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Review: 'Merchant of Venice'

Film critic David Edelstein reviews Merchant of Venice starring Jeremy Irons and Al Pacino.



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Other segments from the episode on January 7, 2005

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, January 7, 2005: Interview with Adam McKay; Interview with Jeremy Irons; Review of Michael Radford's film, "The Merchant of Venice."


TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A

Interview: Adam McKay talks about his career and his movie
starring Will Ferrell, "Anchorman"

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, senior writer for the Philadelphia Daily
News, filling in for Terry Gross.

"Anchorman," the film satirizing local TV news shows of the '70s, has just
come out on DVD. It was director and co-written by our guest Adam McKay who
Terry interviewed when the film was in theaters. The anchorman in the film,
Ron Burgundy, the top-rated anchor in San Diego, is played by Will Ferrell who
also co-authored the screenplay with McKay. McKay and Ferrell first worked
together on "Saturday Night Live" where McKay was head writer. He's an alum
of the Chicago-based comedy theater group Second City and was a founding
member of the Upright Citizens Brigade.

The news team in the movie "Anchorman" covers all kinds of fluff with an
affected sense of gravity. Let's get in the mood by listening to the opening
of "Anchorman's" "Channel 4 News."

(Soundbite of "Anchorman")

Mr. CHUCK POYNTER: (As Announcer) For San Diego news you can count on, trust
only the best.

(Soundbite of car brakes)

Mr. POYNTER: (As Announcer) The Channel 4 news teams. With seven-time Emmy
Award-winning anchorman Ron Burgundy.

Mr. WILL FERRELL: (As Ron Burgundy) I'm Ron Burgundy and this is what's
happening in your world tonight.

Mr. POYNTER: (As Announcer) Champ Kind with the latest in sports.

Mr. DAVID KOECHNER: (As Champ Kind) Whammy!

Mr. POYNTER: (As Announcer) Brick Tamland with up-to-the-minute weather.

Mr. STEVEN CARELL: (As Brick Tamland) It's 38 degrees in the Middle East.

Mr. POYNTER: (As Announcer) Brian Fantana, your man in the field.

Mr. PAUL RUDD: (As Brian Fantana) And watch, the mood is tense.

Mr. POYNTER: (As Announcer) And our newest reporter, Veronica Corningstone.

Ms. CHRISTINA APPLEGATE: (As Veronica Corningstone) It was quite a show down
here at the pet shack.

(Soundbite of cat)

Mr. POYNTER: (As Announcer) So when you're looking for serious news, look no
further than the Channel 4 news team.


Adam McKay, welcome to FRESH AIR.

Now "Anchorman" is set in the '70s at a time when local news had a lot less
competition than it does today because it's the pre-cable era. How do you
see, like, the importance of, like, you know, the local news and the local
news anchors in the period that your movie's set?

Mr. ADAM McKAY (Director, "Anchorman"): Well, they were huge back then.
That was three channels, so they really were like the voice of God in their
community. And, you know, when they would do a promotional deal at a shopping
mall or something, you would have like 30,000 people would show up for these
things. I remember when I was a kid, you know, I lived in a little town
outside Philadelphia, Don Tollefson, who was the local sports guy in
Philadelphia, came to our town and literally 10,000 people showed up. And I
got Don Tollefson's autograph and it was like, you know, Elvis had whipped a
sweaty towel at me or something. I was just as thrilled as can humanly be.
And I'm not sure that would be the case anymore. I think Don Tollefson would
be surrounded by about eight people in the park if that happened now.

GROSS: Well, you know, it's such a really funny parody of the news and you
have your opening news collage in which, you know, all of the anchors and
reporters walk on to the set. Would you describe how that looks?

Mr. McKAY: Oh, yeah. Well, that--you know, a lot of that came directly from
real tapes we saw of the '70s news openings, you know, from Jessica Savitch
and Mort Crim back in the mid-'70s. And basically the whole sort of theme
that I'm sure they were thinking was, you know, `We command the city.' So
it's a lot of pushes and tight shots and then our favorite element of it is,
in the end, you had the entire news team all look up in the camera with a,
quote, "serious journalist stare" at the same time. And instantly Will and I
were laughing and saying, `That is just directly going into the movie.' So
that actually is in the movie and that's taken from Mort Crim and Jessica
Savitch, circa, I think, '75 or '76.

GROSS: What are some of the favorite headlines that you wrote for

Mr. McKAY: You mean the fake news stories?

GROSS: The fake news stories, yeah.

Mr. McKAY: Well, some of the best fake news stories were the ones--Will just
suddenly became a master at improvising these fake news stories and he would
always give you a little taste of them as you came out of other stories. And
we would just marvel at the fact that he probably came up with 100 of them.
What are some of my favorites? There was one he would do, `Christmas in July,
you ask? That's right. Santa's Village is coming to the local mall, just for
July. Christmas in summer?'

He did another one about San Diego being renamed Boz Scaggs' Town for a big
Boz Scaggs' concert. It was always, like, the fun game of--usually the bad
stories involved animals. Like we had one that was `After the bear destroyed
the PhotoMat booth, he scampered back into the woods.' And then Will goes,
`Apparently he wasn't too happy with his color prints.' And they'd both
chuckle kind of inanely. But that one always made us laugh because, God, you
know, a bear ripping apart a PhotoMat booth. That's a serious and dangerous
story and just 'cause it's animals they always play it off light. But animals
were definitely the formula. We came up with just hundreds of different
animal stories as that sort of being our comment on the local news and their
regular stories.

GROSS: You and Will Ferrell have written together a lot beginning with
"Saturday Night Live." How much of this new movie is improvised?

Mr. McKAY: Well, we improvised hours and hours of footage when we were
shooting. We would always do two takes as written and then we would just go
and go and we rolled out all the time, you know, have the cameraman just say,
`I'm out.' And if we'd have two cameras going, I'd let the other guy keep
rolling. So I'd say as far as what made it to the actual movie, probably
about 25 percent. I mean, there's whole scenes in the movie that came out of
improv. Him crying in the phone booth was a one-line scene that he just
expanded on. And I gave the brilliant note of, `Keep going, only bigger,' you
know, which is a great note to give Will.

And, you know, actually the "Afternoon Delight" scene where they sing,
basically, was improvised. Paul Rudd came to me about a week before and said,
`Wouldn't it be great if we just sang a perfect four-part harmony version of
"Afternoon Delight."' And I basically right away was just like, `That's going
in the movie.' And, like, the day of I told them that we were doing it and
they had only rehearsed it for like 10 minutes so they just kind of came up
with the whole scene and did the thing on the spot. So it was quite...

GROSS: I actually really love that. Why don't you explain the context of it
and then we'll play the song.

Mr. McKAY: Well, basically they're trying to understand what love is so
they're talking to Ron and they just can't understand. So finally he has to
break into this perfect rendition of "Afternoon Delight."

GROSS: Well, let's hear it. So this is the cast of "Anchorman" singing
"Afternoon Delight."

Mr. McKAY: Can I apologize?

GROSS: For what?

Mr. McKAY: Can I apologize to your listeners before they hear this? All
right. Let me give a warning to your listeners if they're driving and they're
about to hear this, you may start sobbing. You may want to hug loved ones.
So maybe pull over to the side of the road before we play it.

GROSS: Yeah. Here it is.

(Soundbite of "Anchorman")

Mr. FERRELL: (As Ron Burgundy) You really want to know what love is.

Unidentified Actor #1: Yeah.

Mr. RUDD: (As Brian Fantana) Yes, tell us.

Unidentified Actor #1: More than anything in the world, Ron.

Mr. FERRELL: (As Ron Burgundy) Well, it's really quite simple. It's kind of
like (singing) `Gonna find my baby, gonna hold her tight. Gonna grab some
afternoon delight. My motto's always been when it's right it's right. Why
wait until the middle of a cold, dark night.'

Cast: (Singing in unison) `When everything's a little clearer in the light of
day. And we know that night is always gonna be there anyway. Thinkin' of
you's workin' up my appetite. Looking forward to a little afternoon delight.
Rubbing sticks and stones together making sparks ignite and the thought of
lovin' you is getting so exciting. Skyrockets in flight.'

Unidentified Actor #2: Boooo.

Cast: (Singing in unison) `Afternoon delight.'

Unidentified Actor #3: Whoop. You guys have it, I think.

Mr. FERRELL: (As Ron Burgundy) Huh.

Cast: (Singing in unison) `Afternoon delight.'

GROSS: That's Will Ferrell and several other members of the news team in the
new movie "Anchorman" singing "Afternoon Delight."

Why that song? I mean, why--did you all agree that this is the song that they
have to do?

Mr. McKAY: No, I think your answer is in the question. Why this song? I
think that's why. Why in God's name that song? That song explains nothing
about love. Yeah, it's just the--it seemed like the perfect one to do
four-part harmony on. It was either that or "If" and--"If" by Bread and we
didn't want to...

GROSS: Wait, which one is that? Do a few bars of that.

Mr. McKAY: (Singing) `If a picture paints a thousand words, then why can't I
paint you?' So you can see why we didn't do that one.

GROSS: Thanks for refreshing my memory. I really hate that song.

Mr. McKAY: Yeah.

GROSS: Yeah.

Mr. McKAY: Do you want me to keep refreshing your memory? Should I keep
singing it or...

GROSS: Oh, well, you don't need to.

Mr. McKAY: What if I want to? What if I insist on using...

GROSS: You're welcome. You're welcome. You're welcome.

DAVIES: Adam McKay speaking with Terry Gross. We'll hear more after a break.

This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

DAVIES: Our guest is Adam McKay who directed and co-wrote the comedy
"Anchorman" which is now out on DVD. Terry spoke with him when "Anchorman"
was released.

GROSS: Will Ferrell's so especially good at thinking that he's really smart
and attractive. And can you talk about that thing that he has? I mean, like
there's a great scene where he's, like, exercising and he's just doing it for
show. And yet he does not have, you know, like a--one of those...

Mr. McKAY: Be very careful here, Terry. Be very careful.

GROSS: (Laughs) I mean, we see his body and...

Mr. McKAY: He has a wonderful...

GROSS: He has a wonderful body, right.

Mr. McKAY: He is. He's the--he's fantastic at playing those characters. I
always say that's why he's...

GROSS: What I would give for that body, yeah. Go ahead.

Mr. McKAY: He--I always say that's why his George Bush is so good. You know,
he's the master of playing the guy who's--as Hightower said, `Born on third
base and strutting around like he hit a triple.' And that's definitely Ron
Burgundy. You know, they really--you know, they're in this mid-market. I
always called the story a `medium-sized fish in a small pond' story. And they
just think they're ruling the globe. And, of course, he's got the mustache so
maybe he's not as wrong as we think.

GROSS: How did you start working together?

Mr. McKAY: We got hired together at "Saturday Night Live." We were hired on
the same day. So there was a group of five or six of us writers and cast that
were hired and we went out and got beers that night. And we all thought Will
was the most normal guy in the world. I mean, he sort of looks like--What's
his name?--Wayne Rogers from "M*A*S*H." And then when he started reading
scenes in the read-throughs, we're, like `Holy Lord, he's demented.' And
instantly the entire writing staff just, like, fell in love with him. So then
on top of it all, it turns out Will's a really, really great writer and so,
yeah, he and I just started sort of writing those strange kind of scenes they
always put at the end of the show, the last half an hour ones, together.

GROSS: Can you describe what it was like to watch him work up his impression
of George W. Bush?

Mr. McKAY: It actually was a process. I remember the first time we put him
in a scene as Bush. It was--I think it was Clinton--it was Darrell doing
Clinton and Bush kind of busting in saying `I'm on your tail' kind of scene.
`Pretty soon this Oval Office is going to be mine.' And Will just kind of
played him like a frat guy. He didn't really do anything. He just kind of
came in with a beer and was pumping his fist a lot and the audience didn't
know that much about George W. Bush so they loved it and it was just a
beer-drinking, kind of frat guy thing. And then it was during the summer
break when Bush started sort of emerging, if that's the right description,
that Will really started watching him. And when he came back off the summer,
suddenly he had all these little, you know, affectations that Bush always uses
to sort of punctuate his serious and sincere moments.

And once he figured that out, that was kind of the whole impression, was, you
know, saying--making the word `freedom' last for seven seconds, you know,
`Freedom' you know and--yeah, amazing, though. It was always a freakish,
freakish impression; we could never believe it.

GROSS: Did Bush ever give you feedback?

Mr. McKAY: (Laughs) He actually would send us a turkey every Monday morning
with a bottle of champagne and just a note that says simply, `I love you.'
No, he...

GROSS: Oh, I thought that was generous.

Mr. McKAY: No. I know, actually, that's somewhat feasible, unfortunately.
The only feedback I ever heard was--I heard a story that--I had written a
sketch that was called `Palm Beach Nights' and it was a soap opera version of
the election, the recount scandal. And I had heard a story, it was, I think,
in The New York Times or something about how Bush came into his campaign
office and his entire staff was gathered around watching this sketch and with
Will playing Bush. And he got very angry and turned the TV off and told
everyone to scatter. And I was reading it going, `Wait a minute. That's my
sketch.' So that was the closest I had to feedback.

Later, Bush and the White House asked Will to come and pay a visit and, you
know, at the correspondents' Press Dinner and then I think later at the White
House. And Will felt it was a little weird as a comic playing the president
to go visit him, so he ended up not doing it. But that was the only other

GROSS: There's a certain type of male that you have satirized in some of your
sketches and certainly in "Anchorman." You know, like the frat brother kind
of guy who's, you know, not very bright, and is drinking a lot of beer, the
kind of guy who thinks he's, you know, incredibly smart and has a, you know,
absolutely perfect body, real Adonis. And, of course, you know, doesn't. And
there's this great thing in "Anchorman" where one of the reporters puts on
this cologne that he thinks is really, like, super great, and, of course...

Mr. McKAY: Sex Panther, I think you're referring to. Yeah.

GROSS: Yeah. Yes, yes.

Mr. McKAY: Yeah.

GROSS: But, still, I figure you were probably never that guy and, if you
were, you wouldn't admit it on the show. But did you know--like when you were
in college, did you know guys who were like this?

Mr. McKAY: Well, you know, I went to Penn State for one year before I
transferred to Temple University in Philadelphia and at Penn State if you're
not in a fraternity, there's kind of nothing really going on for you. So I
actually tried to kind of assimilate into the frat world and could never
figure out why it never worked. And then finally a couple of years later, I
was like, `Oh, I'm so happy that didn't work.' So, I mean, there's a little
bit of us and Will actually was in a fraternity. There's a little bit of us
that kind of did some of this stuff. Like I remember buying Polo cologne when
I was like a sophomore in high school and putting on too much.

I think part of it is that, yeah, we're sadly--we had our run-ins with this
world. One of my favorite stories is Will was actually in a fraternity at
USC. I was really surprised to hear this because we both like to kind of make
fun of that world, and he told me that, you know, he joined just because he
was new in college and stuff. And he said that one time he got up at a
meeting and in a very straight-faced way said to his entire frat that perhaps
they should go gay because it would save a lot of money as far as their bills
for parties. It would also cut down on liability issues with, you know,
sexual assault sort of cases in the fraternities and he said, and `Ultimately,
the main reason I want to do it is because this is about brotherhood and I
can't think of a better way to get closer than if we all went gay.'

And he said, you know, half the frat was really laughing and half of them were
like, `Who is this guy?' and kind of taking him seriously and so--yeah, I
think we're more in the world than--I wish I could be cool and say, `I've
always laughed at this.' But, no, I tried cologne and tried hanging out at
frats and it just didn't--never quite fit. But I think that's part of the
reason we also like to laugh at it.

GROSS: Now you started off in "Second City" before getting to "Saturday Night
Live." "Second City" is famous for improv. Did you develop characters when
you were there that you would do?

Mr. McKAY: Yeah, we had some characters. I had a character I used to always
do--was the `You still gotta pay your taxes' character, which this guy Scott
Adsit and I used to love to do. And it was basically Scott Adsit would play
an activist coming to my door, and he would ask me to sign a petition, a very
clear petition, about the neighborhood and how to help the neighborhood. And
I just kept saying things like, `You still gotta pay your taxes. You can't
fight City Hall,' and would never sign the petition, and that would be the
entire scene. And we would play that ad nauseam in improv sets for like 15
minutes because it made us laugh so hard.

But, basically, I was never a big character guy. When I auditioned for
"Saturday Night Live" it was as a performer. And they asked me to do
impressions and characters, and I knew I didn't really do impressions. And
people at "Second City" don't really do impressions. That's not really
considered that cool at that place for some reason. And so that's why I
brought scripts with me, and it was like, `I'd better get in as a writer,' and
thank God I did.

GROSS: Now I read that when you were--I guess it's when you were still with
"Second City" and you were living in Chicago, you advertised your own suicide.
And then what?

Mr. McKAY: (Laughs) I like saying, `And then what?' at the end of that. I
did. I was with a group called the Upright Citizens Brigade in Chicago, and
we did a lot of sort of improv sketch, kind of street-dealer prank kind of
stuff. I don't even know what you'd call it. And we did things like take the
whole audience back to my apartment and let them watch a scene of a fake
murder through my windows. We did a scene where Horatio Sanz, who's currently
at "Saturday Night Live," ended up getting arrested in the middle of Northen
Damon(ph)--he was leading a fake revolution towards City Hall. And we gave
the whole audience plastic guns and tiki torches, and he ended up getting

So sort of in the midst of that kind of work, I decided to advertise my own
suicide. And I had this really horrible 8-by-10 I had done for some agent in
an attempt to get commercial work of me with the cheesiest smile you'd ever
seen. And I just put it in the poster, and I just said, `On such and such
date, Adam McKay, age'--I think I was 27 or 24--`will kill himself; no joke.'
And we went and put it up everywhere. And for us, it obviously was a joke,
but some people were quite upset. So we ended up doing it. It was a huge

And I actually got on top of a five-story building and came out and yelled
down to the crowd. And I had a CPR dummy that we had dressed in my exact
clothes, and I backed up and tossed it off the edge. And you could actually
hear the crowd go (gasps). (Laughs) And then we had a character playing the
Grim Reaper come out to claim me, and then my friends paid off the Grim
Reaper. And I came back to life, and we went back into the theater. And it
was great. It was the kind of stuff you could not do in New York or LA
because you would be arrested instantly, but somehow Chicago is slightly
spread out enough that you can get away with this stuff for like 10 minutes.

GROSS: I'm trying to figure out what I think of this--you know, whether I
think it's hysterically funny or just like so unfair to people who think that
somebody's truly about to kill themselves.

Mr. McKAY: (Laughs) I don't think anyone really thought I was going to kill
myself. I mean, I had some people complain to me about it, and to me it
was--we were so clearly making fun of that, you know, sensationalistic thing.
That was the whole joke of it. We advertised it like it was a, you know,
five-day pass at Disney World to come see this guy kill himself. But, yeah, I
can't believe--I think for a second when they saw the dummy come over the
edge, there was a little flash of, `Wait a minute. Is he actually crazy?'
So, yeah--yeah, I'm not sure how I feel about it either.

GROSS: And was Action News there?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. McKAY: I wish they had been. They would have--what would their line have
been? `And for one comic, it was not a very funny night.'

GROSS: (Laughs) That's right. That would have been it.

DAVIES: Adam McKay speaking with Terry Gross. He directed and co-wrote the
film "Anchorman," just out on DVD, and the upcoming film version of
"Bewitched." This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of "Anchorman")

Unidentified Actor #4: (As Scott) May I take your order?

Mr. FERRELL: (As Burgundy) Yes, I am going to have three fingers of Glenlivet
with a little bit of pepper and some cheese.

Unidentified Actor #4: (As Scott) Very good.

Ms. APPLEGATE: (As Corningstone) I'll take a Manhattan and kick the vermouth
in the side with a pair of steel-toed boots.

Unidentified Actor #4: (As Scott) Certainly.

Mr. FERRELL: (As Burgundy) Thank you, Scott.

Ms. APPLEGATE: (As Corningstone) Thank you.

Unidentified Actor #5: (As Tito) Mr. Burgundy.

Mr. FERRELL: (As Burgundy) Tito!

Unidentified Actor #5: (As Tito) It's so good to see you.

Mr. FERRELL: (As Burgundy) How are you?

Unidentified Actor #5: (As Tito) Would everyone love to hear Ron Burgundy
play some jazz flute?

(Soundbite of crowd cheering)

Unidentified Actor #5: (As Tito) Yes. Please.

Unidentified Actor #6: You. Get on stage now.

Mr. FERRELL: (As Burgundy) I don't--OK, I guess I can play a little ditty.

Unidentified Actor #6: Come on.

Mr. FERRELL: (As Burgundy) Honestly. I'm not prepared.

Unidentified Actor #6: Give him a hand.

Mr. FERRELL: (As Burgundy) I really am not prepared at all.

(Soundbite of crowd cheering)

Mr. FERRELL: (As Burgundy) This is a surprise. I'm telling you. Guys, "East
Harlem Shakedown," E flat. Keep it simple, Splashy, and, Jerry, let's stick
to bass line for a while.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. FERRELL: (As Burgundy) I'm not hearing it right. Hold on.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. FERRELL: (As Burgundy) We got it now. It's all right.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. FERRELL: (As Burgundy) A little ham and eggs coming at you. Hold on,
people. Hope you got your griddles.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. FERRELL: (As Burgundy) Ah.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. FERRELL: (As Burgundy) Ah.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. FERRELL: (As Burgundy) That's baby-making music, that's what that is.


(Soundbite of music)


(Soundbite of music)

DAVIES: If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us, do we not laugh?
Coming up, if you make a movie adaptation of Shakespeare's "The Merchant of
Venice," will our film critic David Edelstein not review it? We'll also hear
from Jeremy Irons, who plays Antonio in the film.

(Soundbite of music)

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

Interview: Jeremy Irons discusses his acting career

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies sitting in for Terry Gross.

The English actor Jeremy Irons has been described as the thinking woman's
pin-up for his handsome looks and his sophisticated, elegant style. He's
currently starring opposite Al Pacino in a new film version of "The Merchant
of Venice." Irons plays the merchant, Antonio; Pacino plays the money lender,
Shylock. A.O. Scott in The New York Times called Irons' performance `quietly
mesmerizing.' We'll hear what our film critic David Edelstein has to say
later in the show.

Irons first became known for his performance in the British TV adaptation of
"Brideshead Revisited" and went on to star in "The French Lieutenant's
Woman," "Moonlighting," "Dead Ringers," "M. Butterfly," "The Mission,"
"Lolita" and "Stealing Beauty." He won an Oscar and a Golden Globe Award
for his portrayal of Claus von Bulow in "Reversal of Fortune." Terry Gross
spoke to Jeremy Irons in 1998.


I'd like to play a couple of clips from some of your early films and talk a
little bit about your acting career. And I thought we would start in 1981
with your movie "The French Lieutenant's Woman" in which you played opposite
Meryl Streep. The movie was about an actor and an actress who are having an
affair while they're making a movie set in Victorian England. And in the film
within a film, you play a gentleman who's engaged to a fine middle-class woman
but becomes romantically obsessed with a mysterious fallen woman played by
Meryl Streep.

I want to play a clip from an early scene of the movie within the movie when
your character is calling on the fine middle-class woman who he intends to

(Soundbite of "The French Lieutenant's Woman")

Mr. JEREMY IRONS (Actor): (As Charles) I came here this morning to inquire
whether you would allow me to ask your father for your hand.

Unidentified Woman: Yes, ...(unintelligent).

Mr. IRONS: (As Charles) Mind you, I don't know that he altogether approves of
me. After all, I don't do what he considers to be work.

Unidentified Woman: Are you suggesting that it is entirely Papa's decision?

Mr. IRONS: (As Charles) No. It is yours.

Unidentified Woman: Yes, it is. Papa will do what I want and I will do what
I want.

Mr. IRONS: (Charles) Well, in that case, might you take pity on a crusty old
scientist who holds you very dear and marry me?

Unidentified Woman: Oh, Charles. I've waited so long for this moment.

GROSS: Now how did you act in the movie within the movie? Did you see this
actor as a great actor giving a great performance? Or did you see it as a
mediocre performance? Did you want your acting to be really different in the
movie within the movie than it was when you were playing a contemporary

Mr. IRONS: No, I--the movie within the movie, as you call it--although I
would say that is the movie, and the relationship between the actor and the
actress is the outer movie. But the main story, the period story, is about a
man who becomes obsessed with this woman who may or may not be telling the
truth, a woman quite outside his social circle. This is a Victorian time
when, you know, social circles are very important and you didn't really move
outside of them. It was about obsession, about obsession at a time when you
really couldn't behave like this.

So that had to be absolutely real. And then the actor and the actress who
weren't having an affair at the beginning of the movie, as you introduced it
by saying, they--the actor became obsessed with the actress because of his
relationship with the character in the film. And we see this happening many
times. I mean, it is not rare for actors to fall in love with their co-stars
during the making of a movie.

GROSS: Why do you think that's true?

Mr. IRONS: Well, it's very--if they're playing a love story within the
movie--the barriers between reality and fantasy in a real relationship are
difficult to draw. If you are filming a film relationship, those boundaries
are very, very shady. And I think people often fall in love with the
character that the actor or the actress is playing. It's a strange area. I
mean, if you're experienced, if you've done it a lot, you know what it's about
and you know more clearly--you recognize the boundaries. But, you know, you
often see young actors or actresses doing that. And then the movie's over and
after sort of four months, the relationship dribbles to a halt because they're
both off playing different relationships with different people in different

GROSS: Now you've experienced the opposite, too, where you've played opposite
your real-life wife. How does that affect things when you already know the
person inside-out and then you're--you know?

Mr. IRONS: Well, that's strangely difficult because--you're right, I made a
movie called "Waterland" while playing husband and wife with my wife. And the
characters we were playing were very, very different to our characters in
life. And normally when you start building a fantasy relationship with an
actress, you start with a bare page because you don't know them. And so you
both build up this relationship, this history, this--what you have between
you. If, as my wife and I did, we had--I don't know--20 years of history in
our relationship, you have to try and scrape that board clean, wipe off the
chalk marks of your relationship so that you have a bare board upon which you
can start building this new relationship.

Now the wiping off of that history is very difficult because, I mean, how do
you do that? The way we did it was that my wife moved out, she moved into a
hotel so she wasn't the person making my breakfast in the morning. I would
meet her in the make-up chair in the morning and I'd meet her as I would meet
any actress. And we tried to create a relationship that was totally
different. And even if we were staying--when we were--we filmed some of this
in Philadelphia and we stayed in the same hotel but on different floors and we
wouldn't meet. We would meet sometimes in the corridor for a cigarette,

GROSS: Did you both agree this would be a good idea?

Mr. IRONS: Yeah. I was unsure about it 'cause I like having her about. But
she was absolutely sure and the director was absolutely sure, and he was quite
right. By the end of the shooting or towards the end of the film--she
finished before I did--and she called me and she said, `Can I move into your
suite?' And I said, `I'm not so sure about that. I think I need to finish
this movie on my own.' But eventually, she persuaded me.

GROSS: Let me move on to another movie that you starred in, and this is
"Reversal of Fortune," the 1990 film in which you played Claus von Bulow who
was convicted of attempting to kill his wife Sunny by injecting her with an
overdose of insulin. The movie...

Mr. IRONS: No, he wasn't convicted. He wasn't convicted. He was accused.

GROSS: The first time, in the first trial.

Mr. IRONS: Oh, right. Beg your pardon.

GROSS: In the first trial. And the movie is about the appeal...

Mr. IRONS: Right.

GROSS: which he was represented by Alan Dershowitz who's played in the
movie by Ron Silver. And in this scene, Dershowitz has just taken on the
case, and he's asking von Bulow, played by Jeremy Irons, to tell him what

(Soundbite of "Reversal of Fortune")

Mr. RON SILVER: (As Alan Dershowitz): OK, I gather, though the older
children deny it, Sunny had a problem with pills and alcohol?

Mr. IRONS: (As Claus von Bulow) Spectacular understatement.

Mr. SILVER: (As Dershowitz) So there must be somebody who saw it, right?
Some witness, somebody somewhere, a friend?

Mr. IRONS: (As von Bulow) You want affidavits?

Mr. SILVER: (As Dershowitz) Yes, I do.

Mr. IRONS: (As von Bulow) I'll get them.

Mr. SILVER: (As Dershowitz) You'll get them?

Mr. IRONS: (As von Bulow) You should also know drugs prescribed for me were
taken by Sunny.

Mr. SILVER: (As Dershowitz) That's a lot of drugs, Claus.

Mr. IRONS: (As von Bulow) But the prosecution's allegation that I knew about
syringes, injections, totally accurate. Sunny and I used give ourselves B-12
injections in the late '60s. It was quite a fad in London.

Mr. SILVER: (As Dershowitz) Can I explain something to you? The less I know
from you, the more options I have. When you tell me the truth, you limit me
to a defense that lines up with what you have to say.

Mr. IRONS: (As von Bulow) But isn't the truth the simplest way, Alan? I
mean, why did I stay all day at Sunny's side without calling a doctor?
Because Sunny detested doctors. If we called one without her approval, she
went berserk. Once she broke her hip and didn't go to hospital for two full

Mr. SILVER: (As Dershowitz) Claus, did you hear what I just said?

Mr. IRONS: (As von Bulow) Of course. Did you hear the judge sentence me?

Mr. SILVER: (As Dershowitz) Sorry. Thirty years is a pretty stiff sentence.

Mr. IRONS: (As von Bulow) Twice trying to murder one's wife, anything less
would be monstrous. But for a man like myself, who did nothing...

GROSS: Jeremy Irons as Claus von Bulow.

Jeremy Irons, tell me what you did with your voice to convey that sense of
class privilege--you know, of someone who, like Claus von Bulow, has a lot of
money and seems to be able to use his voice and his eyes to convey his stature
and put people in their place?

Mr. IRONS: Well, Claus--he wasn't English, he was Danish, and so he had a
hidden accent that he was trying--he wanted--a bit of a snob, I think, and
wanted to very much be part of London society and to sound very English. But
there were some things that he couldn't do, a couple of sounds he couldn't
make because he'd been brought up speaking a different tongue.

GROSS: What sounds? Do you remember?

Mr. IRONS: The W's are always a little bit difficult if you're not used to
them. But I wanted him to sound almost more English than the English but with
this slight problem on a couple of consonants.

GROSS: Now you pitched your voice deeper than it was at the time.

Mr. IRONS: Yeah. I wanted to give him a sort of a gravity. I mean, Claus
was, I think, about 15 years older or maybe 20 years older than I was. So we
had to find ways to give me the weight of those years. We thinned my hair, I
took my voice down lower. I wanted to have a sort of slimy charm. I remember
talking to women who knew Claus, and some of them--actually it told you an
awful lot about the women, more about the women than about Claus, really,
because some of them adored him and some of them found him so repellent that
they couldn't sit next to him. And that was very interesting, and it tells
you a lot about what women find attractive in men.

GROSS: Did you have to have in your mind whether you thought he was guilty or
innocent as you were playing him?

Mr. IRONS: Well, I didn't have to have in my mind whether I thought he was, I
had to know whether I was guilty or innocent. I mean, he knew and I was him.
So, yes, of course I had to know.

GROSS: And what did you believe that he believed?

Mr. IRONS: I believed he was innocent, but I didn't want the audience to know

GROSS: Right.

Mr. IRONS: ...because his friends were divided in life about his guilt or
his innocence. I think he carried a certain amount of guilt. In my opinion,
he carried the guilt of a man who had left his wife too long before calling
for help. But you have to remember this is a wife who had no desire to live
and who, the first time he pulled her back from a suicide attempt, she gave
him a very, very hard time. And so when somebody tries to do it again, what
do you do? If somebody wants out, you know, it's very hard to stop them. And
as a husband, you keep pulling them back, especially if you're having an
unhappy time with each other.

DAVIES: Jeremy Irons speaking with Terry Gross. We'll hear more after a
break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

DAVIES: Let's get back to Terry's 1998 interview with Jeremy Irons. He's
starring with Al Pacino in a new film version of "The Merchant of Venice."

GROSS: Now I know one of your early roles was in the '60s rock musical

Mr. IRONS: You don't have to laugh when you say that.

GROSS: You were John the Baptist. What were your songs?

Mr. IRONS: "Prepare Ye the Way of the Lord," "All For The Best" and then the
other ones that we sang together.

GROSS: Sing a few lines of one of those songs?

Mr. IRONS: (Singing) Oh, `Some men are born to live at ease, doing what they
please, richer than the bees are in harmony. Never growing old, never
feeling cold'--oh, well, I can't remember, it was so long ago. I could hardly
remember it then, but it was a tap number. It was the first show I ever did
in London, and it was the show during which--I suppose I'd been an actor for
about six years by then, seven years. It was the show during which that I
knew I had entered the right profession.

GROSS: Right. But now I understand you were also a busker for a while...

Mr. IRONS: Yeah.

GROSS: ...and that you'd perform on the street, sometimes in movie lines.
What kind of songs would you do then?

Mr. IRONS: Oh, Bob Dylan, Peter, Paul and Mary, good old folk songs, you

GROSS: Do you have a guitar?

Mr. IRONS: Yeah, I do. I do. I rarely travel without it. And it means a
lot to me. When I travel, I like to travel with a musical instrument. I like
to be able to sit and relax and sing. At that time, I was not smoking and so
when I--instead of lighting a cigarette, I'd pick up the guitar. I still
don't smoke when I'm playing the guitar. But I would spend the evening
sitting with friends, drinking, playing the guitar and not smoking.

GROSS: Now I'm glad you mentioned smoking 'cause I always--you know, I gave
up smoking years ago. I always wondered, like, if I were an actor, which I'm
not, and I'd given up smoking and I have to smoke for a movie...

Mr. IRONS: Yeah.

GROSS: ...would I get hooked all over again? Have you had to encounter that?

Mr. IRONS: I have, interestingly, yes, because I stopped for two years. And
I'm very, very ashamed of the fact that I've taken it up again. But I stopped
for two years while I was making "Lolita" because I wanted to put on weight
for Humbert. I didn't want him to be gaunt. And I find that I eat more when
I don't smoke and I do put on weight. And I was also not smoking through
"Chinese Box" and I had to smoke a cigarette in that. We were in Hong Kong, I
said, `Will you get me one of those vegetable cigarettes, you know, or that
don't have any nicotine or any tobacco in them,' and they couldn't get them
out there. So eventually I said, `Well, I'll just have a normal cigarette.'
And I smoked the normal cigarette during the scene, didn't much enjoy it and
it had no effect at all, which is interesting. However, when I went back onto
cigarettes again afterwards--I'd just had the one--and within a week I was
back to 30 in a day.

GROSS: Yeah.

Mr. IRONS: So, you know, I think when you're playing a character you're
somewhere else.

GROSS: Right. Right.

Mr. IRONS: You know?

GROSS: Right. I want to move onto another movie, "Dead Ringers," which you
made in 1988, directed by David Cronenberg. And you played a dual role in
this, identical twin gynecologists who kind of exchange identities when they
want to with each other in both their professional lives and in their love
lives. But they're also kind of mad, particularly one of them. And in this
scene one of the brothers has gotten hooked on prescription drugs, uppers and
downers. And the other brother is trying to detox him by keeping him in a
house and standing watch over him, making sure he doesn't take anything. So
this clip starts with the addicted brother, who desperately wants a sleeping
pill from the other brother. Here we go.

(Soundbite from "Dead Ringers")

Mr. IRONS: (As Beverly Mantle) Elliot, I can't sleep.

(As Elliot Mantle) If you're asking me for a sleeper, I'll tell you right now
you're not going to get one.

(As Beverly Mantle) But what am I going to do then?

(As Elliot Mantle) You'll stay up.

(As Beverly Mantle) I'll die if I don't sleep.

(As Elliot Mantle) You'll stay up.

(As Beverly Mantle) What if I take something when you go home?

(As Elliot Mantle) I'm staying right here.

(As Beverly Mantle) What if I take something when you go to sleep?

(As Elliot Mantle) I won't go to sleep. I'll just stay awake. I'll take

(As Beverly Mantle) You'll take an up so that I don't take a down. That's

(As Elliot Mantle) Bev, don't worry about me. I'm not you.

GROSS: Great scene. Great film.

Mr. IRONS: Oh...

GROSS: Jeremy Irons, what was it like playing identical twins who had to look
exactly the same but yet be distinguishable to the audience watching the

Mr. IRONS: Well, it was a nice game to play. I had to find a way--an
internal way to make them different so that I knew who I was because I felt
different. Which I did. An eternal energy which is placed really in a
different place in my body which made me feel quite different as one to the
other. And when I then played one pretending to be the other, I was able to
keep the energy in the same place but tried to put the mannerisms of the other
onto that.

GROSS: Now what do you mean by keeping the energy in the same place?

Mr. IRONS: Well, have you ever done--ever done anything like the Alex--have
you done yoga?

GROSS: I've done Alexander, yeah.

Mr. IRONS: Alexander, right. Well, you know about, you know, feeling of the
energy coming up the spine and out of the top of the head...

GROSS: Right.

Mr. IRONS: ...which pulls you up. So you know about placing energies within

GROSS: This is--what Jeremy Irons is talking about is a kind of body
placement posture technique that I think a lot of actors and musicians study.

Mr. IRONS: That's right.

GROSS: Yeah.

Mr. IRONS: And Reiki Massage uses it, I mean, energy points and whatever.
And I would put the energy of one of the twins in my forehead, which is sort
of where the third eye is, and it's a very powerful place. It makes you stand
in a particular way. It makes you live very much on the front foot. It gives
you great energy, a little bit of aggression. Makes your eyes sparkly. It
just feels very bright. A bright place to have the energy. And that was for
one of the twins--for Elliot. And the other one, I put his energy in his
Adam's apple in his throat, which makes everything different--makes the
posture different, makes the energy within the voice different and takes some
of the energy out of the eyes and just changes everything. And, so by moving
it from one to the other, I could make these guys apparently different and
understandable to the audience. It was a simple trick.

GROSS: Now when you were shooting scenes with the two brothers in the same
scene, would you shoot the scene alternating back and forth between the two
brothers or shoot just all one brother and then shoot all the other brother?

Mr. IRONS: Yeah, I would do--there weren't many scenes like that where they
were both in the same scene--well, both in the same shot. We used the motion
control camera when that was necessary, which is an interesting process. But
no, I would do one brother and then I'd go and change into the other brother
and come on and do the other side. I had a tremendous stand-in who would be
my eye line as the other brother so that I would be looking in the right
place, although eventually that person would not be there and I would be
there. A very selfless role he had because he had to sublimate his own ego

GROSS: Now this is a very creepy movie. There are scenes...

Mr. IRONS: Isn't it creepy? Oh, I couldn't bear to see it.

GROSS: Oh yeah, it's very creepy. I think especially creepy for women to
watch. You know, these are gynecologists who have created these really weird
instruments to use for internal gynecological exams. And they're obsessed
with insides of bodies and the inner beauty and the inner ugliness of bodies.
And they're convinced that some insides are really deformed and other insides
are really beautiful. What kind of reactions did you get from women who you
know who saw the movie?

Mr. IRONS: Well, before I did the movie everybody said, `Don't touch it.' My
wife and my agent, who are both women, said, `Don't touch it. This is
hopeless.' And I knew that it would be a lot of fun for an actor to play two
identical twins. I mean, it's a great challenge, that, and so I wanted to do
it for that reason. When people then saw the movie they were sort of
hideously fascinated, the women especially. I think they--you know, I think
when you see any movie you think, `There but for the grace of God go I,' and
many women who have to go in for examinations thought, `Well, at least my
gynecologist is not like that.' But...

GROSS: A small consolation. Yeah.

Mr. IRONS: A small consolation. But I'm always fascinated that that is the
piece of work of mine which people keep going back to and say that, you know,
that really was the apogee, which is nice.

GROSS: Well, Jeremy Irons, thank you so much for talking with us.

Mr. IRONS: It's been a great pleasure.

DAVIES: Jeremy Irons speaking with Terry Gross in 1998. He appears opposite
Al Pacino in a new screen adaptation of "The Merchant of Venice."

Coming up, film critic David Edelstein gives us his take on the film. This is

(Soundbite of music)

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

Review: Michael Radford's film, "The Merchant of Venice"

Jeremy Irons plays the merchant Antonio in a new version of Shakespeare's
problematic play, "The Merchant of Venice." Al Pacino plays the money lender
Shylock in the new screen version. Film critic David Edelstein says the movie
works better when it stops trying to get around the play's anti-Semitism.


Michael Radford's film of William Shakespeare's "The Merchant of Venice" is
steeped in guilt, like a toxic smog. It opens with titles that inform us of
the status of Jews in 16th-century Venice. They were ghettoized, they were
reviled, and they were confined by law to occupations like money lending.
That overture seems a thoughtful solution to the problem posed by this frankly
anti-Semantic play. But as Stephen Greenblatt points out in his brilliant new
book, "Will in the World," Shakespeare had probably never met any Jews. They
certainly weren't in evidence in Elizabethan England, where even being openly
Catholic was a recipe for getting one's severed head affixed to London Bridge.

The character of Shylock must have begun life as a stock villain in a romantic
comedy with serious overtones, not unlike "Much Ado About Nothing." But
Shakespeare by this point was incapable of creating a one-dimensional schemer,
like Marlowe's contemporaneous "Jew of Malta." And Shylock ended up with a
weight and rough eloquence that warped the strange and imperfect play. In
recent years, humanist theater directors have tried to portray Shylock as more
sinned against then sinning, which really warps the play.

Radford and Al Pacino don't make that mistake. This Shylock is so beaten down
that he embraces the role of monster. In the past he has reached out to
Christian society and been spat on, literally, in a prologue by Antonio, the
devout merchant of the title, played by Jeremy Irons. For once, the scale of
Pacino's performance seems right. He's sometimes sing-song and he chews the
scenery--I mean, when does he not? But he also takes Shylock deep inside
himself. He's gnomish and gnarled and he burns hotter and hotter, like a
human filament. More important, Pacino mines all the obsessive poetry so that
when Antonio's ships are lost at sea and his debt forfeited, Shylock's demand
for a pound of the merchant's flesh becomes an unholy incantation.

(Soundbite of "The Merchant of Venice")

Mr. AL PACINO: (As Shylock) Jailer, look to him. Tell me not of mercy,
this is the fool lent out money gratis. Jailer, look to him.

Mr. JEREMY IRONS: (As Antonio) Hear me yet, good Shylock.

Mr. PACINO: (As Shylock) I'll have my bond. Speak not against my bond. I
have sworn an oath that I will have my bond. You called me dog before you had
a cause, but since I am a dog, beware my fangs. The duke will grant me
justice. I do one day you wicked jailers you are so fond to come abroad with
him at his request.

Mr. IRONS: (As Antonio) I pray you, hear me speak.

Mr. PACINO: (As Shylock) I'll have my bond. I will not hear you speak. I'll
have my bond, therefore, speak no more. I'll not be made a soft and dull-eyed
fool to shake their head, relent and sigh and yield to Christian intercessors.
I'll have no speaking. Follow not--I will have my bond.

EDELSTEIN: The subsequent courtroom scene is the heart of the movie, and
director Radford proves adroit at juggling our sympathies. Jeremy Irons is
all liquid eyes and trembling lips as the anguished Antonio, who has lost not
only his fortune but also the young man with whom he's wildly in love, Joseph
Fiennes' Bassanio. As the heiress, Portia, Bassanio's new wife, and, in her
disguise as a male law clerk, the potential savior of Antonio, Lynn Collins
finds all the transcendent spirituality in Portia's celebrated ode to
Christian mercy.

Finally, there is the riveted spectacle of Pacino's Shylock walking into--no,
hurling himself into a trap, a comeuppance for the vengeful Jew that would
have delighted Elizabethan audiences, who also loved watching bears torn limb
from limb. But Radford doesn't solve the problems of "The Merchant of
Venice," which nowadays is too disturbing to be played for comedy and too
unresolved to qualify as tragedy or even that ever-shifting hybrid, tragic
comedy. Portia's own quality of mercy is strained. She is, all in all, a
spoiled and self-centered little princess. And the other characters don't
have the stature to make the various lovers' tests of loyalty seem anything
but capricious and inconsequential.

Radford throws the play even more off balance by making the first half of the
movie hushed and dark with a palette like "Valasquez."(ph) It's evocative,
but with the comic energy ratcheted way down, it's also deeply boring, at
least until Antonio suffers an economic catastrophe and looks to be coming in
for a small weight loss. That's when this "Merchant of Venice" comes roaring
to life. When it stops, in effect, apologizing for its terrible anti-Semitic
worldview and just gives itself over to some of the most furious courtroom
drama ever written. You can contextualize the play, frame it humanistically,
celebrate Shakespeare for not being Marlowe, but you can't get around the
lousy lot of the Jew in the western canon.

DAVIES: David Edelstein is film critic for the online magazine Slate.


DAVIES: For Terry Gross, I'm Dave Davies.
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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