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Our Digital Lives, Monitored By A Hidden 'Numerati'

Many people generate an immense amounts of digital data during a single day — often without a second thought. But Stephen Baker, a senior writer at BusinessWeek, warns that the information generated is being monitored by a group of entrepreneurial mathematicians.


Other segments from the episode on September 29, 2008

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, September 29, 2008: Interview with Stephen Baker; Interview with Michael Cera; Obituary for Paul Newman.


DATE September 29, 2008 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM

Interview: Author of "The Numerati" Stephen Baker on the
numerati's effect on your daily life

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

You are unknowingly revealing a trail of information about yourself as you go
about your day. The microchips in our cell phones, cable TV boxes and
supermarket scanners record thousands of details about our lives--who we call,
what we buy, where we travel, how late we order a drink in a bar or how early
we get coffee at a diner.

Our guest Stephen Baker says mathematicians and computer scientists are
getting better at sorting through those jillions of little facts to reveal
things about us--our tastes, phobias, health care issues, political views,
even our love interests. Baker calls these Jedi knights of data analysis "The
Numerati." That's the title of his new book about the people and corporations
using advanced math and powerful computers to learn about our lives and make
money from what they learn. Stephen Baker has written for BusinessWeek for
more than 20 years and is co-author of its blog, He spoke
with FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies.


Well, Stephen Baker, welcome to FRESH AIR. Your book...

Mr. STEPHEN BAKER: Thank you, Dave.

DAVIES: Your book is called "The Numerati." It's about all these
mathematicians and computer scientists who are going to be managing,
accumulating and analyzing data that tells them things about us. Let's talk
about some of the ways that these computer wizzes, the numerati, as you call
them, might work with data in the future. And one of them involves us as
shoppers. Now, everybody know about loyalty cards. We get the little card
from our local supermarket or sporting goods store or department store, and
whenever we use that that generates data through the cash register on
everything we buy, week after week. They get our shopping list. But you note
that supermarkets, for example, haven't really done much with that data until
now. What are some of the ways that computer technicians see for retailers to
use all of this information they get?

Mr. BAKER: Well, right now, if you walk into a grocery store, they don't
know who you are until you check out, and so they can't take advantage of
everything that they know about you, and haven't bothered to do that yet. But
what they want to do is have you identified as you enter the store, either
with a shopping cart or a loyalty card that has a radio signal on it. And
then they'll know who you are and then they'll look at the patterns of your
shopping and other people that they think shop like you, and they'll make
suggestions, almost the way Amazon and Netflix makes suggestions about which
movies you might like to watch or what books you might want to read. And
they'll try to put us in different tribes or buckets of people according to
our preferences.

So me, for example, I'm a guy who--I'm kind of a cheapskate, and if a recipe
calls for red bell peppers, I tend to buy the green ones sometimes because the
red ones cost twice as much. So they might say, `We've got a group of people
that consistently buy green bell peppers instead of red. Now, what else do
those people, those cheapskates buy?' And they could profile me as a
cheapskate and suggest all kinds of things to me. And it can get incredibly

DAVIES: Now, let's make sure I understand how this physically would work.
You or I walk into a grocery store, and we pick up a cart, and there's a
computer chip in the cart and we scan our loyalty card in the cart, or there's
a radio signal on the card we carry in our wallet?

Mr. BAKER: Well, Microsoft is rolling out one of these systems, and then
there are European companies that are also doing it, and what they want to do
is have a little computer terminal on a cart, and you swipe your loyalty card
and it immediately knows who you are and then suggests a shopping list for

DAVIES: And...

Mr. BAKER: Some people might find this very intrusive.

DAVIES: Yeah. I mean...

Mr. BAKER: Some people may choose not to have it.

DAVIES: Yeah, I could imagine people jumping with fright when they see their
shopping list pop up. But let's explore this a moment. So, then, once
you've, in effect, checked in at the supermarket and they have your entire
shopping history there on a big database, they then, what, will offer you
specials and coupons that are uniquely tailored to your interests and buying

Mr. BAKER: They're not only tailored to us and what we want to buy, but
they're also tailored to what the store wants to sell. They can make all
kinds of calculations about how much money they can get out of us and how
quickly they can get rid of their surplus. I mean, if a store has a bunch of
fish that's going to go rotten, then they can do calculations on how many--how
many voters--how many shoppers are going to--they need to send the promotion
to and which type of shoppers. And they want to maximize the amount of money
we're spending at the supermarket.

DAVIES: And so some kinds of people will respond to that and some won't.
Now, you point out that there are some kinds of shoppers that retailers call
barnacles. Who are they?

Mr. BAKER: Right. Barnacles are cheapskates. Barnacles are people who go
from one store to the next, always looking for the bargains and not really
buying anything else. And the retailers detest barnacles. And now they have
the means to explore the patterns of the barnacles and single them out, and
once they know who the barnacles are, increasingly they're going to do things
to discourage barnacles from even coming into their store. They're going to
try to fire the barnacles. They might do this by giving them coupons or
advertisements for things that the barnacles would never want or things that
are incredibly expensive.

DAVIES: So whereas for--someone who shows a propensity to spend some
discretionary income will get a bunch of enticing specials, but if I'm a
barnacle, I'm going to get a bunch of stuff that doesn't interest me at all
and I'm going to get bored and leave.

Mr. BAKER: Right.

DAVIES: Now, you point out that there are people who, for example, if they're
people who shop on a budget, and they will spend so much every week, there are
certain kinds of bargains you might not want to offer them, is that right, if
you're a retailer?

Mr. BAKER: Yeah. If you shop--if you spend $150 a week, then the
supermarket doesn't want to sell you anything at a discount because that means
that a higher percentage of what you're spending is discounted, and their
margins are lower. So they would try to get rid of things on discount to
shoppers who aren't on a budget, and they can easily figure out which shoppers
are on budgets because the people regularly spend about the same amount of

DAVIES: So if retailers don't want bargain hunters, cheapskates, and would be
inclined not to offer them incentives to come back, like discounts, I mean,
isn't that kind of discriminatory? I mean, it's often low-income people who
are bargain hunters who really need to save money, and this would allow
retailers to, in fact, deny savings to the people who most need them.

Mr. BAKER: It is discriminatory, and I think you're going to find as the
numerati expand and develop their power, that in industry after industry, what
this knowledge does is it gives them the power to discriminate. We've had the
luxury of being treated in groups for millennia, and we benefit from that in
lots of ways. Like, in insurance, those of us who are healthy subsidize those
of us who are less healthy, and because we're ignorant about it and because
the companies are relatively ignorant about it, we can all be satisfied. But
as we and they learn more details, then they're going to be able to
discriminate against us and we're going to be able to demand special treatment
based on what we know about ourselves. And this kind of breaks the social
contract we've had through the ages.

DAVIES: And to go back to this idea of associations, they might--if they
discover that I'm the kind of shopper who might like an expensive or an exotic
treat, that might mean that I might, when I enter the store, my electronic
coupon might pop up for some exotic dessert that my neighbor might not get a
coupon for, right?

Mr. BAKER: That's right. I mean, traditionally, retailers have looked at us
in the broadest terms. They haven't had the data on individuals so that
they've had to look at us at whites and blacks or rich and poor, or, you know,
the big demographic groups in our society and they've had to assume that we
act more or less like other people in our religion, our race, our zip code.
Now they can zero in on us so that they can give your next door neighbor, who
in many ways resembles you by the old measurements, a totally different pitch
than they give you, and that person might be in a different tribe.

DAVIES: Tribes, people with common habits and tastes and cultural patterns?

Mr. BAKER: Right, but sometimes they're common tastes and cultural patterns
that we don't recognize ourselves.

DAVIES: Can you give us an example?

Mr. BAKER: Well, in politics. I talked to a company called Spotlight, and
they are trying to put us in different political tribes, and these aren't
tribes of Republicans or Democrats and independents, and they're not soccer
moms and they're not, you know, terror-frightened widows or all the different
groups that we've known about in the past. They're trying to figure out what
our deepest values are, what are feelings are about things like freedom,
community, the outdoors, and they're placing us in these various tribes by
going through gazillions and gazillions and gazillions of our personal data.
They're going through what we've bought in the past, where we live, how many
cats we have in our household, what kind of car we drive. All those things,
and they're putting us into these tribes.

DAVIES: That's one area where, you know, for years politicians have been
dealing with data on basic demographic variables to predict ideological and
voting patterns. And we all know what they are. They're gender, they're
race, they're income, they're education, they're union affiliation, religious
affiliation and so on. Can you really, if you incorporate these hundreds of
millions of pieces of seemingly irrelevant data, like whether I go fishing or
how many cats I have, do you really get a picture that tells you something
that offers more political insight?

Mr. BAKER: It can. We should make clear that those standard groupings--the
hunters, the church-goers--that we're very familiar with are still extremely
useful to the political consultants. And they can get, you know, McCain and
Obama, they can get the 45 percent each of the population through appealing to
them the old fashioned ways, but what they're trying to figure out is where
among those--where, hidden in a Republican district, is a potential Democrat
we can turn in Cuyahoga County, Ohio. They're trying to cherrypick people
with this microtargeting. So it's not for the vast majority of it. It's for
special little tribes that they're hopping to nab and then hit them with very,
very targeted advertisements. Now the trend is more towards understanding us
more deeply as people and saying, `This person might be a Democrat, might be a
Republican, could go either way, but if we understand this person as a person,
we can hone the advertisement and the targeted telephone call or the Internet
advertisement perfectly for him or her.'

DAVIES: So in this election we're going to see, in effect, individually
targeted appeals on, what, the Internet, phone calls, door hangers?

Mr. BAKER: It's going to be all three of those: Internet, phone calls, and
people knocking on doors. And mailings. Mailing's a really way to single out

DAVIES: If these techniques allow you to find a member of a tribe and find a
Democrat in a community full of Republicans and then target ads--I mean, it
sounds like an awful lot of effort to identify a voter or a few voters. Is it
cost-effective? Do you know what they spend doing that?

Mr. BAKER: Well, how much do you think Gore would have spent for 300 Florida
voters in the year 2000? The price of a voter, it's really hard to calculate
because if you win 40 percent of the vote or 60 percent of the vote, every
additional voter that you get is meaningless. But if you're right at 50, the
value goes up dramatically. And it's in the races where they're going to be
between 49.5 and 50.5 where they're going to spend a lot of money to get a
relative handful of voters. It might be 50, it might be 100, but they'll
spend quite a bit for those voters.

DAVIES: We're speaking with Stephen Baker. His new book is "The Numerati."
We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


DAVIES: If you're just joining us, we're speaking with Stephen Baker. He's
written a book called "The Numerati" about the new ways that computer
scientists and mathematicians are sorting through and analyzing data to learn
things about us.

Well, national security is one area where people have been mining data for a
long time, and apparently illegally in some cases, it seems, and I was
fascinated by a description you had of a man named Jeff Jonas who had been
involved in this and then had come upon a completely different view about the
privacy threats to this kind of activity. Tell us about him.

Mr. BAKER: Jeff Jonas is a very unusual guy. He dropped out of high school
and started up a software company, at one point had 20 employees, and a year
later he was sleeping in his car. And then he got a broken neck when he was
on a test drive to buy a BMW and was paralyzed, and now he does ironman
triathlons. But anyway, he lives in Las Vegas and he was hired by the casinos
to develop a software that would track the data of all kinds of people so that
they could try to find the bad guys, the people that were coming in, the
criminals, or people that were coming in to try to rip off the casinos. And
he built a system to do that, and it looks for similar names, similar phones
numbers and goes through massive amounts of data. And the CIA invested in his
company, and later after 9/11 it became very clear that he was onto something
that was going to be very useful for national security. So Jeff Jonas, who
describes himself a former beach bum, is now a leading figure in the war on
terror. But he really, really objects to statistical data mining, which is
really the heart of what the numerati is all about. So of all the numerati,
he's the dissenting voice.

DAVIES: What use did the CIA make of his techniques? What were they doing in
pursuit of terrorists?

Mr. BAKER: Well, they want to get a handle on everybody in the country and
everybody in areas that they're studying, and they want to figure out which
people are the same people, because they get confused. People have aliases
and false names and all kinds of ways of hiding themselves, and so it's a way
of sorting out people. That's really want they wanted to do. It's a very
basic tool, but it remains a very necessary one in the war against terrorism.

DAVIES: And this came to trouble Jeff Jonas?

Mr. BAKER: Well, what he was seeing, and what he sees today, is an
increasing reliance on statistical data mining, and so--what he looks at is,
OK, we know this person is associated with some act of terror--you know, the
bombing of the USS Cole, for example--we know that. So who does this person
know? Well, he knows this person, this person. He calls that person and that
person. And so that type of detective work is kind of like old fashioned
sleuthing. You start with a lead and you follow it. And you follow all the
connections it has, and he's fine with that.

What he doesn't like is the idea, OK, how does everybody behave? And are
there patterns of their behavior that might indicate that they might be a
terrorist? And he thinks that we don't know enough about terrorists to come
to those sorts of conclusions, and that the consequences of getting it wrong
are much too high. You know, there was this one story that I had that I
didn't put in the book because I couldn't confirm it, but I heard that there
was an FBI agent on the West Coast who wanted to keep an eye on the hummus
consumption around San Francisco. And his idea was that a sharp spike in
humus consumption could tip investigators to the presence of terrorism. Now,
that is inane. But there's nothing to protect us in statistical data mining
from really, really silly analysis like that.

And what's scary about it is, you can have silly analysis, but then you go and
find all the numbers and you put it all together and you come up with the
conclusion and it's wrapped up as science and math, and yet it's based on
stupidity, and that's a real concern for Jonas.

DAVIES: You know, your book is about a world in which data is generated in
such gargantuan quantities and shared so widely, and you know, I'm one of
those--and many of us are from time to time--where we just want to retreat
from all that. I recently had someone walk into a bank branch with my bank
account number and a fake ID trying to withdraw money, and I had to close the
account and re-open a new one. And then later, when I had to fill out a form
to co-sign my college-age daughter's lease, they wanted my bank account
number, and I said, `You know, I'm not so sure I want to share that number
anymore.' There are times that I think we just, like, we want to stop using
our credit cards, pay with cash, and retreat from all this digital stuff. And
you write at the end of this book, you say, "These statistical tools are going
to be quietly assuming more and more power in our lives. We might as well
learn how to grab the controls and use them for our own interest." How does
one do that? How does one embrace the world of the numerati?

Mr. BAKER: Well, I think that there are great opportunities for
entrepreneurs--and they're already looking at them--for them to develop tools
so that we can monitor our own data and get a sense of who's using it, and to
end. So that we can protect it and give it to people that we trust with it,
and we're going to develop relationships with certain companies that we trust
with the data and be able to shut it off to other people. And eventually we
could sell our data. I mean, that's essentially what we're doing when we go
into a supermarket and give them our customer loyalty card. We're selling our
data. We're exchanging it for discounts. And we'll be able to sell our data.
There could be markets that open up for data where we decide how much of it we
want to sell and at what price.

DAVIES: Well, Stephen Baker, thanks so much for talking with us.

Mr. BAKER: Thank you. It's a pleasure.

GROSS: Stephen Baker is the author of the new book "The Numerati." He spoke
with FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies, who is a senior writer for the
Philadelphia Daily News. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Interview: Michael Cera on his life and career

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. If you've seen "Juno," "Superbad" or
"Arrested Development," then chances are you've been won over by Michael
Cera's low-key but very funny performances. In "Juno," Cera played Paulie
Bleeker, the well-meaning teenager who had sex once with his good friend Juno
and it left her pregnant. In "Superbad," Cera played Evan, a graduating
senior trying to buy some beer, stay away from the cops and get to a party.
And in the critically acclaimed but ratings-challenged TV series "Arrested
Development," he played the often-awkward George-Michael Bluth, perhaps the
only sane member of the absurd Bluth family.

In the new film "Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist," Cera plays Nick, a New
Jersey teenager who's nursing a broken heart after his pretty but shallow and
self-centered girlfriend breaks up with him on his birthday. Nick plays bass
in an indie rock band and is convinced by his band mates that he should play a
gig with them in Manhattan and then go with them to a concert of their
favorite band, even though he doesn't feel ready to leave the house yet. At
the gig, he meets Norah, a smart music lover who goes to school with his
ex-girlfriend. Norah can't understand why Nick dated that girl in the first
place. In this scene, Nick is giving Norah a ride to another show in his
battered old Yugo. Norah is played by Kat Dennings.

(Soundbite of "Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist")

(Soundbite of car motor)

Ms. KAT DENNINGS: (As Norah) Can I just ask, what did you see in her? I
could floss with that girl.

Mr. MICHAEL CERA: (As Nick) This is your friend that we're talking about?

Ms. DENNINGS: (As Norah) OK, forget it. I can't do this.

Mr. CERA: (As Nick) Do what?

Ms. DENNINGS: (As Norah) Just make a U-turn and take me back to Ludlow, all
right? I'll find my own way...

Mr. CERA: (As Nick) Perfect.

Ms. DENNINGS: (As Norah) ...because I refuse to be the goodie bag at your
pity party, Nick.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. CERA: (As Nick) You don't have to yell. It's not a train station.
We're in a tiny car.

Ms. DENNINGS: (As Norah) Just drop me off!

Mr. CERA: (As Nick) I will.

(Sound of skidding tires)

Ms. DENNINGS: (As Norah) Are you crazy?

Mr. CERA: (As Nick) I don't know what I did to you to make you so angry.

Ms. DENNINGS: (As Norah) Nothing! You're just--you're ridiculous.

Mr. CERA: (As Nick) You know, you don't even know me.

Ms. DENNINGS: (As Norah) I know you. I know your make.

Mr. CERA: (As Nick) My make?

Ms. DENNINGS: (As Norah) You're an emo punk band boy and you're obsessed
with Tris. They can make action figures out of you, drummer not included.

Mr. CERA: (As Nick) You know, it's funny that Tris never mentioned you
considering what good friends you are, but she did mention someone that was
completely jealous...

Ms. DENNINGS: (As Norah) Oh, jealous? Oh really?

Mr. CERA: (As Nick) Yeah, and so now I think I know exactly who she--all
right, sweetheart, you think you have something to...

(Soundbite of punching and gagging)

Ms. DENNINGS: (As Norah) I am not jealous!

(Soundbite of gagging)

Unidentified Actor: (In character) Oh, no man. She's not jealous.

(Soundbite of clearing throat)

(End of soundbite)

GROSS: Michael Cera, welcome to FRESH AIR. You're part of this kind of like
new movie phenomenon, which is, you know, like, the leading man as the guy
who's not the like muscular hunk, you know. You're a guy. You look like a
regular guy.

Mr. CERA: Yeah.

GROSS: And you look like somebody who has an inner life...

Mr. CERA: Yeah.

GROSS: Like, you think. Like, you like music. Like, you probably read
books. You know what I'm saying?

Mr. CERA: Yeah. I think I know what you mean, yeah.

GROSS: And I'm wondering if you saw that coming.

Mr. CERA: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: If you knew that there'd be that kind of role for you.

Mr. CERA: Well, I never thought about it, really.

GROSS: I should add ironic in there.

Mr. CERA: Yeah. I never really thought about it too much. I mean, I just
started acting because I thought it was fun and, you know, I was nine years
ago when I started and, yeah, I just always enjoyed doing it, being on sets
and working with people.

GROSS: You first became famous in the United States for "Arrested

Mr. CERA: I guess so, yeah. Yeah. That was by far the biggest part I'd
ever had.

GROSS: How'd you get the part?

Mr. CERA: I sent an audition tape in that me and my parents made in their
bedroom, you know. It was--I had actually done a Fox show the year before
that never aired, but I guess they knew me from that over there, the Fox
casting people, and so I sent this tape in and they were already aware of me
and brought me in to audition in person and meet Mitch Hurwitz, who created
the show, and the Russo brothers, who were directing the pilot, and it went
well. I auditioned with Alia Shawkat, who plays my cousin in the show. We
read together, and we both find out that day that we got the parts in the

GROSS: Let's get back to the fact that you made an audition tape in the
bedroom with your mother?

Mr. CERA: Yeah, well, we used to do that a lot. Instead of having to fly
out, you know, just to audition, which, you know, it's like a one in a million
shot, there's so many other kids. Because I live in Toronto, you know, we
would just send a tape in...(unintelligible).

GROSS: What kind of tape? Like what would you do?

Mr. CERA: Well, you know, you get some sides.

GROSS: Get alone in the bedroom?

Mr. CERA: You get like the audition sides that everybody gets, and we just
put a sheet up and I would stand in front of it, and it would like basically
if I was auditioning for them in person. You know, they'd have me stand
against a wall or something and read the lines. So it was really no

GROSS: Would your mother play the other person's part?

Mr. CERA: Yeah, she would read the other lines. We've done a lot of things
that way.

GROSS: So what did they send you? When an actor has sides, that means...

Mr. CERA: Yeah, it's like one scene.

GROSS: It's just their part. Yeah.

Mr. CERA: Or a few scenes, you know, just so they can get a sense of how
you're going to play the character

GROSS: Yeah. So what did they send you?

Mr. CERA: Well it was a few scenes. They sent me the whole script to read,
and I loved it. You know, I really loved the tone of the show. I knew what
Mitch was going for and thought it was really funny, which was really exciting
to me, you know. And the scenes were like, just some of the, I guess the
introductory scenes for the character. You know, in the pilot he's
introduced, and so we did that scene, which I thought--I kind of didn't really
get a real grasp for the character until I went to LA because it was kind of
written like an idiot, which I don't think that that character is dumb in any
way. And then I met Mitch and it was kind of--I think it's--there's a lot of
Mitch in the character, and he told me a little more how to play it, you know,
that he's just genuine and he's really trying to please his father. So that
became a little more clear, but yeah, so I did that scene, you know, where we
kind of meet him for the first time and then maybe one other one.

GROSS: Let's get to a scene. We'll play a scene from deeper into the series.
You've been dating a girl that your father doesn't approve of because he
thinks, among other things, that she's not attractive enough.

Mr. CERA: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: And she's unworthy of you. So you're in the kitchen with your father,
played by Jason Bateman.

(Soundbite of "Arrested Development")

Mr. JASON BATEMAN: (As Michael Bluth) How'd that math test work out?

Mr. CERA: (As George-Michael Bluth) Oh, it was OK, I guess, but I don't
know. It was weird. I studied with Ann but I still got a B-minus.

Mr. BATEMAN: (As Michael Bluth) Ann got you a B-minus?

Mr. CERA: (As George-Michael Bluth) Well, it wasn't Ann. She's an expert in
math. Isn't that cute?

Mr. BATEMAN: (As Michael Bluth) Is it?

Mr. RON HOWARD: (As Narrator) Michael felt his son was setting the bar too
low with his dating standards.

(Soundbite of refrigerator opening)

Mr. CERA: (As George-Michael Bluth) No, it wasn't Ann's fault. You know, I
think I just ended up thinking about the questions too long, and then so by
the time I put an answer down, I went with like my fifth choice, or something
like that.

Mr. BATEMAN: (As Michael Bluth) Oh, George-Michael, never settle for fifth
choice. Something better is going to come along. She just has to.

Mr. CERA: (As George-Michael Bluth) I think maybe sitting in the back of the
class with Ann is a bad idea. You know, she's just so pretty I get
distracted, I guess.

Mr. BATEMAN: (As Michael Bluth) Do you?

Mr. CERA: (As George-Michael Bluth) I wish I could draw her nose.

Mr. BATEMAN: (As Michael Bluth) Maybe it's your eyes. Maybe you need
glasses--for your grades, you know. Didn't you say you had a hard time
reading the board, sitting in the back row?

Mr. CERA: (As George-Michael Bluth) No, I said I was in the back of the
classroom, that's...

Mr. BATEMAN: (As Michael Bluth) Yeah, well, that's what I mean.

Mr. CERA: (As George-Michael Bluth) Still--no.

Mr. BATEMAN: (As Michael Bluth) Yeah?

Mr. CERA: (As George-Michael Bluth) Well, I don't know. Maybe.

Mr. BATEMAN: (As Michael Bluth) No, definitely. I'll call the eye doctor.

Mr. CERA: (As George-Michael Bluth) I guess.

Mr. BATEMAN: (As Michael Bluth) I'm going to set you up an appointment, OK?

(End of soundbite)

GROSS: And that's Jason Bateman and my guest Michael Cera in a scene from
"Arrested Development," and Michael Cera is starring in the new movie "Nick
and Norah's Infinite Playlist."

That's a great scene. I mean, it shows how like your father means well, like
he means to help you in that scene.

Mr. CERA: Yeah.

GROSS: But he's definitely doing the wrong thing.

Mr. CERA: Yeah. I love his character, you know, because he's
always--appears to have the, you know, the best intentions at heart. But
sometimes it seems like he's, you know, just not quite putting his son first.
You know, I don't know. I really love some of the things that he says in that

GROSS: My guest is Michael Cera and he's starting in the new movie "Nick and
Norah's Infinite Playlist."

Let me ask you about "Superbad."

Mr. CERA: Yeah. And you know, the premise of "Superbad" is that you and the
character played by Jonah Hill are two guys in that transitional period
between high school and college.

Mr. CERA: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: And you want to go to this like really cool kid's party, but since
you're not like the coolest kids, in order to get in you're going to
ingratiate yourselves and bring the beer, even though you're underage.

Mr. CERA: Right.

GROSS: And as part of that adventure you end up in a party, another party...

Mr. CERA: Yeah.

GROSS: someone else's house, and the guys there are all kind
of--they're older.

Mr. CERA: It's scary, yeah.

GROSS: They're kind of tough. They're scary.

Mr. CERA: Very threatening.

GROSS: Very threatening, and they're really toying with you.

Mr. CERA: Yeah.

GROSS: And then one of them thinks you're somebody else, and...

Mr. CERA: Right. I get locked in a room with a handful of guys doing drugs
and it's very scary.

GROSS: Yes. So let's play that scene.

Mr. CERA: Uh-huh.

GROSS: And this is from "Superbad"...


GROSS: ...with my guest, Michael Cera.

(Soundbite of "Superbad")

Mr. CERA: (As Evan) Hi.

Unidentified Actor #1: (In character) Who is that guy?

Unidentified Actor #2: (In character) Don't know.

Actor #1: Who's this guy?

Mr. CERA: (As Evan) Oh, hey, fellahs, hi. Hey, everyone.

Actor #1: (In character) Who are you?

Mr. CERA: (As Evan) I'm nobody.

Actor #3: (In character) No, no, no, no, no. I know you. I know you. He
was at that party with me, the one I was telling you about.

Mr. CERA: (As Evan) Well, no.

Actor #2: (In character) Is he?

Actor #3: (In character) Remember? He--he's Jimmy's brother, the guy. The

Mr. CERA: (As Evan) No.

Actor #3: (In character) He's the guy with the beautiful voice I was telling
you about...

Mr. CERA: (As Evan) I'm a rotten singer...(censored by station).

Actor #1: (In character) Jimmy's brother!

Mr. CERA: (As Evan) That's not me, man.

Actor #1: (In character) Oh my God!

Actor #2: (In character) Sing, man. Sing.

Actor #3: (In character) You saying that's not me? You lying?

Mr. CERA: (As Evan) No. I don't mean to, you know, accuse you guys of being
ill-informed, but.

Actor #3: (In character) My brother came all the way from Scottsdale,
Arizona, to be here tonight, and you're not going to sing for him...(words
censored by station).

Actor #1: (In character) Sing...(words censored by station).

Actor #2: (In character) You're a singer.

Actor #3: (In character) You sing and you sing good.

Actor #1: (In character) Sing it again.

Actor #2: (In character) Like a bird.

Mr. CERA: (As Evan) No, I know. I just--I want to.

Actor #3: (In character) You want a line of cocaine?

Mr. CERA: (As Evan) No way, man.

Actor #3: (In character) Yeah!

Actor #1: (In character) Don't make this weird.

(Soundbite of sniffing)

Actor #1: (In character) Sing.

Actor #2: (In character) Sing it again.

Actor #2: (Singing in character) Mi mi mi mi mi

Actor #1: (In character) Turbo

Mr. CERA: (As Evan, singing) These eyes...

Actor #3: (Singing in character) Do do do do do do do

Group of Actors: (Singing in character) Do do do do do

Mr. CERA: (As Evan, singing) Cry every night...

Actors: (Singing in character) Do do do do do

Mr. CERA: (As Evan, singing) ...for you

Actors: (Singing in character) Do do do do do

(Sound of inhaling)

Mr. CERA: (As Evan, singing) These arms...

Actors: (Singing in character) Do do do do do

Actor #1: (In character) Wah wah

Mr. CERA: (As Evan, singing) They long to hold you, hold you again...

Actors: (Singing in character) do do do do--do do boom

Mr. CERA: (As Evan, singing) The hurting's on me, yeah

Actor #3: (In character) Talk about the hurting

Mr. CERA: (As Evan, singing) and I will never be free, no no no.

Actor #2: (In character) Whoo!

Actor #1: (In character) Yeah!

Mr. CERA: (As Evan, singing) You gave a promise to me, yeah, and you broke

Man #1: (In character) All right.

Mr. CERA: (As Evan, singing) You broke it.

Actor #2: (In character) Baby, you broke it

Mr. CERA: (As Evan, singing) Do do do do do. These eyes are crying, these
eyes have seen a lot of love, but they're never see another one...

Mr. CERA and Actors: (Singing in character) Like I have with you.

Actors: (Singing in character) Do do do do do do do do do

Mr. CERA: (As Evan, singing) These eyes are crying...

Actor #3: (In character) Yeah.

Mr. CERA: (As Evan, singing) These eyes have seen a lot of love, but they're
never going to see another one like I had with you...

(Soundbite of knocking)

Unidentified Actor #4: (In character) Go! Fight!

Actor #1: (In character) Move it, go!

(End of soundbite)

GROSS: That's a great scene from "Superbad."

Mr. CERA: I like the fight thing.

GROSS: My guest, Michael Cera.

We're missing the great little self-conscious dance moves that you do while

Mr. CERA: Right.

GROSS: ...while you're singing that.

Mr. CERA: There was a whole take of that that was just dancing. We did
three different versions of that scene, one of which was just, you know, the
guy would say, like, `You're a terrific dancer,' you know, and they'd make me
do this weird dance, which, I liked that too, but I guess they liked this one
the one the best.

GROSS: Tell me about singing in a way that's like part really pretty good and
part just like so like off and so self-conscious and nervous.

Mr. CERA: Well, I was just, I guess, trying to think of what it would be
like in this situation where you're being forced by these guys that are high
on cocaine to sing in a room, you know. It just felt like it would be really

GROSS: And what about "These Eyes"? Who chose that as the song?

Mr. CERA: I think, maybe Seth and Evan. You know, it was like one of a
handful of songs that they could afford, and it was between that and like the
thong song.

GROSS: But paying for the rights to use it...

Mr. CERA: Exactly.

GROSS: the movie?

Mr. CERA: Right. This was the only one that wasn't like hundreds of
thousands of dollars, you know, and, yeah, just even to have me sing it is so
expensive. So, yeah, I guess that had something to do with it. And also, it
seemed like a song that had layers, that these guys could sing the other parts
of, you know.

GROSS: My guest is Michael Cera. He's starred in "Juno," "Superbad," and
"Arrested Development." His new film is "Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist."
We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: My guest is Michael Cera. He's starring in the new film "Nick and
Norah's Infinite Playlist."

Now, your movie "Juno" was a huge hit, kind of a little phenomenon, so let's
play a scene from "Juno."

Mr. CERA: Great.

GROSS: And as everybody, I think, knows the premise of "Juno" is that she's a
pregnant teenager who decides to keep the baby...

Mr. CERA: Right.

GROSS: ...but find a worthy couple to give the baby to to adopt.

Mr. CERA: Yeah.

GROSS: So the movie opens with you and Juno, who are at this point very good

Mr. CERA: Yeah.

GROSS: ...having sex that's initiated because she says she's bored.

Mr. CERA: Yeah.

GROSS: And she gets pregnant, and then you're kind of in love with her, and
she's kind of too cynical to even realize that or to understand her own

Mr. CERA: Right.

GROSS: This is a scene where you're both in the hallway of the high school by
the lockers, and because you think that she doesn't really care for you,
you've asked a girl to the prom.

Mr. CERA: Right.

GROSS: You tell her. She is really angry. Here's the scene.

(Soundbite of "Juno")

Mr. CERA: (As Paulie Bleeker) You're being really immature. You have no
reason to be mad at me. I mean, you know, you broke my heart. I should be
royally ticked off at you. You know, I should be really cheesed off. I
shouldn't want to talk to you anymore.

Ms. ELLEN PAGE: (As Juno) What, because I got bored and had sex with you and
I didn't want to like marry you?

Mr. CERA: (As Paulie Bleeker) Like I'd marry you? You'd be the meanest wife
ever, OK, and I know that you weren't bored that day because there was a lot
of stuff on TV and "The Blair Witch Project" was coming on Starz. And you
were like, `I haven't seen this since it came out, and so we should watch it.'
And then--but oh no, we should just make out instead. La la la.

Ms. PAGE: (As Juno) All right. You just--you just take Katrina the douche
packer to prom. I'm sure you two will have like a real bitching time.

Mr. CERA: (As Paulie Bleeker) Well, I still have your underwear.

Ms. PAGE: (As Juno) I still have your virginity.

Mr. CERA: (As Paulie Bleeker) God, would you shut up?

Ms. PAGE: (As Juno) What, are you--are you ashamed that we did it?

Mr. CERA: (As Paulie Bleeker) No.

Ms. PAGE: (As Juno) Because at least you don't have to have the evidence
under your sweater. I'm a planet.

Mr. CERA: (As Paulie Bleeker) Wait, wait. Let me get your bag. You
shouldn't be carrying it.

Ms. PAGE: (As Juno) What's another 10 pounds?

(End of soundbite)

GROSS: That's Ellen Page and my guest, Michael Cera, in a scene from "Juno."
That "la la la" that you do...

Mr. CERA: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: the end of a thought in there. Was that yours, or was it
written into the script?

Mr. CERA: No, that was definitely in the script. I specifically remember
seeing it written down.

GROSS: And you do all this like self-conscious stumbling...

Mr. CERA: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: it. It's one of the things that you do so well in your
performances when it's appropriate, and I guess I'm wondering about the
thought process of that. Do you let it just happen in a natural way? Do you
think in advance?

Mr. CERA: You know, I think I learned that from...

GROSS: `Where's he going to hesitate?'

Mr. CERA: I think I got that from Jason Bateman, actually. Like watching
him rehearse doing things, you know, I inadvertently picked that up from him,
like we got the scripts with "Arrested Development" the morning that we would
start shooting that episode, you know. And so nobody like has their lines
memorized, which I guess, you know, that would be insane if everyone did that
in television. Maybe some people do it, but that's a lot of work, you know,
memorizing every night. And so we would come in and rehearse the scene and
we'd all be so, you know, it would be so fresh that none of us would be
familiar with it and we'd have to keep looking at the sides, and Jason
naturally kind of would do that while reading. And it's very natural, you
know, and he somewhat does it in the show, but yeah, just during the
rehearsals I really--I, you know, this is me kind of learning how to act, and
I was like, I guess that's what people do. And I guess I picked it up from

GROSS: So what was it that he was doing that you picked up on?

Mr. CERA: Well, you know, he would stammer if he couldn't remember what he
was supposed to say and then look at the page and yeah, it just, I guess it's
something I kind of picked up.

GROSS: You grew up in Canada.

Mr. CERA: Yep.

GROSS: Where in Canada?

Mr. CERA: In Toronto.

GROSS: Describe the neighborhood that you grew up in.

Mr. CERA: Well, I grew up in Brampton, which is a suburb of Toronto, which
is about an hour north of the city. Or maybe 40 minutes with no traffic.

GROSS: How did you know and when did you know that you wanted to act?

Mr. CERA: Well, I was interested in acting when I was really young. I
think--I did these like classes which, you know, where you play games with
other kids and do kind of, you know, like improv games and stuff, and it's
just for fun. It's not for any reason. And then you kind of like put on a
performance for the parents, you know, at the end of the year. And one of the
teachers one year told my mom, `You should get an agent and, you know, you
could make some money doing commercials or something and put money away for
college.' And, yeah, he just really believed in me. This guy was very
supportive, and me and my mom--or my mom, you know, looked up agents in
Toronto and I met with one guy who didn't want to sign me. And then the next
person I met with was Amanda Rosenthal, who's my Toronto agent still, and she
just believed in me and, you know, and took me on, and I started going to
auditions and getting parts and just loved it and kept doing it, you know, and
having a lot of fun.

GROSS: So you started auditioning for commercials?

Mr. CERA: Yeah.

GROSS: What's the first audition you went on?

Mr. CERA: The first--I went on like--some kind of prints ad audition for
Sunny D that I didn't get, but that's the first memory I have of like going to
an audition with a bunch of other kids. But after that I went on a commercial
audition for Tim Hortons, which is a big Canadian coffee chain, and I got that
part. It was the first commercial audition I'd ever been on, and it was
extremely exciting. It was nonpaying. It was just like, you know, it was
just a day of basically playing, doing camp stuff and they filmed it. And I
saw it on TV a few times, and that was exciting.

And after that I went on, you know, on hundreds of commercial auditions and
didn't get any. I only ever did one more, a Pillsbury commercial where I
poked the dough boy, and that was shortly after, I think. And then there was
a long run of like not getting any commercial parts, which is extremely
discouraging, especially because, you know, I lived in Brampton and we'd have
to drive downtown to Toronto, which is like an hour drive each way, a few
times a week, and, you know, it's like very discouraging and they want you to
be very hammy, you know, and there's a hundred other kids in the audition
room. It felt really forced and uncomfortable, and I didn't want to be big
and--it just, you know there are some people that can really do that and make
a living that way, and I just wasn't capable of it.

GROSS: You're kind of the opposite of of big. It's like you live in
parentheses half the time in your roles, you know. Everything's almost

Mr. CERA: In parentheses.

GROSS: aside.

Mr. CERA: Yeah. That's a funny way to put it.

GROSS: Now, you did a series of short Internet films called "Clark and

Mr. CERA: Oh yeah, like a little series, yeah.

GROSS: Yeah.

Mr. CERA: Yeah.

GROSS: Just describe the series. They're on the Internet now. I don't know

Mr. CERA: Yeah.

GROSS:'re still making them or not.

Mr. CERA: No, we're done making them, but I think they'll be on there for,
you know, forever until someone takes them down. But it's on It's just something that my friend and I did. You know,
we wrote these episodes as just like a fun thing to do and both liked writing,
and we're both writing on our own, and just started writing these things just
to kill time and have something to show people. And then when we made it, it
was just, you know, an opportunity to make it, which we'd never really planned
on. So, yeah, we made it for CBS. CBS gave us some money to make it for
their Web site, and it was great and I'm happy with it.

GROSS: What were you able to do because you were writing it that you hadn't
been able to do in parts that were written for you?

Mr. CERA: Oh, I mean anything we wanted. You know, I mean, I could be nasty
in it, and it was a lot of that. It was a lot of getting to do obnoxious
things, which was a lot of fun.

GROSS: Why don't we hear a scene? And this is a scene where you're going to
an audition--because you're an aspiring actor in it.

Mr. CERA: Right.

GROSS: So you're going to an audition, and here you are in the audition

(Soundbite of "Clark and Michael")

Unidentified Actor #5: (In character) So can you say your name and agency
into the camera please?

Mr. CERA: (As Michael Cera) Yeah. My name is Michael Cera. I'm with the
Fresh Faces Agency, the FFA.

Actor #5: (In character) OK, and what role are you reading today, Michael?

Mr. CERA: (As Michael Cera) I'm rolling for the part--I'm reading for the
part of James.

Unidentified Actor #6: (In character) Are you James? Are you my James?

Mr. CERA: (As Michael Cera) I think I am. I think this part was written for

Actor #6: (In character) Then show it. Go. Lock eyes with me, just for a
minute. Feel it. Go.

Mr. CERA: (As Michael Cera) You know, my little sister always said to me,
`Aim for the stars and one day you'll be one of those stars.' That was before
the big wreck.

Actor #6: (In character) Eat...(words censored by station)...James.

Mr. CERA: (As Michael Cera) This thing is getting out of hand, Andy! If you
don't tell someone, you're going to jail for a long, long time.

Actor #6: (In character) Oh, is that right, James? And how exactly are the
police going to find out?

Mr. CERA: (As Michael Cera) Your first mistake, Danny, was saving my life.

(End of soundbite)

GROSS: That's a scene from "Clark and Michael," featuring my guest Michael
Cera, and it's an Internet-only series that's online as we speak. I hate to
think that you've been on auditions as awful as that.

Mr. CERA: Oh, yeah, I definitely have. I was in an audition once where it
was like a werewolf movie or something, and it was just like painful reading
the lines, you know. There's definitely some painful ones, and especially
when you're like, `I'm not getting this part, why am I here,' you know?

GROSS: Because the lines are so bad and you have to...

Mr. CERA: Yeah, or...

GROSS: ...try to read them with conviction.

Mr. CERA: know it's just not for you, you know. I mean, like, I've
auditioned for parts where I was playing like some tough bully or something
and say, `What am I doing here?' It just feels so wrong, you know, but you're
told to go anyway just to, you know, so that they're aware of you, even if
it's not the right part for you.

GROSS: Well, Michael Cera, it's been great to talk with you.

Mr. CERA: You too, yeah.

GROSS: I wish you continued success and...

Mr. CERA: Thank you.

GROSS: ...thank you so much.

Mr. CERA: Thank you. That was great.

GROSS: Michael Cera's new film "Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist" opens

Coming up, we remember Paul Newman. This is FRESH AIR.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Interview: Paul Newman discusses his life in an interview from

Everyone has their favorite Paul Newman performance. For me, I suppose it was
his portrayal of a pool shark in the 1961 film "The Hustler."

(Soundbite of "The Hustler")

Unidentified Actor: (In character) You sure you don't want to quit, friend?

Mr. PAUL NEWMAN: (As Eddie Felson) Let's cut out the small stuff, huh? Put
a dollar freeze out. Ten games, 10 bucks a game, winner take all, and then
we'll see who quits.

Actor: (In character) OK, friend. You're on.

Mr. NEWMAN: (As Eddie Felson) Call it.

Actor: (In character) Heads.

(Soundbite of coin clanging on a surface)

Actor: (In character) You win.

(Soundbite of balls being racked)

Actor: (In character) You better not miss, friend.

Mr. NEWMAN: (As Eddie Felson) I don't rattle, kid. But just for that, I'm
going to beat you flat.

(Soundbite of balls being broken)

Mr. NEWMAN: (As Eddie Felson) That's one.

(End of soundbite)

GROSS: Like his very many fans, we were sorry to hear of Paul Newman's death.
In yesterday's New York Times obituary, Aljean Harmetz wrote, quote, "If
Marlon Brando and James Dean defined the defiant American male as a sullen
rebel, Paul Newman recreated him as a likable renegade," unquote.

Newman studied with Brando and Dean at the Actors' Studio. When I spoke with
Newman in 2003, I asked if he thought of himself back in the Actors' Studio
days as part of a generation bringing something new to acting.

Mr. NEWMAN: Well, they did bring something new to acting, but it was also a
new time of experimentation in playwriting. The social dramas of the 1930s
had been pretty much exhausted through the group theater, and we were
beginning on the era of Freud and what we used to call the kitchen drama,
which is, `Mommy never kissed me, which is why I'm slitting your throat

GROSS: So, I mean, was it exciting for you to feel like you were a part of
something new?

Mr. NEWMAN: Well, I don't know at the time that you really know that you're
part of something new. You just know that you're part of something that's
really exciting. And I certainly did feel that. Although I must say, I had
no idea what I was doing until maybe 10 years ago.

GROSS: Why do you say that? I mean, no one will agree with you on that.

Mr. NEWMAN: Well, what is is. And I take a look at all that stuff that I
did previously, and wish I had another chance to take another crack at it.

GROSS: Is there something that you would really do different that you could
put your finger on?

Mr. NEWMAN: Less is more.

GROSS: Uh-huh.

Mr. NEWMAN: And I was working awful hard in most of the early stuff.

GROSS: What were some of the movies that you'd seen when you were young that
really made a big impression on you?

Mr. NEWMAN: Oh, can't remember one.

GROSS: Really?

Mr. NEWMAN: Yes, until "Waterfront."

GROSS: What made an impression on you about that? What did...

Mr. NEWMAN: Just the grittiness of it and the realism and the spontaneity of
it, the reality of it.

GROSS: And was that something that you felt you were already doing or that
you wanted to try to do?

Mr. NEWMAN: Well, I was pretty much an oratorical actor up until then, from
the old school, 1920s, early Barrymore, stuff like that. Go back and see "The
Silver Chalice." That was really wreckage.

GROSS: That's your early biblical epic.

Mr. NEWMAN: Pretty much, yes.

GROSS: Now, your father owned a sporting goods store.

Mr. NEWMAN: Yes.

GROSS: Did you have to work in the store when you were growing up?

Mr. NEWMAN: Oh, yes. I started working in the store, I think, when I was
about 10.


Mr. NEWMAN: On the weekends, I would go down, my brother and I would both go
down and work in the stockrooms. I also sold Fuller brushes.

GROSS: Oh, really. Door to door?

Mr. NEWMAN: Yes, door to door.

GROSS: Were you a good salesman?

Mr. NEWMAN: You bet you.

GROSS: Really. What made you good?

Mr. NEWMAN: I also had a great laundry business when I was at Kenyon. I
also peddled whiskey illicitly in Seattle when we got--when the war was over.
So I've always really been a businessman, so salad dressing is no surprise.

GROSS: Paul Newman recorded in 2003. He died Friday at the age of 83.


GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.
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.

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