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Philadelphia Police Sergeant Nouman H. Shubbar

From May of this year until September, he was in Iraq helping with the reconstruction of the Iraqi police, forming a special enforcement and investigations team, developing informants and arresting individuals on the coalition forces wanted list (those whose faces showed up on the most-wanted deck of cards). Shubbar was born and raised in Baghdad, and fled the country in 1981.

21:34

Other segments from the episode on November 6, 2003

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, November 6, 2003: Interview with Nouman Shubbar; Interview with Philip Baker Hall.

Transcript

DATE November 6, 2003 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
NETWORK NPR
PROGRAM Fresh Air

Interview: Nouman Shubbar discusses being a police adviser in
Baghdad for four months
TERRY GROSS, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

Looting, kidnapping and acts of terrorism are among the reasons it's been
difficult for the US to keep the peace in Iraq. My guest, Nouman Shubbar,
knows firsthand what some of those difficulties have been. He's a
Philadelphia police sergeant, an investigator in the Counterterrorism Bureau,
who went to Baghdad in May and spent four months working as a police adviser.
He estimates he spent about 70 percent of his time policing and about 30
percent training Iraqis in police procedures. Shubbar grew up in Iraq. He
came to the US in 1982 and stayed. This was his first trip back. When he
arrived in Baghdad last spring, the police force and its offices were in
shambles.

Sergeant NOUMAN SHUBBAR (Philadelphia): The fall of the Saddam regime, the
whole government dissolved basically, and the Iraqi police also dissolved.
Then shortly after, the Marines were calling for the police to return to work,
and most of them didn't. Those who did--well, when I got there, let me put it
this way, it was very disorganized. They were showing up at the police
college, as they call it there. It's a Police Academy for officers, because
they have enlisted and officer rank there. And it was total chaos. There
were police officers just standing in the big yard there, and each had about
20 guys that only listened to him, and there was nobody really in charge,
giving orders, except for maybe the patrol police, which is a division of the
Iraqi police, where there was a little more order, but still, it wasn't
functioning.

GROSS: What about the police headquarters? What kind of shape was it
physically in?

Sgt. SHUBBAR: Well, the police headquarters, the real national headquarters,
sits somewhere on the outskirts of Baghdad, really remote, far area, and it
was looted, but nobody showed up there. That's not where the activity was.
The effective police headquarters was the police college. That's really
effectively where the Marines initially, and then later the US Army, set up
the new headquarters.

GROSS: And what kind of shape was that in?

Sgt. SHUBBAR: It was totally looted, no doors, no windows. It was horrible.
There was no running water, no electricity. It was just a shell.

GROSS: And that's where you were based, too, right?

Sgt. SHUBBAR: Well, yeah, that's where we worked.

GROSS: So what were the priorities in May when you got there?

Sgt. SHUBBAR: Priorities in May were--there was rampant crime. Crime was the
biggest problem there. Saddam Hussein had released over a hundred thousand
criminals prior to the war.

GROSS: Right. He opened up the prisons...

Sgt. SHUBBAR: He opened up the prisons.

GROSS: ...expecting, I think, that this would earn him a lot of goodwill.

Sgt. SHUBBAR: What he did is he released the criminals, hard-core criminals,
talking about death row inmates, murderers, killer, you know, rapist and all
that, robbers, and these guys--they were wreaking havoc. Kidnappings were up,
especially of young women.

GROSS: Kidnappings for ransom.

Sgt. SHUBBAR: Well, that came in later actually. Initially, it was just
disappearance of women. They were just kidnapped and never to be heard of
again. There was robberies, carjackings, yeah, things Iraqis were not used
to. There was very little of that in the past. So that was the main, you
know, focus. You know, you hear gunshots all over Baghdad, people shooting
each other; you know, murder, rape was up significantly. So that was the main
problem when I got there.

GROSS: What kind of weapons were you allowed to carry in Iraq when you were
doing police work there?

Sgt. SHUBBAR: When I got there, we were issued a 9mm handgun, a Beretta,
which is an Army issue. There was no really clear policy on what weapons we
could carry, and very soon, I acquired an AK-47, a local fully automatic
rifle, and...

GROSS: That's not something you would be carrying in Philadelphia.

Sgt. SHUBBAR: No. No. Sometimes I think we should, but we don't. And it
was a necessity. I had to. I had it because everybody else had rifles.

GROSS: What do you mean by everybody else? Who had rifles?

Sgt. SHUBBAR: Every household in Iraq had at least one rifle, one AK-47.

GROSS: Now had they had those rifles under Saddam Hussein or was that just
after his fall that they got the weapons?

Sgt. SHUBBAR: No. People loyal to him always had weapons, of course, all
the security personnel, the Baath members, but with the fall of the regime, a
lot of the weapons were looted. There was a lot of stockpiles of weapons
throughout Baghdad. They were all looted and everybody had a weapon.

GROSS: That must really complicate your job. I mean, in the United States,
if someone has an AK-47, you can pretty much be sure that that's not legal and
you can deal with it, but when everybody has a weapon, what do you do when you
see an AK-47? Do you assume that they're going to use it for bad purposes and
try to confiscate it or do you accept the fact that everybody has one?

Sgt. SHUBBAR: Well, no. We had to operate under the rules of CPA, the
Coalition Provisional Authority. And the rule there was that the Iraqi law
allowed Iraqi citizens to have weapons, unless they were criminals, etc. And
they allowed each household to have a rifle, an AK-47. It also made sense
because with the lack of police, you know, people had to defend themselves.
OK. And that's the only way they would be able to defend themselves because
you had a lot of home invasions, kidnappings and so on, and, you know, I felt
sympathetic for the people. They had to do something, and, yeah, we allowed
people to have AK-47s.

GROSS: You made a couple of high-profile arrests. You arrested two of the
men in the deck of cards. Who were the two that you got?

Sgt. SHUBBAR: One was the former minister of Interior, a guy by the name of
Semir Schekley, who was notorious for being a butcher, very cruel, responsible
of doing the 1991 uprising for a lot of the death that was inflicted on people
in the south. And the other person was a guy by the name of Sabah Mirza, who
was Saddam Hussein's personal bodyguard for a long period of time. He wasn't
his bodyguard anymore prior to the war, but for a long time, he was his
bodyguard, and he was also wanted for a lot of killings that he had done.

GROSS: How'd you find them?

Sgt. SHUBBAR: People came up to me and they told us where they lived.

GROSS: And how did you approach their home?

Sgt. SHUBBAR: We would arrange with the local coalition forces unit in that
area, we'd let them know that we wanted to raid a certain house, and they
usually provided us with a, you know, squad of Army soldiers with us, and they
would accompany us, and then they're there basically to make sure that, number
one, no other Army units shoot at us not knowing who we are, and the other is
in case we needed help. They're there to help us, of course, and also to make
sure that the Iraqis know that we are not some criminal gang, but, no, this is
coalition forces doing, you know, legitimate action.

GROSS: And how would you dress for a raid in terms of self-protection?

Sgt. SHUBBAR: I usually wore Army desert camouflage pants at least, sometimes
even the jacket, and pretty much, I had an ID showing.

GROSS: Bullet-proof vest.

Sgt. SHUBBAR: Yes. On most occasions, yes.

GROSS: When you arrested the two people from the deck of cards, did they go
willingly or did they put up a fight?

Sgt. SHUBBAR: No. They were very argumentative. They said, `Oh, we didn't
do anything. Why are you arresting us? We never hurt anybody,' you know, was
trying to deny everything.

GROSS: And your reaction was?

Sgt. SHUBBAR: Tell that to the people in the mass graves.

GROSS: My guest is Nouman Shubbar, a Philadelphia police sergeant who spent
four months in Iraq as a police adviser. We'll talk more after a break. This
is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Nouman Shubbar. He's a
sergeant in the Philadelphia police force. From May through September, he was
in Iraq serving as a police adviser there. He grew up in Iraq and moved to
the United States when he was about 18.

Now you were shot at while you were in Iraq. What happened?

Sgt. SHUBBAR: Well, the information we got basically was that there's a large
group of males living in this one house. They said about 10 young males, that
they have increased the height of the wall around the house recently, just to
make sure that the neighbors can't look in. And it wasn't their house because
the original owner was a general under Saddam who escaped. So they were
squatting. And there was a lot of car traffic in and out of that house. So
after verifying the information, we decided to search the place. So as we
approached, you know, we surrounded the house. I knocked on the door. It was
a gate basically. And somebody looked through the--it was like a little
window through that gate--looked at me, ran back into the house. Next thing
you know, there's automatic gunfire, shooting at me, at everybody else there,
too. And that lasted for I would say a good 20 minutes.

After we were finally able to get into the house, it turned out that these
were kidnappers. There was two victims inside the house, a man and a woman,
that were being tortured. In fact, they had pulled the toenails out of the
one woman, and they were trying to get her to talk to give up more money, and
the man was severely beaten. We ended up arresting four guys. And then later
one, we arrested the rest of the gang. But that was the main gun battle, so
to speak, that we were involved in.

GROSS: Did you feel very vulnerable when you were doing that?

Sgt. SHUBBAR: Well, my main concern was that that bullet-proof vest that I
had on wouldn't stop AK-47s, so it's kind of useless. And I always thought of
the fact that if I do get shot, there's no way really to call any help, OK.
It's nothing like...

GROSS: You can't call backup like you could in Philly.

Sgt. SHUBBAR: No. There's no way to communicate.

GROSS: Is that because there were no phones, no walkie-talkies or anything?

Sgt. SHUBBAR: Not initially, no.

GROSS: Right.

Sgt. SHUBBAR: And even then, the Army uses their own radio systems, which we
had no access to. So there was really nobody to call. And then I've seen the
state of the hospitals there, so I don't know if I wanted to go to a hospital
there if I'm shot. But that was always in the back of my mind. It's like,
this is it; I mean, if you get hit, you get hit. So that's pretty much what
went--of course, also what goes through your mind is, well, is this the day
I'm going to get shot at? That went through my mind a few times, too. Wow,
is this it? But, you know, I was lucky.

GROSS: What was your sense of what the police were like under Saddam Hussein?
How much of their job was spying on Iraqis and how much of their job was
protecting Iraqis?

Sgt. SHUBBAR: The police, in terms of repressiveness, were the least of his
security agencies that he had, I mean, which was good in the sense that the
Iraqi trusted or they say mistrusted the police less than they did the other
agencies. Unfortunately, they were also the most corrupt, and that was
because of the bad salaries they were getting there. But overall, I'd say
they're pretty good people to work with. They were very eager to work. You
know, they were the first to climb the wall, you know, to do a raid. They
were always in front. So, you know, we didn't have to motivate them. Let's
put it this way. They were pretty good. Yeah.

GROSS: Were there tactics they were used to using that, as somebody who's
working to help train the police, that you thought you had to prevent them
from using? In other words, were there things that they were doing under
Saddam Hussein that you would consider to be very unethical and did you have
the job of trying to retrain them so that they no longer did that?

Sgt. SHUBBAR: Yeah. Even though legally, in Iraqi law, torture, you know,
beating a confession out of somebody is legal, it was common practice. When
we were there, we made it absolutely clear that we're not going to tolerate
this. And also, bribery was a big thing during Saddam Hussein, and we had to
always emphasize on them that when we do searches, we seize money, and if we
catch anybody stealing, they'll be arrested on the spot. And in one instance,
we did that, too. So that's one of the differences. Other than that, they
pretty much operated professionally.

GROSS: Do you feel that the people in Iraq were perhaps a little bit more
open or trusting of you because you grew up in Baghdad, you're of Iraqi
descent? Did that make a difference?

Sgt. SHUBBAR: Sure. Plus, the fact that I spoke the language. That
effectively made me the person to go to immediately. Most of them don't speak
English, and they would always seek out the translator or anybody that spoke
Arabic, even though I wasn't a translator per se, but I spoke the language,
and they would always come to me.

GROSS: Were there things that you felt the American military were
misinterpreting because they didn't understand the culture and they didn't
speak the language in the street?

Sgt. SHUBBAR: I think hospitality, which is a very big part of Arab and Iraqi
culture. You know, I can give you an example. We go in a house to search and
people would offer us water and food and, you know, had nothing to do with the
purpose we were there for. I mean, even though, you know, they didn't like
us, that was still, you know, a required thing from their point of view. And
I don't think US soldiers ever understood that. It's like they always
mistrusted that aspect, and I had to tell them a few times, `No, they're not
trying to poison your food here. It's just, you know...'

GROSS: Right. In the months that you were in Iraq from May through early
September, did you get any impressions about the range of reactions of Iraqis
to the US as an occupying force? What was your sense of that? And I'm
expecting that people might be a little bit more open with you because you
speak Arabic, you're of Iraqi descent, you grew up in Baghdad.

Sgt. SHUBBAR: Overwhelmingly, people in Iraq were very pro-coalition forces.
They were very happy that Saddam's gone, that the United States and the
coalition forces have taken over, and basically improving their lives.
Frustration mainly is that things were a little too slow for what the Iraqis
expected and, you know, you see, the view there is that the United States is
the, you know, most advanced country in the world. You know, things should
have been a lot quicker. And I don't know if that's fair to the US, but that
was the impression there. Why wasn't electricity done already? Why isn't
this done? And I have to expect it. And, yes, the United States is the most
advanced country in the world, but that doesn't mean they can do everything
overnight either, so there's always that to draw from.

GROSS: Why did you leave Iraq when you were 18?

Sgt. SHUBBAR: Well, my family wasn't on good terms with the government, and
they already had executed members of my extended family, and my father was
already in prison prior to that. So my father basically said, `Listen, it's
better if you leave because I don't want you to be next.' And I think it was
a good decision. Yeah.

GROSS: And you first left to study in college in the States.

Sgt. SHUBBAR: Yes.

GROSS: And when did your parents leave? You left in '82, I think.

Sgt. SHUBBAR: I left in actually December of '81. I went to Britain. From
Britain, I came to the United States.

GROSS: And what about your parents?

Sgt. SHUBBAR: My parents--they left after me a little bit. They went to
Morocco. My father was working for the United Nations. And then they joined
me in the United States later.

GROSS: Now you took a leave from the Philadelphia Police in order to work in
Baghdad.

Sgt. SHUBBAR: Yes.

GROSS: So you had to go back in September.

Sgt. SHUBBAR: I could have stayed a little longer.

GROSS: Did you not want to stay longer?

Sgt. SHUBBAR: I basically missed my family too much and my kids, my wife, and
I just, you know, decided it's time to come back, and maybe in the future I
can go back again, but back in September, it was already four months I hadn't
seen them, and I just wanted to come back.

GROSS: When you came back to the Philadelphia Police after being a police
adviser in Baghdad, what was it like to get back to your work in Philadelphia?
What was really different? What was...

Sgt. SHUBBAR: Well, you have that adjustment to do. I mean, here, I have an
office. I have, you know, equipment. We have...

GROSS: You have windows and doors.

Sgt. SHUBBAR: Windows and doors. I'm not worried about getting shot at, you
know, if I'm driving from my house to work. Over there, we had to make sure
we changed routes and, you know, make sure there's no ambush or anything
like that, because towards, you know, the end, you know, these ambushes and
assassination attempts were more common against coalition forces.

GROSS: Well, good luck to you and thank you very much for talking with us.

Sgt. SHUBBAR: Thank you. Thank you.

GROSS: Nouman Shubbar is a Philadelphia police sergeant who spent four months
in Baghdad working as a police adviser.

I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music; credits)

GROSS: Coming up, actor Philip Baker Hall. He's co-starring in the new
Charles Busch satire "Die, Mommie, Die." He's best known for his performances
in the Paul Thomas Anderson films, "Hard Eight," "Boogie Nights" and
"Magnolia."

(Soundbite of music)

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

Interview: Philip Baker Hall discusses his acting career
TERRY GROSS, host:

Philip Baker Hall is best known for his performances in the films of Paul
Thomas Anderson. Hall played a gambler in "Hard Eight," a porn mogul in
"Boogie Nights" and a whiz kid's game show host in "Magnolia." Hall is great
at playing hard-boiled, even in his role as a library cop tracking down
overdue books in a now classic episode of "Seinfeld." His other films include
"Bruce Almighty," "The Talented Mr. Ripley" and "Air Force One."

Now Philip Baker Hall is co-starring in "Die, Mommie, Die," a satire of
melodramas from the 1950s and '60s. Charles Busch, who wrote the screenplay,
stars in drag as an over-the-hill pop star once known as America's
nightingale. She lives in a mansion with her husband, a producer played by
Philip Baker Hall, and their two children. He suspects she's been cheating on
him, so he's hired a private detective. In this scene, he's presented to his
wife photos taken by the private eye showing explicit evidence of adultery.
Here's Hall and Busch.

(Soundbite of "Die, Mommie, Die")

Mr. CHARLES BUSCH: (As Angela) I'd say these are certainly grounds for a
divorce.

Mr. PHILIP BAKER HALL: (As Sol Sussman) Never. I am sentencing you to life
imprisonment, baby, and I am going to be the warden.

Mr. BUSCH: You're made.

Mr. HALL: (As Sussman) We are a famous couple, Angela, and we're going to
stay that way in public, if not in private.

Mr. BUSCH: And this will bring you happiness?

Mr. HALL: (As Sussman) Nobody makes a dirty joke out of Sol P. Sussman. You
are my possession. I own you just like I own every toilet in this house. Oh,
oh, oh, oh...

Mr. BUSCH: Sol, are you all right?

Mr. HALL: (As Sussman) Don't get your hopes up. It's not a heart attack.
It's this damn constipation.

GROSS: Philip Baker Hall, welcome to FRESH AIR.

What movie types did you think of in creating this character? Because "Die,
Mommie, Die" is in part a kind of loving satire of a lot of films.

Mr. HALL: Here's what I was going for: I thought it would be interesting to
try to create a character--and I guess Hollywood is full of these types; maybe
the world is full of these types--an actual person for whom there is virtually
no limitation. He can abuse anybody. He can love anybody. He can help
anybody. He can hurt anybody. He can be a bull in a china shop any time he
wants to, as much as he wants to. He can do and say absolutely anything he
wants. So that was kind of a concept that I started with for this guy.

GROSS: And is...

Mr. HALL: A person with no social or civic or human responsibility
whatsoever.

GROSS: Is this the first time your leading lady has been a man in drag?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HALL: Well, as far as I know.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HALL: We don't know everything, you know, in some of these movies.

GROSS: Did that affect your performance at all?

Mr. HALL: No, it didn't, and not in the least. Charles--of course, I mean,
as he's been doing for years in his various female personae, Charles does it
with such amazing skill and such charm that, you know, for all practical
purposes, he might as well have been a beautiful young woman. I mean,
he--Charles is pretty amazing.

GROSS: Now the first time I really noticed you--and I think I'm speaking for
a lot of people here--was in the movie "Hard Eight," which was written and
directed by Paul Thomas Anderson. And you were also in his films "Boogie
Nights" and "Magnolia." In "Hard Eight," you play a gambler who knows all the
angles of the casinos and you become a father figure to a real loser, someone
who's a loser in life and at the casinos, played by John C. Reilly. Philip
Baker Hall, do you want to describe your character a little bit more in that
movie?

Mr. HALL: Yeah, Sydney is the character's name. And he's a guy who travels
alone, lives alone and he's worked out a kind of a scheme for his life, which
is to make the circuit of all the big casinos and work the system. He's an
expert at working the system and getting the free lodging and the free meals.
And he's not like a big-time game player at the casinos. He's a clever game
player, and I think he maintains a kind of anonymity. And he's--you know,
whenever he comes into a casino, we kind of get the feeling in the movie that
this is part of his route, that he's been here before. All the people seem to
know him and they like him. He's a good tipper, and he minds his own
business.

GROSS: What's the story behind how you met Paul Thomas Anderson and made this
movie with him? It was his first film.

Mr. HALL: Yeah. I was doing a movie for public television in LA, and Paul
was a volunteer production assistant. And, you know, he was basically getting
the coffee and helping out with the little chores on the set. And we would
have coffee and cigarettes between takes and we became friendly. And what
brought us together initially was the fact that Paul--of course, I didn't
know--you know, where Paul Thomas Anderson was going at this point. He was
just a very young man who had an almost encyclopedic film knowledge. And he
was one of the few people I had met who had seen every movie that I had ever
made and he seemed to have a line on my whole film career. It was flattering,
and it was unusual.

So at one point, I asked him what his ambition was and he said it was to be a
writer and maybe to be a director. `And, by the way,' he said, `I have a
short script and there's a great role for you in it, and I would love to give
it to you and get your opinion of it. And if you like it, maybe we could do
it.' So he sent me this 28-minute script--a short feature is was what it
was--called "Cigarettes and Coffee." And the writing was so extraordinary
that I almost lost my balance and fell down. I'm serious. It was absolutely
amazing. I could not believe the quality of the writing, the maturity of the
characters and of the ideas in the script and the subtext. It was just
amazing. I was flabbergasted.

And we did that short film and it got Paul on the map as a young director. It
showed at a lot of festivals around the world. And then Sundance eventually
screened it and asked him to come up one summer with a feature that he would
like to put into their workshop. And that's when he wrote "Hard Eight," which
was originally called "Sydney." So that's where we met.

GROSS: I want to ask you about another Paul Thomas Anderson film that you
were in, and this is "Magnolia," in which you played a television--a host of a
quiz show for kids, for really precocious kids.

Mr. HALL: Yes.

GROSS: And you also have a very dark side in your personal life, which I
won't go into.

Mr. HALL: Right, a very...

GROSS: In case anybody wants to watch it and be very surprised.

Mr. HALL: Right, right.

GROSS: So let's just hear a scene here, and this is a scene in which you're
hosting the show.

(Soundbite of "Magnolia")

Mr. HALL: (As Jimmy Gator) End of round one. Excellent work, ladies and
germs. I think we should take a look at the scores on the board here. Kids
are up a leg with 1,500, and the adults are down a little bit with 1,025. So
we'll be back for round two and a ring-ding-do!

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. HALL: (As Gator) Whoa! Hello, hello. Bonus musical question. And the
winner is...

(Soundbite of paper shuffling)

Mr. HALL: (As Gator) ...kids!

(Soundbite of applause)

Mr. HALL: (As Gator) The kids are in the lead, they get a chance here to pull
further and farther ahead if they can answer the following secret bonus
musical question. Now what I'm going to do is I'm going to read a line to you
from an opera. I want you to give me that line back in the language in which
the opera was originally written. And for a bonus 250--uh, 250--uh, 250, you
can sing it.

(Soundbite of paper shuffling)

Mr. HALL: (As Gator) Here's the line. `Love is a rebellious bird that nobody
can tame, and it's all in vain to call it if it chooses to refuse.'

(Soundbite of bell)

Mr. HALL: (As Gator) Yes, Stanley.

"STANLEY": Well, that was in French, and that was from the opera "Carmen."
And that goes, (singing in French).

GROSS: That's my guest Philip Baker Hall in a scene from the movie
"Magnolia."

What did you draw on for this character?

Mr. HALL: Well, Paul and I--we spent a fair amount of time together before
that talking about this character. And Paul had done some research, and he
had some personal experience also with someone who was having a kind of an
Alzheimer's problem as well as perhaps a series of mini strokes, which is what
we were kind of exploring there.

GROSS: Right. And if our listeners didn't catch this, your memory's going a
little bit. You're having a little bit of trouble in the scene that we just
heard.

Mr. HALL: Yes. And there's I guess quite a bit of literature about this
phenomenon where you can have these little strokes and sort of not be aware
that you're having a stroke, but the accumulate. The effect of them
accumulates until finally you're almost unable to speak, which is where my
character sort of gets at one point in this film. So that was my preparation
for that aspect of the role.

The other preparation that Paul and I did together was--I don't know if this
channel is still operating on television or not, but at the time there was a
channel that played nothing but old quiz shows and old game shows from the
earliest days of television. So I remember we sat one day virtually all day
and just watched this channel and watched all these old quiz show guys from
25, 30 years ago just to get a line on what--just the modus operandi of guys
who do this for a living, who do nothing but relate either to kids or to
contestants and how that colors and changes their personality as people and
how it might affect their lives.

GROSS: What did you pick up on from that?

Mr. HALL: Oh, just the kind of offhand and shallow kind of personal
relationships that--hey, I'm not indicting anybody who does that for a living,
believe me. I mean, all these are honorable professions and I do respect
them. But if somebody does this kind of job for 20 years, you know, I think
it--you know, you're not looking to go very far below the surface here
like--you know, so a manner, a way of dealing with people, of relating to
people and--that ultimately, however, culminates maybe in some very difficult
personal relationships at home with one's own children or one's own wife or
one's own family.

So--I mean, this was an aspect of it, because as we looked at many of these
people, we noted in cases that we knew about that there was--you know, there
are a lot of well-publicized family problems, especially with the children of
famous people who do nothing but this kind of work. So it was an education
for us, and it helped Paul to solidify certain things in the script and it
helped me to get a handle on what to go for in the preparation of the role.

GROSS: My guest is Philip Baker Hall. He's in the new film "Die, Mommie,
Die." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guest is Philip Baker Hall. He's co-starring in the film "Die,
Mommie, Die." He's best known for his performances in the Paul Thomas
Anderson films "Hard Eight," "Boogie Nights" and "Magnolia."

Anyone who's seen "Magnolia" knows that at the end of the movie there's
literally a rain of frogs...

Mr. HALL: Right.

GROSS: ...in which frogs just kind of fall from the sky.

Mr. HALL: Right.

GROSS: And when I interviewed Paul Thomas Anderson after "Magnolia" came out,
he said that when he was first talking to you about the script, he told you
that he was writing in a rain of frogs. And what you told him was that you
had actually been in a rain of frogs...

Mr. HALL: Yes, I have been.

GROSS: ...and that these things actually happened. And I was never sure if
Paul Thomas Anderson was pulling my leg or not.

Mr. HALL: No, no, no. No, it's really true.

GROSS: What happened?

Mr. HALL: Well, when I was in the Army and I was stationed in Germany and I
was driving on a vacation, actually, from Germany to Italy and I was going
over the Brenner Pass in the Alps at night. And it was a huge rainstorm and
fog. It was a very bad time to be crossing the Brenner Pass, but I started
when it was light and got caught in a storm there. And I noticed these things
hitting the windshield and hitting the car at a certain point.

And I remember the fog became so dense that I had to open the door next to the
steering wheel and look down at the yellow or white line on the road in order
to keep from driving off the road. I could not see ahead of me at all, not
one foot. And I'm seeing these splots, all these things are hitting the car.
They were frogs.

And I remember when I successfully came off, I mentioned to the guards, I
think, as I came into Italy something about that, that--you know. And they
said, `Oh, yeah, yeah, it happens,' they'd seen that before; not a big deal.
So it happens, yeah, it's real.

GROSS: So what exactly happened. How did the frogs end up on your
windshield? Where were they coming from?

Mr. HALL: They were coming out of the sky with the rain. Now--hey, with the
physics of this thing...

GROSS: You're going to have to do better than that for me.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HALL: Yeah, I know, it's not good. And I never understood the physics of
it, but somehow these mini cyclones pick things up out of ponds and everything
and they're just carried in the clouds and then they're released.

GROSS: Oh, I see.

Mr. HALL: It has been explained to me in that way...

GROSS: Uh-huh.

Mr. HALL: ...that these little gusts, cyclonic gusts pick up things
and--because frogs are not the only things that have rained down. Snakes have
rained down, fish have rained down. Anything that a pond can carry--there are
plenty of instances, so I understand, of these things being returned to the
Earth in a rainstorm.

GROSS: Huh. So you had no problem with this in the script, apparently.

Mr. HALL: None whatsoever, no.

GROSS: OK.

Mr. HALL: I know a lot of people who saw the movie said, `Boy, what was that
all about? And why did he--Where did that come from?' And, of course, you
know, it's also biblical, too, so all that stuff is in there.

GROSS: Right. What was it like to kind of really break into film when you
were already probably in your 60s, right?

Mr. HALL: Late-50s and early 60s.

GROSS: Uh-huh.

Mr. HALL: It was--it meant a lot of things. First of all, I have two small
children. I have a seven-year-old daughter and a two-and-a-half-year-old
daughter and--now a two-and-a-half-year-old daughter. It helped me to be able
to secure their future, which was something that had been concerning me before
that there. Only one had been born then.

It also personally, of course, meant for me certain significant changes in my
life. For example, I don't have to go in and audition ...(unintelligible),
which is great. OK? Once you get on the map in a certain way as a performer,
you are relieved of the terrible responsibility of going in and having to
prove that you can do the part, which I had been doing all my life for the
most part. And so it's nice to not have to do that. I really appreciate
that.

And it also--just at the ego level, it's very nice to get this--the
recognition. And the recognition--I mean, I never yearned to be recognized at
the supermarket or to have to wear dark glasses or to protect myself or
anything. That was never part of what I was aiming for. But I always did
want peer recognition. No doubt about that. It is great to be recognized by
other wonderful artists. That is gratifying.

GROSS: I want to ask you about your voice. Your voice is often--I mean,
you're often in these kind of tough or authoritative type of roles, whether
it's somebody, you know, with a lot of power in a Cabinet position or whether
it's, you know, somebody who's connected to gangsters--I know your voice is
capable of being really tough. I can't quite place it geographically. It
always sounds very urban to me, but I can't really say I hear or I can locate
a particular accent. Where are you from?

Mr. HALL: I'm from Ohio. I was born in Toledo, Ohio, and I grew up there.
My father was from Montgomery, Alabama, so I certainly don't speak, unless a
character requires it, with any kind of a Southern dialect or--but there may
be something--something may have been added or taken out of the Midwestern
aspect of it by hearing my father, who did pretty much maintain his accent and
dialect. And then I was in New York for 16 years, also. And also as an
actor, one who studied dialects and vocal tricks of one kind or another as
required for an actor, especially a character actor, maybe it's been flattened
out in some way that you can't determine where it came from. But I am from
the Midwest.

GROSS: Well...

Mr. HALL: In fact, somebody asked me once, they wanted me to do something--I
don't know if it was for a commercial or what--they wanted me to do a
Midwestern accent, and I thought I was already doing it. So there you go.

GROSS: Right.

My guest is Philip Baker Hall. He's in the new film "Die, Mommie, Die."
We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guest is Philip Baker Hall. He's co-starring in the film "Die,
Mommie, Die." He's best known for his performances in the Paul Thomas
Anderson films "Hard Eight," "Boogie Nights" and "Magnolia."

What did your father do when you were growing up?

Mr. HALL: My father worked in Toledo at the Willis Overland plant, which was
an automobile plant, and during the Second World War, they produced the jeeps.
Most of the jeeps that were used in the Second World War were made in Toledo.
And then later, it was Kaiser-Frazer Automotive, and they made the Nash, the
Nash/Rambler and all these cars. And that's what he did. He worked at a
factory most of his life.

GROSS: How would your family have been affected by the Depression?

Mr. HALL: My father and his brother in the '20s had had a very successful
tire vulcanizing shop. In the '20s, when automobiles were really becoming
popular and everybody was having a car, the whole business of tires and how to
maintain them and keep them going without buying new ones all the time--there
was a process developed in Akron at the Goodyear Tire Company called
vulcanizing. And those who were sort of looking to the future went up and
took that course on how to vulcanize and then in their various localities
would start a vulcanizing shop. And that's what my father and his brother
did. They started a vulcanizing shop in Toledo, Ohio, and were very
successful.

But when the Depression came and everything collapsed in 1929 and 1930, they
lost their shop, and so my dad was pretty much out of work for almost 10
years. He just did odd jobs and did what he could. We were on what was
called--in those days, it was called relief; it would be welfare today. We
were on relief, and I remember we used to depend on some relatives who would
bring bags of groceries for us, or I remember going with my dad down to these
agencies in Toledo that would hand out, oh, dented canned goods and powdered
eggs and powdered milk and all this kind of stuff.

So it was up, really, until the war began--and in 1940, maybe I think, is when
he got employed at the Willis Overland plant and then began to kind of
stabilize economically and our life changed a little bit. He was able to buy
a house and our life became very different than it had been. But for the
first 10 years of my life, my father was really--the family was struggling.

GROSS: What's another, like, defining moment of your early life?

Mr. HALL: Well, I think a defining moment of my early life would probably be
in grade school when--and then also in high school, when I realized that there
might be another life for me other than the life that was there. In other
words, my father always expected me to follow him at the Willis Overland plant
and to work at the plant, also--which, in fact, when I went to college at one
point I did for a short time. But he was always expecting me to probably end
up working in a factory like he did. This is what appeared to be the life
that was available.

But somewhere I realized that I would be able to make something different with
my life and that I could perhaps do it as an actor. And I knew this pretty
early. Somewhere in grade school, I began to sense the possibility of this.
You know, my voice changed early, and I remember that the teachers, when they
would do little class plays and programs and things, they would select me
sometimes for key roles because probably between the ages of 12 and 14, I
didn't sound like a child. I sounded basically like an adult, because my
voice became so deep and so husky so young. And I began to realize at that
point that I sort of intuitively possessed some skills in this area. And I
determined at a pretty young age to try and make the most of them. So here we
are.

GROSS: You know, we've talked about how authoritative and even threatening
your voice is capable of being. Were there certain authority figures in your
life, people who you heard expressing authority through their voice, who
you've borrowed from as an actor?

Mr. HALL: You know, actually not; there weren't, really. You know, my father
was obviously the main authority figure as a child growing up, and he was
pretty quiet and self-contained. He didn't say too much. My mom was--you
know, she was like all moms, trying to--'cause I was the oldest of three boys,
so she had her hands full just trying to control the three boys. But there
was nothing particularly authoritative in her vocal manner.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Mr. HALL: No, I don't know exactly where that comes from.

I think it--I do have some idea where it came from. Because my voice changed
so early and I was, whenever these--I told you these class plays and things.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Mr. HALL: I was always the one cast as the principal or the chief or the mean
father or the--You know? So I started out as a kid acting these parts because
that's what the teachers gave me, because if you wanted an authentic
adult-sounding voice in the play, it almost had to be me. So I think that's
where it began.

GROSS: So do you think you can use that quality in your voice when you need
to be authoritative in real life, or when you need to be in a position of
power?

Mr. HALL: That's a good question. And my seven-and-a-half-year-old daughter
and my two-and-a-half-year-old daughter do not respond to this quality in my
voice; I can tell you that. So in real life, it means absolutely nothing.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HALL: I can scare people in movies on cue and on command, but my
daughters are not in the least frightened by my big voice.

GROSS: Well, I've really enjoyed talking with you. Thank you so much for
talking with us.

Mr. HALL: Terry, I've enjoyed this so much. I know I've rambled on here, but
it's fun to be given an opportunity to ramble on.

GROSS: Philip Baker Hall is now co-starring in the film "Die, Mommie, Die."

(Credits)

GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.

(Soundbite of "Wise Up")

Ms. AIMEE MANN: (Singing) It's not what you thought when you first began it.
You got what you want, now you can hardly stand it, though. By now you know
it's not going to stop. It's not going to stop.
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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