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Richard Clarke Turns to Fiction: 'Scorpion's Gate'

As a former counterterrorism official in the Clinton and Bush administrations, Richard A. Clarke often had to imagine worst-case scenarios. His first novel — a thriller — does just that: set five years in the future, it envisions the United States on the verge of another war in the Middle East.


Other segments from the episode on October 26, 2005

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, October 26, 2005: Interview with Richard Clarke; Interview with Claire Danes.


DATE October 26, 2005 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A

Interview: Richard Clarke discusses Bush administration policies
and his new book, "The Scorpion's Gate"

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

My guest Richard Clarke was the national coordinator for security and
counterterrorism in the administrations of Presidents Clinton and George W.
Bush. After resigning from the Bush administration in 2003, Clarke wrote the
best-selling memoir "Against All Enemies," which accused the Bush
administration of all but ignoring Clarke's warnings about the danger of
al-Qaeda and, instead, becoming obsessed with removing Saddam Hussein from
power. Since the success of that book, Clarke has become a more public
figure, appearing frequently on television and writing articles on the subject
of terrorism.

Now he's written his first novel. It imagines what might happen if the Saudi
royal family was overthrown by radical Islamists and the US was ready to go to
war for oil. I recorded my interview with Clarke yesterday and asked him
first about the grand jury investigation into the leaking of CIA Agent Valerie
Wilson's identity.

(Soundbite of yesterday's interview)

GROSS: Richard Clarke, what do you think is the larger significance of
Patrick Fitzgerald's investigation?

Mr. RICHARD CLARKE (Author, "The Scorpion's Gate"): Well, Terry, I think
it's part of a pattern that we've seen play out over 20 years in Washington
that makes politics vicious, personal and all too often makes politics and the
policy process end up in criminal investigations and criminal activity. And
it ruins the lives of people who wanted to serve in government. They don't
make a lot of money in government, and then when something like this happens,
they have to go out and get very high-priced lawyers, maybe mortgage the
house. It ruins the lives of their children, who are trying to go through
college or whatever. I wish there were a way that we could stop this vicious
cycle of recrimination and gotcha personal politics.

GROSS: Nevertheless, how do you feel about the fact that this leak is being
investigated? I mean, I understand your feelings about--that these
investigations disillusion people with politics and prevent them maybe from
going into politics. But do you think it's appropriate that the leak be

Mr. CLARKE: The fact that there was an investigation, I think, is fine
because there was, at least initially, a question of whether or not a law was
broken. But I think in the larger sense, if there's a way that we can do
these investigations without them being criminal--we only have the one tool
right now; we only have the one hammer, and so everything looks like a nail.
And there really ought to be a way that we can investigate this kind of thing,
have an impartial investigator who issues a fact-finding, the way the truth
and reconciliation commissions have done in South Africa and El Salvador and
elsewhere, and not have to drag it through the criminal process, which is
really inappropriate in this case, I think.

GROSS: Well, do you think no crime was committed?

Mr. CLARKE: I think the consensus--and we'll see, of course, later, but I
think the consensus has been that the law on revealing the identities of CIA
agents probably wasn't violated. And it's likely that, in fact, what people
will be charged with will be other things stemming from the investigation
itself. And while I have no sympathy for the policy views of Karl
Rove--heavens know that--but I do have some sympathy for anybody who gets
caught up in an investigation where the investigation was originally about one
thing and that doesn't end up being prosecuting, but you then end up
prosecuting people for something that happened as a result of the
investigation itself.

GROSS: The cover-up.

Mr. CLARKE: The cover-up or the confusion of what the record was that turns
into perjury or--you know, it's very, very difficult--and I know this from my
own experience with the 9-11 Commission and the 16 hours of testimony I did in
closed session and the testimony I did in closed session with the House and
Senate. It is very, very difficult when you're in one of these jobs where the
world is coming at you at a hundred miles an hour all day long for 12 and 14
hours a day, and you're in there six-plus days a week year after year. It is
very difficult to remember the details of what happened when and who said what
to whom because the investigators are looking at one thing, and for them the
spotlight, the klieg light is on that, and that's the only thing they care
about. But for you, at the time, it may not have been a very important thing,
and you don't really remember the details. And then perhaps you get caught up
in misstatements, and it ends up in perjury.

GROSS: A lot of observers think that the leak of Valerie Wilson's name was an
attempt to discredit her husband, Joseph Wilson, who criticized what the
president was saying about weapons of mass destruction. And I'm wondering if
you share that opinion; that this was an attempt to discredit Joe Wilson and
if you see it as part of a larger effort in the Bush administration to
discredit critics?

Mr. CLARKE: Oh, absolutely. I think there's a very clear pattern, and it
comes out of Karl Rove's office and Karl Rove himself, a very clear pattern
that you don't talk about the substance of the criticism; you talk about the
person who's making the criticism. So you take the debate off the issue, and
you make it a more political name-calling, personal thing. Rove has been
doing that for years, long before he even came to Washington. And it's a real
disservice to the country because people should have a right to stand up and
be a whistle-blower or otherwise call into question government policies and
have a policy discussion about facts and about opinion and about the
substantive issues at play without having Karl Rove and his agents out there
trying to discredit them, their motivations, their relations with their wife,
who happens to be a CIA agent. It's worse than I've ever seen it in
Washington. I think there's always been that tactic, but this White House
uses it repeatedly.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Richard Clarke, and he had
served as national coordinator for security and counterterrorism under
Presidents Clinton and Bush. He left the Bush administration, wrote a book
very critical of Bush administration's approach to counterterrorism. And now
he has a new novel that's also critical of the war in Iraq, critical of the
Bush administration's approach to counterterrorism, but this is through the
form of fiction. And the novel is called "The Scorpion's Gate."

Richard Clarke, in your novel, Iraq is still not much different than it looks
now. There's still an insurgency under way in Iraq, even though your novel's
set a few years into the future. So I take that as a sign that you don't
think things are going to get a lot better anytime in the immediate future.

Mr. CLARKE: Well, in the novel, which is set in the year 2011, there's still
a low-grade insurgency by Sunnis against the majority Shia government in Iraq.
And the majority Shia government in Iraq is very close to the leadership of
Iran. I think, you're right, we're pretty close to having that situation
today. Iran has turned out to be the big winner, as an unintended
consequence, of the US invasion of Iraq. And I think we could see a future in
which Iraq breaks up into two or three countries. Our greatest concern has to
be that one of them isn't an al-Qaeda sanctuary. And to some extent, the
Sunni areas in Iraq are already something of an al-Qaeda training ground.

The CIA apparently had a report earlier this year that said that the old
al-Qaeda training ground of Afghanistan has, in effect, been replaced by Iraq,
where people from all over the world go--jihadist-want-to-bes from all over
the world go get training from al-Qaeda in Iraq and then actually participate
in attacks on American troops and, after a while, take their expertise and go
back to where they came from.

GROSS: Yeah, you mentioned they get trained--the terrorists get trained by
al-Qaeda in Iraq. I feel like I don't hear nearly as much about al-Qaeda as I
did a few years ago. I hear a lot about terrorists but not necessarily
al-Qaeda. Is it, like, officially the brand name al-Qaeda who's training
these terrorists, or is it just kind of terrorist training camps?

Mr. CLARKE: Well, the organization that is getting most of the foreign
fighters in Iraq is an organization that gave itself the name al-Qaeda in
Mesopotamia or al-Qaeda in Iraq. But the reason you don't hear the name
al-Qaeda so much anymore is that the original al-Qaeda organization, I think,
has been largely destroyed. But it spawned 14 or 15 different groups with all
sorts of different names around the world. And if you look at the number of
attacks that led up to 9/11--take the 36 months prior to 9/11--look at the
number of al-Qaeda attacks around the world, then look at the 36 months after
9/11, and al-Qaeda and its related organizations committed double the number
of attacks. So the al-Qaeda network is alive and well.

GROSS: Colin Powell's former right-hand man at the State Department said
recently that the vice president and the secretary of Defense had created a
Cheney-Rumsfeld cabal that hijacked US foreign policy. What was your reaction
when you saw this statement?

Mr. CLARKE: Well, it was pretty obvious to those of us in Washington who'd
been following it. I don't think there's any real dispute that Rumsfeld and
Cheney stopped the normal process of all of the national security agencies
getting together, of the White House doing oversight, of the White House doing
policy development process and of the State Department being an equal player.
I think that clearly Cheney and Rumsfeld had their ideas very early on about
what they wanted to do, which was to invade and occupy Iraq. And it didn't
really matter to them what the State Department or experts in the Middle East
or even experts in uniform, like General Shinseki, the head of the US Army--it
didn't matter what they said. They were going to go ahead and do this
invasion of Iraq.

GROSS: As we spend so much of our military power, our weapons and our focus
on Iraq, are there other issues internationally that you think we should be
paying attention to that we're not because of all the resources that are going
into Iraq?

Mr. CLARKE: Well, I think if you go back to 2001, to the period immediately
after the 9/11 attacks, we had a choice. We could throw everything into going
after al-Qaeda and the terrorist movement, or we could do that and go after
Iraq. And, remarkably I thought at the time--remarkably, we chose the latter.
We had just been attacked in a very vicious way by al-Qaeda. And rather than
throw all of our resources into going after them and their affiliate
organizations around the world, we decided to do that and Iraq. The downside
of that is not just that our resources were diluted, but that by going into
Iraq, we increased the propaganda value that al-Qaeda had; we actually turned
more people into being terrorists; we made the problem worse for ourselves.

And you have to wonder--the road not taken: If we had only gone after
al-Qaeda and terrorism and left Saddam Hussein confined, bottled up,
successfully--Secretary of State Powell had testified before the Congress that
we had successfully contained Iraq--if we had put the Iraq problem on the back
burner and just focused on terrorism, what could we have done, and how would
we now be regarded in the Islamic world? Right now we're regarded in most of
the Islamic world as an enemy, in countries like Egypt and Jordan and
Pakistan, countries that were our allies. Now you have 70, 80, 90 percent of
the people in those countries with very hostile views of the United States.
And we'll pay a price for that.

GROSS: My guest is counterterrorism expert Richard Clarke. He's written his
first novel. It's called "The Scorpion's Gate." We'll talk more after a
break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Richard Clarke. And he had
served as coordinator for security--national coordinator for security and
counterterrorism under Presidents Clinton and George W. Bush. After resigning
from the Bush administration, he wrote a best-seller called "Against All
Enemies," in which he criticized the Bush administration for its lack of
attention to terrorism before September 11th. Now he's written a new novel
that's set five years in the future and looks at the possibility of another
war in the Middle East pertaining to oil. And that novel is called "The
Scorpion's Gate."

Many people have been critical of FEMA's response to Hurricane Katrina. In
1993, you were one of the chairs of a task force on emergency responders. And
the report--to give a sense of what's in it, the report was titled Emergency
Responders: Drastically Underfunded and Dangerously Unprepared. So guess
that gives a tidy summary of what you thought of the condition of emergency
responders. So do you feel like you were able to see the poor response to
Katrina--were you able to see that coming?

Mr. CLARKE: Well, I think a lot of people were. You know, if you go back to
1992, FEMA had done a terrible job in Florida responding to Hurricane Andrew.
And when the Clinton administration then came in in '93, they decided to
rebuild FEMA, make it a Cabinet-level agency, fill it with professionals in
emergency management. And that is a profession. People spend their entire
careers--it's an expertise. And the Clinton administration, I think, largely
rebuilt FEMA.

Then the Bush administration came in, merged FEMA into this new behemoth, the
Department of Homeland Security, so it's no longer a Cabinet agency--pushed it
down about three levels--cut its budget and cut its personnel strength and
then populated it, again, with political appointees rather than professionals.
And people around Washington knew that was going on. People in Washington
predicted that we would have another Hurricane Andrew situation. And,
unfortunately, that happened with Katrina, only it was much, much worse.

GROSS: Why was the budget for FEMA cut?

Mr. CLARKE: Well, it's very interesting. It goes back to the whole creation
of this new Department of Homeland Security. Originally the Bush
administration was opposed to a new department. Then they realized that
Senator Lieberman, a Democrat from Connecticut, was going to pass a bill over
the administration's objections creating a new department. And so they were
faced with the prospect that the first major thing that Congress did after
9/11 was to pass the Lieberman bill on homeland security. The White House
didn't want that. They wanted it, if it was going to pass, to be theirs.

So they changed their position on a dime and said, `We have a good idea.
We're going to create the Department of Homeland Security,' almost exactly
what Lieberman was proposing. And to do that, they swept up all of these
agencies and put them in one agency, which is kind of a crazy thing to do when
you are fighting a war on terrorism--to rearrange all the organization,
rearrange all the chairs. But on top of it, their guidance to the new
department was, `We're going to do all of this without spending any more
money. And, in fact, as a result of the reorganization, we'd like to save
money.' And so they started looking around for where they could save money,
and they cut FEMA.

GROSS: You write in The Atlantic Monthly that, `The White House inner tribe
believes that a strong Department of Homeland Security is not only unnecessary
but even antithetical to the administration's political philosophy and
interests.' Why?

Mr. CLARKE: Well, I think the administration doesn't like what they call big
government, so it pained them to create a new agency, the Transportation
Security Agency, and hire 40,000 more federal employees. And it pains them to
give out federal dollars in block grants to the states, particularly because
if you give out money to the states that are most at risk of terrorism and
where most of the assets are, they turn out to be blue states. And I think
the administration would rather do almost anything than give money to places
like New York and California and Massachusetts.

GROSS: You also write in this article that, `The Bush administration thinks
that since three-quarters of al-Qaeda's managers are captured or killed, why
spent vast sums of money defending against al-Qaeda.' But you think that
al-Qaeda--even if the old al-Qaeda has been pretty much weakened, that all the
new terrorist groups are doing quite well in terms of their strength. So I
guess you think homeland security is obviously very important.

Mr. CLARKE: Well, that's right. I mean, you get these administration
slogans that become sort of bumper stickers or mantras: `We'd rather fight
them over here than fight them here.' And then you hear, `Three-quarters of
the al-Qaeda managers have been captured or killed.' But when you start
peeling the onion back on some of these little slogans of theirs, you learn
some troublesome things. Three-quarters of the al-Qaeda managers who were
managers on September 11th have been captured or killed; they've also been
replaced by other terrorist leaders and other terrorist organizations. And if
you look at captured or killed, many of the al-Qaeda leadership is captured by
Iran and allegedly under house arrest. But I think, you know, house arrest in
Iran, if you're an al-Qaeda terrorist, is probably even better than Camp
Cupcake that Martha Stewart went through.

GROSS: This is interesting--that Iran has captured a lot of the leaders of

Mr. CLARKE: A lot of the leaders of al-Qaeda, the members of the Shariah
Council, they're so called, board of directors, fled when we invaded
Afghanistan, fled west into Iran. And it includes people like bin Laden's
oldest son and other leaders of the organization. And it raises--since Iran
will not give them to us for prosecution, I think it raises serious questions
about: What is the relationship between Iran and al-Qaeda, both now and what
was it before September 11th?

GROSS: Richard Clarke served as national coordinator for security and
counterterrorism in the administrations of Presidents Clinton and George W.
Bush. His new novel is called "The Scorpion's Gate." He'll be back in the
second half of the show. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)


(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: Coming up, Claire Danes talks about growing up in front of the camera
when she starred in the TV series "My So-Called Life." She's now starring
opposite Steve Martin in the movie adaptation of his novel "Shopgirl." Also,
we continue our interview with counterterrorism expert Richard Clarke.

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with Richard Clarke, former national
coordinator for security and counterterrorism in the administrations of
presidents Clinton and George W. Bush. He's just written his first novel,
"The Scorpion's Gate."

When we left off Clarke was saying that after the US invaded Afghanistan, some
of al-Qaeda's leaders fled west into Iran, where they are under house arrest.
Iran still refuses to hand them over to the US for prosecution. Clarke thinks
this raises serious questions about the relationship of Iran and al-Qaeda. He
speculates about that relationship in his novel.

Mr. CLARKE: Since it's fiction, I can say a bit more. I have one of the
characters laying out a plausible scenario which was that a secret
organization that does, in fact, exist inside Iran, called the Quds Force
or the Jerusalem Force, may have been supporting al-Qaeda very secretly all

GROSS: What is this Quds Force that your write about from Iran?

Mr. CLARKE: Quds Force is a combination covert action intelligence group and
military organization, but it's not part of the military, and it's not part of
the intelligence ministry. It reports directly to the supreme ayatollah,
which means it really reports to nobody. It is its own organization. It was
involved in killing the American Marines in Beirut back in the 1980s. It was
involved the killing the American Air Force personnel at Khobar Towers in
Saudi Arabia in the 1990s. It was the force that killed people in Argentina
when the Jewish centers in Buenos Aires were bombed. It created Hezbollah in
Lebanon. It is now deeply involved in Iraq and influencing events behind the
scenes in Iraq. It is radical, deeply anti-American and something that we
just don't hear about very much.

GROSS: And why don't we hear about it very much?

Mr. CLARKE: Well, they don't like publicity and...

GROSS: Kind of the opposite of al-Qaeda.

Mr. CLARKE: The exact opposite of al-Qaeda. And oftentimes I think the
president of Iran or the foreign minister of Iran have no idea what the Quds
Force is doing. In the novel, the Quds Force is trying to engineer a coup in
Bahrain, which is where the United States has a big Navy base and there's a
large Shia population, to throw the Americans out of the Navy base in Bahrain.
And they're trying to cause an uprising of the Shia, who are the majority in
the eastern province of Saudi Arabia. These are fairly realistic things
because I believe the Quds Force has tried some of this in the past.

GROSS: So is this something that you see happening, of the Shia of different
countries--Iraq, Iran--aligning?

Mr. CLARKE: I think Iran is trying very hard to do that. If you step back
and look at it in perspective, during the 1980s Iran fought a war for seven
years against Iraq. Over a million people died in that war, many, many more
casualties. A lot of chemical weapons were used. The two nations fought each
other to the point of exhaustion, and there was no real winner.

Now, several years later, the United States Army comes along, invades Iraq and
gives Iran all of the goals that they sought in that earlier war: Getting rid
of Saddam Hussein, ensuring that there were no Iraqi weapons of mass
destruction, putting the Shia religious ethnic group in charge of Iraq. All
of that has now been achieved, and I've heard people who've spent a lot of
time in Iraq lately say that Tehran--the government in Tehran has more
influence now in Iraq than we do, that we may have been the ones who spent the
$300 billion, we may have been the ones with the 20,000 casualties, but it's
Iran which is reaping the profit.

GROSS: So, Richard Clarke, you now have your first novel, "The Scorpion's
Gate." Did you--don't take this the wrong way, but did you write it yourself?
A lot of people who aren't actual fiction writers by--you know, by birth end
up having, you know, ghost writers or, you know, somebody working with them to
help them craft it.

Mr. CLARKE: No. No, I'm afraid all the mistakes are mine. All the book is
mine. You know, the White House said my last book was a piece of fiction, so
maybe this is my second--my second fiction. No, I enjoyed writing fiction
because I enjoy reading fiction. And I did find it to be a way in which I can
do a little bit of telling people things they don't know about what it's like
on the inside, telling people a little bit what--that they may not know about
the Middle East and its history and its present.

GROSS: One place where I think former government people who end up writing
thrillers--one place where I think they kind of go wrong is when they include
sex scenes, you know, those torrid, passionate sex scenes in which, like, the
undersecretary of defense meets a vixen or, you know, who happens to be also
working in government or something.

Mr. CLARKE: Right.

GROSS: And they're always just--like, they really fall flat and are sometimes
actually kind of embarrassing. So when you were writing this book, did you
decide that you were going to go there or not go there?

Mr. CLARKE: Well, I assumed, as with all great thrillers, you had to have
that scene. And then the former national security adviser, Anthony Lake, said
to me, `So I hear you're writing a novel.' I said, `Yes.' He said, `Don't
have a sex scene.'

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Did he say why?

Mr. CLARKE: He said exactly what you said. He said all these people in
government who try to write sex scenes write them as though they were writing
an interagency report.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: So do you think it was good advice?

Mr. CLARKE: It was very good advice, and I took it. There may be a little
affair in the novel "The Scorpion's Gate," but it's a little subtle.

GROSS: Well, I want to thank you very much for talking with us.

Mr. CLARKE: Thank you, Terry. It's always a pleasure.

GROSS: Richard Clarke has written his first novel. It's called "The
Scorpion's Gate."

Coming up: Claire Danes. She's starring in the new movie "Shopgirl." This

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

Interview: Actress Claire Danes discusses her work and her
new movie "Shopgirl"

My guest, Claire Danes, became the embodiment of teen-aged alienation when she
starred in the 1994 TV series "My So-Called Life" playing a 15-year-old high
school student. Although the series lasted only 19 episodes, it had a devoted
following and got great reviews, especially for Danes' acting. She's since
starred in a number of stylistically wide-ranging films, including "Little
Women," "The Mod Squad," "Romeo & Juliet," "Igby Goes Down," "The Hours" and
"Terminator 3."

Now she's starring the film "Shopgirl," which Steve Martin adapted from his
best-selling novel. New York Times film critic A.O. Scott described Danes'
performance as `flawless.' Danes plays a lonely young woman working at Saks
Fifth Avenue in LA where she meets an older man played by Steve Martin, who
buys her a gift and takes her out to dinner.

(Soundbite of "Shopgirl")

Mr. STEVE MARTIN: Need some date questions. Where's your family live?

Ms. CLAIRE DANES: Vermont.

Mr. MARTIN: OK. Be honest, maybe. If this were a TV dating show, would I be
kicked off already and you'd be on to the next guy?

Ms. DANES: You'd still be on the show.

GROSS: Claire Danes, welcome to FRESH AIR.

You're in your mid 20s, and Steve Martin is around 60. That's a pretty big
age disparity.

Ms. DANES: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: Was it hard for you to think of your character as being attracted to
someone of that age?

Ms. DANES: Well, he has a lot of attributes that were pretty obvious to her,
I think. She wasn't so fazed by the discrepancy, you know, in their ages. I
don't know. He was successful and confident and seductive, and, you know, he
was a real grown-up, and I think she is at a point in her life where she's
struggling to figure out what that means. So I think she wanted to--I don't
know--inherit some of those qualities or learn about them, study them. That
appealed to her.

GROSS: Was this age disparity something that you talked with Steve Martin
about? The character, I think, is, like, in his 50s in the script. I think
Martin's a little older than the character...

Ms. DANES: Yeah.

GROSS: Because he wrote it, you know, a while ago, a few years ago.

Ms. DANES: A while ago, yeah. And I think I was younger than I was meant to
be, too. So the gulf in our ages was even more extreme than it was meant to
be. But I don't know. It wasn't such an issue, oddly enough. And then I was
preoccupied with just playing the scene authentically. But, yeah. No, I
wasn't like creeped out or anything, if that's what you mean.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. DANES: It's OK. Look, I mean, playing love scenes without anybody who
is not really your partner is kind of creepy, to be honest. So this was just
another version of that. I mean, Jason Schwartzman plays the other paramour,
and he's been my good friend for many years. And that was more awkward
because I felt like--I don't know--I was transgressing some boundary or
something. But, yeah, so...

GROSS: You know, this is a leading role for you and a sexualized one. There
are several intimate scenes, and you are aware of the sexual power--you become
aware of the sexual power you have as a younger woman in the life of this
older man. What has it been like for you to go from being, like, you know,
the teen-age kid on camera to being, you know, a woman and a sexualized one at

Ms. DANES: I'm glad I had time to act in a way that was stripped of any
objectification or, I don't know, sexual pressure, because it was easier and
it was nice. And I can recall that time. I remember on "My So-Called Life"
the woman who played my mother, Bess Armstrong, was talking about having been
hit on by crew members or by directors in the past and having that been
aggravating and like a hazard. And she said, `You'll see. One day that will
become a factor.' And, you know, it really wasn't at that point. And I felt
freer to just concentrate on the work without wondering if I was being looked
at funny by various other collaborators or by audience members or--so that's
just part of it.

GROSS: In your career you've done a mix of independent and commercial films.
I want to ask you about one of the independent films that you did, which was
called "Igby Goes Down."

Ms. DANES: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: You play a disaffected college dropout who has met at a party a
disaffected high school dropout played by Kieran Culkin. And you've just run
into each other and you've gone to a park and are talking there while you are
rolling a joint. Here's the scene.

Ms. DANES: Mm-hmm.

(Soundbite of "Igby Goes Down")

Mr. KIERAN CULKIN: (As Igby) Are you a vegetarian?

Ms. DANES: (As Sookie Sapperstein) Why would you ask that?

Mr. CULKIN: (As Igby) I've just never seen anybody roll a joint like that.

Ms. DANES: (As Sookie Sapperstein) What does that have to do with being a

Mr. CULKIN: (As Igby) Well, they're just so precious.

Ms. DANES: (As Sookie Sapperstein) I roll perfect joints.

Mr. CULKIN: (As Igby) I'm not putting them down. They're incredible.

Ms. DANES: (As Sookie Sapperstein) Well, thank you.

Mr. CULKIN: (As Igby) It's incredible that a human being could make such
neat little joints.

Ms. DANES: (As Sookie Sapperstein) You make it sound as if I'm anal or
something just because I know how to roll a perfect joint.

Mr. CULKIN: (As Igby) No, not anal, just tame.

Ms. DANES: (As Sookie Sapperstein) Well, what does that mean?

Mr. CULKIN: (As Igby) Well, you don't roll, like, big Rasta spliff joints,
do you? Your joints are like salad joints, not like a big, sloppy, bleeding,
cheeseburger that you rip into kind of a joint joint.

Ms. DANES: (As Sookie Sapperstein) I guess marijuana isn't a visceral
experience for me. Sex is for me.

Mr. CULKIN: (As Igby) Right.

Ms. DANES: (As Sookie Sapperstein) OK, so I am a vegetarian, but for purely
moral reasons.

Mr. CULKIN: (As Igby) Uh-huh. I thought you went to school at Brandeis or

Ms. DANES: (As Sookie Sapperstein) Bennington, I do.

Mr. CULKIN: (As Igby) Why aren't you there?

Ms. DANES: (As Sookie Sapperstein) I took a semester off. I needed time to

Mr. CULKIN: (As Igby) From what?

Ms. DANES: (As Sookie Sapperstein) Oh, onions, cookies, beer, diet pills,
tension, life.

Mr. CULKIN: (As Igby) My dad's been recuperating for 60 years.

Ms. DANES: (As Sookie Sapperstein) What do you mean?

Mr. CULKIN: (As Igby) Just from life, nothing.

Ms. DANES: (As Sookie Sapperstein) Let's go.

Mr. CULKIN: (As Igby) Yeah. You've come a long way, baby.

Ms. DANES: (As Sookie Sapperstein) You're funny.

GROSS: Claire Danes, at what point were you in your life when you decided to
say yes to making this film, "Igby Goes Down"?

Ms. DANES: Well, I was in college. I guess it was after my--oooh, I think
that's when I was--I had just dropped out of college myself. So it was very
easy to draw from my own personal experience. Yeah, I finished my first
two--and it turns only--years at Yale, and I had done "The Hours," and I was
just starting to return to acting after having abandoned it for about three
years. Yeah, it was a good time. I just adored that character. She was so
fantastically ridiculous, and her name was Sookie Sapperstein, and I thought
that is a perfect place to start. But she was very familiar and I'd been in
the company of those kinds of pretentious students, and very recently at that
point. But I--you know, she was a New York kid, too, and I'm a New York kid
and I get that--there's a--they can be much more mature than they really are
because they appropriate these adult behaviors and gestures, but it's not
truly reflective of where they're at emotionally.

GROSS: Great perception. Do you feel that that ever described you as a young
actress who was working--starring in a TV series by the age of 14? Did you
appear more mature than you were or felt?

Ms. DANES: Yeah, absolutely, and I do attribute that to having been raised
partially by this city and by parents who were really progressive and liberal
and always took me really seriously. So I was never condescended to or
patronized. You know, my voice always had resonance and meaning and weight
and--but, yeah.

GROSS: Now why had you dropped out of college? No, let's back up. Why did
you drop out of acting and go to college?

Ms. DANES: Well, I guess I always knew that I wanted to go to college, and I
didn't really go to high school. I mean, I was enrolled at a place called
Louisia France(ph) in LA, but I was never really there or would go very
infrequently and sporadically, you know, a week here, a week there. But
mostly I was tutored, and I was lonely, you know, and I sacrificed a lot of,
you know, socialization and didn't really have a chance to just hang out with
kids my own age. So I wanted to reclaim that a little bit for myself. And I
also had been acting for a long time and I started to get a lot of attention
and a lot of success and influence, and I just had no idea what to do with all
of that. I mean, I was overwhelmed by it. And, you know, I didn't know what
movies I wanted to see never mind what movies I wanted to make. I didn't know
what my value system was. I didn't know what my sensibility was. And I
really needed to take some time to figure that out.

GROSS: My guest is Claire Danes. She's now starring in "Shopgirl." We'll
talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guest, Claire Danes, stars opposite Steve Martin in the new film
"Shopgirl." In 1994 she starred in the critically acclaimed but short-lived
TV series, "My So-Called Life." She played 15-year-old Angela Chase. Angela
narrated each episode. In this scene from the pilot, she's sitting at the
dining room table with her parents and younger sister.

(Soundbite of "My So-Called Life")

Ms. DANES: (As Angela Chase) I cannot bring myself to eat a well-balanced
meal in front of my mother. It just means too much to her. I mean, if you
stop to think about, like, chewing, what it really is, how people just do it,
like, in public.

Father: Wait, don't tell me. There's something different.

Sister: I would never dye my hair red.

Ms. DANES: (As Angela Chase) It's not red. It's Crimson Glow.

Father: Oh. Well, I can see it now the social whirl, wild parties, Axl Rose.

Ms. DANES: (As Angela Chase) My dad thinks every person in the world is
having more fun than him, which could be true.

Father: Well, what am I supposed to say?

Ms. BESS ARMSTRONG: (As ): Nothing.

Father: I mean, it's her hair.

Ms. ARMSTRONG: (As ): Exactly, and we'll always be able to spot you
in a crowd.

Ms. DANES: (As Angela Chase) Lately I can't even look at my mother without
wanting to stab her repeatedly.

GROSS: The role that made you famous, of course, is "My So-Called Life," the
TV series in which you were a high school student. It was a really wonderful
series. How did you get the part in that?

Ms. DANES: I auditioned and then I auditioned and then I auditioned and then
I auditioned. That's what happens early in a person's career. And then I got
it, and we did the pilot when I was 13 and it didn't get picked up. So I went
back to high school, and I did a semester at a place called Dalton on the
Upper East Side, and then it did get picked up. So then I went back to LA and
shot 19 episodes and then it was canceled.

GROSS: Yeah...

Ms. DANES: But it's been picked up by so many cable networks and I've had
this epic afterlife, and it's still the thing that is the most commonly
associated with me.

GROSS: Did you learn to see your own experiences differently by getting out
of yourself to be her? In other words, you had to approach her in a more
analytical way than you would just approach day-to-day life probably? I mean,
you live your life, but you have to craft that character. So did you start to
see your teen-age experiences differently through portraying Angela?

Ms. DANES: Well, it was funny because I was sacrificing my conventional
adolescent experience so that I could play it on television. I said that I
could represent it, and to do both simultaneously was a little tricky. But it
was interesting because we were really exactly at the same point in our
development and, you know, sometimes there'd be an episode that would involve
a certain theme or a certain experience that I hadn't had personally so that
I'd have to imagine it and then a week later I would have it. You know, I
would catch up and sometimes it was the other way around. So it was like
playing a game of tag with Angela. You know, sometimes she was `it';
sometimes I was `it', but it was interesting. It was like having a very
public diary but with somebody else's words.

GROSS: Can you think of an instance, like a specific example of when you
portrayed something in "My So-Called Life" and then the week after it happened
to you...

Ms. DANES: Yeah.

GROSS: ...or vice-versa; it happened to you and then it ended up in the

Ms. DANES: Oh, God. Well, I remember there was a makeout scene with Jared
Leto as Jordan Catalano, and I didn't really know how to make out at this
point. And there was, you know, this instruction to kiss him on the face.
And I was like, `What? Why would you do that?' And I didn't know how to
interpret it at all. And he had to give me a little lesson, which was really
cute. But, yeah, it was stuff like that.

GROSS: You know, reading a little about your professional life made me think
about the career that you almost had and didn't, a career where you starred in
"Titanic" and "Lolita"...

Ms. DANES: Oh, right. Right.

GROSS: ...which were roles that, I think, you were offered and turned down or
almost got, I'm not sure which.

Ms. DANES: Yeah. Yeah. No, "Titanic" I guess I could have done. I don't
know. I'd just done an epic love story with Leonardo DiCaprio in Mexico City

GROSS: "Romeo & Juliet."

Ms. DANES: Yes, exactly. And so the next job would have been potentially
the "Titanic," which was to be shot in Mexico City with Leonardo DiCaprio.
But I just did that. I didn't need to do that again. It seemed a little

GROSS: OK. Well, seeing what a huge success the film was, did you have any

Ms. DANES: No, not really. I personally didn't really connect with that
material. And I know that Kate Winslet did, so I was glad that she did it.

GROSS: How important is it to you to personally connect with material. Like,
did you personally connect to "Terminator 3"?

Ms. DANES: Well, not really, no. But that was interesting because I was
offered that role literally the day before I started working, and I had

GROSS: Somebody had dropped out, and they needed a replacement quickly.

Ms. DANES: Yeah, somebody else had been cast and was, like, deemed too young
or something. So, yeah, they were in a panic and needed to find someone else
really quickly. And I'd just come from Australia that afternoon when I got
the call. So I was in LA expecting only to be there for a couple of days
before I was to return to New York just to, like, cushion the jet lag sort of.
And I was delirious and I--and available and thought OK. But I'd just made a
really experimental movie in Denmark with a director named Thomas Vinterberg
and Joaquin Phoenix, and it didn't really work and my heart was a bit broken
by that. And so I think the chance to do something really conventional and
conservative and big and splashy, it was a welcome contrast at that point.

GROSS: I'll confess, I haven't seen "Terminator 3," so I don't know if you
get to, you know, carry a gun and mow people down.

Ms. DANES: Oh, I do. I do. I fire a machine gun. It made my whole body
vibrate, that thing. And that was one of the days that my mom chose to visit
on set, and I was worried for her. I don't think she ever envisioned her
little girl growing up to shoot a machine gun. But, you know, it was not a
characteristic choice of mine...

GROSS: Right.

Ms. DANES: all.

GROSS: Claire Danes, thank you so much for talking with us.

Ms. DANES: Sure. Thank you for having me.

GROSS: Claire Danes stars in the new movie "Shopgirl."


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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