MICHELE NORRIS, host:
Unless you lived in or around Washington, D.C. in the 1970s, the name Petey Greene probably means about as much to you as it once did to the actor Don Cheadle.
Mr. DON CHEADLE (Actor): I knew nothing about Petey Greene.
NORRIS: Or maybe the name rings a bell, but you can't really place it. That was the case for director Kasi Lemmons.
Ms. KASI LEMMONS (Director, "Talk To Me"): It resonated. It's like, oh, yeah, that guy.
NORRIS: Kasi Lemmons and Don Cheadle stopped by NPR studios recently to chat about "Talk To Me." Kasi Lemmons says that once she started learning about Petey Greene's triumphs and his troubles, capturing his outsized persona became just one part of what she wanted to do with the movie.
Ms. LEMMONS: Well, for me, I was also really attracted to the spontaneous outspokenness, you know, small super of ego, I mean, big ego and id character. But I saw it as a friendship film. I thought of Butch Cassidy in "Sundance." I thought of Bill Cosby and Sidney Poitier. And I was missing of where are the great films about a friendship between two men.
NORRIS: Interesting you mentioned "Uptown Saturday Night" because it's the same period and…
Ms. LEMMONS: Yeah.
NORRIS: …much of the same feel. This is very much a film about expression and about friendship, and in this friendship between Petey Greene and Dewey Hughes, his partner - his business partner and ultimately his friend. They're at war with each other all the time, a lot of conflict, a lot of testosterone in that film. Did it make a difference having a woman on the director's chair in your case?
Ms. LEMMONS: Well, I certainly said it would when I went in for my first meeting, you know, that I'd be better at telling the story.
Mr. CHEADLE: Good answer. Good answer.
Ms. LEMMONS: But after that I never really thought about it again.
Mr. CHEADLE: And that's a hard a question, I think, for Kasi to answer. I mean, you can't be anything other than a woman director. But I remember in one of the scenes that Chiwetel and I were discussing about how we were going to play the scene and…
NORRIS: Chiwetel Ejiofor.
Mr. CHEADLE: Chiwetel Ejiofor who plays Dewey Hughes in the movie, and how we wanted to approach the scene. And Kasi said, I know, you know, I want you guys a little closer, and she goes, you can both be around the pool table, you know, your genitalia are still covered, the table will be right in front of you guys. Don't worry about it, you know.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. CHEADLE: But it was really this funny, you know. A lot of different ways of looking at how these two guys approach this relationship that I thought it may have been different had it been filtered through a male director's perspective.
NORRIS: You know, we actually had Petey Greene as a guest on this program…
Ms. LEMMONS: Wow.
NORRIS: …on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED many, many, many years ago. And before we go on, I would love to play a clip from that interview.
Mr. CHEADLE: I would love that.
(Soundbite of archived interview)
Mr. PETEY GREENE (Host, "Rapping With Petey Greene"): When you go to an employer and they used to tell me, they'll say, well, we would hire you, Petey, but you don't have no skills. I said, man, how do you mean I don't have no skills? When I was supporting this $75-a-day dope habit, I could get on a crowded bus, reaching around two women going to a third woman (unintelligible) and come out with a wallet and wouldn't be seen. What do you mean I ain't got no skills? This must be some kind of thing of dexterity.
Ms. LEMMONS: You should see the smile on your face, right now, Don, as you listen to that.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. CHEADLE: That's the best. I mean, that's exactly what we're talking about. That he would just put it out there and just, you know, say, that define that. Define dexterity.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. CHEADLE: Define skills because I got skills. They not - may not be marketable, but I got skills.
NORRIS: And, Kasi, I understand that you actually tried to help all of your actors get into character by making them individual discs, individual soundtracks. Tell me about that.
Ms. LEMMONS: Well, I - well, because the music obviously is a character in the movie, when the actors came, showed up at their hotel room, I'd have a CD there and a copy of "Wattstax." "Wattstax" was like a crash course, you know, part of the crash course in being an African-American in 1972.
NORRIS: So what was on Don's personal soundtrack?
Mr. CHEADLE: She didn't give me a personal soundtrack. I just got a gift certificate for - at Blockbuster Video.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. CHEADLE: And it's very - I was very disappointed because I didn't feel like I really got the personal touch.
Ms. LEMMONS: That is something really interesting when we were listening - you heard that CD that I made - you said, I realize how cool my parents were.
Mr. CHEADLE: Yeah, you know. And it's another thing about the era, too, that the clothes, I mean, people just walked out of the house like that every day, you know, no special occasion, just rocking the velour vest with, you know, bellbottom suede pants, just going out like that today. That's how it's going down.
And it's just - I miss that style and that fashion, you know. You just - it's just the boldness of it, and like, I'm here, you know, it just looks like I am here. Look at me, and we…
Ms. LEMMONS: I dare you not to look at me now.
Mr. CHEADLE: You have to look at me. I'm in a bright, red vest. What do you not going to see, you know? So it's - that's just a great part of that period, too.
NORRIS: There's a moment in this film, you can almost say it's a hairpin turn, They're in a middle of this argument and Martin Sheen, who plays the owner of the radio station, is walking toward them holding a piece of paper, tears in his eyes, and he tells them that Martin Luther King has died.
(Soundbite of movie "Talk to Me")
Mr. MARTIN SHEEN (Actor) (As E.G. Sonderling): I'm going to need you on the air right away.
Mr. CHEADLE (As Petey Greene): Once again, it's just him. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was shot and killed by an assassin's bullet.
NORRIS: That must have been an incredibly challenging bit of filmmaking for you as a director and for you as an actor to just…
Mr. CHEADLE: That's my favorite part in the film, I think.
Ms. LEMMONS: Yeah, I mean, it's fun, actually, as a director. It's the type of thing…
Ms. LEMMONS: Yes, it's the type of thing you love to do something like that, to turn from comedy to tragedy. And it's also like life. I mean, that's why life happens, if suddenly something can make five seconds before irrelevant. All of a sudden, you're in the here now of what, you know, what just happened, the news that you've just gotten. So I wanted it to feel like that. As a matter of fact, rather than rehearsing anything like that, we just talked about it, how we wanted it to feel. And I told the story about hearing my mother scream, and she kept screaming. And as a little child, what that felt like.
And then I thought she said the king is dead. And I was wondering, what king? You know, do we have a king? I didn't really relate to who he was, but the sound that my mother made that I'd never heard before since, it's like the world must be ending if my mother is screaming, you know, and how bone chilling it was. And we talked a lot about that.
Mr. LEMMONS: Mm-hmm. Yeah. When I showed the film to my family, you know, my parents and my aunts, my uncles. As they were looking at the years go by, they said their shoulders were going up and they were just waiting because they're like, it's about to happen, you know. And they say, we're going to have to dredge all that up again and I'm going to have to feel all that again. And it was very raw for them and very present for them even, you know, 40 years later. It was like right there.
Obviously, as Kasi says, you know, these moments are coming and you want to threat them with the proper amount of respect and gravity that they should have. But it's also - it is a mechanical process. We do those takes 10, 15 times and you got to try and keep it fresh every time you do it and keep it new and keep it real and try to feel those things again, and it's very challenging, you know what I mean?
NORRIS: Don Cheadle and Kasi Lemmons. Thanks so much for coming in and talk to us.
Mr. CHEADLE: Thank you.
Mr. LEMMONS: Thanks for having us.
NORRIS: Kasi Lemmons directed the film "Talk to Me." Don Cheadle plays the man who talks on the radio, disc jockey Petey Greene. You can see clips from "Talk to Me," and hear more audio of the real Petey Greene - that full 1971 interview on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED - and his unique words of wisdom for the 1982 graduating class of a Maryland high school. That's at npr.org.
In the film, music from the era plays an important role. It doesn't just enhance the script, the music and the lyrics and essential to the storytelling. One example from the soundtrack, Les McCann's 1969 hit "Compared to What." A sharp commentary on war, religion and hypocrisy all set to jazz.
(Soundbite of song "Compared to What")
Mr. LES McCANN (Jazz Singer): (Singing) The President, he's got his war. Folks don't know just what it's for. Nobody gives us rhyme or reason. Have one doubt they call it treason. We're chicken feathers, all without one gut. Goddamn it because trying to make it real compared to what? Sock it to me, now.
Church on Sunday, sleep and nod, trying to duck the wrath of God. Preacher's filling us with fright, they all trying to teach us what they think is right. They really got to be some kind of nut. I can't use it trying to make it real compared to what?