September 20, 2012
Guests: David Cay Johnston - Kelly Macdonald
TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. The Internet was invented in the U.S., but we've fallen behind other countries in terms of access and speed. Our service is more expensive than in any of those countries. Why? That's one of the questions my guest, David Cay Johnston, tries to answer in his new book, "The Fine Print."
It's about how many corporations have worked the regulatory system to their advantage and how that affects things ranging from the service you receive to the state of our infrastructure. He also examines the fees that banks and phone companies have added over the years that have made your bills incrementally larger but have added up to big money for corporations.
Johnston was a reporter for the New York Times for 13 years, where he covered the tax system. In 2001, he won a Pulitzer Prize for his coverage of tax an equities and loopholes. He's now the board president of Investigative Reporters and Editors Incorporated and teaches at Syracuse University College of Law.
David Cay Johnston, welcome back to FRESH AIR.
DAVID CAY JOHNSTON: Well, thank you for having me, Terry.
GROSS: One of the things I've learned from the column that you used to write in Reuters and from your new book "The Fine Print" is that although until recently everybody had the right to a land phone line, and the phone company was required to provide land lines for everybody, that appears to be ending. That obligation appears to be ending. What is that obligation, and why is it ending?
JOHNSTON: Well, Terry, in 1913, the Justice Department wanted to break up the AT&T monopoly. And Thomas Vale(ph), the head of the company, in return for keeping that monopoly, promised universal public service: If you had an address, you would be entitled to a land line telephone.
Now, we're moving into a new world where we have cell phones and telephones over the Internet, and the telephone companies want out of this obligation of universal service. That's understandable. We don't want to have a society where every automobile must come with a buggy whip, right.
On the other hand, the laws they are getting written and passed entirely tilt the table in favor of the phone companies and the cable companies. Now, you could literally live on a street that has cable running down it and be told we're not going to serve you because you would no longer have any rights to be served.
GROSS: So for the phone companies, is it a question largely of where are the most profitable centers to wire, and is it going to be profitable to wire places with lower populations?
JOHNSTON: That's exactly what's happening. When you don't have a universal service obligation, then what the companies want to do is only serve those customers who will provide them with a high profit margin. So you could live in an urban setting in an apartment building that maybe has 200 or 300 apartments in it, but if only a minority of people want that service, the company can say we're not going to wire your building, and you're not going to get it.
And the problem with this is it cuts deeply into the interconnectedness of our society, and by doing that, I believe it retards our economic growth. It holds back our growth. If we had the kind of super-high-speed Internet that the Japanese have, the South Koreans have, the very inexpensive and much faster Internet the French have, I believe you would see businesses and business ideas develop that nobody would try right now, because our Internet is not up to the task.
GROSS: So I'm a little confused. What's at stake here for consumers? It is access to land lines or to Internet access or both?
JOHNSTON: Oh, it's both. You can end up in a situation where the only service you will have is a cell telephone: You won't be able to get cable; you won't be able to get a telephone; you won't be able to get Internet; and you will only have a cell phone, and, you know, a lot of buildings, cell phones don't work very well because of where the cell phone towers are located.
I'm not suggesting that we want to necessarily retain, with new technologies, the old rules, but we need to have some balance in these rules.
GROSS: So you write about how through various fees in our phone bills, we've actually been paying, over the years, to create the cable network that provides Internet access and cable TV.
JOHNSTON: Well, back in 1992, Al Gore began pushing for this idea of the information superhighway, a phrase the phone companies tell me don't use that, it's an old phrase, nobody uses it anymore. And the reason is they didn't really build it. We've paid, between cable company rate increases and telephone company rate increases, over a half-trillion dollars to get the Internet.
But what quietly happened without much attention is that the Internet, the standard that these companies had to meet, was a very low standard, far below the quality of the Internet that people have in other modern countries. America invented the Internet, so by the fact is it started out as number one. We now rank 29th in the speed of our Internet, according to Pando Networks.
We're way behind countries like Lithuania, Ukraine and Moldavia in the speed of our Internet. Per bit of information moved, we pay 38 times what the Japanese pay. If you buy one of these triple-play packages that are heavily advertised, where you get Internet, telephone and cable TV together, typically you'll pay what I pay, about $160 a month, including fees.
Well, the same service in France is $38 a month, that is 25 cents on the dollars. And instead of two-country calling, you get worldwide calling to 70 countries. You get an Internet that is 10 times faster uploading - downloading and 20 times faster uploading. And you get much broader international television stations than you get here in America.
We are paying super-high prices for low speeds and poor quality, and a number of cities that did not have quality high-speed Internet have built municipal systems. And a good example I tell in the book is about Lafayette, Louisiana. The town fathers there were not going to get electricity over 100 years ago, so they created a municipal electric system.
Well, they also built a municipal Internet, and it is so high-powered and so fast that a lot of the work done for the Pixar animated movies is done, not in Hollywood, but in Lafayette, Louisiana.
Well, the response from AT&T, Verizon, Cox, Time Warner and the other cable and telephone companies has been to go to the legislatures and say we want a law passed that either blocks or makes virtually impossible to build municipal systems. That's competing with our business interests. And that's part of the whole strategy they have: We want to be monopolies without competition; we want to run the system in our interest to maximize our profits, with no regard for the overall economy of the United States.
GROSS: So when you say we already paid for the Internet system, what do you mean by that?
JOHNSTON: Over the last 20 years, we've paid at least $360 billion in higher rates to the traditional telephone companies and well north of $100 billion more to the cable companies, who all testified before Congress, made filings with regulatory agencies, bought ads on television that told us we were going to have this information superhighway, and it was going to be everywhere. Even at fleabag motels in the middle of the Mojave Desert, you'd be able to get every movie ever made in every language in your hotel room.
Instead, what they built was a system in very limited locations. Verizon, for example, is only going to provide fiber-optic service to 16 million Americans, and then they've said they're not going to build anymore. Whole, huge parts of the country, all of northwestern and central New York, everything away from metropolitan New York, is not scheduled to get the high-speed Internet that we paid for and we were promised.
And how did that happen? The telephone and cable companies worked the regulatory process and the legislatures and Congress to get the rules written for their benefit. We used to argue that telephone and electricity were natural monopolies because you don't want 12 sets of power lines and 12 sets of telephone lines running down the street. Imagine how ugly that would be if strung from poles.
That's how we got the system of regulation to both protect the investors and protect the customers and make sure that prices and profits were just and reasonable. The phone companies and the cable companies now argue that well, we live in this new world in which we have cell phones as an option.
Well, a cell phone is a perfectly good option in many cases for telephone calls, but it's not an option for - generally for Internet access or watching television, and wireless services aren't as effective everywhere. Everybody has had the experience of dead zones and drop zones and overloaded zones.
So what I'm arguing in the book is we need to have a balanced policy. We need to have a policy not just written by and for telephone and cable companies but written to promote the entire economy. If we wired our whole country with a super-fast Internet that can handle all telecommunications services, and we charged appropriately so that the companies earn a respectable profit for it, and the customers pay a reasonable price, I think you would see industries, that no one can imagine today, arise.
GROSS: So you write in the book about how, you know, in spite of the fact that our Internet is somewhat inferior to those of many other countries, our phone bills in many ways are more expensive than they used to be, and I'm not sure if you're just - I mean, I think you're referring to landline phone bills, since cell phone bills are relatively new, we don't have that much to compare it with.
Speaking for myself, I think my phone bill's actually more expensive than it used to be, you know, before cell phones and before the Internet. Why are so many people's phone bills higher now than they were, say, 20 years ago?
JOHNSTON: Well, there are several factors at work in this. I tell about a woman who lived in Brooklyn whose phone bill went up I think it's 2.8 times the rate of inflation over 20 years. And the phone companies, first of all, have begun adding all these additional fees. If you got a single bill, and they raised the price, you'll tend to notice. But if there are lots of little fees built into the bill, and they raise this one this month and another one two months from now, and then they raise another one two months after that, you tend not to notice this.
One of the items on the phone bill, one that's more than doubled in real terms in price, is often referred to as FCC line charge. Now that sounds like the Federal Communications Commission is imposing a fee on you, presumably to finance the FCC. In fact, that is the charge paid to connect to the long-distance system. It goes entirely to the phone companies. It doesn't go to the government.
And the FCC has something called a requirement for plain English language so people can understand their phone bills. And here is a perfect example of the misuse of language to confuse people and not have them understand what they're really paying for.
So there are lots of these bills. My electric company, for example, charges me a penny a month just to prepare my bill.
GROSS: So what is the FCC subscriber line charge or FCC charge for network access?
JOHNSTON: It is simply the amount of money that you are charged so that your telephone, which is in the local network, can connect to long distance. And that fee is set by the FCC, but it's been allowing it to go up and up and up and up at a tremendous rate over time.
GROSS: So you're saying it's set by the FCC, it just doesn't go to the FCC.
JOHNSTON: It is set by the FCC, but I think it's entirely misleading to call it that. It should be called long-distance connection charge.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is David Cay Johnston. He's an investigative reporter who worked for the New York Times for 13 years, won a Pulitzer Prize there. He's written extensively about taxes. His new book is called "The Fine Print: How Big Companies Use Plain English to Rob You Blind." Let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is investigative reporter David Cay Johnston. His new book is called "The Fine Print: How Big Companies Use Plain English to Rob You Blind." He was a reporter for the New York Times for 13 years, won a Pulitzer Prize and has written extensively about taxes.
Let's talk taxes a little bit, and this is something I want you to explain. You write than in 19 states, there are laws that let companies pocket state income taxes that are withheld from their workers' paychecks for up to 25 years. Would you explain what you mean by that?
JOHNSTON: Well, in 19 states, the legislature has passed a law that if a company says we'll leave if you don't let us do this, or in some cases if we move here, we'll let you do this, the workers have their state income taxes withheld from their paycheck. So as far as they know, they've paid their taxes. The government treats them as having paid their taxes.
The company then gets a tax credit equal to the taxes owed by its employees. Now imagine that you under-withheld, so at the end of the year you realize oh, I've got to pay the state government $500 more. You write a check to the state government for $500. That money doesn't go to pay for schoolteachers and judges and parks and roads, and all the other things that state government provides.
It'll go to the company you're working for. Every big, brand-name company you have heard of in America has one of these deals. Rupert Murdoch's Dow Jones, General Electric, Procter & Gamble, all the automobile companies, a lot of foreign banks and manufacturers, Electrolux, the Swedish appliance maker. They all have these deals. They cover hundreds of thousands of workers.
And why would the legislature let these companies do this? Well, quietly, laws have been passed that allow these companies to not pay state income taxes in most cases. Most state corporate income taxes now don't come from the big national or multinational companies, they come from locally owned businesses.
GROSS: So they're saying to state governments: Unless you give us this tax break, we're going to leave; or if you give us this tax break, we're going to move to your state.
JOHNSTON: That's right, and it's better than a tax break. They're actually letting them pocket the tax dollars.
GROSS: Now explain that to me a little bit more. Like, I mean, I work for a nonprofit public broadcasting company. Say I work for one of the corporations that you're writing about here. I'm paying my federal, state and city income tax. What happens to my state income tax if the company has this credit?
JOHNSTON: Your state income taxes are kept by the company. The company doesn't tell you this. You don't know this. And the way the company does it is it files a form that gives it a tax credit equal to the state income taxes withheld from its workers' paychecks, or in some states, whatever the obligation is. So that if the workers were to say we're going to stop withholding state income taxes, the company could still get the money.
GROSS: So in other words my state taxes would be going to the company I work for, as opposed to going to the state government to provide infrastructure or whatever the state's going to do with it, but...
JOHNSTON: That's right, Terry. You would be being taxed by your employer. And that means everybody else in the state has to make up for those taxes if they're going to have schools to educate children, courts to adjudicate disputes and all the other services on which business depends.
GROSS: Now you're making that sound like a really horrible thing, but the argument on the other side is, in part, it means more jobs. This is a big company that you're talking about. It's employing me, hypothetically, in this little scenario that we just created. So I'm grateful to have the job. It's employing a lot of other people.
I mean, big businesses are good for states. That's why the states offer these tax credits in the first place.
JOHNSTON: Well, here's the question, Terry: Are we going to live in a market economy, where businesses operate by providing the services and products and earning profit, or are we going to live in an economy where we're taxed to subsidize these businesses? Because that's what this is. This is a subsidy with this business.
State legislatures have passed laws that effectively allow the big multinational companies to pay little or no state income tax. They take all their profits in states that don't tax those profits on the state level. Then in many cases they have given them property tax breaks for building a new factory or an office building.
In some cases, taxpayer dollars are directly used to build the factories and offices and even the shopping malls and individual stores. So when companies then go to the state governments and say, well, we're going to leave your state if you don't give us more, the politicians don't want to write a check, that would be pretty transparent.
So they say, well, tell you what, we'll do this deal where you withhold taxes from your workers' paychecks. Then you get a tax credit equal to that. So you can keep those taxes. The workers won't know, the public won't know about it, and you'll get all of this money.
That's not market economics. That's not capitalism. That's corporate socialism. That is taking from the many to benefit the few, and it's not free. The rest of us will have to pay higher taxes or take less in government services to benefit these companies.
And why should a handful of companies get these deals and not everybody? I mean, if we decided that businesses can't make a decent profit in America, maybe we need to rethink our entire model.
GROSS: So are you concerned that this gives big corporations the edge over small businesses that don't have the clout to say if you don't give us a tax break, we're going to move to another state?
JOHNSTON: That's exactly what I'm concerned about. And, in fact, what we're seeing is the homogenization of the American economy. Because of these stealth subsidies to big multinational companies, you're seeing more and chain operations. You are seeing all sorts of entrepreneurial family operations winding down and going out of business because they don't get these deals that the big multinationals get.
And without these subsidies, then I think we would have a much better market. You know, what do we want in market economics? We want the rigors of the market to get the most efficient companies to provide services. What we don't want to do is take companies and allow them to be inefficient, where they have an interest in providing not as good service because they don't face competition or to charge higher prices.
And to the extent that we take the state income taxes withheld from workers' paychecks and let companies keep that money, that we tax people to put up factories and office buildings and retail stores, that we grant tax exemptions to these big national companies, we are promoting inefficiency, and we are privatizing the profits and socializing the costs.
Let me give you a real good example of this. General Electric in Ohio is getting $115 million withheld from its workers' paychecks to modernize one of its factories in which it's spending $126 million. So 92 cents on the dollar of this investment is coming from the taxpayers.
Now GE, if it makes an eight percent profit on its investment, will make 100 percent annual profit on its investment in that factory, thanks to the taxpayers. Why should I be taxes, why should you or anybody listening to the show be taxes to give money to General Electric?
GROSS: Well, David Cay Johnston, thank you so much for talking with us.
JOHNSTON: Thank you, Terry.
GROSS: David Cay Johnston is the author of the new book "The Fine Print." You can read an excerpt on our website, freshair.npr.org. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. The HBO series "Boardwalk Empire" premiered its third season Sunday. Our guest, Scottish actress Kelly Macdonald, plays Margaret, a young Irish immigrant mother of two who becomes involved with Steve Buscemi's character, Nucky Thompson, a bootlegging gangster and corrupt politician in Prohibition-era Atlantic City. They married last season and when the season ended, she was defying him. Her defiance continues into this season.
Here's a scene from the next episode in which she's talking with her maid.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "BOARDWALK EMPIRE" )
KELLY MACDONALD: (as Margaret) Prudence?
UNIDENTIFIED: (as Prudence) Yes, ma'am?
MACDONALD: (as Margaret) Mr. Thompson has a morning suit, the striped trousers and cutaway jacket. Do you know where it is?
UNIDENTIFIED: (as Prudence) No. But I'm sure I can find it.
MACDONALD: (as Margaret) Check that it's sound and have it cleaned. He's going to need it when he meets the bishop.
UNIDENTIFIED: (as Prudence) Oh, did you not get the message, ma'am?
MACDONALD: (as Margaret) What message?
UNIDENTIFIED: (as Prudence) Mr. Thompson. He left word that he won't be attending the ceremony.
MACDONALD: (as Margaret) Clean the suit anyway. I'm afraid he's mistaken.
GROSS: Kelly Macdonald got a role in the Danny Boyle film "Trainspotting" at the age of 19 with virtually no acting experience and launched a successful career in television and movies. She's appeared in the films "Gosford Park," "The Girl in the Cafe," and "No Country for Old Men," as well as the hit British TV miniseries "State of Play," and this summer's Pixar animated film "Brave."
She spoke with FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies. They began with a scene from the first episode of "Boardwalk Empire"'s first season. Macdonald's character Margaret was then married to an alcoholic. She's heard Nucky Thompson give a speech about temperance and she's meeting with him to seek help for struggling family.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "BOARDWALK EMPIRE")
STEVE BUSCEMI: (as Nucky Thompson) Does your husband work?
MACDONALD: (as Margaret) He's a baker's helper. But till tourist season and with winter and the children without boots, I - your story moved me so. If you could see your way to give them a job, sir.
BUSCEMI: (as Nucky Thompson) As you say, until tourist season. However, this should see you through winter.
MACDONALD: (as Margaret) I'm not here looking for charity.
BUSCEMI: (as Nucky Thompson) I insist.
MACDONALD: (as Margaret) I don't know what to say, how to thank you. I'd be honored to name my child after you.
BUSCEMI: (as Nucky Thompson) Enoch? You couldn't possibly be so cruel.
DAVE DAVIES, HOST:
Well, Kelly Macdonald, welcome to FRESH AIR. This, of course, is a scene from the first episode of "Boardwalk Empire," in which you play a young woman, an immigrant from Ireland, and the heart of the story, really, is your character, Margaret Schroeder's relationship with the - Nucky Thompson, the corrupt politician who rules Atlantic City, played by Steve Buscemi. And it's interesting - as this relationship develops, I mean we don't see a lot of on-screen passion.
I mean there's a difference in ages, right? And they're sort of a reserve, a kind of a formality in their interactions, which I imagine might be kind of hard to get emotionally right.
MACDONALD: It's a tricky relationship to sort of nail down, really. I think it's not a great romantic love that they've got but they've definitely, you know, they bring something to each other's lives, and it's like a gentleman's agreement almost. That doesn't sound very romantic at all. But, you know, they're good for each other and, you know, they respect each other and enjoy each other's company. Well, that's certainly what it was like in the first season.
MACDONALD: But that's the amazing thing about it, you know, it changes all the time so you kind of, it keeps you on your toes. The characters are constantly evolving, you know, the way that we do in real life, so you can't be sort of tied down to your idea of the character because I'm always surprised by things Margaret comes out with.
DAVIES: I wanted to hear another clip. And this is from late in the second season when your relationship has evolved quite a bit and Nucky Thompson - again, this corrupt Atlantic City politician, who your character, Mrs. Schroeder, has moved in with, is in trouble. His political and mob allies have turned on him. He's under investigation for many crimes - including murder - and your character's daughter has contracted polio. And your character, Margaret Schroeder, is at heart a religious person and believes that God is punishing her for the evil in her life. And she's been subpoenaed, perhaps to testify against Nucky Thompson in his case. And you and Steve Buscemi, the Nucky character, are talking about that. Let's listen.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "BOARDWALK EMPIRE")
MACDONALD: (as Margaret) We began in sin.
BUSCEMI: (as Nucky Thompson) I do not want to hear about...
MACDONALD: (as Margaret) We began in sin. We'll end in it unless we change.
BUSCEMI: (as Nucky Thompson) The beginning's over. The end hasn't come yet. All I care about is now.
MACDONALD: (as Margaret) Then look what's happening now.
BUSCEMI: (as Nucky Thompson) What's happening now is you talking rubbish.
MACDONALD: (as Margaret) You're wrong. I've never been so sure of anything in my life.
BUSCEMI: (as Nucky Thompson) Emily was stricken with a disease.
MACDONALD: (as Margaret) And I am culpable.
BUSCEMI: (as Nucky Thompson) How?
MACDONALD: (as Margaret) I've stolen and cheated and deceived and now I'm being punished for those sins, as are the ones I love.
BUSCEMI: (as Nucky Thompson) Who did you steal from?
MACDONALD: (as Margaret) My family. My employer. You.
BUSCEMI: (as Nucky Thompson) Who did you deceive?
MACDONALD: (as Margaret) Anyone who thinks I'm good.
BUSCEMI: (as Nucky Thompson) And who have you cheated on? Say it.
MACDONALD: (as Margaret) I have - I live with the man who had the father of my children murdered.
BUSCEMI: (as Nucky Thompson) Really? When did I do that?
MACDONALD: (as Margaret) You said...
BUSCEMI: (as Nucky Thompson) That he deserved it. And whatever you think I did...
MACDONALD: (as Margaret) You're lying to me and to yourself.
BUSCEMI: (as Nucky Thompson) Whatever misguided martyrdom you're contemplating while I'm...
DAVIES: (as Margaret) I can go on pretending.
BUSCEMI: (as Nucky Thompson) ...breaking my back providing.
MACDONALD: (as Margaret) I'm not being called to account.
BUSCEMI: (as Nucky Thompson) Are you actually talking about testifying? Have you lost your mind?
MACDONALD: (as Margaret) Let go of me.
BUSCEMI: (as Nucky Thompson) I will not. You listen. If you want to punish yourself because your daughter got sick, that's your business, but I will not permit you to sacrifice me.
MACDONALD: (as Margaret) Won't permit?
BUSCEMI: (as Nucky Thompson) And if you don't think I'm as good as my word, you don't know me at all.
DAVIES: And that's Steve Buscemi and our guest Kelly Macdonald from last season of "Boardwalk Empire." The new season premieres September 16th. This is quite a transition from where your character began. How much notice do you get of where your character is going as you do the series?
MACDONALD: Little to none. I mean, really.
I'm kind of fine with it. The first year was the trickiest. I kind of struggled a little bit like, you know, how quickly she seemed to recover from losing the baby. She had a plan from that moment. She was like, OK, this man can help me out of the situation. And in my head I was thinking, no, she would just take to her bed and be sobbing for weeks and not, you know - but it's, there's a lot of hidden strength and I think as the show is going on they're bringing it out more and more. And I'm really enjoying it because I get cast in certain films and I don't generally get to play the stronger characters. I get very lovely parts but they're quite quiet and thoughtful and watchful and that's all well and good but I kind of have been enjoying getting my teeth into something else.
DAVIES: You know, one of the things that I really like about the series is the period that it's set in. It's set in, you know, the early Prohibition era in Atlantic City and there's just this enormous attention to period detail. I mean I'm told that a lot of the clothes are actually vintage clothes, I mean not reproductions. And I wonder if, you know, being in that kind of world where there's all this attention paid to detail makes for a different kind of acting experience.
MACDONALD: I think it really does. I mean I don't do a huge amount of research and work before I actually arrive on set for jobs, generally, unless I have to learn how to do something, you know, like horse ride or, you know, something strange that I'm not familiar with. But I really find it helpful wearing the costumes and being in the surroundings. I had a small role in "Harry Potter" a few years ago and that was all green screen. And so, you know, I was in costume but it was in a big warehouse and I was on my own pretending to talk to Harry Potter and that's quite tricky. But - so it's definitely easier when you're in the right surroundings.
GROSS: We're listening to the interview FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies just recorded with Kelly Macdonald, who plays Margaret Thompson on HBO's "Boardwalk Empire."
More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: Let's get back to the interview FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies recorded with Kelly Macdonald, who plays Margaret Thompson, as Nucky Thompson's wife on HBO's "Boardwalk Empire."
DAVIES: You have an interesting history as an actor. I mean your first roll was "Trainspotting," the film made by Danny Boyle, who directed "Slumdog Millionaire" and a lot of other great films. How did you get that role?
MACDONALD: I went to an open casting, which is sort of unlikely where I'm from - it was in Glasgow - and they were going to be shooting the film mainly in Glasgow, even though it's an Edinburgh-set story. They handed out flyers around Glasgow and Edinburgh. They were looking for an unknown to play the part of Diane.
DAVIES: Had you done any acting at all?
MACDONALD: I had not, you know, no - I mean I had, I was in an amateur dramatics kind of class for a few weeks and but I don't think that really counts.
DAVIES: What was the audition like?
MACDONALD: It was kind of a casting call where I think they were first of all looking for a face, and so I went along to - I think it was Strathclyde University in Glasgow, and I was in a big hall full of all of these other girls of the same sort of age, and we just were called forward one by one to sit in front of the director and his casting director. And then the second time I got called back, I read with Ewan McGregor and I hid behind - I actually, he says this, I don't remember, it was just like I was in a blind panic. But he said that I held the script in front of my face the whole time. He had no idea what I looked like.
MACDONALD: And then the third callback was the screen test and at that point I had been told to learn the scenes and we had to be up and moving around. And so that was the more challenging audition of all. The most challenging, rather.
DAVIES: Did you practice in your apartment beforehand? I mean how did you...
MACDONALD: All I could think of was sitting in the front garden with my mom, learning the scene. And then so my mom was reading the Renton part and being really annoying, because she was really super-acting and I had to keep stopping and saying, just read it, just read the words.
MACDONALD: And she was - and weirdly, I got the same, you know, direction from Danny Boyle at my screen test. For some reason at the screen test I decided I was going to do - this was it. I was going to do super-acting, kind of like my mom. And as soon as I started doing it it was all wrong. And Danny stopped me and said, you know, just, you know, John Hodge has written a very good script and the words are all there and you don't have to put gaps in. Just read it. Just, you know, just say the words. And that's advice that I've kept with me.
DAVIES: Let's listen to a scene from the film here. This is, you played Diane who is a very young and precocious teenager who is very much at home in the nightclub scene. And in this moment she's just come out of a club and one of the film's stars, Renton, played by Ewan McGregor, has followed you outside the club and introduces himself and makes a play. Let's listen.
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "TRAINSPOTTING")
EWAN MCGREGOR: (as Renton) Excuse me. Excuse me. I don't mean to harass you, but I was very impressed with the capable and stable manner in which you dealt with that situation. And I was thinking to myself - now, this girl's special.
MACDONALD: (as Diane) Thanks.
MCGREGOR: (as Renton) What's your name?
MACDONALD: (as Diane) Diane.
MCGREGOR: (as Renton) And where are you going, Diane?
MACDONALD: (as Diane) I'm going home.
MCGREGOR: (as Renton) Where's that?
MACDONALD: (as Diane) It's (unintelligible).
MCGREGOR: (as Renton) Great.
MACDONALD: (as Diane) What?
MCGREGOR: (as Renton) Well, I'll come back with you if you like. But like I'm not promising anything, you know?
MACDONALD: (as Diane) Do you think that this approach usually works? Or let me guess. You've never tried it before? In fact, you don't normally approach girls. Am I right? The truth is that you're a quiet, sensitive type. But if I'm prepared to take a chance, I might just get to know the inner you - witty, adventurous and passionate, loving, loyal. Taxi.
(as Diane) A little bit crazy. A little bit bad. (Unintelligible) don't us girls just love that?
DAVIES: And that's our guest, Kelly Macdonald, and Ewan McGregor in Kelly's first film role, in "Trainspotting."
Was it hard to pull this off? I mean do you think your inexperience as an actress help you relax and just do it?
MACDONALD: I don't remember being very relaxed. It was a really fun shoot. It was really, you know, all these amazing young British actors just being very charismatic and fun. And I don't think I spoke very much. I was very, very shy and I kind of hid in the toilets most of the time when we weren't, you know, required on set. But it's just...
MACDONALD: Yeah. I mean I was - yeah. The A.D.'s would come and find me in the toilets.
DAVIES: You were just hiding?
MACDONALD: Yeah. Like, I kind of was like that at school as well. I don't know if that - that's a kind of a strange thing, but, yeah, I kind of would dilly-dally around the toilets until I was needed.
DAVIES: You know, it's interesting, because you said you do play a lot of roles in which you're quiet and sometimes deferential, but the character here is anything but. I mean, she is - she's got a lot of brass.
MACDONALD: Oh, yeah. And I think that between "Trainspotting" and the next time I played a ballsy character, it was quite a huge...
MACDONALD: ...space of time, which is good, because I wasn't typecast any way.
DAVIES: Well, you just go in, and then you do it and it works. One other thing about the "Trainspotting" role, I mean, there's some pretty explicit nudity in that performance. Did that make you uncomfortable at all?
MACDONALD: Oh, yeah.
MACDONALD: I was in denial, head in the sand about that day's work, so much so that I (technical difficulties) spoken to me from the very beginning. Danny Boyle had said, you know, there is this scene, and it's necessary, the nudity, and explained why. And I just, you know, would nod my head and agree and go along with it, and I kind of - I thought, well, that will never happen. We'll never get to that day.
MACDONALD: And then - and we did, and it happened to be the day that I had invited my family to come and visit the set, which is just completely unthinking and...
DAVIES: Oh, my heavens.
MACDONALD: ...shows how young and daft I was. So my mum and brother had to just sit in the catering bus the whole day, and they didn't get to see any. Well, luckily, they didn't get to see me working that day. They saw it in the end, though.
DAVIES: And how did they react?
MACDONALD: My mum's amazing. She, you know, I think now that I'm a mother, I think I would feel very differently. But she was completely positive and behind it. I think my brother got a bit embarrassed, but I think that's completely normal.
DAVIES: Would you feel differently about taking on a scene like that now?
MACDONALD: Oh, yeah. Nudity's out. It's out. You won't even get me in a bikini on set, frankly. Yeah. I was 19. It was a different body, a different life.
DAVIES: We have to talk about the Coen brothers film "No Country for Old Men," where you play the wife of a west Texas welder, who's played by Josh Brolin. You're Carla Jean Moss, and for folks who haven't seen it, I mean, your husband finds this satchel full of drug money, ends up being pursued by a psychopathic killer who's played by Javier Bardem.
The scene we're going to hear is one late in the film, where this killer Javier Bardem plays, Anton Chigurh, has already killed your husband, but before, he had warned him that if he didn't hand over the drug money, that he would kill you. It's late in the film. Your husband is now dead. You come home to your house, and you find this killer played by Javier Bardem waiting for you. Let's listen.
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN")
MACDONALD: (as Carla Jean Moss) You got not cause to hurt me.
JAVIER BARDEM: (as Anton Chigurh) No. But I gave my word.
MACDONALD: (as Carla Jean Moss) You gave your word?
BARDEM: (as Anton Chigurh) To your husband.
MACDONALD: (as Carla Jean Moss) That don't make sense. You gave your word to my husband to kill me?
BARDEM: (as Anton Chigurh) Your husband had the opportunity to save you. Instead, he used you to try to save himself.
MACDONALD: (as Carla Jean Moss) Not like that. Not like you say. You don't have to do this.
BARDEM: (as Anton Chigurh) People always say the same thing.
MACDONALD: (as Carla Jean Moss) What do they say?
BARDEM: (as Anton Chigurh) They say you don't have to do this.
MACDONALD: (as Carla Jean Moss) You don't.
DAVIES: And that really is Scottish actress Kelly Macdonald there...
DAVIES: ...with one of the scariest people ever in a movie, Javier Bardem as Anton Chigurh.
MACDONALD: Oh, I know.
DAVIES: Was he scary to be in a room with?
MACDONALD: Oh, not in any way, out of character. Javier is the most fun person on a set, I think. And I remember that day, as well, because it was a very intense, important scene, and I just remember lots of laughter. But as soon as he put on his Anton hat, or whatever you want to call it, he was pretty terrifying. I think it was the haircut, actually. He put on his Anton hair.
DAVIES: Right. It was that weird, kind of, long hair. Right. Right.
MACDONALD: Bowl cut. Yeah.
DAVIES: Uh-huh. Uh-huh. You know, we hear you doing a West Texas accent here, and I will tell you, I grew up in Texas, and I have a lot of folks still in that part of the country.
DAVIES: And you really nail this. Is this something you had to work hard on?
MACDONALD: I do work - although I was saying I don't have a method or I don't, you know, I don't do a huge amount of preparation before I land on set, I do - if there's an accent involved, I do work quite hard. And some accents come easier than others. And for some reason that one, I mean, I pretty much got that one overnight, because I had very short notice for the audition. And so I phoned a friend and got her to help me. And then, yeah, it kind of clicked in for me quite quickly.
GROSS: We're listening to the interview FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies just recorded with Kelly Macdonald, who plays Margaret Thompson on HBO's "Boardwalk Empire." More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: Let's get back to the interview FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies recorded with Kelly Macdonald, who plays Margaret Thompson, Nucky Thompson's wife, on HBO's "Boardwalk Empire."
DAVIES: Well, I wanted to talk about "Brave." This is the new Pixar animated film, which is the first female protagonist of their films, and that is you as a Scottish princess whose mother wants her to wear dresses and submit to an arranged marriage. But she is, in fact, a young, fiercely independent kid who wants to ride horses at breakneck speed and shoot arrows.
And we're going to hear a scene here. This is where your father - you as the princess - your father, who is the king, played by Billy Connolly, is telling his sons one of his favorite stories about a battle he had with a ferocious bear, and then your character, Merida, interrupts. Let's listen.
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "BRAVE")
BILLY CONNOLLY: (as Fergus) Then, out of nowhere, the biggest bear you've ever seen, his hide lit up with the weapons of fallen warriors, his face scarred with one dead eye. I drew my sword and...
MACDONALD: (as Merida) Whoosh! One swipe. His sword shattered. Then, chomp, dad's leg was clean off. Down the monster's throat it went.
CONNOLLY: (as Fergus) Aw. That's my favorite part.
MACDONALD: (as Merida) Mor'du has never been seen since, and is roaming the wilds, waiting his chance of revenge. Rawr!
CONNOLLY: (as Fergus) Let him return. I'll finish what I guggled in the first place.
EMMA THOMPSON: (as Elinor) Merida, a princess does not place her weapons on the table.
MACDONALD: (as Merida) Mom.
DAVIES: That's our guest, Kelly Macdonald, playing Merida in the movie "Brave." Also in that scene, Billy Connolly, and at the end, Emma Thompson. You know, a lot of your performances are sort of quietly powerful. Nothing subtle about the kid you play here. I mean...
DAVIES: ...was it a challenge to put all of this into your voice?
MACDONALD: Oh, my goodness, yes. It really, really was. Doing an animation, you just - everything's huge. You have to - everything - like, even listening to that clip, you hear all the footsteps and, you know, you hear so many more sounds than you can believe. And the voices just have to be, you know, you have to multiply everything by a hundred. And that was - that just goes against everything that I know. And so I had to really - it was a real challenge. But I loved it. I really, really loved it.
DAVIES: And, of course, in the finished product, it's not your face. It's someone who's completely different, this young kid with this flaming red hair.
DAVIES: Is it kind of an out-of-body experience to see it and hear your voice?
MACDONALD: It's an odd experience, because when I first saw it - I saw it a few times, but the very first time, I kept thinking, wow. She looks like my son. She really looks like my son. And, you know, when you're doing an animation for Pixar, they film the actors at work so, you know, they'll film you at the microphone doing your thing.
And then the animators will use that footage, you know, as a tool, you know, because everybody's mouths move in different ways when they say different words and, you know, they would use certain expressions that we all had. And so they had been doing that. And when I'm looking at it, I see my son, but actually, it's me.
MACDONALD: Because, you know, he makes - my husband says that, you know, because he's - my son's blond and blue-eyed and doesn't look very much like me, but my husband always says he's got, you know, his father's face, but his mother's using it...
MACDONALD: ...which is very true. He's got a very elastic face. He's always pulling.
DAVIES: You grew up in Glasgow, and you've moved to London. Is that right?
MACDONALD: I lived in London for years, but we now - we sort of jump between Glasgow and New York.
DAVIES: Have you gotten used to celebrity, to having fans who adore you?
MACDONALD: I don't know if it's celebrity. I do get - you know, people shout Mrs. Schroeder at me in the street. But I don't get it anywhere near as, you know, Steve is definitely Nucky, you know, everywhere he goes. But I think I managed to fly under the radar a little bit, which suits me fine.
DAVIES: Well, Kelly Macdonald, it's been great. Thanks so much for spending some time with us.
MACDONALD: Thank you for having me.
GROSS: Kelly Macdonald spoke with FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies. She plays Margaret Thompson on the HBO series "Boardwalk Empire." Episode two of season three is coming up Sunday.
You can download podcasts of our show on our website, freshair.npr.org, and you can follow us on Twitter @nprfreshair and on Tumblr at nprfreshair.tumblr.com.
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