DATE March 31, 2006 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
PROGRAM Fresh Air
Interview: Author Mary Gordon discusses her life and novel "Pearl"
DAVID BIANCULLI, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli, TV critic for the New York Daily
News, sitting in for Terry Gross.
Our guest Mary Gordon has written novels, memoirs, short stories, essays and a
book reflecting on Joan of Arc. Terry spoke with her last year about her most
recent novel "Pearl," which will be out in paperback in a couple of weeks.
Before we hear that conversation, let me read what James Carroll said in a
review of Gordon's book, "Joan of Arc." He writes, quote, "This
quintessentially American writer with her skeptical eye, her impatience with
sentimentality and her readiness to skewer pieties of all kinds, has also in
her fiction proved to be motivated by a profoundly spiritual curiosity. She
is a critic of institutional religion whose writing is deeply rooted in Roman
Catholic sacramentality," unquote.
Gordon's novel "Pearl" also fits that description. The story begins on
Christmas night, 1998. Maria, a single mother, gets a call from the State
Department saying her daughter Pearl, who has been studying in Ireland, has
chained herself to the flagpole in front of the American Embassy in Dublin.
Pearl hasn't eaten in six weeks and is refusing food and drink.
In exploring what led Pearl to put her life on the line, the novel reflects on
politics, guilt, sacrifice and mother-daughter relationships. Along the way,
it also explores the line between martyrdom and suicide.
Mary Gordon told Terry that when she was growing up, martyrdom was like a job
description. You could be a nurse, a teacher or a martyr. Terry asked Gordon
what martyrdom meant to her as a child.
Ms. MARY GORDON (Author): Well, first of all, what it meant was you would go
straight to heaven, and that was always the phrase, "straight to heaven" like
it was the express train. And I remember before we were being prepared for
our first Communions, which was--it would be six or seven, we were told that
we should pray for a martyr's death. So you would have these seven-year-olds
saying, `Oh, my God, I'd better pray that'--and it was the Communists at that
point; this was the '50s--`I'd better pray that a Communist will say, "Either
say there is no God or we'll shoot you."' But you didn't want to be shot.
Basically, you wanted to live to have lunch.
But I would do things like--when I was about nine or 10, I would put thorns in
my shoes to try to walk around to experience the preliminaries of martyrdom so
I'd be kind of toughened up for the real thing. But I didn't want my feet to
hurt, so I would put the thorns in my shoes, then I'd try not to step on them.
So it was a sort of equivocal appetite for martyrdom and, nonetheless, always
feeling that I wasn't quite up to scratch because I wanted to live, because I
didn't want to die.
TERRY GROSS reporting:
What adults in your life knew that you were walking around with thorns in your
Ms. GORDON: Nobody. That would, you know, really--even in my family, that
would have been considered extreme. It was a real secret that I had to keep.
And I knew it was strange, but part of the cult of martyrdom was that nobody
understands you. You know, martyrs are never understood by their family.
Their family's always telling them to shape up. And so it was part of the
glamour of martyrdom that you would be misunderstood by the ordinary bourgeois
GROSS: Being misunderstood was a classic part of American popular culture
then, too. James Dean was misunderstood. All of teenage culture was
Ms. GORDON: Exactly. We wouldn't have known what to do with ourselves if
we'd been understood. And so the roots of that are very deep and wide.
GROSS: Did you ever tell any nuns about this?
Ms. GORDON: Oh, no. I would never tell anybody because it was almost like
it was too special for anybody. And I also didn't want anybody to tell me to
stop, and I knew they would.
GROSS: Now in your novel, the mother was brought up Catholic, as you were,
and she intentionally doesn't expose her daughter to the literature of
martyrdom. What is her fear of exposing her daughter to it?
Ms. GORDON: Well, her fear is fanaticism and her fear is that a desire for
purity--and the theme of a desire for purity is very important to me in this
book because I think it's a desire that doesn't get named in our culture, and
so it enacts itself in very strange ways. And it is essentially a desire that
the world be less mixed than it is. And Maria, who is the mother, believes
that all this talk about the cult of martyrs and the cult of purity is really
a love for death, and she wants her child to love life rather than death.
And another aspect of modern culture that I wanted to explore in this book is
what happens to all these ideals which are larger than life and even
life-denying if they are, in fact, denied. It seems to me that they come out
in different ways. I think that the girlhood impulse to idealism and to
purity now has really relegated itself to anorexia. And I think there is
something particularly in young people that desires purity, and it only now
gets expressed in terms that, it seems to me, are really perverse, because
they go back to the individual body. They don't really stand for anything
larger. They're not an idea. They're only another emendation of the body.
GROSS: Do you see anorexia as a quest for purity or just thinness?
Ms. GORDON: I think that it's a quest for purity in the guise of thinness.
That is to say, you know, girls who are eating a carrot stick for lunch
because they want to get into a bikini are one thing, but anorexia, I think,
is a real desire to be purged of fleshliness. And that desire to be purged of
fleshliness, I think, is a desire to be of a purity that our species simply
isn't made for. But it's a very strong and, I think, quite mysterious
GROSS: Did you expose your children to the literature of martyrdom?
Ms. GORDON: No, absolutely not. And I have to say they have no interest in
it. One of the--my children are less Romantic than I am, with a capital R,
and you know, they wouldn't dream of doing the things that I did when I was a
child, and they're much more practical. They actually do more good in the
world, more effective good, than I did with all my dreams of heroic goodness.
And so that's very interesting to me, to see what they do. But they're not
extremists. They're not attracted to the extremes that I was when I was
GROSS: What were the other extremes you were attracted to?
Ms. GORDON: Well, I think, you know, coming of age in the '60s, I really
believed that--and because I thought I was an artist, I thought that you had
to experience everything, and you couldn't say no to anything, you couldn't be
afraid of drugs, sex or rock 'n' roll or political extremism, that in order to
be fully alive, you had to be very risk-taking and push things to their
extreme. And I don't think that my kids have that impulse.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is writer Mary Gordon. Her new
novel is called "Pearl."
So in your novel, you know, Pearl not only decides to become a martyr for the
cause of the IRA, but also for something more personal. She develops a kind
of self-hatred of her body. Her mother thinks that the things she did would
spare her daughter from feeling that way. And just as I think a lot of
mothers felt that bringing up their children in a feminist context would spare
them the kind of prefeminist self-consciousness and self-hatred that so many
girls felt. And in a lot of instances, it just didn't work. It wasn't
enough. It wasn't--there seems to be something deeper.
Ms. GORDON: Yeah, and this was something that I really wanted to explore
about motherhood, that when you have babies or young children, you think,
`Well, I'll do it this way and the world won't touch them.' And often, that
doesn't work out. And I think particularly in the case of feminism, one of
the things that feminism hasn't touched at all--and I'm a feminist; I'm not
afraid to use the F-word at all. But one of the things that the women's
movement hasn't touched because the culture has been too strong is this notion
of the hatefulness of the female body. And you know, women are more obsessed
with weight than ever. There are more products on the market that tell us
that we're wrong, that there's something wrong with us. The boom in plastic
surgery, which seems to me just bizarre, has come in the wake of the women's
movement. So obviously, we have done nothing to say that the female body is
not, in itself, inherently hateful. And if you have a girl child, you say,
`Oh, you know, I'll put her in Oshkosh overalls when she's little and, you
know, I'll cut her hair short and she can play soccer with the boys, and I'll
never make her wear high heels and never tell her she has to wear a girdle,
and she'll love herself.' It didn't work so well in face of this pervasive
cultural message that there is something inherently loathsome about the female
body. And that makes me very sad.
GROSS: Have your views on why so many girls and women as well have this
discomfort about or hatred of their own bodies? Have your views changed on
that from, say, the '60s or '70s?
Ms. GORDON: No. The only thing that--I think that it's in the interests of
whatever dark forces there they are--and I don't know who they are. It's too
simple to say capitalism. It's too simple to say men. I don't exactly know
what it is. All I know is that every woman I know spends too much time
thinking about the way that she looks. And if she doesn't spend time thinking
about the way she looks, then that can be a kind of self-hatred, because at
it's best, adornment--I mean, I have to tell you, I'm a person with 200 pairs
of shoes, so it's not like I want to, you know, make myself out to be Emma
Goldman. At its best, adornment is play and joy. At its worst, it's anxiety
and self-loathing. And what makes me sad is that for women, either adornment
or lack of adornment more often is a source of anxiety and self-loathing than
of joy and play and freedom.
GROSS: Do you feel like you have a good fix on whether self-adornment is joy
and freedom in your life or an expression of self-loathing or somewheres in
Ms. GORDON: Well, yeah, I'm not a perfect person, so it kind of depends. I
know that shoes are a perfect place of pleasure for me, because I have no
anxiety about my feet. So I...
GROSS: In spite of the thorns that you used to wear.
Ms. GORDON: Or maybe that's why. My feet have been purified by a martyr's
blood, so I deserve all those shoes. So I can say that the parts of my body
that I feel secure about, mainly my feet, I can really play with. And then
there are other things that, depending upon how I look that day or where the
10 pounds is one way or another, can be either fun or self-punishment. So
it's a very, I think, vexing and difficult problem. But look, it's only very
recently in the history of the planet that we assumed that women were similar
to men in most ways and might be equal to most men. My particular theory is
that's why the world is having a nervous breakdown, because of the relatively
new news that men and women might be equal. It's making everybody crazy,
because it's a lot to absorb as a species, and we've had to absorb it very
GROSS: Give me an example of why you think that's the cause of the nervous
Ms. GORDON: 'Cause I think that what all fundamentalisms share is a desire
to repress women, that--I was in Israel one time, and I went to the Wailing
Wall, and the men had to pray separately from the women. I went to the Dome
of the Rock. The men had to pray separately from the women. I went to the
Tomb of the Holy Sepulchre, and the women weren't allowed in the sanctuary.
And I thought, the way to get all these people to stop fighting with each
other is to have women step in the sacred places, and they would all join
together as brothers and tear the women limb from limb, because it seems to me
that that is the thing that unites all fundamentalisms.
What I don't exactly understand is the women who join with them in the desire
to exclude themselves. That's a real puzzler for me, except I think that
there's a lot of fear in the world, and I almost feel very sorry for the poor
species. It seems that we're just rocked by fear and fear of the unknown.
And I think one of the unknowns is how to live together as partners who might
be, not identical, but at least equal.
BIANCULLI: Mary Gordon speaking to Terry Gross in 2005. More after a break.
This is FRESH AIR.
BIANCULLI: Let's get back to Terry's interview with author Mary Gordon,
recorded last year when her novel "Pearl" was published.
GROSS: Every time we talk on FRESH AIR, I like to ask where you are in terms
of your own spiritual life, whether you're going to church, 'cause throughout
your life, or throughout your adult life, there's been this kind of tug-of-war
between your kind of spiritual commitment to an interest in Catholicism and
your disagreements with the organized religion part of it, the hierarchy, the
church's views on birth control and divorce and abortion and women in general.
So where are you now? What are the couple of places that you feel most at
home being Catholic in?
Ms. GORDON: Well, I have a church that's in my neighborhood, which actually
was the church that Thomas Merton was baptized in. And there are some
wonderful people there that I can really be with, and a few priests and
particularly nuns. I did a long piece a couple of years ago for The Atlantic
Monthly on the state of American nuns, or actually nuns worldwide. They're
really radical. They're really--they really are self-giving. They really are
large of heart. And I have met, in these people, an expansiveness of spirit
that moves me very, very deeply, so it's the people that I see in these places
that live in a way that is more suggestive of a radical and deep openness,
which is what I think we're on the Earth for.
GROSS: You know, I remember what I think was our first interview in the
1980s, and you were in Philadelphia, doing, I guess, a signing and some
interviews. And you had left your two children behind for the day in, I
guess, New York. And I remember you saying that you not only missed your
children, you physically missed having your baby in your arms. And I think
now, you know, of you being the mother of two adult children and what a
different experience of motherhood that is.
Ms. GORDON: Oh, yeah, I could have had a million babies. You know, I mean,
just babies, little children, that was easy for me, because I had no moral
life. But when I had to come to terms with the fact that they were
independent moral and intellectual beings that wouldn't necessarily do what I
wanted, that was when I found motherhood more difficult. The animal parts of
motherhood, I could do with, you know, my hands tied behind my back. I could
change diapers and clean up vomit and spilled juice and make play dough all
day long, but when somebody said, you know, `I'm not going to do what you want
me to do, 'cause I don't want to do it,' that was the more difficult part.
And then to watch them--and I'm really lucky. I have wonderful children
who--my daughter particularly has, you know, stood up to me and bucked me.
And I think that one of her first sentences was, `I'm not you.' And she's not
me. She's actually a lot better than I am. But watching them say to me, over
and over again, in words and in language, `I'm not you,' has been a very great
moral challenge for me.
And I miss--you know, I miss them terribly. My daughter's in California. My
son's in Michigan. And, you know, ideally, I'd like to be one of those
Italian mothers that has a three-story house with the children, you know, and
their families and children on the upper levels. I think that would be my
idea of a good time. I very much miss the presence of these animal children
in my life. I miss the smell of them. I miss cooking for them. And I just
think the best part of my life is over, because they live so far away. And I
adored having young children. And it's one of the losses, it seems to me,
that aging brings. And they're terrific, and they have their own lives, but
it's not as much fun.
GROSS: Why do you call it a moral challenge, though, when your children
started saying to you, `I'm not you'? Why a moral challenge and not just a
kind of crisis of self-confidence and ego?
Ms. GORDON: Because I think you have to judge whether they're saying they're
not you and whether their decisions are ethical and right in their own terms
which might be different from your terms. So you really have to start
thinking, `Are there other ways of being in the world besides mine that are
still acceptable?' And that's a real challenge, because you'd like everybody
to be--or I want everybody to be exactly like me. My idea of a good time is
if everybody says to me, `You're absolutely right,' 24 hours a day. And my
husband once said to me, `On your tombstone, it's not going to be only the
words, "I was right." It's going to be, "I was right, and you were wrong."'
So for my children to not have been clones of me was a challenge for me to
look at them, not as myself, but as people really, really other from me.
GROSS: You said something very funny in a piece that you wrote, something
very funny about your son. You wrote--and again, he is an adult now. You
wrote, `He's the kind of boy who wouldn't have gone out with me in high
Ms. GORDON: Yeah, he's very, very handsome. And he's--you know, he's really
hot. And I would have been absolutely outside the sphere. I mean, he's very
kind, so he might have danced with me occasionally. But I couldn't have
measured up to his girlfriends at all. He's a cool guy. And I didn't go out
with any cool guys in high school.
GROSS: That's really funny.
Ms. GORDON: Well, my son would not have been--my son was on the basketball
team. I went out with boys that were in chess club, if I went out at all. It
just wouldn't have happened. And it was always a surprise to me. I kept
saying, `Where does this person come from? Where does this person come from?'
And it was--that was interesting as a woman who is a feminist to have to see
that I had this kind of eminently beautiful, eminently desirable male, and how
as his mother did I give him permission to be that in the world, which is a
gift and a wonderful thing, but say to him, `You know, a lot of guys use the
gifts that you've been given in really terrible ways. And that's not OK'?
And that was a very interesting balance to have to try to keep.
BIANCULLI: Mary Gordon speaking to Terry Gross in 2005. Her latest novel
"Pearl" will be released in paperback this month. We'll continue their
conversation in the second half of the show. I'm David Bianculli, and this is
BIANCULLI: Coming up, more with writer Mary Gordon. Also, actor Clive Owen
on what his acting roles have taught him about gambling and car chases. He's
currently co-starring in "Inside Man." And David Edelstein reviews "Basic
BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli, in for Terry Gross. Back
with more of Terry's conversation with writer Mary Gordon. Her latest novel
"Pearl" is about to come out in paperback. Terry spoke with Mary Gordon last
year when "Pearl" was first published.
GROSS: Do you know what your next book will be?
Ms. GORDON: I have a couple of projects. I'm working now on a book about my
mother, who died two years ago. And she...
GROSS: I meant to ask you about her because you wrote a beautiful piece about
her, a magazine piece, about her having Alzheimer's...
Ms. GORDON: Yeah.
GROSS: ...in which you raised all kinds of interesting questions like, if you
go there to visit her at the home where she was and if she enjoyed the
experience but then immediately forgot it...
Ms. GORDON: Yeah.
GROSS: ...was there still a point in you going if it was not something that
was going to remembered beyond a minute. So it was a wonderful piece.
Ms. GORDON: And she was really in a state of--I don't know whether it was
Alzheimer's or dementia--for 11 years. And so I'm trying to write a book that
I'm calling "Circling My Mother," just to try to recover from before those 11
years a mother that was not quite so damaged and to get back to trying to know
my mother despite the stain of those extremely painful years. So I'm doing
that. I have another novel in my head. I have a series of novellas that I'm
working on. And I'm not quite sure which project will come first.
GROSS: Is it hard to find the memories of your mother from the period before
she was sick? I mean, has being sick overshadowed all the other memories?
Ms. GORDON: It has, and so I feel that it's very important work to know her
fully because she had a long life--she was 95--and to recover that life, to
recover the mother who was delightful to me. Even when she was problematic,
she was also a source of great delight. So it is a labor, but I think it's an
important one to sort of dig out from the rubble of her last illness a
GROSS: And where are you going to find about who she was?
Ms. GORDON: Well, one of the pieces that I'm working on now is about my
mother and her perfume, that I discovered a perfume that my mother had used,
which kind of went off the market for a long time, which was Arpege. And I
was in the airport in Paris, and I said, `Oh, my God, Arpege. I'll smell it.'
And I smelt it, and a whole world opened up to me. So I'm interested in
exploring her through her scents and through the perfumes that she used, which
were a way of my being delighted by her and being delighted by the possibility
of being female.
GROSS: In trying to reconstruct your mother's life, are you starting to think
about things that you have experienced as a mother? You think of your mother
from the perspective of a daughter. But you're a mother of two grown children
yourself now, and you've just written a book, written a novel about a
mother-daughter relationship. So are you trying to understand things from
your mother's point of view that you never perhaps noticed before? And I'm
wondering if any of the issues, any of the mother-daughter issues, that you
bring up in your novel "Pearl," if you think any of those existed for your
Ms. GORDON: I think, you know, my mother was so radically different from me
in that--when I say this, it sounds snobbish or elitist, and I hope to be able
to get past that. My mother was a peasant. My mother not just--she was very,
very smart, but she absolutely did not believe in self-consciousness. She
thought she was in the grips of fate. She would have called it God's will.
But she didn't think she had a lot of control over her life, or she was not
particularly interested in shaping it. And she was absolutely uninterested in
self-examination or self-analysis, you know? And she would say to me, `Well,
you know, you dwell on things. You just harp on things. And you just make
yourself miserable. I just live.'
And the fact that my mother was essentially an unself-conscious person makes
her so different from me. I mean, my mother would just--had virtually no
self-censorship mechanism. She would just say anything that came into her
head with no notion that that might leave a mark on me. And I was so
conscious of everything that I said potentially leaving a mark that it was
almost as if we had very different experiences as mothers. And my mother was
also physically handicapped. She was a polio victim. And so I was her
caretaker in a way that I was determined that my children were not going to be
my caretakers. I mean, I was just going to run marathons to prove that they
didn't need to take care of me. And when I see some of the rages and
anxieties in myself that my mother had, I always say, `Oh, God, I really don't
want to be that.' I think we share a playfulness and a love of pleasure. But
essentially because she was an unself-conscious person who thought she had
really very little control over her life, we're such different people that I
don't think our experiences were very similar.
GROSS: Mary Gordon, it's been a pleasure to talk with you. Thank you so
Ms. GORDON: You, too, Terry. Thank you.
BIANCULLI: Mary Gordon speaking to Terry Gross in 2005. Her novel "Pearl" is
about to be published in paperback.
Coming up, actor Clive Owen, star of the new Spike Lee film, "Inside Man."
This is FRESH AIR.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Interview: Actor Clive Owen discusses his career
DAVID BIANCULLI, host:
In the new movie "Inside Man," the latest film by director Spike Lee, Clive
Owen plays Dalton Russell, a bank robber who is the brains behind a
particularly intricate, thoroughly planned heist. He prides himself on being
several steps ahead of the police throughout the robbery. Dalton has a bank
full of hostages and a list of demands. In this scene, he's on the phone with
the chief hostage negotiator, played by Denzel Washington. Dalton is teasing
him because he's just thwarted the cops' attempt to eavesdrop inside the bank.
(Soundbite of "Inside Man")
Mr. CLIVE OWEN: (As Dalton Russell) You shouldn't eavesdrop on people.
Mr. DENZEL WASHINGTON: (As hostage negotiator) Well, you better get used to
it, pal. There's not much privacy where you're going.
Mr. OWEN: (As Dalton Russell) You're damn right. This time next week, I'll
be sucking down pina coladas in a hot tub with six girls named Amber and
Mr. WASHINGTON: (As hostage negotiator) More like taking a shower with two
guys named Jamal and Jesus, if you know what I mean.
Mr. OWEN: (As Dalton Russell) (Laughs) Maybe you like that kind of thing,
Mr. WASHINGTON: (As hostage negotiator) All right, here's where we stand.
Mr. OWEN: (As Dalton Russell) I don't need your status report, Serpico. I
tell you where things stand.
Mr. WASHINGTON: (As hostage negotiator) Sure. Sure. I just meant...
Mr. OWEN: (As Dalton Russell) Here's where things stand. You're getting me
what I asked you for. You'll have it ready in the time I gave you or you'll
sit by and you'll watch me do just what I said I would do, clear?
Mr. WASHINGTON: (As hostage negotiator) Very clear. I'm trying to get what
you want. But you got to understand this, you know, it's not like the city of
New York has 747s waiting around for days like today.
Mr. OWEN: (As Dalton Russell) I understand that if you don't get my plane
ready, then you might as well send a hearse.
Mr. WASHINGTON: (As hostage negotiator) Please, let's focus on how we can
both get what we want. All right?
Mr. OWEN: (As Dalton Russell) Hey, you're not listening. You get me what I
want, I won't kill anyone.
Mr. WASHINGTON: (As hostage negotiator) All right. I'm on it. I'm on it.
Just try to keep everybody calm, OK?
Mr. OWEN: (As Dalton Russell) Don't I sound calm to you?
Mr. WASHINGTON: (As hostage negotiator) Yeah. Yeah, you do.
(End of soundbite)
BIANCULLI: Clive Owen, after a string of movie and TV roles in Great Britain,
first was noticed in the States when he starred in the 1998 thriller,
"Croupier." He played a struggling writer who led a double life, working as a
blackjack dealer to do research for a novel. Since then he's appeared in such
films as "Gosford Park," "The Bourne Identity" and "I'll Sleep When I'm Dead."
More recently, he starred with Julia Roberts and Natalie Portman in the film
version of "Closer," and Bruce Willis and Mickey Rourke in "Sin City."
Terry spoke with Clive Owen in 2004.
TERRY GROSS reporting:
I want to ask you about "Croupier." This is such a terrific film, and in this
you play a writer who takes a job as a croupier running a blackjack table in a
casino. And let me just play a short scene from the film. The film has a lot
of voiceover narration from your character, and he's usually talking about
himself both as himself Jack and as Jake, the main character in his novel.
Let me play some voiceover narration from your character toward the end of the
film. He's at the blackjack table.
(Soundbite of "Croupier")
Mr. OWEN: Chapter 10. You watched their faces as they lost, hour after
hour, night after night relentlessly. He questioned the conventional wisdom
that gamblers are self-destructive. He had come to believe that in reality
they want to destroy everyone else--their families, loved ones, everyone.
(Censored) the whole world. Without emotion, he watched them go. Jake
(End of soundbite)
GROSS: That's Clive Owen as the croupier in the film the "Croupier." This is
really such a great film in part about the meaning of risk. What kind of risk
is worth taking? When are you being a sucker? What are some of the things
you did to get into the spirit of this film, you know, in which--you're not a
gambler. Your character is not a gambler. He's opposed to gambling.
Mr. OWEN: He's very against gambling, yeah.
GROSS: Yeah, but he takes a lot of big gambles that just aren't in that
casino, but anyway, so Jake takes this job at the casino as a croupier at the
blackjack table. What's some of the preparation you had to do for this, even
in terms of just, like, learning how to deal?
Mr. OWEN: I actually went to croupier school for a couple of weeks and
actually trained with the guys that were teaching there, literally just
slotted in and did it promptly for two weeks, which was a real insider's look
at the way casinos work really because I was taught as they were taught. We
were taken around the casino. We were forbidden to gamble because all
croupiers are. And I remember the thing that struck me more than anything was
it's one of the few environments where there's still a lot of cash casinos,
which is unusual in this day and age to have so much cash flying around. So,
ultimately, they are obsessed about not being ripped off, so when they're
teaching croupiers, they drill into them every single day, `Do not think
you'll ever be able to take a penny from this casino. We've got everything
covered. You'll never get away with it.'
And I remember thinking that was sort of slight paranoia. It was really
striking, and it is related to the fact that, you know, you're handling money
all the time. There's not credit. It's, you know--and there are stories of
people having developed scams, croupiers developing scams. They don't tell
you this. You hear it from other places, of scams of how to actually, you
know, get money and take it from the casino.
And then I remember the other really important thing we discovered very early
on in the movie is often with voiceover you'll play the scene and Michael will
shoot the whole movie and then the voiceover is laid on afterwards. You put
the voiceover on. And there was this--on the first or second day, I was at a
blackjack table and I was just generally doing some dealing, and Mike said,
`Yeah, we'll lay some voiceover over that.' And it concerned me a bit, and I
went round to see him in his hotel room. So I said, `I'm a bit concerned
about this because it feels very unspecific to lay the voiceover just over
general dealing.' And I said, `I think it needs to be more specific than
that,' because often the voiceover is in the present tense. It just didn't
So we came up with this plan where I would go off and learn all the
voiceovers, and then when we actually came to shoot them, I would speak them
out loud and then we would do a take where I just thought them, so there'd be
people there, there'd be extras there, and thoughts were very, very specific,
so if I thought about a particular character or a person that was at my table,
I could flick them a look. I could--and it worked very well. It didn't mean
to say that Mike had to use all of that, 'cause obviously he can cut whatever
he wants to do, but the times where he did use it, it made the voiceover
very--you felt like you were inside the guy's head. It made it very, very
present and I remember that was a key discovery that we made together early on
in the movie.
BIANCULLI: Clive Owen speaking to Terry Gross in 2004. He co-stars with
Denzel Washington in the new film, "Inside Man." Terry also asked him about a
series of action shorts created as ads for BMW shown on the Internet. Each
starred Owen at the wheel of a BMW, outracing bad guys on a high-speed car
chase. The shorts were directed by such luminaries as John Woo and John
Frankenheimer. Terry asked Owen how he got involved in shooting the high-tech
Mr. OWEN: It was really through "Croupier." "Croupier" had just sort of made
its impact in America and then I got this call saying did I want to do a
series of commercials for BMW and I said, no, I didn't because I was meeting
a--things seemed to be opening up a bit. I was meeting lots of interesting
people, and I thought it wouldn't be a very smart, cool thing to do to just
jump into a bunch of commercials 'cause I didn't really know that much about
them. And they came back and asked again, and I said, `No, I really don't
want to do commercials. I don't want to do this.'
And then right at the wire, they sent me the script of the first one, which
was this 10-minute, proper, fully formed movie script, very well-written.
They said, `We've secured John Frankenheimer and Ang Lee to do the first two.'
And I suddenly thought this project is really unusual, it's very different
and, you know, they're attracting serious, quality people. So I literally
jumped on the plane the next morning. I arrived in LA and was taken straight
from the airport to a night shoot with John Frankenheimer to shoot the first
one. And I'm just enormously grateful that it didn't pass me by because, as
you say, I ended up working with some of the world's top directors, and it was
a very exciting project. To work with that caliber director was really
GROSS: So what are some of the differences between how, say, John
Frankenheimer and John Woo directed you behind the steering wheel?
Mr. OWEN: Yeah, I remember the very first one that Frankenheimer, who's
regarded as the king of the car chases--and he took--his really is one lone
car chase, and he showed me examples of actors driving fast in movies and
examples of people that did it well and people who didn't do it well and why
they did, and he had the whole thing down to absolutely every cut of the
chase, so he knew when he was going from steering wheel to rearview mirror to
road to--and was incredibly specific and knew down to literally, like,
three-second shot. Like, `This is a bit you're just going to just pull the
wheel this way'--just literally two, three seconds and he'd be out of it. But
he was that specific, and you realize that's why he's so great at doing car
chases because you know he puts that much attention to it.
GROSS: I'll remind our listeners that John Frankenheimer, among other things,
directed "French Connection II." So when he was showing you examples of good
and bad acting behind the steering wheel, what were some of the things he
Mr. OWEN: It was really just to do with whether they looked like they were
really driving fast, they looked in the situation, and some people didn't.
When you watched them, you thought, `They're not connected with the speed of
the car, with everything else,' and other people looked very much in the
situation. I really just looked at it and it was--you know, the same acting
principles applied. There was nothing particularly about. It was just you've
got to really make people feel and believe that you're in this dangerous, you
know, high-speed car chase.
I think he was the one that invented the whole notion of--which I did a lot of
'cause a lot of people said, `Did you do a lot of the driving yourself?' Well,
what they used to do is they used to rip the steering out, put it on the other
side, place a stunt man driving the car, give me a dummy wheel. And as long
as you frame out the guy sitting next to me, they can throw that car around
and drive it pretty fast with me actually in it, so you can see the world
racing by outside the window. And I did quite a lot of that, and I think it
was John that was the first guy to do that.
GROSS: What did John Woo--what kind of advice did he give you?
Mr. OWEN: I mean, he was--I can't remember anything, you know, specific John
Woo said, but I was a big fan of John Woo and he's, you know, brilliant at
putting together action and there's a sequence in his one that was pretty--you
know, one of the more stunning car sequences of the whole series really but I
GROSS: Is that the one where the car's spinning around a lot?
Mr. OWEN: Yeah, and there's a bridge being slowly going up and there's
car--you know, there's a whole sequence where the car eventually just spins to
a stop and the wheel literally is on the edge of this very high bridge. It's
a pretty stunning car stunt.
GROSS: And were you in the car for that stunt?
Mr. OWEN: Not--no. They took--the stunt guy got as close as he could do,
then they would replace the car with the wheel on the edge and then put me in
GROSS: We've established that your face registers a lot in films. In the BMW
films basically it's all--it's mostly you behind the driver wheel and your
face has to express a lot. In "Croupier," your face has to express a lot,
certainly in "I'll Sleep When I'm Dead." What was it like the first time you
saw your face on screen?
Mr. OWEN: It's very stranger. I wouldn't say that that was the strangest
thing because, you know, you're used to seeing photographs of yourself. The
strangest thing is seeing the whole of you really. The first time you see
yourself on TV or on film walking down a street or turning around--it's the
perspectives that we don't get that is the most unusual. You think, `Oh, my
gosh, I walk like that. I look like that from that angle.' That's the sort of
oddest thing to see yourself that objectively. It's a very unusual
GROSS: Were there things you tried to fix or change about yourself after
seeing your full body from every perspective?
Mr. OWEN: It's strange, though, because I'm sort of wary. You know, there
are always people going to be advising you that certain aspects of
yourself--the way you talk, the way you carry yourself could be better, you
know, your posture could be better, your voice could be better. It could be
clearer. And I'm always a bit wary because I think ultimately acting's
about--you know, you can't be too contrived. You can't be worrying about
things like that ultimately. You've got to--it is an emotional job that
demands a commitment. Of course, there's always not enough skill and, you
know, you learn and improve and get better. It is a craft, but I'm wary of
too much of it, so in a similar way, I'm wary of changing things that other
people think it'd be better--you know, I'm 6'2" but I don't often stand up
very tall, but I'm comfortable in the way I carry myself and, you know,
suddenly if I start, you know, standing up much straighter, it just feels
different. It feels less like me and I feel I'm becoming something else and
I'm wary of that.
GROSS: When you first started on the BBC in England and you did your first
series which was called...
Mr. OWEN: There was a series I did called "Second Sight," but that wasn't
really where I started. I've done a lot of work before then. The first sort
of big TV series was a series called "Chancer," which was a series on ITV in
the UK way back when. It was, like, you know, 13 years ago.
GROSS: Now I read that after that series or maybe during that series, as you
were becoming really popular, the tabloids started to move in on you.
Mr. OWEN: Mmm.
GROSS: What was it like to, you know, suddenly when you're still, like,
pretty young have this kind of scrutiny?
Mr. OWEN: I found it very unsettling. I found it--you know, I went into
this TV series. You don't really know what to expect. You're a very young
guy, and suddenly when the series explodes, it becomes this big, prime-time TV
success, the tabloids get very interested. The tabloids love television, they
love, you know, actors in television. And I was pretty naive, and they'd
throw all the tabloid newspapers at me into my trailer to torture me, and I
thought, you know, you'd probably have to talk to everybody and I'd talk, and
then you'd get these sort of really tacky stories. I mean, nothing too
vicious, but it was all just unsettling and fowl, sort of ugly, and I found it
very difficult. I was really sort of quite resentful of it. I was very young
and I didn't quite know how to deal with it. So when it came to this--I did
the second series of this show, an older actor said to me, `You know, you can
say no.' So I did, and I said, `I'm not talking to the press.' And then I got
this obvious reputation for being difficult with the press because I just, you
know, avoided them and I didn't talk to them all during the second series.
And then I did one big press conference at the end of it to get some press out
of the way, and people said, `Why have you not talked to us for a year?' and I
explained my reasons, that I find it difficult, you know? Then every tabloid
was full of `Clive Owen and the price of fame.' `Clive Owen shuns fame.' `The
difficulty of being a TV star.' And it was horrendous again. It was, like, I
GROSS: I know one of the things one of the tabloids did was track down your
birth father who had left the family, I think, when you were three. Let me
just stop here and ask you if this is something I can ask about or whether you
just don't want me to ask.
Mr. OWEN: It depends what you ask.
GROSS: OK. OK. Well, if it's a problem, you just tell me.
Mr. OWEN: OK.
GROSS: Had you already met him before the tabloid tracked him down?
Mr. OWEN: I--it was very difficult for me because my father had left the
home and I did this TV series and actually the character I was playing was
somebody who was estranged from their father, and I was just very wary and
cautious the tabloids would love this as a story--you know, the parallels of
my character and the fact that I myself, you know, was estranged from my
father. So I was very wary, and that's probably another reason why I find it
so difficult with the tabloid newspapers because there was something I was
hiding, there was something I was protecting and they smelled that I think. I
think they start talking about personal things and you look uncomfortable and
they're very experienced in honing in on the areas that people are obviously
hiding something or are wary of, and that was it for me.
And eventually--it all came out in the tabloids about my father, and it wasn't
that big a deal and eventually it was quite freeing up for me because then
there was nothing I had to protect. I didn't--you know, I wasn't feeling that
I had to be as careful around that area, and in a way, it coming out in the
tabloids was probably a good thing. It sort of opened it up.
GROSS: Were you trying to protect yourself or your father?
Mr. OWEN: I didn't want that parallel of somebody's--you know, my
personal--nobody wants their personal life in that way put out in the
tabloids. There are--and to a certain extent, you know, as I've got older and
married and got children, there are certain areas of my life that I don't
think are for public consumption, and I think, you know, I'll talk about the
work. I'll, you know, talk about my career, but the very personal, private
stuff that matters, I just don't understand the impulse to share that with
newspapers or journalists in any way.
GROSS: Well, Clive Owen, thank you so much for talking with us.
Mr. OWEN: Thank you.
BIANCULLI: Clive Owen speaking with Terry Gross in 2004. He stars in "Inside
Man," the new Spike Lee joint that also stars Denzel Washington, Jodi Foster
and Christopher Plummer.
Coming up, David Edelstein reviews "Basic Instinct 2." This is FRESH AIR.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Review: Critic David Edelstein comments on "Basic Instinct 2"
DAVID BIANCULLI, host:
The lurid 1992 thriller "Basic Instinct" starred Michael Douglas as a San
Francisco homicide detective and Sharon Stone as a wealthy novelist who might
also enjoy killing men with an ice pick. The scene in which Stone's character
is interrogated by pasty, middle-aged male detectives and reveals that she's
not wearing underpants was an instant and enduring sensation. It took 14
years and several directors, but Sharon Stone is back, without Michael
Douglas, in "Basic Instinct 2." Film critic David Edelstein has a review.
Mr. DAVID EDELSTEIN: So is she as, you know, revealing this time? That's
what everyone asks when they hear I've seen "Basic Instinct 2." And I have to
deliver the bad news: No. You get a glimpse of the forest but not the trees.
You do see quite a bit of Sharon Stone's body. And let's face it, the peep
show aspect was the hook of the original. The only suspense in the sequel
comes from whether Stone, at 48, can compete with one of the most formidable
bad girls in cinema history, Stone at 34. "Basic Instinct 2" is so stupefying
that there's nothing else to think about except the way of all flesh.
I still remember the first full glimpse of Stone's Catherine Tramell in "Basic
Instinct." She's sitting on a terrace overlooking the wild Pacific breakers.
She hears her name uttered by the detective played by Michael Douglas and
gives a tiny laugh as if amused to even inhabit the same sphere as this
hapless mortal. She knows she can control his eyes, his emotions, even his
chemistry. It's no wonder that on a DVD commentary track, Camille Paglia
breathlessly proclaims Catherine a pagan goddess from the cult of antiquity.
As written with entertaining shamelessness by Joe Eszterhas and directed in a
gorgeously overripe style by Paul Verhoeven, "Basic Instinct" is pureless,
"Basic Instinct 2" is not about a 48-year-old Catherine Tramell, that might
have been fascinating. It's set only a few years after the original. And
this time, instead of a sunny-foggy San Francisco, the setting is a chill
blue-gray London. Why? I don't know. It's not erotic. Another mistake was
hiring Michael Caton-Jones to direct. He couldn't even make the proforma sex
scandal of the movie scandal sexy.
The opening is at least wild. Catherine slays her latest lover, a British
football star, by driving his car off a bridge while simultaneously pleasuring
himself. It's camp at 110 miles an hour but gets points for outrageousness.
Unfortunately, the screen writers Leora Barish and Henry Bean don't seem to
know they need to top that, and the movie settles into a dreary talk fest.
Catherine's prey in this film is a starchy British shrink played by David
Morrissey. The court appoints him to examine Catherine, who is on trial for
poisoning the beloved athlete.
(Soundbite of "Basic Instinct 2")
Unidentified Actor #1: I shall be present during the evaluation.
Unidentified Actor #2: Oh, that's fine by me. I will be asking Ms. Tramell
some fairly personal questions, but if she doesn't mind you being present.
Actor #1: My client understands, and she agrees I should be present for it...
Ms. SHARON STONE: (As Catherine Tramell) Maybe Dr. Glass is right, and we
should be alone for this.
Actor #1: Catherine, I strongly advise you not to contemplate...
Ms. STONE: (As Catherine Tramell) So, is this where we're going to do it?
(End of soundbite)
Mr. EDELSTEIN: So she does it, and it doesn't take the shrink long to get
her number. He sums her up at the inquest on the stand.
(Soundbite of "Basic Instinct 2")
Actor #2: Well, I would say extremely intelligent, gifted, accomplished, yet
inside, I believe, she vacillates between a feeing of God-like omnipotence and
a sense that she simply doesn't exist.
Unidentified Actor #3: If released, is she likely to commit a violent crime?
Actor #2: I believe Ms. Tramell's behavior is driven by what we might call a
risk edition, a compulsive need to prove to herself that she can take risks
and survive dangers that other people can't.
Actor #3: Why would a person do that?
Actor #2: Well, the greater the risk, the greater the proof of her
omnipotence, her existence, really.
(End of soundbite)
Mr. EDELSTEIN: Yeah, yeah, yeah. As if all that Freudian stuff is going to
save them from her clutches. "Basic Instinct 2" is like a joke on Freud
played too slowly at half-speed. But even if it had whizzed along, it would
have been superfluous since Eszterhas' original hurdled past Freud and into
mythic Camille Paglianism in the first 15 minutes.
And Stone's Catherine needs a more cartoon macho antagonist, like Michael
Douglas. Morrissey was terrific as a scandalized politician in the marvelous
miniseries "State of Play." But in the first half of this film, he's too
solid. And by the time he gets sexually obsessed and starts flashing his
choppers like Clive Owen, the audience has moved way beyond them. The basic
instinct to which he succumbs includes stupidity.
I don't remember Stone mugging in the first film or dropping her G's and
slinging her lines like the spawn of Mae West and Clint Eastwood. It's
My guess is that the only person who will enjoy this travesty is the exiled,
original screenwriter Joe Eszterhas, who no doubt be savoring the spectacle of
his pagan goddess thudding to earth.
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.