Monthly Archives: October 2015

At This Sandwich Shop, A Vietnamese Pop Star Serves Up Banh Mi


Lynda Trang Dai sits inside her restaurant, Lynda Sandwich, in Orange County, Calif.i

Lynda Trang Dai sits inside her restaurant, Lynda Sandwich, in Orange County, Calif.

Lisa Morehouse/For NPR


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Lisa Morehouse/For NPR

Lynda Trang Dai sits inside her restaurant, Lynda Sandwich, in Orange County, Calif.

Lynda Trang Dai sits inside her restaurant, Lynda Sandwich, in Orange County, Calif.

Lisa Morehouse/For NPR

In Orange County, Calif., there’s no shortage of restaurants selling bánh mì, that delicious Vietnamese sandwich of meat, pate, fresh and pickled vegetables on a crunchy baguette. The OC’s Little Saigon is home to the largest Vietnamese population outside of Vietnam. One shop in the town of Westminster stands out from the rest: It’s got an actual pop star behind the counter, a woman known as the Vietnamese Madonna.

Lynda Trang Dai is certainly glamorous for a sandwich maven. She sports stiletto heels, a short skirt, and perfect make-up — including false eyelashes.

Her shop, Lynda Sandwich, sits in the middle of a parking lot in a strip mall. Inside, though, it feels like a posh living room, with lush plants, brightly painted murals of her idols like Michael Jackson and Marilyn Monroe, and a wide-screen TV playing the Food Network. And for many of her customers, Lynda is a bit of an idol herself.

“I used to, like, watch her in videos with my parents when I was a kid growing up. So, she’s pretty famous among the Vietnamese community,” says customer Patrick Pham, adding sheepishly, “I never met her, personally,” even though she’s actually at a table just a few feet away. He’s clearly star-struck, but he insists he comes for the bánh mì.

“They have really good food here,” he says. “Really simple. I think the whole baguette came from like France, when they colonized us for 100 years.”

Leaving Vietnam

Lynda Trang Dai’s life story is pretty extraordinary, but as she talks even about her earliest days, in the ’70s in Central Vietnam, it’s clear that food has always been central.

“I remember sitting on this wooden table, my grandmother taught me how to make bánh bèo, dough with shrimp on it,” a dish she still loves, she says. After the war, her family went from well-off to poor, and she remembers, “I would buy fruit, a whole big watermelon, cut it up, and sell it and make money.”

Then, in 1979, her father got tipped off that the government suspected him of aiding the CIA during the war. They escaped at 2 in the morning, family members split between tiny boats.

“We had to be quiet, so quiet,” Lynda remembers. “It was scary. If we got caught, we’d go to jail.” They went through storms and ran out of food, and finally found some refuge on a Chinese island, where she says they were fed rice with sugar. “It’s strange to eat rice with sugar, but it was so good at the time.”

They got back on the water, headed for Hong Kong, and then saw the large British ship that would save them. They all started waving. “I could never forget, it was just unbelievable, the most amazing moment,” Lynda remembers, choking up. “When we got up for them to rescue us into land, they gave us croissants. That was like going from hell to heaven.”

The beginning of pop stardom

Lynda Trang Dai performs at a show earlier this year in Westminster, Calif. She continues to perform internationally.i

Lynda Trang Dai performs at a show earlier this year in Westminster, Calif. She continues to perform internationally.

Lisa Morehouse/For NPR


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itoggle caption

Lisa Morehouse/For NPR

Lynda Trang Dai performs at a show earlier this year in Westminster, Calif. She continues to perform internationally.

Lynda Trang Dai performs at a show earlier this year in Westminster, Calif. She continues to perform internationally.

Lisa Morehouse/For NPR

But when her family got to the U.S., she developed another passion, and found her first career. As a high school student, she started singing in tiny venues around Little Saigon, putting up her own fliers, until one night she was discovered singing at a club. She was invited to film her first spot in a variety show called Paris By Night — a hugely popular video series — so she missed her high school graduation and flew to France.

She became a star, dressing provocatively and singing in both English and Vietnamese, a draw for young Vietnamese Americans. In the 1990s in any home throughout the Vietnamese diaspora, you’d probably find a VHS tape featuring Lynda Trang Dai. The videos even made it back to Vietnam in a kind of grey market. “Back then, it’s illegal to watch,” Lynda explains, adding that if people got caught they could go to jail.

But millions in Vietnam did watch.

The influence of Vietnamese food

As she started touring, Lynda’s obsession with Vietnamese food remained constant. She says the first time she went to Australia, she brought food on the plane with her, including bánh bèo and a noodle soup that she asked the flight attendant to heat up. She soon found there was good Vietnamese food all over the world, and started a kind of ritual wherever she touched down. “In any city I’d go to, I’d just check in on the hotel, throw all my luggage down and go and find a Vietnamese restaurant,” she says.

She still tours a lot, but when I visit, she’s performing in Westminster, Calif., in a banquet hall converted to a club for the night. People in the crowd are dressed to the nines, including sisters Hang and Juliette Nguyen, who grew up in Alabama in the ’80s. Lynda, they say, was one of the big Vietnamese stars of their youth.

She was the Madonna, “the Vietnamese Madonna,” the Nguyen sisters say in unison.

Tonight, the singer is dressed in a barely-there strappy outfit, fitting the sex-symbol image the sisters remember. But Lynda says that’s just her onstage persona. “When I’m off stage, I’m like 100 percent completely different, a total Vietnamese traditional girl who takes care of their family, food on the table, everything,” she says.

Case in point: She started her sandwich shop as a business with her family, and though a small staff does most of the food prep and sales, Lynda Trang Dai is still is the only one to make the special Lynda Sauce.

“Sometimes when I travel to Australia to sing on a tour, or to Europe, I would be up all night here making sauce, and just sleep on the plane if I have to,” she says. Anything, she says, for a great meal.

Lisa Morehouse’s series California Foodways is supported by Cal Humanities. She produced this story while at a residency at Mesa Refuge. The story first aired on KCRW’s Good Food as part of the Independent Producer Project.

Why Latinos Heart Horror Films


A still image from Guillermo del Toro's new movie, Crimson Peak. Twenty-two percent of audiences on any given weekend are Latino. But when it comes to horror films, that proportion jumps to as much as half the box office.i

A still image from Guillermo del Toro’s new movie, Crimson Peak. Twenty-two percent of audiences on any given weekend are Latino. But when it comes to horror films, that proportion jumps to as much as half the box office.

Universal Pictures


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itoggle caption

Universal Pictures

A still image from Guillermo del Toro's new movie, Crimson Peak. Twenty-two percent of audiences on any given weekend are Latino. But when it comes to horror films, that proportion jumps to as much as half the box office.

A still image from Guillermo del Toro’s new movie, Crimson Peak. Twenty-two percent of audiences on any given weekend are Latino. But when it comes to horror films, that proportion jumps to as much as half the box office.

Universal Pictures

On a Saturday night in Silver Spring, Md., the Torres brothers are at the movies. They’re here to see Director Guillermo Del Toro’s new movie, “Crimson Peak,” and Jose is in the mood for horror in his wolf mask. “Anything that is paranormal, has a fear factor into it, I would watch it,” he says. His younger brother, Anthony, agrees. “It’s more exciting than watching some regular old romantic movies.” Seventeen-year-old Anthony says Crimson Peak is more his style. “I think it’s gonna be about demonics. I wanna see how it feels when your heart goes bom bom bom bom,” he says, thumping his chest.

Trailer for the new film Crimson Peak

YouTube

Latinos like the Torres brothers are big moviegoers — 22 percent of audiences on any given weekend. But when it comes to horror, that proportion jumps to as much as half the box office.

Edwin Pagan, who runs LatinHorror.com, a website for Latino horrorphiles, has a theory about why Latinos are drawn to the genre. “Traditionally, we have always loved ghost stories and the macabre and Gothic tales,” he says. “They’re just sewn into the fabric of who we are as a people.”

Many Latinos grow up hearing about scary characters like El Cuco, El Chupacabra and La Llorona — a woman who drowns herself and her children after being scorned by her husband. Her ghost wanders the earth wailing and snatching up children to replace her own. Pagan says it’s this intimacy with the supernatural that makes the Latino psyche ripe for horror thrills.

Another layer of culture comes into play, too. “We’re born into Catholicism in large part,” says movie marketer Etienne Hernandez Medina. “The duality between good and evil, devil and God — it’s stuff we’ve grown up with.” Hernandez Medina relies on that duality to help studios sell their movies to Latinos. He’s worked on dozens of horror films, and he says another part of the reason they attract big Latino crowds is that they appeal to young audiences (Latinos are younger than the general U.S. population) and they don’t require perfect English to understand. “You go see Paranormal Activity and you get the bejesus scared out of you,” he says. “You don’t need to follow a long plot that explains how this all came to be.”

Hernandez Medina says Latino audiences can make or break horror movies in this country, and film execs know it. Still, scary movies aren’t immune to Hollywood’s diversity problem. “We show up the same way,” Pagan says. “It’s usually some kind of background character or a friend of one of the main characters who ultimately is the first to die.”

Charles Ramirez Berg, who studies how Latinos are represented in film, isn’t surprised by this. “Everything in Hollywood must have a reason for appearing — except for the dominant group,” he says. In horror movies, all you really need is a monster and a victim. “There is no specific narrative function for a Latino’s appearance, so they usually are not written into the script or cast,” he says.

But Pagan says there’s hope: “We’re a speck on the screen at this point, there’s no denying that, but we’ve always been there to some degree.” Behind the camera, some of horror’s major players have been Latino. There’s George Romero, the man who created the zombie movie, and Robert Rodriguez with his campy gore. Now, one of the hottest names in the genre is special effects master Guillermo Del Toro.

Pagan says today there are more Latinos delving into the genre than ever before, both writing scripts and directing. “There’s no doubt that when we’re given the opportunity, we can shine,” Pagan says, “because the stories are there; we just have to tell them.”

And keep moviegoers like Jose and Anthony Torres squirming in their seats. As the theater goes dark and Crimson Peak‘s eerie opening music starts playing, Jose eyes his brother. “Someone’s gonna have nightmares,” he says with a sly smile. Anthony grins back, “What you mean nightmares? Extreme nightmares, like!”

Not My Job: CNN’s Jake Tapper Answers Three Questions About Iowa




PETER SAGAL, HOST:

And now the game where we ask people who know a lot about one thing to answer questions about another thing. On the way to the theater here in Des Moines, we passed about 16 presidential candidates and 48 journalists chasing them. So who better to help us make sense of the quadrennial madhouse here than our friend Jake Tapper, host of “The Lead” and “State Of The Union” on CNN and the moderator of the second GOP debate this fall? Jake Tapper, welcome back to WAIT WAIT …DON’T TELL ME.

JAKE TAPPER: It’s great to be back. Thank you so much.

(APPLAUSE)

SAGAL: So we wanted to talk to you from Iowa because you’ve been in Iowa many a time. Can you share some caucus memories with us?

TAPPER: The best caucus memory was in 2004. I was a young reporter with ABC News, and all the big anchors had parachuted in, so there was no way I was going to get on. The night after the Iowa caucuses – Peter Jennings, Diane Sawyer – everyone was in town. So my producer and I went out and, of course, got drunk. And we – after – we didn’t really actually get drunk, but we did have a few cocktails. And then afterwards, we headed over to the winner’s party, and that was John Kerry that evening and at the lovely Hotel Fort Des Moines. And I walked into the Chequers bar in the Hotel Fort Des Moines and saw this beautiful angel. And long story short, that’s my wife and the mother of our two children.

SAGAL: Oh, wow.

(APPLAUSE)

SAGAL: So you can say for certain that something good came out of the Iowa caucuses.

(LAUGHTER)

SAGAL: So…

TAPPER: And out of the Kerry campaign.

SAGAL: …Can you – yeah, well, yes.

(LAUGHTER)

SAGAL: I got to ask you – one of the reasons we were so excited to talk to you this week is because, of course, the third GOP debate was this week. You hosted the second one, which may have been the longest debate any of us have ever seen. So you were, like…

TAPPER: Yeah.

SAGAL: You were dealing with these squabbling Republicans for something like six hours it seems.

TAPPER: Thankfully they were squabbling with each other and not with me so much. And I really just had a great time and thankfully, hopefully didn’t become too much of the story myself after the debate.

SAGAL: No, you didn’t. The CNBC guys did. And what’s interesting is that the CNBC guys this week were criticized for trying to get the candidates to go after each other, but you did that too, if I remember correctly. You brought up criticisms that one candidate made of the other and asked them to respond. Is there a reason why you guys do that?

TAPPER: Well, I think I did it a little differently. I hope I did it a little differently. But the truth of the matter is, you know, these guys are my friends, they’re my colleagues, and there’s nothing I dislike more than seeing other journalists snipe about their fellow journalists even though I know that journalism, as a rule, is slightly less collegial than the Medellin Cartel.

SAGAL: Yeah, that’s true.

(LAUGHTER)

SAGAL: I’m wondering how you practice ’cause we know that, certainly, in presidential debates, the candidates practice with, you know, fake opponents, somebody playing the opponent. Did you wargame what would happen if a candidate turned on you? Well, Jake Tapper, that’s exactly the kind of question I would expect from a liberal, mainstream-media lapdog like yourself, and you should be ashamed of yourself. And what do you say?

TAPPER: Thank you, governor.

SAGAL: Oh…

TAPPER: Thank you, governor.

(LAUGHTER)

SAGAL: That’s it?

TAPPER: Thank you, governor.

ROXANNE ROBERTS: Can I ask a quick question?

SAGAL: Sure, of course.

ROBERTS: Jake, this is Roxanne.

TAPPER: Hi, Roxanne.

ROBERTS: During the Democratic debate, Hillary Clinton snuck away to go to the bathroom. And I’m curious – you presided over this incredibly long debate. Did anyone sneak off? I mean, I realize this is a very practical question, but I was curious.

SAGAL: I did notice that there are a lot of catheter ads on CNN.

(LAUGHTER)

SAGAL: And soon after the debate, I saw Jake Tapper actually do an endorsement, so I…

TAPPER: (Laughter) We had one break that was going to be long enough for the run to the restroom, and it was like the running of the bulls during that one break.

SAGAL: What happens if you, like, you’ve been – I mean, your debate was – I don’t think it was as combative as we’ve seen, but, certainly, you were giving some of these guys a hard time. What if you run to the bathroom, in comes Donald Trump, you’re standing there next to each other facing the same way, I hope.

(LAUGHTER)

TOM BODETT: Maybe not with that guy.

SAGAL: They do seem hostile toward the media, so off stage, are you guys friendly? Is it all, like, oh, that’s just for the cameras, we’re actually all pals?

TAPPER: Thank you for walking away from that really strange hypothetical.

SAGAL: Yeah.

(LAUGHTER)

TAPPER: I mean, really honestly, because first of all, we had 11 candidates, not 10. Second of all, we were three hours. And third of all, it was so hot.

SAGAL: Right.

TAPPER: It was so hot. The lights were brutal. And we had been told that it wasn’t going to be that way, but it was. And so it was almost like we were all, you know, almost getting through a marathon together.

SAGAL: Right, so it…

LUKE BURBANK: That was the first Bikram debate they’ve had though.

SAGAL: Yeah, I know.

BURBANK: So that was sort of cool.

(LAUGHTER)

SAGAL: Increases your flexibility. Before we move on to the game, we did want to – I mean, you’ve had already at a relatively young age, an amazing career in journalism. And this week, of course, must have been one of the highlights because you were there on the front lines talking to America live during the crisis of the runaway blimp.

(LAUGHTER)

SAGAL: And I just wanted to ask you as a journalist, really as a citizen, how did it feel to be the voice that America turned to as we worried about the blimp?

(LAUGHTER)

BODETT: Yeah, I bet he felt better than the guy who let the blimp go.

SAGAL: Yeah.

TAPPER: The aerostat? The military aerostat?

SAGAL: The aerostat, yes, thank you. It’s not actually a blimp because it doesn’t supposed to go anywhere. It’s an aerostat. Yes, that’s what I mean.

TAPPER: I called it that to make it seem less silly.

(LAUGHTER)

TAPPER: You know, I just was happy that at the end of the broadcast, I wasn’t saying, oh, the humanity.

(LAUGHTER)

SAGAL: Well, Jake Tapper, it’s always a pleasure to talk to you, but it’s also a pleasure to play our games with you. And this time, we’ve invited you here to play a game we’re calling…

BILL KURTIS, BYLINE: You Know, We Still Exist in Non-election Years, Too.

SAGAL: So every four years…

(APPLAUSE)

SAGAL: You know this – the political press descends on Iowa like a plague of locusts in sport coats, and they don’t really know anything about this wonderful state whose nickname I was too lazy to look up, so we’re going to ask you…

TAPPER: The Hawkeye State.

SAGAL: The Hawkeye State, yes, ok, yay.

(APPLAUSE)

SAGAL: We’re going to ask you three questions about the real Iowa. So get two right, you’ll win a prize for one of our contestants – Carl Kasell’s voice auctioning hog futures on their voice mail.

(LAUGHTER)

SAGAL: Bill, who is Jake Tapper playing for?

KURTIS: Helen Parks of Valley Junction, Iowa.

SAGAL: There you go, an Iowan.

(APPLAUSE)

SAGAL: Don’t let her down. You don’t want to let her down. Iowans are kind to people, but they never forgive.

(LAUGHTER)

SAGAL: Here’s your first question, Jake. There are many wonderful attractions in Iowa for the tourists who flock here…

(LAUGHTER)

SAGAL: …Such as which of these, A – the world’s deepest gopher hole in Belmond, Iowa, B – the last survivor of the Great Cola Wars Memorial in Grundy Center, Iowa, or, C – Elwood, the world’s tallest concrete gnome in Ames, Iowa?

(APPLAUSE)

TAPPER: I’m going to go with Elwood.

SAGAL: Yeah, Elwood is the way to go.

(SOUNDBITE OF BELL)

SAGAL: Not far from here in Ames.

(APPLAUSE)

SAGAL: Elwood is 15 feet tall. He’s only in Ames – about 40 miles, so you can actually see him from here. Second question, Iowa is famous for its role in American musical history. In fact, it was right here in Des Moines that what happened, A – Ozzy Osbourne bit the head off a bat, B – Guy Lombardo first saw an automatic bubble machine, or, C – Miles Davis was asked, are you feeling blue? And he said, kind of.

(LAUGHTER)

TAPPER: That’s a tough one.

SAGAL: It is, Jake.

TAPPER: The first one was Ozzy Osbourne – I’m going to go with Ozzy Osbourne.

SAGAL: Ozzy Osbourne – they’re proud of it, they know it’s right.

(SOUNDBITE OF BELL)

SAGAL: It happened right here in Des Moines in 1982. All right, last question for you, Jake. You’re doing well so far. Iowa faced a big controversy during the construction of the Sioux City airport some years ago. What happened, A – residents were outraged when the airport unveiled its slogan over the construction site – finally, you can get the hell out of Sioux City.

(LAUGHTER)

SAGAL: B – a local pork lobbyist gave the airport so much money that they painted the runways to look like giant strips of bacon, or, C – the FAA gave them the airport code S, U, X, or SUX, and the mayor was totally not happy about that.

TAPPER: I’m going with C.

SAGAL: You’re right.

(SOUNDBITE OF BELL)

SAGAL: Bill, how did Jake Tapper do in this debate?

KURTIS: Jake got them all right – 3 and 0.

(APPLAUSE)

KURTIS: Congratulations, Jake.

SAGAL: You see, that’s the difference between our show and those debates that you guys do. We have a clear winner.

(LAUGHTER)

SAGAL: We don’t need to go to the spin room. We know it was you, congratulations.

TAPPER: I don’t know what you’re talking about. Donald Trump has won every debate.

SAGAL: It’s true.

(LAUGHTER)

SAGAL: Jake Tapper…

TAPPER: According to Donald Trump.

SAGAL: That is true. He is a one-man focus group about Donald Trump. Jake Tapper is the host of “The Lead” and “State Of The Union” on CNN and a friend of this show. Jake Tapper, thank you so much for taking some time.

(APPLAUSE)

TAPPER: Always a pleasure.

BODETT: Thank you, Jake.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SAGAL: In just a minute, Bill is king of the world in our listener limerick challenge. Call 1-888-WAIT-WAIT to join us on the air. We’ll be back in a minute with more WAIT WAIT …DON’T TELL ME from NPR.

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An Election’s High Stakes: Sandra Bullock On ‘Our Brand Is Crisis’


Sandra Bullock stars as Jane in the satirical film Our Brand Is Crisis.i

Sandra Bullock stars as Jane in the satirical film Our Brand Is Crisis.

Courtesy of Warner Bros Pictures


hide caption

itoggle caption

Courtesy of Warner Bros Pictures

Sandra Bullock stars as Jane in the satirical film Our Brand Is Crisis.

Sandra Bullock stars as Jane in the satirical film Our Brand Is Crisis.

Courtesy of Warner Bros Pictures

The presidential race is close; the gloves come off and the campaigns go negative.

Sound familiar?

That’s the premise of the new film Our Brand Is Crisis — which is set in Bolivia, not the contemporary U.S. — and the competing advisers for the two campaigns in the movie include a legendary political strategist who looks a lot like Sandra Bullock.

The film has been getting some flack for straying from the facts of what really happened in South America in 2002 — events that were depicted in an earlier documentary with the same name.

Sandra Bullock tells NPR’s Scott Simon what drew her to the movie, despite her disdain for the game-playing of politics.

Interview Highlights

On how the movie relates to the documentary

More On ‘Our Brand Is Crisis’

We really were drawn to the essence of what the documentary gave you, which was how large corporations can sell just about anything, to anyone. And in this case, it’s politics.

On what drew her to the film

Really, politics don’t interest me — government interests me, but politics don’t. To me, I see a lot of game-playing.

But what I loved about this film, is that it brought up consequences. And sort of our world has gotten to a place where The almighty Win has become so powerful — success, at all costs. We’re being sold so much, and I find myself drawn into it. And I think that does lead to depression, I think that does lead to “oh my god, my life is not good enough — I need to win more in order to be more accepted and more viable.”

And to me it’s about the consequences of these bigger corporations that come in and use people’s lives to make money, but they don’t care at what cost.

On the role of emotional distress in acting

Back when I was very small, and we had this bathroom with these sort of paneled mirrors on the side. And I would just sit there — because it was the only warm room in the house. And I would — if I was in a bad place — I would go to my imaginary place with these mirrors, and create this entire other world to sort of help level out what I was dealing with.

More With Sandra Bullock

And I think — yes, I think a lot of actors, comedians, musicians, artists are drawn to this world, because you’re allowed to excavate whatever it is that you’re struggling with, and hopefully turn it into art.

On what she did in the mirror

I remember I would write little scripts, I would write stories. It was just a little warm pocket in the house that just felt very safe. … I remember just having conversations. And I would play one role, and do the other role in the mirror, and have that time.

On intensive media attention cast on her private life

Even surprises me at times! I’ll wake up one morning; I’m like, “I’m sorry, I did what?

You know, at the beginning you fight it all the time. And now, you just — I don’t get so mad anymore, because there’s nothing I can do about it, you know? It’s just, It’s fodder, and it’s noise, and within two weeks it goes away … and someone else does something or doesn’t do something that makes the news, and you just move on — it’s just entertainment.

On the similar scrutiny faced by politicians

Those who are genuinely there to make change and be a civil servant — and you see these seemingly honorable people who want to go into this world of politics, which I admire and don’t understand at the same time — and you see their lives blown open, and it’s heartbreaking.

Then you see the other ones, who are just definitely in love with the machine or manipulating things themselves, and I have no sympathy for that.

On how this film influenced her politics

It makes me angrier, in the sense that, I’ve known, it’s been like this since politics began, I feel — except now the curtain can be more easily moved aside.

Not My Job: CNN’s Jake Tapper Answers Three Questions About Iowa


Jake Tapper on the set of CNN's The Lead.i
Jake Tapper on the set of CNN's The Lead.

We recorded the show in Des Moines this week, and on the way to the theater we we passed about 16 presidential candidates, and 40 journalists chasing them. To help us make sense of this madhouse we invited our friend Jake Tapper — host of CNN’s The Lead, and one of the moderators of the second GOP debate — to the show.

We’ll ask him to play a game called “You know, we still exist in non-election years, too.” Three questions about the state of Iowa, where every four years the political press descends like a plague of locusts in sport coats.

An Election’s High Stakes: Sandra Bullock On ‘Our Brand Is Crisis’


Sandra Bullock stars as Jane in the satirical film Our Brand Is Crisis.i

Sandra Bullock stars as Jane in the satirical film Our Brand Is Crisis.

Courtesy of Warner Bros Pictures


hide caption

itoggle caption

Courtesy of Warner Bros Pictures

Sandra Bullock stars as Jane in the satirical film Our Brand Is Crisis.

Sandra Bullock stars as Jane in the satirical film Our Brand Is Crisis.

Courtesy of Warner Bros Pictures

The presidential race is close; the gloves come off and the campaigns go negative.

Sound familiar?

That’s the premise of the new film Our Brand Is Crisis — which is set in Bolivia, not the contemporary U.S. — and the competing advisers for the two campaigns in the movie include a legendary political strategist who looks a lot like Sandra Bullock.

The film has been getting some flack for straying from the facts of what really happened in South America in 2002 — events that were depicted in an earlier documentary with the same name.

Sandra Bullock tells NPR’s Scott Simon what drew her to the movie, despite her disdain for the game-playing of politics.

Interview Highlights

On how the movie relates to the documentary

More On ‘Our Brand Is Crisis’

We really were drawn to the essence of what the documentary gave you, which was how large corporations can sell just about anything, to anyone. And in this case, it’s politics.

On what drew her to the film

Really, politics don’t interest me — government interests me, but politics don’t. To me, I see a lot of game-playing.

But what I loved about this film, is that it brought up consequences. And sort of our world has gotten to a place where The almighty Win has become so powerful — success, at all costs. We’re being sold so much, and I find myself drawn into it. And I think that does lead to depression, I think that does lead to “oh my god, my life is not good enough — I need to win more in order to be more accepted and more viable.”

And to me it’s about the consequences of these bigger corporations that come in and use people’s lives to make money, but they don’t care at what cost.

On the role of emotional distress in acting

Back when I was very small, and we had this bathroom with these sort of paneled mirrors on the side. And I would just sit there — because it was the only warm room in the house. And I would — if I was in a bad place — I would go to my imaginary place with these mirrors, and create this entire other world to sort of help level out what I was dealing with.

More With Sandra Bullock

And I think — yes, I think a lot of actors, comedians, musicians, artists are drawn to this world, because you’re allowed to excavate whatever it is that you’re struggling with, and hopefully turn it into art.

On what she did in the mirror

I remember I would write little scripts, I would write stories. It was just a little warm pocket in the house that just felt very safe. … I remember just having conversations. And I would play one role, and do the other role in the mirror, and have that time.

On intensive media attention cast on her private life

Even surprises me at times! I’ll wake up one morning; I’m like, “I’m sorry, I did what?

You know, at the beginning you fight it all the time. And now, you just — I don’t get so mad anymore, because there’s nothing I can do about it, you know? It’s just, It’s fodder, and it’s noise, and within two weeks it goes away … and someone else does something or doesn’t do something that makes the news, and you just move on — it’s just entertainment.

On the similar scrutiny faced by politicians

Those who are genuinely there to make change and be a civil servant — and you see these seemingly honorable people who want to go into this world of politics, which I admire and don’t understand at the same time — and you see their lives blown open, and it’s heartbreaking.

Then you see the other ones, who are just definitely in love with the machine or manipulating things themselves, and I have no sympathy for that.

On how this film influenced her politics

It makes me angrier, in the sense that, I’ve known, it’s been like this since politics began, I feel — except now the curtain can be more easily moved aside.

An Election’s High Stakes: Sandra Bullock On ‘Our Brand Is Crisis’


Sandra Bullock stars as Jane in the satirical film Our Brand Is Crisis.i

Sandra Bullock stars as Jane in the satirical film Our Brand Is Crisis.

Courtesy of Warner Bros Pictures


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Sandra Bullock stars as Jane in the satirical film Our Brand Is Crisis.

Sandra Bullock stars as Jane in the satirical film Our Brand Is Crisis.

Courtesy of Warner Bros Pictures

The presidential race is close; the gloves come off and the campaigns go negative.

Sound familiar?

That’s the premise of the new film Our Brand Is Crisis — which is set in Bolivia, not the contemporary U.S. — and the competing advisers for the two campaigns in the movie include a legendary political strategist who looks a lot like Sandra Bullock.

The film has been getting some flack for straying from the facts of what really happened in South America in 2002 — events that were depicted in an earlier documentary with the same name.

Sandra Bullock tells NPR’s Scott Simon what drew her to the movie, despite her disdain for the game-playing of politics.

Interview Highlights

On how the movie relates to the documentary

More On ‘Our Brand Is Crisis’

We really were drawn to the essence of what the documentary gave you, which was how large corporations can sell just about anything, to anyone. And in this case, it’s politics.

On what drew her to the film

Really, politics don’t interest me — government interests me, but politics don’t. To me, I see a lot of game-playing.

But what I loved about this film, is that it brought up consequences. And sort of our world has gotten to a place where The almighty Win has become so powerful — success, at all costs. We’re being sold so much, and I find myself drawn into it. And I think that does lead to depression, I think that does lead to “oh my god, my life is not good enough — I need to win more in order to be more accepted and more viable.”

And to me it’s about the consequences of these bigger corporations that come in and use people’s lives to make money, but they don’t care at what cost.

On the role of emotional distress in acting

Back when I was very small, and we had this bathroom with these sort of paneled mirrors on the side. And I would just sit there — because it was the only warm room in the house. And I would — if I was in a bad place — I would go to my imaginary place with these mirrors, and create this entire other world to sort of help level out what I was dealing with.

More With Sandra Bullock

And I think — yes, I think a lot of actors, comedians, musicians, artists are drawn to this world, because you’re allowed to excavate whatever it is that you’re struggling with, and hopefully turn it into art.

On what she did in the mirror

I remember I would write little scripts, I would write stories. It was just a little warm pocket in the house that just felt very safe. … I remember just having conversations. And I would play one role, and do the other role in the mirror, and have that time.

On intensive media attention cast on her private life

Even surprises me at times! I’ll wake up one morning; I’m like, “I’m sorry, I did what?

You know, at the beginning you fight it all the time. And now, you just — I don’t get so mad anymore, because there’s nothing I can do about it, you know? It’s just, It’s fodder, and it’s noise, and within two weeks it goes away … and someone else does something or doesn’t do something that makes the news, and you just move on — it’s just entertainment.

On the similar scrutiny faced by politicians

Those who are genuinely there to make change and be a civil servant — and you see these seemingly honorable people who want to go into this world of politics, which I admire and don’t understand at the same time — and you see their lives blown open, and it’s heartbreaking.

Then you see the other ones, who are just definitely in love with the machine or manipulating things themselves, and I have no sympathy for that.

On how this film influenced her politics

It makes me angrier, in the sense that, I’ve known, it’s been like this since politics began, I feel — except now the curtain can be more easily moved aside.

Three Horror Classics Rise From The Grave For Halloween


Ghouls, ghosts, witches, werewolves, and things that go bump in the night: They’ve been a part of literature since the start. And every Halloween, a slew of spooky books are released to help commoditize the holiday. Penguin Classics hasn’t shirked in its horrific duties: This month, the venerable imprint is publishing a trio of tomes that touch the rawest nerves of our subconscious, just in time for the long, dark shadows of autumn — namely The Case Against Satan by Roy Russell, Perchance to Dream by Charles Beaumont, and Songs of a Dead Dreamer and Grimscribe by Thomas Ligotti. But are they worth it? Does a bat flit through the woods?

The slimmest of Penguin’s trio of terrors is Roy Russell’s novel, The Case Against Satan. First published in 1962, it was one of thousands of lurid pulp novels — horror, crime, science fiction, and fantasy — published during that era, when literary recognition rarely threatened genre writers. In hindsight, though, Russell’s taut, lean story about a teenager named Susan Garth who apparently has been possessed by some nefarious spirit more than transcends its time. It predated a far more popular book on the same subject — William Peter Blatty’s The Exorcist, the source of the classic horror film — by eight years, but Russell’s take on possession involves a larger struggle of will between the orthodox Bishop Crimmings, who’s determined to vanquish the devil in Susan’s body, and Father Gregory, a whiskey priest with challengingly modern views on psychoanalysis and rationalism.

The book’s title, The Case Against Satan, may seem clear-cut, but it has subtle double meaning. On one hand, it sums up the battle being waged against what’s believed to be a literal demonic possession; on the other hand, it hints at the fact that the very existence of Satan — and, by extension, God himself — is being challenged. With gripping clarity and incisive wit, Russell weaves a suspenseful plot that’s more of an intellectual thriller than a horror yarn. And at a time when there are still massive ideological battles being waged between science and religion — not to mention a Pope in the Vatican who’s interpreting Catholic doctrine in a way that’s inspiring to some and feather-ruffling to others — The Case Against Satan retains its harrowing, relevant edge.

In addition to penning A Case Against Satan, Russell was an editor at Playboy in the 1950s when the magazine was a publisher and champion of fiction — and it was during that tenure when Russell began printing the short stories of Charles Beaumont. Although he died in 1967 at the age of 38, Beaumont secured his legacy in popular culture by writing many of the most memorable episodes of The Twilight Zone – and many of those were based on the tales contained in Perchance to Dream. This fresh collection of Beaumont’s weird fiction is rife with fantastical tropes and twist endings, from the gothic horror of “The Howling Man” to the socially conscious science fiction of “Beautiful People” (later reworked into the classic Twilight Zone episode “The Number 12 Looks Just Like You”).

Twist endings get a bad rap in our oh-so-sophisticated millennium, but in Perchance to Dream, they’re in the hands of a master. The denouement of “Song for a Lady” might seem flat or anticlimactic to modern readers, but it packs an understated emotional punch that resonates. From the “autumn chill of moving wetness” in “Place of Meeting” to the pentagram-laden mystique of “The New People,” the atmosphere is eerily tangible.

Throughout the book, Beaumont challenges perception, norms, and our smug reliance on appearances, using supernatural and science-fictional elements to drive home his points — sometimes gently, sometimes jarringly. It’s hard not read a hint of tragic autobiography in Perchance to Dream‘s title story, in which a man becomes paranoid that his overactive imagination might exacerbate his heart condition and kill him. Beaumont died of a chronic condition of his own — some have deduced it was early onset Alzheimer’s — and his imagination, as Perchance to Dream amply shows, was more than most writer’s enjoy in the longest of lifetimes.

Just as television played a part in Beaumont’s fame, Thomas Ligotti has seen a huge boost in notoriety lately thanks to a TV show — namely HBO’s dark, brooding True Detective. The show’s creator, Nic Pizzolatto, came under fire during True Detective‘s first season last year, which some critics claimed plagiarized Ligotti’s work. Before being thrust into that spotlight, the reclusive Ligotti had been a cult figure for decades. His first two collections of short stories, 1985’s Songs of a Dead Dreamer and 1991’s Grimscribe, have been collected into a single volume, and it not only showcases Ligotti’s formidable vision, it reveals exactly why he’s been such half-hidden treasure for so long. His stories aren’t for the faint of heart or the rigid of mind; he warps and layers reality and language into surreal, startling shapes.

Drawing from the nightmarish traditions of Edgar Allan Poe and H. P. Lovecraft, Ligotti infuses tales such as “Flowers of the Abyss” and “The Last Feast of the Harlequin” with strangely contorted architectures, both literal and metaphorical, as he examines the outskirts of madness like an archeologist of the grotesque and absurd. There’s a playfulness and humor to his work, too — perverse though it may be — in the stories “Notes on the Writing of Horror: A Story” and “Professor Nobody’s Little Lectures on Supernatural Horror.” But it’s “The Greater Festival of Masks” that winds up being the book’s consummate Halloween story. In it, a man named Noss wanders through an unnamed town whose location in geography and history are kept eerily vague; as he ventures deeper into the village’s increasingly bizarre festival, he dons a mask of his own, only to find that there’s more hiding beneath it than he could ever dream.

Each of these three books comes with beautiful new covers and incisive forewords by some of speculative fiction’s best: Laird Barron, Jeff VanderMeer, and the late Ray Bradbury, who was a close friend of Beaumont and delivers, in typical Bradbury fashion, a remembrance of the author and his work that’s both sentimental and unnerving. Taken together, these are not lightweight Halloween reads. They force us to look at our own world, and ourselves, in radically skewed ways. Ghouls, ghosts, witches, werewolves, and things that go bump in the night are in short supply in The Case Against Satan, Perchance to Dream, and Songs of a Dead Dreamer and Grimscribe; in their place is something far more familiar, and far more frightening.

Jason Heller is a senior writer at The A.V. Club, a Hugo Award-winning editor and author of the novel Taft 2012.

Join Ussss… Join Ussss…. For The Return Of ‘Evil Dead’


Bruce Cambpell — and his famous chainsaw — are back in the new series Ash Vs Evil Dead.i

Bruce Cambpell — and his famous chainsaw — are back in the new series Ash Vs Evil Dead.

Matt Klitscher/Starz Entertainment, LLC


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Matt Klitscher/Starz Entertainment, LLC

Bruce Cambpell — and his famous chainsaw — are back in the new series Ash Vs Evil Dead.

Bruce Cambpell — and his famous chainsaw — are back in the new series Ash Vs Evil Dead.

Matt Klitscher/Starz Entertainment, LLC

It’s the moment fans of the horror comedy franchise Evil Dead have waited decades to see.

Starz’s TV series, Ash vs Evil Dead, begins with a bracing blast of classic rock — Deep Purple’s psychedelic anthem Space Truckin’ — and the disquieting sight of star Bruce Campbell squeezing his midriff into a massive, leather corset.

That moment says everything about Campbell’s character Ash Williams, a vain, aging low-rent ladies man whose only talent is killing zombie-like demons known as Deadites.

But Campbell believes it also says something about his longtime friend, director and producer Sam Raimi, who has a reputation for torturing his star.

“This is Sam’s way of tormenting me even when he’s not physically tormenting me,” says Campbell of Raimi, who has given the actor parts in many of his films and TV shows, from Hercules: The Legendary Journeys to three Spider-Man films.

Related NPR Stories

“He’s tormenting me mentally,” the actor adds. “Because now he knows I’m going to read in every review, ‘The aging Lothario starts by hooking up a geezer girdle and lookin’ for his teeth.'”

This is a game Campbell and Raimi have been playing for at least 36 years, back when they filmed the first Evil Dead movie.

The film became a cult hit in 1981, spawning a franchise that includes merchandise, two sequels and a 2013 remake. This original movie was explicit, low budget and raw — one female character is molested by trees in a scene — featuring Campbell’s Ash trying to save a group of friends, including a pal named Scotty, who are possessed by the Deadites.

“Scotty, listen to me please for God’s sake!” a youthful Campbell shouts in one scene, shaking his co-star who has been torn and bloodied by the killer foliage. Scotty replies, “Ash I don’t wanna die. You’re not going to leave me, are you Ash?”

Campbell says any humor people saw in that first movie was purely accidental.

“If you have really hokey lines of dialogue spoken by actors who have no experience, it’s gonna be kinda funny,” he adds. “So a lot of people are like, ‘You guys … that horror comedy!’ And I … even today I kinda go, no, uh, uh. We weren’t trying to be funny.”

Campbell is sitting next to Lucy Lawless, star of the beloved ’90s action series Xena: Warrior Princess. Lawless married Xena‘s co-creator Rob Tapert, who also produced the Evil Dead movies with Raimi and Campbell.

Former warrior princess Lucy Lawless stars as Ruby, who has a serious bone to pick with Campbell's Ash.i

Former warrior princess Lucy Lawless stars as Ruby, who has a serious bone to pick with Campbell’s Ash.

Matt Klitscher/2015 Starz Entertainment, LLC


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Former warrior princess Lucy Lawless stars as Ruby, who has a serious bone to pick with Campbell's Ash.

Former warrior princess Lucy Lawless stars as Ruby, who has a serious bone to pick with Campbell’s Ash.

Matt Klitscher/2015 Starz Entertainment, LLC

They’re a group of friends who have worked together for years — Raimi executive produced Hercules, which Campbell and Lawless appeared in. Xena, Lawless’s character from Hercules, of course ended up getting her own show spun off. And Campbell directed a few episodes of that show, Xena: Warrior Princess.

So when Evil Dead became a TV series, it made sense to craft a role for Lawless.

“I’ve been around for 20 years in their lives, whether they like it or not,” says Lawless, laughing. “Bruce was my little TV mentor; taught me how to be a good star and not complain and get in the way of the schedule … I love being on set with Bruce … I can torture him a little.”

Campbell puts it a different way, “What I like, is you don’t have to talky, talky, talk … I start to explain something to Lucy and she turns away … she goes and gets a cup of coffee, and I say, ‘Well, I guess she understands.'”

The TV show features a middle aged Ash with one hand — he cut off his right hand in a previous Evil Dead movie to keep the Deadites from taking him over. He’s accidentally released the Deadites again by reading from the Book of the Dead while trying to impress a woman during a drunken one-night stand.

Lawless enters the story as Ruby, a woman who hates Ash. She blames him for the Deadite attack that killed her family years ago.

“My character is hunting Ash,” says Lawless, who only appears briefly in the show’s first episode (she says a more extensive scene was cut because it gave away too much story). “The first time, [the Deadites] killed my entire family, and I’m blaming him, and I want to [put] him in the ground.”

As the Deadites begin to zero in on Ash and two younger friends, viewers see the trademark mix of gore and humor that fueled the original Evil Dead movies, including a scene where Campbell decapitates a Deadite with his trusty chainsaw, attached to the place where his right hand used to be.

Since the show is on Starz, a premium cable channel, it can be as explicit as they want it to be, with lots of profanity and blood splashed everywhere. Campbell remains surprised there is a home on television for the kind of content that made the first Evil Dead movie an outcast project decades ago.

“When we made the first Evil Dead, it got banned in five countries,” says Campbell. “That’s what you did with horror movies back then … you banned them, because they were a fringe form of entertainment. Now thanks to shows like Walking Dead … good gravy, how many viewers do they get every week?”

Still, not all Evil Dead fans are eagerly anticipating Ash’s small screen debut.

Rob Mclaine is a self-described superfan who has built websites devoted to the movies and was inspired by the films to develop a career in the special effects industry.

When Mclaine was growing up in England, the first Evil Dead movie was criticized as an example of “video nasties” — explicit, unregulated films that broke all the rules for what could be shown onscreen.

Evil Dead, he says, “just became the poster child for what video nasties were [accused of being]… despicable and terrible and corrupting,” he says. “So a lot of people saw the Evil Dead as a seminal film to see.” Mclaine doesn’t expect Ash vs Evil Dead to break the same ground.

But Campbell says the TV version, which Starz has already picked up for a second season, continues the film’s legacy by fleshing out Ash, who has inspired fans for decades.

“He’s the average man,” Campbell says with his signature deadpan delivery. “And they can look and see that Ash has no skills. So they can believe in him because basically they’re looking in the mirror when they look at Ash.”

Translating that appeal to the small screen might just be Ash’s biggest challenge yet.

Dramatist David Hare Says, Like Many Writers, He’s Driven By Doubt


David Hare's plays and screenplays include Plenty, Skylight, The Blue Room, The Hours and Stuff Happens. i

David Hare’s plays and screenplays include Plenty, Skylight, The Blue Room, The Hours and Stuff Happens.

Brigitte Lacombe/Courtesy of W. W. Norton & Company


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Brigitte Lacombe/Courtesy of W. W. Norton & Company

David Hare's plays and screenplays include Plenty, Skylight, The Blue Room, The Hours and Stuff Happens.

David Hare’s plays and screenplays include Plenty, Skylight, The Blue Room, The Hours and Stuff Happens.

Brigitte Lacombe/Courtesy of W. W. Norton & Company

In the mid-1960s a young David Hare was touring the U.S. in a somewhat unlikely way: He’d gotten a job cleaning and repainting a beach house for a therapist in Los Angeles, and she had arranged for him to stay with a succession of her patients as he traveled around the country.

“I knew what their problems were because I’d redone her filing system …” Hare tells NPR’s Scott Simon. “It certainly gave me a highly colored view of America for the first time.”

That’s just one of the stories the British playwright tells in The Blue Touch Paper — a memoir of his life and career, from boyhood to his first days of fame.

“I was 17,” he says, “and I came from the most repressed suburban childhood in England — in the days when England was hugely different from California. So when I got out of this plane in Los Angeles and my irises shrunk to pins, I was overwhelmed by a completely different culture from the one I came from.”

He talks with NPR about the early days of his career, how he judges people, and a surprising moment he had with Helen Mirren.

Interview Highlights

On how, around the time he founded A Portable Theatre company, he thought “everything was rubbish”

Well, that’s what young people always think, isn’t it? … I thought John Osborne and Harold Pinter were completely ridiculous. But of course, 20 years later, 30 years later, by the time I had a go at writing a play myself, I’d come whole-heartedly to admire them. But no, because we went in for political reasons, we went in with the aim of changing society and Portable Theatre was an inspirational group because it went everywhere! We went into prisons, we went into army camps, we went to canteens, we went to village halls, we went to floors — anywhere we could play.

On how they were trying to change the audience, not just the theater

We thought that the theater of the day was decadent and aesthetic. The only concern was how well things were done rather than what plays were actually saying. And the way that we thought we could get content to seem … immediate and urgent was to take it to people who weren’t practiced theater goers. And so we were on a sort of social mission as well as an artistic mission.

On the memoir’s showbiz vignettes — including a memorable moment with Dame Helen Mirren

In the days I knew Helen Mirren, she was not at all the respectable figure who … is before you. She had wonderful techniques of not listening to the director when the director tried to give her notes. And her best ever technique was saying, “Come to the dressing room at a quarter to 7:00, and you can give me notes then.” And I knocked on the door and went into her dressing room, and she put aside the copy of the Evening Standard, which was briefly obscuring her, and she was absolutely stark naked and said to me: “Perhaps now you’d like to give me some notes.” And needless to say I muttered apologetically and left as fast as I possibly could. You know, but it was all part of Helen’s fun. She was really good fun.

On being hard on himself in the book

A lot of people have said this about the book — that I seem to be very tough on myself. But you know, I’m a writer. And an awful lot of writers are driven by self-hatred. My ability to see what’s going on in a room or analyze what’s going on inside a person comes from my own doubts about what’s going on inside myself.

More With David Hare

On the way he judges other people and himself

I am, by temperament, [a] non-judgmental person. In other words, I’m extremely judgmental about art. And I’m extremely judgmental about public affairs. I tend to be less judgmental about people. Those of us who’s been inside those moments at which your whole life collapses and in which you believe yourself to be incapable of continuing have a great deal more sympathy for other people who find themselves in that position.

I’m a great fan of Oscar Wilde. And Oscar Wilde said, “Morality doesn’t consist of telling other people what to do. It’s about how you behave yourself.” And the first kind of morality where you just judge others is so easy. Whereas the kind where you actually judge yourself: that’s a much tougher way to live.