October 31, 2013
Guest: Jared Leto
TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. My guest, Jared Leto, costars in the new film "Dallas Buyers Club," which is based on the story of Ron Woodroof, a rodeo cowboy and electrician who was diagnosed with AIDS in 1985 and told he didn't have long to live. Not having access to possibly life-prolonging drugs because they were still in the trial phase, he sought alternative treatments in Mexico, smuggled those drugs into the U.S. and formed a buyers' club for fellow HIV patients.
Coming from a homophobic perspective, the club exposed him to a lot of gay people who, in the past, he would have done his best to avoid. Woodroof is played by Matthew McConaughey. Leto plays a transgender woman with AIDS and a drug habit who works closely with McConaughey and the buyers' club and becomes a good friend.
Leto first became known for his role as Jordan Catalano in the TV series "My So-Called Life." He played a junkie in the film "Requiem for a Dream." In "The Panic Room," he was one of the burglars who breaks into Jodie Foster's home and terrorizes her and her daughter. Leto played John Lennon's assassin, Mark David Chapman, in the film "Chapter 27."
He took time away from acting to focus on his band 30 Seconds to Mars. "The Dallas Buyers Club" is his first film in several years. Let's start with a scene from it. His character Rayon is participating in a clinical trial for the AIDS drug AZT. She's in the hospital for a checkup with her doctor, Eve Saks, played by Jennifer Garner. Rayon is wearing a dress that reveals how gaunt she's become. She has a scarf around her head and long, pink fingernails. She speaks first.
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "THE DALLAS BUYERS CLUB")
JARED LETO: (As Rayon) Do you like this dress? Because I think the neckline's a little plunging.
JENNIFER GARNER: (As Eve Saks) Rayon, the whole purpose of this study is to determine if AZT is helping people.
LETO: (As Rayon) Come on, Eve, you know there ain't no helping me.
GARNER: (As Eve) That doesn't mean I'm going to stop trying.
LETO: (As Rayon) Why are you so good to me? Bless your little heart.
GARNER: (As Eve) Just promise me you'll show up for the rest of the trial.
LETO: (As Rayon) I promise you that I will try my very best.
GARNER: (As Eve) I want you to mean it.
GROSS: Jared Leto, welcome to FRESH AIR, and congratulations on the new film. This is your first movie in five years. You've been touring with your band. But why did - what was it about this movie that brought you back?
LETO: Well, I was seduced, seduced by this beautiful creature Rayon and a wonderful script and, you know, the potential and possibility to be a part of something that was really special.
GROSS: Had you been rejecting scripts in the last five years?
LETO: No, just been rejected. I - that was a joke. But I was...
GROSS: Thanks, because I wasn't sure.
LETO: Yeah, I know, sometimes you guys are so serious over here. You know, there's a lot - there's a big world out there, and I was exploring other things. I hadn't made a film in five or six years. I'm in a band called 30 Seconds to Mars, and we were touring the world and having more success than we ever dreamed, and it was incredible.
You know, there's another part of it, as well. These little films, they can break your heart. And I tend to make smaller films, independent films, and, you know, it's a risky business. You have to be very careful about what you do. But when I read this script, I thought this is a worthy experiment, and I was really, really excited to work with this incredibly gifted group of people.
GROSS: When you say little films can break your heart, do you mean you pour your soul into it, and then sometimes nobody sees it?
LETO: Yeah, and it's not even about people seeing it. Sometimes they just don't - they don't work. They don't come together. And, of course, they don't have the support, or they don't find an audience. It's a beautiful thing to work with people that are willing to risk it all, and I felt that way a few times in my career, and certainly felt that way on "Dallas Buyers Club."
GROSS: So you say that the character of Rayon seduced you, and she's a very seductive character. I mean, she basically seduces everybody she meets, not sexually, but just - it's that kind of flirtatious personality. Describe what you did to become the character.
LETO: Well, the first thing that I did is I had a Skype meeting with the director. I was in Berlin playing a show, and it was the wintertime. And I remember this because, you know, it gets dark very early, and, you know, 3 or 4 o'clock in the afternoon, and it was very cold. But we set up a Skype. We said hello. We connected, and then I reached out, and I grabbed some lipstick, and I started to put it on.
And then I unbuttoned my thick, black, wool pea coat, and I had a little pink furry sweater on, and I pulled it down over my shoulder, and I proceeded to flirt with him for the next 20 minutes, then woke up the next day with the official offer. So that was the very beginning for me. As Rayon would: a girl's gotta do what a girl's gotta do.
But the beginning, for me, as far as working on the role was listening, meeting with transgendered people and listening. You know, I met with people that were incredibly open and kind, very generous, and shared their stories with me, stories of challenge and perseverance, stories of transition.
GROSS: What were some of the most helpful things you were told by transgendered people you talked with?
LETO: Well, what it was like to tell their parents who they really are, what it was like to...
GROSS: Which you have to do in the movie with your father.
LETO: Yeah. So that kind of thing was key. You know, talking about the difference between a drag queen or transvestite and a transgendered person. And I always saw Rayon as someone who wanted to live their life as a woman, not just someone who enjoyed putting on women's clothing. And that's a pretty big distinction to make.
GROSS: When you were wearing the clothes Rayon wears, which - why don't you describe one of her outfits and tell us what it felt like, you as a man who is not transgendered, to be wearing them?
LETO: Well, talking about the wardrobe, what really comes to mind is the scene with my father in the bank.
GROSS: You're wearing a kind of oversized suit. It looks like it must be old, and you've lost a lot of weight since then, because you have AIDS.
LETO: Yeah. It was actually Ron's suit that I had borrowed. That was kind of the backstory, you know, the closest person to me that would have a suit that I could hijack for the day. But I go to the bank...
GROSS: So, the Matthew McConaughey character. Yeah.
LETO: Yeah, for Matt's character. But I go to the bank, and basically it's to say goodbye to my father, I'm dying of AIDS, and to tell him that I forgive him. You know, he's a guy that probably started ignoring Rayon when she was just a kid, maybe six or seven, and as soon as he thought something was different, you know, as soon as he didn't have that little boy that he could take to the ballgame or relate to in the way that he expected, I think that he just shut off emotionally and stopped paying attention and really rejected her.
So, you know, tough, challenging childhood, among other things, and she's going to say goodbye because she knows she's going to die. But, anyway, as far as the clothing, I think of that scene, because it's one and only time in the film that I'm not wearing women's clothing. And it was interesting, because I was in character for the entire film, I felt - when I put that suit on, I felt like I was in drag. And that was a really interesting experience and a really intense scene.
GROSS: I read that you stayed in character through the making of the movie. So I assume what happened is that the other actors, like Matthew McConaughey, become Matthew McConaughey and leave their character when they're not involved in a scene, but that you stayed in the character of Rayon. And how does - how does that help you, by not breaking character?
LETO: Well, it helps you in a lot of ways. I'll give you a couple examples. When you're on set, most of the time, your experience or your acting, your performance is limited to when the director yells action. We didn't do any rehearsal on this film, which was great, actually. You know, your time creating, experimenting is on camera. When you stay in character, your performance time is unlimited. It's all day long on the set, and it can educate you and give you an opportunity to build the character, for me, in a much better way.
I also think that the role was so far removed from who people may expect I am in my daily life, that it was really beneficial to stay as close to the part as possible. I couldn't imagine every time the director yelled action to have to recall all of the physicality, all the stuff going on inside, you know, the voice, as well, and the dialect and the walk and the body center, the circumstances on a moment's notice. That would be a much better actor than I am.
GROSS: Here's what - it seems like must have been odd. You know, so you're staying in character as a transgendered woman who's living in the 1980s. And, like, everybody else is going back to who they really are in between takes and living in, you know, 2013 or 2012, whenever you actually shot this. So, like, you're not only in character, you're not contemporaneous with the period, and also no one's writing your lines.
I mean, you have a script when you're in character, and when you're not actually in a take, you have to write dialogue for this character.
LETO: Yeah, and I think that's some of the - those are some of the challenges. But, you know, I don't think it's about, you know, pretending you're in 1985. I think it's about habit. I think it's about exercise. It's about focus, and it's about concentration. Those are other words that you could substitute for the kind of cliche in-character.
You know, some of the physical attributes certainly lead, and really, the whole point of them is to lead and connect to your emotional life. And, you know, there are other benefits that come with it, as well. I mean, the scene I talked with it - about earlier when I wore the suit, it's only because I was so focused all the time on who this person was and staying so close to her that when I finally put that suit on, I still walked like I had the heels on. I still walked like I had my handbag on. I didn't have to figure that out, you know.
One day, there was a break for a couple of hours, and I went to Whole Foods to, you know, stare at the food there, because I wasn't eating, really. But, you know, and an interesting thing happened. I got three distinct looks. One was: Who is that? The other was: What is that? And the third was: I don't know what that is, but I don't like it. And that was a really powerful gaze to get, that condemnation, the judgment, and those sorts of things.
You know, other things happen, like people start treating you different. So it's not about me thinking I'm in 1985 and trying to convince myself that, you know, Reagan is president, or whoever was president in 1985. It was really about trying to learn and using it as practice, as rehearsal. You know, does one of the grips reach out and, you know, offer his hand when I'm stepping out of the makeup trailer, because he starts to treat me like Rayon?
You know, people, they look at you different. You feel different. I also think that it provided a real sense of truth for Matthew and Jennifer. You know, such an unbelievably impossible person all of a sudden became believable and possible.
GROSS: So, toward the end of the movie, you are quite emaciated. You know, you're very sick from AIDS. And there's one scene in which your top is off, and you are - I was just shocked at how skeletal you were. I mean, I know you'd lost weight for the movie, but once your top is off, man.
There's only one scene where we see you that way, where we actually see more of your body. You must have had to lose so much weight to get to that point. And I know that for the movie in which you played John Lennon's assassin, Mark David Chapman, you gained, like, about 60 pounds. And I guess I'm wondering, like, it's such an extreme to go to for the role. Did you worry about sacrificing your health?
LETO: Well, I'll put it this way: I would never, ever, ever, in a million years, gain weight for a film again. It's much more damaging to gain weight than to lose. I mean, I lost between 30 and 40 on "Dallas Buyers Club," and I stopped counting, because I'd lost weight before for a film called "Requiem for a Dream," and I had...
GROSS: In which you played a junkie.
LETO: Yeah, exactly. But, you know, it's a really challenging thing to do. It's not something that should be treated lightly by anyone. I would never suggest anyone do it, gain or lose. But in this particular case, I was playing a drug addict who was dying of AIDS, and I felt it was important and would also provide a certain amount of fragility to the character.
But losing weight is a great tool. It changes the way you walk, the way you talk, the way people treat you, the way you feel about yourself. It changes the choices that you make. So it was an essential element of the character-building.
GROSS: Did you do any permanent damage to your body when you gained or when you lost weight for roles?
LETO: I do think that I've damaged myself. I got gout when I gained all of the weight, the 60-something pounds. And at the end of that shoot, I was literally taking a wheelchair to set, because I was in so much pain. You know, I couldn't walk down a hallway without hobbling. That was really not a lot of fun. But, you know, once in a lifetime, and fortunately, I remember, as well, I gained - I had - my cholesterol had shot up so much, to I think 272 or something. I can't remember the number or what it means exactly. But they wanted to me on Lipitor after just a couple of months. And I was, you know, a young, really healthy guy before that.
GROSS: When you gained weight to play Mark David Chapman, Lennon's assassin, and when you lost weight to play Rayon in "The Dallas Buyers Club," when you came home and looked at yourself in the mirror, like you take off your makeup, you take off the clothes you're wearing on your set, you're at home, you're about to go sleep in your own bed, and you look in the mirror: You're no longer yourself.
I mean, you physically became the character. It's like you can't take off your body and put your old body back on. So what is it like for you to look in the mirror, and you've so transformed yourself, that even when you're alone at home in your bedroom, you can't become who you really are?
LETO: Well, that's part of the point, I think, complete and total immersion, to go to a place that is so severe, that it compels and pulls the rest of you into the circumstances or situation. But I remember there was a time where I was washing my makeup off, in "Dallas Buyers Club," and it's like, man, they did a great job. I'm looking real sick.
And then I - you know, you get a hot towel, and I put it on my face again, then I wash it again, and I realized that it wasn't the makeup anymore. It was just my face. And that was a bit of a surprise.
GROSS: My guest is Jared Leto. He costars in the new film "Dallas Buyers Club." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Jared Leto, and he's now one of the stars of the new movie "The Dallas Buyers Club," and he plays a transgendered woman who is very sick with HIV.
LETO: I love your show, by the way.
GROSS: Do you really? Thank you. I love your acting.
LETO: Your voice is so relaxing. I mean, I wish I could purchase it and carry it with me anytime that I'm...
GROSS: Wow, I wish I felt that way about my voice.
LETO: Oh, it's awesome. It's so focused and clear, and it's like water crystal. I love it.
GROSS: Well thank you. Thank you. Well, speaking of voices, you use your voice to great effect in "Dallas Buyers Club," and it's a kind of - you know, you're from Dallas in the movie, and it's a Southern voice, and you're the kind of person who calls everybody, male and female, sugar. And because you have a very, like, acerbic wit in the movie, you also use your voice to good effect in terms of the kind of digs and sarcastic remarks.
On the flip side, you used your voice to great effect as Mark David Chapman, John Lennon's assassin. And he's somebody who was so just, like, off, just so mentally off. And when he's speaking, like, there's no energy or focus in his voice. And I'm wondering if you can compare those two pretty opposite voices for us and tell us about how you got them, and maybe you'd even consider talking that way and demonstrating a little bit, maybe not.
LETO: I don't think I could. I would love to demonstrate, but I actually don't think I could. I haven't spoken in either of the voices in quite some time. I remember there was - you know what they had in common was a pretty drastic shift from my own voice, which is a little bit more monotonous and deeper, probably. They both had more melody in their voices.
They both had a dialect, a Southern dialect, and they both were higher in register. And then, you know, I think that it's interesting to talk about voices. I hadn't realized this, but I think we've got to throw Harry Goldfarb from "Requiem" into the mix, who had a Brooklyn accent.
GROSS: That's your character in the movie.
LETO: Yeah, yeah, Harry Goldfarb. I think that Harry and Rayon have a lot in common. They're both dreamers. They both have a heart of gold, and they both are trapped by these unbreakable and horrendous circumstances that they happen to be in, and they want for a better life.
But voice is really important to me. I don't know why that is. Some actors have, you know, these great gravelly voices, and they just basically need to be who they are every movie, and you're just enamored, and you love to spend time with them. But I don't know, maybe it's identity crisis. But voice was very key for Rayon.
And I was born in Louisiana, by the way, so not too far from Texas. And so that melody was very familiar to me.
GROSS: Jared Leto will be back in the second half of the show. He stars with Matthew McConaughey in the new film "Dallas Buyers Club." I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with actor Jared Leto, who costars with Matthew McConaughey in the new film "Dallas Buyers Club." Leto plays a transgender woman with AIDS in the 1980s. Leto's other films include "Requiem for a Dream," "Chapter 27," "Panic Room" and "Fight Club." "Dallas Buyer's Club" is Leto's first film in several years. He took time off from acting to focus on his band, 30 Seconds to Mars.
Leto got his start almost 20 years ago when he co-starred as a high school student in the TV series "My So-Called Life." Here he is in a scene from early in the series. Rumors have been circulating that Angela, played by Claire Danes, and Leto's character, Jordan Catalano, have had sex in his car when what really happened in the car was an awkward conversation and an even more awkward attempt at a kiss.
But she does have a big crush on him. In this scene, Jordan and Angela have run into each other in the stairwell at school.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "MY SO-CALLED LIFE")
LETO: (as Jordan) I didn't say anything about, you know.
CLAIRE DANES: (as Angela) I know.
LETO: (as Jordan) I just wanted you to know that.
DANES: (as Angela) Thank you.
LETO: (as Jordan) Because I'm not like that. I don't - I don't do that.
DANES: (as Angela) No.
LETO: (as Jordan) It's so weird, huh?
DANES: (as Angela) Yeah. Yeah.
LETO: (as Jordan) I mean the way people talk. I mean people think we did it.
DANES: (as Angela) I know.
LETO: (as Jordan) It's like we might as well have done it anyway at this point.
DANES: (as Angela) Um...
LETO: (as Jordan) I mean, at least, you know, I mean if everybody's talking about it already maybe we, uh, I mean, not to make a big deal of it or anything.
DANES: (as Angela) Out of what?
LETO: (as Jordan) Out of - out of anything. I mean, if everybody's already assuming it anyway, maybe we should just...
DANES: (as Angela) It's amazing the things you notice. Like the corner of his collar that was coming undone like he was from a poor family and couldn't afford new shirts. That's all I could see. The whole world was that unraveled piece of fabric.
(as Angela) I think I have to go.
LETO: (as Jordan) Look, I'm sorry if I...
DANES: (as Angela) No, it's OK.
LETO: (as Jordan) No pressure or anything.
DANES: (as Angela) I have to go.
LETO: (as Jordan) You could just think about it.
GROSS: A lot of people got introduced to you through the series "My So-Called Life," which starred Claire Danes as a, you know, a high school-age girl who has a really big crush on your character, Jordan Catalano. And I'm wondering about how that Jordan - the character of Jordan, who's kind of like not very talkative, not the most, like, book intelligent person, but charismatic, how his character compared to who you were in high school.
LETO: Oh, god. Not comparable at all. So different. You know, I barely made it through high school. I actually dropped out in the tenth grade.
GROSS: Did you go back to high school?
LETO: I did end up going back to the type of school that you can cram in a couple of years in one. That one that all the questionable kids were - other people that may have challenging situations, you know. And yeah. But it was a decent place and then I went on to study to be an artist, a painter, and I went to three different art colleges. And you know, I always wanted to be an artist.
It was either an artist or a drug dealer. I thought those two had a lot of promise.
GROSS: What was your childhood like? I read that you grew up for, I think a couple of years, in a commune.
LETO: I moved around a lot. We were vagabonds. I've said this before as kind of a joke but there's a lot of truth to it. As my mother climbed out of the muddy banks of the Mississippi with her kids in one hand and food stamps in the other, barely 18 and in an attempt to make a better life for herself - and you know, that basically was the beginning.
GROSS: So she was a single mother?
GROSS: Did you know your father?
LETO: I did not.
GROSS: And still don't?
GROSS: So what does she do to support the family?
LETO: What did she do or what does she do?
GROSS: What did she do?
LETO: Oh, well, she put herself through college. She educated herself and, you know, that's the wonderful thing when the system does work. But I believe she had to leave Louisiana in order to do that and headed up towards, you know, other places where she could get some assistance. So, you know, that's a good thing when it works like that.
GROSS: So forgive me for keeping - asking you about the commune, but I'm just oh-so-curious what it's like for kids who grew up in a commune. Like what it was like from their perspective.
LETO: Well, there was time in a circus as well. And there were a lot of similarities. You know, it's a group of people that are kind of on the fringes that want to either escape or find something and they join this community in hopes that they will achieve one or the other.
GROSS: So you spent some time in a circus?
GROSS: What was your mother doing in the circus?
GROSS: Seriously? I can't tell if you're pulling my leg.
LETO: No. I mean, there were more unbelievable things that do in the world, trust me. But had she - if she was, we - if she was, you know, if she was here right now she would probably talk about being a photographer, an artist, a mom, a nurse, and a creative person. And I think the thing that my mother taught us most was that we should pursue our creative ambitions.
Which was totally normal to us as kids to hear, like, your mom say, yeah, be an artist. Do something creative. Do what you're excited about doing. It's not until I got much older that I realized that's a pretty unique thing and a pretty brave thing when you think about how challenging that life can be, you know?
It's certainly not a safe route to take. You know, very few visual artists and creative people have the pleasure to make a living from the thing that they love the most. So that was pretty cool. I was thinking about that just this morning.
GROSS: So I've got a circus-y question for you.
GROSS: In your music video "Up in the Air," which won the VMA award...
GROSS: ...there's a lot of images in it. One of them is of somebody who might have been the, quote, fat lady in a circus. I mean she's very heavy and she's nearly naked in the shot. Background about that? What's that about?
LETO: She is beautifully overweight and it's actually my mom.
GROSS: That's your mom?
LETO: I'm just kidding.
GROSS: See? I can't trust you.
LETO: You called my mom fat.
GROSS: No. See, now we have to go through the whole...
GROSS: I have to come through the whole interview and ask myself what's...
LETO: Well, you know...
GROSS: ..what's true here?
LETO: ...if we don't keep it off balance a little bit, it's never going to be interesting.
GROSS: Yeah, I know.
LETO: The circus thing. I've always been, obviously, enamored by the circus. You know, I mean, you know, my real father could've been a clown. You never know these things.
GROSS: So here's a question for you. Was your mother really a trapeze artist?
LETO: I can't confirm or deny anything about my mother because, you know, who knows? I mean we could've eaten magic mushrooms.
GROSS: The answer isn't you know, you know.
LETO: The things that were floating around...
GROSS: And you're not saying. OK.
LETO: ...in that teepee, I mean, oh my god.
GROSS: I'm taking that as a no. I'm taking that as a...
LETO: Once in a while - once in a while, my brother would eat the wrong brownies and, I mean the things that we would see.
GROSS: OK. I hear you. That's a no.
LETO: I wouldn't say so, but it's all right. It's all right.
GROSS: All right.
LETO: We'll see who believes and who doesn't.
GROSS: How did you get your foot in the door in acting? And why did you want to do it?
LETO: Well, I didn't want to do it. I actually didn't want to be an actor. I wanted to be an artist and I think that's still the case. I had a plan when I was in art school. I was studying filmmaking at that time, kind of like non-traditional, non-narrative art film, video art. But I wanted to make more narrative films.
So I thought, wow, you know what? I bet if I get a job as an actor, that'll help me get a job as a director. And that was actually my plan. That was my goal. But I kind of had a secret desire to create characters, to tell stories in front of the camera as well.
GROSS: Now that you've ended your five-year hiatus from acting with a new film, "The Dallas Buyers Club," are you going to act again? Are you going to stay in it again?
LETO: Well, it was an incredible experience, the role of a lifetime. The support and love around the performance in the film is absolutely astounding. I'm in shock ever since Toronto Film Festival. It's just been - I've been in a daze. So I have a lot of gratitude for that. I haven't read another script since I read this script for this film. But I would love to find something really special. You know, the special ones just don't come around very often. So I don't know.
GROSS: I hope I can look forward to seeing more of you onscreen.
LETO: Thank you so much.
LETO: Thank you. My god, this was the quickest interview ever. I can't believe that it's already gone.
GROSS: Jared Leto costars in the new film "Dallas Buyers Club." Leto also directed a video that was released this week for this song, "City of Angels," by his band 30 Seconds to Mars. His brother Shannon is also in the band.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CITY OF ANGELS")
LETO: (Singing) There was truth. There was consequence against you. A weak defense. Then there's me. I'm 17 and looking for a fight. All my life I was never...
GROSS: Coming up, Ken Tucker reviews a new album from country singer and songwriter Brandy Clark. This is FRESH AIR.
TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. Rock critic Ken Tucker has a review of Brandy Clark's debut album, called "12 Stories." Clark is a singer-songwriter from Washington State who in recent years has made an impact in Nashville as a songwriter. She's written or co-written hits for acts as various as Miranda Lambert, the band Perry, and Kacey Musgraves.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PRAY TO JESUS")
BRANDY CLARK: (Singing) We live in trailers and apartments too. From California to Kalamazoo. Grow up, getting married, and when that one ends, we hate sleeping alone so we get married again. Don't want to be buried in debt or in sin so we pray to Jesus and we play the lotto. 'Cause there ain't but two ways we can change tomorrow. And ain't no genie and there ain't nobody. So pray to Jesus, and we'll play the lotto.
KEN TUCKER, BYLINE: That's "Pray to Jesus" the song that leads off "12 Stories," Brandy Clark's modestly amazing album. "Pray to Jesus" isn't a conventionally religious song. It sets up what will be a recurring theme throughout this collection: a quick, precise sketch of specific people, mostly rural, many of them working-class, who don't see a heck of a lot going right in their lives, now or in the foreseeable future.
So as Clark sings: We pray to Jesus and we play the Lotto 'cause there ain't but two ways we can change tomorrow. Clark is working in a time-honored tradition, yet managing to articulate it in a fresh way.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WHAT'LL KEEP ME OUT OF HEAVEN")
CLARK: (Singing) I know I shouldn't be here tonight. I hardly know this man. It's been a long time since I felt as pretty as he tells me I am. I met him at a coffee shop and I've met him in the park. But I've never been alone with him in this dress after dark. There's so many shades of gray; this is black and white. He's some stranger's husband and I'm some stranger's wife. Ten floors up he's waiting with champagne and candlelight. What'll keep me out heaven will take me there tonight.
TUCKER: That lovely melody and astringent twang vocal are in the service of a slightly sordid scenario: a married woman having an affair with a married man - or, as Clark phrases it: He's some stranger's husband, I'm some stranger's wife. The clever clincher is the chorus couplet: What'll keep me out of heaven will take me there tonight.
That Jesus she was praying to in the first song is now the God condemning adultery, but the narrator just can't help herself. This willingness to sing in the persona of someone we might not necessarily like is at once Clark's signal claim to adventurousness and what's probably going to keep her album from climbing very high on the country charts.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TAKE A LITTLE PILL")
CLARK: (singing) Mama got depressed when daddy was dying so the doctor gave her something to help her with her crying. Then she couldn't sleep so he gave her something else. Now there's yellow, red, and pink on the bathroom shelf. Says if one won't work, then another one will. If you've got a little hurt, you take a little pill.
TUCKER: Clark is working in a tradition that hops back a few decades. She comes out of the era of 1980s country women such as Reba McEntire, The Judds, KT Oslin, Pam Tillis and Roseanne Cash before country got too confining for her. These were among the most full-throated women staking a claim for progressive freedoms within the confines of country's intrinsically conservative social scenarios.
These days, at a time when some of the biggest male country stars are literally singing the praises of women's rear ends and the joys of non-stop tailgate parties, someone like Brandy Clark comes across like a terse realist novelist, landing somewhere between Sarah Orne Jewett and Mary Gaitskill. For example, one theme that runs through "12 Stories" is that alcohol may help you unwind but it also helps things fall apart.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)
CLARK: (singing) I did the laundry. I cleaned the kitchen. Swept up the pieces of those broken dishes. I drank my coffee while yours got colder. All while you were hung over. I put on lipstick. I planted roses. Painted the bathroom but you never noticed. I felt the first chill of October all while you were hung over. Baby, your head ain't the only thing hurting, you know. The sun keeps coming up even if the curtains are closed. The girl in the mirror...
TUCKER: "12 Stories" is one of those rare albums whose every song is worth hearing - every one is that striking, that textured and finely detailed. It is my fervent hope that Clark, who's helped other women achieve hit singles will have her own hits from among these smoothly crafted, emotionally rough compositions.
GROSS: Rock critic Ken Tucker reviewed "12 Stories" by Brandy Clark. You can see a video of her song "Pray to Jesus" on our website. That's freshair.npr.org.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)
CLARK: (singing) She's getting hammered on Alabama slammers. Three drinks ago, no, he wouldn't stand a chance. He's sipping whiskey, feeling confident and frisky. Writes "Slow Hand" on a twenty and slips it to the band. By the end of the first verse they're out on the floor. By the end of the song, they're out the door. Spirits are up, inhibitions are down. Same stories unfolding all over town.
(singing) From the barroom to the bedroom, the paths weathered and warm, this is how illegitimate children are born.
GROSS: Coming up, Maureen Corrigan reviews Donna Tartt's new novel "The Goldfinch." This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. Donna Tartt is a novelist who won't be hurried. Starting with her debut novel, "The Secret History," which came out in 1992, she seems to be establishing a patter of publishing one novel a decade. Tartt's third novel, "The Goldfinch," has just appeared and our book critic Maureen Corrigan says that she would gladly wait another decade if she had to for a novel this good.
MAUREEN CORRIGAN, BYLINE: Dickensian is one of those literary modifiers that's overused, but before I officially retire this ruined adjective or exile it to Australia, as Dickens himself would've done, I want to give it one final outing. Because no other word will do. Here goes: Donna Tartt's grand new novel "The Goldfinch" is Dickensian both in the ambition of its jumbo coincidence-laced plot as well as in its symphonic range of emotions.
"The Goldfinch" far exceeds the expectations of those of us who've been waiting on Tartt to do something extraordinary again ever since her debut novel "The Secret History" came out in 1992. Hell, I feel like I've been waiting for a novel like this to appear not only since I read "The Secret History" but since I first read "David Copperfield."
There's a lot of Copperfield in Tartt's hero Theo Decker who's 13 years old at the start of this story which he narrates in retrospect as an adult. Young Theo lives with his adored, beautiful mother in Manhattan. His dad, a shiftless actor and gambler, has deserted them and good riddance, too. Unfortunately, Theo is not as pure as David Copperfield was as a boy.
In fact, on the most fateful morning of his life, Theo and his mother have an appointment at his prep school to discuss his suspension for smoking on school grounds. Or maybe it's for stealing; Theo was guilty of that crime, too. But what Theo will ultimately spend the rest of his life atoning for is the death of his mother.
It wasn't his fault, adults will assure him. It was a terrible accident, rotten luck, could've happened to anyone. It's all perfectly true, Theo admits, and I don't believe a word of it. What happens is that on the way to the school appointment, Theo and his mom take shelter from a sudden thunderstorm by ducking into the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Theo's mom studied art and she steers him over to one of her most beloved paintings. It's called "The Goldfinch" and it's an actual painting done in the mid-17th century by a teacher of Vermeer's named Carel Fabritius. Theo half listens to his mother's lecture on the glories of this painting of an alert yellow bird chained to a perch by its twig of an ankle.
Then, just as they're moving off to the dreaded school appointment, a terrorist bomb explodes in the Met. Theo's mother is killed and life as he knew it is shattered. As in "The Secret History" and her second, less successful novel, "The Little Friend" which centered on an unsolved murder, Tartt plays here with the conventions of the suspense thriller.
In the aftermath of the explosion, Theo comforts a dying man who gives him a ring and points to the small painting of "The Goldfinch" lying in the rubble out of its frame. Theo takes custody of both objects and they lead him on a baroque coming of age adventure that includes a season in hell in Las Vegas with his deadbeat dad, brushes with the Russian mob, unrequited love, excessive teen drug use, and the discovery of a place almost like home in a New York antique shop.
An old curiosity shop, if you will, run by an openhearted mensch named Toby who becomes Theo's guardian. I have, by the way, only taken us halfway through this 700-plus page novel. As ingenious as Tartt's plot is, this novel would be but a massive scaffolding feat were it not for her uncanny way with words.
Here's Theo as an adult telling us about a feverish dream he had of his mother: She came up suddenly beside me so I saw her reflection in a mirror. At the sight of her, I was paralyzed with happiness. She was smiling at me - not a dream, but a presence that filled the whole room. I knew I couldn't turn around, that to look at her directly was to violate the laws of her world and mine.
Our eyes met in the glass for a long moment but just as she seemed about to speak, a vapor rolled between us and I woke up. Like the goldfinch in the painting he can't bring himself to relinquish. Theo is chained, forever yearning for the mother he lost on that terrible day in the museum. His loneliness is the realistic emotional constant in this crowded, exuberantly plotted triumph of a novel. And if that ain't Dickensian, I don't know what is.
GROSS: Maureen Corrigan teaches literature at Georgetown University. She reviewed "The Goldfinch" by Donna Tartt. You can read an excerpt on our website, freshair.npr.org.
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