Monthly Archives: June 2014

Comedian Joel McHale Talks Dyslexia, Bad TV And Filming A Thriller


Comedian Joel McHale spoke at the annual White House Correspondents' Association dinner in May. He says everyone wanted to see his jokes ahead of time, but he likes keeping them a secret.i i

hide captionComedian Joel McHale spoke at the annual White House Correspondents’ Association dinner in May. He says everyone wanted to see his jokes ahead of time, but he likes keeping them a secret.


Olivier Douliery-Pool/Getty Images

Comedian Joel McHale spoke at the annual White House Correspondents' Association dinner in May. He says everyone wanted to see his jokes ahead of time, but he likes keeping them a secret.

Comedian Joel McHale spoke at the annual White House Correspondents’ Association dinner in May. He says everyone wanted to see his jokes ahead of time, but he likes keeping them a secret.

Olivier Douliery-Pool/Getty Images

Comedian Joel McHale, the star of the recently canceled NBC series Community and host of The Soup on the E! network, says he was excited about his role in the new movie Deliver Us From Evil. It’s a cop thriller with a supernatural edge.

“I felt like a 12-year-old getting to be in an action film,” McHale tells Fresh Air’s Terry Gross.

The movie is a bit of a departure for McHale, who has a knack for comedy.

The series Community was set at a community college and was famous for alluding to and parodying movies and TV shows. In May, the network canceled the show after five seasons, but fans are holding out hope that there will be a sixth season someplace else, like Netflix or Hulu.

Joel McHale co-stars with Eric Bana in the thriller Deliver Us From Evil.i i

hide captionJoel McHale co-stars with Eric Bana in the thriller Deliver Us From Evil.


Andrew Schwartz/Courtesy of Screen Gems/Sony Pictures Entertainment

Joel McHale co-stars with Eric Bana in the thriller Deliver Us From Evil.

Joel McHale co-stars with Eric Bana in the thriller Deliver Us From Evil.

Andrew Schwartz/Courtesy of Screen Gems/Sony Pictures Entertainment

“I think the show would be crazy and wonderful if it was unencumbered by commercial breaks or network sensitivities,” McHale says. “It would be pretty wild.”

Since 2004, McHale has also satirized reality TV and celebrity news as the host of The Soup. In May, he hosted the White House Correspondents’ Association dinner.

McHale talks about making the president laugh, reading teleprompters with dyslexia, and watching lots of bad TV for The Soup.

Interview Highlights

On doing stunts for Deliver Us From Evil

I actually do tumble down the stairs in this huge knife-fight scene, and I thought I was being really professional not needing a stunt man. And I tumbled down and bashed my arm open and ripped all the skin off, and [the producers] said, “Good job, Joel. That was really necessary, and now you have to do it five more times.”

And then my stunt double, he was very good to the point where I get thrown into a well, and I did it myself once, and everyone kind of gave a clap and said, “That looked great, Mr. Actor Guy.” And then the stunt double did it, and it looked amazing, and then everyone clapped and I said, “How did you do that?” And he said, “Oh, I got knocked out.” He actually knocked himself unconscious — not on purpose. … He really sacrificed himself.

On top of that, he’s a Princeton grad, so I just want to say, thank you, Princeton, for making such a great stunt double who will knock himself out for a movie.

On cheating his way through school

I do have a very similar trait to [my] character [on Community] in that I cheated my way through high school and college. … I am pretty dyslexic, so I never could really read. I did terrible on my SATs. I couldn’t read the way that other students read, so I would just cheat, which in my silly brain, I was like, “This is a skill that I’m developing — how to just get around everything!”

On reading teleprompters with dyslexia

There [are] all these live shows I’m doing with The Soup now, and I’m reading [a] teleprompter the whole time, and people wanted to promote [the show] by saying, “Anything could go wrong!” That’s what the E! executives wanted, and I was like, “No, no, no! Just tell them I’m dyslexic. That should raise the stakes enough.”

So I really have to concentrate. It might not look like I’m concentrating and I’m just screwing around, but I really do have to concentrate while I’m reading. And half of the time I’m getting it wrong, but you can’t tell because I’m just making up different words for it. It’s smoke and mirrors.

On keeping his jokes a secret for the White House Correspondents’ Association dinner

Everyone wants to see your jokes. C-SPAN wants to see your jokes so they know who to go to with their cameras. The president’s people would like to see your jokes because they want to know what you’re going to talk about. I didn’t want anybody to see my jokes because I feel like if C-SPAN knew who I was going to make fun of, then the camera would be on them before I was finished with the joke.

… I think it’s a good policy not to show anybody your jokes. … They weren’t going to censor me at all. … They literally put no restrictions on what I was going to say. I could’ve said anything I wanted. In some countries, if [you] were to say the things I said, you would be thrown into jail.

On hosting The Soup

I used to watch a ton of bad television because we had no staff, and it was about five of us, and we had to divvy up seven days of television … all of the channels. It got to the point where I thought I was going crazy. … Now we have 12 people plus two interns; everyone watches TV all the time. …

Now I tell my mom, I go, “Mom, you know when I was a kid and you told me to turn off the television and go outside and play?” I’d be like, “You literally were hurting my career when you did that. You literally stopped me from doing now, what I do for a living.”

Sandwich Monday: The Concrete


Intractably delicious!i i

hide captionIntractably delicious!


NPR

Intractably delicious!

Intractably delicious!

NPR

Purveyors of fine foods have any number of ways of showing them off. Auntie Anne’s hands out free pretzel samples at the mall; McDonald’s lets a princess sit on top of the Big Mac to show she can’t feel a pea underneath.

At Ted Drewes in St. Louis, when they hand you your Concrete, they flip it upside down to show you it’s so thick, it won’t fall out of the cup.

If you’re not familiar with the Concrete, it’s a frozen custard confection, like a Dairy Queen Blizzard on crack. You can get it filled with anything, including crack.

Miles: The world would be a better place if this was what roads were paved with.

Ian: This is way better than the Loose Gravel. Which it turns out is actual loose gravel.

Eva uses all of her strength to get the Concrete out of the cup.i i

hide captionEva uses all of her strength to get the Concrete out of the cup.


NPR

Eva uses all of her strength to get the Concrete out of the cup.

Eva uses all of her strength to get the Concrete out of the cup.

NPR

Peter: If they’d had these in the 1810s, Lewis and Clark never would have left St. Louis. They wouldn’t have been able to move.

Ian: So the thing about these is you can flip them over and they don’t fall out. Yet I can eat it easily with a spoon. Therefore my desire to have food in me is stronger than gravity.

Miles: In physics, there are five kinds of forces: strong, weak, electromagnetic, gravitational and — the strongest — gastrointestinal.

Go into the light.i i

hide captionGo into the light.


NPR

Go into the light.

Go into the light.

NPR

Peter: I like the Dark Matter flavor Concrete. You can’t see or taste it, but it still makes you fat.

Robert: Slamming my face into this concrete is much more satisfying than that time in college after those tequila shots.

Foreshadowing.i i

hide captionForeshadowing.


NPR

Foreshadowing.

Foreshadowing.

NPR

Miles: I’d like to be a victim of the mob that makes its cement shoes out of Ted Drewes’ Concrete.

Eva: This makes me feel inferior — if someone turns me upside down, I fall.

It wasn't supposed to fall out of the cup. But the Concrete, like the rest of us, just found Robert's face irresistible.i i

hide captionIt wasn’t supposed to fall out of the cup. But the Concrete, like the rest of us, just found Robert’s face irresistible.


NPR

It wasn't supposed to fall out of the cup. But the Concrete, like the rest of us, just found Robert's face irresistible.

It wasn’t supposed to fall out of the cup. But the Concrete, like the rest of us, just found Robert’s face irresistible.

NPR

Robert: It’s delicious, but I think strengthening it with rebar goes a little too far.

Miles: Either way, I, for one, am now pro-crete.

Eva: I like knowing my dessert is there for me; my rock.

[The verdict: Is it delicious? Absolutely. Is it a sandwich? Of course it is. We stopped at Ted Drewes when we were in St. Louis to do Wait, Wait there a while back …. OK, let’s be honest: We did Wait, Wait there so we had an excuse to go to Ted Drewes.]

Sandwich Monday is a satirical feature from the humorists at Wait, Wait … Don’t Tell Me!

Book News: Irish Writer Dermot Healy Dies


The daily lowdown on books, publishing, and the occasional author behaving badly.

  • Irish poet and novelist Dermot Healy has died at the age of 66. Although Healy kept a low profile and was not well known outside of Ireland, he counted among his admirers Seamus Heaney and Roddy Doyle, who called him “Ireland’s greatest writer.” A versatile and unpredictable writer, he spent more than a decade writing a book-length poem about the return of barnacle geese to Ireland, A Fool’s Errand. In his memoir, The Bend for Home, Healy wrote that he was an unreliable narrator. He said writers “not only make up things, but get things wrong as well. Language, to be memorable, dispenses with accuracy.”
  • “Marketing affects the way readers of both genders perceive the artistic merits of a book. Stereotypically feminine signifiers — a lipstick tube, a woman’s naked back — can inadvertently disqualify a novel from the world of serious literature.” In The Boston Globe, Eugenia Williamson writes about how female authors are often cut off from the world of “real” literature, and how gendered marketing can be to blame.

Notable Books Coming Out This Week:

  • Never have empty rooms looked so full: In Bedrooms of the Fallen, Ashley Gilbertson photographs the bedrooms of 40 soldiers who were killed in Iraq or Afghanistan. Stuffed animals, twin beds, posters and sports trophies take on a sharp poignancy through Gilbertson’s black and white photos. Some of the rooms look like shrines to the dead; others look like their occupants could be back any moment, with rumpled sheets, a stray bathrobe, old shoes or a can of Pringles on a bedside table. In an essay for the book, Gilbertson describes photographing one soldier’s room: “Composing a frame in Zach’s bedroom, I felt, for the first time in ten years of covering battles and uprisings, that I was photographing war. The tragedy and finality of this space was, to my heart, a more telling and honest explanation of what I had witnessed in Iraq than the countless photographs I had made there. The exploding bombs, morgues overflowing with corpses, and wounded soldiers being loaded onto helicopters were thousands of miles away. But in bedrooms like this, it felt like the conflicts were just outside, pressing against the walls.”
  • In Emily Gould’s debut novel, Friendship, Bev and Amy are aspiring writers in New York and best friends beginning to drift apart. The plotline is nothing special, but Gould wonderfully captures a very particular time and place. And as I wrote in an upcoming review, “Friendship has that same magical universality-in-specificity that make us care about the local politics of Middlemarch or Clarissa Dalloway’s floral arrangements. In tiny brushstrokes, Gould captures the small weirdnesses of being alive — of, say, sitting in an interview and being suddenly and unaccountably struck with a desire to bite through the rim of a teacup.”

Finding Promising New Games In A World Of Dispiriting Sequels


A screenshot from Rollers Of The Realm.i i

hide captionA screenshot from Rollers Of The Realm.


Atlus

A screenshot from Rollers Of The Realm.

A screenshot from Rollers Of The Realm.

Atlus

The game show at the Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3) earlier in June wasn’t exactly staid. But it was clear that most game publishers are playing it safe — very safe. Each year, I complain about franchise-ization, a godawful game trend that makes a convention focused on the wonders of electronic entertainment a lot less fun – especially since 2014 was the year in which game makers offered more sequels than ever before.

Imagine spending eight hours daily running between two convention halls for meetings and seeing the same old games simply tweaked a bit for each new iteration. It’s disturbing, bordering on depressing. These follow-ups aren’t terrible — they’re not shovelware. But only The Witcher and Batman sequels approach the level of brand new popular art. Thankfully, the other non-franchise offerings on this list of most promising games make up for the hackneyed, trite stuff. Well, almost.

The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt (WBIE)

Made by a thoughtful Polish team and based on a Polish series of novels, The Witcher role-playing game was really the only sequel at E3 that seemed substantially different from its predecessors. Even minor characters, which include one creepy, rude, somehow adorable imp, have well thought-out story lines. Yes, you play a macho monster hunter who’s a little too tough-man-quiet for my taste. But you’ll find a completely explorable fantasy world and enjoy expertly plotted story lines. It doesn’t hurt that the wildly branching narrative is weird. Weirdness is somehow fitting for this series.

Ori and the Blind Forest (Microsoft)

The rotund, empathetic Ori is the star of this small game. His goal is simple: to save the forest and its innocent inhabitants. There’s also an incendiary owl with which the player must deal. Yet it’s the artwork here that’s mesmerizing. It’s an inspiring fairy tale that perhaps should be expanded into other media, like film.

Batman: Arkham Knight (WBIE)

The ever-changing Gotham has always been a character in these dark games. But this time, the Batmobile is almost a human-like character. (It kind of recalls the TV show Knight Rider, with a nasty personality). The Batmobile can even grapple and pull down massive steel doors. Even as is shines proudly in the night, this dark, black vehicle is an antihero par excellence – because it’s frighteningly, monstrously bad ass.

Rollers of the Realm (Atlus)

E3 should be all about what’s innovative and unexpected. Rollers of the Realm sports a medieval story, but it’s within a pinball game where you level up by hitting characters with a pinball as they move across the playfield. To me, Rollers is the most adventurous of hybrids, a pinball/role playing game that beat the pants off many of the big-budget console games I saw.

Sunset Overdrive (Microsoft)

Imagine a world in which people become mutated by … an energy drink called Overcharge Delirium XT. If you’re down with that sort of satirical twist on dystopian tragedy, you’ll likely enjoy Sunset Overdrive. Additionally, the game design is rife with odd, humorous weaponry like a gun that fires a cute teddy bear who becomes a fiery bomb on impact. And you can parkour everywhere, even on a giant roller coaster in an amusement park. In fact, that’s what this game is, one demented amusement park in which to play.

No Man’s Sky (Hello Games)

Frankly, no one’s quite sure what exactly this game will be, but every critic who’s seen it loves it. It’s science fiction. It’s has familiar dinosaurs and unfamilar, super bright, orange-yellow grass. It has spaceships that allow for travel between many planets. Like Will Wright’s Spore made more graphically wondrous for 2014, you seem to be able to do just about anything as a lone explorer. The narrative is there, but it’s presented with a smooth, light touch. So it’s easy to insert your own storyline into the game as you explore. I certainly did.

Valiant Hearts: The Great War (Ubisoft)

Generally, I stay far away from realistic war games. But Valiant Hearts features a soul-tugging narrative that tells the story of motley souls who, during World War I, try to help a soldier find his missing soul mate. Valiant Hearts isn’t a shooter, either. Instead, it’s a puzzle-oriented, small game that centers on the personal triumphs. Empathy — that’s what games need more of, and this one has it in spades.

Cuphead (Microsoft)

The words “utterly beautiful” and “perfectly nostalgic” come to mind when considering Cuphead. It’s a 2D shooting game that recalls the most painstakingly detailed of the 1940s animations, particularly Fleischer Studios’ “Screen Songs” cartoons. When I saw Cuphead, I thought, why hasn’t someone tried this slightly wry and mocking art style before in games? I bet I’ll lose many lives as I play, just ogling the wondrous, occasionally demonic, old school art.

Behind Optimus Prime (And Eeyore), One Man’s Signature Voice


Voice actor Peter Cullen has reprised his role as Optimus Prime in the series of live-action Transformers movies, including the latest, Transformers: Age of Extinction.i i

hide captionVoice actor Peter Cullen has reprised his role as Optimus Prime in the series of live-action Transformers movies, including the latest, Transformers: Age of Extinction.


ILM / Paramount Pictures

Voice actor Peter Cullen has reprised his role as Optimus Prime in the series of live-action Transformers movies, including the latest, Transformers: Age of Extinction.

Voice actor Peter Cullen has reprised his role as Optimus Prime in the series of live-action Transformers movies, including the latest, Transformers: Age of Extinction.

ILM / Paramount Pictures

Transformers: Age of Extinction has smashed its way to the number one spot at the box office. Director Michael Bay’s film franchise has consistently topped charts since the first film arrived in theaters in 2007.

The live-action films have embraced the latest in visual affects — but the movies have also called back to the series’ past, through the voice of Peter Cullen.

Voice actor Peter Cullen arrives at the premiere of Transformers: Revenge Of The Fallen in June 2009.i i

hide captionVoice actor Peter Cullen arrives at the premiere of Transformers: Revenge Of The Fallen in June 2009.


Kevin Winter/Getty Images

Voice actor Peter Cullen arrives at the premiere of Transformers: Revenge Of The Fallen in June 2009.

Voice actor Peter Cullen arrives at the premiere of Transformers: Revenge Of The Fallen in June 2009.

Kevin Winter/Getty Images

Cullen, 72, was the first actor to give voice to Optimus Prime — the leader of the Autobots, and the series’ metal, robotic heart — on the original Transformers cartoon show in the 1980s. Other actors have played Optimus Prime in various iterations of Transformers over the years, but Cullen happily returned to the role for the live-action film franchise.

In an interview with NPR’s Arun Rath, Cullen says playing Optimus Prime again was “like slipping into an old pair of shoes that you hid in the back of your closet.”

Cullen got his big break as the announcer on The Sonny & Cher Comedy Hour in the early 1970s, and famously voiced Eeyore in Winnie the Pooh. He tells Rath that of the many characters he’s played over the years, a certain giant, extraterrestrial robot is still his favorite.

Interview Highlights

On when he realized he had a talent for doing voices

I lived on a farm, and I worked the farm. And I remember the very first summer, I could imitate the cows, the calves, the chickens, the different dogs they had. And one of the greatest memories I have is, I had a full dairy barn where I would collect milk pails with my brother, Larry. I found one day that I made a loud noise and all the cows looked up to me.

So I did something like, “And now that I have your attention!” And they all looked up. And I walked down the center of that aisle with these cows looking at me and I said, “This is fantastic.” I must have been 8 years old … and I was the king of the cows.

Peter Cullen was the first actor to voice Optimus Prime, in the 1980s TV cartoon.i i

hide captionPeter Cullen was the first actor to voice Optimus Prime, in the 1980s TV cartoon.


AP

Peter Cullen was the first actor to voice Optimus Prime, in the 1980s TV cartoon.

Peter Cullen was the first actor to voice Optimus Prime, in the 1980s TV cartoon.

AP

On landing the role of Optimus Prime in the 1980s cartoon

I auditioned like everybody else. I was told it was a hero, and I was told it was a truck.

I was living with my brother Larry at the time. He had returned from service as a marine in Vietnam, and I told him one day I was going out to audition for a truck.

And he says, “A truck?”

And I said, “Yeah, but he’s a hero truck.”

“This is really good, Pete, yeah,” he said … “Well, if you’re going to be a hero, be a real hero. Don’t be a Hollywood stereotypical thing with the yelling and screaming.” He said, “Be strong enough to be gentle.” And Larry was that way.

I had no idea what the script was going to be. But in effect, the lines just came out, and I just did my brother, Larry.

On the characters he has most enjoyed playing

Well, Optimus Prime, number one. He’s my above-all favorite. The second one was Eeyore [from Winnie the Pooh]. I enjoyed doing Eeyore because he was simply charming.

And I get an awful lot of reactions from, especially, young kids, when I go up and just say [in Eeyore’s voice], “Hello. Thanks for noticing me.”

And to see their faces light up, that to me is one of the great joys.

In ‘Snowpiercer,’ A Never-Ending Train Ride And A Society Badly Off Track


In Snowpiercer, Curtis (Chris Evans) and Yona (Ah-sung Ko) are trying to fight their way to the front of a train that is cruelly class segregated. "[It's] similar to Occupy Wall Street in terms of the 99 percent versus the one percent," says South Korean director Bong Joon-ho. "That's something that happens in other countries and also in Korea."i i

hide captionIn Snowpiercer, Curtis (Chris Evans) and Yona (Ah-sung Ko) are trying to fight their way to the front of a train that is cruelly class segregated. “[It’s] similar to Occupy Wall Street in terms of the 99 percent versus the one percent,” says South Korean director Bong Joon-ho. “That’s something that happens in other countries and also in Korea.”


Radius TWC

In Snowpiercer, Curtis (Chris Evans) and Yona (Ah-sung Ko) are trying to fight their way to the front of a train that is cruelly class segregated. "[It's] similar to Occupy Wall Street in terms of the 99 percent versus the one percent," says South Korean director Bong Joon-ho. "That's something that happens in other countries and also in Korea."

In Snowpiercer, Curtis (Chris Evans) and Yona (Ah-sung Ko) are trying to fight their way to the front of a train that is cruelly class segregated. “[It’s] similar to Occupy Wall Street in terms of the 99 percent versus the one percent,” says South Korean director Bong Joon-ho. “That’s something that happens in other countries and also in Korea.”

Radius TWC

The world has frozen over in the movie Snowpiercer. Set after a climate change disaster, all the action happens aboard a train which has to keep circling the globe for its passengers to stay alive.

More From The Book Your Trip Series

For more great train tales, check out NPR’s Book Your Trip series. We’ve got recommendations for literary travel by train, plane, car, bike, boat, foot, city transit, horse, balloon, rocketship, time machine and even giant peach.

The movie itself is uniquely international: Snowpiercer is based on the French graphic novel Le Transperceneige by Jacques Lob, Benjamin Legrand and Jean-Marc Rochette. It’s directed by a Korean auteur and stars Hollywood A-listers including Tilda Swinton and Ed Harris. The movie opened in South Korea last summer. Since then it’s played all over the world and certain Americans have been wildly impatient for Snowpiercer to open here.

What kinds of Americans, you ask? Well, film nerds, science fiction nerds, Tilda Swinton nerds and fans of director Bong Joon-ho.

Grady Hendrix, who co-runs the New York Asian Film Festival, says Bong’s movies, such as 2003’s Memories of Murder, masterfully subvert genres. “His serial killer movie was actually an amazing movie about Korean history but also delivered the thrills you want in a serial killer movie,” he explains.

And Bong’s 2006 movie The Host was both a sly critique of American intervention in Korea dating back to the Korean War — and about a giant monster eating people. The Host smashed South Korean box office records and became an international sensation.

Wealthy children inhabiting the front of the train are offered luxuries such as education, while those who dwell in back (from right) Curtis (Chris Evans), Grey (Luke Pasqualino), Yona (Ah-sung Ko) and Namgoong Minsoo (Kang-ho Song), live in squalor.i i

hide captionWealthy children inhabiting the front of the train are offered luxuries such as education, while those who dwell in back (from right) Curtis (Chris Evans), Grey (Luke Pasqualino), Yona (Ah-sung Ko) and Namgoong Minsoo (Kang-ho Song), live in squalor.


Radius TWC

Wealthy children inhabiting the front of the train are offered luxuries such as education, while those who dwell in back (from right) Curtis (Chris Evans), Grey (Luke Pasqualino), Yona (Ah-sung Ko) and Namgoong Minsoo (Kang-ho Song), live in squalor.

Wealthy children inhabiting the front of the train are offered luxuries such as education, while those who dwell in back (from right) Curtis (Chris Evans), Grey (Luke Pasqualino), Yona (Ah-sung Ko) and Namgoong Minsoo (Kang-ho Song), live in squalor.

Radius TWC

So it was hardly a surprise when the director’s next big action film — Snowpiercer — was immediately snapped up by Hollywood distributors Bob and Harvey Weinstein.

“Uncle Harvey. We had a long process,” Bong wryly remembers during an interview at NPR West in Culver City.

Snowpiercer‘s U.S. release was delayed for months as Bong and Weinstein — known in the film world as Harvey Scissorhands — wrangled over Weinstein’s insistence over cutting 20 minutes from the two-hour film and adding a voice-over. Bong adamantly refused. The international film community rallied behind Bong Joon-ho. Eventually, the Weinsteins agreed to release Snowpiercer intact.

“Their idea to simplify was a very silly one,” Hendrix observes. “The movie is incredibly simple. It is a train. The poor people live in the back. The rich people live in the front. And the poor people in back want to get to the front.”

Bong says an oppressed underclass rebelling against huge wealth gaps is not exactly science fiction right now. “[It’s] similar to Occupy Wall Street in terms of the 99 percent versus the one percent,” he says. “That’s something that happens in other countries and also in Korea.”

The film’s been getting rave reviews, partly because of Bong’s knack for keeping viewers off balance. Take a meditative, dream-like scene where the freedom fighters pause for a snack in a train car that’s also an aquarium and a sushi counter. (Of course, sushi is sort of short hand for the preferred food of the one percent.)

“Outside the window, you can see the frozen ocean, where the fish inside the tanks used to swim,” Bong says.

Before the ocean was ruined — partly to make this food. Such pointed, ironic juxtapositions are Bong’s stock in trade.

“It’s really about having fun with the audience,” he explains. “People go to the movies with certain genre conventions in mind. They go to the movies to have certain expectations met. It’s always fun to play around with those expectations, to deliver what they came to see, but also give them things they didn’t expect.”

Like a message about income inequality or environmental cataclysm — in a high-octane summer action flick. That’s what Bong delivers — along with violence, explosions and special effects.

Ja Rule: ‘I Took It Upon Myself To Become A Man’


Ja Rule at NPR's New York bureau in June.i i

hide captionJa Rule at NPR’s New York bureau in June.


Quoctrung Bui/NPR

Ja Rule at NPR's New York bureau in June.

Ja Rule at NPR’s New York bureau in June.

Quoctrung Bui/NPR

The rapper born Jeffrey Atkins was raised by his mother in Hollis, Queens. For the boy who would become Ja Rule, the neighborhood represented a duality: crime, drugs and violence were common, but so were the intoxicating sound and culture of hip-hop. It didn’t hurt that he would sometimes spot fellow Hollis residents Run-DMC strolling the streets.

In a new memoir called Unruly: The Highs and Lows of Becoming a Man, the rapper offers his take on what came next: breakout success, bitter rivalries, Hollywood and fatherhood. Ja Rule spoke with NPR’s Arun Rath about coming up alongside Jay Z and DMX, his “real-world” philosophy of parenting and how he believes the high-profile feuds in the hip-hop world grow out of systemic racism. Hear the radio version of the audio link, and read more of their conversation below.

ARUN RATH: I think a lot of people might be surprised to know you were raised, at least in your early years, as a Jehovah’s Witness. How did that affect things for you growing up?

Unruly

JA RULE: You know, it’s not like it’s like any other religion — but, for a kid, it is. A lot of kids grew up Catholic or Christian or whatever, and I don’t think kids are really that fond of going to church on Sundays. For me, it was the same thing, just that the religion was a lot stricter than most religions. But it was like any other kid having to get up and go to church on Sunday, and their mother and father, or grandparents or whoever, dragging them to church and they really didn’t want to go. For me, it was the same type of situation, it’s just that Jehovah’s Witness is a very strict religion.

Well, you had Sundays and Tuesdays.

It felt like five days a week. [Laughs]

A lot of your early music is about about, well, doing shady stuff. Hustling, casual sex, a kind of gangster life. Reading your book, it sounds like you were just writing about what you knew.

I mean, that’s how I grew up. Coming from Hollis, Queens, it’s not the darkest place you could grow up, but it’s definitely not the brightest place either. We got some suburban life there, some houses there, and it kind of feels like it’s a better neighborhood — but then two blocks away it’s Hollis Avenue, where there’s crack and drug dealers and, you know, burnt-down buildings and stuff like that.

And you were listening to some of the great early ’90s rap music — N.W.A and other groups who were also describing that stuff.

Absolutely. I was engulfed by the culture, I think, from day one. I used to break dance, too — my break dance name was Kid Fresh. And I used to DJ a little bit, and I used to graffiti on trains and stuff like that. So, I was really, really, really captured by the culture from an early age. A lot of these new artists, they kind of just know the rap side of hip-hop. They don’t really know that hip-hop is a culture, from the graffiti to the break dance to the DJing. All of that stuff is really what makes up hip-hop, and I really lived, breathed that whole lifestyle.

One of the things I found exciting on your early records — and I’m not going to be able to explain this very well — but there was this way that rappers were starting to do this thing where they were like a little behind the beat, a little bit off the beat. Do you know what I’m talking about?

Kind of, yeah. I used to always say to [producer Irv] Gotti, “I like to come in on the two” — you know, instead of the one. But as far as artistry, I always try to do things a little different, do it a little bit off the beaten path. Even though I got ridiculed for doing it, trying to be this, trying to be that, I always kind of try to do things my own way.

I’m wondering where that came from, because I know you’re a student of the music, and you did things like incorporating some R&B sounds and arrangements into your songs.

I basically wrote a lot of my first album to Mary J. Blige, What’s The 411? That’s a straight R&B, hip-hop infused album. She’s singing over all of those tracks, but those tracks were done by Diddy and they were very hip-hop orientated tracks. Gotti used to come in and say, “How you writing all this gangster music, all this street stuff, to What’s The 411? It’s an R&B album!” And I’d just be like, “Yo, the beats on this album, they move me, they drive me. It’s a different groove, it’s melodic; it has feeling on it, it has heartbeat.” Versus just a rapper rapping over breakbeats.

Can you talk about how you fell in with Def Jam and Russell Simmons? You were, what — 19 years old then?

Yeah, I may have been about 19, 20, in that area. You know, always admired Russell and what he did for the music and for the culture. We’re from the same neighborhood, and growing up I would see Run and D — Run-DMC — coming through the block and stuff. That gave me a sense of pride, and also a sense of, “I, too, could be that.” I think early on in my career, that’s what gave me the drive to be an MC. Coming from Hollis, Queens and being on Def Jam is like a dream come true. Def Jam was kind of like Motown for hip-hop, and being able to meet Russell and become a part of Def Jam Records was everything to me.

And there were some amazing young rappers on the scene there, Jay Z obviously being a big one. What was your relationship like with him?

I met Jay back in the days; him and Gotti been friends for a long, long time. I used to freestyle rap and like battle guys and stuff like that, and Gotti used to always say to me, “You think you’re nice in your neighborhood, but let me take you outside your neighborhood and see how good you are.” And he took me to meet artists like DMX and Jay Z and The Lox. To me at that time, it was just regular guys that got busy on the mic, too. He wasn’t Jay Z, I wasn’t Ja Rule, DMX wasn’t X yet, The Lox wasn’t The Lox. We were all just students of hip-hop that loved the music and appreciated the culture and wanted to be the best. So being around those guys and spitting with those guys definitely gave me a sense of competition, of competitive spirit.

You write in the book about Russell Simmons having this genius for hooking up hip-hop artists with mainstream brands. How did he do that?

Like I said, it’s pure genius. For him to have the knowledge to say “OK, here I have Run-DMC,” and they have one of the biggest records in the country with “My Adidas” — and to be able to incorporate that music into the Adidas brand and vice-versa. At that time, hip-hop was looked upon as a fad. I think some of those moves made by Russell early on really let people know that hip-hop had staying power — and not only staying power, but the power to sell product, to push the needle so to speak, within these different brands and different cultures and bring people together. I think that was sheer genius of Russ, to be able to know at that time that hip-hop was that strong.

But how does that extend to musicians like you? “My Adidas,” you can kind of see that having more appeal. But your early records, I mean, most of these songs you couldn’t play on TV; you had that “explicit” warning stamped right on the front. You’re selling a lot of records, but you’re not somebody people might think of as “mainstream” at the same time.

You know what, that’s a thin line. I think N.W.A rode that line the best. They didn’t make music for TV, they didn’t make music for radio, they made music for their peers. And it became something bigger than that, because once people gravitated toward the music, it made the corporate people of the world — the MTVs, the BETs, the Vibes, whatever — have to come to them. And instead of them crossing over to the mainstream, the mainstream kind of had to cross the other way and gravitate towards what was happening in the streets, on the scene. I think that’s what made hip-hop such a youthful, rebellious type of music. It was kind of like early rock and roll: It was the sound of the youth, the sound of the people that were really molding and shaping America at the time. And a lot of people in white America just didn’t get a chance to grasp it like that until groups like N.W.A and Run-DMC came out and kind of broke the mold of what it means to be stylish and fashionable in the world of music.

You mentioned how, back in the day, you had kind of a competitive relationship with a lot of your contemporaries. That kind of into turned all-out feuds and rivalries with some of the people you’re talking about: DMX, and probably the most famous was your feud with 50 Cent. What was that about?

You know, I think a lot of it had to do with just competitive spirit, seeing the next guy coming up. You know how they say, “when your idols become your rivals”? Everybody’s your friend until they’re your competition. With me, that happened in a lot of ways.

Me and X, you know — I love X, man. We used to run together, do shows together, tour together, everything. It was all good until my name was next to his on the charts, or I was posting up those No. 1 albums as well as he was, and selling records like he was. Then it became a thing of people wanting to judge who’s better or who’s getting more spins at radio or who’s selling more records, who’s winning the awards. I think it became a competitive thing, but it also became a jealousy thing.

But from the outside, you guys attacking each other seems opposed to a lot of the stuff you write about in your lyrics about trying to break out of the cycle — you know what I mean? It seems like a distraction from that in a way.

You gotta understand where we come from. The hood, it’s kind of crazy, but nobody wants to see you do better than them. And as long as you’re all in the same barrel, and nobody’s climbing out of that barrel, doing better than the other, it’s all good. But once one makes it out and is doing better than the other, it becomes an issue; it becomes a problem. And that’s just how we’re bred in the ghettos of America. We’re bred not to love one another. I don’t know why — maybe it goes as far back as slavery days where the light-skinned black was pitted against the dark-skinned black and things of that nature, where we were just taught to hate. The love is something we just don’t know how to receive, don’t know how to give.

I think it has a lot to do with the makeup of who we are as black people, and also our living conditions. People just don’t want to see other people doing better than them, and I think a lot of these feuds come from that. It derives from a hatred, it derives from a jealousy, a real dark place. And sometimes it’s subconscious; you don’t even know you’re doing it sometimes. People think they’re giving constructive criticism, when they’re really just hating on a person because they have more than them.

Some people dismissed it as a publicity stunt, but you famously went to Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan for an interview with him, to try to resolve the feud with 50 Cent.

Well, that’s where that whole thing gets blown out of proportion, I think; it’s very wrong. My whole thing for doing the interview with the minister was, I was getting asked all of the same questions by 150,000 different interviewers. And my angle was, “I’m going to talk about this one time and one time only, but I’m going to do it on a big stage. Anybody that wants any answers about what’s going on with me and the beef and this, that and the third, you can get it from this one outlet.” We were going to do the interview with Barbara Walters; we thought about Oprah. We just wanted to do a big interview. It wasn’t to make peace, it wasn’t to do any of those things, it was just to get my side of the story out there — to say what I wanted to say and not have to say it 100,000 times.

And we finally came to a conclusion: We’ll do it with Minister Farrakhan. What’s bigger than that — to have the minister interview me about what’s going on with my situation? And the minister, the great minister that he is, has a different agenda. His agenda is to try and make peace between two black men. So that’s how that got misconstrued into me trying to make peace with 50. We could have cared less about making peace with each other. But the minister, being the older, much wiser elder of us both, thought it would be a good idea to try to bring us together and resolve what we were going through. It was unbeknownst to me that he invited 50 to the interview; I knew nothing about it. Obviously, 50 turned down the interview or whatever, and it got thrown on me that Ja was trying to make a peace treaty when that just wasn’t the case.

I want to talk to you about violence, which has been a theme in your life and your work. There’s an incident you describe in the book: You’re with your father, when he’s still in the picture, at a restaurant and there’s an incident. Can you describe what happened?

Yeah, that’s one of my pet peeves to this day, but let me go ahead and tell the story. My father was still home living with us at the time. We went out one afternoon, a leisurely day, and we end up at this pizza spot right here on Parsons and Jamaica. My dad orders the pizza, and the pizza comes, and there was another guy in the pizza store who reached over my pizza to get, like, the garlic or the oregano or whatever it was. And my father asked him, “What are you doing reaching over my son’s food like that?” The dude said something that my father didn’t like — “Aw man, you know, it just is what it is,” or whatever — and my father commenced to whooping his ass.

I guess that was an early sign to me that this is how you deal with situations: If a person is doing something that you disagree with, this is how you deal with it, violently, and then that person will act in the way that you need him to act. As a young man, that’s what I saw and that’s what I understood as how you resolve a problem. And so that became my way of resolving a problem as well.

Do you think that’s worked for you?

[Laughs] In the immediate act of it, yes, it works. In the long term, no, it creates more problems.

You’re a father yourself now. What lesson would you give your children?

Well, I try to teach them a little better than that. I try to teach them that violence shouldn’t be your first alternative to problems. But I also teach them, don’t be weak either: If there’s a problem and somebody puts their hands on you, you better defend yourself. I let them know that too, but I don’t want them to think that violence is the way to go.

My kids are really good with that. They’re very different from me, and I have to give myself a little bit of credit and my wife a little bit of credit for steering them in the right direction that way. But, they also didn’t grow up like me. You grow up in the hood and you gotta kinda be tough: People are gonna try you and you’re gonna get into situations where you gotta defend yourself. That’s just what it is. They didn’t grow up like me, so some of those same rules don’t apply to them. But they definitely have to learn those things about life as well.

Was there a moment for you, though, when you ended up going to prison, initially for a gun violation — and your father hadn’t been around so much, he had been in prison — did you have a moment like, “I can’t do this”?

That was a tough time for me, because I don’t feel that I deserved to go to prison for having a weapon on me. I understand the laws: I understand that my weapon was not registered and I had what was deemed to be an illegal firearm. I take full responsibility for my actions and I did my time, so I’m not making any excuses for that. But I am also a public figure; I’m an entertainer. And I don’t think that anybody thinks my firearm was in my vehicle to be used in any wrongdoing. You know, I wasn’t going up the block to knock off a 7-Eleven. My firearm was more or less in my car for my protection, against some people that might want to do harm to a celebrity or might want to rob a celebrity, whatever the case may be. These people are out there. And I think, instead of the police targeting artists and ballplayers and the guys who are actually making a difference in society, they should be out there looking for crime, criminals that are a real threat, and real problems.

What was it like being a celebrity in prison? That must have been an odd experience.

It’s a different experience, I guess. Here I am supposed to be this famous guy, big rap star, big movie star or whatever, and now I’m one of the guys. Prison strips you of all of that; you don’t feel like that guy anymore. People still treat you a different way, because you are who you are, but in reality you’re just a number to the state and to the guards and everyone else in there. You’re the same. You’re one of them.

Do you go back to your old neighborhood in Queens?

Yeah, sometimes.

How has it changed?

Not so much. It’s still basically the same.

I’m sure you’ve had people put this to you before, but looking over a lot of your music, there’s violence, there’s crime, the way that women are talked about. At the same time, you’re a thoughtful man; you’re a proud father and husband. Do you worry about what that gets across to people like your own kids?

You know, I think that at the end of the day, people have to learn how to draw the line between what’s real and what’s entertainment. If I did the nightly news, and I tell you about all of the horror stories that go on throughout the country day in and day out, I’m just the messenger. Nobody looks at them as the people who are making violence, that are perpetrating the violence that goes on.

To push back on that a little bit, though, it’s not just your music. You’ve had these prominent feuds, you’ve had issues with violence, both with you and your associates — there’s more to it there.

I mean, that’s real life. It’s unfortunate that I live my life under a microscope. Like ,if you go out to a bar and get into a bar fight, it may not be news tomorrow. But if Ja Rule goes to a bar and gets into a bar fight, it’s news. And it gets spun however the media wants to spin it: “Ja Rule’s drunk and got into an altercation here.” For me, this is life. Things happen in life that sometimes you can’t avoid, you just can’t get around.

As I’ve grown to know, there are ways to get around certain things. Maybe I shouldn’t have been in that type of bar; maybe I shouldn’t have been in this type of area where these things are more prone to happen. Those things you learn as you grow older, as you grow up. But as a young man going through the motions of all these things, it’s very tough to be looked upon as a role model to the kids out there and have everything you do be scrutinized. In some people’s eyes I’m not just a normal person, but in my eyes I’m human like everybody else: I make my mistakes, I have my faults, I have my vices. I’m gonna make mistakes as a man, I’m gonna grow and learn from these things, but I have to do it under the public eye. And that’s the difference of being a celebrity, and having to grow in front of the world.

So how do you negotiate this with your own kids — say, with culture? Do you keep certain things from them, or let them see songs and say, “Look, this is not how you deal with things”? How do you do it?

I’ve got a new way of parenting, and that is not to shield them from the real world. Violence is very real in the world we live in: You got kids coming to school with guns, shooting other kids because they’re being bullied on the internet. You’ve got grown men that rape little boys and girls. We live in a very intricate, ugly society. So I try not to shield them from that, because I want them to know what’s out there, so they’re not shocked when they have to go out there and face it. Racism, all of these things that make up our culture — they need to be abreast of that when they go out into society as adults.

My main focus for them is to be successful in life, to be respectful in life. When you go outside this house, the report that I get back from others should be, “Your child is very respectful, very mannerable. I’d love to have them again at my house, they’re never a problem.” Even if they’re hellraisers in my household, which they all are, when they go outside they know how to act. Some of these other things that are very minute that parents might nitpick at — “I don’t want you playing video games with curses in them” — these things, to me, are not realistic. That’s the way my parents parented, and I didn’t turn out any better or any worse because they did it that way. I became who I am because I took it upon myself to become a man and learn what’s going on in the world on my own. So I want to walk my kids through it, help them through it. I’d rather them run to me than run from me.

Finally, I have to ask: Your fans have been getting impatient for a new album. Obviously you had a little bit of a delay there with what’s been going on, but Murder Inc. Records has been relaunched. So what do you have in store for your musical future?

Well, I’m taking my time with the music because I want the music to be right. I want it to have a different feel on it, because that’s how I like to record; I like to take chances and do different things. I know a lot of my fans are like, “Where’s the music, where’s the music?” But when they get it, I think they’ll be happy that I took my time to create something special for them.

Behind Optimus Prime (And Eeyore), One Man’s Signature Voice


Voice actor Peter Cullen has reprised his role as Optimus Prime in the series of live-action Transformers movies, including the latest, Transformers: Age of Extinction.i i

hide captionVoice actor Peter Cullen has reprised his role as Optimus Prime in the series of live-action Transformers movies, including the latest, Transformers: Age of Extinction.


ILM / Paramount Pictures

Voice actor Peter Cullen has reprised his role as Optimus Prime in the series of live-action Transformers movies, including the latest, Transformers: Age of Extinction.

Voice actor Peter Cullen has reprised his role as Optimus Prime in the series of live-action Transformers movies, including the latest, Transformers: Age of Extinction.

ILM / Paramount Pictures

Transformers: Age of Extinction has smashed its way to the number one spot at the box office. Director Michael Bay’s film franchise has consistently topped charts since the first film arrived in theaters in 2007.

The live-action films have embraced the latest in visual affects — but the movies have also called back to the series’ past, through the voice of Peter Cullen.

Voice actor Peter Cullen arrives at the premiere of Transformers: Revenge Of The Fallen in June 2009.i i

hide captionVoice actor Peter Cullen arrives at the premiere of Transformers: Revenge Of The Fallen in June 2009.


Kevin Winter/Getty Images

Voice actor Peter Cullen arrives at the premiere of Transformers: Revenge Of The Fallen in June 2009.

Voice actor Peter Cullen arrives at the premiere of Transformers: Revenge Of The Fallen in June 2009.

Kevin Winter/Getty Images

Cullen, 72, was the first actor to give voice to Optimus Prime — the leader of the Autobots, and the series’ metal, robotic heart — on the original Transformers cartoon show in the 1980s. Other actors have played Optimus Prime in various iterations of Transformers over the years, but Cullen happily returned to the role for the live-action film franchise.

In an interview with NPR’s Arun Rath, Cullen says playing Optimus Prime again was “like slipping into an old pair of shoes that you hid in the back of your closet.”

Cullen got his big break as the announcer on The Sonny & Cher Comedy Hour in the early 1970s, and famously voiced Eeyore in Winnie the Pooh. He tells Rath that of the many characters he’s played over the years, a certain giant, extraterrestrial robot is still his favorite.

Interview Highlights

On when he realized he had a talent for doing voices

I lived on a farm, and I worked the farm. And I remember the very first summer, I could imitate the cows, the calves, the chickens, the different dogs they had. And one of the greatest memories I have is, I had a full dairy barn where I would collect milk pails with my brother, Larry. I found one day that I made a loud noise and all the cows looked up to me.

So I did something like, “And now that I have your attention!” And they all looked up. And I walked down the center of that aisle with these cows looking at me and I said, “This is fantastic.” I must have been 8 years old … and I was the king of the cows.

Peter Cullen was the first actor to voice Optimus Prime, in the 1980s TV cartoon.i i

hide captionPeter Cullen was the first actor to voice Optimus Prime, in the 1980s TV cartoon.


AP

Peter Cullen was the first actor to voice Optimus Prime, in the 1980s TV cartoon.

Peter Cullen was the first actor to voice Optimus Prime, in the 1980s TV cartoon.

AP

On landing the role of Optimus Prime in the 1980s cartoon

I auditioned like everybody else. I was told it was a hero, and I was told it was a truck.

I was living with my brother Larry at the time. He had returned from service as a marine in Vietnam, and I told him one day I was going out to audition for a truck.

And he says, “A truck?”

And I said, “Yeah, but he’s a hero truck.”

“This is really good, Pete, yeah,” he said … “Well, if you’re going to be a hero, be a real hero. Don’t be a Hollywood stereotypical thing with the yelling and screaming.” He said, “Be strong enough to be gentle.” And Larry was that way.

I had no idea what the script was going to be. But in effect, the lines just came out, and I just did my brother, Larry.

On the characters he has most enjoyed playing

Well, Optimus Prime, number one. He’s my above-all favorite. The second one was Eeyore [from Winnie the Pooh]. I enjoyed doing Eeyore because he was simply charming.

And I get an awful lot of reactions from, especially, young kids, when I go up and just say [in Eeyore’s voice], “Hello. Thanks for noticing me.”

And to see their faces light up, that to me is one of the great joys.

In ‘Snowpiercer,’ A Never-Ending Train Ride And A Society Badly Off Track


In Snowpiercer, Curtis (Chris Evans) and Yona (Ah-sung Ko) are trying to fight their way to the front of a train that is cruelly class segregated. "[It's] similar to Occupy Wall Street in terms of the 99 percent versus the one percent," says South Korean director Bong Joon-ho. "That's something that happens in other countries and also in Korea."i i

hide captionIn Snowpiercer, Curtis (Chris Evans) and Yona (Ah-sung Ko) are trying to fight their way to the front of a train that is cruelly class segregated. “[It’s] similar to Occupy Wall Street in terms of the 99 percent versus the one percent,” says South Korean director Bong Joon-ho. “That’s something that happens in other countries and also in Korea.”


Radius TWC

In Snowpiercer, Curtis (Chris Evans) and Yona (Ah-sung Ko) are trying to fight their way to the front of a train that is cruelly class segregated. "[It's] similar to Occupy Wall Street in terms of the 99 percent versus the one percent," says South Korean director Bong Joon-ho. "That's something that happens in other countries and also in Korea."

In Snowpiercer, Curtis (Chris Evans) and Yona (Ah-sung Ko) are trying to fight their way to the front of a train that is cruelly class segregated. “[It’s] similar to Occupy Wall Street in terms of the 99 percent versus the one percent,” says South Korean director Bong Joon-ho. “That’s something that happens in other countries and also in Korea.”

Radius TWC

The world has frozen over in the movie Snowpiercer. Set after a climate change disaster, all the action happens aboard a train which has to keep circling the globe for its passengers to stay alive.

More From The Book Your Trip Series

For more great train tales, check out NPR’s Book Your Trip series. We’ve got recommendations for literary travel by train, plane, car, bike, boat, foot, city transit, horse, balloon, rocketship, time machine and even giant peach.

The movie itself is uniquely international: Snowpiercer is based on the French graphic novel Le Transperceneige by Jacques Lob, Benjamin Legrand and Jean-Marc Rochette. It’s directed by a Korean auteur and stars Hollywood A-listers including Tilda Swinton and Ed Harris. The movie opened in South Korea last summer. Since then it’s played all over the world and certain Americans have been wildly impatient for Snowpiercer to open here.

What kinds of Americans, you ask? Well, film nerds, science fiction nerds, Tilda Swinton nerds and fans of director Bong Joon-ho.

Grady Hendrix, who co-runs the New York Asian Film Festival, says Bong’s movies, such as 2003’s Memories of Murder, masterfully subvert genres. “His serial killer movie was actually an amazing movie about Korean history but also delivered the thrills you want in a serial killer movie,” he explains.

And Bong’s 2006 movie The Host was both a sly critique of American intervention in Korea dating back to the Korean War — and about a giant monster eating people. The Host smashed South Korean box office records and became an international sensation.

Wealthy children inhabiting the front of the train are offered luxuries such as education, while those who dwell in back (from right) Curtis (Chris Evans), Grey (Luke Pasqualino), Yona (Ah-sung Ko) and Namgoong Minsoo (Kang-ho Song), live in squalor.i i

hide captionWealthy children inhabiting the front of the train are offered luxuries such as education, while those who dwell in back (from right) Curtis (Chris Evans), Grey (Luke Pasqualino), Yona (Ah-sung Ko) and Namgoong Minsoo (Kang-ho Song), live in squalor.


Radius TWC

Wealthy children inhabiting the front of the train are offered luxuries such as education, while those who dwell in back (from right) Curtis (Chris Evans), Grey (Luke Pasqualino), Yona (Ah-sung Ko) and Namgoong Minsoo (Kang-ho Song), live in squalor.

Wealthy children inhabiting the front of the train are offered luxuries such as education, while those who dwell in back (from right) Curtis (Chris Evans), Grey (Luke Pasqualino), Yona (Ah-sung Ko) and Namgoong Minsoo (Kang-ho Song), live in squalor.

Radius TWC

So it was hardly a surprise when the director’s next big action film — Snowpiercer — was immediately snapped up by Hollywood distributors Bob and Harvey Weinstein.

“Uncle Harvey. We had a long process,” Bong wryly remembers during an interview at NPR West in Culver City.

Snowpiercer‘s U.S. release was delayed for months as Bong and Weinstein — known in the film world as Harvey Scissorhands — wrangled over Weinstein’s insistence over cutting 20 minutes from the two-hour film and adding a voice-over. Bong adamantly refused. The international film community rallied behind Bong Joon-ho. Eventually, the Weinsteins agreed to release Snowpiercer intact.

“Their idea to simplify was a very silly one,” Hendrix observes. “The movie is incredibly simple. It is a train. The poor people live in the back. The rich people live in the front. And the poor people in back want to get to the front.”

Bong says an oppressed underclass rebelling against huge wealth gaps is not exactly science fiction right now. “[It’s] similar to Occupy Wall Street in terms of the 99 percent versus the one percent,” he says. “That’s something that happens in other countries and also in Korea.”

The film’s been getting rave reviews, partly because of Bong’s knack for keeping viewers off balance. Take a meditative, dream-like scene where the freedom fighters pause for a snack in a train car that’s also an aquarium and a sushi counter. (Of course, sushi is sort of short hand for the preferred food of the one percent.)

“Outside the window, you can see the frozen ocean, where the fish inside the tanks used to swim,” Bong says.

Before the ocean was ruined — partly to make this food. Such pointed, ironic juxtapositions are Bong’s stock in trade.

“It’s really about having fun with the audience,” he explains. “People go to the movies with certain genre conventions in mind. They go to the movies to have certain expectations met. It’s always fun to play around with those expectations, to deliver what they came to see, but also give them things they didn’t expect.”

Like a message about income inequality or environmental cataclysm — in a high-octane summer action flick. That’s what Bong delivers — along with violence, explosions and special effects.