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Unearthing a Family Tree's Diverse Roots

Journalist, novelist and playwright Thulani Davis traces her roots in My Confederate Kinfolk: a Twenty-First Century Freedwoman Discovers Her Roots. Among the revelations Davis uncovered was that her ancestors include a Scots-Irish clan of cotton planters as well as Africans from Sierra Leone.

21:29

Other segments from the episode on January 17, 2016

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, January 17, 2006: Interview with Thulani Davis; Interview with Steve Coogan.

Transcript

DATE January 17, 2006 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
NETWORK NPR
PROGRAM Fresh Air

Interview: Thulani Davis discusses her new memoir, "My Confederate
Kinfolk"
TERRY GROSS, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

After writing for many years about African-American history and contemporary
life, Thulani Davis has written a book tracing her family tree. On that tree,
she found her white great-grandfather and his older brother, who fought with
the Confederate army. She says by the time the book was done, she had to
revise some of her thinking about herself.

Davis grew up in the 1950s. Her book "1959" is an autobiographical novel
about integrating a white school. She wrote the librettos for operas about
Malcolm X and the slave ship Amistad, and for many years she wrote for The
Village Voice. Her new memoir is called "My Confederate Kinfolk: A
Twenty-First Century Freedwoman Discovers Her Roots."

Before you started this book, did you know that you had white members of the
family tree?

Ms. THULANI DAVIS (Author, "My Confederate Kinfolk"): Yes. I knew I had a
white great-grandfather, which, of course, means there were others, but I have
to say I really never thought about it. It was pretty common where I grew up
for people to know that they had some white ancestry, and people rarely ever
mentioned names or talked about looking for who those people were.

GROSS: And just in terms of, like, personal identity, how important was it to
you before you started researching this book to know who was part of that
white family that was part of your family tree? Did you care?

Ms. DAVIS: No, I didn't care. There was a sense that you knew what the story
was because the story was a cliche. In other words, everybody in the town who
had white ancestry, we all pretty much assumed we had the same story, which
was a plantation master who had forced himself upon someone in the quarter,
or, in the case of my furthest-back Davis ancestor, a woman who was raped on a
slave ship. So it was as if you knew the story. And, in fact, that was quite
wrong. The story I found was much more interesting.

GROSS: What got you started in this direction of researching your family tree
was a book that your grandmother had been writing when she died. She died in
1971. What was this book, and what did it do to spark your interest?

Ms. DAVIS: She wanted to write a novel. She was scared to write the story as
a true story. She wanted to write a novel about her parents. I wasn't
initially fascinated with it myself, in that she didn't tell me about it, so I
didn't get a chance to talk to her about it. It was something that came to me
after she died. But I had been asked to work on a Broadway show on Thomas
Jefferson and Sally Hemings, and in doing the treatment for that book and
talking with people on that team for that show, I suddenly blurted out one
day, `Well, I have my own Sally Hemings story and I've been trying to use that
to write this script, and I've found that it's difficult. I've found it's
taking me into some places I've never been just psychologically, I guess, or
emotionally.'

And it was quite a revelation to me when I said it, because I had assumed,
like I said, that I understood what that story was. I didn't think I had deep
feelings about it. And suddenly, in wrestling with that, one of the people on
the team said, `You should really write about that.' And then I sort of went
back and started looking at my grandmother's notes and trying to understand
what was the story she was trying to tell, because she had a lot of feelings
about it and, to her, it was a romance. So I found I couldn't quite buy into
that, but I went to dig up what it was she had written to look up the facts
behind the notes she had for her memoir.

GROSS: Let's talk about some of the things that you learned about your
great-grandparents on your mother's side. Your great-grandmother was named
Chloe Curry. She was a former slave from Alabama. Your great-grandfather
was Will Campbell. He was a white man from Missouri. How did these two
people meet?

Ms. DAVIS: Chloe Curry, who had married in Alabama just after she got out of
slavery in 1865, had decided that it would be great if she and her husband
moved to Mississippi. They had to leave four children in Alabama to do that,
but they came up to Mississippi because there was better work, better-paying
work, and less violence, really, directed towards African-Americans at that
moment. They came to work for Will Campbell's older brother, whose name was
Leonidas Campbell, and he was head of the farm there Yazoo County in
Mississippi. In 1875 or so they arrived at that farm.

GROSS: So she was married when she got there. How did she end up being with
your great-grandfather, Will Campbell, a white man?

Ms. DAVIS: Her husband left. He hated Mississippi. But I think whatever
situation arose, at some point I should back up and say--at some point, Chloe
was hired to work for Will as his housekeeper. And whatever friendship or
situation that arose between them--and I don't know how it got started, but
whatever alliance arose between Will and Chloe caused Jim Curry to go back
to Alabama, and they later divorced.

GROSS: Now when your grandmother was writing a novel based on your
great-grandparents' lives, she was writing a romance. Did you see your
great-grandparents' relationship as being romantic or more practical? Do you
have a sense of what they meant to each other? I mean, this was a
relationship that society would have scorned and, you know, it wasn't even
legal. And as you pointed out earlier, a lot of relationships between black
women and white men in that period were power relationships; the men would
rape the women or just kind of coerce them into being a mistress. So what was
the nature of this relationship?

Ms. DAVIS: I guess I have to say I'm not sure what the origin was, and it
could have arisen out of his power over her as employer. He could have taken
advantage of her. I believe the relationship, because it lasted so long,
which was at least 20 years, at a time when both people had a choice about
that--I believe the relationship really must have had a strong basis in
friendship and commonality. And in many ways, I see them as similar kinds of
people. They kept their own council, seemingly. They weren't afraid of being
isolated, which they certainly were, particularly as a couple. But even
previous to that, each of them had suffered quite a bit of hardship through
the Civil War, and I think they both had a common respect and admiration for
hard work, for people who worked hard, and real love for cotton farming and
the delta, the Mississippi landscape.

And I imagine, because he taught her so much about the business end of raising
cotton, that there was a kind of focus on the day-to-day and that he also
shared with her really a lot of the information that a newly freed person
would need to know about their rights as a citizen in America, about how
banking worked, about how education took place. And there were so many things
that indicate friendship to me and generosity from Will towards Chloe that I
really think there was at least a great companionship.

GROSS: Did your great-grandparents live as husband and wife, even though they
couldn't legally marry because of the miscegenation laws? Did they live as
husband and wife, and did your grandmother grow up with both parents in the
house?

Ms. DAVIS: Yes, they lived actually in what I would think is a relatively
small house, actually one-bedroom home. My grandmother grew up with two
parents until her father died when she was about 20.

GROSS: Do you think your great-grandparents were attacked by any of their
neighbors or, you know, just shut out by their neighbors because they were
basically living together in a socially scorned way? They were a black woman
and a white man living together as husband and wife. I mean, that was against
the law.

Ms. DAVIS: Right. Right. There were a few other cases of it in that county.
I'm quite certain they were shunned for it. I'm quite certain they didn't
have company visiting and that if company came to visit Will, that there was
some pretense that she was just a cook and did not live there. It would have
required a lot of that. When he died, Chloe could not attend his funeral
without offending everyone in town, so she stayed home.

GROSS: My guest is Thulani Davis. Her new memoir is called "My Confederate
Kinfolk." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guest is Thulani Davis. Her new book, "My Confederate Kinfolk," is
about researching her family tree and discovering the story of her white
great-grandfather and his family.

So it sounds like your great-grandfather, Will Campbell, was a pretty decent
guy. I imagine you don't feel so positively about his brother Leonidas
Campbell. He was elected to the Statehouse from Yazoo, Mississippi, in
1875 and he was elected to replace James Patterson, who had been lynched.
Was your great-grandfather's brother connected to that lynching?

Ms. DAVIS: Yes, he was. Leonidas Campbell called a posse out to his farm who
strung up James Patterson in Leonidas' front yard. And I was really actually
very shocked when I first discovered it. I didn't know all that much about
Leonidas. And I later discovered he also participated in a massacre during
the Civil War, a massacre of black soldiers. So, yes, he was a bit much for
me to deal with. I had to really try to understand who that man was. And I
knew also that Chloe disliked him. So as--the more I found out about him, the
more I began to understand her position must have been difficult to work for
someone who had just allowed a lynching in his front yard at the the time
that, you know, you start working for him.

GROSS: Now your great-grandfather's brother was elected to the Statehouse
from Yazoo, Mississippi, in 1875. Were blacks allowed to vote in that
election?

Ms. DAVIS: Well, they had voted three times, men only. They had voted in
1868 and I guess most recently in 1873. They certainly were expected to vote.
They were the voting majority because, really, they outnumbered white people
in the county. They had elected James Patterson to the state House of
Representatives. When he was killed, he was in the Statehouse. He was a
schoolteacher, and he also lived on the Campbell farm. So his death actually
made it possible for Leonidas Campbell to be elected to the Statehouse. No
black people voted that year or for the next 90 years. And so he had an easy
time, whereas Patterson would have been a shoo-in had he lived and had black
people not been terrorized from voting that year.

GROSS: So when you look at your family tree now, the white side and the
African-American side, do you feel like you're looking at American history and
you're looking at both sides of the Civil War? Do you feel like there's
certain touchstones of American history that you can see in sharp focus in
your own family?

Ms. DAVIS: Oh, yes. You know, I have two thoughts about that: one, that a
lot of our family trees must be like this, that those things we learned about
in school may actually be reflected in all these cousins we don't know we
have. And that is the American family, or it's how American society is made.
Some of us who were--just as there were families that were divided by the
Civil War, like the Campbells had one brother who was a Union supporter and
the rest were Confederate supporters.

But the family's actually larger, and it's black and white, so I have a black
ancestor who was a former slave who became a minister and was at the black
conventions in the 1880s, trying to fight for the right of blacks to vote and
to continue to participate in electoral politics. And as you said, I have a
great-uncle who was part of the overthrow of Reconstruction, who thought that
was the worst thing possible for his interest. And I hadn't--as I said at the
beginning of the interview, I hadn't really thought about it before, but it
seems really natural to me now. It seems logical, as it does that I am an
outgrowth of both of these people, that I'm sort of some--it feels logical
that I'm one of the outcomes of all their actions.

GROSS: Now I should say that you found certain things that you felt very
connected to in the white part of your family tree, such as the fact that a
couple of the women in that family tree were would-be writers; you're a
writer. One of them actually started theaters, and you've written for the
theater. So in a way, I mean, they--you must feel very connected to them,
even though it's the white part of your family.

Ms. DAVIS: And I do. It's odd to suddenly feel connected at 56, but when I
first got some newspaper clippings in the mail with pictures of them, I went,
`Oh, my God, it's my hairline; it's my raccoon eyes.' And that really shocked
me. I wasn't ready for that. It almost scared me. I just thought, `Oh, I'm
not ready for new information.'

And when I found all these women that were writers and some of them never got
a publishing company to publish their fiction or poetry, I said to myself,
`Well, I really don't have that among the Davises.' This is really a new
thought that I have this connection to other family members who, like many
women, I guess, of the 19th and early 20th century, were trying to write
partly because they'd been through such incredible experiences, and those
women are very unique, very interesting, and they have a lot of other
qualities, I think, that I have.

GROSS: You mentioned looking at relatives in the white part of your family
tree and then seeing some of their facial characteristics in your own face
when you look in the mirror. You're somebody who's written extensively about
African-American issues and poetry and music, African-American history,
African-American identity. So what did it do to your own sense of identity as
an African-American to start to see the facial characteristics of white people
who you didn't even realize until recently were in your family tree?

Ms. DAVIS: I have to say at first I don't think I digested it at all. I was
really stunned by it to the point of maybe not knowing what my reaction was.
I--it was just really new for me. And I did not refer to them as relatives of
mine for a long time. I refer to them by name. I wouldn't have said Leonidas
was my great-uncle; it took me three years to be able to do that, because
people I'd known about my whole life were my family. You know, my
great-grandfather William Roscoe Davis--I call him my great-grandfather.
But I really--it took some time for me to begin to say, `Well, these people
are relatives of mine,' because I found them interesting as people. I'm not
sure I would have liked them all, but I would love to have met them all.

And at the same time, I met some living members of the Campbell family who
have all been wonderful to me and were more like people I would know anyway.
So that helped me to bridge the gap a little bit. And I do feel like it's
going to be easy to be cousins with the living Campbells. But it was a big
adjustment.

GROSS: Do you think of your great-grandparents as being progressive rebels
because they had this long-lasting relationship together in spite of how
society scorned such relationships?

Ms. DAVIS: Yes, I do think they were rebels. I also think--and this I take
to heart a bit--that they followed their own star. They believed in doing
what they wanted to do, and they weren't concerned with convention, and that
they made a way for themselves to do as they wanted to do. And that's very
important. It takes a lot of guts. And I feel glad to know that story
because it empowers me to walk my own path.

GROSS: Well, you're in your 50s and you've kind of already been walking your
own path, don't you think?

Ms. DAVIS: Yeah, but these are hard times to stand up and be different, I
think. It's--we're in a time where convention's very important, and I think
it is--as opposed to the '60s, when I came of age, when it was important
perhaps not to be conventional. But I think it is empowering to know that
people who went before you really were trying as well, that you really aren't
reinventing the wheel as you go through your life, that people have tried to
make it possible for you to do those things that you do, whether you knew
about it or not. I think when you do find it out, it feels more like you have
an obligation almost to honor that, to continue to honor it--perhaps in my
case, to continue to honor it. But I actually did feel greatly empowered by
both of them, but particularly by Chloe. I feel much more like I should go
forward more fiercely.

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

Ms. DAVIS: And thank you.

GROSS: Thulani Davis is the author of the new book "My Confederate Kinfolk."
I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

(Announcements)

GROSS: Coming up, comic and actor Steve Coogan does some uncanny impressions
and talks about Alan Partridge, the annoying TV talk show host and radio
deejay that he played on the BBC. Coogan is starring in the new movie
"Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story."

(Soundbite of music)

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

Interview: Steve Coogan discusses his work as a comic and actor
TERRY GROSS, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

(Soundbite of "Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story")

Mr. STEVE COOGAN: (As Himself) Groucho Marx once said that the trouble with
writing a book about yourself is you can't fool around. Why not? People fool
around with themselves all the time.

(Soundbite of "Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story")

Mr. COOGAN: (As Himself) I'm Tristram Shandy, the main character in this
story, the leading role.

GROSS: That's Steve Coogan in the new movie "Tristram Shandy: A Cock and
Bull Story." It's a movie about making a film adaptation of the virtually
unfilmable 18th century comic novel "Tristram Shandy." The movie alternates
between scenes from "Tristram Shandy" and scenes on the film's set. Coogan
plays himself as well as Tristram Shandy and Shandy's father. The new film is
directed by Michael Winterbottom, who also directed Coogan in "24 Hour Party
People." Coogan was featured in Jim Jarmusch's movie "Coffee and Cigarettes"
and co-starred in "Happy Endings." In England, he's well-known for his alter
ego, Alan Partridge, the self-absorbed and clueless TV talk show host and
radio deejay that Coogan played on BBC TV. You can see reruns on BBC America.

"Tristram Shandy" will be opening gradually in theaters around the country
starting at the end of the month.

Steve Coogan, welcome to FRESH AIR. Does it mess with your mind to be playing
a version of yourself that isn't quite yourself, knowing that when we viewers
watch it we might think that that is really you?

Mr. COOGAN: I don't mind. I kind of like playing with, you know--I like
blurring the edges of fact and fiction sometimes. It's more fun. I know some
people--the important thing to me was that it was not self-indulgent
narcissism, that the parts of the story that feature me playing myself help
people understand the essence of the novel, the novel within the film. So it
was important to me that people didn't think, `Why the hell are we watching
this movie about an actor we've never heard of?' And also just--there's
something interesting about--for those people who do now me or become aware of
when they're watching the film that they're watching an actor playing himself,
is how much of it is is real and how much of it is not? And so it's kind of
this double bluff going on if you play yourself in an unsympathetic way and
you're allowing that to happen, that somehow you're kind of rising above that.
And I think that's...

GROSS: Well, you've just put your finger on it, that you play yourself in a
somewhat unsympathetic way. I mean, you're not the most sensitive person in
the movie. You're very competitive. Even though your girlfriend has come
with the baby that you had together to be with you, she's traveled 200 miles,
you have an affair with someone else. So you know, it is not, like, the most
sympathetic portrait. Of course the movie's a comedy, but--so, are you not
the kind of actor who'd say, `That's not flattering, I don't want to do it'?

Mr. COOGAN: No. I kind of--I think the work I've done so far, even work--I
mean, I've played characters before that are not me, but I've used elements of
me in the writing of those characters. And often, if you're trying to make
comedy and subtle comedy that's kind of illuminating and interesting, you have
to use elements of yourself that aren't sympathetic. But obviously when
you're creating a character, you have a different name and therefore you kind
of distance yourself from it and you're saying, `This is a creation, it's not
me,' whereas I'm playing a little game here. So--and I actually think that
the work that attracts me is portraying characters--you know, this one happens
to share my name and, as I've admitted, there are certain things within my
personality that I've drawn upon when I improvise. You kind of give rent,
maximize and articulate those parts of your personality that are
unsympathetic. And the parts of my personality that I think are kind of
well-adjusted and well-rounded, I kind of keep those in check and don't really
show much of that because it's actually dramatically less interesting and
makes--doesn't make for good comedy. Most comedy characters are not rational,
well-rounded, well-adjusted human beings. So if you like that kind of--you
have to give free rein to those parts of yourself that are dysfunctional.

GROSS: I've mostly seen you in comedies or, you know, movies that had comic
elements to them, like "24 Hour Party People," "Happy Endings"--that came out
this summer, in which you played Lisa Kudrow's brother. And, you know, the
new film, "Tristram Shandy," and of course the TV work that you've done as
Alan Partridge, the talk show host and radio deejay. Who are some of the
comics and actors that inspired you when you were growing up?

Mr. COOGAN: Well, there were lots of people who inspired me, I think, in
England. There were the usual people like Monty Python and Peter Sellers.
American comics that influenced me were, I guess, you know, the "SNL" people.
All those people emerged in the late '70s in America, you know, the Belushis
and Aykroyds. And more recently, of course, I was hugely influenced by Rob
Reiner in the film "This Is Spinal Tap." That was a big influence for me.

GROSS: Oh, sure, because you created a whole kind of like fake BBC talk show
and a character named Alan Partridge. Can you talk about creating him and why
you wanted to create this fake talk show host?

Mr. COOGAN: I wanted to create a character who represented all the things I
found banal and inane in media commentary because in the kind of lowbrow areas
of the media, people try to condense things and compartmentalize them and turn
them into sort of a kind of--it's a very reductive kind of medium. And also
there's a lot of kind of vanity that exists within some of it. And it just
seemed like a very ripe area of comedy that hadn't been explored so much.
"Larry Sanders" came out in England soon after I was doing Alan Partridge, and
that was often compared with that character. But it was just an area of
com--when you explore comedy, you always look for areas that you feel haven't
been exploited, and that struck me as one of them. And you can hear it any
kind of daytime, you know, talk show host on any cable channel and often in
sports commentators. The most--the funniest thing I find is when a
commentator has to fill in and say stuff to fill the gaps in the air time
rather than actually making serious commentary, so they end up having to just
say words that don't mean anything. And I think that's the thing that made me
think there was a lot of comedy there.

GROSS: Well, it's a lot of fun as an interviewer myself watching you as Alan
Partridge interview guests--like, on one edition of the show, you're
interviewing a woman from Playboy magazine. And this is a great example of
what happens when you don't read the book before you interview an author. Let
me a play a clip of this. So this is you as Alan Partridge interviewing a
woman author from Playboy magazine.

(Soundbite of "Knowing Me Knowing You")

Mr. COOGAN: (As Alan Partridge) Now Daniella Forest, you are Playboy's Agony
Aunt, and you've also just published your autobiography.

Ms. MINNIE DRIVER: (As Daniella Forest): "Luck Be A Lady."

Mr. COOGAN: (As Alan Partridge) "Luck Be A Lady." There it is. That's the
book. There we go. It's your autobiography. It's published by Jones. Never
heard of them.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. COOGAN: (As Alan Partridge) What comes across very strongly is your
understanding of male psychology.

Ms. DRIVER: (As Daniella Forest): Well, I think I understand men because I
adore them.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. COOGAN: (As Alan Partridge) And what, as a woman, do you look for in a
man?

Ms. DRIVER: (As Daniella Forest) Power is attractive.

Mr. COOGAN: (As Alan Partridge) Mm-hmm.

Ms. DRIVER: (As Daniella Forest) Sensitivity.

Mr. COOGAN: (As Alan Partridge) Mm.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. DRIVER: (As Daniella Forest) Sense of humor.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. DRIVER: (As Daniella Forest) I like a man who knows who he is.

Mr. COOGAN: (As Alan Partridge) I'm Alan Partridge. Can I...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. COOGAN: (As Alan Partridge) Now you also help people with their sexual
problems. Let me give you a hypothetical problem.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. COOGAN: (As Alan Partridge) There's a couple, right? They're been
married 15, 16 years, maybe more. And they've never slept--neither of them
have ever slept with anyone else.

Ms. DRIVER: (As Daniella Forest) And he's frustrated.

Mr. COOGAN: (As Alan Partridge) Yes, deeply. Deeply.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. COOGAN: (As Alan Partridge) But that's only part of the problem. The
real problem is that their sex life is, well, for want of a better word,
moribund.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. DRIVER: (As Daniella Forest) People need to explore their sex lives if
they're not working, you know. If it's not working in the bedroom, bring it
into the living room or the kitchen.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. COOGAN: (As Alan Partridge) Yeah, well, they tried that and the dog just
wandered in. It's very awkward.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. DRIVER: (As Daniella Forest) You see, some people, they find it very
sexy to be watched.

Mr. COOGAN: (As Alan Partridge) Not by the dog. I mean...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. DRIVER: (As Daniella Forest) Once again, here is a man shying away from
discussing sex. When I was a man, I used to have the same problem, but as a
woman, I find that I am liberated.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. COOGAN: (As Alan Partridge) Well, I'm very pleased for you. Now--hang
on a minute...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. COOGAN: (As Alan Partridge) Who was a man?

Ms. DRIVER: (As Daniella Forest) When I was a man.

Mr. COOGAN: (As Alan Partridge) What are you talking about?

Ms. DRIVER: (As Daniella Forest) Well, you have read my book?

Mr. COOGAN: (As Alan Partridge) Yeah, yes. No, no, I never read the books.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. DRIVER: (As Daniella Forest) Why did you invite me on your show?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. COOGAN: (As Alan Partridge) I thought you were sexy. I don't know.
You're a bloke! I've a good mind to knock your block off!

GROSS: That's Steve Coogan as Alan Partridge, and the series runs on BBC
America.

It must have really been fun to dress yourself as the character of Alan
Partridge. You wear some horrible suits and sweaters in it. Would you
describe one of your favorite costumes?

Mr. COOGAN: Like--well, I--there's a certain way that businessmen who are
used to wearing suits all the time try and dress where they have their weekend
off or they're wearing casual clothes. Because they're not generally
comfortable in casual clothes, they never look completely comfortable in them.
And it's just kind of slacks that have a kind of an iron crease right down the
middle and loafers that look like they're just straight off the shelf. And
nothing's worn in or comfortable, it's all kind of crisp and kind of anally
retentive in the way it's kind of put on. And there's a kind of a--there's a
vague golfing theme to it as well. No, look--not--he calls it sports casual,
but it's button-down, crisp kind of non-faded, super-bright, middle-aged men's
clothes. I think we've all seen them.

GROSS: My guest is Steve Coogan. He's starring in the new film "Tristram
Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story." We'll talk more after a break. This is
FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guest is British comic and actor Steve Coogan. He's starring in
the new movie "Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story."

Alan Partridge is the kind of person who always has opinions and gives his
opinions with great confidence, although they're usually, you know, incredibly
foolish. And I thought I'd play another clip. And this is from the radio
version. After his talk show on TV fails, he becomes a radio deejay. And
here's a clip from the opening episode of the Alan Parsons series as a radio
deejay.

(Soundbite of "Up with the Partridge")

Mr. COOGAN: (As Alan Partridge) That was "Big Yellow Taxi" by Joni Mitchell,
a song in which Joni complains that they paved paradise to put up a parking
lot, a measure which actually would have alleviated traffic congestion on the
outskirts of paradise, something which Joni singularly fails to point out,
perhaps because it doesn't quite fit in with her blinkered view of the world.
Nevertheless, nice song. It's 4:35 AM. You're listening to "Up with the
Partridge."

(Soundbite of rooster crowing)

Mr. COOGAN: Aha!

GROSS: That's my guest, Steve Coogan, as Alan Partridge.

So it must really be fun to play somebody who's so free with their opinions
and makes such a fool of himself when giving a...

Mr. COOGAN: It's great because, you know, I'll often--like most people, we
may think things now and again which we oughtn't to think, but we don't say
them out loud. We might have a thought and chastise ourselves about it and
think, well, I thought that about that person, but I shouldn't really think
that and so I don't say it out loud because I know that's inappropriate. And
so what Alan does is he doesn't have that normal editing, checking process
that most human beings have, so he says stuff he shouldn't say. And also
there's that kind of--there's a famous quote from Alexander Pope which says "A
little knowledge is a dangerous thing." And Alan has lots of a little
knowledge. So he doesn't know a lot about anything and that makes for good
comedy because you just talk--you speak first and think later.

GROSS: Now you've done a lot of impressions over the years. You got started,
I think, on "Spitting Image," which was a puppet satire of politics in
England, and you did voices for that. Were you always good at impressions?

Mr. COOGAN: Yeah, I did--you know, I used to do lots of voices and it was a
way into the business, you know. It's very difficult these days to try and
get on as an actor, very difficult, so you have to kind of do a quick trick,
something to get someone's attention very quickly to be noticed. And
impressions are one of those things. I used to do a lot of people, like, you
know, actors and politicians. (Imitating Roger Moore, Sean Connery and
Michael Caine, respectively) You know, I'd do Roger Moore and speak like that
in a very reserved kind of way; I'd do Sean Connery who of course has a real
deep Scottish brogue; and I'd do people like Michael Caine, who--altogether
slightly different but are very, very slight cockney sound to their voice.

GROSS: My God, that's perfect.

Mr. COOGAN: Yeah, well...

GROSS: That was really perfect.

Mr. COOGAN: Well, thank you very much. I...

GROSS: Has he heard you do that?

Mr. COOGAN: Michael Caine hasn't. Roger Moore has. In fact, I had--Alan
Partridge actually interviewed Roger Moore for real a couple of years ago for
a homeless charity in London.

GROSS: Gosh.

Mr. COOGAN: And he agreed to do it. He was a very good sport. He didn't
mind Alan being ill-informed and wanting constantly to talk about James Bond,
which is something that Roger Moore sure has moved on from a long time ago.
So he was a great sport about that and he knew that I'd been one of the people
who'd satirized him and poked fun at him on "Spitting Image," but it was a
very good kind of--of all the kind of--the British may have their faults, but
I think being able to laugh at themselves is one that they're quite good at.

GROSS: It must be odd for you when you're playing a character in real life
interviewing a real person.

Mr. COOGAN: I...

GROSS: I mean, Roger Moore's part wasn't scripted, right?

Mr. COOGAN: Semi-scripted.

GROSS: Oh, was it? OK.

Mr. COOGAN: I gave him some ripostes because I knew Alan was going to say
unsympathetic things to him.

GROSS: Like what?

Mr. COOGAN: And--oh, I said something like--and I asked--I said, `Do you
think'--I said as Alan, I said, `Do you think I'd make a good spy, Roger?' I
think he said something like, (imitating Moore) `No, to be a spy, you have to
be subtle, well-observed, discreet, and intelligent.' And so of course, you
know, that didn't sit very well with Alan. So that was a lot of fun. Yeah.
And the character is quite popular in England. I did an interview with Elton
John on this TV show and that was great fun because I said to him beforehand,
I said, `Do you mind if I'm quite rude to you as Alan?' And he said, `Do your
worst,' you know. And so I was pretty merciless with him, you know. I said,
you know, as Alan, you know, you--I sort of talked about the fact that he was
gay and...

GROSS: What did you say to him about being gay?

Mr. COOGAN: I said something like, `You are a gay man.'

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. COOGAN: And I said, you know, and you're allowed--you know, something
about the kind of suit he was wearing. He was wearing a pink suit. And I
talked about it being, you know, you wouldn't have worn that years ago. But
after you, you know, came out--I don't know what it was. Something about him
coming out and, you know, wearing a pink suit and how I wouldn't wear
something like that and--because Alan's slightly, I think, sort of very--ever
so slightly--he's never very malicious, but there's just--he's ever, ever so
slightly homophobic, which makes for good comedy, of course, especially when
you're interviewing Elton John.

GROSS: So how did you come up with the voice for Alan Partridge?

Mr. COOGAN: Well, you listen to lots of broadcasters on--I used to do lots
of voiceovers, actually, on TV commercials, you know, the kind of--`You want a
better deal from Ford, get down to blah-blah-blah today. It's only'--you
know...

GROSS: Did you really?

Mr. COOGAN: `Forty-eight dollars a month,' and all that kind of, like--`APR
22 percent, blah-blah-blah.' You know, I'd do all that kind of stuff, cramming
in those inane, nasty, cheap, disposable radio commercials that we all try and
avoid but seem to intrude into our lives every day. So I did a lot of that.
And you'd get familiar with these kind of--some broadcasters, you get the
idea, seem--probably love the sound of their own voice a bit too much. Those
people who speak in a very deep, warm, brown voice on radio shows where they
talk in a very sort of subtle way like that. You get the impression that they
like the ups and downs of the timbre of their own voice. That kind of thing.
And so you hear all that stuff. And there is the--there's certain people who
because they are thinking as they speak will emphasize any word arbitrarily
for no reason whatsoever. So there's no proper syntax to what they're saying.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. COOGAN: And you just think, why are they speaking like that? And
so--well, obviously, because they're not quite sure what they're saying. So
there used to be--there's a certain fashion in Britain at the moment for
Scottish and Welsh accents very, very subtly applied. So you'll often
see--and Irish also, which used to be a real no-no because of course 50 years
ago Irish were second-class citizens in England. But now you'll often hear
people on adverts with a very slight Irish accent like that because it seems
approachable and friendly and not distant like a lot of British accents. And
you'll hear the Scottish for the same reason because of course they were
oppressed by the English, so of course they can't be all bad, you know. So
that's used a lot because then it has that kind of slight anti-establishment
vibe about it, which makes something appear less governmental, I think.

GROSS: My guest is Steve Coogan. He's starring in the new film "Tristram
Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story." We'll talk more after a break.

This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guest is British comic and actor Steve Coogan. He's starring in
the new movie "Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story." When we left off, he
was demonstrating some of the many voices and accents that he's done.

Did you study voice or did you just, like, pick all this up yourself?

Mr. COOGAN: I studied it a little bit. I went to drama school to study and
they teach you how to--because I'm from the north, and of course, you know,
you learn what they call received pronunciation, which always made me laugh,
which stemmed from the way you were supposed to be received by royalty.

GROSS: Is that what it means? You know, I've never--I've heard that
expression; I've never understood what it meant.

Mr. COOGAN: Yeah, and it's not received--it's the accent with which it
was--you had an accent which was acceptable for you to be received by royalty
so that--which of course is complete nonsense these days because the way the
royals speak is--no one else on Earth speaks like that, I think. You know,
the way they ...(unintelligible) the upper ...(unintelligible) where you can't
quite ...(unintelligible). It's a ridiculous way to speak. And--but what
they generally mean these days is kind of like sort of BBC English, which is
very sort of accent-verse and I guess this is what your kind of CNN
newscasters sound like would be the American equivalent. That was what they
taught you to speak, because of course I'm from Manchester, so I have a
northern accent, a regional accent, which is, or was, quite pronounced and
kind of...

GROSS: So what were you supposed to fix in your speech?

Mr. COOGAN: Oh, well, I mean, things like--you know, in your accent, you'd
say things like, (with accent) `I'm going upstairs to have a bath,' is how I
would've said it in my original accent, whereas in actual fact when you do
received pronunciation, you have to say, (with accent) `I'm going to go
upstairs to have a bath.' So there's little sort of subtle variations that you
become aware of. And it's also a bit--quite class-ridden and very aware of
class in a way that's not as prominent in America, although I think obviously
class is a real issue. It's something that people are acutely aware of in
Britain. So--and your accent says a lot about that. So you can sort of--and
people, whether they like it or not, do make judgments. Put it this way: If
I'm on the phone complaining about something not being delivered on time, I
use my poshest voice possible to intimidate the person on the other end,
whereas if I'm trying to--if there's some kind of big, heavy guy who's being a
bit threatening to me, I'll drop my H's and T's to sort of talk to him on his
level so he doesn't think I'm some rarefied poncey bloke.

GROSS: Just one more question. Do you feel like--when you're working in more
or less you're own voice, do you feel like you're almost working with your
hands tied behind your back because you have this incredible gift for voices
and you're just using your regular old voice?

Mr. COOGAN: Yes and no. Sometimes it's easier because it's more relaxing.
It's like acting in your own clothes. If you wear your own clothes, you wear
the clothes you're comfortable in. If you put on--as I have done for when I
played a woman on stage once--if you put on things that are uncomfortable or
you've got to dress up in things that are strange, then it's easier to be
different, but it's just--and it's easier to look more interesting. You know,
if I put a hat on and lipstick and wear a corset and high heels, I'm certainly
going to look slightly more interesting, if not particularly pleasant, then I
look right now. And the same thing goes with your voice. If you put a voice
on, it's kind of easy to get people's attention, but it's not so comfortable,
you know. I spent so many years, you know, putting on silly voices and
wearing wigs and mustaches and beards and things that irritate your face that
getting a chance to wear my own clothes and speak in my own voice was like a
kind of holiday.

GROSS: Steve Coogan, a pleasure to speak with you. Thank you so much.

Mr. COOGAN: Thank you very much, indeed.

GROSS: Steve Coogan is starring in the new movie "Tristram Shandy: A Cock
and Bull Story." It will open gradually in theaters around the country
starting at the end of the month.

(Soundbite of music)

(Credits)

GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.

We'll close with a song from the new CD by jazz singer Susie Arioli and
guitarist Jordan Officer. The CD includes several country songs by Roger
Miller. This is one of them.

(Soundbite of "Less and Less")

Ms. SUSIE ARIOLI: (Singing) I got up and made my morning cup of coffee,
fooled around the house an hour or more, I guess. I did all this before I
even had one thought of you, 'cause more and more I think about you less and
less. I'm surprised, but after all it's been a while now since I lost your
love and all my happiness. But it looks as though I just might maybe learn to
smile again, 'cause more and more I think about you less and less. I wouldn't
be surprised if any day now all these teardrops I've been crying, all these
heartaches you caused me begin to begin to wither and die. And just now
someone asked me if I'm hearing from you. And I felt a lot like crying In
confess. But I didn't cry, I guess, the worst is over now, 'cause more and
more I think about you less and less.

(Announcements)

GROSS: On the next FRESH AIR, the musical world of singer-songwriter and
producer Joe Henry. His new CD, "I Believe to My Soul," features Ann Peebles,
Irma Thomas and Allen Toussaint. One of his own songs became a hit for his
sister-in-law, Madonna, and there's a story of a song about Richard Pryor.
join us for the next FRESH AIR.
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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