DATE June 4, 2004 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
PROGRAM Fresh Air
Interview: Actor Christopher Walken discusses his career and his
role in the new movie "The Opportunists"
DAVE DAVIES, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, senior writer for the Philadelphia Daily
News, in for Terry Gross.
On today's archive edition, an interview Terry recorded with actor Christopher
Walken. After his early roles in the film "Next Stop, Greenwich Village" and
"Annie Hall," Walken won an Academy Award for his portrait of a
self-destructing Vietnam veteran in "The Deer Hunter." Since then he's
appeared in over 90 films. Right now you can see him opposite Denzel
Washington in the film "Man on Fire." Next week he'll appear as the lizardly
suburban husband Mike Wellington in the remake of "The Stepford Wives."
Walken started his acting career as a child. But as an adult, he's played
many characters you might not want your child to see, characters that are both
menacing and oddly funny. On screen, his voice can be creepy or captivating,
but always fun to hear, as eccentric wine readings are tempting to imitate
which is what Kevin Spacey did on "Saturday Night Live," imaging what it would
sound like if Christopher Walken had tried out for the part of Hans Solo in
(Soundbite from "Saturday Night Live")
Unidentified Man: OK, Chris. Whenever you're ready.
Mr. KEVIN SPACEY: (As Christopher Walken) I'm captain of the Millennium
Falcon. Chewey here tells me you're looking for passage to the Alderon
Unidentified Man: Yes, indeed. If it's a fast ship.
Mr. SPACEY: Fast ship? You've never heard of the Millennium Falcon? It's
the ship that made the Kestle Run in less than 12 parsecs. She's fast enough
for you, old man. That sucked. I'm sorry. I need a minute. Dammit.
TERRY GROSS, host:
Did you hear this impression when it was broadcast?
Mr. CHRISTOPHER WALKEN (Actor): Yes, I did. He's a friend of mine. He does
it in front of me.
GROSS: Oh, really? Does it make you self-conscious?
Mr. WALKEN: No, I guess I'm flattered, you know, to have that. It's never
seemed to me that I spoke in an odd way. But I guess I do.
GROSS: So you're not consciously trying to put the accents on surprising
Mr. WALKEN: No, I think that my--I have my own way of punctuating things.
And I think that's really more than it is. It's not so much the way I speak
as the rhythm of it.
Mr. WALKEN: And I think that that's true. I have my own punctuation.
GROSS: What do you mean by that? Do you, like, repunctuate a script when you
Mr. WALKEN: I tend to ignore punctuation, actually. It's not that I do
anything different. I just take it away. And then I--when I read things, I
try to have them begin and end more or less where they do in my mind, as
opposed to, you know, being told where that happens. It's kind of more
interesting to figure it out yourself.
GROSS: So do you think--when you take away your punctuation in a script and
say things in an unusual way, do you think it ends up maybe sounding more
impromptu that way?
Mr. WALKEN: Well, it sounds more like me.
Mr. WALKEN: Yes, I think that's true. And scripts can very often be
filled--I mean, not only overpunctuated by, you know, somebody wanting to make
sure that it's spoken exactly the way they had in mind, but very often,
scripts are full of what they call stage directions, which not only tell you
what it is they're saying and how to punctuate it, but it'll, you know, have a
line and it'll say in parenthesis above it, `He says despairingly,' you know.
Whenever I see that, I cross it out. Or if I see `despairing,' then I read
the line happily, you know.
GROSS: Let me play another scene from one of your movies, and this is "King
of New York." And this is, I think, more typical of the kind of role that you
get, where you're the heavy of one sort or another. And in this, you're a
drug dealer who's just come out of prison and, to let everyone know you're
back, you stop in on some of the competition and tell them that you want a
piece of the business.
(Soundbite of "King of New York")
Mr. WALKEN: (As Frank White) From here on, nothing goes down unless I'm
involved. No blackjack, no dope deals, no nothing. A nickel bag gets sold in
the park, I want in. You guys got fat while everybody starved on the street.
It's my turn.
Unidentified Actor: You think you're going to live long enough to spend our
money, you (censored)?
(Soundbite of fight; gunshots)
Mr. WALKEN: (As Frank White) If any of you are tired of getting ripped off
by guys like that, you come with me. I'm at the Plaza Hotel. You're welcome.
You're all welcome to join.
GROSS: Now in that movie, you played the kind of character who can be pretty
sadistic and is, like, amused by his own sadism, which is the kind of
character you've played, and your characters all have this great verbal flair.
I guess that's part of good writing for any movie. But I'm wondering where
this kind of character starts with you, where your understanding of this kind
of character comes from.
Mr. WALKEN: I don't know. I think if you get a kind of a ball rolling,
whatever it is, whether you're the funny guy or the romantic guy, you know, or
the villain or whatever--if you're lucky enough to get that going, you could
end up being asked to play that sort of person a lot. I think it's just an
economic fact of life in the movies. Then occasionally, you get lucky and get
something else, something different. I've gotten to do a few musicals, so
I've gotten to do different things, but it's true that I, early on, started
playing, you know, strange or villainous people.
GROSS: Were there people who you observed as a child who seemed strange and
villainous or who seemed particularly unhealthy or morally bankrupt who
interested you and you observed?
Mr. WALKEN: No. And I can't think of people like that, but somebody
suggested to me that it started with "Annie Hall." That's one of the first
things that I did. It's a great movie and it's one of the first movies I
did and a lot of people saw it and it was a wonderful movie. But I played,
you know, essentially a suicidal character, a guy who wants to drive his car
into traffic. And it's an interesting idea that maybe that's how I got off on
that oddball foot, you know.
GROSS: Well, I'm glad you brought up that role. We happen to have a clip
standing by and this is one of Woody Allen's early movies. He plays a young
aspiring stand-up comic. Diane Keaton plays--he's like the Jewish neurotic
urban guy; Diane Keaton plays the neurotic goyish Midwesterner. And in this
scene, Woody Allen's visiting her family home in the Midwest. At night, he
passes you in your bedroom and you make a this confession to him.
(Soundbite of "Annie Hall")
Mr. WALKEN: (As Duane Hall) Can I confess something? I'm telling you this
because, as an artist, I think you'll understand. Sometimes when I'm driving
on the road at night, I see two headlights coming toward me, fast. I have
this sudden impulse to turn the wheel quickly, head on into the oncoming car.
I can anticipate the explosion, the sound of shattering glass, the flames
rising out of the flowing gasoline.
Mr. WOODY ALLEN: (As Alvy Singer) Right. Well, I have to go now, Duane,
because I'm due back on the planet Earth.
GROSS: Now of course, in the next scene, it's pouring out and you're driving
a very frightened Woody Allen to the airport. It's funny, you know, your
lines in that about imagining driving into an oncoming car. I bet a lot of
people have imagined that for split seconds in cars.
Mr. WALKEN: Poor Duane. Yeah, it's that--you know, it's that crazy thing
when you anticipate annihilation for a second. It's better not to dwell on
that sort of thing.
GROSS: You've said that you grew up on the planet `Show Business.' You
started in show business as a child. What were you, like three years old or
Mr. WALKEN: Well, real young. My brothers and I were in show business at
that time, and that was the birth really of network television and it all
happened in New York City in and around Rockefeller Center. And they used a
lot of kids, particularly at holiday time. They couldn't say that we were
actors but we were there. We were performers. In fact, when I do "Saturday
Night Live" now, I had spent a great deal of time on that floor of NBC, the
eighth floor, as a kid. I know all the nooks and crannies there. And, you
know, I know that area very well. And a lot of those shows came from within
five blocks of Rockefeller Center.
GROSS: You know, I think many of us grew up with the idea that stage mothers
are like the mother in "Gypsy," where it's like a woman who's really kind of
controlling and possessive and manipulative, who really wanted to be in show
business herself and couldn't do it, so she's living her show business life
through her children. Would your mother have fit that image at all?
Mr. WALKEN: Well, I think my mother definitely had a passion for show
business. But it wasn't, as I say, such an unusual thing for kids to go to
dancing school and then get on the subway and go to New York and be an extra
on some TV show. And I remember that the kids in those days, one wanted to be
what they called the triple threat. That meant you could sing, you could
dance, you could remember your lines. And people who could do that stood a
better chance of getting a job than the other guy. And the pay wasn't much,
but it was a lot of fun. And there were a lot of people who did that and it
was a sort of a community. I'm very grateful to that. It was an education
for me that I couldn't possibly have had anywhere else. And, in fact, I don't
think I'd be an actor today if I hadn't done that as a kid.
GROSS: Because you went to Children's Professional School and spent a lot of
your time acting professionally, are there parts of what's considered normal
children's lives that mystify you, that you were just like not a part of?
Mr. WALKEN: Well, it's true. I don't know much about baseball or football
or, you know, I can't hardly swim. The sports thing wasn't that present where
I went to school, but I'm not sure it was for anybody who grew up in
Manhattan. There's just no room to play football. People--the closest thing
to baseball I remember was stickball, that you used to play on the street with
a rubber ball and a broom handle. So that part of it was a little different.
On the other hand, I can dance. There's a whole generation, I think, of
people who grew up in the neighborhood that I grew up in who are probably
about my age now who can tap dance. Going to tap dance class was not unusual,
whereas now it probably is.
GROSS: You manage to get little dance moves sometimes into your movies,
Mr. WALKEN: I do. I try to fit in a little bit.
GROSS: Like when you get out of prison in "King of New York" and you meet up
with your boys again, you do--I don't know what the move would be called, but
you do a few seconds of a little dance.
Mr. WALKEN: Yes. I've been told--in fact, it's true that there's almost
always a little dance I sneak in. I don't do it consciously, but it does end
up being there.
GROSS: Yeah. Sometimes it looks like you're about to go into your dance
just--into a dance just when you're standing and about to...
Mr. WALKEN: Well, maybe I did and they cut it.
GROSS: Right. Right.
DAVIES: Christopher Walken speaking with Terry Gross in 2000.
A special edition of "The King of New York" is just out on DVD and Walken's
starting in the new version of "The Stepford Wives" which opens next week.
More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
DAVIES: Let's get back to Terry's 2000 interview with Christopher Walken.
GROSS: Let me play another scene. This is a scene from the movie "The
Comfort of Strangers," which was written and directed by Paul Schrader, who
also wrote "Taxi Driver." And in this movie, you play an Italian who takes
two English tourists under your wing and then uses them in your sadistic sex
life. Early on, they can tell there's something not quite right with you,
but, you know, they're nice people and they don't want to jump to conclusions,
so when you invite them to your house, they kind of show up in a state of
confusion. The man played, by Rupert Everett, is with you in the room that
used to be your father's study when he was a diplomat and you start to tell
him about your father. In fact, all of your stories in this movie seem to
start with the words, `My father.' Let's hear this scene.
(Soundbite of "The Comfort of Strangers")
Mr. WALKEN: (As Robert) My father and his father understood themselves
clearly. They were men and they were proud of their sex. Women understood
them, too. Now women treat men like children because they can't take them
seriously. But men like my father, my grandfather, women took very seriously.
There was no uncertainty, no confusion.
Mr. RUPERT EVERETT: (As Colin) So this is a museum dedicated to the good old
(Soundbite of man getting punched; coughing)
GROSS: Well, after you punch Rupert Everett in the stomach for no particular
reason, then you wink at him. Was that wink in the script or was that just a
little Christopher Walken thing?
Mr. WALKEN: That was just one of those winks.
GROSS: All your big stories in this movie start with `my father,' and your
first `my father' story is I think about six or seven minutes long.
Mr. WALKEN: Yes. It was an enormous speech. It's a wonderful script
written by--taken from Ian McEwan's book, but adapted by Harold Pinter, and
the dialogue has a wonderful feeling to it. And it's certainly a strange
character I was playing; a disturbing sort of fellow.
GROSS: Yeah. I think you once said that you found this character the most
disturbing of all the characters that you've played.
Mr. WALKEN: I think that's true. You know, I don't take things home with me
that much, but he was--I was glad to get rid of him.
GROSS: What was particularly disturbing about this character?
Mr. WALKEN: Well, he was just so twisted.
GROSS: Having grown up in show business, do you think that having an acting
career means something different for you than it would to, say, someone who
grew up in a small town and dreamed someday of getting to Broadway or someday
making it to Hollywood because you kind of grew up with all of that?
Mr. WALKEN: Yeah, I think that my feeling about it always was and still is
I'm not as comfortable with the word `actor' as I am with the word
`performer.' I've always thought of myself as a performer. You know, if I'm
a good actor, you know, that's kind of a bonus. But being a performer has
always been more or less how I think of what I do.
GROSS: Well, Christopher Walken, before you have to leave, I want to end with
a clip, and I was hoping you could tell us about making this scene. And this
is from a movie called "At Close Range" in which you play a kind of small-time
criminal. Your son is Sean Penn. You turn on your sons. You shoot Sean
Penn's, your own son's girlfriend. You kill her. You're a really heartless
guy in this. And by the end of the movie, Sean Penn is so upset at all the
treacherous acts you've committed against your own family that he's holding a
gun on you, his father. And he's so upset, he might really shoot you. And
you're not sure how to play it.
Before we hear that scene, tell us a little bit about what went into the
making of this scene and what it's like for you, as someone who doesn't really
like guns, to be in front of a gun on a movie set.
Mr. WALKEN: Yes, well, this story is based on a real family, and, you know,
it's a terrible, sad story. When we shot this scene, I think I know what
you're referring to. I've said it before, but they--and I had a gun pointed
at me. And at one point, they switched the guns and that was enough to put me
in a panic. I didn't know really what was going on, although everything was
being kept very safe behind my back, just being in the dark about it got me
into a huge anxiety attack. Anyway, on film, you can see that. It's about
all I can tell you.
GROSS: And the other thing I like about the scene is that you're a character
who's so incapable of being sincere. I mean, you're trying so hard to say to
your son, `I love you,' and it just won't come out in a sincere way at all.
Mr. WALKEN: Yeah, well, I tried to be sincere.
GROSS: Tried and failed, though, wouldn't you say?
Mr. WALKEN: Yeah, I guess so. But that's in character.
Christopher Walken, it's been a real pleasure. Good luck with your new film,
and, please, make a musical one day.
Mr. WALKEN: Thank you. And it's always a pleasure to listen to NPR.
GROSS: Oh, well, thank you for saying that.
Mr. WALKEN: And your program.
(Soundbite from "At Close Range")
Mr. SEAN PENN: (As Brad Whitewood Jr.) This is the gun you used to kill
Mr. WALKEN: (As Brad Whitewood Sr.) I never did nothing to Terry.
(Soundbite of gunshot)
Mr. WALKEN: (As Brad Whitewood Sr.) Oh! No, wait, wait, wait, wait, wait.
Mr. PENN: (As Brad Whitewood Jr.) This gun has been used on everybody. On
me! It's a family gun, Dad. Jesus.
Mr. WALKEN: (As Brad Whitewood Sr.) Put that down. What's eating you?
Mr. PENN: (As Brad Whitewood Jr.) You're going to die.
(Soundbite of gunshot)
Mr. PENN: (As Brad Whitewood Jr.) I know one thing clearer than I've ever
known anything in my entire life except that I loved Terry before you killed
her. And that is that you're going to die.
Mr. WALKEN: (As Brad Whitewood Sr.) You got the guts to kill me? I'm your
blood. I'm your family.
Mr. PENN: (As Brad Whitewood Jr.) You're not my family. Not anymore.
Mr. WALKEN: (As Brad Whitewood Sr.) Yeah, you're crazy. Crazy. Gone crazy.
Mr. PENN: (As Brad Whitewood Jr.) Nope.
Mr. WALKEN: (As Brad Whitewood Sr.) Listen, listen.
Mr. PENN: (As Brad Whitewood Jr.) What!
Mr. WALKEN: (As Brad Whitewood Sr.) I know how it is. Cops got you in
there, got your head all (censored) up. I know how that is.
Mr. PENN: (As Brad Whitewood Jr.) Not that simple, Dad.
Mr. WALKEN: (As Brad Whitewood Sr.) Before they got you twisted, you must
have known something, you must have felt it. I gave you money, I gave you a
car, I took you in. Now don't that mean something?
Mr. PENN: (As Brad Whitewood Jr.) Means what! Means what!
Mr. WALKEN: (As Brad Whitewood Sr.) It means I got a feeling for you.
Mr. PENN: (As Brad Whitewood Jr.) What (censored) feeling?
Mr. WALKEN: (As Brad Whitewood Sr.) I care. What do you--I love you.
What--is that what you want to hear? I love you.
Mr. PENN: (As Brad Whitewood Jr.) Yeah?
(Soundbite of gunshot)
Mr. WALKEN: (As Brad Whitewood Sr.) Mother-(censored)!
(Soundbite of gunshot; glass breaking)
Mr. PENN: (As Brad Whitewood Jr.) I love you, too, Dad.
(Soundbite of gunshots)
DAVIES: Christopher Walken with Sean Penn in a scene from the film "At Close
Range." He spoke with Terry Gross in 2000. Walken's new film, a remake of
"The Stepford Wives" opens next week.
I'm Dave Davies. This is FRESH AIR.
DAVIES: Coming up, Richard Price. His novel "Samaritan" is now out in
paperback. It's about a guy, who like Price, grew up in a housing project and
has made a lot of money as a writer. He moves from LA back to New Jersey to
help out some of the people in the projects he's left behind. Also David
Edelstein reviews "Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban."
(Soundbite of music)
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Interview: Richard Price discusses his novels and life
DAVE DAVIES, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, sitting in for Terry Gross.
Richard Price has written several novels which have been adapted into films,
including "Clockers" about crack dealers and cops and "The Wanderers" about
street gangs in the Bronx, where Price grew up. Price also wrote the
screenplays for the films "Sea of Love," "Mad Dog and Glory" and "The Color of
Money." More recently he's written a number of episodes for the HBO series
His latest novel, "Samaritan," comes out in paperback next week. It's about a
guy who, like Price, grew up in a housing project and became a successful
writer. The character in the novel, Ray Mitchell, has made a lot of money in
LA writing for TV. After September 11th, Ray returns to New Jersey to be near
his daughter. He also returns to his old neighborhood in the hopes of sharing
some of his success by teaching at his former high school.
Terry spoke with Richard Price last year, and began with an excerpt from
"Samaritan." Ray is teaching his first creating writing class, trying to
convince a room of skeptical kids they each have stories to tell, and he's
beginning to think that this teaching thing just might work.
Mr. RICHARD PRICE (Author): `"This is great. Great. OK. This class, forget
it. OK? Don't even think of it as creative writing. It's just stories. The
writing assignments--stories. Telling stories. Can somebody wake this guy
up?" One of the girls punched the boy Jamal, whose forehead was resting on
the table. Ray's so happy now, stories his lifelong lifeline to his daughter,
to romance, to himself. Stories, the ballast, the crash cart, the air. "And
the thing is, what are you? Hopewell projects(ph) kids? Neighborhood kids?
Oh, man, nobody out there knows what you know. But what you may think of as
everyday, as boring, that's like nah. That's me, when I want to read
something, a book, a story, a newspaper article, I'm thinking time is tight.
Why should I read this? What does this individual have to tell me that I
don't already know?"
`He then checked himself, something off in the message. "Not that what you
write has to be a show-stopper, mind-boggling or, you know, can you top this?
All I am saying is, believe me, you're all so much more interesting, so much
more special than you might think. So every week, you're going to write me a
few pages. Doesn't have to have a beginning or an end. Just some kind of
snapshot. Word picture. Bring it in and read it to the class or I'll read it
for you and we'll talk. Questions?"
`Jamal, the sleeper, raised his hand. "Does spelling count?" The girl with
the big-framed glasses, Mira(ph), clucked her tongue in irritation. "Spelling
is good. It's good to have spelling." His disappointment in the question was
neutralized by this Mira. Something cooking there. "Can we write in pencil?"
"Pencil, pen, blood, as long as I can decipher it." "Do they have to be
true?" "Fool me."'
TERRY GROSS, host:
Richard Price, do you think that was a good lesson that he was delivering?
Mr. PRICE: It worked for me.
GROSS: Yeah, I figured.
Mr. PRICE: I mean, you have--that's how I started wri...
GROSS: Where did you get it?
Mr. PRICE: You know, I mean, you start writing, you know, and you look
around at your life and you're 18 and the whole idea of write about what you
know can be deadly for somebody who doesn't even vote yet. So what worked for
me, and I think what worked for some of my students over the years, was
reaching back into their family mythology and not being, you know, focused on
the fact that all you know is that you miss your girlfriend over Thanksgiving
vacation and you hate being with your parents.
GROSS: One of the things Ray is up against as a teacher is that the kids are
giving him these kind of pre-packaged stories. Talk a little bit about the
stories he gets from the students and how that connects with what you found
when you were teaching people who had had really interesting lives but that
wasn't what was coming back at you as the stories they were writing.
Mr. PRICE: Well, what happens is that, you know, when you're trying to get
kids to write, or trying to get anybody to write, you know, who's not a
serious writer, rather than think about what's meaningful to them, they try to
anticipate what would be meaningful to you. And so the source is always
coming from the outside. What does this guy want to hear? What will get me
an A? How do get this homework assignment as quick as I can? And the irony
is that, you know, so they go to television for their stories, or they go to
sort of crummy books that they've read, you know, for ideas when, in fact, you
know, there's diamonds in the back yard. The minutia of their everyday life
is where all the jewels are. And repeatedly I've had to sit kids down and
say, `Why are you writing this? Tell me about yourself. Tell me you're--oh,
you're father's a black fireman in a white suburban town? Well, why on Earth
are you writing about people sniffing angel dust in the South Bronx where
you've never been?'
GROSS: Ray is separated from his wife.
Mr. PRICE: Right.
GROSS: And when he comes back to New Jersey, he hooks up with his daughter
again. But he's very self-conscious around her and realizes he's treating her
like a first date. What gave you that image?
Mr. PRICE: Oh, I got a couple of daughters. I use them for practice. It's
just--you know, I find myself--I mean, sometimes with my kids, the bad parent
part of me is the part of me that feels like it's running for office and needs
their votes and sort of like can cater, you know, to what they would like as
opposed to doing the more difficult stuff, which is to say, `No, you can't do
that.' You know, there's a certain weakness in me that I have to fight to be
a parent. I mean, you know, it's a big, you know, cliche to say, you know,
`Don't be a friend. Be a parent. You know, there's plenty of time for
friendship when they turn adult themselves. Right now they need yes and no.
They need guidance,' you know. But basically I have to struggle with the fact
that all I really want them to do is adore me, you know, and I'm running for
office, you know. And I catch myself and I'll pull back, but it's hard work.
GROSS: There's a scene where Ray takes his daughter--his 13-year-old daughter
to the shopping mall and tells her, `Today, a dollar's like a penny. You can
spend anything. You can buy anything.' And he expects he's really going to
be a hero to her, but she gets really angry and sullen and kind of throws on
the floor the things that he's bought her. What's that about?
Mr. PRICE: It's about how easy it is to underestimate the perceptiveness and
intelligence of children, and how they can read you like a comic book and have
been all their lives if they're yours. And any kid, if not--you know, even if
they're not able to put it in words, knows exactly the weaknesses of their
parents, and knows exactly the strengths of their parents. And it so rarely
has anything to do with what comes out of the parent's mouth. I mean, you
know, I'm in therapy for I think 3,427 years. You know, I've put 11 shrinks'
kids through Bennington already, I think.
But, you know--and so when I'm talking to my kids, I know exactly what to say
to sound, you know, like, you know, sharing and caring and, you know,
saying--making the right noises and this and that. But I think what kids do
is they smell you. They don't even listen to what's coming out of your mouth.
They look you right in the eye or they arch their nostrils and they know what
you really want, what you really value, what you really need.
So this daughter would know that Ray--the easiest way for Ray to be giving is
to give something, to literal--and they're in the mall, which is the crucible.
And the kid flips out. She doesn't want any more belly button rings. She
doesn't want any more like skin lotion. She doesn't want anything. She just
wants him to shut the hell up.
GROSS: Now, you know, Ray, gets this terrible head injury. He's hit over the
head with a vase. And, you know, who did it and why they did it is the
mystery in the book. Usually in detective stories, the detective gets hit
over the head, usually with a gun. He's knocked unconscious and he awakes
with a terrible headache that goes away in a few hours. Whereas, you know,
Ray is--he's in serious jeopardy after getting knocked on the head with this
vase. And the jeopardy continues because the headaches can come back. There
can be long-term consequences. I was wondering if you were thinking a lot
about how different a concussion can be in real life from the way it usually
is in crime fiction?
Mr. PRICE: Not really. I mean, I was basically thinking of--you know, I
just went to a couple of doctor people, friends that I know, and said, `Give
me a real bad concussion,' you know, which they proceeded to do. I just
wanted enough to know--I mean, basically the pain that Ray has to live with
and the tentativeness of his recovery, he's been taught a lesson. He knows
who did this to him, and he knows that down the line it could cost him his
life or it could cost him the use of the right side of his body or something
like that. And he doesn't want revenge. He doesn't want this person
arrested. He's learned something. And what's driving the detective crazy is
that there's a certain amount of shame in what he's learned and that's why
he's not telling, or he's protecting somebody, and what she's picking up from
him is shame.
And when a detective picks up reticence in a victim, they're thinking that,
`Here's a person who's more afraid of the truth coming out than of getting
justice.' That means that this person is hiding something pretty bad. So, of
course, the first thing she thinks of has to do with deviant sexuality,
pederasty, drug habit, gambling addictions. She goes through a whole
checklist of reasons why people would rather live, you know, with their
injury, you know, than see justice sought. But it's something greater and
more subtle than any of that.
And each book is supposed to be about the education of a character. Well, I
mean, they both become educated during the course of the investigation.
DAVIES: Richard Price speaking with Terry Gross. His latest novel
"Samaritan" comes out in paperback next week. We'll hear more after a break.
This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
DAVIES: Let's get back to Terry's interview with Richard Price. His latest
novel "Samaritan" is out in paperback next week. It follows Ray Mitchell, a
TV writer who, after September 11th, moves from LA back to New Jersey where he
GROSS: Now I think you're in the process of writing a screen adaptation of
your new novel "Samaritan," yes?
Mr. PRICE: Not if I can help it. Yeah, I'm supposed to...
GROSS: Oh, OK.
Mr. PRICE: ...but--yeah, I'm supposed to. I mean, to write a script of your
own book--you know, I always say it's like just because you're a dentist that
doesn't mean you have to do your own root canal. I mean, it's a nightmare.
You have to sort of debride and tear apart this thing and you know every word
of the 400 pages and your job now is you've got to make it into 110-page
singing telegram. And it's all like going up into the attic to find
something--when you open up a book, you know, to find material to write a
screenplay--you come down three days later with a whalebone corset on, all
your old baseball cards, you know, and your Great Aunt Fanny's hat. And you
now have a 9,000-page screenplay because it's your book and you love every
word and you just can't do it. You don't have the discipline. You're not
GROSS: So you're not going to do it yourself? You're going to have somebody
else do it?
Mr. PRICE: I'm supposed to do it myself. I'm scheming to like try to
convince the producer to give it to somebody else and let me write a second
original. If I have to, I will, but I'd rather not. Life's too short.
GROSS: Were you happy with the "Clockers" adaptation?
Mr. PRICE: Not really. I mean, there were very good things in it. I mean,
Spike Lee is an artist. He's a terrific visual artist. And there was a
terrific visuality to it. There were some wonderful things in some of the
performances. By and large it's not the movie that I would have made, but
then again I'm not a filmmaker.
GROSS: So was the adaptation that was used one that you had written?
Mr. PRICE: Well, it's what I had written and what Spike rewrote. He wrote on
top of me. And there was an interesting thing--he said something to me. I
had seen his draft, his draft of my draft, and I was horrified. And I told
him so. I just said, I mean, `This is like cheesecloth. I mean, there's
nothing here.' And he said to me--and I've never forgotten this--he said,
`Richard, you're a writer. You're a screenwriter. When you're done with this
script, you're gone from the film project. So you put in everything but the
kitchen sink. It's like leaving notes all over, you know, for the cleaning
lady, you know. Do this. Do that. Do this. Do that. Right before--and
you're gone. Me, when I write this, I'm the director, so the script is
basically notes to myself. I don't have to show this to a director. I am the
director. All I need to write down is things I don't want to forget.'
GROSS: When was the last time you picked up one of your early novels, "The
Wanderers," "Ladies' Man," even "The Breaks"?
Mr. PRICE: When was the last time?
Mr. PRICE: Never. All I see when I look back at the stuff I've written,
especially before "Clockers," is what I got away with. You know, I never see
anything--I'm reading this stuff and I can't see how it got published. All I
can see is the mistakes I've made, which is probably OK, which is--I mean, if
I thought that this is as good as it's going to get, then I haven't learned
But now that my kids are, you know, teen-agers, they've both read a few books
of mine. And, you know, when I was writing these books, I was in my early
20s. The idea of having children is sort of like being--I might as well be a
cowboy or something; it just seemed like science fiction to me to have
children, you know, when I was writing. And now all of a sudden, I've got
kids that are about five or six years younger than I was when I wrote "The
Wanderers," and they're starting to read it.
And they look to see where I am, and they have to read it on the sly because
if I know that they're reading it, I'm going to sneak up behind them and start
screaming out, `Don't read that paragraph! I didn't know you were going to
read that someday,' you know, because there's all this, like, you know,
perversity in it which, you know, when I wrote it was just exuberance. But
now, you know, my own kids are reading this and it's mortifying. And they
both say, `Dad, go away. You go read Stephen Crane or something. I am going
to read this book, OK? I'm not going to tell you when I'm reading this book.
If I see you coming, I'm going to put the book down.' And I'll go, `Oh, OK,
OK, I'm leaving, I'm leaving.' And then I like sort of crawl back into the
bedroom through the other way, sneak up behind them, and try to peek over
their shoulder and see what part they're at, and the next thing you know, my
hand comes across over their shoulder, I'll say, `Don't read that page,' and
they have a heart attack 'cause they didn't know I was in the room.
I mean, it's a wonderful thing. It's like, you know, I have a 16-year-old
daughter who's reading "Samaritan" now, and she doesn't read an awful lot, you
know. She's a good writer and she reads what she reads. But, you know,
reading is not one of her major pastimes. And she'd just say, `Hey, Dad,
you're like a really good writer,' you know. And it just felt so nice that
she said that.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Richard Price and his new novel
is called "Samaritan."
Do you go back to your old neighborhood much?
Mr. PRICE: Well, I went back to my old neighborhood. That's how this book
started, I went back to the projects in the Bronx, and I went back with this
detective who I based the Narisa Emmonds(ph) character on because this was the
extreme corner of her precinct's jurisdiction. And...
GROSS: So this would be the projects in the Bronx where you grew up...
Mr. PRICE: Yeah, right, the Parkside projects...
GROSS: ...that "The Wanderers" is based on...
Mr. PRICE: Right.
GROSS: ...which is your novel about street gangs in the South Bronx.
Mr. PRICE: Right. I mean, yeah, and I went back. But, you know, the thing
is you can spend your whole life writing about the same people and the same
things and it's OK; you don't have to go anywhere else, because what changes
is you. And it's basically a lifetime of refining a vision. I mean, I would
never, you know, put myself in the same category as Faulkner but, I mean,
obviously he's the example everybody brings up, that little county in
Mississippi. For me, it would be the Parkside projects in the Bronx. The
bricks'll stay the same; I'm the thing that's going to change.
GROSS: Well, not only have you changed when you go back to the projects where
you grew up, the projects have changed.
Mr. PRICE: Right.
GROSS: I'm sure the neighborhood's changed; the people living in the projects
have changed. What are some of the ways they've changed?
Mr. PRICE: Well, that was the big shock about "Clockers," which is that I'd
grown up in the projects, but I had grown up at a time in the '50s and the
early '60s, it was before drugs and before Vietnam. And people stayed there
because it was clean, good, affordable housing and you could save money to
send the next generation on to college so that generation wouldn't have to
return to the projects. And that all changed in the late '60s and early '70s.
And when I had gone from "The Wanderers," which was about the projects in the
'60s, and all of a sudden it's the 1980s and I'm doing research for "Sea of
Love," the Al Pacino movie, and I go with a bunch of cops back to a housing
project in Jersey City, which is very much, you know, architecturally at any
rate like the projects that I'd grown up in, except it was a place that--it
looked like hell. I had never--I felt like I was in a tiger pit. I had never
seen anything so dire and desperate in my life. And I found myself wanting so
badly to understand what happened in this project or trying to reconnect to
this project, and that's what "Clockers" came out of. But it's just ironic;
it's like I've been writing for 30 years, and it seems like I started out with
housing projects and I'm still back at the original project that "The
Wanderers" came out of.
GROSS: You know, in your earlier novels, like "The Wanderers," "The Breaks,"
"Blood Brothers," it was easy to see the main character as being your
surrogate. In your later novels, like "Freedomland" and "Clockers," it didn't
seem to really be directly about you in any way; although I'm sure there are
experiences based on ones you had. But in your new novel "Samaritan," it's
easy to see Ray as a character who shares some of the experiences that you
had, as being, on some level or another, like your surrogate. And do you feel
like you took a break from yourself and then came back to yourself again?
Mr. PRICE: Yeah. Well, what happened is, you know, my first four books, in
some way, were self-referential, and there I was, like 32 years old with four
autobiographies. I mean, even my therapist was going into a coma, you know.
And so I just had to stop, and that's why I got into screenwriting because I
wanted to keep writing, but I didn't want to have to keep writing about
myself, became a hired pen, and for all the bad things you can say about
Hollywood, it did teach me that I can write about people that are not me and,
you know pull it off. So I did that for eight years, and when I got back to
novels, you know, I still was afraid of going back into examining my own
navel, but, you know, and I, for personal reasons, got involved in the world
of, you know, "Clockers" and "Freedomland," where there was nobody like me.
"Samaritan" is sort of like a return to thinking about myself a little bit
because I think it's safe now. I mean, 20-odd years have passed and, you
know, like I said, you know, I've been married in that time, I have two
children. I didn't have any kids. And I think my life has changed enough
that I feel like I have some things to say that are clean and fresh, at least
about myself to myself. And I think, once again, I feel a little bit like I
am valid grounds for literature again, hopefully.
GROSS: But writing about a character like yourself, when you have a wife and
children, can be complex, too, because they might see some of the characters
as being similar to them, or they might see some of your characters' thoughts
as being like your thoughts. And here's like a sensitive one. Your
character's thinking about the difficulty of remaining monogamous in marriage
because you get to know the other person's body so well, it's kind of like
making love to yourself.
Mr. PRICE: Yeah.
GROSS: I mean, you know, it's not something a wife would really want to read.
Mr. PRICE: Well, you know, hey, I mean, they do call it fiction. I mean, you
know, somebody knows you...
GROSS: Yeah, exactly. That's when you have to say that. Yeah.
Mr. PRICE: Help. I mean, you know, listen, somebody knows you...
GROSS: Exactly right.
Mr. PRICE: ...and they know what you do for a living...
Mr. PRICE: ...and they know what it's like to be with you and they know how
you feel about them. And you would hope that they can read something, be they
your spouse or your kids, and know--I know what artistic license is.
GROSS: Right. Well, Richard Price, thank you so much for talking with us.
Mr. PRICE: You're welcome.
DAVIES: Novelist and screenwriter Richard Price speaking with Terry Gross.
His novel, "Samaritan," comes out in paperback next week.
Coming up, the latest "Harry Potter" movie. This is FRESH AIR.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Review: New film "Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban"
DAVE DAVIES, host:
The Mexican director Alfonso Cuaron is best known to American audiences for
his sexy coming-of-age hit "Y tu mama tambien." His new film follows another
set of young people. It's based on the third book of the "Harry Potter"
series, "Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban." David Edelstein has this
DAVID EDELSTEIN reporting:
What a drag it was three years ago when "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's
Stone" became a movie and the director turned out to be the genial Hollywood
yes-man Chris Columbus. It was a twinkly, Christmassy, family picture with
none of the subversive energy out of which this series was created. I don't
mean that J.K. Rowling is some kind of punk agitator, but these books are
angry. They're written in a rage against a fascist strain in the blue-blood
English upper crust and their clueless allies, the vulgarly snobbish
middle-class Muggles. Every book begins with the lonely, friendless,
maltreated orphan Harry, shut in his room, practicing magic in secret, just as
Rowling must have shut herself away to summon the pagan fury to forge each new
The first sign that "Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban" is different is
the way the new director, the Mexican Alfonso Cuaron, shoots the first scene,
in which we discover Daniel Radcliffe's Harry under his covers doing something
naughty. No, not that. He's playing with his wand. I mean, he's testing out
his potency. I mean--look, there's room for sexual suggestiveness, because
Harry isn't prepubescent anymore, and neither is Radcliffe. He's a gangly
English teen, and he's very prickly, the quintessential hormonal adolescent.
When a nasty aunt insults his dead parents, Harry can't contain his rage, and
blows her up like a barrage balloon. And Cuaron doesn't direct the scene for
whimsy. He's one step away from some David Cronenberg vision in which she's
splattered all over the walls.
To have Harry in the hands of a real director is thrilling. Now we're inside
this universe and it's liberating, but also feverish and scary. The palette
has changed. The contrasts are higher, the blacks deeper, and Cuaron irises
in and out of scenes like some German silent expressionist. Harry is in
mortal danger. Sirius Black, a wizard who's supposed to have it in for him,
has escaped from the prison Azkaban, and the guards who pursue Black are maybe
worse than he is. They're cowled, skeletal creatures called Dementors who
suck people's souls out of their bodies.
The train ride to Harry's school Hogwarts is in a thunder storm, and even
Hermione and Ron, played once more by Emma Watson and Rupert Grint, are
(Soundbite of "Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban")
RUPERT GRINT (Actor): (As Ron) Let me get this straight. Sirius Black has
escaped from Azkaban to come after you?
DANIEL RADCLIFFE (Actor): (As Harry Potter) Yeah.
AMY WATSON (Actor): (As Hermione) But they'll catch Black, won't they? I
mean, everyone's looking for him.
(Soundbite of train stopping)
WATSON: Why are we stopping? Can't be there yet.
(Soundbite of doors opening)
GRINT: What's going on?
RADCLIFFE: Don't know. Maybe we've broken down.
WATSON: Ouch, Ron. That was my foot.
GRINT: There's something moving out there.
(Soundbite of various noises)
GRINT: I think someone's coming aboard.
(Soundbite of various noises)
GRINT: What's going on? What's happening?
EDELSTEIN: The Dementors, who search the train, are not quite as
bone-chilling as I'd hoped they'd be, at least compared to Peter Jackson's
Ringwraiths in "Lord of the Rings." But there's a chilling effect when they
hover and seem to pull off their victims' faces like taffy. Harry says they
make him feel cold, like he'll never be cheerful again, which is a good way of
talking about real adolescent depression. And director Cuaron is mindful of
these metaphors, so the movie works on more than one level.
Well, it isn't gangbusters on the narrative level. Although possibly the best
of the books, this is very much a middle chapter. It loses steam in the
second half, and there's no climactic wand-off with some ultimate band guy.
Gary Oldman can be terrific, but he's too finicky and small of spirit for
Sirius Black, and Michael Gambon, replacing the late Richard Harris as the top
wizard Dumbledore, can't resist camping it up.
The good additions are the enigmatically lewd David Thewlis as an enigmatic
professor named Lupin, whose name hints at his secret, and Emma Thompson as a
spaced-out, frizzy-haired divination instructor.
Even when "Prisoner of Azkaban" runs down, Cuaron's world is magically alive.
Those paintings, with their own parallel Vaudevillian universe, the giant
flying hippogriff with its body of a horse and head of an eagle, the
undulating landscape with its lakes like fjords and the occasional Whomping
Willow. There's so much emotion in the filmmaking that this doesn't seem like
a synthetic movie universe anymore. It feels real, Hogwarts and all.
DAVIES: David Edelstein is film critic for Slate.
DAVIES: For Terry Gross, I'm Dave Davies.
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