DATE September 26, 2008 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM
PROGRAM Fresh Air
Interview: Nick Cave on his latest album, "Dig!!! Lazarus Dig!!!"
DAVID BIANCULLI, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli, of Broadcasting & Cable magazine and
tvworthwatching.com, in for Terry Gross.
Today's first guest, singer/songwriter Nick Cave, just started a new North
American tour. Nick Cave is famous for his dark songs and for his rough
voice, which brings out all the dark colors in those songs. In an article
about him in Entertainment Weekly, Chris Nashawaty wrote, quote, "Over the
years Cave's songwriting has become more intricate and challenging, almost
literary in its ambition. He's one of the few artists in rock 'n' roll who's
managed to get better with age," unquote.
Cave grew up in Australia and now lives in England. He wrote the screenplay
for the bloody Western "The Proposition" and co-wrote the scores for that film
and for another Western, the 2007 movie "The Assassination of Jesse James by
the Coward Robert Ford."
Terry spoke with Nick Cave earlier this year when "Dig, Lazarus, Dig!" was
released. Here's the title track.
(Soundbite of "Dig, Lazarus, Dig!!!")
Mr. NICK CAVE: (Singing) Dig yourself
Lazarus, dig yourself,
Lazarus, dig yourself
Lazarus, dig yourself
Back in that hole
Larry made his nest up in the autumn branches
Built from nothing but high hopes and thin air
He collected up some baby blasted mothers who took their chances
And for a while they lived quite happily up there
He came from New York City, man,
But he couldn't take the pace
He thought it was like dog-eat-dog world
But he went to San Francisco, spent a year in outer space
With a sweet little San Franciscan girl
I can hear my mother wailing
And a whole lot of scraping of chairs
I don't know what it is, but there's definitely something going on upstairs
Dig yourself, Lazarus, dig yourself
Lazarus, dig yourself
Lazarus, dig yourself
Lazarus, dig yourself
Back into that hole
(End of soundbite)
TERRY GROSS, host:
Nick Cave, welcome to FRESH AIR. Tell me the story behind writing that song.
What made you think about writing a song that refers to Lazarus?
Mr. CAVE: I think I was getting some kind of revenge on my religious
upbringing. I was, particularly as a child--it worried me a lot, that
particular story, that Christ's greatest miracle was actually bringing someone
back from the dead; and that kind of, as a child, creeped me out somewhat, to
be honest. It didn't exactly traumatize me, but it felt kind of nice to sort
of redress that in some kind of way and write a song about it. So I basically
took the biblical Lazarus and dropped him in New York City, and kind of a
half-comical look at what would happen to him in a contemporary world.
GROSS: Now, you said that you could see the song as revenge for your
religious upbringing. So many of your songs refer, you know, have biblical
references, or references to Jesus or God, and some in a more straightforward
way, some in a more elliptical way, some in a comic way, some in a cynical
way, some in a searching or loving way. Was that always true of your songs,
or is this something more recent?
Mr. CAVE: I think it was always true. I can remember as very young writing
poetry, and the stories from the Bible always played a, you know, there was
always a strong element of that even in my very, very early poetry, which I'm
not going to...
GROSS: Recite for us now?
Mr. CAVE: ...recite for on the radio. But there was a kind of fascination.
There was a fascination when I, you know, I was a choirboy at school, and at
the cathedral I went to, and I had to go to church maybe three times a week
for about three or four years. And I was actually kind of interested,
especially in the biblical stories.
GROSS: How old were you when you started reading the Bible?
Mr. CAVE: I kind of got into the Bible because I went to art school and
became very interested in religious painting.
Mr. CAVE: And a lot of that was because I understood the stories. I knew
what those paintings were about, and I took a great interest in them. And
then I think after that I started to read, particularly the Old Testament, a
lot, and I did that for quite a few years, and that had a huge influence over
the way I saw the world, really, and also the songs that I wrote at that time,
you know. And then I kind of gave that up and looked at the New Testament
after a while.
GROSS: But what's the difference between your old Testament and New Testament
Mr. CAVE: Well, I think that there's a kind of more humanistic approach to
the characters in my songs, a more forgiving approach to the narratives.
GROSS: Well, I want to play another track from your new CD, "Dig!!! Lazarus
Dig!!!" and this one also has a Jesus reference to it. It's called "Jesus of
the Moon." It's a beautiful song. I mean, it's a love song. Would you talk a
little bit about writing this song?
Mr. CAVE: Well, you know, I mean, I think that this particular record,
"Dig!!! Lazarus Dig!!!" despite the title is probably the least obsessed, or
religiously obsessed, record I made in years. It's really not about that.
And there is a song called "Jesus of the Moon" on it, but I just felt it was a
kind of nifty way of describing a sleeping woman. But it's, I guess, the
reason why it's on this record, this particular song, is that it felt like, to
me, a kind of fresh take, for me, on the leaving-a-woman type of song that I
often write. There seemed to be simply a kind of rebirth in the whole thing
that sounded kind of nice to me.
GROSS: Oh, I think it's a great song. Let's hear it. This is "Jesus of the
Moon," from Nick Cave's new CD which is called "Dig!!! Lazarus Dig!!!"
(Soundbite of "Jesus of the Moon")
Mr. CAVE: (Singing) I stepped out of the St. James Hotel
And I left you behind, curled up like a child
Change is going to come, the door whispered shut
I walked on down the high-windowed hall
You lay sleeping on the unmade bed
The weatherman on the television in the St. James Hotel
Said that the rain's a gonna come
And I stepped out on the streets
All sparking clean with the early morning dew
Maybe it was you
Maybe it was me
You came on like a punch in the heart
You lying there with the light on your hair
Like a Jesus of the moon,
The Jesus of the planets and the stars
(End of soundbite)
GROSS: That's Nick Cave's song "Jesus of the Moon," from his new CD, "Dig!!!
Lazarus Dig!!!" You said that this was your least biblically obsessed record,
in spite of the fact that we've heard two Bible- or Jesus-related songs, but
there's also a song on here called "We Call upon the Author to Explain,"
that's kind of like, you know, asking God to explain why life and the Earth
are such a mess.
Mr. CAVE: Yeah, well, it is--well, yeah--I mean, you're kind of choosing
three songs, really, that deal with that sort of thing, but the rest of the
stuff doesn't, although I'm sure you're going to pull out another song and
say, `Hang on a bit. Listen.'
GROSS: You lied.
Mr. CAVE: But it actually felt to me, while I was writing it, that I was
onto something different.
Mr. CAVE: It really felt--and it took me a lot of time to get there.
Usually I can spend a few weeks in the office where I write kind of anguishing
over things, and I kind of get this out my system and find something new to
write about. This took a long time. This record took a long time to write
and to find something new to talk about and a new way of using words, which
I'm always kind of searching for. So I felt that it was very much a
departure. But I guess at the same time, I have certain themes that I always
come back to, and I guess I try and look at them from different, you know,
GROSS: You live in England now, but you grew up in Australia. Would you
describe the town you grew up in?
Mr. CAVE: It's called Wangaratta. I mean, it's about 18,000 people. And it
was--but with very much a kind of small town mentality. And, to be honest, I
was quite happy to get out of there.
Mr. CAVE: Well, it was very restrictive, and all the stuff that I find
difficult with Australia is amplified a thousandfold in these small towns, and
that's if you kind of stick your head too high above the parapet it gets
lopped off, if you understand what I mean. Everyone has to be kind of the
same, you know, and hunker down. And I wasn't kind of interested in that.
Mr. CAVE: So it was quite difficult for me. It was quite difficult for my
family in general actually.
GROSS: Well, it's hard for me to imagine you fitting into a place like that.
Mr. CAVE: Well, I didn't, and I got sent to Melbourne when I was about 12.
It just wasn't working out in this town for me. And I got sent...
GROSS: Sent to a boarding school?
Mr. CAVE: ...to a boarding school in Melbourne.
GROSS: Did you have access, either in Wangaratta or in Melbourne, to the
movies and music and books that eventually meant a lot to you?
Mr. CAVE: Well, I did, you know. When I was nine or 10, we got "The Johnny
Cash Show," for example, in Australia. That was shown in Australia...
Mr. CAVE: ...on a weekly basis so I watched that, and that had a huge impact
on me. My brother, who was four years older, was very into music and listened
to a lot of kind of great music, and so I was very much influenced by what he
listened to, a lot of English progressive music, you know. So, you know, I
was around music a lot.
GROSS: What impact did Johnny Cash have on you?
Mr. CAVE: Well, I remember distinctly watching "The Johnny Cash Show" and my
ideas about what music could be changing. You know, the gears kind of shifted
and something happened with the whole chemistry. My whole chemistry kind of
changed watching that. There was something that I didn't really understand
then, I guess, but that was so kind of edgy about that particular show.
GROSS: And Johnny Cash himself, you know, in addition to his just incredibly
moving voice, he was able to sing both about the spiritual and do really
convincing murder ballads and revenge ballads.
Mr. CAVE: Yeah, I mean, the way I looked at him when I was young was that he
was an outlaw. You know, I'm talking about a young boy who was nine or 10
watching this kind of stuff, but it seemed like, that rock 'n' roll or music
could be an outlaw. Kind of thing that operated on the periphery of society
in some way. I've now since watched those shows on DVD actually, recently,
"The Johnny Cash Show"s, and they are actually--I mean, they're extraordinary.
It's all like that.
GROSS: So did Johnny Cash in a way help point the direction for you to music
that both had a really dark and a really spiritual component?
Mr. CAVE: Yeah, I think it--yeah, I think, absolutely. You know, I mean,
the records that I had before that were, that I bought, were the Herb Alpert
Tijuana Brass records, and I bought one of them and I went out and bought
another one so they were the first two records I ever bought.
GROSS: That's really funny that that's what...
Mr. CAVE: And then I kind of--and then I kind of...
GROSS: Yeah. Uh-huh.
Mr. CAVE: You know? But I didn't know, you know, I was in this country town
and there was something about that kind of music that I liked. But Johnny
Cash kind of changed all that.
BIANCULLI: Nick Cave speaking to Terry Gross earlier this year. More after a
break. This is FRESH AIR.
BIANCULLI: Let's get back to Terry's interview, recorded earlier this year,
with singer/singwriter Nick Cave.
GROSS: We were talking before about how, you know, you grew up in Australia
in a small rural town, ended up having real problems. You were sent to a
boarding school. You had been in the church choir and then ended up, of
course, in a band. When you started performing, did you create a stage
persona for yourself? Did you kind of re-fashion yourself to be Nick Cave the
Mr. CAVE: No, I don't think I did that consciously, but the thing about
performing, for me, I feel very much that I can be that person I always wanted
to be and there's something that's still very much about that to me. When I
go onstage and I'm involved in the music and I hear the band playing and lose
myself in the songs, I do lose myself and go to some other place, and
it's--and I feel that I become someone different. I don't think that it's a
persona so much as I'm kind of lifted up to be the kind of person that I'd
always wanted to be.
GROSS: And who is that person compared to the person you think you are?
Mr. CAVE: Well, it's kind of Godlike, you know. It's not that ordinary
person. And you go offstage and then suddenly you're that ordinary person
again, you know. I mean, I remember that from as far back as I can remember,
really, but especially as a young boy. You know, I would listen to music and
I'd pretend I was singing it and I would imagine being onstage and singing
this stuff to the crowds and all of that kind of thing, you know, and I would
go into this other world, this alternate world. But I'm the way a kind of
rock person should be, which is kind of half cartoon character, you know.
That's kind of necessary, where we should be seen from afar, you know, and be
able to be drawn in broad strokes, and I think I've kind of managed that.
GROSS: Now, we talked a little earlier about growing up in Australia, and one
of the things about Australia is that, you know, the white people there
basically came to start a penal colony, and you wrote the screenplay for the
film "The Proposition," which relates to that.
Mr. CAVE: Yeah.
GROSS: And you co-wrote the score for it, too. So we're going to hear the
title clip, so to speak, the title scene in which the police captain actually
makes the proposition, but set the scene for us. This is very early on in the
film. Just summarize...
Mr. CAVE: Yeah.
GROSS: ...the rest, what's brought us to this point.
Mr. CAVE: Well, the film opens with the kind of obliteration of the Burns
gang by the police in a horrible kind of gunfight, and the two
brothers--there's three brothers but two of them have been captured--Mikey,
which is the little one, and Charlie, which is the main character of the film.
And the police chief presents these two brothers with a proposition in regard
to Arthur Burns, a kind of renegade brother who has departed from the gang
sometime before and is living up in the hills. And what you will hear now is
(Soundbite of "The Proposition")
(Soundbite of music)
Mr. RAY WINSTONE: (As Captain Stanley) I wish to present you with a
proposition. I know where Arthur Burns is. It is a godforsaken place. The
blacks won't go there, nor the trains, not even wild men. I suppose in time
the bounty hunters will get him, but I have other plans. I aim to bring him
down. I aim to show that he's a man like any other. I aim to hurt him.
Unidentified Actor: (In character) When you're ready, sir.
Mr. WINSTONE: (As Captain Stanley) And what will most hurt him? Hm. Well,
I've thought long and hard about that. And I've realized, Mr. Burns, that I
must become a little more inventive in my methods.
(Soundbite of horses clopping, neighing)
Mr. WINSTONE: (As Captain Stanley) Now, don't speak, Mr. Burns, listen to
me now. Don't say a word. Now, suppose I told you there was a way to save
your little brother Mikey from the noose. Suppose I gave you a horse and a
gun. Suppose, Mr. Burns, I was to give both you and your young brother Mikey
here a pardon. Suppose I said that I could give you the chance to expunge the
guilt beneath which you so clearly labor. Suppose I gave you till Christmas.
Now suppose you tell me what it is I want from you. Hm?
Mr. GUY PEARCE: (As Charlie Burns) You want me to kill me brother.
Mr. WINSTONE: (As Captain Stanley) I want you to kill your brother. Arthur
Burns is a monster, an abomination. You were right to part company with him.
(End of soundbite)
GROSS: That's Ray Winstone in a scene from "The Proposition," which was
written by my guest, Nick Cave, who also co-wrote the score. That must be
pretty exciting to write the screenplay and the music for a movie. It's a
very brutal film and, again, relates to the origins of Australia as a penal
colony. Since you are interested in like murder ballads and revenge and songs
about those themes, are you particularly interested in the penal colony
origins of your country of origin?
Mr. CAVE: I mean, we all are; all Australians are, to a degree. I mean, for
a long time we were--as a country, it was considered a kind of shameful aspect
to our heritage, you know, the fact that we come from colonial stock and that
we were prisoners initially and criminals, but I think that that's kind of
largely changed and we're more kind of accepting of that these days.
GROSS: Do you feel like when you were younger you were into a kind of
intentionally, like, transgressive image and that, as you've gotten older,
that's just kind of changed and the way you live life has changed?
Mr. CAVE: Yeah, the way I live life has changed. I don't think I
particularly had any kind of image. I was just the way that I was and
interested in the things that I was at that particular time. I don't feel
that there's much of a logic to the kind of trajectory of my life. It's just
gone the way it has. At the moment, it feels strong. It feels strong, and
that's a really nice feeling to have, especially creatively.
BIANCULLI: Nick Cave speaking to Terry Gross earlier this year. He's
currently on a North American tour with stops soon in New York, Washington,
DC, and Philadelphia. Here's music from his soundtrack to "The Proposition."
I'm David Bianculli and this is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of song)
Mr. CAVE: (Singing) ...to the stars in the sky
Soon, said the wind that followed him home
Hope, said the cloud that started to cry
Maybe, said the riders dry as a bone
Who, said the sun that melted the ground
Why, said the river that refused to run
Where, said the thunder without a sound
Here, said the rider who took up his gun
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Interview: Bryan Cranston talks about his new TV show "Breaking
DAVID BIANCULLI, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli, TV critic for Broadcasting & Cable
magazine and tvworthwatching.com, in for Terry Gross.
Bryan Cranston, who stars in the AMC cable series "Breaking Bad," just won the
Emmy for Best Actor in a Drama Series, beating out, among others, Hugh Laurie
of "House," James Spader of "Boston Legal," and Jon Hamm of "Mad Men."
Cranston has been around Hollywood since the 1970s, moving from guest spots to
supporting roles, and from comedies to dramas and back again. He's best known
as Hal, the childlike father on "Malcolm in the Middle." But you might also
recognize him as Jerry's dentist on "Seinfeld," as agent Stan Grossman in
"Little Miss Sunshine" or as a guy with a severe headache problem on "The
But earlier this year, Bryan Cranston got his first dramatic series lead, the
one that earned him an Emmy. In AMC's "Breaking Bad," created by Vince
Gilligan, Cranston stars as Walter White, a shy high school chemistry teacher
with a pregnant wife, a teen son, and a problem making ends meet. When Walter
learns he has inoperable lung cancer, something in him snaps and he decides to
provide for his family the best way he knows how. He teams up with a former
student to make and sell crystal meth. It's a very unlikely premise for a TV
series, and Bryan Cranston, at first glance, might seem like a very unlikely
leading man. I spoke with Bryan Cranston earlier this year, when "Breaking
Bad" premiered on AMC. I asked him to talk about the evolution of the show
and his career.
Bryan Cranston, welcome to FRESH AIR.
Mr. BRYAN CRANSTON: Thank you, David. Good to be here.
BIANCULLI: I want to start with a clip from "Breaking Bad."
Mr. CRANSTON: All right.
BIANCULLI: Because for people who haven't seen the show yet this will give
them a sense of what you're doing and how you're doing it. I'm fascinated by
your acting as Walter White because for most of the show you say so little but
convey so much. This is a scene where you're going to come downstairs and
walk in on your wife, who's played by Anna Gunn from "Deadwood," when she's on
the phone making an appointment for you with a cancer specialist.
(Soundbite from "Breaking Bad")
Ms. ANNA GUNN: (As Skyler White) Yeah, anytime on Friday is absolutely fine.
Thank you so much for working us in.
Can I just put that on a credit card? Great. Perfect.
(Soundbite of door slamming)
Ms. GUNN: (As Skyler White) OK, so we will see you at 10:45 on Friday
morning. Thank you so much. OK.
(Soundbite of beep, thump)
Ms. GUNN: (As Skyler White) Oh, yes. Honey, the best oncologist, I mean,
not even just in New Mexico but one of the top 10 in the entire nation. His
name is Dr. Delcavoli and we see him on Friday.
Mr. CRANSTON: (As Walter White) Huh.
Ms. GUNN: (As Skyler White) I mean, Marie really came through for us. She
had her boss call and...
(Soundbite of clanking)
Ms. GUNN: OK. This is good. From here on out, I mean, things are going
Mr. CRANSTON: (As Walter White) What's--what's that we're putting on a
Ms. GUNN: (As Skyler White) Uh, it's just a deposit kind of thing.
(Soundbite of paper)
Mr. CRANSTON: (As Walter White) How much of a deposit?
Ms. GUN: (As Skyler White) It's $5,000.
Mr. CRANSTON: (As Walter White) Five thousand? Jesus. And what's that,
just the start? I mean, just to tell me what I already know?
(End of soundbite)
BIANCULLI: I have to be honest, Bryan, when I heard the premise for the
series, I didn't think I'd like the character or the show very much...
Mr. CRANSTON: Mm-hmm.
BIANCULLI: ...because we're talking about crystal meth, we're talking about
cancer. But you really pulled me in. I still wasn't sure when the hour was
over what to think of this guy. And I'm wondering is that the only script
that you saw when you had to decide whether to accept the part or not?
Mr. CRANSTON: Yes, the only thing I saw was the pilot script. And as an
actor, you know if it starts to seep into your soul and you start daydreaming
about the character and having nighttime dreams about the character, then it's
becoming you, or you're becoming it, one way or the other. And when I had my
first meeting with Vince a year and a half ago, I couldn't help but start
saying exactly what I felt about him. This is, I think he should be a little
pudgy. I think he should be pale. I think he should be colorless. I think
his clothes should be this way. I think he should have this silly moustache
that doesn't really convey anything, except that it conveys impotence to me.
It was unnecessary. And it sort of was a manifestation of what I thought his
life was like at that time, basically unnecessary, that he felt useless,
invisible to the world, to society, even to himself.
BIANCULLI: A question about a very dramatic scene in an upcoming episode,
which is where you're deciding, or confronted with the decision of whether or
not to undergo chemotherapy treatments. And your wife stages this sort of
intervention, and everyone's around, and you take turns talking by holding a
talking pillow which gives you the right to speak. And it's a funny idea in a
very dramatic scene. And you're the last to speak, and finally you get the
talking pillow and I thought this is the first time you've had the talking
pillow in four or five episodes. And how hard a scene was that for you to do?
Because you were quite, quite strong in it.
Mr. CRANSTON: The thing about an actor approaching a scene like that is you
can't for a second think that what you're doing is funny because if you do
then there's a slight wink, wink, nod, nod to the audience, `Oh, isn't this
cute? We're using this talking pillow.' And all of us just took this idea
that this gave us the right to speak at that time and to speak uninterrupted.
And it's very respectful of the audience, I think.
Mr. CRANSTON: We don't have a laugh track to it. And if the audience finds
that piece funny, as you did, David, then I think you can smile or laugh, if
that strikes you that way, or not. And ultimately that is just so juicy to
play because there's a whole wide range of reactions that an audience can have
at any particular time, and none is wrong.
BIANCULLI: We're talking to Bryan Cranston, star of the AMC drama series
Your resume fascinates me. You seemed to have been, in the '70s and '80s, in
one episode of almost everything.
Mr. CRANSTON: Mm.
BIANCULLI: Not several episodes, just one.
Mr. CRANSTON: Mm-hmm.
BIANCULLI: But I mean great shows, like "Chicago Hope" and "LA Law" and
"Thirtysomething" and "Hill Street." And then you're in "Walker: Texas
Ranger," "Touched By an Angel," "Jake and the Fat Man" and "Baywatch."
Mr. CRANSTON: Mm-hmm. Wide range of good programs and crappy ones.
BIANCULLI: That's sort of my question.
Mr. CRANSTON: Yeah.
BIANCULLI: But, I mean...
Mr. CRANSTON: Oh, don't be embarrassed.
BIANCULLI: ...clearly a working actor, but how--and your first job is like on
"CHIPs," bless your soul.
Mr. CRANSTON: Uh-huh.
BIANCULLI: So first of all how do you get started on "CHIPs," and then how do
you balance this career?
Mr. CRANSTON: Well, when an actor first starts out, you're looking to work,
any work. You need money to pay your rent and money to pay for your eight by
10 pictures and your resumes and your acting classes. And you need some film
on yourself, and that's--you're willing to take just about anything. And
remember, in those days in--I started in 1979--there was no record, no
permanent record for anyone to keep track of the stuff. So you would accept a
terrible show because you needed the money. And I did a movie called "Amazon
Women from the Moon."
BIANCULLI: Well, that was John Landis.
Mr. CRANSTON: Did you see that?
BIANCULLI: Wasn't that John Landis?
Mr. CRANSTON: John Landis did it, but a terrible film. But you don't care
because you're not going to put it on your resume. It's like, it comes and
goes. But there's several things that I've done that I've removed from the
resume. But now in this world of IMDB you can't hide. There's...
BIANCULLI: That's really funny.
Mr. CRANSTON: ...all the schlock that I used to do is now coming back and
it's all right there. So it's a piece of humble pie.
BIANCULLI: See I always thought, I mean, I know of writers and producers who
have, say, taken "M*A*S*H" off of their resume because they don't want to seem
older, which I think is a sin because it's such an incredibly good show.
Mr. CRANSTON: Right.
BIANCULLI: I never thought of just intentionally keeping something off just
because it was bad and maybe nobody will notice.
Mr. CRANSTON: Dreck. Yeah. Yeah.
BIANCULLI: But what do you remember about "CHIPs"?
Mr. CRANSTON: I remember I had this terrible Southern accent. (talking with
Southern accent) I think I was talking like this. I was talking like a
special needs person relative of Gomer Pyle, or something. I'll tell you I
was talking like--you know. And it was an interesting experience. I had a
wife on the show named Kathy Shower, who was apparently--and I didn't really
know at the time, she was a very pretty woman.
Mr. CRANSTON: And she was a Playboy playmate, and it was like, wow, Erik
Estrada, that's all he had to find out, a Playboy playmate and, you know, he
was after her like nobody's business. And it's like, you know, it's
interesting because I heard nothing but bad things about Erik, things saying,
`Oh, he does this, he's, you know'--and he was nice to me on the show, I must
BIANCULLI: Well, another bad TV show--I mean, I've been a TV critic since '75
so I can say this. Another bad show you were on, but it had a good result for
you, was "Airwolf." Wasn't that Jan-Michael Vincent in a helicopter? Is that
the one I'm thinking of or am I confusing that?
Mr. CRANSTON: No, that's the one. Jan-Michael Vincent on his descent into
his personal hell, which was horrible. This guy was, you know, had so much
promise and he was late every day and he had, you know, his drinking problem,
his drug problem. And there was a scene where we're in a helicopter and
they're shooting what's called a poor man's process which is the helicopter is
not actually in the air, but if you shoot from a low angle up all you see is
sky behind you and there's a couple grips in the back moving the rotor and it
looks like the whole thing is in the air.
Mr. CRANSTON: And there was our first AD would say, `OK, roll sound. Sound
speed, there we go. Slate it, and Bryan'--and he would shake his fists to me,
that would be my que to wake up Jan. And to have--no, seriously, to wake up
Jan and have him, you know, act in the scene. And it was such a shame. And I
was like, `God, this is so horrible.' Especially for a beginning actor when I
was pretty new there and wanting more than anything to be able to be a part of
the acting community and to have the gift that has eventually came to me, to
become a good working actor. And I don't take it lightly. And I don't have
any expectations of what the business owes me. I have no sense of
entitlement. I just work.
BIANCULLI: Bryan Cranston in an interview recorded earlier this year. More
after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
BIANCULLI: Let's get back to my conversation recorded earlier this year with
Bryan Cranston, star of AMC's "Breaking Bad." He just won the Emmy as Best
Actor in a Drama Series.
One thing that I find in common between your part of Hal in "Malcolm in the
Middle" and your new part as Walter in "Breaking Bad"--and there isn't that
much that they have in common--but it's, as an actor, a total lack of vanity
when it comes to attacking the characters as you see them. And I'd like to
play the first scene from "Malcolm in the Middle" where we meet your
Mr. CRANSTON: Mm.
BIANCULLI: You're the husband and you're down. The kids are at the breakfast
table, they're trying to eat. You're nude reading a newspaper that's
strategically open to cover things while you're reading it.
Mr. CRANSTON: Mm-hmm.
BIANCULLI: And your wife, Jane Kaczmarek, is shaving your back hair...
Mr. CRANSTON: Mm-hmm.
BIANCULLI: ...with some hair trimmers.
(Soundbite from "Malcolm in the Middle")
(Soundbite of buzzing)
Mr. CRANSTON: (As Hal) Huh. Look at this. They're sending an unmanned
probe to Venus and letting a bunch of school children name it. Well, that's
going to end badly.
Ms. JANE KACZMAREK: (As Lois) These clippers are dull already. Honestly,
Hal, you're like a monkey.
Mr. FRANKIE MUNIZ: (As Malcolm) They do this every month. He has sensitive
skin. The hair gets itchy under his clothes.
Ms. KACZMAREK: (As Lois) It always seems like such a shame to just dump this
in the trash. Maybe birds would like to make nests with it or, I don't know,
maybe you boys could use it for school projects.
(Soundbite of quick exhalation)
Ms. KACZMAREK: (As Lois) Arms up.
(End of soundbite)
BIANCULLI: So that's--what memories does that bring back to you? And is it
true that you had to have, for your first scene in a sitcom, or the first
scene--maybe they were shot out of sequence--but you had to have yak hair
glued all over you to make that scene work?
Mr. CRANSTON: Yes. I have nothing but fond memories of "Malcolm in the
Middle." It was a fantastic period of my life. Brilliantly written by Linwood
Boomer. That was the first scene. The first scene I ever shot in the pilot
was the scene where I'm naked in front of all these children. And the person
who's in charge of kids, you know, in taking care of them from the Coogan Law
and they have all these rights which is fantastic now...
Mr. CRANSTON: ...insisted that in between scenes I stand behind this black
curtain. So apparently while we're shooting it my nudity was OK and didn't
hurt the retinas of their little eyes. But in between I had to go stand
behind this curtain.
But, yes, it's true. I was--except for a modesty patch--and believe me, it
was very modest, I had nothing else on. It took three makeup artists four
hours to apply yak hair to my body. And they said it was yak hair and they
told me why. Yak hair most resembles human hair, but it's longer. So they
were able to use part of it for the glue and still have part of it that is
unmatted and standing out. But that meant I couldn't sit down. So for the
entire day that we're shooting this, I never sat down. And I had my arms out
most of the time so everything wouldn't get matted.
But when it came time to actually shaving this hair off my body, the glue
would get stuck in the razor and it would start to pull on my skin. So we had
to have a casting call for hairy-backed people. And they brought in all kinds
of people. It looked like a carpeteria store, where there was shag and there
was low pile and there was, you know, berber. And they picked the body type
that they felt was most like mine, which is very unfortunate.
Mr. CRANSTON: And they had a body double. And it turned out to be one of
our teamster guys. It turned out to be one of the guys that we actually
shaved through and did the close-up shot of the hair cutting through the--or
the razor cutting through the hair, rather.
BIANCULLI: We're talking with Bryan Cranston, star of the AMC drama series
One of the things I learned reading about you for this is that your parents
were actors, Joe and Peggy Cranston. Would I know them from anything?
Mr. CRANSTON: You wouldn't know my mom. And my dad might be hard to
remember. I remember when my dad was, you know--he had the real actor's life.
His life was up and down and up and down. And I remember him mostly dying in
everything that I saw him do. Whether he was a soldier on top of the roof, in
"The Day the"--where the, not "The End of the World." I forget what the name
of the movie was, the sci-fi movie with the large grasshoppers that took over
the city. He was in that saying, you know, `Sector eight is all fine here.'
(Screams) And we'd see him die, you know. Or else he was an infantry man or
he was, you know, in the cavalry and he'd get shot with an arrow. He was
always dying. `Hey, dad's dying tonight,' you know, so we'd watch him.
But he met my mother in the late '40s in an acting class in Hollywood, and he
was--they were all in the same class with Anne Bancroft and David Janssen at
the time. And it was kind of a, you know, a good time for them and post-war,
and everything was kind of on the upswing. And they married and decided to
have children, and that's when my mom decided, `Well, I'll either have a
career or be a mother.' And those were the choices for women in those days.
And she always regretted that. She always wished that she had pursued both.
BIANCULLI: One last "Breaking Bad" question. Do you have friends or family
members who have gone through the process of chemotherapy and cancer, and if
so, what did that do to your acting approach?
Mr. CRANSTON: Yes, I do. In fact, recently my sister-in-law went through
breast cancer. And we'd go with her to her chemotherapy sessions and her
radiation sessions, and it's very traumatic. You can feel the energy. It's a
palpable trepidation. And you wonder, you know, you wonder, `Is this now the
beginning of the end of my life?' And as positive as you want to remain, it's
difficult. And I took that information with me.
But when I weighed it against what my character Walter White was going
through, it was almost a fair trade-off because he was just living a life of
existence before. And the irony to this is that, ever since this death
sentence of a lung cancer that is inoperable, he's been more alive and more
awake than he has in the past 25 years. So in an odd way he's accepting it
and willing to deal with that set of circumstances.
BIANCULLI: Bryan Cranston, it was a joy having you on FRESH AIR. Thanks very
Mr. CRANSTON: Thank you, David. I appreciate it.
BIANCULLI: Bryan Cranston from an interview recorded earlier this year. The
star of AMC's "Breaking Bad" just won the Emmy as Best Actor in a Drama
Series. Season two of "Breaking Bad" will premiere early next year.
Coming up, David Edelstein reviews the new Spike Lee film, "Miracle at St.
Anna." This is FRESH AIR.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Review: David Edelstein on Spike Lee film "Miracle at St. Anna"
DAVID BIANCULLI, host:
James McBride's 2001 novel "Miracle at St. Anna" was inspired by the
all-black 92nd Division that fought in Italy during World War II. Now Spike
Lee has adapted that book into a movie with a script written by McBride. Film
critic David Edelstein has a review.
Mr. DAVID EDELSTEIN: Spike Lee is the most prominent African-American
director of all time, and he feels entitled, perhaps even obligated, to
challenge the malign neglect of the past, historical accounts omitting black
contributions and the movies that passed along those myths. He recently
attacked Clint Eastwood for leaving African-American soldiers out of the Iwo
Jima film "Flags of Our Fathers." And his new World War II epic "Miracle at
St. Anna" opens with an old black man in 1983 watching John Wayne in "The
Longest Day" on TV and muttering, `We fought for this country, too.' It's a
naked declaration of intent, a cinematic placard.
In John McBride's historical novel about the all-black 92nd Infantry Division
that fought in Italy, Lee clearly saw the ideal vehicle for his "Flags of Our
Fathers," his "Saving Private Ryan," his "The Longest Day."
The canvas of "Miracle at St. Anna" is vast and impressive. What's
disappointing is how heavy handedly he fills it in. In a lurching prologue
that old black man, a post office teller, shoots an Italian man who shows up
at his window. Police searching the black man's Harlem apartment find a long
lost marble head from a Florence bridge that was blown up by the Nazis. In
Rome, a middle-aged man reads about the head and drops his coffee cup in slow
motion. The film is a flashback to Tuscany in 1944, in which we learn why the
old man killed the Italian, why he bristled at John Wayne and why the guy in
Rome dropped his coffee.
Lee crams a lot in, and ends up caricaturing almost everyone. His four
protagonists--Buffalo Soldiers, they're called--are Derek Luke as the stalwart
Sergeant Stamps, Michael Ealy as the cynical lady's man Bishop, Laz Alonzo as
the anxious translator Hector, and Omar Benson Miller as the huge, loveable
simpleton called Train. It's Train who finds an injured Italian boy named
Angelo and adopts him, carting him to a nearby village even after Bishop says
to leave him be, that all white people are trained to hate blacks.
With the exception of two flashbacks, the rest of the film takes place in that
village. Train bonds with the little boy. Bishop puts the moves on a
gorgeous Italian played by Valentina Cervi, and everyone stands around waiting
for something to happen with no John Wayne in sight.
(Soundbite of "Miracle at St. Anna")
Unidentified Actor #1: (In character) You, come here.
Gather the rest, whoever will come. And we'll take them down the mountain.
Unidentified Actor #2: (In character) We do not come with you.
Actor #1: (In character) Why not?
Actor #2: (In character) Nazis in all villages.
Actor #1: (In character) Yeah, yeah, yeah. Boom, boom. You just sit tight
and it'll be jingle bells real soon. The US Army is sitting right here in
front of you.
Actor #2: (In character) We need Army inside house now. Three years we've
been waiting. First the British, then the Americans. Italy is tired to wait.
(End of soundbite)
Mr. EDELSTEIN: Everything in "Miracle at St. Anna" is labored. The debates
between the cynical blacks and hopeful blacks, the heroic Italian partisans
and the sneaky fascists, the conscience-stricken Nazis and the cruel Nazis.
The dialogue by novelist McBride is subtext free, and the actors go broad when
they can't go deep.
Terrence Blanchard's score rarely stops. It's a magnificent piece of work,
but it elegizes the characters before they can open their mouths.
Lee often sabotages his best ideas. In the first battle, the soldiers trudge
through a river while a Nazi truck blasts the voice of Axis Sally, the German
counterpart of Tokyo Rose, to entice them to surrender. Much of what she says
hits home, that they're fighting for a country that once enslaved them and now
keeps them down, that they're cannon fodder. But Lee can't let the words hang
in the air. He shows us Axis Sally in her plush red lair, a lipsticked white
Then the cartoon racist Southern colonel, miles from the scene, refuses to
believe these "uppity Negroes" when they radio they've made it across the
river, and he orders their location shelled. Lee lingers on the carnage, the
men cut down by both Germans and Americans. Here and later, in a flashback to
a massacre of a village, including women and little children, Lee shoves the
horror in our faces. I'm sure he sees this as the stark reality of war, but
atrocities in a film call for more, not less artistry.
And after all that splatter, Lee ends by pouring on religious uplift. He does
have his sights on "Saving Private Ryan" and "The Longest Day," but "Miracle
at St. Anna" often seems less about correcting their omissions than capturing
BIANCULLI: David Edelstein is film critic for New York Magazine.
BIANCULLI: For Terry Gross, I'm David Bianculli.
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.