To Avoid Or To Embrace? How Actors Navigate Stereotypes
NEAL CONAN, HOST:
This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. On NBC's "Parks and Recreation," Retta, former standup comedian, plays the office manager who seems to have everything under control, obsesses over her Mercedes SUV and has a way with men. Here she gives dating advice to her co-worker Ann.
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RETTA: (As Donna Meagle) Do you know where you are right now? We're in the jungle. There are no friends here. It's every woman for herself.
RASHIDA JONES: (As Ann Perkins) You're joking, right?
RETTA: (As Donna) Do I look like I'm joking? Dating is a zero-sum game. If you get a man, I don't get that man.
JONES: (As Ann) I'm here because of advice that you gave me to be more adventurous in my life.
RETTA: (As Donna) Here is some more advice: Beat it.
CONAN: Retta has emerged as a star, but in the beginning of her acting career, she's written that she'd hesitate when called to audition for what she's called ghetto, loudmouth characters. She worried that if she became known for those parts, directors wouldn't take her seriously.
Of course Hollywood casts all kinds of stereotypes: the ditzy blonde, the Latino landscaper, the Asian doctor, roles actors take to get a start or to pay the rent. But how do you build your career without getting typecast? We want to hear from actors today. What roles do you get called for? What roles do you avoid? 800-989-8255. Email us, email@example.com. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.
Later in the program, the endangered art of the sign painter. But we begin with Retta, one of the stars of NBC's "Parks and Rec." She joins us from our bureau in New York, and welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.
RETTA: Why thank you.
CONAN: And tell us about one of those auditions that gave you pause those years ago.
RETTA: I would often get called in to play a very loud, obnoxious - which truth be told I can be loud and obnoxious.
CONAN: We all can.
RETTA: My issue was when it was like a ghetto girl, I didn't think I was good at it. I didn't feel authentic. And so I had insecurities about going in on it, and I just didn't think it looked truthful on me. And then if I - and then you get to a point where you're like you know what, you need to get a job. Stop, you know, worrying about what the job is; get a job and then make moves.
But then I was scared if I start getting those parts, that's all that I was going to get offered. You know, especially when I started, it was mostly meter maids or, you know, the sassy nurse or the sassy receptionist in the hospital. And I felt like, you know, are those the only jobs large black women have?
And so it took a while before I saw any diversity in the characters I was asked to come in and play.
CONAN: And when did you start to see that?
RETTA: I think honestly it was when my friends were actually doing their own projects. Because they knew me, and they knew who I was, they knew what I could play just because of that, whereas, you know, there were casting directors who don't necessarily know me; all they get are pictures. So they see your face, and they're like oh, we can place her in this or that.
So it wasn't until my friends started doing their own projects where I got to do little Web things or, you know, shorts that I wasn't necessarily what you call typecast.
CONAN: And as those opportunities arose, I guess you can tell that you've achieved at least a level of success because I'm sure your agent is thrilled with the idea that you tanked auditions.
RETTA: Well that's the thing; I didn't tank them on purpose. I was terrible.
RETTA: I was no good. I was - I know they'd be like: Are you kidding? Especially like with voice work. Whenever I got called in for voiceover stuff, it was only to be sassy, you know, smart-alec, a black woman, and sometimes it was written in a way that I didn't feel comfortable reading. I just wasn't good at it. And so that used to stress me out the most because they don't even have to see me, I just - and so I know they were like really, this is not working. So I never got callbacks for that stuff.
CONAN: Now when you got the part on "Parks and Rec," your character started out in the background.
CONAN: How did you develop into, well, one of the leading players?
RETTA: Well, when I auditioned, Mike Schur and Greg Daniels, the executive producers and creators of the show, they knew that eventually people were going to want to know who's the girl in the back and who's that guy sitting in the corner. So when we auditioned, we had to act. You know, they had written scenes for me to perform.
Those scenes never made it into the show because they weren't part of the show, they were just written to see that once we get to a point where people need to know who these other characters are, they needed to know that we could actually perform. So yeah, I started out as a co-star, recurring co-star, and I would get a line here or there.
But eventually that's how they pitched it to me and my manager was that like "The Office," everybody gets known at some point. It's just going to take a bit.
CONAN: If the show lasts long enough.
CONAN: That's the other unknown there.
RETTA: And for me, I wasn't doing anything, so I could either be sitting on set or sitting in my apartment. I might as well sit and get paid.
CONAN: That's a good point. We want to hear from actors out there in the audience. What kind of roles do you get called for, and what kind do you avoid, if any? 800-989-8255. Email us, firstname.lastname@example.org. And Ben(ph) is on the line with us from - where are you in South Dakota?
BEN: I'm in central South Dakota, near Paducah, so...
CONAN: OK, go ahead.
BEN: Well, I worked as a professional actor, mostly on stage, for about a decade, and in my 20s I started to go gray. And I found that I was getting cast a lot as dads and uncles. And it was kind of uncomfortable for me at that age because I didn't feel I had enough life experience to play those roles adequately.
CONAN: Again, that's interesting, it was not that you were being stereotyped as old, it was that you didn't feel confident that you could play it.
BEN: Yeah, I looked old, and I kind of carry myself a little bit older, but I didn't - now that I'm in my 40s, I feel fine playing older roles, but I had to do a lot of hair dye to go into an audition and be considered for those younger, younger roles.
CONAN: And did you succeed?
BEN: Every now and then. Directors that knew me would say things like oh, you've done something with your hair. How do you feel about playing, you know, the uncle? And OK, fine, because it was a job.
CONAN: Yeah, and that's a lot of it. Retta, you, too, at some point you have to put bread on the table.
RETTA: Yeah, exactly.
BEN: Yeah, yeah you do, exactly. But now that I'm older, the older I - give me those dad roles because I'll take them any day.
CONAN: So have you stopped dying?
BEN: Well, I stopped dying, yes, starting living and stopped dying.
CONAN: Thanks very much for the call, Ben.
BEN: You're welcome. Good show today.
CONAN: Thank you very much. As you look forward, now you have some opportunities. You're going to get all kinds of offers.
RETTA: That's the hopes.
RETTA: I'm not - you know, I'm not the ingénue, so I don't have the myriad of options that one does, but the hopes is now that some people have an idea of who I am and what I am capable of, that I'll start getting broader roles, you know, more options.
CONAN: Well, let's bring another voice into the conversation, Raymond Wong, an actor and author based in Hollywood. He's had roles in "Sex and the City" and "Roommates," as well as commercials and onstage. He joins us from the studios at NPR West in Culver City, California. Good of you to join us today.
RAYMOND WONG: Well, good to be here.
CONAN: And you wrote on an actor's blog your Asian-ness(ph) has both helped and hindered you in your acting career. What did you mean by that?
WONG: Well, a friend of mine, who is an actress, has always said that being typecast is not a bad thing, actually, because it helps you to get roles. But for me, as like, being an Asian actor, especially, I came from Pennsylvania, so it's a small market. So whenever they wanted an Asian actor, I was the one they called, you know, pretty much.
And there are times - there are times when I say - you know, they would want somebody who was older, like 45 years old, and when I started I was 20-something, and they'd say well, we can't really find Asians. So, you know, you are it, you know. And they will like make me up to make me look older and all that stuff.
But so that helped when I was, you know, when I was one of the few Asians. But the problem is that when - these roles are very far and in between. So when they cast something else, they never think of Asian actors to fill those roles. So I never called for any of it, or the other stuff that - when they don't specifically say Asian.
CONAN: And you also wrote that now that you're in Los Angeles and Hollywood, when they call for an Asian, hordes show up.
WONG: Oh absolutely, absolutely. I was auditioning for a commercial, and they specifically asked for Chinese actors who are in the age range that I am. So I thought oh, OK, so that can't be too bad. You know, how many Chinese, you know, actors, you know, with my age range are there? And I went there, and there were hundreds of Asian actors, you know, from Korean to Japanese to Vietnamese, you know, everywhere.
You know, it's like they don't really care, you know, what the slide said or what the casting sheet says, and they just say well, if it's Chinese, then any Asian can play it, so...
CONAN: It's sort of interesting, I happen to have been in a Los Angeles casting studio a few weeks ago, and there in the waiting room were a bunch of heavyset 50-ish guys with balding hair, all of whom looked almost exactly alike and all of whom knew each other.
WONG: Yeah, absolutely, yeah. They always - they all go for the same role because they are typecast pretty much, you know? And yeah, it's a phenomenon.
RETTA: You tend to get really familiar with your peers in your type group because you see them over and over and over again. So you'll see me with the same girls having brunch because those are the girls I see all the time.
CONAN: It's interesting, Ray Wong, you - well, let's listen to a - this is a little bit of a commercial that you did appear in for General Electric.
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UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Countries like China love GE's state-of-the-art aircraft engines almost as much as our employees in Cincinnati love making them. GE, imagination at work.
CONAN: What were you doing in that commercial?
WONG: I was, well surprise, surprise, I was a Chinese engineer in China. So they were trying to market their engine, airline engine, to China. So, you know, they basically - you know, well again, you know, it's like Chinese engineers. So that's how I got the job.
CONAN: Well, it's Chinese engineers, that's at least a change in stereotype from 30, 40 years ago.
WONG: Oh absolutely. So now I'm not playing gangsters or, you know, any of those, you know, or Chinese laundry, you know, owners. But, you know, at least I go up a level now. I'm an engineer. I'm an intellectual. So that's actually pretty good.
CONAN: Actors, we want to hear from you today. What roles do you get picked for? Which do you turn down? 800-989-8255. Email us, email@example.com. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
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CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan. Kathryn Bigelow's Oscar-winning film "Zero Dark Thirty" centered around the hunt for Osama bin Laden.
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UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (As character) Quite frankly, I didn't even want to use you guys, with your dip and your Velcro and all your gear. I wanted to drop a bomb. But people didn't believe in this (unintelligible) enough to drop a bomb. So they're using you guys as canaries, and (unintelligible) if bin Laden isn't there, you can sneak away, and no one will be the wiser. But bin Laden is there, and you're going to kill him for me.
CONAN: The actor who played bin Laden, Ricky Sekhon, only appeared in the movie briefly. He joins us in a moment. In January, he wrote about his time playing bin Laden in a New York Times op-ed. He - quote, the makeup and fake blood are gone, and my career has been picking up somewhat, but would I be prepared to play a universally despised emblem of evil again? I guess I would, depending on how many lines I had.
Actors, what are the jobs you win, what are the roles you decline for fear of playing a stereotype? 800-989-8255. Email firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.
Our guests are comedian Retta, who plays Donna on NBC's "Parks and Rec"; and actor Raymond Wong. Joining us now is Ricky Sekhon, the British actor best known for his role as Osama bin Laden in "Zero Dark Thirty." He joins us from the BBC studios in London. Welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.
RICKY SEKHON: Hi, hi again, thanks for having me.
CONAN: Thanks very much for being with us today. And I wonder: How did you find out you'd been cast for this villainous part?
SEKHON: I got a call from the casting agent in London. She said they - well, I didn't know what role it was until she gave me that call, and she said this is the movie, this is the role, do you want to do it? And I was like yeah, sure.
CONAN: Sure, no problem playing Osama bin Laden.
CONAN: Though you had to lose 25 pounds.
SEKHON: I didn't have to, but I'm a pretty big guy. Appearance-wise, I'm a big, like, hairy, scary-looking guy, as wide as a house. And obviously all the photos I've seen of Osama are pretty wiry, pretty, like, rakey(ph). So I thought it would be best, if I was to be convincing, to try and get in shape and look as ill as possible, I guess.
CONAN: Yet in the movie most of you that we see is your nose as they're zipping up the body bag.
SEKHON: I know, I know, unfortunate that, but hey-ho, as is life.
CONAN: At least you got into shape.
SEKHON: Yeah, exactly.
CONAN: So that was a benefit to it. Did you have any qualms at all about, well, now you're going to be typecast as a Middle East terrorist?
SEKHON: Not really. I don't really see it that way, to be honest. I mean, I have - if you, you know, if you just go on appearances, I have a little bit of a terrorist-y look about me. There's no getting away from the fact. So if you're going to - if you've got a part, and it's of a terrorist or a baddie or someone who you think I look like, then yeah, you know, give me a call. It's not a problem.
JONES: I'm not at a point in my career where I can - you know, where I have the luxury of choosing to turn down roles or not go up for roles. So at the moment - I mean it's like any career. You try and work your way up to a point where maybe you can have more control and more choice in what you do. Do you know what I mean?
CONAN: Yeah, Retta, we mentioned you're obviously doing - getting more prominence on "Parks and Rec." Do you still face that same situation?
RETTA: No because I actually don't audition that much. There's - I don't have an agent, believe it or not. I don't have an agent, and it's hard to get an agent when you're on a show because they feel they can't really make money off of you certain months of the year. So I don't get a whole - a lot of opportunities to audition at all. And the things that I do get are usually, like I said, from friends working on projects.
CONAN: And I wondered, Raymond Wong, as you go up - it was interesting in that piece you wrote that it's the commercials that seem to have a lot more parts for Asians than, well, regular TV or film work.
WONG: Yes, actually, in commercials it seems like they - because they want to attract a lot of different demographics, like Asian people happens to have a lot of income. You know, they want to buy things. So they try and target more of the Asians' market. So they cast more Asians in roles in commercials. So you see actually more Asians in commercials than on TV and movies, believe it or not.
CONAN: Let's see if we can get another caller in on the conversation. Let's go to Eric(ph), Eric's on the line with us from Culver City.
ERIC: Hey, how are you doing?
CONAN: Very well, thanks.
ERIC: Well I'm actually a director, and I have the utmost respect for actors and love them - that's the joy of being a director is working with the actors. But what's amazing sometimes is almost the other side of the pendulum, where actors can sometimes totally miss how they want to be typecast, whether it's someone who - you know, typically it would be your typical idea of it would be a woman that comes in for a much younger role, thinking that that is totally, you know, her place, that that's a role she can get.
Or especially we cast for a very natural - an older, an older female lead that was very natural beauty, and someone coming in with a ton of plastic surgery. And, you know, it's somewhat - it's very odd. They don't see that in themselves, you know.
CONAN: There are different roles that you cast differently. There are roles that you cast just from pictures, I assume, and then there are others where you say gee, I need this certain kind of type, get me, well, a Meg Ryan type - I'm just making up a name here - and there are other people, you say I want this specific actor or actress.
ERIC: Certainly, certainly, and I mean more of the if somebody comes in and they - you know, they're - it's a cold call of some sort, and it's for a - someone that's 18, high school football player, jock type, but the guy is 35, and he's wearing a letter jacket. And, you know, it's sometimes you want to say what - aren't you - did you wake up and, like, look in the mirror and see somebody completely different? I'm really sort of shocked.
I mean, you can't. You want to be polite and say well, thank you, you know, but you want - that doesn't help them necessarily, either, to just let it go and say oh thanks for coming in, you know.
CONAN: Well, thanks very much for the phone call. We appreciate it.
ERIC: All right, take care.
CONAN: The director's point of view. Let's see if we can go next to - this is Tony(ph), and Tony's on the line with us from Richmond.
TOM: Actually it's Tom(ph).
CONAN: Oh Tom, excuse me.
TOM: No problem. It's Tom Belgrey, and I'm strangely enough back in the acting game after 12 years away, after I moved here from L.A. to raise kids. And I keep getting cast now - before I was having fights over getting, like, cast in silly stuff on like the Playboy Channel. I was doing "Star Trek" and things like that.
I'm in Steven Spielberg's "Lincoln" right now. I play the Connecticut senator who's - congressman who spits when he votes. That's the kind of parts I've been getting lately is period pieces and mostly villainous types.
CONAN: Villainous types?
CONAN: You're the Connecticut congressman who opposes the anti - the 14th Amendment.
TOM: Oh, I oppose the 14th Amendment, women voting and a bunch of other things. I seem to spend an awful lot - well, what Tony Kushner said was he wanted to see me showing rage. I was a dark undercurrent for what the - Lee Pace and Peter - the other two actors who were playing the main roles in the scene were actually expressing.
CONAN: And it's interesting, do you - it was historically inaccurate. All the representatives from Connecticut actually voted in favor of the 14th Amendment. But in terms of your part, now do you find yourself coming up with a lot of roles like that, and does it bother you?
TOM: Well, I just auditioned for "Killing Kennedy," which is - I was in "Killing Lincoln," which was Bill O'Reilly's book, and they've been shooting those here in Richmond. For some reason they're shooting a lot of stuff here and around Richmond lately. And yeah, the guy I auditioned - well, one of the guys I auditioned for was another creepy bad guy.
And no, it doesn't bother me because when I play a character, I kind of lose myself in the character. I do the research and find out who this person is and what their motivations are. So it's not me. And hopefully the people who know me know that.
CONAN: Ricky Sekhon, you played Osama bin Laden. I think you wrote that if a role came up for a serial killer, you'd like to do that, too.
SEKHON: I'm not sure I wrote that, but like I said, even if you do play stereotypes, as an actor you're not going to play every single part the same. You know, if you're playing - if I'm playing one terrorist in one film, and I'm playing another in another movie, you're going to be working with a different writer, a different director, a whole different bunch of actors.
You're going to be bringing something new to the part. So even if it is the same type of character, if you're a - you know, if you're a clever enough actor, you can bring something completely new to it, right, which makes it different, which makes it your own again and can...
CONAN: And a lot of people say the bad-guy parts, they get the best lines.
SEKHON: Yeah, yeah, it's - you know, they are definitely the more fun ones to play because you can just go nuts with it. You can go crazy.
SEKHON: You know what I mean?
CONAN: Tom, thanks very much for the call, continued good luck.
TOM: Thank you.
CONAN: Let's see if we can go next to - this is Betty(ph), and Betty's on the line with us from Nashville.
NETTIE: Hi, it's Nettie(ph), actually.
CONAN: Oh I'm getting them wrong one after another.
NETTIE: No, that's OK, that's OK. I actually have kind of a different issue with type as an actor is that I'm kind of hard to type. I look like, oh gosh, Shelly Duvall.
So when I was younger, because I was in better shape - or not better shape, I just was younger - I was getting a lot of parts for prostitutes, which is disheartening that - to be viewed that way. So I turned down a couple of parts because I did not want to show that to my foster parents and my stepson.
And now that I'm older, I'm getting the kind of quirky sidekick and mom parts, and they're fun except the stereotype there is in the South. All the suburban mommies apparently have really big hair, which, when I look around, I don't see that.
So I feel like sometimes there's a lag in the business between what is actually real and what this - just the perceptions are as far as people. And it's hard when you don't have a type because casting directors want to work with me, but they don't always know where to put me because I have a unique type.
CONAN: Retta, it seems to me she's talking about you too.
RETTA: What? Getting...
CONAN: Well, not having a type, that - you - you're not typical of, well, anything except Retta.
RETTA: This is true, Neal.
CONAN: Well, you have an agent now. I might need work.
RETTA: Yeah. And honestly, sometimes I don't know myself. Sometimes you just have to read a role and decide, all right, I don't necessarily feel that I'm this person, but we're - none of us are really that person. You have to make the person your own.
So you have to decide whether you want to work in these parameters, you know, if you're OK with the dialogue, because there were things that I would go in for, and I thought they were too dirty, like I just - I wasn't a mature actor, and I don't think I could have handled it.
And I - and so there was a point where I would turn down auditions. I wasn't turning down actual offers, but auditions because I just didn't think I could give it - do it justice because I wasn't comfortable with the material. And every once in a while you run into that, and if you're OK with that, then that's fine. It's something you choose.
I'm not even going to try for this because I know I won't do it justice, and not that I wouldn't watch a movie that had - you know, that's dirty or whatever. I just don't feel comfortable, and if I don't feel comfortable in it, I'm not going to do it justice at all.
CONAN: Mm-hmm. Raymond Wong, you wrote about one point in your career where you needed to go back and brush up your acting chops so you can handle bigger roles.
WONG: Yes, absolutely. When - you know, every actors come from somewhere, and, you know, I just didn't feel like my acting ability was up to par, and I just had to go back. And, you know, and also I wanted to expand my range, you know?
I was auditioning for a role that called for some kind of a L.A. hip guy, you know, and called for nudity, and, like Retta said, I wasn't comfortable with that type of role. But at the same time, I feel like, you know, I'm an actor. I should be able to do it, you know? And that's how it is, you know?
CONAN: Well, Nettie, thanks very much for the call and continued good luck.
NETTIE: Thank you.
CONAN: We're talking with actors about, well, auditions and stereotypes. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
And let me reintroduce our guests. Retta, the actress and stand-up comedian based in Hollywood, plays Donna Meagle on NBC's "Parks and Recreation." Raymond Wong is with us, a Hollywood actor featured in "Sex and the City," commercials and stage performances of "South Pacific," a blogger and author of the 2001 book "The Pacific Between." And also with us, Ricky Sekhon, best known for playing Osama bin Laden in Kathryn Bigelow's "Zero Dark Thirty." He's with us from the BBC studios in London.
And let's see if we can go next to Candy, and Candy's on the line with us from Denver.
CANDY: Hi. Thanks for taking my call.
CANDY: Yeah. I - I'm an older actor. I went out to Los Angeles from New York in the late '70s. And I'm darker skinned, and I had a short afro, and at that time, it was just getting away from all the black people had to be very light skinned. So I was - you know, I did a lot of work.
Then it sort - then I kind of shifted into the prostitute. Now we're in the early '80s, and they're all prostitutes. And then after a while, I told my agent, I'm not going up for that anymore. And then that sort of shifted, and then it became all the schoolteachers, psychologists, psychiatrists and, you know, just all the educated, well-spoken people, and I started getting tired of that. And then I finally got a really great role as a drug addict on "NYPD Blue."
CONAN: Drug addict. That was a great role? I think we lost the phone call from Candy. Is that a progression, Retta, you could see yourself making?
RETTA: To a drug addict? I don't know. Maybe. But it's true what she was saying. There are phases of it. If you noticed, there was a period in commercials where redheads were huge. There was - it was like every other commercial there was a redhead, and I had two friends who worked like crazy in commercials about two or three years ago.
I see - you see trends in black people too. And there was a trend for a while, all the black girls, pretty much all the black girls in commercial were - had curly hair. We - I call it the black girl curly hair era. So every time a commercial come - would come on...
CONAN: Not quite the Jheri curl era. That would have been something different.
RETTA: Yeah. Not Jheri curl, but curly like that natural - the girls who have naturally curly hair and sometimes like even a little wild, crazy curly hair. And so I never went out, and they always had these, you know, quirky little girls with curly hair. And I told my friend, my friend Kim. She has naturally curly hair, and I was like, you need to be auditioning. You need to make sure you have a commercial agent right now because this is your time.
CONAN: This is your moment.
RETTA: And now it's not as much. But it - I - this - as Candy was saying, it's true. Now you see there are a lot of black women judges on TV. There's a - that's the new phase, I feel like.
CONAN: Another thing that can make it your moment, Ricky Sekhon, is appearing in a hit movie like "Zero Dark Thirty." Are you getting more offers?
SEKHON: Yeah. I'm getting work at the moment. I'm keeping busy. I'm not sure if that's because of the movie or not. It could well be. I just think it's about basically being, I don't know, more available and people know more about you. It helps in this industry, do you what I mean? I think Retta hit the nail on the head when she said they're going to call us - well, if you can't see yourself playing that part and finding the honesty in that part, then you're not going to go up for it, and I'm the same. I won't go up for a part even if it looks like, on appearance is it looks like me. If I don't think I know enough about my part and I can't find honesty in it then I'm not going to be good at it. Do you know what I mean?
SEKHON: Similarly, you won't find me being cast on like 90210, it's like Beverly Hills guy because I'm not that guy and it would be very, very difficult for me to try and pull that off honestly.
CONAN: Might need a work on the accent a little bit.
SEKHON: Not many - yeah. Yeah. That's - work on the accent. Similarly the filmmakers of "Zero Dark Thirty" would've had a few problems if they try and cast Osama as a white actor, you know?
SEKHON: How is that been - how would the people look at that? You know, they would have to, what, black him up with an old beard and then that would've been like, oh, why are they blacking this white guy up to look like Osama? Is this some sort of metaphor? Are they trying to like say that Osama was some white guy? I don't know. It's like it's about interpretation. About literal interpretation in film.
CONAN: Thank you all very much for your time. We appreciate it. This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.