DATE November 4, 2003 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
PROGRAM Fresh Air
Interview: Donna Summer discusses her singing career and new memoir
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
Even many people who prided themselves on hating disco loved one of its
biggest hit makers, Donna Summer. She could really sing. Her hits of the
'70s and early '80s included "Last Dance," "Heaven Knows," "On the Radio,"
"Bad Girls" and "She Works Hard for the Money." She had three consecutive
number-one platinum albums and 11 gold albums. After hearing Summer moan with
ecstatic pleasure and cry out in need of some `hot stuff,' you might have
assumed that she thought of herself as a disco sex queen. But as we'll hear
in a minute, that's hardly how she saw herself. She has a new memoir called
(Soundbite of "Hot Stuff")
Ms. DONNA SUMMER: (Singing) Sitting here eating my heart out waiting, waiting
for some lover to call. Dialed about a thousand numbers lately, almost rang
the phone off the wall. Looking for some hot stuff, baby, this evening. I
need some hut stuff, baby, tonight. I want some hot stuff, baby, this
evening. Gotta have some hot stuff, gotta have some love tonight.
Unidentified Woman: (Singing) Hot stuff.
GROSS: "Hut Stuff" was a number-one hit for Donna Summer in 1979. She had
her first hit, "Love To Love You Baby," in '75. She made the record when she
was living in Germany, where she had starred in a production of "Hair." In
Munich, she met the record producer Giorgio Moroder, who became her
collaborator and one of disco's most successful and influential producers.
Summer had been doing demo recordings for Moroder when she came up with a line
she thought would make a good hook for a song, `Love to love you, baby.'
Ms. SUMMER: I had this idea at home one day, and I ran into the studio and I
said, `Giorgio, I have this idea. Do you think you could write something to
it?' And I sort of sang it to him, and he kept saying it over. He says
(whispers), `Love to love you. I love to love you. I love to love you.' He
kept rubbing his chin and thinking like a little mad scientist, and then he
went into the studio. And Giorgio had written this track. And I began to--he
asked me go to in and start singing something, and I didn't have any words
other than `Love to love you, baby.' So I was improvising on the track live,
and that really became "Love to Love You Baby," the original track.
GROSS: So when you sang him your initial idea, what was it that you sang?
Ms. SUMMER: (Singing) `I love to love you, baby,' you know, the melody of the
song. And then he went from there and produced something, and then I began to
sing it. And then I began to play with the--there weren't that many words, so
I played with the sound of the music, you know, (singing) `ahhhhhh,' you know.
We didn't have the same technology we have today, so I had to do everything
with my own voice.
GROSS: You say in the book you approached this song like an actress because
you didn't think of yourself as having that kind of really sexy persona. So
tell us about how you did approach recording the vocal.
Ms. SUMMER: Well, the vocal was very breathy and airy, and basically I was a
theater singer, so I had been, you know, much more of a belter. And it was
really different and difficult for me to tap into who this person was. And so
I imaged Marilyn Monroe and just began to think, `Well, how would Marilyn sing
this song?' And she would be very soft. And then, you know, I started
playing with the thought in my mind, and so as I began to sort of think of it
her way through her, I began to understand who the song was for and who the
song was about and the girl singing it. And I tapped into it and recorded it.
GROSS: Well, I think this would be a good place to hear your recording of
"Love to Love You Baby."
(Soundbite of "Love to Love You Baby")
Ms. SUMMER: (Singing) I love to love you, baby. I love to love you, baby. I
love to love you, baby. I love to love you, baby. I love to love you, baby.
When you're laying so close to me, there's no place I'd rather you be than
here with me. Oh, I love to love you, baby. I love to love you, baby. Oh, I
love to love you, baby. Ohh. Do it to me again and again. You put me in
such an awful spin, in a spin, in...
GROSS: That's Donna Summer's first big hit. Now when Neil Bogart decided to
have this record on his label, he wanted a longer version for the dance clubs.
So you had to go back and do like a long version, like--What?--14 minutes.
Ms. SUMMER: Well, it wasn't for the dance clubs. Actually, I think Neil had
a little something else in mind. It worked out for the dance clubs, but it
Ms. SUMMER: ...it was for...
GROSS: Torrid love.
Ms. SUMMER: ...secret times, secret lives of many people. But he had played
the short version when he was with his wife, and he thought that it was too
short. He said, `This mood is so great. I just want to hear it extended.
What's the longest that you can extend it?' And Giorgio said, `Well, you
know, we'll do the best we can.' And we came back--I think the original was
like 17, almost 18 minutes. And, of course, he thought no one would ever play
it on the air, but they wound up playing it on the air.
GROSS: So what did you add for the long version?
Ms. SUMMER: Well, there was extension music added and bridge music, and there
were other melodies inserted and then just sort of vocal swells. You know, it
was a mood setter.
GROSS: What did you do to set your mood?
Ms. SUMMER: Mine? I laid on the floor and--it was very difficult to do this
because, I mean, I was a comedian, and Giorgio and I were always goofing
around. So Pete and Giorgio had to turn the lights down. I think they might
have brought some candles in the room or something, and I literally laid on
the floor. They lowered the microphone to me, and I just, you know, kind of
sang it like I was, you know, having a romantic encounter. It's embarrassing
to me to say this now, but it's true. And we nailed the song finally. And,
you know, like I said, I came up with some vocal approaches there were
not--basically, no one had ever done before. So it kind of started the whole
thing of this new type of music.
GROSS: Now after recording "Love To Love You Baby," you were brought to the
United States to promote the record. And as you say, this is when you were
transformed into a sex queen and sophisticated diva, which was a kind of
awkward position for you to be in, judging from what you write in your book,
because, first of all, you were brought up in the church, and, second of all,
you were used to singing in like a theater setting, not being a sex queen.
And you thought of yourself as comedic, not the sex queen.
Ms. SUMMER: Definitely. What a contrast, huh?
GROSS: So how were you transformed? What were some of the things that you
were told you needed to wear or say or act like?
Ms. SUMMER: Well, I mean, you know, everybody has different portions of their
personality, and I tend to be--I can be very, very quiet and to myself and
withdrawn. And I just, you know, sort of--and I can be extremely outgoing
when I need to be because I grew up in a big family. And so I just sort of
drew on my other self, the one that I am most of the time when nobody's
around, and, oh, when I just want to be alone and that sort of--I thought that
person would work fine for whatever it was I had to do.
And so, I mean, the things that they encouraged me to do, you know, was
to--you know, they gave me a makeup artist and a hair person, a stylist. And,
you know, they took me to Hollywood and did the whole Hollywood thing with the
clothes and the makeovers and, you know, just all the showrooms and, you know,
things that I hadn't, you know, done in--I modeled in Europe, so I was
familiar with all of that fashion, you know, input. But, you know, they
wanted me to look a certain way, to be a certain way. And they said, `Well,
you're going to be a star, people aren't asking for you; they're asking for
this image of you.' And so that's kind of what, you know, was done. They
began to transform me into an image.
GROSS: How did you like the image?
Ms. SUMMER: Well, I didn't like the image per se. I mean, I didn't
particularly care for the sex image. I thought it was kind of narrow. And I
felt like I was going to have to break out real soon; otherwise I wasn't going
to make it. So, you know, initially, for the record, it was, you know, what
sold the record, but it wasn't a place that I was comfortable.
GROSS: You were already a mother by then.
Ms. SUMMER: Yes, I had one daughter, Mimi. That was...
GROSS: Did that make it more uncomfortable being a mother?
Ms. SUMMER: Yeah. I mean, I think when you have to be accountable to people,
it's hard not to think about what you're doing. When you don't have to be
accountable to anyone, then you only have yourself to answer to; it's
different. So I always felt like I had this sort of--people to answer to and
my children, and my child at the time, was one of them. And I felt that in
the future I didn't want her to say, `Mom, well, you did it.' You know? But,
GROSS: Did she ever say that?
Ms. SUMMER: Yeah, she did. Yes, she did, much...
GROSS: What was your comeback?
Ms. SUMMER: ...to my chagrin. I just told her it was a different time, and,
you know, I came from a totally different life than her. And I was very
insecure and not able to make my own stand at that time, and I allowed myself
to be led into things that I, you know, really didn't approve of even for
myself. For other people, if they want to do it, it's their business. I, you
know, have nothing against that. But for me, I didn't think that it was the
right--if I would have had to choose a song as a first song, it would have
been "Last Dance" or "Enough Is Enough" or something like that.
GROSS: After "Love To Love You Baby" became a hit, there was a cake--a now
famous cake--that was made and delivered long distance.
Ms. SUMMER: It sure was.
GROSS: Would you describe the cake...
Ms. SUMMER: OK.
GROSS: ...and the extremes that were gone to to deliver the cake to its
Ms. SUMMER: Well, that cake is actually in the book, and it was a cake that
was made by Hansen's Cakes in LA. And they did a picture of me from the album
cover, and the cake was--oh, gosh, I think it maybe was about four feet, five
feet long. It was body length, and I was strewn out on the cake, you know,
like I am on the album. And it said `Love to love you, baby' on it. And they
flew the cake first-class, two seats, with people accompanying it from LA to
New York to a party, and they presented it to me. And, you know, they brought
it in on an ambulance, and, I mean, it was this whole big to-do about this
cake. It turned out to be its own marketing tool for the company and for me.
It was quite a big thing at the time.
GROSS: There's a photograph in your book of your parents sitting on a couch
next to the cake staring at the cake with a look, I think, of confusion and
resignation on their faces.
Ms. SUMMER: Yeah. Looking at it, `What is going on here?'
GROSS: What did they think of this?
Ms. SUMMER: Oh, well, I think the look on my mother's face is, you know,
pretty much that: `This is not my child. She has no clothes on, or she has
very little clothes on. Her legs are exposed.' And my dad is looking at it
kind of perplexed going, `I thought I did a good job,' you know.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. SUMMER: And so they were so perplexed. You know, I mean, they were
really happy that day, I think. When they brought the cake, they just were
dumbfounded. They'd never seen anything like it. And to see, you know, that
particular album cover done that big, they were in shock.
GROSS: Donna Summer is my guest, and she has a new memoir called "Ordinary
Let's take a short break here...
Ms. SUMMER: OK.
GROSS: ...and then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: My guest is Donna Summer, and she has a new autobiography called
Why don't we hear another recording? And this is another one of your hits,
one of your--I guess it was like your second big hit, your second really big
hit. This is the song "Last Dance," which is from the film "Thank God It's
Friday." Let's hear it.
(Soundbite of "Last Dance")
Ms. SUMMER: (Singing) Oooh. Oooh. Last dance, last chance for love. Yes,
it's my last chance for romance tonight. I need you by me, beside me, to
guide me, to hold me, to scold me 'cause when I'm bad, I'm so, so bad. So
let's dance the last dance. Let's dance the last dance. Let's dance the last
dance tonight. Last dance, last chance for love.
GROSS: That's Donna Summer, her hit "Last Dance."
What we hear at the beginning of that is something typical for some of your
songs, starting slow and then the beat comes in and everything speeds up. Is
that something that you and Moroder knew would really work? What really works
Ms. SUMMER: I think we decided--and I don't know if it was Neil and
Giorgio--they wanted me to have a slow song as a hit. And they were having a
hard time finding the right song for me to sing. And I don't know if it was
Neil or Giorgio who came up with the idea of, `Why not start the song slow and
then break out into it, so people can start together and then they can swing
themselves out and start dancing, you know, the way they dance?' And it was a
format that worked for us very well.
GROSS: I want to get back to what we were talking about before, which is,
like, you know, the image that was created for you...
Ms. SUMMER: OK.
GROSS: ...of the disco diva, the sex goddess. Did you feel like you had to
live up to that in your personal relationships?
Ms. SUMMER: Well, not in my personal relationships so much but I think in my,
you know, public relationship to people. When I did interviews or whatever,
guys would be so nervous, like they thought I was going to, you know, just, I
don't know, jump on them or something. And I think the image was really
pretty hard to live up to at some point, especially with my sense of humor
and, at the time, my kind of quirky sense of mocking. It just didn't go
together. So I had to really be calm when I did interviews and not, you know,
clown around too much.
GROSS: What were the tours like? You describe in your book that, you know,
sometimes you'd have, like, male dancers in loincloths.
Ms. SUMMER: Yeah. Well, that was what was happening at the time. I mean, we
had this one show that was--I forget who designed the show, but it was a big
egg. You know, smoke would be on the stage and the lights would be down, and
I would be inside the egg. And then all of a sudden the music would start,
and the egg would start to break apart, and then four dancers would come out
and lift the shell off and I would be unveiled in the middle. Don't ask me
whose idea that was. But, in any case, the audience would go crazy because
the egg had been out there from the time they got there. So I'd be out in
that egg for 10 minutes while people were getting, you know, in their seats
So, I mean, originally, you know, the shows were pretty racy, I'd say. You
know, people would throw bras on stage and underwear and all kinds of things.
And at some point doing "Love To Love You Baby" became almost impossible. I
just couldn't do it after a while. It was just more than I could handle.
GROSS: People threw their bras on stage?
Ms. SUMMER: Their bras, their underwear. People would rush the stage, men
and women, and just throw themselves at the stage. It was like nothing I have
ever seen or experienced in my life. It was just such a strange thing. You
know, when I would start doing the song, people would literally just break out
and run down the aisles and try to jump onto the stage, and many times they
made it. And it was back in the days when I only had, I think--well, I had
two bodyguards, but they weren't enough to fit all the way across the stage.
And so some people would manage to break through the lines, and it was pretty
GROSS: Well, why don't we hear another record here?
Ms. SUMMER: OK.
GROSS: My guest is Donna Summer, and her new book is called "Ordinary Girl."
It's an autobiography. Why don't we hear "Bad Girls"? And how did you come
up with the idea of writing a song about hookers?
Ms. SUMMER: It wasn't the first song I wrote about hookers, by the way, but
it was the most famous one. And it came about because someone in my office
was accosted by the police, and they thought that she was a hooker, and that's
how the story came about.
GROSS: Now as you describe in your book, Neil Bogart from your record label
didn't want you to record it. He wanted Cher to record it. What was this
problem with having you record this song?
Ms. SUMMER: He just thought it was too rock 'n' roll. He didn't think it was
dance enough at the time, the way it was recorded originally. And I had gone
in and recorded it with my husband, Bruce, and The Brooklyn Dreams. They did
the track. But when he said he wanted to give it to Cher, I told him, `I
don't think so. This is my song, and I'm keep--Cher, I love Cher, but she
can't have my song right now.' And so I just took the song, and we just sort
of canned it about...
GROSS: How did you get back to it?
Ms. SUMMER: Well, how it came about was pretty bizarre, actually. I was in
the studio and a friend of mine worked in the studio; he ran the studio,
actually. He was an engineer, Steve Smith. And he was going through old
tapes and he heard "Bad Girls," and he's like, `Donna, I heard this tape last
night.' He said, `I played it over and over again. I think this is a hit
record.' I said, `You do?' I said, `Well, I know, but Neil doesn't want me
to do the song. What am I going to do?' I said, `He won't let me. I already
asked him.' He said, `Look, I think you've got to pull this song out. I
think you've got to release this song.' And I said, `Well, you know, when
Giorgio comes, maybe you can play it to him and just see how he feels about
Well, the song was down. There wasn't any `beep, beeps' or `toot toots' on
it, and it still needed some work. And Giorgio took it out and he actually
loved it, and he said, `Well, you know what? Let me work on this.' So he
went to work on it. And then I came in and did some more vocals and things,
and it was missing something. And I kept thinking, `You know, what do you do
when you're sitting in a car trying to get a prostitute's attention?' And I
said, `You honk your horn.' So the `beep, beep' and the `toot, toot' was how
to get people's attention. And it did. It worked.
GROSS: Oh, it's such a great record. Let's hear it. This is Donna Summer
singing "Bad Girls."
(Soundbite of "Bad Girls")
Back-up Singers: (Singing) Toot, toot. Hey, beep, beep. Toot, toot. Hey,
beep, beep. Toot, toot. Hey, beep, beep.
Ms. SUMMER: (Singing) Bad girls talking about the sad girls. Sad girls
talking about bad, bad girls, yeah. See them out on the street at night...
Back-up Singers: (Singing) Walking.
Ms. SUMMER: (Singing) ...picking all kinds of strangers...
Ms. SUMMER and Back-up Singers: (Singing) ...if the price is right.
Ms. SUMMER: (Singing) You can score...
Ms. SUMMER and Back-up Singers: (Singing) ...if your pocket's nice. But you
want a good time.
Ms. SUMMER: (Singing) You ask yourself who they are. Like everybody else,
they come from near and far. Bad girls, yeah. Bad girls...
Back-up Singers: (Singing) Bad girls...
Ms. SUMMER: (Singing) ...talking about the sad girls.
Back-up Singers: (Singing) Sad girls.
Ms. SUMMER: (Singing) Yeah.
GROSS: Donna Summer. Her new memoir is called "Ordinary Girl." She'll be
back in the second half of the show.
I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: Coming up, we continue our conversation with Donna Summer, and we talk
with Sean Penn. He's starring in "Mystic River," and his new film "21 Grams"
comes out later this month.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with Donna Summer. She had
many disco hits in the '70s and early '80s, including "Love to Love You Baby,"
"Last Dance," "On the Radio," "Bad Girls" and "She Works Hard for the Money."
Now Donna Summer has a new memoir called "Ordinary Girl."
Germany has been very important in your life. You started your performing
career, your professional career, in Germany, in "Hair." Your first husband
was German, you know, the father of your oldest daughter. It was in Germany
you met Giorgio Moroder and started recording. How did you first get there?
Why did you first go?
Ms. SUMMER: Well, just one minor correction.
Ms. SUMMER: My first husband was Austrian, living in Germany.
GROSS: OK. Thank you. Right.
Ms. SUMMER: OK. But we lived in Munich...
Ms. SUMMER: ...and--what was the question again?
GROSS: How did you first go there?
Ms. SUMMER: Oh, I went there--I auditioned for "Hair," and I got the part,
and that was--I auditioned in New York and I got the part. They were getting
read to put up a cast of "Hair" in Germany, and they didn't have any black
kids for the show, so they auditioned for kids in New York and there were 300
kids the day I auditioned, and only two of us were taken. I was one of them.
GROSS: Did you love doing the show?
Ms. SUMMER: Yeah. At the time, yeah, I did. It was a lot of fun, and I was
coming of age in a whole other climate and a whole other community with, you
know, different challenges and different excitement, you know, and it wasn't
like growing up in America. There was just having this whole other space to
become an adult, and...
GROSS: Was that a good thing?
Ms. SUMMER: Oh, it was great. I...
GROSS: What was good about it?
Ms. SUMMER: Well, I think growing up--you know, I grew up in the church and
grew up very strict, and this was the antithesis of that, and I really had to
find my way in the middle, and go, `OK, this is my line. I'm walking this
line.' And it made me establish my own identity, and it made me know who I
really was and what I really, you know, believed in for myself, and it wasn't
something that, you know, I'm doing this because my parents said do this, or
I'm not doing this or I'm doing this because all these people do this. It was
having this sort of extreme liberalness on one side, and extreme, you know,
strictness on the other, and then going, `OK, this is what's right here. This
is comfortable, and I can live with this.' So...
GROSS: That's beautiful, because like in Germany, you found out who you
really were, and then you became a star and made you over into somebody else.
Ms. SUMMER: Constantly being made over. What am I going to do, you know?
Never good enough.
GROSS: When you were the queen of disco, what were you listening to yourself?
Ms. SUMMER: What was I listening to when I was the Q of D? I am the Q of D?
OK. Let's see, what was it? I mean, I guess I was listening to--I always
liked James Taylor, and...
GROSS: That's not the answer I was expecting.
Ms. SUMMER: I know. Isn't it sad? When I tell people--Stevie Wonder, James
Taylor, Marvin Gaye, Aretha, you know, Barbra Streisand. Back then, let's
see, who else was I listening to? You know, The Doors, you know, The Stones,
The Beatles--who else? You know, Curtis Mayfield. You know, a lot of Motown
acts, Diana. You know, I mean, that was kind of my era, so I mean, I listened
to a lot of stuff. I also listened to country music, you know, and classical
music and jazz music, so you know, I listened to everything, because I feel
that music is on all levels a part of us in a lot of ways, and I don't like to
be--you know, I don't like to exclude things. So I mean, even till to this
day, you hear every kind of music in my house.
GROSS: Did you ever feel out of step with some of your most ardent disco fans
who only listened to disco?
Ms. SUMMER: Not, really. I mean, I didn't make any judgment of it. I mean,
if that's what somebody likes, that's what they like. That's great, you know.
I'd rather sit down with a stack of Joni Mitchell records and listen, but
that's just me, you know what I mean?
Ms. SUMMER: Or Heart, or, you know--I don't know. I just happen to like
those kinds of records, but it didn't exclude my liking the disco music. I
love Gloria Gaynor too, you know? So you know, I didn't exclude people. I
GROSS: I want to ask you about being born again. I know that's been very
important in your life. At what point in your life did that happen?
Ms. SUMMER: It happened at the height of my career, to tell you the truth,
and it happened at a time when I probably without it would not be alive, and
so I think that it was my--definitely without a question, not think, I know it
was my saving grace from God.
GROSS: Like at what point, like what records were coming out at about this
time, just so we can place it?
Ms. SUMMER: Oh, let's see, where am I at? It was probably around the "Bad
Girls," "Enough is Enough"--no, maybe it was a little after that, somewhere
around and about that time, you know, I think.
GROSS: And some of the things that were going wrong with your life at that
time, you say you don't think you would have survived if you hadn't...
Ms. SUMMER: No.
GROSS: ...been born again.
Ms. SUMMER: No, I wouldn't have.
GROSS: What was going wrong?
Ms. SUMMER: Excuse me. I just think that I was exhausted, I think
emotionally exhausted. I had seen it all, I felt like I'd seen it all. I
didn't feel like there was anything left to do. I felt like, you know, what
am I doing here in this place? What is the purpose of my being here? And I
think when you start asking those questions, you better find answers, because
it can be extremely depressing if you don't, and I think that you probably--I
don't know if you go through this, but as creative people, I think artists
tend to go through this, you know, quite a few times in their existence. It's
par for the course, and it's what makes you go to the next level, but--you
know, if you're aware that there is another level. I felt I had gone to that
level and I didn't know where to go from there, so I felt like, `Well, there's
nothing left for me to do now but just die.' And so I--you know, I needed God.
GROSS: Do you have a favorite of your hits that we haven't played yet?
Ms. SUMMER: Well, I like "Last Dance." I love "Last Dance," and I love, you
know, "On the Radio," too.
GROSS: "On the Radio," good choice. Let's hear "On the Radio."
Ms. SUMMER: Oh, you clever little one.
GROSS: Tell us about, you know, the origin of the song and the production on
it, how you put it together.
Ms. SUMMER: OK. "On the Radio"--I was in the studio with "On the Radio" for
about three weeks to a month, not in the studio with it, but I had the song.
Giorgio had given me the track, and I said, `Giorgio, what--is there
anything--did you have anything in mind when you wrote this track?' And he
kept saying, `Well,' he said, `something with the radio.' And I said, `OK.' I
said `OK' and I pondered it for about three weeks. I couldn't come up with a
word, nothing, and I gave the track to Bruce, my husband--at the time my
boyfriend--and I said, `Honey, please try to write this. I just can't come up
with anything. It's not coming to me.'
And so one day I was in the studio and it was a day I was supposed to be
recording something else, and I was sitting at the piano and I was up at Rusk
Studio in Los Angeles. I was at the piano, and Stephen Bishop's record was on
the top of the piano, and I looked at the record, and I know Stephen, and
we've written together, and I'm like, you know, `How would Stephen say this?
What line would he come up--he's so clever.' And all of a sudden, this one
line came to me, and it was `Must have fallen out of a hole in your old brown
overcoat,' and it was like a lightning bolt. OK, that's it. I knew who the
person was. I knew who the person was in the song, I knew who she needed to
be, I knew what she was going through, I knew what had to be said. And so as
soon as I got all of the personal information on the character, I was able to
go into the studio, stand on the microphone and sign the song pretty much
verbatim, the way you hear it. That is--you know, I don't know how many takes
I did that day, but I don't think I did very many, and I think I got most of
the song in the first take, so, you know, it was about having that story in my
psyche and being able to go on there and sing it from that person's
perspective, and once I got the perspective, I was ridin'.
GROSS: You know, the `whoa, whoa,' you know, like `on the radio, whoa.'
Ms. SUMMER: Uh-huh.
GROSS: Sorry for doing that so badly.
Ms. SUMMER: (Singing) `Whoa-oh-oh...'
GROSS: Thank you. At what point in the song does that actually come to you,
that you were going to do that there? Was that when you were at the mike, or
was that when you were doing the songwriting?
Ms. SUMMER: I think that I just did that spontaneously. I mean, I don't
think that--I just think it came out. I don't think I planned it, you know,
but just probably needed something there.
GROSS: Donna Summer, thank you so much for talking with us.
Ms. SUMMER: Thank you.
GROSS: OK. Well, this is Donna Summer, "On the Radio."
(Soundbite of "On the Radio")
Ms. SUMMER: (Singing) `Someone found a letter you wrote me, on the radio,
and they told the world just how you felt. It must have fallen out of a hole
in your old brown overcoat. They never said your name, but I knew just who
they meant. Whoa-oh-oh, I was so surprised and shocked, and I wondered, too,
if by chance you heard it for yourself. I never told a soul just how I've
been feeling about you, but they said it really loud, and said it on the air,
on the radio, whoa-oh-oh, on the radio, whoa-oh-oh, on the radio, whoa-oh-oh,
on the radio, whoa-oh-oh, on the radio...'
GROSS: Donna Summer's new memoir is called "Ordinary Girl."
Coming up, Sean Penn. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Interview: Sean Penn discusses his most recent films
TERRY GROSS, host:
`Sean Penn at his peak' read the headline next to Sean Penn's photo on a
recent Time magazine cover. It's a sentiment many critics seem to agree with.
Penn is starring in the film "Mystic River," directed by Clint Eastwood.
Penn, Tim Robbins and Kevin Bacon play three men who were childhood friends
and found their lives changed by one terrible event. They are brought
together again when Penn's daughter is murdered, and his old friend Kevin
Bacon is the detective on the case. In this scene, Penn and his second wife,
played by Laura Linney, are having coffee. Penn is being questioned about the
murder by the detective, Kevin Bacon, and his partner, Laurence Fishburne.
(Soundbite of "Mystic River")
Mr. LAURENCE FISHBURNE: (As Whitey) Mr. Markum, you say you spent most of
the day Saturday with your daughter in the store, is that correct?
Mr. SEAN PENN: (As Jimmy) Yes and no. I was mostly in the back.
Mr. FISHBURNE: (As Whitey) Anything odd, confrontation with a customer,
Mr. PENN: (As Jimmy) No. She was herself. She was happy. She...
Mr. FISHBURNE: (As Whitey) She what?
Mr. PENN: (As Jimmy) It's nothing.
Mr. FISHBURNE: (As Whitey) Listen, the littlest thing could be something
Mr. PENN: (As Jimmy) She ...(unintelligible) when she was little, right
after her mother died. I'd just gotten out of prison. She couldn't be by
herself. You know, whether she was crying or not, didn't matter what
she--she'd give you a look sometimes, like she was preparing to never see you
again. A couple seconds on Saturday, she looked at me that way. It's just a
Mr. FISHBURNE: (As Whitey) It's information. We collect it, put it
together, see what fits. Little things. You say you were in prison?
Mr. PENN: (As Jimmy) Here we go.
Mr. KEVIN BACON: (As Sean) Whitey.
Mr. FISHBURNE: (As Whitey) I'm just asking.
Mr. PENN: (As Jimmy) Sixteen years ago I did a two-year bit for robbery at
Deer Island. Is that going to help you find my daughter's killer? I mean,
I'm just asking.
Mr. BACON: (As Sean) Let's forget about that. Let's get back...
(Soundbite of fist hitting a table, spoon clattering)
GROSS: Sean Penn is in another new movie called "21 Grams" that was made by
the same writing-directing team behind "Amores perros." The film is about
three people who have been confronted with death and are having difficulty
living. Penn plays a math professor who's just had a heart transplant. In
this scene, he introduces himself to Naomi Watts at a restaurant in a gym.
She's still in shock after her husband and two daughters were killed in a car
(Soundbite of "21 Grams")
Mr. PENN: (As professor) Does your shoulder bother you?
Ms. NAOMI WATTS: (As widow) Why?
Mr. PENN: (As professor) Because I was watching you swim before, and you
have a wide stroke. If you bring it in tighter, you get a better glide.
Ms. WATTS: (As widow) Thanks for the advice.
Mr. PENN: (As professor) You mind if I join you?
Ms. WATTS: (As widow) Actually, I was just leaving.
Unidentified Actor: Here you go.
Mr. PENN: (As professor) Maybe just until you finish.
Ms. WATTS: (As widow) No, maybe next time.
Mr. PENN: (As professor) Did you know that eating alone can cause kidney
damage? And that's bad.
GROSS: Sean Penn, welcome back to FRESH AIR. Your character in "21 Grams" is
very physically vulnerable. He's going to die unless he has a successful
heart transplant, but his interest in life has been diminished, and living
doesn't seem to necessarily have that much value to him. Because of the
character's physical vulnerability and his detachment from life, your
performance is less physical, more vulnerable and less kind of physically
demonstrative than it often is, because you're often playing characters that
are much tougher and much more physical. Can you talk a little bit about your
approach to taking on this role?
Mr. PENN: Well, as it applies to that question, I think that often what it
is, it's sort of like, you know, you look at a body of water, and the script
is that body of water and you sort of choose your boat. And if you've got,
you know, something physically stormier, then that's the sort of boat that
you're on, and if it's a flat lake, then that's another thing. So often what
I do is, I look at this, you know--those kinds of choices, you know, choose
you from the way the script reads, into whatever your--how you interpret it.
And so then those things end up being followed by, I think largely by
instinct, and then in terms of, you know, breaking down a script in the
narrative sense of things, that's the other aspect of the work, but as far as
the physical part of it, I think so much of that is fed directly by script.
GROSS: The movie is a story of three characters whose lives eventually
intersect, but the movie is juggling three stories, and it's also telling the
story totally out of chronological sequence. It's going back and forth in
time between these three different stories. How was it shot? Was it shot in
the sequence that it's shown in? Was it shot in an actual chronological
sequence even though the movie doesn't tell the stories chronologically?
Mr. PENN: The first answer that--the way that Guillermo Arriaga writes is in
the form that you see in the film. It's in that sort of emotionally linear
sense, is the way that I think he would describe it, where like in dreams, for
example, you know, things come in awkward sequence, or in a memory where you
might, you know, describe something to someone, saying, `Well, the man in the
red coat walked in the door of the lobby of the hotel, and when he went over
to the man in the black coat--no, you know, actually, he went to the man in
the black coat on the street.' And so things start to get shifted and out of
order, and you try to recall things and what's being told, finally, is that
one man spoke to the other and so it's this kind of playing with time that
Alejandro and Guillermo do, I think in some ways represents the way that we
experience things in a more emotionally linear sense than it might be when
The way that we shot it, it was as much as possible in the conventional sense
of chronology, which has had more to do with the practicality of filmmaking
than it had to do with anything else.
GROSS: Now at the same time that--you're in two movies right now. There's
"21 Grams" and "Mystic River," and "Mystic River" is about three men who had
been childhood friends but went their own ways after, in childhood, one of the
three was kidnapped and sexually harassed. Can I ask you to describe your
character in "Mystic River"?
Mr. PENN: I'd rather not...
GROSS: OK. How come?
Mr. PENN: ...you know. Well, I get--you know, I feel like in the discussion
we had on "21 Grams" already, I already get a little close to feeling--I
really start to feel it in my body when I start doing the job of the movie,
and I feel that, you know, I'm not one, even though my colleagues in the
marketing end of movies see fit to let people in on things, I always feel that
the experience of watching a movie is even hurt by someone having seen a
trailer, so I find myself self-editing in these conversations, and sometimes
indulging or--as I say, until my body starts to twitch, and sometimes not, so
that's the answer I can give you.
GROSS: I know you mentioned that coming attractions can be very frustrating
for you. I've come to really feel so ambivalent about coming attractions. I
used to just love watching them, because you got to see everything that's
coming out, but now I feel like I should avert my eyes, because they tell you
the whole story, and it's really frustrating. I'd just as soon not know
before I go.
Mr. PENN: Yeah. I think there's a great interest in advertising and letting
people feel that they can come to a movie or come to a restaurant or come to
whatever's being advertised and be comfortable, and in the arts, it's not
necessarily the most challenging invitation to get, but it does seem to be the
most accepted one. And so I think a lot of times the way in which these
things are formatted is with the notion of opening a door of comfort, and it
sets a kind of corrupt standard, I think, for moviegoing.
GROSS: Sean Penn is my guest. He's starring in the new movies "Mystic River"
and "21 Grams."
Two things seem to be happening to you now. On the one hand, you know, some
critics think you're really at the height of your career, achieving new levels
in your acting. At the same time, you've become very politically
controversial, since your trip to Iraq and your openly expressed opposition
to the war. I don't usually talk with actors about their politics because
they're here because of their acting, not their skills as political analysts,
but I'm interested in your case in how speaking out about politics has
affected your life and your career, so if you don't mind talking about this a
little bit, why did you decide in the first place to take out a kind of public
letter to the president in The Washington Post, stating your opposition to
the war and to some of his other policies?
Mr. PENN: You know, for me, to sit down and write a letter and publish it in
a newspaper isn't really a change from acting. It's a voice. You feel
something and you express it, and you're always searching for an appropriate
place to do it and the appropriate way in which to do it. But in the case of
this situation, I just had become overwhelmed with what I perceived to be the
mass hysteria in the country that was yielding its intelligence to a sort of
sub-intelligent administrative policy, and one that didn't seem in the long
term something that was going to be productive for the United States or the
world or for my own children's future, and so you know, if I read a screenplay
and I feel that I may have a productive voice in that screenplay, then I'll
participate in it if I'm given that opportunity, and if I'm in a position to
give myself the opportunity to express in some way or another, then, you know,
I'll do that if it feels appropriate, and that is what felt appropriate at the
GROSS: After taking out this public letter in The Washington Post, you were
invited to go to Iraq, invited by the group, the Institute for Public
Accuracy. You accepted, you went, you were there, I think, three days?
Mr. PENN: Yeah.
GROSS: Did you feel manipulated by either side?
Mr. PENN: Well, I mean...
GROSS: Or, you know, manipulated by the Iraqis who were taking you on tour,
manipulated by the group that brought you, manipulated by anybody?
Mr. PENN: Well, listen, I mean, when I walk out my door, I expect people to
attempt to manipulate us. If I turn on my television I feel I'm being, you
know, the subject of an attempted manipulation, and then there's the other
aspect of it having to do with the way in which the media will manipulate,
based on lack of information in most cases. One of the common thoughts was
that I had gone there, you know, naive to the notion of being propagandized on
one side or the other, but in fact, that was clear to me. But we balance
these things. If we didn't balance them, we'd never walk out our front door.
GROSS: My guest is Sean Penn. We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: My guest is Sean Penn. He's starring in "Mystic River;" his next
film, "21 Grams," opens later this month.
We've talked a little bit about how politics is affecting your career. How
is getting older affecting your career?
Mr. PENN: More than politics. You know, you start to get--for one thing,
working for a little over 20 years now, I've gotten better at sorting through
those things that I might participate in, which also is defined as those
things which take you away from home, those things which ask you to sort of
tear yourself apart sometimes emotionally, be away from your children for a
period of time, and so I think that I've become more selective because of
that. At the same time, I have felt in the last year more encouraged to work.
I feel not only by things--directors and circumstances and actors that I've
had a chance to work with that have been encouraging that way, but also
because I'm starting to sense that there's a lot more thoughtful pictures
being made by others. I've been to several in the last year that I really
thought were a dramatic change of pace in English-speaking cinema, and so I
would say that as I've gotten older I've gotten more selective and at the same
time, I think the selection is growing.
GROSS: What are some of the movies that you've been really impressed with
Mr. PENN: Well, just the other night, I saw Jim Sheridan's new movie called
"In America," which is just--it's one of the most beautiful movies I've ever
seen. Then there was a movie by English director Paul Greengrass, called
"Bloody Sunday." I mean, I could--you know, these are the kind of questions I
always go into mind block on.
GROSS: Right. I know the feeling.
Mr. PENN: But I have been seeing some lately that have just been tremendous.
GROSS: Have you always wondered how getting a little older would affect your
face? Do you know what I mean? Now that you're getting--you're
probably--What?--in your 40s now?
Mr. PENN: Forty-three.
GROSS: Yeah. So are you surprised when you look at your face, particularly,
you know, blown up on screen, about how it changed from when you were in your
20s and blown up on screen?
Mr. PENN: You know, I only have one impression, which is craggy. It just
GROSS: Do you like it?
Mr. PENN: You know, I'm not going to accuse myself of liking it or not
liking it. I mean, it's what it is. Sometimes, you know, you catch me early
enough in the morning after a late-enough night in a bar, and it ain't
anything I would ever feel respectful of the salary to show on screen.
GROSS: Sean Penn--he's starring in "Mystic River;" his next film, "21 Grams,"
opens later this month.
(Soundbite of music)
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.