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"Any time you're playing someone with a cognitive disability of any kind it's dangerous territory," says Chris O'Dowd, of playing Lennie, in John Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men. Leighton Meester plays the wife of Curley, the son of Lennie's boss. (Polk and Co.)

For Chris O'Dowd, 'Of Mice And Men' Is More Than An American Story

Apr 19, 2014

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George (James Franco, left) and Lennie (Chris O'Dowd) are laborers and unlikely friends in Depression-era California in the new Broadway production of John Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men.

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John Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men — about George and Lennie, two laborers and unlikely friends during the Great Depression — may seem like a quintessentially American story. But Irish actor Chris O'Dowd, who plays Lennie in a new Broadway production the novella, says Steinbeck is "quite oddly" very popular in Ireland.

There's something about Of Mice and Men that appeals to the Irish people, O'Dowd tells NPR's Wade Goodwyn. "All of us have chased the American dream so there's something very universal about it," he says.

The production, which opened Wednesday, was directed by Anna D. Shapiro, and co-stars James Franco as George. O'Dowd talks with NPR about being Lennie — and about how in high school he fell asleep when the film version of Of Mice and Men was shown in class.


Interview Highlights

On signing on for the play

I had been looking for a play to do. I come from a theater background but I hadn't done a show in maybe five years or so. So I was feeling a little rusty and wanted to give it a go. I was familiar with this material, [but] I hadn't read it in a while.

On how he connected to the play

I come from an agricultural background so I feel I've been a laborer. ... I'm used to being around strong men who lift things a lot. Ireland is to a small extent still kind of an outlier ... out in the west coast of Ireland ... it's in a lot of ways a different kind of barren, but similarly barren to California as it would have been in the '30s. So I definitely feel that idea of being removed.

On the challenge of playing Lennie

It is hard of course, any time you're playing someone with a cognitive disability of any kind it's dangerous territory. ... I kind of based it on a guy I knew from London that kind of lived at the end of our road. I'm not 100 percent sure what was wrong with him. ... Steinbeck doesn't at any stage say what exactly is wrong with Lennie so it's very open to interpretation. By all accounts it's specifically about somebody that he knew.

On coming in without expectations

I feel fortunate in that I've never seen ... a production of it. I never saw the film. I think maybe they put it on in school but I fell asleep ... that's more about me as a student rather than the film ... I feel unburdened by any expectations of the play.

On appearing on Broadway

It's an absolute privilege. Every night I feel at various moments terrified that we have to go out and to this again but very confident because I feel the show is in a good place. In that last scene I feel very, very privileged to be able to do it — the writing is so good. Regardless of what we're doing with it — to bring it to people who have maybe never seen it before. I believe that this production will be seen by more people than have ever seen this play and that's absolutely exhilarating.

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Prince. (Courtesy of the artist)

Prince Fans, Prepare For The Deluge

by Michaelangelo Matos
Apr 19, 2014

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George (James Franco, left) and Lennie (Chris O'Dowd) are laborers and unlikely friends in Depression-era California in the new Broadway production of John Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men.

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Prince fans are accustomed to not getting what they want. That's one reason today's news came as a shock — that Prince has re-signed, for the first time in 18 years, with Warner Bros. Records, and that an expanded edition of Purple Rain, in time for its 30th anniversary, as well as a new album and unnamed "other planned projects" to come, are all on the way. Oh — and Prince now owns the master recordings of his iconic '80s recordings, the bone of contention behind his very public, very acrimonious split with the label in the mid-'90s.

Nice as it is to see people let go of long-held grudges, this was actually less surprising than it might have been. Exactly two weeks earlier, a different press release announced that Prince had gained control of his publishing. ("How 'bout them publishing rights? What a laugh," he sang on 1996's "White Mansion." "I don't know Bo but I do know math.") Not only does Prince now administrate his songbook via his own NPG Music Publishing, the latter "is now actively seeking placement for some of Prince's best-loved songs in film, television, video games and the commercial realm."

In short, we are likely in for a blitz. Frankly, it's about time. Prince's music hasn't necessarily gone anywhere, but in an era when even Interpol receives a deluxe, bonus-laden reissue, his are almost the only recordings in their league not to have been given at least a brush-up. And just to be clear about which league that is, for prolificacy, popularity, range, and sustained quality, the only pop catalog to come near Prince's '80s work belongs to the Beatles.

And make no mistake: The catalog can use it. Not because Dirty Mind and 1999 and Purple Rain and Sign 'O' the Times require further validation as masterpieces, but because for many younger listeners, a reissue given the push of a new release is generally the clearest path to attention in an increasingly cluttered and ahistorical array of listening options.

"I've seen a new television pantheon begin to take form: There's what's streaming on Netflix, and then there's everything else," Anne Helen Petersen wrote last year in the Los Angeles Review of Books. Like it or not, something similar applies to old music that hasn't been reintroduced to younger listeners as a kind of public event, however unnecessary it might seem to people who've lived with it their whole lives.

For devoted fans, the question remains, of course, precisely which goodies might be in store. Coexistent with the excitement the announcement has brought is plenty of well-earned skepticism. From the botched release of the 1997 rarities box Crystal Ball to his 2011 declaration that he didn't want other people covering his songs, Prince has more than his share to alienate his fans.

Though he was one of the first major pop stars to grok the Internet's possibilities for musicians, he also employs people to sweep the Web of unauthorized reproductions of both his image and music. Just today, a video featuring the complete first onstage performance of "Purple Rain" was not only pulled from Facebook (fair enough), so were all the posts and attendant comments containing them, a move one user compared to the NSA.

Too bad, because that video — the basis of the album and film version of "Purple Rain," complete with a fan's annotations of where the edits occurred — is a perfect example of why Prince cries out for the deluxe bonus treatment. The video contains an extra verse cut from the song, as well as a longer version of the iconic guitar solo. Exposing these things doesn't obscure the impact of the "Purple Rain" everybody knows; if anything, it's enhanced. We know Prince could write songs and play guitar; we might not know how cannily he could hear, even in his own work, precisely what worked and what didn't. And that's only one example.

There's no guarantee that a deluxe Purple Rain will be anywhere near as complete as the diehards want. (In my case, an ideal Purple Rain box set would include not only lots of live and bonus material, but also the Time's Ice Cream Castles and Sheila E.'s The Glamorous Life, the other two albums Prince wrote and produced in 1984. The former also contains "Jungle Love" and "The Bird," two of the movie's showstoppers.) Make no mistake — Prince owning his master recordings is a major victory.

But ownership of the masters was part — not all — of the issue. Warner Bros. never owned the live recordings and unissued outtakes that fans have traded and hoarded for years — Prince did. (A number were on Crystal Ball.) He also controls the many out-of-print albums that post-date his Warner Bros. years. Parsimony comes with the territory here.

Then again, Prince may well end up doing what David Bowie and Elvis Costello (both of whom have long controlled their complete catalogs) and the Rolling Stones (who control everything from 1971's Sticky Fingers onward) have for years — shop the corpus around for reissue to the label offering the highest bid.

In those acts' case, it's meant a confusing array of reissues and re-reissues, endlessly repackaging of the same albums: with bonus tracks, with a bonus disc, in a Digipack, with a sandwich. It's also meant real money in the artists' pockets, with the promise of more to come as labels wanting a piece of a sure thing are willing to outbid the last one. Or, as the man himself said on the 1988 relase, the 12-inch-only "I Wish U Heaven Pt. 3": "Take this beat, I don't mind/Got plenty others, they so fine."

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Google and other tech companies reported earnings this week, amid fears of another tech bubble bursting. (Getty Images)

Tech Week: Earnings, A Heartbleed Arrest And Digital Distraction

Apr 19, 2014

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There was really only one tech story last week — the potentially disastrous Heartbleed bug. This week, we return to more of a panoply of tech-related news, starting with NPR stories in the ICYMI section, the broader topics in the industry in The Big Conversation and fun links you shouldn't miss in Curiosities.

ICYMI

Digital Distraction Remedies: Is a backlash beginning ... in favor of the physical world? Kids, gamers and restaurant-goers are finding ways to step away from smartphones and reconnect the old-fashioned way. Laura Sydell introduced us to Ingress, a video game that gets people to connect in person. Steve Henn's daughter reminded us that in some cases, parents are too distracted by devices and ignoring their kids. And the service industry says put those phones away and just enjoy breaking bread together, in a piece I reported on Monday.

Big Conversation

Tech Earnings: The tech bubble 2.0 questions keep swirling, and stocks started tumbling even before Google reported its numbers, which were disappointing to Wall Street despite 19 percent revenue growth. Yahoo performed relatively better in the eyes of investors, thanks to its stake in Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba, which is poised for an IPO. More companies will be releasing numbers in the next couple of weeks, so as Time notes, it will all be interesting to watch.

Heartbleed Hacker Charged: It was a vulnerability that someone skilled could exploit, and law enforcement believe they found at least one guy who did. A 19-year-old Canadian student was arrested for allegedly exploiting the Heartbleed vulnerability to steal taxpayer data from as many as 900 Canadians. And researchers say an attacker used the bug to break into a major corporation.

Curiosities

The Verge: The Inventor of Everything

This profile introduces you to Mike Cheiky, a darkside version of Elon Musk. "He is either the world's most unheralded genius, or he's criminally insane," a former colleague says of Cheiky.

Wall Street Journal: Bitcoin Creator Satoshi Nakamoto 'Unmasked'...Again?

It wasn't that long ago that Newsweek caused a tempest over its claim that a man living in LA named S. Nakamoto was the father of the digital currency. He denies it and may sue. Now, a linguistic analysis points the finger at Nick Szabo, "a well known name in cryptography circles," the Journal reports. Szabo has also denied being Nakamoto.

Engadget: 'Wearable eyes' take all the work out of having emotions

A Japanese professor has designed a high-tech version of those novelty spectables with eyes drawn on them. "The digital eyes blink when you nod or shake your head, look up when you tilt your head down and (best of all) it stays open even while you doze off ... ," the tech blog says. They're designed "to make you look friendlier and less socially awkward than you actually are."

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Wal-Mart is promising to drive down the prices of organic food by bringing in a new company, WildOats, to deliver a whole range of additional products. (Wal-Mart/Flickr)

Can Wal-Mart Really Make Organic Food Cheap For Everyone?

Apr 19, 2014

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George (James Franco, left) and Lennie (Chris O'Dowd) are laborers and unlikely friends in Depression-era California in the new Broadway production of John Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men.

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It could be another milestone in organic food's evolution from crunchy to commercial: Wal-Mart, the king of mass retailing, is promising to "drive down organic food prices" with a new line of organic food products. The new products will be at least 25 percent cheaper than organic food that's on Wal-Mart's shelves right now.

Yet we've heard this before. Back in 2006, Wal-Mart made a similar announcement, asking some of its big suppliers to deliver organic versions of popular food items like mac-and-cheese. A Wal-Mart executive said at the time that it hoped these organic products would cost only 10 percent more than the conventional alternative.

Wal-Mart has, in fact, become a big player in organic food, with some remarkable cost-cutting successes. At the new Wal-Mart just a few blocks from NPR's headquarters, I found some organic grape tomatoes on sale for exactly the same price as conventional ones. Organic "spring mix" salad was just 9 percent more expensive than the conventional package.

Outside the fresh produce section, though, organic products were hard to find, and those I did spy were significantly more expensive. Organic diced tomatoes were 44 percent higher. The premium for a half-gallon of organic milk was a whopping 85 percent.

Now Wal-Mart is bringing in a new company, WildOats, to deliver a whole range of additional organic products, from pasta sauce to cookies, and do it more cheaply.

I asked the CEO of WildOats, Tom Casey, how he plans to do it. His answer, in a nutshell: Bigger can be better.

The production and distribution of organic food is still highly fragmented, Casey says. Wal-Mart can change that, delivering organic products in through its "world-class distribution system" and giving manufacturers of, say, pasta sauce a chance to operate on a larger, more efficient scale.

Charles Benbrook, a long-time proponent of organic agriculture who's now with the Center for Sustaining Agriculture and Natural Resources at Washington State University, thinks that this plan is realistic. Most organic producers have to use other companies' processing facilities, which also handle conventional food, Benbrook wrote in an e-mail. "This requires them to shut down, clean out the lines, segregate both incoming and outgoing product, and this all costs money," writes Benbrook.

According to Benbrook, larger production — to supply larger customers — will allow organic food processors to run "100 percent organic all the time" and will cut costs by 20 to 30 percent. This has already happened with packaged salad greens, which is why consumers don't pay very much extra for those organic products.

Benbrook does have one warning: Large scale can't be achieved overnight. It takes at least three years for farmers to get their land certified as organic, for instance. "There will be hell to pay if Wal-Mart turns mostly to imports, and they know it."

If Wal-Mart sticks with this effort and creates an organic supply chain that's as efficient as the conventional one, the company could help answer an unresolved question about organic food: How much of the organic price tag is because of small-scale production, and how much is inherent in the rules that govern organic production, such as the prohibition on synthetic pesticides, and industrial fertilizer?

Benbrook thinks Wal-Mart's experiment will show that organic farmers, if given an honest chance to compete, will out-produce their conventional neighbors, and that organic prices will come down.

Others disagree. Todd J. Kluger, vice president of marketing for Lundberg Family Farms, told Rodale News in an interview that Wal-Mart's goal of producing food 25 percent more cheaply is "fantasy. There isn't much you can do to cut the cost of organic ingredients," Kluger said.

In the same interview, Mark Kastel, an organic activist who co-founded the Cornucopia Institute, suggested that Wal-Mart's cost-cutting drive could undermine the ethical values of organic farming. "One of the reasons people are willing to pay more is that they think they're supporting a different ethic, a different animal husbandry model, and that family farmers are being fairly compensated," Kastel says.

According to Kastel, organic buyers will shy away from the kind of large-scale supply chain that Wal-Mart and WildOats envision. "We want to know where our food comes from, how it's produced, and what the story behind the label is," he told Rodale News.

Tom Casey, CEO of WildOats, says that the company has not yet decided whether it will disclose where it is buying its food. (That's pretty typical for supermarket brands.) "We want to be respectful of our suppliers," he told The Salt.

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A GDI Hyundai Genesis is on display at the New York International Auto Show in New York, USA (DPA /LANDOV)

Episode 533: Why Cars From Europe and the US Just Can't Get Along

Apr 18, 2014

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When a car is sold in the United States, the safety features on that car — the airbags, the bumper — they are built to US safety standards. There is a different set of standards in Europe. To sell a Jeep Wrangler in Europe, Chrysler has to redesign and replace a bunch of seemingly random parts of the car.

The Europeans have the same issue. The new Volkswagen Golf R is driving on the autobahns in Berlin, but not yet in the US. Before the car can come to the US, the German company has to manufacture the car for a completely different set of safety regulations.

Today on the show: why can't you build a car that can be driven anywhere in the world?

Music: Crash Test Dummies's "Mmm Mmm Mmm Mmm." Find us: Twitter/ Facebook/ Spotify/ Tumblr. Download the Planet Money iPhone App.

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