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Thomas Ricks on Key Threats in Today's Iraq

Washington Post correspondent Thomas Ricks has recently returned from Iraq — where senior military commanders now say that the key threat facing the U.S.effort isn't terrorists, it's the intransigence of the Shia-dominated government.

Ricks, a regular Fresh Air guest, is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and author of the best-selling Fiasco: The American Military Adventure in Iraq.


Other segments from the episode on November 20, 2007

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, November 20, 1999: Interview with Thomas Ricks; Interview with Christopher Plummer.


DATE November 20, 2007 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A

Interview: Thomas Ricks, military correspondent for The
Washington Post and author of "Fiasco," discusses his findings
during his recent trip to Iraq and the changes and progress that
have been made

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

The number of weekly attacks in Iraq has fallen, and that's good news. But
according to my guest, Tom Ricks, the larger story is more complex than it may
seem. Ricks is the military correspondent for The Washington Post and author
of the best seller "Fiasco: The American Military Adventure in Iraq." He's
been reporting from Washington and Iraq. His latest trip to Iraq was November
2nd through the 10th.

Tom Ricks, welcome back to FRESH AIR. Reports have just come out about how
violence is down in Iraq, a 55 percent drop in attacks since the launch of the
surge nine months ago. The purpose of the surge was to create a more peaceful
atmosphere so that the political process could move forward. So the surge was
effective, apparently, in decreasing violence. Has it been effective in
moving the political process forward?

Mr. THOMAS RICKS: I think the surge definitely has had that tactical effect
of improving security. But judged on the terms in which the president
presented it last January, saying that we were doing this to improve security
in order to have a breathing space for political reconciliation, judged on
those terms, the surge has failed.

GROSS: Well, let me read something that you wrote in a recent article. You
report that, "Senior military commanders now say that the biggest threat
facing the US effort in Iraq isn't al-Qaeda terrorists or Sunni insurgents or
Iranian-backed militias. It's the intransigence of Iraq's Shiite-dominated
government." In what areas has the government been so extreme or
uncompromising that the military now considers the government the big problem?

Mr. RICKS: This was really striking to me. I think this is probably the
single biggest memory or image I took away from this trip to Iraq, was just
how frustrated the American military is growing with the government that we
helped create in Baghdad. I was having lunch one day with two officers in the
mess hall of the 1st Cavalry Division in Camp Liberty, west of Baghdad. The
more I listened to them, the more I realized they talked more sympathetically
about the former insurgents than they did about our so-called allies in the
Baghdad government. When I pointed this out to them at the end of the lunch,
and they said, `Well, yeah.' They said, `You know, the insurgents kind of did
what they had to do. But these guys in the Baghdad government are really
frustrating us.'

And you heard this again and again. I heard this again and again from
commanders that, they're worried that they've created an opportunity through
the blood and sweat and treasure of the American people and their offspring.
Over the last six months security has improved, but that the Baghdad
government is not willing to take advantage of that, is not reaching out to
the Sunnis, is not reciprocating the Sunni gestures that say, `Hey, just give
us a place at the table. We understand we lost this situation, but let us be
part of the future of Iraq.' What they're finding is the Baghdad government is
saying, `Hey, politics in this country is a zero sum game. You lose. You get

GROSS: So the way you're describing it, the decrease in violence in Iraq over
the past nine months and the growing suspicion between Shia and Sunnis are
kind of flip sides of the same coin, that--go ahead.

Mr. RICKS: Absolutely. I mean, I don't want to underplay the change in
security in Iraq. I think it's very important. I think I've lost track of
how many trips I've made to Iraq. It's at least 10. This was the first trip
I've been on in which security was better than on my previous trip. It was
the first time that the situation felt better. For example, when I was in
Iraq last spring, I was in the green zone, counted 20 mortars hitting, or
rockets hitting the green zone. On this entire trip, I only heard seven
mortar shells the whole time. I used to hear a car bomb at least once a day.
This trip I only heard, I think, one bomb go off in eight days I was there. I
used to hear 50 or 100 rounds of automatic weapons fire, machine gun fire.
This trip, I heard maybe 10 rounds a day. So it is much better.

That said, I keep on thinking of a remark that a general said to me, General
Barbaro, one of the senior American commanders. He said, `Iraq was never as
bad as it was, and it's not as good as it's being reported now.' That is to
say, yes, there have been improvements, but inside the military, there are a
lot of worries that you could really lose these improvements, especially if
the Baghdad government doesn't get off the dime. And so they're worried that
every day you have improved security without political movement is another day
lost that we'll never get back.

GROSS: Tom, you write that the military approach in Iraq this year has been
to focus on striking deals with Sunni insurgents under which they stop
fighting Americans and instead protect their own neighborhoods. Would you
describe what kind of deals these are, you know, like how they're arranged,
what they are?

Mr. RICKS: It's very murky, and the American commanders really don't talk
much about them, partly because, as they recognize, a lot of these people are
not what we would call the good guys. A lot of these people they're cutting
deals with are people who have killed American troops. In a sense, it's like
going into South Central LA and giving badges to the Crips and saying, `OK,
you guys are now part of the local police.' And part of the problem with this
is that the prime minister of Iraq doesn't like these deals and is kind of
undermining them a bit. We say, `Here's a bunch of former insurgents who have
signed up to become policemen in this town,' and they find that the Baghdad
government drags its feet in enrolling these people.

We are giving them a lot of money. I was just reading today through some
documents. We have this thing called CERP funds. C-E-R-P is the acronym.
They're given to American commanders on the ground. I think it's called
Commanders' Emergency Reconstruction Program funding. We've spent in Iraq
$2.3 billion under that program. A lot of that money has gone to these local
sheiks, who might also be insurgent leaders. It's a kind of way of cutting
deals with them. And we're giving them money. They like that. They also are
finding that we are willing to work with them in a way the Baghdad government
isn't. But it leads to this odd situation where we are now, in some ways, our
American officers are proving to be more sympathetic to these former
insurgents than they are to the Baghdad government.

GROSS: Have we done this with al-Qaeda in Iraq, and does that explain why
al-Qaeda in Iraq's attacks have so greatly diminished?

Mr. RICKS: I don't think we've done it with al-Qaeda in Iraq. What the
Americans tried to do was draw a sharp distinction between what they called
reconcilables and irreconcilables. Irreconcilables were people who just
really wanted to kill Americans and to stir up a civil war inside Iraq. And
al-Qaeda in Iraq really falls into that group.

The larger group, which is essentially Sunni insurgents who were fighting,
partly out of self-respect, partly because they were being paid to fight, and
partly because they couldn't see any other way to get a place at the table in
the post-Saddam Hussein Iraq. For all those reasons, they were fighting. At
the same time, the Americans said these guys could be drawn into some sort of
negotiations and to some sort of deals. And they have been in large numbers
that began in Anbar province and has spread somewhat.

It actually began when some local sheiks and insurgents went to the Americans
and say, `Hey, you may see us attacking a building this afternoon. Please
don't use your airplanes to strike at us. We're not attacking your people.
We're going after al-Qaeda.' And the Americans stood back the first couple of
times and said, `OK, let's watch this. This is interesting.' And then there
were some conversations. `Hey, if you guys are genuinely interesting in
fighting al-Qaeda in Iraq,' the Americans said, `can we help you out here?'
And there actually were some deals back and forth, some information sharing.
The Americans, I think, were able to say, `OK, we have satellites, we can give
you images of that compound where the al-Qaeda guys are if you want to go
after them.' And I think it kind of grew out of that kind of temporary
alliance on the battlefield.

At one point in Baghdad, some insurgents were fighting al-Qaeda. They went to
the Americans and said, `We're just telling you, please don't shoot at us.
We're having a fight here.' The Americans said, `We'd like to help you out.'
And they actually started fighting side by side against al-Qaeda because the
insurgents were getting hit pretty hard by al-Qaeda. And then some American
advisers came in to work with these former insurgents, and the insurgents
said, `No, we don't want to work with you. We want to work with the American
troops we've been fighting alongside.' So various sort of handshake deals were
arrived at, and that's kind of where it's at now. The question is how long
will these handshake deals last? Will the Sunnis lose faith in this approach?
And will the war change into something else that we don't know over the next
six months?

GROSS: So you've outlined two different strategies that the American military
in Iraq has used to decrease the violence. One was to align itself with
Sunnis who were fighting al-Qaeda in Iraq and the other is to cut deals with
insurgents so that they get some money, they get to police their own
neighborhoods in return for stopping their part of the insurgency. Are these
things that mainly account for the dramatic decrease in violence that we've
seen in Iraq?

Mr. RICKS: They account for a very big part of the decrease in violence, but
another part of the decrease comes from the simple fact that Baghdad is
essentially an ethnically cleansed city at this point. It's much less of a
mixed city than it was a couple of years ago. And lots of neighborhoods that
used to be overwhelmingly Sunni are now overwhelmingly Shiite. And the
fighting for those neighborhoods has stopped. The Sunnis simply have left;
two million people have fled the country. That's almost 10 percent of the
population of the country.

And one of the worries is next year, if security continues to improve, a lot
of the Sunnis might come back. They're running out of money from their exile
in Jordan or Syria or Egypt, and they do want to come home. The problems is,
their homes are now occupied by Shiite squatters. And when these Sunnis come
back and say, `I want my old house back,' what will the Iraqi security forces
do? Remember, the Iraqi security forces, the police and army, are
overwhelmingly Shiite, especially the police. And the police have acted
frequently in a sectarian manner, as if they were simply the biggest Shiite
militia around. And so it's a really open question and one that American
planners are already worried about, what happens when the Sunnis come home and
say, `We want our houses back'?

GROSS: So even if there's some stability now, there's so many ways that that
can be ended by the next turn of events.

Mr. RICKS: This is actually one of the themes that American commanders
emphasized to me in my interviews with them, which is this is far from over,
and it probably looks a little bit better, the situation, than it really is.
They can see a lot of ways that it could go wrong, and they can only see a
couple of ways that it could go right. And the big worry is simply that this
opportunity that's presented itself--they feel it kind of opened a window of
opportunity with these moves to improve security--the big worry is that that
simply is going to slip by and Iraq will slide back down a hill into the mess
it was in for all of 2006. And every time that happens, it's harder to get
back out of that situation. There's a lot of people who feel that Uncle Sam
has made these problems now. You know, and said, `We're going to help you
find a place in the future Iraq.' But if Uncle Sam isn't able to force the
Shiite government to reach out and show a little bit of generosity of spirit,
I think the Sunnis might become quite bitter.

The other problem is provincial elections. The Americans see provincial
elections as the only way to really start having political progress. They've
kind of given up on the Maliki government really reconciling itself in any
fashion with the Shiites. The problem with provincial elections is they're
going to be bloody, they're going to be rough, and so it's going to make Iraq
look more violent. So do you want to do it right now or the next few months
when you still have a lot of these so-called surge troops around, the five
extra combat brigades that were moved in this year? Or do you wait and let
the sense of security seep in more and let Iraqis enjoy a breather of sorts?
And do you wait until maybe next fall? The problem with that is, do you lose
the Sunnis while you wait? And also, you wind up holding the elections, which
are going to be nasty, on the eve of the American presidential election. And
it means that in September and October of 2008, you might have bloody scenes
of Iraq all over the evening news again, which is certainly not something the
Republicans would like to see.

GROSS: My guest is Tom Ricks, military correspondent for The Washington Post
and author of the best seller "Fiasco: The American Military Adventure in
Iraq." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: My guest is Tom Ricks. He's The Washington Post military
correspondent, and he just got back from Iraq. He was there from November 2nd
to November 10th.

There's currently an investigation into Blackwater, a private military
contractor that was providing security to American diplomats and others in
Iraq. And, you know, they're being accused of having fired on and killed
several Iraqi civilians without cause. What is the reaction that you heard in
the American military to the reliance that we've had in this war on private
military contractors who aren't accountable to the military?

Mr. RICKS: This actually came up a lot in conversations, frequently
initiated by officers rather than me. What you find is a real loathing and
contempt for Blackwater and the other private security contractors, a feeling
that they're a bunch of cowboys. You know, they come into an area an American
commander's trying to deal with and they mess things up, and you don't know
they're there. They don't coordinate. They don't tell you they're coming
through. And most of all, that they don't have the best interest of the
country in mind. All they're there is to make a buck by executing their
contract, and their contract is to keep their principal alive, to perform
their bodyguard function, at the expense of everything else. American troops
know that sometimes you might have to die in the course of your duty rather
than, say, kill a bunch of kids. And they really make sacrifices in executing
their duty.

And they're very unhappy when they see these boys cowboying it up, is the term
they use, acting like a bunch of cowboys. I was actually talking to a brigade
commander about this, and I said, `Would you want the responsibility of having
these guys in your chain of command, of having to discipline them?' And he
said, `Absolutely.' He said, `It would be a lot of extra work to try to keep
tabs on these guys, but it's a lot better than having them just shoot through
my'--what he calls--`my battle space, my area, without me knowing about it and
messing up the area and maybe undercutting my progress.'

I think that the security contractor situation has really come into relief
this year, though, because, for years, some American units acted in a way not
unlike the way the security contractors act. They would shoot up any cars
that came close to them. They kind of shot first and asked questions later.
Under General Petraeus, the American troops were offered a very different way.
They have been told explicitly by General Petraeus that their top priority is
protecting the Iraqi people. And that's a real change from the American
posture of say, '03, '04. So now you have a situation where the way
Blackwater operates is in sharp contrast to American operations. And I think
it's really cast a harsh new light on the contractors that has taken them by

GROSS: There were a lot of troops in Iraq who have been held over, what, two
or three times? Am I exaggerating the number?

Mr. RICKS: Well, they've done two or three tours. But what they have now is
their tours are being extended from 12 months to 15 months, and a lot of
people out there are doing 15 months now, 15-month tours of duty.

GROSS: And from what you could tell on your recent trip to Iraq, how are
troops reacting to that?

Mr. RICKS: I was struck at the variations in morale. Overall, I'm surprised
at how good morale is in the US military. If you had told me five years ago
what they would go through and, without any increase in the size of the
military, with only 1 percent of the American population carrying the burden
of this war, you told me all that, I would have predicted plummeting morale in
the military. It's been a surprise to me that, actually, morale has been as
good as it is.

That said, I do think morale is sinking in certain parts of the military.
This was the first trip I've been on in which more than one officer
spontaneously brought up with me in an interview the issue of morale of the
troops around them, saying `I'm seeing poor morale.' This wasn't universal.
It's far from universal. I think morale still generally is pretty good. But
it's certain units, people said, `Morale is really bad here. These extra
three months on our second tour here are really disturbing families. Wives
back home are saying, "You got to make a choice, me or the Army."'

You're also seeing it in captains. One thing I found, I asked, whenever I was
interviewing a captain, I'd say, `Are you planning on staying in?' And every
single captain I asked said `no'. Then I'd say, `Are any of your friends
staying in?' And a couple of captains said, `No. Every friend of mine who's a
captain is planning on leaving, too.' That's worrying a lot of people in the

GROSS: Is it just Army captains who are not re-upping? Like, why did you
single them out?

Mr. RICKS: Well, it's Army captains in particular who are punching out.
West Point graduates have a five-year service obligation, so they can't leave
as second lieutenants or first lieutenants, usually. They're usually captains
by the time they can get out, and so a lot of them are saying, `That's it.
I'm out of here.' In fact, I'm told that the departure rate for Army officers
who graduated from West Point is skyrocketing. It is much higher than it was,
say, 10 or 15 years ago.

It's also the age at which people have to start making decisions about whether
they're going to make a career inside the military. If you've been in five,
seven, 10 years, you're probably in your late-20s, early-30s. And it's still
easy to make the transition from there and, say, go to business school, go to
law school, get on with another career. It's much harder if you're, say, 40,
and at that point, you've been in 15, 18 years. Why not stay until you've
been in 20 and get the full retirement benefits? So there's a couple of
demographic reasons that force people to start making decisions about the time
that they're captains about whether to stay in. The surprising thing is how
many people are saying, `That's it. I'm out of here. I'm leaving.' And it's
something you hear a lot of worry about inside the Army.

GROSS: Anything else you want to share with us before our time is up?

Mr. RICKS: If anything, I think just the sense of being in the air in Iraq
right now, it's not like people are walking around talking about how happy
they are. They're all walking on eggshells now. They're really tired in
Iraq. They're been going through this really agonizing experience for four
years, coming off of living under Saddam Hussein. Those last five years has
been especially bad for them because they thought it was over, and it wasn't,
and it actually, for many of them, life got much worse.

So I was really struck with I talked to Iraqis I knew and I'd seen before,
just how on edge they seemed. They want to be hopeful, but they've had their
hopes dashed so many times, that they're almost more nervous now than they've
been in the past. You know, it's one thing to know you're going to be shot at
today; it sort of focuses you. But if you're hoping things are getting
better, if you try to figure out, `Do I bring my family back now?' These are
sort of a bunch of agonizing new questions, and they really don't know. Is
this simply a lull? Or is this the beginning of a new, better phase of life
for them? And so I think there's a lot of new anxiety I sensed at the same
time that they're kind of saying, `Things, you know, are getting better.
Cross your fingers.'

GROSS: Well, Tom Ricks, good to have you back in the States, and thank you,
as always, for talking with us.

Mr. RICKS: You're welcome.

GROSS: Tom Ricks is military correspondent for The Washington Post and author
of the best seller "Fiasco: The American Military Adventure in Iraq." I'm
Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

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

Interview: Christopher Plummer talks about his career, his new
movies and what roles he would still like to play

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

When you say "Christopher Plummer," some people automatically think Captain
Von Trapp in "The Sound of Music." Well, that's just one of about 100 films
Plummer has made. His recent films include "The Insider," "A Beautiful Mind,"
"Syriana" and "Inside Man." He's also had a long stage career, won two Tonys
and performed with Britain's National Theater and the Royal Shakespeare
Company. Plummer has several films about to come out, including "Man in the
Chair," an independent film in which he plays Flash, the last living crew
member who worked on "Citizen Kane." He's a bitter, cranky, alcoholic old man
who's befriended by a high school student trying to win a filmmaking
competition. Together Flash and some of his fellow retired film friends help
the kid make a movie. In this scene, Flash is showing the kid a hidden room
in an old Hollywood studio lot. The kid is played by Michael Angarano.

(Soundbite of "Man in the Chair")

Mr. MICHAEL ANGARANO: (As Cameron Kincaid) So this place was like a

Mr. CHRISTOPHER PLUMMER: (As Flash) Yeah, sort of. But it was a tough club
to get into. No above the line wankers, that's for sure.

Mr. ANGARANO: (As Cameron Kincaid) Above the line?

Mr. PLUMMER: (As Flash) Eh, producers, directors, writers, actors. Those

Mr. ANGARANO: (As Cameron Kincaid) So you know all these people?

Mr. PLUMMER: (As Flash) Most of them. A lot of them are dead. But these
are my friends. Hey, that's me with the crew of "Citizen Kane."

Mr. ANGARANO: (As Cameron Kincaid) You worked on "Citizen Kane?"

Mr. PLUMMER: (As Flash) Yeah. It's...(unintelligible).

Mr. ANGARANO: (As Cameron Kincaid) That's amazing. Is Orson Welles there?

Mr. PLUMMER: (As Flash) These are crew only photos, for Christ's sakes.

Mr. ANGARANO: (As Cameron Kincaid) Oh, so no directors, no wankers?

Mr. PLUMMER: (As Flash) Right.

Mr. ANGARANO: (As Cameron Kincaid) I always wanted to be a wanker--director.

Mr. PLUMMER: (As Flash) A director, huh? The man in the chair, huh?

Mr. ANGARANO: (As Cameron Kincaid) I guess.

Mr. PLUMMER: (As Flash) You guess? The man in the chair can't ever be a
guesser, he's got to make decisions, you know.

(Soundbite of fingers snapping)

Mr. PLUMMER: (As Flash) Boom, boom, boom, boom, boom. He's got to know what
he's doing. Frank Capra says if you're half right you'll be a genius.

(End of soundbite)

GROSS: Christopher Plummer, welcome to FRESH AIR. Would you describe your
character in "Man in the Chair?"

Mr. PLUMMER: Oh, I think he was a wonderful old drunk, which I was for many
years myself. So research was not a problem in that case. He also--he was a
gaffer on "Citizen Kane." But he spends most of his time drinking and prowling
around and going to cinemas, on which of course he's a huge authority. And he
befriends this young kid who is mad to make movies himself. And their
relationship grows. He becomes a grumpy, cynical, bitter old soak into
someone who is now rejuvenated.

GROSS: Now, your character in "Man in the Chair" has grown bitter with age,
whereas it seems to me, in your life, you just keep getting better roles.
You've been in a lot of interesting movies in the past few years.

Mr. PLUMMER: Yes. Yes, I have, which is great because once I hit the
character actor level, scripts started to improve as they came my way.

GROSS: Is there any movie that you see as like a turning point in the latter
part of your career?

Mr. PLUMMER: Yes. I think, I think "The Insider" was.

GROSS: Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm.

Mr. PLUMMER: I mean, I've spent my life on the stage and I've done tons of
film, both in England, Europe and here. But another level started to be
reached after "The Insider," and the scripts that I was receiving were now
much more intelligent and of an A level, rather than a B plus.

GROSS: Well, I'm glad that you mentioned "The Insider" because we just happen
to have a clip from it.

Mr. PLUMMER: Oh, whoops.

GROSS: Yeah, and this film for anyone who hasn't seen it, it's about--"The
Insider" is played by Russell Crowe, he's a whistle blower who had worked as a
scientist at a tobacco company and he knows all the secrets about the
poisonous additives and all that stuff, so he's talking to "60 Minutes" about
it. But this is the very beginning of the story in which your producer,
Lowell Bergman, played by Al Pacino, has been setting up an interview for you
with an Islamic extremist. And at this point you step in as Mike Wallace to
actually ask the questions. And you want to create the rules, but of course
the Islamic group wants to create the rules. So here's how the interview gets

(Soundbite of "The Insider")

Unidentified Actor #1: (In character) (Foreign language spoken)

Unidentified Actor #2: (In character) He says you must not sit so close.

Mr. PLUMMER: (As Mike Wallace) What? I can't conduct an interview from back

Actor #2: (In character) (Foreign language spoken)

Actor #1: (In character) (Foreign language spoken)

Actor #2: (In character) You must move back your chair.

Mr. PLUMMER: (As Mike Wallace) Will you tell him that when I conduct an
interview I sit anywhere I damn please.

Actor #2: (In character) (Foreign language spoken)

Actor #1: (In character) (Foreign language spoken)

Actor #2: (In character) There is no interview.

Actor #1: (In character) (Foreign language spoken)

Mr. PLUMMER: (As Mike Wallace) You! I'm talking to you.

Actor #2: (In character) (Foreign language spoken)

Mr. PLUMMER: (As Mike Wallace) Who the hell do you think I am, a 78-year-old

Actor #2: (In character) (Foreign language spoken)

Mr. PLUMMER: (As Mike Wallace) Do you think I'm going to karate him to death
with this note pad?

Actor #2: (In character) (Foreign language spoken)

Actor #1: (In character) (Foreign language spoken)

Actor #2: (In character) (Foreign language spoken)

Actor #1: (In character) (Foreign language spoken)

Mr. PLUMMER: (As Mike Wallace) Are you interpreting what I'm saying?

Actor #2: (In character) Yes.

Mr. PLUMMER: (As Mike Wallace) We're there. Well, good. Ask him if Arabic
is his second language.

Actor #1: (In character) (Foreign language spoken)

(End of soundbite)

GROSS: That's my guest Christopher Plummer in a scene from "The Insider." How
did you get the part in "The Insider," which you say, you know, was a turning
point in your film career?

Mr. PLUMMER: Well, they sent me the script. I'm sure they sent it to others
as well. But I got it and I met Michael and Al, and I was in. It was just

GROSS: And did you start watching a lot of "60 Minutes"? Did you meet Mike
Wallace? Was that necessary?

Mr. PLUMMER: No, you know, I knew Mike Wallace. I knew Mike Wallace. And
he'd interviewed me in the past. I also grew up with Mike Wallace. He was
one of the early hard-core television personalities. And I watched him
continuously when I was in my 20s in the '50s when he began. And it was all
very exciting to watch that kind of television. It was really, probably, what
the medium was for, kind of expose medium in which people got into the core,
sometimes cruelly or not, of someone's persona. And Mike was an expert at it,
as was Jon Friedman in England.

GROSS: Now, another film that you did in recent years was "Syriana," in

Mr. PLUMMER: Yeah.

GROSS:'re the head of a big law firm representing an oil company with
interests in the Middle East. And they're looking at a power change in a
small Gulf country, and they want their own man in power so they can call the
shots. So they're trying to help this young, weaker prince who they think
they can tell what to do. I want to play a scene in which you're talking with
that prince.

(Soundbite of "Syriana")

Mr. PLUMMER: (As Dean Whiting) Prince, is there anything that we can do for

Unidentified Actor: (In character) Americans always happy to drill holes in
other people's countries. I've heard of you, Mr. Whiting, the cat's paw of
the Saudi princes.

Mr. PLUMMER: (As Dean Whiting) Huh. Well, I know your brother, the foreign
minister. He's very bright. I know your father, too. He threw the second
creepiest party I've ever been to in Washington. And as far as I can see, you
could probably use a bit of the cat's paw yourself, second born son so beaten
down by his family he can't even tell me what he wants when he's asked
straight out, a grown up baby who's afraid of his brother and maybe wants to
be king. Maybe? Well, prince, are you a king? Can you tell me what you

(End of soundbite)

GROSS: Well, Christopher Plummer, hearing your scenes from "The Insider" and
from "Syriana," I just started wondering, have you ever played someone in a
movie who's sweet tempered, sensitive and shy?

Mr. PLUMMER: Yes, of course I have. Of course I have. I've made over 125
movies. And I think in them you'll find some of them sweet, darling,
sensitive and shy. Yeah, I have done a few of those parts. And I think Flash
in the "Man in the Chair" has a great deal of sweetness in him, too, which
comes to the fore in the end, brought out by the young man.

GROSS: But you seem, in recent years, to really have kind of specialized in
those really like, power, assertive roles. `No one's going to push me around'
kind of roles.

Mr. PLUMMER: Yes, I guess so. "King Lear," "Inherit the Wind" last year
playing Clarence Darrow.

GROSS: On Broadway?

Mr. PLUMMER: Yeah. Both of those on Broadway.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Mr. PLUMMER: So--yes, I suppose--but those parts interest me. They're
witty, they've got wonderful edge to them, and I think people think that I
exude a sort of power so they keep casting me in these things.

GROSS: Well, we've got one more clip for you. And this one is inevitable.
It's the movie that made you famous, "The Sound of Music," 1965...

Mr. PLUMMER: Oh, yes.

GROSS: which you were Captain Von Trapp, a widower who expects his
children to behave as if they were in the military until you get a new
governess played by, of course, Julie Andrews. And this is the scene in which
she comes to your door, you meet her for the first time, and you're trying to
evaluate her and also give her directions on how to handle the kids.

(Soundbite of "The Sound of Music")

Mr. PLUMMER: (As Captain Von Trapp) Now, Fraulein...

(Soundbite of snapping fingers)

Ms. JULIE ANDREWS: (As Maria) Maria.

Mr. PLUMMER: (As Captain Von Trapp) Fraulein Maria, I don't know how much
the Mother Abbess has told you.

Ms. ANDREWS: (As Maria) Not much.

Mr. PLUMMER: (As Captain Von Trapp) You are 12th in a long line of
governesses who have come to look after my children since their mother died.
I trust that you will be an improvement on the last one. She stayed only two

Ms. ANDREWS: (As Maria) What's wrong with the children, sir?

Mr. PLUMMER: (As Captain Von Trapp) There's nothing wrong with the children,
only the governesses.

Ms. ANDREWS: (As Maria) Oh.

Mr. PLUMMER: (As Captain Von Trapp) They were completely unable to maintain
discipline. Without it this house cannot be properly run. Will you please
remember that, Fraulein?

Ms. ANDREWS: (As Maria) Yes, sir.

Mr. PLUMMER: (As Captain Von Trapp) Every morning you will drill the
children in their studies. I will not permit them to dream away their summer
holidays. Each afternoon they will march about the grounds, breathing deeply.
Bedtime is to be strictly observed, no exceptions.

Ms. ANDREWS: (As Maria) Excuse me, sir, when do they play?

Mr. PLUMMER: (As Captain Von Trapp) You will see to it that they conduct
themselves at all time with the utmost orderliness and decorum. I'm placing
you in command.

Ms. ANDREWS: (As Maria) Yes, sir.

(Soundbite of whistle blowing twice, thumps)

(End of soundbite)

GROSS: Christopher Plummer and Julie Andrews in a scene from "The Sound of
Music." People have such strong feelings about that movie. They either love
it or they hate it and they think it's really insipid. Where do you stand on
this issue of our time?

Mr. PLUMMER: I'm very fond of Julie. That's the nicest thing that came out
of that film for me. We have a true and great friendship. She's an
extraordinary woman, professional. I'm grateful to the film in many ways
because it was such a success. It is not my favorite film, of course, because
I do think it borders on mawkishness. But we did our damn best not to make it
to mawkish. And Robert Wise kept very tight control on it, which was
difficult enough. The sound and the music is quite wonderful. The only two
countries that really didn't like it were Austria, of course, and Germany.
Austria was fed to the teeth with the fact that they'd seen so many
documentary films about the Trapp family that they'd had them up to here.

GROSS: You know, in your movies you have such good diction, such proper
diction in some of your roles. I almost thought you were from England.
You're from Canada. Is the diction a result of theater training? Is it a
class thing?

Mr. PLUMMER: No, it's to do with my family, who spoke well. I mean, we
speak well in Canada as well as they do in Great Britain, may I remind you.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Mr. PLUMMER: And my family were educated, well read, and they spoke
beautiful English. So I really got a lot from them. And, of course, theater
training continued to make it better.

GROSS: Now, you were a member of two very famous British theater groups, the
National Theater and the Royal Shakespeare Company. What years were you in

Mr. PLUMMER: I lived in England from 1961 right through into almost the


Mr. PLUMMER: So about 15 years, yeah.

GROSS: OK. So, I mean, you worked in a period when the method became very
popular in the United States.

Mr. PLUMMER: Yeah.

GROSS: But you were also doing classical theater.

Mr. PLUMMER: Yeah.

GROSS: So you were doing classical theater and movies in which a lot of the
actors were into the method. Did you find yourself going back and forth
between more of a classical approach and more of a method approach to acting?

Mr. PLUMMER: Well, I think both. I think the one helped the other. I'm so
glad that--I'm so glad I was Canadian, in a way, because the Canadian can take
the best of the British and the best of the American school. And we're rather
good at that. We're kind of like chameleons in that respect. That's why
there's so many good Canadian comics and mimics; terrific. So that was
valuable to use the method and use the classical technique together at the
same time. It was very exciting.

GROSS: How would you describe the main difference between the two approaches?

Mr. PLUMMER: The method in itself has been, I think, heavily misunderstood.
I've always thought that. The method is really there for an actor who is in
trouble and who can't rustle up an emotion that he's trying to get or that the
author requires him to get. So he uses sense memory and things that the
method suggests you use to some personal experience in his--probably in his
family or some tragedy, he uses that to infuse the lines that he's having
trouble with. But if you're an actor, for God's sake, the whole reason for
being an actor is that you have an imagination, an intelligence, and some sort
of instinct of your own and you don't need to follow the method.

GROSS: Now, early in your screen career you were actually on television, and
you did a lot of the early TV shows.

Mr. PLUMMER: Yeah. The golden age of television, yes, in New York.

GROSS: Like General Electric Theater and Kraft Theater.

Mr. PLUMMER: Oh, yeah. All of them. I did them all, yeah.

GROSS: And a lot of those were live, right? Or all of them were live.

Mr. PLUMMER: All of them were live. Tape didn't come in until the late
'50s, I don't think.

GROSS: Do you have any really good stories about doing live drama on
television in the '50s?

Mr. PLUMMER: Well, yeah. I can't remember the name of the show, but Martin
Manulis was the producer and director, and we were doing, this time,
"Mayerling," the story of Crown Prince Rudolf of New Habsburg and his suicide
attempt with Maria Vetsera, his lover. And the setting was in the hunting
lodge, and on the night of the show, live, of course, Vivica Lindfors was such
a beautiful Swedish actress and she was playing Marie Vetsera. I have an
immense crush on her. And the night came, before I was supposed to make my
entrance into the hunting lodge and she is waiting for me, and the poor thing
had to wait and wait and wait because off stage I couldn't see anything. It
was all black, and I couldn't find the door to come in. I didn't know where
it was, and there was no stage manager or anybody to help me. So finally I
saw a light at the end of this long sort of black hall, and I thought, oh,
thank God, at last I can find an entry and make my entry. So I sort of bent
down and came out. But the audience must have been very startled to see Crown
Prince Rudolf with all his medals coming out of the fireplace.

And Manulis just screamed at me, he said, `What the hell do you'--after it was
over he said, `What the hell did you come in there for?' I said, `You're
goddamn lucky I came in at all. Don't speak to me like that. I spent many
hours looking for this frigging entrance.'

GROSS: So what did you do to cover it up, anything?

Mr. PLUMMER: No, we just valiantly went on. But her face was something
extraordinary. She didn't dream I was going to come through that thing.

GROSS: That sounds like such a nightmare, though. You know, it's like live
TV and you can't find the entrance to the stage.

Mr. PLUMMER: Oh, it's awful. But the cameramen were so great in those days.
Because if you--I was on a long soap opera once when I--it was so bad I can't
remember its name and refuse to remember its name. But they were so great.
There were only four of them, you know, four cameras. And then we never knew
our lines. So then when we forgot a line, the camera--we'd wink at the
cameraman and the cameraman would then go and shot a vase or something on the
table or a grand piano, and while we quickly looked at the script and we
nodded and then he came back and we finished the scene. But that happened all
the time. But they mastered it so smoothly, these cameraman. They were

GROSS: Did stuff like that make you more fearless on stage because you'd
experienced such dramatic things on TV?

Mr. PLUMMER: Well, of course. If you put yourself in disaster, that's the
best training of all, isn't it? You know how to get yourself out of trouble.
I've never been frightened on the stage, though. That's always--for some
crazy reason I've felt very much at home on the stage.

GROSS: Now, you've performed Shakespeare as a young man, you've performed
Shakespeare as an older man, most recently as King Lear on Broadway. Does
Shakespeare read differently to you now than it did when you were young? Are
there things you see it in now that you didn't then, or interpretations that
are different?

Mr. PLUMMER: Well, of course there are. But the poet himself remains as
magical and as extraordinary and as simple and as human as he did when I was
young. Because that's what strikes you right away is the humanity of the
plays, when you're--and the simplicity of them when you're a young person.
That's why he's head and shoulders above all the other writers that wrote at
his time particularly. Because they're much more florid and grandiloquent.
And Shakespeare is so extraordinarily simple. And that stays with you always.

Of course, as you grow older and you have some experience of life, you see
more into the depths of each character. King Lear, for instance, which is an
extraordinary play; it's so very modern in its dysfunctional family and all
the trappings of power that are disappearing from him. I mean, it's so
modern. It's so human. It's a great piece of work, I must say. So you...

GROSS: So--yeah, go ahead.

Mr. PLUMMER: ...need to be much older to understand the depths of the part
like that.

GROSS: I never think of Shakespeare as being simple.

Mr. PLUMMER: Oh, yes. I mean, oh, no. Come on. When he picks the great
moments, the key moments in plays, his language becomes terribly simple. You
notice that.

GROSS: Give me an example.

Mr. PLUMMER: Well, nothing could be simpler than "the rest is silence."
That's as modern a statement as there ever was.

GROSS: My guest is Christopher Plummer. He's made over 100 films and has
several about to come out, including "Man in the Chair."

Your first marriage was to Tammy Grimes and you had a daughter together, the
actress Amanda Plummer.


GROSS: Who, among other things, was one of the stars of "Pulp Fiction." Were
you particularly proud to see her in such a kind of landmark movie?

Mr. PLUMMER: Well, I was prouder to see her on stage, give one of the most
extraordinary performances I've ever seen in the theater--and I'm not saying
that because she's my daughter--"Agnes of God," which she won all the prizes
for. She was just an extraordinary demon on that stage and took the audience
with her. And I knew that she had an extraordinary sort of greatness in her
when she acted that role, and so did all the critics. She is immensely
talented. She's very eccentric. She's dangerous on the stage and on screen.
I think she has a danger. And she never stops working. She's making all
sorts of interesting little films, some of which are never seen because
they're so obscure. But she'll travel everywhere to do one. She's an amazing
creature, and I'm very proud of her altogether. I think she is--her
particular talent has nothing to do with us in a funny way. She's got a
totally different approach to performing. And when I watch her, I envy her
because it makes me feel very, rather old fashioned and I get quite miserable,
actually. She startles me and startles people.

GROSS: You said at the beginning of the interview the character that you play
in your new movie "Man in the Chair," that you used to drink a lot.

Mr. PLUMMER: Oh, yes.

GROSS: That was a very enthusiastic yes. Was this mostly like in the 1950s
and '60s?

Mr. PLUMMER: Yeah, that was the good drinking era. And the '60s sort of
became more of a drug era, didn't it? And then the '70s were so boring I
can't remember them. But the '50s was a very communicative era. Everybody
loved their drink. New York was wide open, so was Montreal. In fact,
Montreal stayed open 24 hours a day. There wasn't a joint in town that
closed. And I used to, you know, commute, shuttle back from both. And it was
a glorious time. And we were all--all us young actors, my friends--Jason
Robards--were all big drinkers--Richard Harris, Peter O'Toole--all of us were
good, hard-fisted drinkers. And our intention was that we should be if we
were to be called men. We must be--drink as much as we can and if we can
still get through "Hamlet" the next day without a hitch, that made you a man,
my son. You weren't worth anything unless you could--you do the test of time.

GROSS: Is it harder to do "Hamlet" with a hangover?

Mr. PLUMMER: Terrible. It's just a nightmare. And I have done it with a
hangover, yeah. It was very fast, though. We did it very fast. We got off
very quickly. It was no longer a three and a half or a four hour play. It
was something like two hours.

GROSS: What would you do to like make yourself feel better before having to
do "Hamlet" or any kind of heavy lifting with a hangover?

Mr. PLUMMER: (Unintelligible)...was my favorite pick me
up...(unintelligible)...laced with a little creme de Mont. It goes down like
silk. And, boy, does it wake you up. And if you have another one, you have
two or three...(unintelligible)'re drunk again. So just stick to one
and you'll be OK.

GROSS: And you wouldn't forget your lines with that?

Mr. PLUMMER: No, somehow "Hamlet" remained intact in my memory. It was such
a glorious play that I wouldn't insult it by forgetting it.

GROSS: Are there any roles you'd still particularly like to play? There's a
lot of roles you don't know about because they haven't been written yet, but
is there any particular thing you have your sights on?

Mr. PLUMMER: Oh, I hope somebody actually does write some role that really
is a wonderful role. There aren't many. It's an ensemble time now. And as
Nathan Lane said so succinctly, "I don't do ensemble." But, yeah, there's tons
of stuff I want to play. I want to play some Chekhov. I'm going to play some
Shaw coming up, which I'm very excited about, Caesar and Cleopatra. And, yes,
I want to do things like Prospero. I want to do Volpone. I've got tons of
parts that I want to play before I croak.

GROSS: Well, Christopher Plummer, a pleasure to talk with you. Thank you so

Mr. PLUMMER: Thank you.

GROSS: Christopher Plummer stars in the film "Man in the Chair," which comes
out next month.

You can download podcasts of our show on our Web site,


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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