Skip to main content

Going Under The 'Boardwalk' With Michael Shannon

The actor plays a righteous federal agent who succumbs to all sorts of temptations on the HBO drama Boardwalk Empire. To build the character of Nelson Van Alden, he says, he worked out an elaborate back story about the agent's childhood. The third season starts Sunday.


Other segments from the episode on September 14, 2012

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, September 14, 2012: Interview with Michael Shannon; Interview with Fernando Trueba; Review of the film The Master."


September 14, 2012

Guests: Michael Shannon – Fernando Trueba

DAVE DAVIES, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in for Terry Gross. Season three of the HBO series "Boardwalk Empire" begins Sunday, and one of the standout characters is Federal Agent Nelson Van Alden, played by our guest Michael Shannon. Shannon is also starring in the new movie "Take Shelter" as a husband and father who starts having visions about an apocalyptic storm and doesn't know if this is prophecy or a sign of mental illness.

In 2009, Shannon received an Oscar nomination for his role in "Revolutionary Road." "Boardwalk Empire" is set in Atlantic City during Prohibition. Shannon's a Prohibition agent with the Department of Internal Revenue, an inhibited man and devout Christian surrounded by a world of crime and sinful temptation. He eventually succumbs, drinking liquor, having extramarital sex and committing a horrific act that would change his life. Terry interviewed Michael Shannon last fall, during the second season of "Boardwalk Empire."

TERRY GROSS, HOST: I'd like to play what might be your most talked-about scene. This is the scene in which you insist on baptizing your partner, Agent Sebso, in the river, and he doesn't want to be baptized because he's Jewish. Now, you correctly suspect that he's been on the take to Nucky Thompson, the boss of the liquor operation in Atlantic City during Prohibition.

So in this scene, you've brought him to a spot on the river where a local African-American church conducts baptisms, and the preacher, who is in the water performing baptisms, as you arrive, he sees you and speaks first.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (as character) Agent Van Alden of the Bureau of Internal Revenue, have you come here to be accepted into the arms of Christ?

MICHAEL SHANNON: (as Nelson) I have never left him, deacon, though I have at times turned from his love.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (as character) You cannot turn from him, sir. Whatsoever the compass point, he's there beside you.

SHANNON: (as Nelson) I do know that to be so. But this man does not. There is a veil over his eyes, deacon, and a darkness in his soul.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (as character) Come forward.

ERIK WEINER: (as Agent Sebso) No thank you.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (as character) Young sir, come forward.

WEINER: (as Sebso) No thank you.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (as Nelson) Come forward, Mr. Sebso.

WEINER: (as Sebso) I'd really rather not.

SHANNON: (as Nelson) You insult these good people in their beliefs?

WEINER: (as Sebso) They're not my beliefs.

SHANNON: (as Nelson) What are you afraid of, Mr. Sebso?

WEINER: (as Sebso) I'm not afraid, I...

SHANNON: (as Nelson) Then let these waters wash you clean.

GROSS: So you finally get Agent Sebso, who again, is Jewish, into the water, and you have the pastor's permission to baptize him. You keep dunking his head underwater, and he keeps declining to be baptized. And in your zeal to baptize him, you keep his head underwater so long you end up drowning him.

So let's hear that part of the scene, and in this part of the scene, the pastor is getting worried that you're hurting Agent Sebso, and he tries to intervene, but you keep on dunking him until you kill him. The pastor speaks first.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (as character) This is not a battle, sir.

SHANNON: (as Nelson) You are wrong, deacon. It is a battle against the devil himself. I have seen him abroad in the daylight and the night, and by God I will force him out. Thou has fulfilled the judgment of the wicked.

GROSS: Wow, you've just killed this guy, and you're praising God that thou has fulfilled the judgment of the wicked. You say, about this agent who you've just killed, that there's a darkness in his soul. And of course, that really describes your character. There is a real darkness in your soul.

SHANNON: Yes, well, I think with Van Alden, probably like most people, his problems began in childhood. I imagine him coming from a very strict background, probably not a very compassionate background. I imagine his father being somewhat of an ogre and maybe even, you know, physically abusing him from time to time. And so that's kind of the seed of what grows into the adult Van Alden.

But I think he's a very sad character, because I do believe he ultimately has good intentions, and he wants to do the right thing. And he goes to Atlantic City believing that he can do some good in the world. And as many nefarious activities as he gets up to, he's also surrounded by people thwarting him at every turn. So that act of drowning Sebso is the culmination of a great deal of frustration and despair on his part.

GROSS: Have you known anybody who is as much, you know, a zealot and delusional at the same time, as the agent who you portray is?

SHANNON: You know, I've known a lot of very religious people. My mother is very religious, but she was also very - is very private about it. She - when I was growing up, she never went to church. She just prayed and read her Bible and kept it to herself. So I'm not from a background of flamboyant believers. It's much more a personal issue.

But, you know, I don't - it's very important for me not to judge Van Alden or to judge people in general. When you're an actor, it's - it can be a hindrance, I think, if you look askance at people, you know.

GROSS: At the same time, though, you've tried to create a back story for him so you can understand what he's been through that shaped him. And you were telling us, for instance, you assume his father might have abused him when he was young. And he abuses himself.


GROSS: There is a scene in the first season where because he feels sexually attracted to somebody who he should not, she's not his wife, you carefully lay out your belt on the towel, and then you take off your shirt, and then you lift the belt and knot it and then start flagellating yourself.


GROSS: It's, like, such a surprise, like you're not - you know, like you're not prepared - I mean, the viewer is not prepared for that. But is that one of the reasons why you assume that the agent's father beat him when the agent was a child, and now he beats himself?

SHANNON: Yes, I think this behavior he probably learned from his father. Maybe his father practiced it, as well. But I think one of the things that's so striking about the scene, like you say, is that it's very ritualistic, and it's not - it's not histrionic, you know, or hysterical.

It's very methodical. And that to me is one of the fascinating things about Van Alden's journey, is seeing him not only lose control of maybe his reason or his perspective, but I think along the way he loses control of that methodic, ritualistic sense of himself.

To me, it's much more horrifying to actually see Van Alden take a drink than it is to see him whip himself with the belt because the drink is something that Van Alden has told himself his whole life that he would never, ever do under any circumstances.

So for me, playing the part, it was actually a lot more difficult to show up and do the scene where he walks into a speakeasy and has a shot of whiskey and then goes over and talks to Lucy than it was to do the flagellation scene.

GROSS: And you understand this character so well. You've thought him through so carefully. It seems to me you should be, like, writing your part.


GROSS: Do you have any input into the writing of it?

SHANNON: I haven't tried to exercise it, put it that way. There are certain people on the show that I think do a great deal of research and from time to time get to go up to the writers' room - the writers' room - and make a pitch for this or that. But I enjoy seeing where the writers' imaginations take this character. So I trust them.

GROSS: Now, you're very tall. How tall are you?

SHANNON: I'm 6'4".

GROSS: And you use your size in some of your roles in a very imposing way, like in "Boardwalk Empire." And in "Boardwalk Empire," you are so, like, tall and imposing, yet so disconnected from your body. I mean, the body is a source of sin and temptation.

There's almost something Frankenstein-ish about it in the sense that, like Frankenstein is a brain inside this body that the brain doesn't belong in. So the body just doesn't know how to move. The body's so stiff and kind of rigid. And, like, that's what your body is. You are so out of touch with it.

SHANNON: Well, I think that's another thing, another aspect of Van Alden that probably germinated in his childhood. I imagine that he was always told not to slouch, to sit up straight and to have good posture. And I think it is a Frankenstein scenario in a way because I think inside of Van Alden is a child, that arrested child that never really got to develop its own identity.

I think as much as he believes that he's operating from these deeply held beliefs, he's actually in a way very hollow. I don't think he has even begun to really explore who he really is. So I think that is very exciting for the trajectory of the character because, I mean, you can already see that he's really painting himself into a corner. He's going to have to reinvent himself.

DAVIES: Michael Shannon, speaking with Terry Gross. We'll hear more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


DAVIES: We're listening to Terry's interview recorded last fall with Michael Shannon, who plays Federal Agent Nelson Van Alden in the HBO series "Boardwalk Empire." Its third season premieres Sunday.

GROSS: In "Take Shelter," you play a husband and the father of a young girl who's deaf and needs surgery and lessons in American Sign Language. You lose your job during the course of the movie. So things are rough. But throughout the movie, you're having these nightmares and hallucinations of menacing cloud formations, and in the sky you see hundreds of birds in very disturbing formations.

It starts to rain in these nightmares, and the rain is almost like rust-colored. It's like a yellowish brown. And you don't know whether this is some kind of premonition that you're having, if this is some kind of like prophecy that will be fulfilled or if you're losing your mind. And you're afraid that you are entering a stage of mental illness because your mother was diagnosed with schizophrenia when she was in her '30s, which is the approximate age that you are now.

So let me just play a scene from this. At this point, you've decided to seek psychological help. So you go to a counselor who's played by Lisa Gay Hamilton. She speaks first.


LISA GAY HAMILTON: (as Kendra) I'm going to start by asking you some questions.

SHANNON: (as Curtis) Okay. I already answered all the questions on the form.

HAMILTON: (as Kendra) I know. I looked at them. But I need to get a profile started on you.

SHANNON: (as Curtis) Right, well, out of the five possible symptoms needed to be diagnosed with schizophrenia - delusions, hallucinations, disorganized speech, disorganized behavior and the negative symptoms - I've had two: delusions and hallucinations.

(as Curtis) So I took this quiz in the back of the book. I scored a five out of a possible 20. Schizophrenia starts at 12. So they say it might be a brief psychotic disorder. Whatever it is, I need to know what to do or what to get on to get this thing under control.

GROSS: You are in a constant state of anxiety in this movie because you're always expecting the Apocalypse, and you're always imagining the worst-case scenario and needing to protect your family from it. Were you in a constant state of anxiety making the movie?


SHANNON: No, I wouldn't say that. I actually really enjoyed working on the film. I really enjoyed the people I was working with a lot. And for me it was easy because the - it just made sense to me. The movie made sense. And I think even though, in the film, with these nightmares and these visions, they're obviously exaggerated beyond what most people experience.

But I do think they're reflective of a general feeling that people can relate to or a percentage of people can probably relate to, of just feeling frightened and powerless and wondering what the heck is going to happen next.

GROSS: Do you dream a lot?

SHANNON: SHANNON: I go through periods where I dream a lot and then periods where I don't. Oddly enough, when I'm working, I don't tend to dream very much, I guess because what I'm doing during the day has a kind of dream-like quality to it that is very different than if I went to an office and filed data all day long. Then I'd probably want to go home and have a, you know, rich life in my dreams.

But, you know, my life is so surreal.


SHANNON: Making films is a very surreal business, you know.

GROSS: I just want to say something about your face. We talked a little bit about your height earlier. A couple of distinctive things about your face is that you have very full lips, and they're often, like, depending on the role, like, when there's a lot of tension in your face or pain or inwardness, they tend to like really turn down your lips, you know, like turn down with the expression of tension. And I never know whether you're thinking about that or whether you're just thinking the emotion, and that's what happens.

SHANNON: Aw, gee. Boy, you can get into pretty dicey territory there if you're...

GROSS: With trying to like move your lips or not?

SHANNON: Yeah. If you're just trying to manipulate - it's a very delicate thing because, you know, film and television, it's photography. And this is going to sound kind of ridiculous, but in a way, you're kind of modeling a story. You know, you have to be conscious of the fact that it's being photographed, whereas in theater, you really are just trying to get to the heart of the matter.

You know, I've had experiences on film where I really felt what was happening and I felt like it couldn't be any more perfect than what it was. It just seemed, like, exactly what it needed to be. And then I've seen it and it's completely the opposite of what I thought, or you don't see anything.

I had this experience recently where I was working on something and doing a take and - over and over. And I had talked to the director, and he'd say, well, what about this or what about that? And I'd say, OK, OK. And then finally I just did a take where I kind of turned my head a slightly different angle, and it worked.

He was like, oh, that's perfect. I was, like, all I did was I just turned my head a little bit. And he's, like, well, trust me. It's exactly what I wanted. So we'd been having all these, you know, high-minded conversations about what my character was thinking or what he wanted, and really, all I needed to do was, you know, turn my head 45 degrees.

But by and large, to your original question, I'm trying not think about that aspect of it. I still try to focus just on what my character's trying to do.

GROSS: So, you've played so many eccentric characters - bordering, some of them, on crazy. Do you think of yourself as eccentric?

SHANNON: Hmm. I, you know, I guess I do. Partially, it's just the life of an actor. It's an unusual life. It's hard, you know, if you walk downtown past all the people with, you know, their briefcases and going about their daily routine, that it's hard to feel like a member of that society, I guess. I feel like I'm settling down. I had a very long period where I had led this kind of gypsy-like existence, traveling a lot and not really putting roots down anywhere. But now I'm, you know, starting a family and settling down.

It's also my life is a little less - you know, I used to not have much money, and it was hard to get by sometimes. And now I have a little bit more comfort and security in that department. But I think more than anything what it is is that I'm just a very incredibly sensitive person.

I think most actors are, you know. I'm very sensitive to what goes on around me and I'm very - I feel like I'm always kind of paying attention to everything, like I don't have blinders or I don't have a lot of, maybe, defense mechanisms that other people have. I'm very - you know, you're supposed to be very present if you're an actor, and I feel like I am.

GROSS: And at the same time when you're an actor, you're facing so much rejection and not getting roles and getting bad reviews - not that you've gotten bad reviews, but I mean like what actor doesn't have to face that? So, like, the sensitivity can be a real problem.


SHANNON: Yeah. I've dealt with a lot of that. You know, I think with anybody you see who makes it to the, I don't know, this level of the public eye, you know, it's easy to forget that everybody - even the famous people - have put up with a lot of rejection.

You, know, there's a lot of parts I haven't gotten and I have gotten a lot of bad reviews. Some of - you know, right when I started in Chicago, the first play I got cast in outside of, you know, an academic environment, I was fired from.

Yeah. It was a little tiny storefront theater in Chicago, you know, folding chairs and clamp lights, the whole nine yards. And it was called - I think it was called "West Bank Story." And I rehearsed for a couple of weeks.

And then one day the director walked up to me and said, you know, you have a lot of raw talent, but you should go to the conservatory or something and learn some technique because you're just too - we can't figure out how to get you to do what we want you to do. And so I gave her the finger and left, and then...


GROSS: Did you go to the conservatory?

SHANNON: No. No, I didn't go to the conservatory. I went - and actually I went and did some electrical work, laying cables in a theater. And then a few months later, I went back and gave it another shot. And the rest is history.

GROSS: Right.


GROSS: Okay. It's been great to talk with you. Thank you so much.

SHANNON: Thanks, Terry.

DAVIES: Michael Shannon speaking with Terry Gross, recorded last fall. Shannon plays Federal Agent Nelson Van Alden in the HBO series "Boardwalk Empire." Its third season premieres Sunday. I'm Dave Davies, and this is FRESH AIR.

DAVE DAVIES, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies in for Terry Gross.

"Chico & Rita," the Oscar nominated animated musical, will be out on DVD next week. It's a love story set in Havana, New York, Hollywood and Paris, largely in the late '40s and early '50s, with great jazz and Cuban music and dazzling animation.

Our guest is Spanish director Fernando Trueba, who co-directed "Chico & Rita" with animator Javier Mariscal. Terry spoke to him in April. Trueba won an Oscar for his film "Belle Epoque." He also directed the music documentary "Calle 54," which featured pianist and composer Bebo Valdes. Valdes composed the score for "Chico and Rita," and played most of the piano parts. And he was the inspiration for the character of Chico, a Cuban jazz pianist and arranger whose music is considered passe after the revolution. Before the revolution he falls in love with Rita, a beautiful singer. This is the song she sings when he first sees her.


IDANIA VALDES: (as Rita) (Sung in foreign language)

TERRY GROSS, HOST: That's Idania Valdes, along with Bebo Valdes - no relation - doing "Besame Mucho" from the soundtrack of "Chico and Rita." And my guest is the director and co-writer of the film, Fernando Trueba.

Welcome to FRESH AIR. I love your movie, so thank you so much for joining us.

FERNANDO TRUEBA: Thank you. Thank you.

GROSS: You clearly love Cuban music. You love Latin music. You've already done a documentary film about it. What was your idea of how to integrate that music that you love with a story?

TRUEBA: Well, I love Cuban music but, you know, what I love most of anything in music is jazz - American jazz most of the time. I arrived to Cuban music through jazz. And then when we started talking about the idea of making that movie in Cuba music, so I say to Mariscal, I say well, let's do a story that the characters are musicians, because I love this ambiance and all that. And because I had worked so much with Bebo and Bebo who was at the time with the movie he was 90 and I had previous records with him and we thought why don't we do the character a pianist so we can have Bebo playing in the movie? Bebo, who is the greatest Cuban musician alive today in the world.

GROSS: He's really amazing and it's so wonderful to hear his music in the context of a movie. And, as you say, he's in his 90s now.


GROSS: And this you say was his last work. Is it not capable of playing anymore?

TRUEBA: Yeah. Yeah. At the time of the movie he had already stopped doing concerts because - and he love playing, he's always playing but he realized that his memory and health that he told to me I'm not going to play anymore in public but I will keep playing at home because I need to play. And his health was very delicate at the time but he could make it and he could do all the job in the movie, so it's his last work. And that's why the movie is dedicated to him because - not only because of the music but because I'm sure that if it was not for my friendship with him, I would never have written and make a movie like this one.

GROSS: So I want to play another song that Bebo Valdes wrote for your film "Chico and Rita." And this is the song that Chico is writing when he's separated from Rita and she's become a movie star in Hollywood and he's living in Paris. So as you say, there's different versions of the song. One of them in the movie is sung by Freddy Cole and I think it's supposed to be Nat King Cole because Nat Cole did a Latin album. And actually Nat Cole recorded with Bebo Valdes at some point, didn't he? Their relationship is very on-again, off-again and they're always inadvertently doing things to end this relationship that really should be but never lasts for long because of how they keep tripping each other up. So he's longing for her in Paris and as he's writing this song, he titles it "Rita," because she is his muse; she is what's inspiring the song. And then he scratches that out and he re-titles it "Lily," naming it after the dog who sits by him loyally at the piano as he composes. So, there's different versions of the song. One of them in the movie is sung by Freddy Cole and I think it's supposed to be Nat King Cole because Nat Cole did a Latin album. And actually Nat Cole recorded with Bebo Valdes at some point, didn't he?

TRUEBA: Yeah. Nat King Cole records in Espanol - in Spanish were recorded in Cuba and Bebo was the pianist in the band.

GROSS: Oh, so he's the pianist on Nat "Cole Espanol?"

TRUEBA: Yeah. Who was...


TRUEBA: ...the number one best-selling in Nat King Cole's career. And Bebo was an admirer of Nat King Cole pianist because Nat King Cole became very famous as a singer. But not only Bebo, Bill Evans, every time someone asked him who was his favorite pianist he would say Nat Cole and he had an enormous influence in some great musicians like Bebo, Bill Evans and many, many others. Bebo told me that at the time of that recording Nat King Cole didn't speak one word of Spanish. And Bebo not only had to play piano on the record but was his coach for Spanish, so he has to teach him to pronounce correctly the words of the song. And Bebo says he did pretty well, only the T's and the O's he didn't master them very well. That's why he say a cachero(ph) cachero instead of saying catcheto(ph). And there is a beautiful photograph of Bebo with Sarah Vaughan and Nat King Cole in Tropicana at that time in Havana.

GROSS: Sarah Vaughan.


TRUEBA: Sarah Vaughan. Yeah. Yeah. I, sorry. I...


GROSS: That's OK.

TRUEBA: Yeah. My American friends are disparate with me because I for years I've been saying Dizzy Gillespie...


TRUEBA: ... instead of Gillespie and I do this kind of mistakes all the time. Sorry.

GROSS: Oh that's great. So I'm going to ask you about a pronunciation. The singer on this version of "Lily" that we're going to hear is Estrella Morente. Am I saying that right?

TRUEBA: Estrella.

GROSS: Estrella.

TRUEBA: Yeah. Estrella, who means a star. Estrella Morente is for me the most, the greatest flamenco singer today. She's 30 years old and she's the daughter of the greatest Enrique Morente, who passed one year ago, was the best, the master of flamenco singer and she's an amazing artist.

GROSS: So let's hear this version of "Lily" by Bebo Valdes from the film "Chico & Rita" featuring Bebo Valdes at the piano and Estrella Morente singing.


ESTRELLA MORENTE: (Singing in a foreign language)

DAVIES: Music from "Chico and Rita." We'll hear more of Kerry's interview with director Fernando Trueba after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.


DAVIES: We're listening to Terry's interview recorded in April with Fernando Trueba who Co-directed the animated musical "Chico & Rita." It's out on DVD next week.

GROSS: Was it in some ways easier to do a realistic film about Cuba before the revolution, and do it as an animated film than it would have been to shoot on location in Cuba?

TRUEBA: I never thought of this story - this story started as an animation movie, and I never thought not for one second as a live action movie. And this - my first and only animation movie. I have always done live action movies with actors, or some documentaries, too. But some kind of stories and situations are best for animation than for live action or documentary or other kind of language.

So that's very curious. For example, most of the time when I see biopic movies, I don't believe, even if they are incredible actors or very good actors. I never believe in biopics.

GROSS: And these are biopics, biographical movies of...

TRUEBA: Biopics. Yeah. Biopics.

GROSS: ...of usually of famous people. And, yes, as you say, the information is usually all wrong, and you don't believe it.

TRUEBA: Yeah. I saw the - yeah. I saw the movie about Margaret Thatcher. And Meryl Streep, for me, is one of the greatest actress in the world. But when you watch that movie, you think I'm watching Meryl Streep playing Margaret Thatcher. You don't get lost for one second because you know Margaret Thatcher. You can have - Anthony Hopkins who is one of the greatest actors ever playing Picasso. I will never, one frame, one second of the movie, thought I'm watching Picasso.

I'm watching the great Anthony Hopkins pretending to be Picasso. But when you do an animation and you draw Charlie Parker, it's Charlie Parker. You know, I can't explain it, but for me, at least, it's like that.

GROSS: You know, I had the same feeling watching the film. There are scenes in New York where, you know, at this club, it's like Thelonious Monk is at the piano, Charlie Parker's playing - the scene with, like, Ben Webster playing saxophone.


GROSS: And if you - I agree. If you saw a real actor, you'd think, well, it doesn't quite look like Parker, and I wonder who's dubbing for him.



GROSS: When you see it in an animation, it's like, great, yeah. He managed to work in Parker and Monk and Webster. And you just don't question it, because the whole thing is animation. You're not measuring it...


GROSS: ...against reality the same that you do when an actor's playing it. Now, Bebo Valdes left Cuba in 1960, shortly after the revolution. And, you know, one of the points your film makes - which is a point that the documentary "Buena Vista Social Club" made about Cuban jazz musicians after the revolution - is that their music was considered not revolutionary, passe...

TRUEBA: Yeah. And...

GROSS: ...not pertinent anymore. Yeah.

TRUEBA: Yeah. And worse than that, it was considered American, imperialistic.

GROSS: Therefore counter-revolutionary.

TRUEBA: Yeah. And that's one of the things - every time you ask Bebo his favorite composers, he will say Jerome Kern, Gershwin, Cole Porter. All - he was in love with American music. And then when they told him you can't play that anymore, and that first years, it was really anti-American - it changed a bit later, at least in, at least in musical terms, I'm talking - but for Bebo, how that I can't play Gershwin? Why? He couldn't understand that. And also he, as a composer, he was with American BMI for his author rights. You know?

GROSS: The music publishing company.

TRUEBA: Yeah, the publishing company. And they say to him: Now you can't have your publishing company in America. Now the publishing belongs to the Cuban state. So for Bebo...

GROSS: So he couldn't collect royalties anymore.

TRUEBA: Yeah. So for Bebo, all these things were unacceptable. He didn't want to live in a country with no freedom with - so he left as soon as he can.

GROSS: Yeah. And my understanding is he asked for permission to take his band to Mexico.

TRUEBA: He went there because he had an audience in Mexico. But then the unions in Mexico were, at the time, very pro-Castro. So they boycotted him, the concert. And with tears in his eyes, really crying...

GROSS: They boycott his concert?

TRUEBA: Yeah. He had to left Mexico. So he went to Spain, to Iran, Italy, Germany. And then, in Sweden, he met his Rose Marie, who is still his wife. And he married her and he stayed there. But he wanted - the first thing for him was to came to United States after he married Rose Marie. He had the plan of coming here.

But that was the time of the assassination of Martin Luther King and Robert - and Bob Kennedy. So he was black from Cuba, married with this blond Swedish woman, so he thought maybe it's more prudent - prudent?

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

TRUEBA: To stay in Sweden than to go to the United States in this moment. So he decide not coming here, who was for a musician, was the natural place to be, for a musician like Bebo.

GROSS: One of the things you did for your movie "Calle 54," the documentary featuring performances by Latin musicians, was you reunited Bebo Valdes with his son Chucho Valdes, who remained in Cuba...


GROSS: ...and was pretty popular there.


GROSS: And so they hadn't seen each other much over the years.


GROSS: Were they both amenable to getting together and dueting for your movie?

TRUEBA: Yeah. I think they both need that more than anyone else in the world. For them, it was, like, an incredible experience. They were in heaven when we were shooting that scene. The fact of being together both in New York and playing together, for them, was a magical moment. And it was for me and for the movie, too. But it was very difficult for Bebo.

I remember that he told me once Chucho was playing in Carnegie Hall in New York many years ago, and he hadn't seen him for 17 years. So it was a night that McCoy Tyler was playing and Bill Evans was playing and Chucho was playing with his group Irakere.

So Bebo take a plane from Stockholm to New York just to see Chucho, you know, in America. And - but there was - he was never alone. There was a guy from government always with them. You know, because...

GROSS: From the Cuban government.

TRUEBA: Yeah. Always. When they came in tour, musicians, there's always one of the government with them because if not, sometimes people desert the - how you say when they don't come back? When they...

GROSS: Defect.


GROSS: Defect.

Defect. Exactly. Defect. We say deserter in Spanish. OK. So at that time, they couldn't speak intimately, because there was someone from the government. So that was very frustrating for them.

Hmm. Just one more thing. What was Bebo Valdes' reaction when he saw the completed version of "Chico & Rita" knowing that this was his final work?

TRUEBA: Yeah. It's incredible because I pick up the print when it was finished, and I went to Malaga and I rent the theater, and I screen the movie just for him and for Estrella Morente, the flamenco singer who - she lives also in Malaga. So it was an incredible experience.

I was watching Bebo's face all the time, and he was so moved. And at the end of the movie, he was crying his eyes out with tears. And he kiss me. It was an incredible moment. I will never forget that moment - very, very emotional and touching for both of us.

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

TRUEBA: Thank you, Terry.

DAVIES: Fernando Trueba speaking with Terry Gross. Trueba co-directed the animated musical "Chico and Rita" which is out on DVD next week. Here's a duet with Bebo Valdes and his son Chucho recorded in 2007.


DAVE DAVIES, HOST: The writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson had his breakthrough with the 1997 film "Boogie Nights," then went on to direct such acclaimed movies as "Magnolia" and "There Will Be Blood." His latest is "The Master," which centers on a relationship between a fringe spiritual leader played by Philip Seymour Hoffman and an unstable disciple played by Joaquin Phoenix. Film critic David Edelstein has a review.

DAVID EDELSTEIN, BYLINE: Paul Thomas Anderson's "The Master" is both feverish and glacial. The vibe is chilly, but the central character is an unholy mess, and his rage saturates every frame. He's a World War II South Pacific vet named Freddie Quell, and played by Joaquin Phoenix to the hilt - the hilt above the hilt. We meet him at war's end on a tropical beach where he and other soldiers seek sexual relief atop the figure of a woman made out of sand.

No, it's not your father's war - at least, the war portrayed in most sagas of the so-called Greatest Generation. Alcoholic, sex-addicted Freddie can't adjust to a society that Anderson portrays as homogenized, repressed. Then he stumbles into something extraordinary, a burgeoning cult called The Cause.

The Cause is allegedly modeled on Scientology in the days before its leader, L. Ron Hubbard, re-branded it as a religion. Why allegedly? Anderson won't officially admit the connection, perhaps because the church is so given to suing its critics.

Whatever the model, the title character is named Lancaster Dodd and played by Philip Seymour Hoffman as a man with the soul of a child trying hard to present himself as a Brahmin-like patriarch and visionary. Freddie stows away on Dodd's yacht after fleeing migrant workers who think he poisoned a man with his homemade booze - and he probably did. It's not clear. Rather than chucking Freddie overboard, the Master takes a fatherly interest.


PHILIP SEYMOUR HOFFMAN: (as Lancaster Dodd) Why all the stalking and sneaking? You've wandered from the proper path, haven't you? The problems you're having.

JOAQUIN PHOENIX: (as Freddie Quell) I don't have any problems. I don't know what I told you, but if you have work for me to do, I can do it.

HOFFMAN: (as Lancaster Dodd) You seem so familiar to me.

PHOENIX: (as Freddie Quell) What do you do?

HOFFMAN: (as Lancaster Dodd) I am a writer, a doctor, a nuclear physicist, a theoretical philosopher, but above all, I am a man, a hopelessly inquisitive man, just like you.

EDELSTEIN: Paul Thomas Anderson's films - "Boogie Nights," "Magnolia," even "There Will Be Blood" - have surrogate families that can be wonderfully attractive to emotional orphans like Freddie. Here, disciples eagerly submit to what's called processing. Dodd asks questions, and then repeats them over and over, at once bullying and hypnotic, until his subjects break and open up.

Like a Freudian therapist, he targets past traumas, but these traumas supposedly go back to birth and before that, trillions of years. For Dodd, the body is but a vessel for a kind of Buddhist-like, transcendental soul. His processing purges basic emotions he calls animal.

On one level, wayward Freddie longs to be led, but something in him resists committing to a man he doesn't fully trust. And so the film becomes a push-and-pull of titanic wills. Freddie will either be subjugated, or flee to a life of debauchery and likely drink himself to death. There's no middle ground here.

There's no middle ground for Joaquin Phoenix, either. He's both riveting and painful to watch. He also seems to be channeling other actors' tics: Eastwood, Brando, even Robin Williams' Popeye, the words dribbling out the side of his twisted mouth. But his scenes with Hoffman are amazing. Hoffman's Dodd is perfectly nuanced, in the tradition of flimflam visionaries so in love with their own spiels they forget they're frauds.

Like "There Will Be Blood," "The Master" is more austere than Anderson's overflowing ensemble dramas. He shot it on now-rare 65-millimeter film stock, which gives radiant depth to the palette of browns and blacks, while low-angle close-ups make Dodd and Freddie monumental.

They're the whole film, really, although Dodd is always surrounded by followers who hang on his words and regard his belligerent media critics as their enemies, too. Amy Adams adds a chill as Dodd's wife, who presses her lips together and exhorts Dodd to attack those enemies before they attack him.

Radiohead's Johnny Greenwood has composed a score full of abrasive plinks and discordant horns. It's alienating, like the movie. But "The Master" captures, in a way I've never seen, the tension in American culture between stubborn individualism and a desire to be led, even by leaders who are ludicrous. There's no explosive catharsis. The movie is spectacularly unresolved. It leaves you spent, brooding, unlikely to join a cult, but on some level sad that this one's such a crock.

DAVIES: David Edelstein is film critic for New York Magazine.

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.

You May Also like

Did you know you can create a shareable playlist?


Recently on Fresh Air Available to Play on NPR


Daughter of Warhol star looks back on a bohemian childhood in the Chelsea Hotel

Alexandra Auder's mother, Viva, was one of Andy Warhol's muses. Growing up in Warhol's orbit meant Auder's childhood was an unusual one. For several years, Viva, Auder and Auder's younger half-sister, Gaby Hoffmann, lived in the Chelsea Hotel in Manhattan. It was was famous for having been home to Leonard Cohen, Dylan Thomas, Virgil Thomson, and Bob Dylan, among others.


This fake 'Jury Duty' really put James Marsden's improv chops on trial

In the series Jury Duty, a solar contractor named Ronald Gladden has agreed to participate in what he believes is a documentary about the experience of being a juror--but what Ronald doesn't know is that the whole thing is fake.


This Romanian film about immigration and vanishing jobs hits close to home

R.M.N. is based on an actual 2020 event in Ditrău, Romania, where 1,800 villagers voted to expel three Sri Lankans who worked at their local bakery.

There are more than 22,000 Fresh Air segments.

Let us help you find exactly what you want to hear.
Just play me something
Your Queue

Would you like to make a playlist based on your queue?

Generate & Share View/Edit Your Queue