Maria Bello, Strong Support in 'World Trade Center'
Actress Maria Bello often seems to find herself playing characters involved with men in trouble -- take the films A History of Violence and The Cooler, for example. She now stars as the wife of a Port Authority officer trapped in the rubble of the Sept. 11 attacks, in Oliver Stone's upcoming film World Trade Center.
Other segments from the episode on August 9, 2006
DATE August 9, 2006 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
PROGRAM Fresh Air
Interview: Maria Bello discusses her new film, "World Trade
Center," as well as her roles in "A History of Violence" and "The
Cooler," motherhood and how she got started in acting
DAVE DAVIES, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, senior writer for the Philadelphia Daily
News, filling in for Terry Gross.
Actress Maria Bello has earned from praise from critics and film buffs for
years, but she became more widely-known to movie audiences last year with her
edgy performance in the David Cronenberg film, "A History of Violence." Her
other films include "Thank You for Smoking," "The Cooler," "Auto Focus" and
Bello co-stars in the new Oliver Stone film, "World Trade Center." It's based
on the true story of two Port Authority police officers trapped alive under
the collapsed towers and their family's anguish as they await word on the
officers' fates. In this scene, from later in the film, Bello, playing Donna
McLoughlin, enters a police station after being told that her husband is fine.
(Soundbite of "World Trade Center")
Ms. MARIA BELLO: (As Donna McLoughlin) Hi. Ms. John McLoughin.
Unidentified Woman: Mrs. John McLoughlin?
Ms. BELLO: (As Donna) Yes.
Woman: He's alive. Now, I'm afraid there's been a mistake.
Ms. BELLO: (As Donna) Mistake?
Woman: When they called me, they really thought John walked out. He didn't.
He's still trapped; they're working on it.
Unidentified Man: (Unintelligible).
Ms. BELLO: (As Donna) No, this is not right. This is not right! He gave
you everything--years of his life--and you can't even get this right!
Where is he? I'm going down there.
Woman: I'm sorry, Ms. McLoughlin, it's too dangerous.
Ms. BELLO: (As Donna) Where're they taking him?
Ms. BELLO: (As Donna) Thank you.
(End of soundbite)
DAVIES: "World Trade Center" opens today. Maria Bello told me she was in New
York on the day of the September 11th attacks.
Ms. BELLO: Well, we were on the Upper West Side for a movie premiere. I was
there with my six-month-old baby and his father and my parents, who are from
Norristown. I walked down to the newsstand to get a pack of cigarettes, and
it was bizarrely quiet. And this woman turned to me and said, `I haven't
smoked for 11 years. Can I have a cigarette?' And I said, `Why?' And she
said, `Well, a plane just flew through the World Trade Center.' So we ran back
upstairs and saw the second plane go through, and they came on the news asking
for nurses and doctors to come downtown. And my mother's a nurse, and she's
incredibly brave and positive woman. We hopped on an ambulance, went
downtown, and she worked at St. Vincent's all day, waiting for people to come
in who never came.
It was a very sad morning, and like everyone in the whole world, we didn't
understand exactly what was going on.
DAVIES: You play Donna McLoughlin, who is the wife of a Port Authority
policeman, played by Nicolas Cage. And the story is of what happens to him
that day. He becomes trapped and faces a desperate situation. And you, as
his wife, have the anguish of wondering--as did thousands of relatives that
day--of what was going on. How did you prepare for that role? How did
Ms. BELLO: Well, I like to say that Donna and I got to know each other by
doing the dishes. I want to her house in Goshen, Long Island, and they just
invited us with open arms and open hearts--Nic and Oliver and myself and the
producers--and they had a full spread-out. John made his famous steak on the
grill, and I immediately got behind the counter and started doing dishes,
because it reminded me of my family's house in Philly, and that's what we do.
The women gather in the kitchen, we do the dishes together. The kids are
running around. The dogs are running around. We put out the dessert. And
the men are sitting over there in their corner.
So we started sharing stories, Donna and I, about our lives and our hopes and
our dreams and about that day and what happened that day. And she's the wife
of a cop, had been the wife of a cop for 20 years or so. So every day he left
for work, she thought, `This could be the last day.' And in the beginning of
the day, it was sort of like any other that, you know, all of us in the world
were sitting there waiting, saying, `Wait, what's going on, exactly?' No one
quite understood it. But she knew that her most important job was to keep her
kids settled and safe and to let them know that everything was OK.
She reminded me so much of my own mother. If you look at my mom online and
look at the film, I look exactly like her. It's as if I'm playing my mother.
So half my mother, half Donna.
I got the accent. I gained some weight to get that sort of softness feel. So
it was an internal movement and an external movement. And it took some days
to sort of drop into it, drop into the accent, drop into her mannerisms. And
I feel like I'll never be able to do her justice.
DAVIES: You said you'd gained weight for the part?
Ms. BELLO: I did, yeah.
DAVIES: What'd you do?
Ms. BELLO: Ate a lot of pasta and bread, gained a nice 10 pounds.
DAVIES: Had you ever done that for a role before?
Ms. BELLO: You know, I play with my weight a lot in roles. Like for
"History of Violence," I went down 10 pounds. For this one, I went up 10
pounds. Because in "History of Violence," it was all about anxiety. You
know, she was just on edge all of the time, so I thought that would lend
itself--this one, portraying this character was more about roundness and
softness and nurturing, so--I think I do it more for myself than for the
screen, because it helps me to tap into a character.
DAVIES: You know, you're a mom. Your son is five.
Ms. BELLO: He is five, and he just learned to fart under his arm. He's very
excited. That's his big claim to fame right now.
DAVIES: Building the skill sets that will really stand you well in grade
I wonder if you think you could've played the role differently before you were
a mom? I mean, if being a mom and kind of feeling that sense of what it's
like to have to protect a young one informed that performance.
Ms. BELLO: I'll tell you what. Since I had my child, I did "The Cooler,"
"History of Violence" and this movie. And I could've never done them before I
was a mother. I've never felt more fear and more love in my life as the night
I gave birth to my son. It was 22 hours in a thunderstorm. I gave birth to
him at home in our house in Los Angeles. And I'll just never forget that
moment, of loving someone much and being so afraid that anything would ever
happen to them. So I feel like that informs every role that I do now.
DAVIES: Well, "A History of Violence" was a film that you got enormous
praise. It was a big role for you, and I thought we would hear a clip from
the film. Maybe tell us a little bit about your character that you play, Edie
Ms. BELLO: Edie Stall is the wife of Tom Stall. We live in a very simple
Midwestern city and--no, town, it's more of a town.
Ms. BELLO: We own a diner and one day, these bad guys show up--the bad guy
played by Ed Harris--and say that my husband is someone other than he appears
to be, and I don't believe him. And this is a scene where I'm in a mall,
shopping for shoes with my daughter, and he confronts me with this news.
DAVIES: Right, and we'll just mention, also, that one of the reasons they
found your husband was that there was a terrible incident in his restaurant in
which he heroically killed a couple of bad guys who were terrorizing the
customers. So here's this scene where you're interacting with Ed Harris, who
is playing Carl Fogarty, a bad dude looking for your husband.
(Soundbite of "A History of Violence")
Mr. ED HARRIS: (As Carl Fogarty) Nothing to worry about, Mrs. Stall. I've
been watching over her.
Ms. BELLO: (As Edie Stall) You stay the (censored) away from my family
Mr. HARRIS: (As Carl) There's no need for that kind of language, Mrs.
Ms. BELLO: (As Edie) Listen to me. I don't know what you want and I don't
Mr. HARRIS: (As Carl) You should care about what I want, Mrs. Stall,
because I want something from your husband that might affect you, might change
Ms. BELLO: (As Edie) My husband does not know you. He wouldn't know you,
somebody like you.
Mr. HARRIS: (As Carl) Oh, he knows Carl Fogarty, all right. He knows me
intimately. See? This isn't a completely dead eye. It still works a bit.
Problem is the only thing I can see with it is Joey Cusack. And it can see
right through him. Right through your husband, Edie. See what it's inside
him, what makes him tick. He's still the same guy. He's still crazy
(censored) Joey. And you know it, don't you?
Ms. BELLO: (As Edie) I know that my husband is Tom Stall, that's what I
Mr. HARRIS: (As Carl) Yeah?
Ms. BELLO: (As Edie) Yeah.
Mr. HARRIS: (As Carl) Well, why don't you ask Tom about his older brother,
Richie. You ask Tom about how he tried to rip my eye out with barbed wire.
And ask him, Edie, how come he's so good at killing people.
Ms. BELLO: (As Edie) If I see you within 500 feet of me or my children or my
husband, I'll have you arrested. Can I possibly make myself any clearer than
Mr. HARRIS: (As Carl) No, no, Mrs. Stall, you can't. I thank you for your
time. You have an enchanting daughter.
(End of soundbite)
DAVIES: And that's our guest, Maria Bello with Ed Harris in the film, "A
History of Violence." That is an intense scene. He still scares me, though.
Ms. BELLO: He scared the hell out of me, let me tell you. In the middle of
that scene, I was kind of out to lunch that day. I had so much stuff going on
in my personal life and my professional life, and I was trying to concentrate
on this scene, and I lost my concentration. And at one point, we're in the
middle of the scene, and I say, `I hear you,' and he said, still saying in
character, Ed goes, `No, you don't. You're not even listening to me.' And I
went, `Oh, my God!' I got so scared, but then I--he made me keep in the scene,
so I kept in the scene, and we just kept at it, and I think that's the take
that they used finally.
DAVIES: Yeah. You said you're a method actor. You really get involved in
this. I mean, this role was so intense and so many dark moments, did it stay
in your head when you were filming it?
Ms. BELLO: It sure did. After "History of Violence," I think I was in bed
for about three months--not actually, but it felt like that. I was wrecked
from the intense anxiety that I had to play every day as I played Edie. And
we got all very close on the set, Viggo and David, and I really trusted them.
They're really great men. And so they made it easier, but at the same time, I
found myself just not being able to sleep and losing weight, and taking that
character home with me. Trying not to, because my five-year-old was with me
some of the time, but it always seems to happen.
DAVIES: Do you have any ways to decompress, take your mind off of it?
Ms. BELLO: I would go home on weekends, back to Los Angeles, to see my boy a
lot of weekends. And I'd be coming home on the plane on Sunday, and I would
think of recipes in my head. I would say, `What would I put with white beans?
I'd put cilantro with white beans. And what else? I'd put sausage with it.'
So I'd get home and have my driver stop at a grocery store. I'd get all the
fixings for the night, and I'd make these big vats of soup or stew or sauce,
and I'd bring them to set the next day for my cohorts. That's how I unwound.
DAVIES: Just to be normal again? To be Maria, not Edie?
Ms. BELLO: Yeah, and there's something about chopping vegetables that's a
very Zen act. And I still do it to this day. My son and I made my mom's
homemade meatballs the other day and baked ziti in some sauce, and he loves to
be in the kitchen, as well.
DAVIES: I want to ask you--one of the scenes that has been talked about and
written about so much in "A History of Violence" is the sex scene on the
Ms. BELLO: Yeah.
DAVIES: There's another one earlier in the film, which is also a very
memorable sex scene, which is completely different. In the first one, you don
a cheerleader's outfit and...
Ms. BELLO: Rah, rah, sis-koom-bah! (Unintelligible).
DAVIES: You create this fantasy for your husband, you're completely in
control. And then at a point later in the film, the relationship has changed
completely, and it's a violent encounter. And you bring a lot,
psychologically--I mean, physically, of course, there's a lot of physical
demands in those scenes. But I wonder if you bring so much psychologically to
kind of the perspective that you have with Viggo Mortensen, your husband, and
I wonder if you could talk a little bit about shooting those scenes and kind
of how you got into that, the mind-set.
Ms. BELLO: Sure. Well, David put those two scenes in the film to show the
dichotomy of the sexual being and the power...
DAVIES: David Cronenberg, the director?
Ms. BELLO: David Cronenberg, the director. The dichotomy of the power
struggle in relationships of a male and female. So in that beginning scene,
in the cheerleading scene, she's more in control, as you said. She's the one
who, you know, pushes the envelope and starts the fantasy and gets him going,
and she's in control. In the second scene, she completely loses control. And
it's on the stairs when they start fighting, he stops for a minute. He's not
going to go there. And she's the one that pulls him towards her. She's felt
something in herself--an animal feeling that she's never felt before--and by
recognizing his shadow-self, she taps into her own and is all at once
exhilarated by it and terrified of it. Which I think many of us are and a lot
of us never get to a point in our lives where we get to experience that part
of ourselves. And finally she does and surrenders to it.
DAVIES: That's a psychologically really demanding kind of set of things to
work on, while it's also physically demanding. I mean, you are, particularly
in the second one, really rough.
Ms. BELLO: It was really rough. I mean, that day, Viggo and I were just at
each other because we were so nervous about what we were doing and how to play
this exactly. We're both sort of method in that way. And the stairs didn't
have any carpeting on them, and we did one take without the carpet, and it was
such a great take, we had to do the rest of the day like that. A day and a
half shooting that scene. I mean, I was black and blue and purple for three
weeks afterwards with lumps and bumps all over me. I somehow bit the inside
of Viggo's lip. He had a huge welt on his elbow. And we were just a mess,
but in the end, we were really pleased with the scene.
DAVIES: You know, the other scene I wanted to ask you about was the film's
final scene, at which you and your two children are at the dinner table and
your husband, Tom Stall, played by Viggo Mortensen, returns after some
difficult events. And it's not clear whether the family can reconcile. I
don't think there's even any dialogue.
Ms. BELLO: There's no dialogue in that scene.
DAVIES: Complete quiet. Tell us a little bit about how you created what was
supposed to happen there. I mean, it's really not clear whether the
reconciliation occurs, I think.
Ms. BELLO: It was such an emotional day for us, shooting that last scene.
David shot it--David Cronenberg shot it on the last week of filming. And we
had really become a family with Heidi and Ashton and Viggo and myself. And we
got to that set on the day, and we were all so emotional. I don't think we
stopped crying the whole day, all of us, because we knew it was the breakup of
our family as a movie family, and also the--perhaps, the breakup of our
family, the Stall family.
And so David was sure to do it with no words at all. We had to do everything
through our actions, and we said to David, `So what do we do? How do we play
it?' And he said, `I don't know. You've been playing these characters for
three months. You'll know what to do.' And so we just--very silently, Ashton
decided to pass the food. Heidi decided to eat her cereal. I decided to
pray. And when I looked up at Viggo, whatever was registering there was
And I like that it ends on that note, that you're not sure exactly what was
happening. But there is a glimmer of hope, and you think that this family
might make it.
DAVIES: We're speaking with Maria Bello.
We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
DAVIES: If you're just joining us, my guest is actress Maria Bello. She
co-stars in the new Oliver Stone film, "World Trade Center."
Another role that you got a lot of praise for was the film, "The Cooler." And
I thought we'd listen to a little bit of that. This is a film set in Las
Vegas, where you are a cocktail waitress, Natalie, kind of--whose life isn't
too together. And you have a relationship with William H. Macy, who plays
something called a cooler, which I didn't know existed, but he's somebody
whose job it is, in casinos, to spread bad luck when someone is winning at the
tables. And this--your character's particularly interested in astrology, and
this is a scene in a coffee shop, where you are getting to know Bernie, right,
is the character? So...(unintelligible).
Ms. BELLO: Yeah. I'm excited to listen to this, because I haven't heard it
for such a long time.
DAVIES: Great. All right, so this is our guest, Maria Bello, with William H.
Macy in the film, "The Cooler."
(Soundbite of "The Cooler")
Ms. BELLO: (As Natalie Belisario) Your progressed Venus is in Gemini 12.5
degrees and is in direct motion, which means you're a slow starter when it
comes to romance. Sorry. You know what? This is real unprofessional of me.
I shouldn't discuss your chart with you till I'm all done.
But I can tell by the look on your face that you think this is all a lot of
Mr. WILLIAM H. MACY: (As Bernie Lootz) No, I just know what the outcome's
going to be.
Ms. BELLO: (As Natalie) There's not like one particular outcome. A lot of
things come into the picture, like the planets, the moon phases...
Mr. MACY: (As Bernie) The outcome won't change with me. It'll be all bad.
Ms. BELLO: (As Natalie) Oh, my God! I have never met anyone who is so down
Mr. MACY: (As Bernie) Do you know what I do at the Shangri-La?
Ms. BELLO: (As Natalie) I asked around. You're a cooler. You turn winners
Mr. MACY: (As Bernie) Do you know how I do that?
Ms. BELLO: (As Natalie) Listen, I know there's a lot of stuff that happens
in casinos all the time...
Mr. MACY: (As Bernie) I do it by being myself. People get next to me, their
luck turns. It's always been that way.
Ms. BELLO: (As Natalie) Well, that sounds like a self-fulfilling prophecy to
me. There's a whole chapter about it in my book.
Mr. MACY: (As Bernie) I only got six more days. Well, really, almost five.
I'm leaving town.
Ms. BELLO: (As Natalie) Only five more days? Then we shouldn't waste any
(End of soundbite)
DAVIES: That's our guest Maria Bello with William H. Macy in the film, "The
Cooler." Tell us a little bit about inhabiting that character, Natalie.
Ms. BELLO: Well, first of all, I'd like to hear my Philadelphia accent,
since I'm back in Philly. Second of all, I had such a beautiful
friendship-love affair, you know, with William H. Macy. I just think he's
the most incredible, incredible actor and incredible man. And we had such a
fun time together. We shot that movie in 23 days, I think.
And talk about living a story. We just lived it every single minute. We were
shooting 16-hour days and not sleeping very much, and I had a one-year-old
baby, and it was a crazy time, but creatively, it was so much fun. The
director just really let us play and really go out there and really explore
these characters on a really deep level.
DAVIES: Let's talk a little bit about your life. You grew up in a
working-class suburb of Philadelphia, right? Was it Norristown?
Ms. BELLO: I did, in Norristown.
DAVIES: Dad was a construction worker; Mom was a nurse.
Ms. BELLO: That's right.
DAVIES: You went to Catholic school, then to the University of Villanova.
And, if I've read this right, were studying law and political science and then
got the acting bug and put your clothes in a plastic bag and headed to New
York. Is that really what happened?
Ms. BELLO: You know the whole story then. I was. I was a pre-law major at
Villanova University, and someone said I could take an acting class as an
elective. And I remember turning to them and saying, `Don't you have to sing
or dance or something?' I always thought actors had to be born and raised in
Hollywood. Though I was a kid who was always playing dress-up since I was
tiny and I was completely immersed in reading. I started reading when I was
four years old, started reading novels and always wanted to be the characters
in the books.
So I took this acting class, and I just fell in love with it. And in an
instant, I knew it was what I was supposed to be doing. And I did move to New
York City with two trash bags filled with clothes and $300. I knew no one.
DAVIES: You know, actually, I'd read that you had a hard time and that the
people'd said, you know, that you didn't have talent, and it was interesting
to me, because as I watched a lot of your performances in recent years to get
ready, I mean, it is really striking how completely you inhabit characters at
all moments, how convincing you are, and I was trying to picture you being
And I'm wondering, maybe it's hard to put into words, but what was it you
didn't get back then? How did you get better? Was it experience? Was it
good directors? Was it classes?
Ms. BELLO: I think I got better through experience in life. I also had a
fantastic teacher in New York City called Fred Kareman that basically taught
me to leave myself alone. It's easy to watch yourself, in terms of, you're
talking to another person. Instead of focusing on the other person, you're
being self-conscious and focusing on yourself. What he taught us, in a
moment-to-moment exercise, was to get outside of yourself, to focus on the
other person, to listen and to respond to what they're saying. And I use that
in my life, as well as my work. And as soon as I'm able to get outside of
myself, my life is so much better.
DAVIES: Well, Maria Bello, thanks so much for spending some time with us.
Ms. BELLO: Oh, it was really fun to be here. Thank you for having me.
DAVIES: Actress Maria Bello. She's appearing in the new Oliver Stone film,
"World Trade Center." It opens today.
I'm Dave Davies, and this is FRESH AIR.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Interview: Journalist Adam Roberts discusses his book, "The Wonga
Coup," about the attempted takeover of African country Equatorial
Guinea by a group of British elite in 2004
DAVE DAVIES, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Davie Davies, filling in for Terry Gross.
Some crooks run small-time cons. Others rob banks. My guest, journalist Adam
Roberts, tells the story of a band of adventurers with a bigger score in mind:
a whole country. Roberts' book, "The Wonga Coup," tells the story of a group
of mercenaries who plotted in 2004 to overthrow the dictatorship of the
African country of Equatorial Guinea, hoping to get their hands on the
country's oil revenues. The book's title comes from a slang expression used
by British public schoolboys for a lot of money. It's an old gypsy word for
The story involves the son of a former British prime minister and a
fascinating cast of rogues who work as mercenaries for multinational companies
and sometimes for governments.
Equatorial Guinea is a tiny country on the coast of west Africa ruled by an
oppressive dictator named Obiang Nguema. Oil deposits were discovered there
in the early '90s, and the country is now the third-largest oil-exporting
country in Africa. Oil revenues haven't improved the lives of the country's
citizens much, but Obiang and his family have become fantastically wealthy.
Roberts' book details troubling relationships betwen Obiang and American banks
and oil companies, and the plot by mercenaries to get their hands on the
I asked Roberts to tell us about the leader of the plot, Simon Mann.
Mr. ADAM ROBERTS: Well, Simon Mann is probably the, you know, the central
character of the whole story. His family is--he's British. He's got a
British and a South African passport. His family was rich. It made a lot of
money out of the brewing industry. If you come to London sometime, there's a
corner of the East End of London which is famous for its breweries, and the
Mann Brewery was one of the more successful ones about 100 years ago.
And the family got very rich. Simon Mann went to Eaton, one of the most
prestigious private schools in Britain. He went to the Army, he became a
member of the SAS, the special elite fighting force in the British Army. He
really had a privileged and successful early life. But when he left the Army,
he wasn't sure what to do, and he got caught up in these sort of legitimate,
but not entirely legitimate, private security companies, and they would do
certain business for governments, they would do training for governments,
maybe in the Middle East, possibly in Africa, and they would use their
military skills to make money.
And Simon Mann, later on, got involved in a group called Executive Outcomes,
which in the 1990s was the most successful private corporate army in Africa,
possibly in the world.
DAVIES: Now, as I read your book and you describe the government of this tiny
country of Equatorial Guinea and its brutal dictatorship and its extravagant
spending and utter neglect of its population, one concludes that an attempt to
overthrow this government can only be a good thing. How could anyone oppose
this? And yet when we learn the motives of these soldiers of fortune who
develop this plot, maybe we aren't so sure. What motivated Simon Mann and his
compatriots to want to overthrow the government of Equatorial Guinea?
Mr. ROBERTS: Any claim that they might make to be there to promote
democracy, to help the ordinary people of Equatorial Guinea, that claim was
somewhat false. They were in the business of trying to make money. They
hoped to get hold of some of the oil revenues, the money that was flooding
into the government of Equatorial Guinea because of the oil industry.
They also, I think, wanted to have an adventure. These are people who are
coming to their middle age now--they were getting to be 50 years old, 55 years
old. They probably wanted to go out with a big last hurrah.
DAVIES: Well, it's clear you have a poor country here with a lot of revenue
from its oil resources. On the other hand, I mean, it's not the 18th century
when the, you know, the Dutch East India Company could go and rule an African
country. How were these guys going to get their claws--and they couldn't set
themselves up as the ruler of the country, could they?
Mr. ROBERTS: No. They were sophisticated enough to realize that putting a
white Englishman in charge of an African country wouldn't be tolerated by
anyone. So they had a close association with one of the opposition leaders
from Equatorial Guinea, a man called Severo Moto. He was based, in exile, in
Spain, and he was supposed to be the new president. Their job was to bring
him into Equatorial Guinea and, with their military skill, to make him the new
president and then to guard him, to keep him safe and to let him run the
Now, of course, he would be dependent on their military power and, therefore,
they could influence him to a great extent and make sure that they themselves
DAVIES: One of the interesting characters that you describe--besides Simon
Mann, who was the leader of the plot--was a man named Greg Wales, who was an
accountant and I guess he sort of had to develop the political side of this
plot. What did he do?
Mr. ROBERTS: Yeah, I think--I mean, to give these guys a bit of credit, they
were trying to think politically, as well as militarily. They wanted to know,
how would people react once they'd taken over power in Equatorial Guinea.
What would they have to do to persuade the rest of Africa, the rest of the
world, that it was OK. And people like Greg Wales had the job of thinking
So they were planning to do some PR campaigns, some public relations
campaigns. To do some of the things that any good government should do. So
they were going to deal with AIDs, they were going to deal with public
hospitals, they were going to put money into the schools, or at least they
were going to appear to do that. So they were thinking in terms of, how would
they get the population of Equatorial Guinea to agree with what they've done,
and also how to persuade other parts of Africa to let it happen.
DAVIES: Well, and they traveled to the United States, didn't they? Looking
for some support? Traveled around Washington?
Mr. ROBERTS: He did. He came to Washington, he met various people involved
in private military companies, he met people connected to the United States
administration. It's not exactly clear exactly how much he told them, but he
wanted to check what the reaction would be in the United States if there was a
coup in Equatorial Guinea. How would the Pentagon react? How would the State
Department react? How would private military companies react? And there are
some big private military companies in America, and one idea of currying favor
in America was to offer lucrative contracts to those companies if the coup
plot succeeded in Equatorial Guinea.
DAVIES: Now I know that Simon Mann, the guy at the center of this, lived a
well-heeled life in Cape Town, South Africa, and had some money from his past
ventures, but a plot of this scale, where you have to buy some pretty
heavy-duty weapons, pay some number of soldiers, requires tens of millions of
Mr. ROBERTS: Yeah.
DAVIES: Where do you get that money?
Mr. ROBERTS: Well, I guess, if you're not backed by a state--if you don't
have funding from a big government--then you've got to find your money in some
other way. And what seems amazing with this plot is the characters that were
drawn in to provide money for the plot and some of the colorful detail of this
book is describing the sort of methods that these guys would use to raise
So, according to some sources, at least though, there would be dinner parties
in Cape Town where the rich and almost-famous would hang around together and
then Simon Mann or someone else attached to this plot would quietly say,
`Would you like to invest in a private venture that I'm involved in?' And no
details would be given immediately, but if the person showed interest, then
more evidence would be given that there was a chance to make a lot of money
quickly with a military adventure. So private individuals were asked to fund
DAVIES: So you end up with a situation where, should you succeed, you've got
to tap these oil revenues and pay off a lot of your backers?
Mr. ROBERTS: Exactly. This is a high-risk game. So the only way you could
possibly persuade people to invest in your adventure is by promising them big
returns and quickly. So this means getting hold of that oil money and paying
people back quickly.
DAVIES: One of the most fascinating details here is the apparent involvement
of Mark Thatcher, the son of former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.
How does he get mixed up in this?
Mr. ROBERTS: Well, he is someone who'd lived in Cape Town for a few years
with his wife and children. He knew Simon Mann. He knew some of the other
people connected and involved in the whole story, and he was approached by the
plotters, by Simon Mann, and without all the details necessarily being
explained to Mark Thatcher, was asked whether he would like to fund a
helicopter. Mark Thatcher was known to be interested in helicopters and
aircraft. He was a bit of an expert on some of these things, and he was asked
would he like to pay for a helicopter to be used in an adventure--or a
venture--in west Africa. He agreed, and he put in quite a large amount of
money, $270,000, and eventually got embroiled in the whole plot.
DAVIES: Now, skipping ahead a bit, I mean, we find that Mark Thatcher was
eventually arrested in South Africa and prosecuted for his role in this failed
Mr. ROBERTS: Yeah.
DAVIES: What is your best guess about whether Mark Thatcher knew he was
involved in a plot to overthrow a government?
Mr. ROBERTS: Well, I interviewed Mark Thatcher three times about this whole
incident, and, of course, I put that question to him. What he admitted to me
and to the South Africans s that he knew that Simon had some sort of mercenary
game going on. He didn't know the details, he says, but he came to suspect
the helicopter he was paying for would be used for some sort of mercenary
He, on the other hand, denies that he knew the details of what was going to go
on in Equatorial Guinea. And I don't have any proof to show that he knew any
more than he's admitting to, but he was hanging around with these guys, he was
spending evenings with them, he was going to dinner with them, he was talking
to them as frequently as he could, so he obviously knew that something was
DAVIES: You know, the relatives of powerful people will often throw their
names around to help advance their ambitions, and when they're in trouble will
then turn to those famous and powerful relatives to help them out. What, if
anything, did Mark Thatcher do to get his mother Margaret Thatcher either to
assist in this or to assist him when he got into trouble? What was her role,
Mr. ROBERTS: You've got to remember that Margaret Thatcher is now getting
quite old. She's not particularly healthy. And Mark's sister, Carol
Thatcher, complained that the whole stress and strain of Mark Thatcher's
arrest in South Africa and his apparent involvement in the whole thing really
took a toll on Margaret Thatcher, and she was distressed by this and upset by
Her role was to come and support Mark after he was arrested. I think she
posted the bail money to get him out of jail in South Africa. On the other
hand, he would argue that because he has a famous name, that was one of the
reasons why he was targeted by the South African police, and one of the
reasons they were prosecuting him, because it gave them a lot of publicity in
DAVIES: My guest is Adam Roberts. His new book is "The Wonga Coup."
We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
DAVIES: If you're just joining me, my guest is Adam Roberts. He is a
reporter. His new book is called "The Wonga Coup: Guns, Thugs and a Ruthless
Determination to Create Mayhem in an Oil-Rich Corner of Africa." It involves
an attempted overthrow of the government of Equatorial Guinea.
Well, Adam Roberts, tell us just the basics of the plot. Now, typically, when
you think of overthrowing a government, you're talking about, you know, most
governments have thousands and thousands of troops and some military hardware.
How relatively vulnerable was the government of Obiang in Equatorial Guinea,
and how big a force did they think would do the job?
Mr. ROBERTS: Well, I think you've got to remember that Equatorial Guinea's a
small country. It's about the size of Maryland in the US. It's been poor for
a long time, its army is not particularly professional, and I think the idea
of using about 100 mercenaries to seize the president--or at least to seize
the presidential palace--was not too farfetched. The basic plot was to fly
in, with a plane from southern Africa with about 100 mercenaries on board and
a lot of weapons, to land at the airport, to take the airport, to race into
the tower and into Malabo and to take the presidential palace.
And this would've been a risky thing to do, but people I've talked to say it
wasn't impossible. They had a chance of doing this.
DAVIES: And it's amazing, you know, that in a world where it seems there are
so many arms and so much military hardware available for people with ready
cash, what a fiasco this was. I mean, they had this one plane that lost a
nosewheel and then sucked a bird into the engine and got grounded. And then
they got another plane, actually bought from the United States, right?
Mr. ROBERTS: That's right, yeah. I mean, the whole thing was quite a
complicated plot. They were trying to get planes from different sources and
flying them from one place to another. In the end, they went for a plane that
was sourced from the United States. And there are some reasons to be
suspicious about this plane: that it was bought from an ex-government source;
it was a special sort of plane that was adapted for taking off and landing on
shortened runways; it had a special pressurized container within it so you
could get into the hold while flying, which meant that the men on board could
get hold of their weapons and get ready for when they landed and be armed and
ready when they landed.
So this was a well-prepared attempt, although they had some bad luck, as you
described. An earlier plane had this problem with the bird strike on the
engine and a nosewheel breaking, so they had some good fortune and they had
some bad luck.
DAVIES: One of the biggest problems, apparently, was that they couldn't keep
their mouths shut. And it's just remarkable that these guys that are involved
in such a risky, high-stakes operation, you know, are talking about this in
bars and parties all over Africa.
Mr. ROBERTS: Yeah. Some of these guys were confident that they had the
backing of important governments. Some of them believed that the Spanish
government, the American government, even the South African government, had
approved this whole mission. And they obviously believed, `If we've got
approval of important people, we don't have to be quite so secretive about
On the other hand, others were just plain amateurish and careless. They would
sit around in restaurants in Johannesburg, they would sit in hotel foyers, and
they would basically boast about what they were going to do. And some of the
people who I interviewed in the research for the book who had been approached
to take part in this plot told me that they turned down the opportunity
because they felt the whole thing was being organized in a very careless way.
DAVIES: Right, because these guys were blabbering about their plot all the
Mr. ROBERTS: Yes. Exactly.
DAVIES: So what happens is that they get their plane and they manage to get
some soldiers on that plane out of South Africa and fly to Zimbabwe, where
they think they have a deal with the government there to buy some arms and to
make their way to Equatorial Guinea and execute the plot. What happens in
Mr. ROBERTS: Well, you might think it's crazy to do anything in Zimbabwe
these days. The government of Robert Mugabe is very isolated, he's very
unpopular. If you're British, he doesn't like British people very much, of
course, so it sounds crazy that a British mercenary would go into Zimbabwe to
On the other hand, Zimbabwe has a very respected arms industry. There's a
company called ZDI, the Zimbabwe Defense Industries, and they're famous within
Africa for trading small weapons, small arms. And it seemed to Simon Mann and
to others involved that this was a good place to go and buy weapons.
So on the day that the coup attempt was due to be launched, the plane full of
soldiers landed in Zimbabwe at the airport in Harare, the capital, and Simon
Mann was shown a lorry loaded with crates of weapons that he had paid for a
few weeks earlier. And these weapons included rocket launchers, semiautomatic
rifles, grenades, all the sorts of things you would use in attacking a
presidential compound or an airport. So he came to the airport, all the
soldiers came to the airport from the plane, and just as they thought they
were going to collect the weapons, they were arrested.
DAVIES: So the whole thing collapses. We have the book of them being
arrested in Zimbabwe, maybe not a nice place to think about going to jail.
Some of them, even more unfortunate, arrested in Equatorial Guinea, in the
hands of the dictator there; some arrested in South Africa.
Mr. ROBERTS: Yeah.
DAVIES: How were these people treated? What fates did they suffer?
Mr. ROBERTS: Well, I think if you were arrested in Zimbabwe, you had a
reason to hope that some of the rule of law would still be applied, that you
would face a trial, possibly a fair trial, and that maybe you would get away
with a fine or a light sentence. If you were arrested in Equatorial Guinea,
and there were a few of the mercenaries who were there as an advance force,
your prospects were much bleaker. And the guys in Equatorial Guinea were
rounded up and within a few days thrown into this terrible prison called Black
Beach Prison, and in that prison, it's famous for torture, for the routine
punishment of inmates by the guards. The people who were arrested were beaten
up, and one of them, a German man called Merz, was beaten so badly that he had
a heart attack and he died.
So at that stage, everybody who'd been arrested in Equatorial Guinea was
terrified and was sure he was going to get killed in Black Beach Prison.
DAVIES: So eventually nobody gets away with it. Some are in prison briefly
and released. Is everybody out of jail now?
Mr. ROBERTS: Well, a few people did get away with it. There was a group of
financiers and others who were flying in towards Equatorial Guinea on the
night of the coup attempt, and they heard what had happened, they heard that
people had been arrested in Equatorial Guinea and in Zimbabwe, and they turned
their plane around, and they flew straight back to the Canary Isles. So they
But of all the people who were arrested, most of them are now free. Most of
the men who were arrested in Zimbabwe are now free and back in South Africa.
Simon Mann is still in prison in Zimbabwe and will probably be there for
another year. The guys in Equatorial Guinea, most of them are still in
DAVIES: My guest is Adam Roberts. His book is "The Wonga Coup."
We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
DAVIES: If you're just joining me, my guest is Adam Roberts. His book, "The
Wonga Coup," tells the story of an attempt in 2004 by some British-born
mercenaries to overthrow the government of the tiny oil-rich nation of
Equatorial Guinea. The plot collapsed, and the leaders and soldiers were
One of the interesting aspects of this story is the relationship between
American banks and oil companies with this brutal dictatorship in Equatorial
Guinea, which, of course, survived this coup attempt. Tell us about what the
relationship was between the American banks and oil companies and the
government in Equatorial Guinea.
Mr. ROBERTS: Sure. Well, when Equatorial Guinea discovered there was a lot
of oil there, the main companies to come in were American companies. And
these were the ones who discovered most of the oil and developed a very good,
close relationship with the government of Equatorial Guinea. And I guess it's
not a surprise--it happens all over the world--oil companies are not
particularly interested in democracy or good government. They were interested
in getting oil. And so they make relationships with governments wherever they
can. And so you see this in Angola, in other parts of Africa where there's
oil, and in Equatorial Guinea, it was no different.
So as the country started to export a lot of oil, revenues were paid to the
government, and nobody really asked questions about how those revenues were
going to be used. No oil company thought it was in their interest to say,
`Let's make sure none of this is stolen. Let's make sure none of this is
taken away in corruption.'
Now a lot of the money that was going to the government of Equatorial Guinea
was in fact paid into an American bank, Riggs Bank, by the oil companies. And
they didn't trouble themselves to think carefully where this money was going
once it had gone into those bank accounts in America. They didn't check that
the money was being used to build hospitals or schools because that wasn't
their responsibility. In fact, a lot of the money that went into those bank
accounts was then used by the president of Equatorial Guinea for his private
DAVIES: There was an LA Times story into the Riggs Bank and its activities
with these accounts and then a Senate investigation.
Mr. ROBERTS: Yeah.
DAVIES: Now were they found to have committed improprieties or violations of
law? What exactly were they doing?
Mr. ROBERTS: Sure. Well, the Senate investigation was a remarkable
investigation, and it brought down Riggs Bank in the end, and it embarrassed
the government of Equatorial Guinea. They, in great detail, went through the
many accounts held by the president of Equatorial Guinea in Riggs Bank, and
they found that a huge amount of money had been stashed in Shell companies
outside of the US, money that was hidden in private accounts, money that was
spent on the families of the ruling elite in Equatorial Guinea--for example,
on their children to go to school in the US or to pay for private gain for
those mansions and those cars that we mentioned before. And the oil companies
took very little care to make sure that the money was going to the proper
accounts. So they were quite careless, I think, in allowing the money to be
misappropriated. And what the Senate investigation found was that the oil
companies may have contributed to corrupt practices in Equatorial Guinea.
DAVIES: There is this interesting question of whether a multinational company
operating in a country in which there is, in fact, a dictatorial regime has an
obligation to refuse to do business if they become convinced that, in fact,
the rulers of the country are stealing the oil revenues and stashing them in
their own private accounts. And I'm sure the oil companies say, `Look, we do
business where we can and we've got to play by the rules we're given.' Where
do you come down in the moral judgment there?
Mr. ROBERTS: It is difficult in one way. The companies say exactly what you
just said. `If we don't go in there, if we don't pay bribes, if we don't do
what every other oil company will do, we just won't get the business.' And
even if all Western, if all American companies agreed not to be corrupt, if
all European companies agreed not to be corrupt, none of us would get the
business. The Chinese companies would come in, the African companies would
come in, and we would just lose out.
Now, the trouble with that argument, the trouble with that defense is that
they, in effect, are admitting that they are a part of corrupt practices, that
they are paying those bribes, that they are doing something immoral. And so
the companies are in a difficult position where, on the one hand, they want to
deny that they're doing anything immoral or corrupt, and on the other hand
admit that they have to do that just to get their business to work.
And in the end, I think, you can criticize the companies for doing this
because, in the long run, they're damaging African countries and the excuse
that `Others would do it if we didn't' just doesn't wash.
DAVIES: You know, the oil company's complicity with a dictatorial regime is
one question. There's also the question of what the American government--what
posture the American government takes towards a regime like that in Equatorial
Guinea. You know, the government believes that it wants to uphold standards
of human rights around the world. What was the United States' relationship
with the Obiang dictatorship in Equatorial Guinea?
Mr. ROBERTS: Well, you see the remarkable change in the past two or three
years. In 2004, when this coup attempt was being executed, the American
government was hostile to the government of Equatorial Guinea. There were no
good relations between the US administration and the Equatorial Guinean
administration. There was no meeting between senior officials of the State
Department and the government of Equatorial Guinea. And that was one reason
why many people believed the Americans quietly supported the coup attempt.
But since the coup attempt failed, the American position has changed by 180
degrees. We've had Condoleezza Rice recently meeting the president of
Equatorial Guinea and calling him a good friend of America. And the answer
for why this has happened has to be that three-letter word: oil. Equatorial
Guinea sells a lot of oil to America, and America needs imports of oil at the
moment, so they've become good friends.
DAVIES: What's the future for Equatorial Guinea now?
Mr. ROBERTS: Well, you could see a couple of paths for Equatorial Guinea.
It's possible that this failed coup attempt has done a favor to the country.
It might have reminded the government that if you want to avoid coup attempts
in the future, you could perform a little bit better and do something better
for your people and become a bit more popular, become a bit more secure. So
the chances are the government will spend a little bit more money now building
those schools and those hospitals and roads. And if you talk to Equatorial
Guinean officials, that's what they tell you they're doing. They claim that
they're using their oil money more wisely than they were doing before.
On the other hand, I think there's every reason to suspect that a lot of that
oil money is still being diverted to buy those Lamborghinis, those holiday
homes and the luxury for the elite.
DAVIES: Well, Adam Roberts, thanks so much for spending some time with us.
Mr. ROBERTS: Thank you.
DAVIES: Journalist Adam Roberts. His new book is called "The Wonga Coup."
DAVIES: For Terry Gross, I'm Dave Davies.
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.