DATE August 7, 2003 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
PROGRAM Fresh Air
Interview: Hope Davis discusses her new films, "American Splendor"
and "The Secret Lives of Dentists," and her career
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
My guest is actress Hope Davis. She's best known for her starring roles in
"About Schmidt" as Jack Nicholson's daughter and "Next Stop Wonderland" in
which she played a single woman who keeps striking out in her love life. Now
she's starring in two new films, "American Splendor," based on Harvey Pekar's
autobiographical comic book series of the same name, and "The Secret Lives of
Dentists," which is adapted from Jane Smiley's novella "The Age of Grief."
In the "The Secret Lives of Dentists," Davis and Campbell Scott play a married
couple who have a joint dental practice and are raising three young daughters.
The work and the children are very demanding, and the strain is showing in the
marriage. Things get worse when Campbell Scott starts to suspect that his
wife is having an affair with another man. But he's afraid that if he asks if
that's true, he won't be able to bear the answer, so he says nothing, and she
interprets his withdrawal as indifference. In this scene, she's watching TV
and knitting in the living room. He walks in, sits on the arm of her chair,
and starts kissing her.
(Soundbite of "The Secret Lives of Dentists")
Ms. HOPE DAVIS: Do you like me?
Mr. CAMPBELL SCOTT: I love you.
Ms. DAVIS: I mean, if you weren't sleeping with me? Do you want to talk to
me and have lunch with me and--you would?
Mr. SCOTT: Yes, I would.
Ms. DAVIS: Do you think that we're friends?
Mr. SCOTT: I'll prove it to you.
Ms. DAVIS: I just thought it would be different, you know, our marriage. I
thought it would be like the Cinerama and, you know, just get wider and
wider and it doesn't. It just gets smaller and smaller.
Mr. SCOTT: No, it doesn't.
GROSS: Now you play the mother of three. I've so often seen you as like the
single woman, you know, the unmarried woman. Was this an interesting change
Ms. DAVIS: Yeah. All of a sudden, everything that I'm being offered, I have
kids, you know, and in the Hollywood world, you hit that mid-30s and you're a
mother, and then very soon, you get to be the grandmother.
GROSS: And then you get no roles at all.
Ms. DAVIS: Right. No. I think Goldie Hawn said it best. She said something
like, you know, there's the ingenue and then you go to district attorney and
then it's "Driving Miss Daisy." Those are the three ages of women in
Hollywood. Yeah. Now everything I, you know--and with every passing year, at
first, I had three-year-olds, and suddenly, I'm offered roles where I have
teen-age sons. I loved--you know, for me I was pregnant at the time of
filming this with my first child.
GROSS: I thought so. I was going to ask you about that.
Ms. DAVIS: Oh, could you tell?
GROSS: Well, it's not--I didn't see a stomach on you, you know. You didn't
look pregnant, but you were wearing pregnant cover-up clothes.
Ms. DAVIS: Oh, yes.
GROSS: You know, long sweaters, big coats.
Ms. DAVIS: The long sweaters and trying to gesture a lot in front of my
stomach and--yeah. You know, it was very interesting to be with three very
young girls on the set. It was so daunting to me. These girls had more
energy than the entire crew put together. And they were so noisy and so full
of life and so wonderfully rambunctious that I was sitting there, you know,
feeling heavy with morning sickness. I'm just wondering how on earth I was
going to do this. But it was kind of interesting to kind of see the future
there for myself.
GROSS: That's funny because that's, in a way, what the adult characters are
feeling, too, like...
Ms. DAVIS: Yes.
GROSS: ...they obviously love their kids but their kids...
Ms. DAVIS: But are completely overwhelmed by them.
GROSS: Exactly. They're such a handful.
Ms. DAVIS: Which is something that--you know, that's another thing that I
love about the film. I was one of three girls, and I saw my parents struggle
with these same things. How do you keep your relationship alive when 99
percent of your energy is spent trying to pay the mortgage and trying to get
the food on the table and trying to clean up the breakfast and getting the
kids dressed and then one kid has a fever and then five people have a fever,
and how do you keep, you know, the spark of your marriage alive through this
kind of daily grind? And I love that about the movie. I love the way it
GROSS: I have to ask you about "American Splendor." I think this is really a
special movie. It's based on the autobiographical comics of Harvey Pekar.
Now he's somebody who never really supported himself from his comics. He
worked until his retirement as a file clerk. He's a jazz record collector and
also writes music criticism. He's very obsessive-compulsive, very
self-absorbed, cynical, difficult to get along with, or at least that's how
he is in his autobiographical comics. You play Joyce Brabner, a woman who
worked in a comic book store and then wrote to Harvey asking for copies of
American Splendor. They started up a correspondence. He invited her to
Cleveland to meet him, and they ended up getting married a few days later.
Ms. DAVIS: Yeah.
GROSS: So you play Joyce Brabner, the woman who becomes his wife. Let me
play a scene from your first dinner together in Cleveland at a restaurant.
Ms. DAVIS: Oh, great.
GROSS: You're not happy with the restaurant. Paul Giamatti plays Harvey
(Soundbite of "American Splendor")
Mr. PAUL GIAMATTI (As Harvey Pekar): What's wrong?
Ms. DAVIS (As Joyce Brabner): Nothing.
Mr. GIAMATTI (As Harvey Pekar): Something's wrong. You keep looking around
Ms. DAVIS (As Joyce Brabner): I guess I never imagined you'd eat in a place
Mr. GIAMATTI (As Harvey Pekar): What, me? No. I've never been here. I
don't know. I thought you'd like it. But obviously, you don't, do you?
Ms. DAVIS (As Joyce Brabner): No, it's fine. What difference does it make?
Mr. GIAMATTI (As Harvey Pekar): I don't know. None, I guess. They've got a
lot of meat on this menu.
Ms. DAVIS (As Joyce Brabner): You're a vegetarian?
Mr. GIAMATTI (As Harvey Pekar): Kind of. You know, I mean, ever since I got
a pet cat, you know, I've had a lot of trouble eating animals.
Ms. DAVIS (As Joyce Brabner): Hmm. I support and identify with groups like
PETA, but unfortunately, I'm a self-diagnosed anemic.
Mr. GIAMATTI (As Harvey Pekar): Uh-huh.
Ms. DAVIS (As Joyce Brabner): Also, I have all these food allergies to
vegetables, which give me serious intestinal distress. I guess I have a lot
of borderline health disorders that limit me politically when it comes to
Mr. GIAMATTI (As Harvey Pekar): Wow, you're a sick woman.
Ms. DAVIS (As Joyce Brabner): Not yet, but I expect to be. Everyone in my
family has some sort of degenerative illness.
GROSS: That's Hope Davis and Paul Giamatti in a scene from "American
Splendor," which is based on the story by Harvey Pekar and Joyce Brabner.
That's a great scene and an example of how you have to play the character of
Joyce. There's a lot of comedy in this because the characters are so neurotic
and so self-involved. But you play it not for laughs. You play it very
Ms. DAVIS: Yeah. I mean, you know, this is the only way to do this type of
comedy. Actually, right before I made "American Splendor," the movie I'd done
right before that was "About Schmidt," and Jack Nicholson gave us, you know, a
really good talking to before we started that movie about how, if we played it
for laughs, you know, all of the very subtle bits of comedy go right out the
window. So, you know, I've never forgotten that, and certainly in a movie
like "American Splendor," these people don't think they're funny. They don't
think what they have to say is remotely funny. They think it's very serious,
and that's the only way to play it. Paul Giamatti and I actually had a really
tough time doing that scene. We read it about two hours before we were
supposed to start shooting it. We could not stop laughing. We were laughing
so hard, we were sweating.
And we were so nervous that we were going to be laughing during the shooting
because this had been a problem over the course of the film, that we went into
my trailer and we rehearsed the thing into the ground, and we came out and
performed it, and the directors came out, as they were horrified. It was like
a funeral dirge, we'd taken it down so low, and they were panicked. They came
at us, like, `You've got to liven it up.' But we were desperately trying not
to laugh. I think the writing is so brilliant in this film.
GROSS: So was that the version that you used, the funeral version?
Ms. DAVIS: No. Believe it or not, you're seeing the warmed up version.
GROSS: OK. Now one of the things that makes this movie really unique is that
there's you and Paul Giamatti playing Harvey Pekar and Joyce Brabner, but at
the same time, there's documentary scenes with Harvey Pekar and Joyce Brabner
talking about themselves and being interviewed. And there's also stills from
the comic book that are shown. So it's working on three levels at the same
time, something that could be a really terrible failure very easily, but for
some reason, it really works, and it's very true to the sensibility of the
comic. But anyways, you know, people often play parts in which their role is
based on a real person, but people very rarely play a part in which the real
person joins them in the movie. So what were you up against playing Joyce
Brabner knowing that Joyce was actually going to be representing herself in
the movie as well?
Ms. DAVIS: She was also standing beside the camera on my first day of
GROSS: Oh, no.
Ms. DAVIS: I was very, very nervous. You know, I think it was the most
nervous I've ever been shooting a film, because Joyce took me aside a couple
days before the filming started and said that she was really unhappy with the
way she was always portrayed in Harvey's comic books. She didn't feel it was
her whole true character, and she was not so sure she liked the script and the
way she was portrayed in the script, and she really wanted to be represented
in a more well-rounded way, and so, you know, Joyce is, as you can see in the
film, she's a rather intimidating character.
And I started the first day and I could see her standing next to the camera
with her eyes fold--and she had her glasses on and she was peering down her
nose at me, and I became so nervous, I just felt like such a fraud that I felt
that I was acting very poorly. So after the first take, I took the directors
aside, and I said, `Please, please, please, ask her not to watch. I can't do
it. I can't perform.' So she didn't watch the rest of the filming and she
was pretty peeved about that. She really wanted to be there. Harvey, on the
other hand, hung around the set all day, every day, and seemed completely
bored by the whole enterprise. He didn't understand why it took so long to do
everything. His favorite thing was the big lunch spread, the free lunch
spread that came at about 2:00 every day. He'd hang around for that, but he
thought the filming was kind of silly.
Ms. DAVIS: And...
GROSS: Go ahead.
Ms. DAVIS: ...then he saw the finished film and I think he's pretty happy.
GROSS: Had you read American Splendor before taking the role?
Ms. DAVIS: I had not read American Splendor. I had heard about it, and I
had not read the comic books, and I actually got all of the comic books before
I read the script, and by the time I'd finished the first comic book, I
desperately wanted to do the film. I was so in love with Harvey's writing and
those stories that he writes.
GROSS: What did you like about the comic?
Ms. DAVIS: Well, they actually kind of reminded me of Joseph Mitchell's
writings. I'd done a film with Stanley Tucci, "Joe Gould's Secret,"
about Joseph Mitchell, who wrote for The New Yorker and just captured the
lives of these New Yorkers, you know, these people that you would never
encounter in high society or, you know, the ticket taker at the theater window
at the Bowery. And I felt like Harvey really tapped into the same vein of
expression, you know. He's telling the stories. He's very kind of--stories
about these seemingly ordinary people. And yet, they're all kind of poets in
their own way. And I was really taken with his ability to take the most
mundane activity and describe the conversation that took place there and just
make you realize how beautiful it is, the way people will just talk about the
most mundane things, just have a conversation, just to connect, just to talk.
And I was just fascinated with his work.
GROSS: That's a really interesting comparison between Joseph Mitchell and
Ms. DAVIS: Yeah. I think they would get along
GROSS: So, you know, I don't think I asked you what kind of feedback Joyce
Brabner gave you on the performance when she saw the final film.
Ms. DAVIS: Well, we saw the film together at the Sundance Film Festival at
its first screening, which was a really exciting evening. You know, I didn't
know how the film would be received. I'd seen it alone in a screening room
and didn't know how I felt about it. You know, the first time I see a film, I
always feel very strange afterwards. And the filming--the screening was
just--they ate it up, and the audience laughed at almost anything that came
out of the character's mouth, Joyce's mouth. And afterwards, she was just
absolutely beaming. And we went up afterwards to do a Q&A and I wondered if
Joyce was going to be shy. You know, I hadn't seen her--she went straight up
to that microphone and took over, and she was hilarious. And it was clear
that she was just--she was so happy with the way people received the film.
GROSS: So she felt they were laughing with the character and not at her?
Ms. DAVIS: Absolutely. She thought they were laughing at Harvey and with
GROSS: And what did Harvey think?
Ms. DAVIS: You know, at the end of the screening, the audience stood up when
they saw that Harvey and Joyce were there, and they stood up and applauded and
stood for a long time. And Harvey was just--it just broke my--it was so
sweet. He just was shuffling his feet in front of the crowd and looking at
the floor, and he had this big grin on his face. And I just felt like, this
is Harvey's moment in the sun and, by God, he deserves it. He's a poet.
GROSS: He's one of the great unrecognized--or under-recognized, I should say,
Ms. DAVIS: I think so. I think so. And I really feel like our culture could
use Harvey Pekar at this point. You know, he just says exactly what's on his
mind and I love to listen to him talk.
GROSS: My guest is actress Hope Davis. We'll talk more after a break. This
is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: My guest is actress Hope Davis. She starred in "About Schmidt," "Next
Stop Wonderland" and "Daytrippers." She's starring in two new films: "The
Secret Lives of Dentists" and "American Splendor."
Now you worked with Jack Nicholson in "About Schmidt." He played your father.
What was his style of working and rehearsing? Was there anything different
about working with him outside of his fame than other actors that you've
Ms. DAVIS: Well, there was just, you know, the kind of heightened--you know,
the adrenaline rushing, sitting across from Jack Nicholson feeling--we didn't
rehearse on that film, and that's the way that I like to do it. And we kind
of showed up and, you know, we did one read-through of the script, and then we
showed, figured out where we were going to sit and launched. And I have to
say, it was thrilling to sit across the table from him and work. He's an
actor's actor. He absolutely relishes diving into scenes and fleshing them
out and telling these stories. And it was like being on a roller coaster. I
was so excited sitting across the table and working with him. It was--you
know, I still can't believe it happened. It was like a dream for me. I loved
every minute of it.
GROSS: Even though you've been in a lot of films, I could see the possibility
of you feeling slightly intimidated by him just because he's so at the...
Ms. DAVIS: He's Jack.
GROSS: Yeah--he's so at the top of acting.
Ms. DAVIS: Yeah.
GROSS: But did you get the impression from him that it doesn't work for him
to have actors being intimidated when they're working with him? Did he try to
do anything to dispel any discomfort you might have?
Ms. DAVIS: Well, you know, in a wonderful way he didn't go out of his way to
make everybody feel like he was just one of the guys, because he's not one of
the guys. He's Jack Nicholson. He's probably the coolest, you know--I mean,
he's not your average guy, and he knows that. There's something kind of
magical about him. So he doesn't try to pal around with people, and yet, he
made me feel comfortable the second we stepped on set by just--you know, the
first scene we did, we were in our bathrobes and he had his hair standing up
and he had his little bathrobe wrapped around him, and he was so--just being
in his presence, he was so warm and sweet and he was Warren Schmidt right
away. He was my dad. He was the dad, and he was so into the moment of doing
the scene that all that other stuff fell away the second we started reading
the scenes because, you know, that's what he's there to do. All the other,
you know, hullabaloo that surrounds being an actor or being a big star like
that just falls away when the camera's rolling and you're shooting. And I was
so happy to see that it was going to be like that.
GROSS: The funny thing is, here you are in scenes with Jack Nicholson, but
you're the one who's angry with him and that you're the one who's trying to
tell him what to do.
Ms. DAVIS: Yeah, people said, `Oh, was it scary to yell at him, at Jack
Nicholson?' No, it was absolutely great, you know, because it seemed so very
real to sit across--and, you know, strangely enough, he reminded me of my dad,
you know, a guy who didn't know how to make a sandwich and had no idea where
the washer and dryer were and, you know, that was my dad. And I just--you
know, I really could relate to him that way, how infuriating it is to sit
across from a man who's 65 and doesn't know where the potato chips are kept,
GROSS: What's your favorite scene in the film that you're in?
Ms. DAVIS: I love the wedding scene, you know, only a little bit of which is
actually shown in the film. We filmed a long wedding scene--I just love the
scene at the table when she's made him a sandwich and they have their first
big talk. You know, it's clear that they haven't had a talk in a really long
time, and it doesn't go very well. And I loved shooting that scene and I love
watching him in it. He just--I think he's amazing.
GROSS: Why don't we hear that scene then.
Ms. DAVIS: Great.
GROSS: This is Hope Davis and Jack Nicholson in a scene from "About Schmidt")
(Soundbite of "About Schmidt")
Ms. DAVIS: Dad?
Mr. JACK NICHOLSON: Hmm?
Ms. DAVIS: Why did you get such a cheap casket?
Mr. NICHOLSON: What?
Ms. DAVIS: I could tell you got the cheapest casket. Everybody could.
Mr. NICHOLSON: Oh, that is not true. That is not true. I specifically did
not choose, as you say, the cheapest casket. There was one less expensive,
which they showed me and I refused it.
Ms. DAVIS: You mean a pine box?
Mr. NICHOLSON: Well, I don't remember what it was.
Ms. DAVIS: She waited on you hand and foot. Couldn't you have splurged on
her just once?
GROSS: Jack Nicholson and my guest Hope Davis in a scene from "About
How did you get interested in acting?
Ms. DAVIS: I grew up in suburban New Jersey, and every Sunday my parents
drove the three of us--we three girls--into the city and we would do something
really fun. We would go to a museum or we would go down to Times Square,
which was really dirty and it was really exciting to be there, and we'd get
Greek food and go home. And then once or twice a year we would have a really
big outing and we would go to the theater or we would go to see the New York
City Ballet. And those were the most exciting afternoons of my life.
And I think when I was 11 or 12, my parents came in to see "A Chorus Line,"
and we weren't allowed to go because it was way too racy for us, and they
brought home the big colorful program with all the pictures in it and they
also brought home the record. And I think I spent the next four or five years
dancing around the living room singing my heart about, you know, `I gotta
dance. I gotta sing. I've gotta do it.'
And I actually do think I'm an actress because of "A Chorus Line." And I was
just really bitten by the passion with which they were singing and dancing,
and it was the first thing that I did that really made my heart pound and made
my blood rush, and it made me really, really excited. I always loved--you
know, when I was in high school and I had drama class, when I would walk
toward that door of the drama class, my heart would be thumping and I'd start
sweating and, you know, it was just the only thing that really, really
tickled me. And I never thought that I would actually do it for a living.
That never occurred to me. And I'm still kind of amazed that people let me do
that for a living. It's kind of--you know, it's a great job if you can get
GROSS: When was the last time you listened to the cast recording of "A Chorus
Ms. DAVIS: Oh, my husband is a big maker of mixed tapes, and I think we've
got a couple of the songs on some mixed tapes, so I heard a couple of them in
the car in the last couple of months.
GROSS: Do they still sound good?
Ms. DAVIS: Oh, it's a brilliant musical. It sounds fantastic still.
GROSS: Hope Davis is starring in two new movies, "American Splendor" and "The
Secret Lives of Dentists." She'll be back in the second half of the show.
I'm Terry Gross and this is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of "A Chorus Line")
Group of People: (Singing) One singular sensation every little step she takes.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: Coming up, we continue our conversation with actress Hope Davis. Ken
Tucker concludes his series on pop rock bands with a review of the High
Strung. Linguist Geoff Nunberg considers what's wrong with the way most
modern dictionaries are illustrated.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with Hope Davis. She's
starring in two new movies: "American Splendor," based on the
autobiographical comic book series by Harvey Pekar, and "The Secret Lives of
Dentists," adapted from the Jane Smiley novella "The Age of Grief." Davis
played Jack Nicholson's daughter in "About Schmidt" and starred in the film
"Next Stop Wonderland."
Now I read that you had auditioned for "Baywatch."
Ms. DAVIS: Oh, jeez. I--yeah.
GROSS: I was thinking, `What was she thinking?' You seem so not "Baywatch."
Ms. DAVIS: Well, that was--that's what they said to me. You know, I
definitely was of the mind when I started in this business that you should
never pass up any opportunity because you never knew when you'd get a job. I
mean, the things that I've auditioned for, my career, you know, people always
say, `Oh, how have you picked such'--I've auditioned for, you know, everything
under the sun. And when they said, `Go in for "Baywatch"'--I think I was
24--I was excited. I thought, `Wow, you know, running around on a beach in a
bathing suit, this would be really fun.' I thought I actually might get the
job. And I went and I think I got cut--on the very first weed-through I think
I was plucked out.
GROSS: Was there an audition?
Ms. DAVIS: No, they just literally stood us in a row and walked down...
GROSS: Looked at your breasts.
Ms. DAVIS: Yeah, and, you know, I was shlumped over in some, you know,
Putumayo dress, you know, with my lace-up pioneer boots on.
GROSS: Not right for the part.
Ms. DAVIS: No. I think it was my first trip to California, too. I was
way--my skin was way too covered. I was way overdressed.
GROSS: Oh, and you're so pale.
Ms. DAVIS: I was so pale, and you know, I'd been living in Chicago, and I was
gray and pale and deep shadows under my eyes, and my long dress--I didn't know
what I was thinking.
GROSS: What are some of the other strangest roles or auditions?
Ms. DAVIS: Well, I think I came kind of close to getting Christina
Applegate's job in "Married...with Children."
Ms. DAVIS: That would have been--that would have changed my whole career.
GROSS: You seem too old for that.
Ms. DAVIS: Yeah, I think that's, in the end, why I didn't--but you know, this
was 15 years ago that I think that show started.
GROSS: True, right.
Ms. DAVIS: And, you, when I was 25, I looked younger than I was. And I think
it was my first television audition, and I went in, I sat in the room with the
director and I read, and he said, `Thank you,' and I said, `Thanks,' like,
`Great! When do we start?' I'm like, `Do we go right to California?' I was
so naive. And I think I did get a callback or two for that, but I didn't get
GROSS: Did you do commercials?
Ms. DAVIS: I never did commercials. I tried a couple times. I think the
last commercial I auditioned for was for Nuprin or something and, you know,
you have to say, `Little, yellow, different.' And I had the pill in my hand
and I looked at the camera and I said, `Little, yellow, different.' And the
caster, she just looked at me and she started laughing, and she said, `You
know, this is never--you should never, ever, ever try to sell anything. No
one will buy anything from you.' I just didn't have the knack.
GROSS: What did she mean by that?
Ms. DAVIS: I just think I wasn't able to be perky about the little pill.
GROSS: No, but in your movies you play somebody who needs a little pill.
Ms. DAVIS: I know. That's the point. Right.
GROSS: So you're supposed to need the little pill but look really perky and
Ms. DAVIS: You can't look like you really need the pill when you're selling
GROSS: Got it. Got it. Now your first leading role was in "Daytrippers"
in 1996. And at the beginning of the film, your husband, played by Stanley
Tucci, has left and the rest of the film is basically the family trying to
track him down and figure out what went wrong. And then the first film in
which you were the romantic lead was "Next Stop Wonderland." And this film,
in the opening scene, your boyfriend, played by Philip Seymour Hoffman, walks
out on you because he's become this environmental activist; he's going to
South America to help rescue indigenous peoples there.
Ms. DAVIS: Yeah.
GROSS: And your mother so desperately wants you to be happy and she's so
unhappy that, thinking this will help, she takes out a personal ad on your
behalf in which you're described as--What is it?--carefree or...
Ms. DAVIS: Care--right, spunky and carefree or something.
GROSS: Yeah, and fun-loving...
Ms. DAVIS: Fun-loving.
GROSS: ...which is so not your character's personality.
Ms. DAVIS: Not my character.
GROSS: And so you're really angry with your mother and you're embarrassed to
have your presence in a personal ad. Nevertheless you decide to follow up on
it and meet some of the guys who are responding to it. And there's this great
scene that kind of edits together a bunch of these first encounters, so I
thought we could play an excerpt of that scene in which you're meeting your
dates for the first time.
Ms. DAVIS: OK.
(Soundbite from "Next Stop Wonderland")
Unidentified Actor: You know, you don't say a lot, but it's pretty obvious
what you're telling me.
Ms. DAVIS: Really?
Unidentified Actor: Your body language says it all. And you're palming me.
Ms. DAVIS: I'm sorry?
Unidentified Actor: You're palming me. Your palms are exposed to me. When a
woman does that, she's subconsciously flirting.
Ms. DAVIS: Yeah, what does this mean?
Unidentified Actor: Um, tiger.
DARYL: Let's just sum up here, OK? God is definitely a woman because only a
woman would have the kind of compassion necessary to create someone as
beautiful as you.
Ms. DAVIS: OK, there's one giant hole in your argument...
Ms. DAVIS: ...Daryl. No female deity would have had the absence of mind to
create you, the male gender, a gender that spends all of its time looking
forward to getting off. God is a man. Why? Because men need women. Women
don't need men.
DARYL: And yet you're here. That's the hole in your argument.
GROSS: That's my guest Hope Davis in a scene from "Next Stop Wonderland."
Hope Davis, what did like about this script when you read it?
Ms. DAVIS: Well, I was going through a really bad time in my life, and I so
identified with this woman feeling absolutely alone and like she'd never love
and be loved. I had been through a terrible divorce, and I was on my own in
New York City and just--you know, I'd gone on a date or two and just felt
like, `Well, that's it, I'm a spinster. I'm giving up. It's over for me. I
don't want to do this. I don't like men. I don't want to do this.' And then
this script came along, and I met with the director and I said, `You don't
understand. This is me right now. I identify with every piece of this
character.' And it was a time when, you know, the script and my life really
coincided. I look back on it now and, you know, it's definitely a dark time.
GROSS: And I'm sure one point that did not coincide was the personal ads. I
bet you didn't take one out.
Ms. DAVIS: Well, this--I definitely understood that, but I would never take
out--I would be--you would never take out a personal ad, although I actually
did meet my husband, my current wonderful husband, on a blind date.
GROSS: How did you feel about a blind date?
Ms. DAVIS: I was horrified. I was terrified. I just thought this is--you
know, I just thought it was just the worst possible idea and that it would
never work. And in fact, the moment I saw, you know, my future husband, I
just took one look at him and said, `Nope. No. Nope, I don't like anything
about him. No way. Plus he's not tall enough for me. They need to be at
least 6'4". That's what I like.' And I was just terrified at the idea of,
you know, meeting someone in that way. But, boy, I got very lucky.
GROSS: What was so wrong about him on first meeting?
Ms. DAVIS: Well, he got really dressed up for our first date, and we still
joke about the outfit that he wore. He had saddle shoes on, which haven't
been in for maybe 20 years. And I took one look at those saddle shoes--you
know, I'm a New Yorker--and I just--you know, he also had a red windbreaker
on, and I just thought, `My God, never.' And he just looked sweet, and that
was not the type that I liked. I liked them really angry and mean and
tortured. I just thought he looked way too sweet and wonderful.
GROSS: And did he throw away the saddle shoes when you started seeing each
Ms. DAVIS: I made him throw them away...
GROSS: And the red...
Ms. DAVIS: ...about a year, after being together for about a year.
GROSS: The red windbreaker?
Ms. DAVIS: The red windbreaker--we still have that, actually. We still like
to look at that now and then.
GROSS: My guest is actress Hope Davis. We'll talk more after a break. This
is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Hope Davis, and she's in two
new movies, "American Splendor" and "The Secret Lives of Dentists." Her other
movies include "About Schmidt," "Next Stop Wonderland" and "Daytrippers."
You lived across the street when you were young from the Sorvino family, actor
Paul Sorvino and his daughter Mira Sorvino. Was he acting when you lived
across from the family?
Ms. DAVIS: Oh, yes. He was acting and he was singing opera and, you know,
they moved onto the street and everyone on the block was always watching what
they were doing because he would go outside in his bathrobe and you could hear
him singing opera and, you know, they made pasta all the time and they were
loud. And you know, he would go into New York--I think he was doing
"Championship Season" when we were living across the street and, you know,
a car would come at night and take him into New York. And everyone on the
block was very excited to be living near them.
GROSS: Did that make you feel more that acting was in reach for you 'cause
you saw somebody in the neighborhood who was actually doing it?
Ms. DAVIS: Oh, no, I never dreamed that I could be an actress, a performer.
You know, I was just kind of mesmerized with seeing someone do this kind of
incredible thing. I mean, you know, in the morning I would watch all the dads
hustle up the street to the 734 bus to get into New York, and then at night
there was Paul Sorvino and a black, you know, sedan would come and whisk him
into the city, and then he'd come home at midnight and you could hear him
singing. I think it's probably what made it seem very exciting to me, but it
never occurred to me that I could, you know, be part of that.
GROSS: What did your dad do for a living?
Ms. DAVIS: Hmm, what did Dad do for a living? My father did a bunch of
different things. He's someone who--you know, I think part of the reason "The
Secret Lives of Dentists" movie appealed to me is I definitely saw my father
as someone who got kind of trapped into--you know, he had to pay the mortgage
and take care of three girls. And he really would have rather been flying
airplanes and traveling and doing his own thing. He was a salesman for a
while. He's a very smart man. He was a chemical engineer and he invented a
bunch of different things. He enjoyed drinking. He did different things.
GROSS: Was drinking a big problem?
Ms. DAVIS: Oh, sure.
GROSS: And did that scare you as a kid, watching your father have a
personality change when he drank?
Ms. DAVIS: I don't know if he really had a personality change, 'cause he
liked to drink, you know, from sometimes early in the day until late in the
evening. He was a very sweet man. He wasn't a man who, you know, would get
drunk and get angry. But it definitely made me aware that he felt trapped and
that, you know, I didn't want to feel that way when I was an adult. I wanted
a lifestyle that would not make me feel like I was a prisoner in any way.
GROSS: Are your parents still married?
Ms. DAVIS: No, my parents divorced when I was in my 20s, and my father died
about six years ago.
GROSS: Oh. Does that make it more comfortable for you to say something about
Ms. DAVIS: He was never a person, you know, that hid anything. Yeah, sure, I
probably wouldn't want to talk about it if he was still alive.
GROSS: Now you went to Vassar. Was Vassar still like predominantly a women's
school when you were there?
Ms. DAVIS: No, it was 55 percent women and 45 percent men. And as a matter
of fact, Meryl Streep had gone to Vassar, which I didn't know at the time that
I enrolled. It wasn't until I was in college that I kind of fell in love with
her. And I had a great time at Vassar. It was quite a luxury to go to
college in my family; it wasn't a given. And you know, by that point, my
mother was supporting all three of us. And it was a big deal to get the money
together to go to college. And I relished every minute of it, and I got a
great education there. I didn't study drama; I did that kind of just as an
extracurricular thing. And I just loved every second of my time there.
GROSS: What did you study?
Ms. DAVIS: I majored in cognitive science.
Ms. DAVIS: What? It's a multidisciplinary approach to thinking. How do
people think? I mean, now it's become quite a popular science, but when I
majored in it in college, it was kind of a new term. So it was very exciting
GROSS: Anything helpful that you can draw on from that in acting?
Ms. DAVIS: Not a thing, although I do remember that my senior thesis was
ridiculously titled A Neo-Cognitive Scientific Interpretation of the
Imagination. So I guess I was trying to delve into the mind of the actor
then. But you know, I think the thing I took most from college was that it
was great to get an education and to read some books, because this profession
can just be mind-numbing at times, and it was kind of good to start out with a
GROSS: What movies do you have coming up, in addition to "Secret Lives of
Dentists" and "American Splendor"?
Ms. DAVIS: Those are the only things I have in the can, as they say. I had
a baby, and so I've taken some time off. I'm actually leaving tomorrow to go
to South Africa to make a movie with Carroll Ballard, who's a wonderful
director who made "Black Stallion" and "Fly Away Home," about the geese, and a
beautiful movie about the Canadian geese. And it's a movie about a boy and
his cheetah, and I'm his mother. And I'm very, very excited to go to South
GROSS: Another mother role.
Ms. DAVIS: Yes. I'm happy to do it. Now that I'm a mother, I'm happy to do
GROSS: Right. Are you going to take your child with you?
Ms. DAVIS: Yes, my husband and child, we're all going.
GROSS: Oh, that's great.
Ms. DAVIS: Yeah.
GROSS: Well, have a great trip.
Ms. DAVIS: Thank you.
GROSS: Thank you so much for talking with us.
Ms. DAVIS: My pleasure.
GROSS: Hope Davis is starring in two new movies, "The Secret Lives of
Dentists" and "About Schmidt."
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Profile: Pop rock band The High Strung
TERRY GROSS, host:
In the last few weeks, rock critic Ken Tucker has been surveying the current
crop of pop rock bands. Today he concludes his series with The High Strung, a
Brooklyn-based band formed in Detroit that Ken says makes nerdy unhappiness
sound like something close to bliss.
(Soundbite of music)
THE HIGH STRUNG: (Singing) My mom reads another classic book each night. My
dad can't always tell between what's wrong and right. But I'm just a wretched
boy. Well, I'm just a wretched boy, oh, yeah, because I don't enjoy. My
KEN TUCKER reporting:
Wretched boys, wretched boys--that's what so much pop rock sung by young white
males boils down to, doesn't it? The Brooklyn quartet The High Strung, led by
tense harmonizers Mark Owen and Josh Malerman, are young enough to make that
song about parental strife sound both vivid and bratty. They're also pros
enough to have shaped their 13-song debut CD into a sustained joyride of
giddiness, depression and artfully shredded guitar chords. And on this song,
"I Got Frustration," The High Strung makes their discovery of '70s punk rock
(Soundbite of "I Got Frustration")
THE HIGH STRUNG: (Singing) Whoo! ...(Unintelligible) 51. Now I know why a
spider eats its young. Tell me where it is that I come from. I don't know, I
don't know. Empty my bucket of fool's gold. I don't know, I don't know
anything at all. Baby, baby, have to wrack my brain. Pretend I wasn't
wracked by guilt or shame. Tell me how to lose this hurricane. I don't
TUCKER: If there's one thing we've learned in listening to the batch of
current bands who've assimilated The Beatles and the Ramones and Cheap Trick
as though they were all their randy uncles, the genre coheres around a sense
of feeling both naughty and alienated, alienated from the current trends in
music, alienated from sexual confidence, alienated from emotions that extend
much far beyond cheerful miserableness to angry miserableness. It's an
intentionally limited range, played primarily with guitars and drums, limited
to certain chords and time signatures. But like a good sonnet or a good TV
commercial, the new pop rock has great formal pleasures, the structure of a
concise puzzle that when assembled into verse-chorus-verse, the refrain locks
into place and is intensely satisfying both to the listener and, I would
imagine, to the players themselves.
(Soundbite of music)
THE HIGH STRUNG: (Singing) Just because you were born in June doesn't mean
that you're on the moon. Don't you know you may keep score. I will always
love you more. Down in town as the sun comes up, you ...(unintelligible)
loves you not. Don't you know you may keep score. I will always love you
more. What's the score? What's the score?
TUCKER: "These Are Good Times" is the title of The High Strung's first
full-length album, and you might be tempted to hear that title as ironic, but
you shouldn't. No matter how many times the vocals curl into whines or the
lyrics bemoan a botched or unconsummated romance, the unreliable narrator, as
they say in writing class, is thrilled in letting off steam, at having come up
with a tune that encapsulates the pent-up energy that gives all of this music
and all of the pop-rock bands I've been reviewing over the past few weeks
their jolt, their kick, their joy.
GROSS: Ken Tucker is critic at large for Entertainment Weekly.
Coming up, linguist Geoff Nunberg on the part of dictionaries you don't think
much about, the illustrations. This is FRESH AIR.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Analysis: Pictures in the dictionaries of yesterday and today
TERRY GROSS, host:
We think of dictionaries as books of words, but as our linguist Geoff Nunberg
observes, the pictures matter, too.
GEOFF NUNBERG reporting:
Many years ago, someone passed onto me a seven-volume set of the 1907 Gra La
Reuse(ph) dictionary. The books are all pretty tattered by now, but they're
still glorious with their dark red covers embossed with trees and gold
letters, their art nouveau fronticepieces and letter pages and above all,
their intricate engravings and maps and resplendent color plates, plates of
animals, birds and insects, plates of costumes and furniture and lots and lots
of plates of military uniforms.
That's the same dictionary that Jean-Paul Sartre recounts reading as a child
in his autobiographical novel, "The Words." `The Gra la Reuse was everything
to me,' he writes, `I would take down a volume at random behind the desk on
the next to last shelf. Each volume seemed to denote a different department
of universal knowledge. There was the C through D region, the P through Z
region, each with its flora and fauna, its cities, its great men and its
battles. Men and beasts were there in person, the engravings were their
bodies, the text was their soul, their unique essences.'
That's not an experience a child is likely to have nowadays. Whatever virtues
most of our dictionaries have, they aren't books to take us lands away. They
may include a handful of color plates but they're basically textural affairs.
The illustrations serve mostly to break the unrelieved monotony of the columns
of type. Still, those dictionaries do have their visual charms.
And it was nice to see a piece in the Sunday New York Times Magazine the other
day on Jeffrey Middleton, who's the illustrator of the new 11th edition of
Merriam-Webster's Collegiate. Middleton is responsible for the elegant little
pen and ink drawings inserted every couple of pages or so alongside the
entries. It's a style that hasn't much changed in the past 75 years.
Dictionary traditionalists argue that those drawings do a better job of
rendering the idea of a word than elaborate plates or photographs could. As
the American lexicographer Sidney Landau once put it, `Photographs are
necessarily of unidealized individual things whereas drawings can represent a
composite distillation. That says as much about the popular conception of
photography as it does about dictionaries.
It's a fair bet that Pierre la Reuse would have used photographs in his grand
dictionary if he'd had the technology to print them properly. In that age,
people didn't have any problem thinking of photographs as the representations
of abstract ideas or imaginary settings. Victorian photographers, like Falon
Horne(ph) and Henry Peach Robinson, produced staged allegories and dramatic
scenes with titles like "Youth And Age" or "The Two Ways of Life." Julia
Cameron did photographic illustrations for Tennyson's "The Idylls Of the King"
and Henry James allowed the use of photographs to illustrate a 1909 edition of
"The Golden Bowl."
It wasn't until the early 20th century that people began to think of
photography as a pure record of the concrete facts before the lens. For Paul
Strand, Andre Kertesz or Henri Cartier-Bresson, there could be no photographs
but of things. As Strand once said, `The camera machine cannot evade the
objects that are in front of it.' Within a few decades, the idea of
photographing abstract ideas brought to mind the kitschy propaganda photos
that the Nazis and Soviets made with titles like "Sunday Volunteers" or "The
Next Generation." And modernists might allow you to make a film of a novel,
but you couldn't use stills from it as illustrations when the book was
reissued. And even today, no American dictionary uses photographs to
illustrate the meanings of words apart from the American Heritage. I should
say that I'm associated with that dictionary, though they keep me pretty far
from the art department end of things.
Yet, contemporary photographers put those austere modernist scruples behind
them some time ago. Fabulists like Joel-Peter Witkin, surrealists like Sandy
Skoglund, narrative photographers like Tina Barney or Sam Taylor-Wood, all of
them take the object in front of the lens as standing in for something other
I like to imagine some avant-garde Gra la Reuse of the far future that's
illustrated with modern photographs like Cindy Sherman's depictions of
herself in the "Guise Of A Housewife(ph)" or "A Raphael(ph)," or the
photographs that Laurie Simmons calls "Food, Clothing And Shelter," where
figurines of leggy women wear hotdogs, gloves and houses on their upper bodies
like the dancing cigarette packs in the Old Gold commercials of the '50s.
But the problem with the way most modern dictionaries are illustrated isn't
what they imply about photography, but what they imply about words. They
leave you with the impression that words are these colorless abstractions at
an eternal remove from the concrete realm of the senses. You think of the
angels in Wim Wenders' film "Wings Of Desire" who float in black and
white above the streets of Berlin and never make contact with sensory
experience. But when you hear words like bagel or bullfrog, what comes to
mind isn't a sketchy silhouette. Meanings are part of the world, too, and
they have color and texture and form just like everything else. You can even
take pictures of them.
GROSS: Geoff Nunberg is a linguist at Stanford University's Center for the
Study of Language and Information and he's the author of "The Way We Talk
GROSS: I'm Terry Gross. We'll close with the original version of "Tennessee
Waltz." It was co-written by band leader and accordion player Pee Wee King
and the singer and fiddler Henry "Redd" Stewart. Stewart died Monday at
the age of 82. Here's their 1947 recording of "Tennessee Waltz."
(Soundbite of "Tennessee Waltz")
Mr. HENRY "REDD" STEWART: (Singing) I was dancing with my darling to the
Tennessee waltz, when an old friend I happened to see. I introduced him to my
loved one and while they were dancing, my friend stole my sweetheart from me.
I remember the night and the Tennessee waltz, only you know how much I have
lost. Yes, I lost my little darling the night they were playing the beautiful
Tennessee waltz. I was dancing with my darling to the Tennessee waltz, when
an old friend I happened to see. I introduced him to my loved one and while
they were dancing, my friend stole my sweetheart from me.
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