shelters at
Mr. WEBBER: There was a few times that I stayed in a shelter, but it was
some of the worst experiences of my life. I just didn't like the vibe of the
place at all. And I just felt a lot safer and comfortable with just me and my
mom out on the streets and taking over properties to live in.
GROSS: When you were living in the car, what did you do for personal hygiene?
Mr. WEBBER: I had to become extremely creative. Had a lot of Scope and a
lot of cologne, literally. And, you know, that was one of the hardest parts
about being homeless, is that, you know, I still went to school, and none of
my friends knew, you know. I was so ashamed at the time, you know. And, you
know, when you're nine, 10 years old and you're in grade school, it all comes
down to, you know, what you have, what sneakers you have, what game systems
you have, you know, how cool are you by, you know, the material things that
you have, you know. And I, you know, felt like overnight went from a kid who
had a place and then all of a sudden didn't.
GROSS: So--What?--did you make up a lot of lies to tell your friends, or
would you just decline to tell them what you were really doing?
Mr. WEBBER: I just made up so many lies, so many lies. And actually, that's
where a lot of my acting skills developed, I think, you know. And I was even
lying to myself, I think, at some points. But no, I really lied to all my
friends, and then it became, you know--it was hard because I had to keep up
with all the lies that I was telling.
GROSS: What were some of your typical lies?
Mr. WEBBER: Well, you know, for the beginning part, you know, when buddies
of mine who would regularly come over and stay at my place, you know, it was
just that my mom was, like, really, really sick. And then, like, a couple of
weeks would go by, and my friends were like, `Mark, what's the deal?' and I
kept going with that one for a while, which really sucked, because, you know,
I was pretending with my friends that, basically, my mother was, like, on her
deathbed, you know, and I couldn't have anyone over. And it didn't feel great
GROSS: Did it make you almost superstitious, that it was as if...
Mr. WEBBER: It...
GROSS: ...you were courting that actually happening?
Mr. WEBBER: Yeah, totally. That's exactly what I had in my head.
GROSS: When you moved to Philadelphia, you were living with your mother in a
neighborhood that has a fair amount of crime and drug-dealing, and I'm
wondering if you were used to that after living in Minneapolis, and what it
was like for you and your mother to be--well, for your mother to be organizing
while you were taken with her in a neighborhood that could be pretty
Mr. WEBBER: Oh, it was absolutely crazy. I was in no way used to it.
Minneapolis to Philadelphia was major culture shock for me. I mean, I didn't
realize I had an accent until I got to Philadelphia and, you know, everyone
was calling me `farm boy.' And it was intense. I mean, you had, you know,
two ultra-white Midwesterners in North Philly walking around handing out
fliers. And it was crazy. But, you know, again, at the time--I mean, just
all the other stuff that I'd gone through prior to that, I guess, had made it
a little bit easier to deal with, but it was still very shocking. I mean, I'd
never seen a neighborhood like North Philly ever before in my entire life.
GROSS: What are some of the things you saw in that neighborhood that you
hadn't seen before?
Mr. WEBBER: It just looked like a Third World country to me. I mean, it
literally looks like a bomb was dropped on the neighborhood. You know, tons
and tons and boarded-up, abandoned buildings, you know, bunch of thugs out on
the corner, people selling drugs right there in front of your face, people
running up and asking you what you wanted, what you needed, you know, and just
extreme, extreme poverty, you know, little kids running around. It was just
GROSS: Didn't you end up living in some of those boarded-up houses?
Mr. WEBBER: Yeah. Yeah. I mean, it's not only a strategy and a tactic that
we still use with our organization, you know. In Philadelphia, I believe that
there are more abandoned houses than there are actual homeless people. And,
you know, they're all--we take over federally owned properties, not privately
owned properties. And we take off the boards, we clean it up, we make it
presentable to the neighborhood and we move these families in, and myself was
one of them at times. And what ends up happening is we get arrested for
trespassing, we get let out, we go right back in the house and get arrested
again. And eventually, through that process and drawing attention to the fact
that these houses are lying here vacant and eventually become drug houses and
things like that, we win them from the city.
GROSS: My guest is actor Mark Webber. We'll talk more after a break. This
is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: My guest is actor Mark Webber. He's starring in the new Todd Solondz
movie, "Storytelling." Webber's mother is a homeless activist in
Philadelphia. They were homeless during part of his childhood, but he went to
the city's High School for the Creative and Performing Arts, where he realized
he was serious about acting.
Now I think your first big break, either after high school or maybe when you
were still in high school, was getting a TV commercial for Foot Locker.
Mr. WEBBER: Yeah. Yeah.
GROSS: I don't think I saw the commercial. And if I did, I didn't realize
that you were the one who was in it. So why don't you describe it?
Mr. WEBBER: Yeah. My first big break, really, was, you know, I came up to
New York and I met this agent who is now my agent today, Abby Bluestone, and
she sent me out on my first ever, real-deal audition in New York. And it was
for Foot Locker, and it was actually with a friend of mine who also had come
up from Philly with me to New York. And we both went out on the commercial
together, and we actually ended up--we were paired together to go and meet the
producers in the audition. And the audition was we had to stand there and
talk about sneakers. And now sneakers--that's like my one vice. Like, I am a
sneaker fiend. I'm obsessed with sneakers and I love them. And so I just
went off, and my friend totally went off, too, and we were kicking all types
of slang and we were just--we blew them away. And we left.
And I got a page on my little pager and I called back and I found out that we
got the commercial, and I flipped out. I mean, it was the first thing that we
were sent out on in New York, and now we showed the agents that we meant
business and that we could do it. And it was crazy. I had to figure out a
place to stay up here, and--because it was shooting in a couple days and I
didn't have enough money to go back to Philly and then come back up. So we
had to get a place to stay up here and we stayed with a friend of mine. And
we both got picked up in the morning and we went down and we shot this Foot
Locker commercial and it was wild.
GROSS: And what was the aftereffects of that?
Mr. WEBBER: Well, basically, you know, the commercial went great, you know,
and, you know, I just started getting sent out on a whole lot more stuff, you
know. Then I started getting sent out on a bunch of commercials. And I
didn't really book any more commercial after that, but my feedback was really
well and it was really good. And I was able to, you know, develop more of a
friendship and a relationship with my agent, and I let her know that I was
really interested in doing films, and then the whole film thing started
picking up. So from that one commercial, it just--everything just kind
of--you know, one thing led to another.
GROSS: And you've been in several movies, and you played Chevy Chase's son in
"Snow Days." You were in "Animal Factory," an independent film directed by
Steve Buscemi; a teen-age film called "Drive Me Crazy." Now you're in
"Storytelling," which is directed by Todd Solondz. John Goodman plays your
father in this one. And you also worked on stage, in London and in New York,
in a version of David Mamet's play, "American Buffalo." And you starred with
W.H. Macy and Philip Baker Hall--I mean, two really great actors. I guess I'm
interested in that experience, of being on stage with two great actors who
aren't the biggest stars in the world, but--I mean, they're wonderful, and you
have David Mamet dialogue.
Mr. WEBBER: Yeah.
GROSS: And how old were you when you got it, like, 20 or something?
Mr. WEBBER: Yeah. It was absolutely amazing. I mean, it really was. It
was life-changing, definitely. I mean, Bill Macy--I mean, you know, grew up
with Mamet and they were buddies. And he actually--he played my role of Bobby
the very first time that "American Buffalo" was ever done. So, you know, you
talk about a guy who knows Mamet and especially knows "American Buffalo," and
knows the ins and the outs of all the characters--I mean, it was him. So--I
mean, it was intense. I mean, it was my first time ever reading Mamet, and I
really didn't know about the kind of particular style that he has and that he
teaches until I got involved with the play and had, you know, met Bill. So I
really learned a lot.
And really, I guess, what I learned most was--not something that I really
learned, but something that Bill really defined for me, was that, you know,
it's always, always, always about being in the moment and being as truthful as
possible. And that really resonated inside my head when he said that to me,
because I found it was something that I was already kind of doing. But just
hearing it put into those words, especially just being in the moment really
hit me, because I think it's so important. I think it's really hard for
actors to kind of listen to one another, especially when you're doing a film.
And I was always accustomed to--you know, when I did my first movie I'd, you
know, read a line and practice saying a line a certain way, practice it and
practice it and practice it by myself, and then show up on set after waiting
for, like, 10 hours, meeting the person I'm going to do the scene with for the
first time right before we shoot it, and then go and, like--trying to do my
lines the way I practiced saying it and they'd try and do theirs the way they
said it. It doesn't work. There's no chemistry. There's no connection in
the scene. So it was really just about being in the moment. And when you do
stage--I mean, you're forced to have to be in the moment every single second.
GROSS: I know when you were young, you really wanted to live the life of a
star, and you're on your way to achieving that. But I wonder how all the
trappings of stardom and of Hollywood look to you after growing up poor,
sometimes homeless and having a mother who is still a homeless rights and
welfare rights activist.
Mr. WEBBER: Uh-huh.
GROSS: I mean, it's really an almost absurd contrast.
Mr. WEBBER: It really is. And, you know, I got to tell you, I wake up every
morning and I feel like the luckiest guy on Earth. And all that I've gone
through in my entire life, you know, being homeless and being raised poor and
struggling and coming from a place of struggle, has totally given me the upper
hand in this industry. And I feel that every day, when I go and audition and
when I meet executives and when I go and meet fellow actors and movie stars,
it's a great feeling actually. I almost feel like I walk into every room and
I feel like I have the upper hand.
Mr. WEBBER: You know, because for as much as I love acting and it's my
passion and it's my dream, I really don't care about being famous, I really
don't care about being rich. I had the most amazing woman in the entire world
who really showed me that material items really don't mean anything, and that
everybody should have, you know, basic human rights and that--and now, you
know, it's like all this success is really bittersweet because it's a weird
thing, you know. I really truly want everyone to have what I have, or to be
able to have the experiences that I have, you know. I really believe that
everyone should have housing and should have food and clothing and health
GROSS: Have you offered to buy your mother a house? And is that something
that she would accept?
Mr. WEBBER: She would probably accept a maybe slightly nicer house in North
Philly, but that's it. I'm not at the point now to be able to buy her a home.
And when I do get to that point, you know, she'd never leave North Philly.
That's her home and that's where her friends are, and she'll never leave
GROSS: I want to thank you so much for talking with us.
Mr. WEBBER: Thank you so much.
GROSS: Mark Webber is starring in the new film "Storytelling." Tomorrow,
we'll meet the director of the film, Todd Solondz.
GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.
(Soundbite of music)
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