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DAVID BIANCULLI, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli of tvworthwatching.com, in for Terry Gross, who's still a bit under the weather.

Today's first guest, actor Stanley Tucci, delivers a bone-chilling performance as a man suspected of raping and killing a young girl in the new movie "The Lovely Bones." When he's questioned by police, what's most frightening is his calmness.

(Soundbite of movie, "The Lovely Bones")

Mr. STANLEY TUCCI (Actor): (As George Harvey) I think when something like this happens, you always blame yourself. All I can think about now is why didn't I see something or why didn't I hear something? Because surely, that young girl must have screamed.

BIANCULLI: Stanley Tucci has been described by one critic as an actor with ordinary looks and extraordinary range. On television, he played journalist Walter Winchell and Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann, and on film, his roles stretch from a pragmatic Italian chef in "Big Night" -which he also wrote and directed - to the Shakespearean fairy Puck in a movie version of "A Midsummer Night's Dream." He's appeared twice opposite Meryl Streep, in "The Devil Wears Prada" and the more recent "Julie & Julia."

Tucci's role as a child molester and murderer in "The Lovely Bones" is one of the darkest of his career. Based on a novel by Alice Sebold, it centers on the murder of an adolescent girl by a man in her neighborhood. The story is seen through the eyes of the victim in heaven, as she watches her family cope with the tragedy and the police struggling to find her killer.

Tucci recently spoke to FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies.

DAVE DAVIES, host:

Stanley Tucci, welcome to FRESH AIR. You have two daughters, I know. Did you have any hesitation about taking this role?

Mr. TUCCI: Actually, I have three children. And yes, two of them are daughters, and yes, I was very hesitant to take this role - not only because of them, but just because I don't - I'm never - I don't care to watch movies or read books or see documentaries about serial killers or child molesters or people who are both. I don't - there's too much of it around. I think America's kind of obsessed with it.

So it's not interesting to me, and I find it repellant. Not that we should pretend these people don't exist, but if you looked at the media, you'd swear that there's a serial killer lurking around every corner.

DAVIES: And so what made you - what convinced you to overcome that and take this role?

Mr. TUCCI: Well, I thought that the story was a beautiful story. And as an actor, sometimes you take things for the role, and sometimes you take them to be involved in the thing as a whole. This was the latter, but I also did see the role as a real challenge to me as an actor. And what was most important to me, and this is what Pete agreed to, is that there would be nothing gratuitous in this film...

DAVIES: That's Peter Jackson, the director.

Mr. TUCCI: Peter Jackson, I'm sorry, yes - that there would be nothing gratuitous in the film as far as violence or sex went, and he stuck to that. They wanted a specific rating, which helped us achieve that. But there's never really any need to show the kind of stuff that happens in a movie like this. In fact, I think it's much more interesting for the audience to have to imagine it themselves. It's almost - it's more horrible.

DAVIES: Yeah. And indeed, the chilling scenes really involve you and this young actress, Saoirse Ronan. And I thought we would listen to a clip from the film. And this is at an important moment, where your character, George Harvey, has lured this young 14-year-old girl into sort of an underground dugout, and she's beginning to get uncomfortable.

(Soundbite of movie, "The Lovely Bones")

Mr. TUCCI: (As Harvey) Are you warm? Hmm? You can take your coat off, if you want.

(Soundbite of music)

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. TUCCI: (As Harvey) You look very pretty, Susie.

Ms. SAOIRSE RONAN (Actor): (As Susie Salmon) Thanks.

Mr. TUCCI: (As Harvey) Do you have a boyfriend? Hmm? No? I knew it. See, I knew you weren't like those other girls. I knew that.

Ms. RONAN: (As Susie) Mr. Harvey?

Mr. TUCCI: (As Harvey) Mm-hmm. It's nice down here, isn't it? Special? Special down here, right?

Ms. RONAN: (As Susie) Yes. It is. It's very special.

Mr. TUCCI: (As Harvey) Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm.

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. RONAN: (As Susie) I have to go.

Mr. TUCCI: (As Harvey) I don't want you to leave. I'm not going to hurt you, Susie.

DAVIES: Now, that's our guest Stanley Tucci in the film "Lovely Bones," playing there with Saoirse Ronan. Boy, that's difficult stuff to listen to, even just the audio. Tell us about...

Mr. TUCCI: Imagine how I feel.

DAVIES: Yeah, yeah.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. TUCCI: Uck.

(Soundbite of laughter)

DAVIES: Well, yeah, it had to be hard. Tell us, first of all, what kind of research you did to get into the role.

Mr. TUCCI: Well, the research was - you know, the research was very unnerving, to say the least. You know, once I decided to do the role, I knew I had to sort of dive into it. But you can only dive into something - you can't really dive into it. You just sort of wade into doing the research for a role like this, because these people are so repellant.

I could only focus on either watching a film or, you know, a documentary or reading accounts or looking at photos or reading the books by John Douglas, who's the, you know, number one FBI profiler of these guys. And I could spend about an hour to an hour and a half a day. That was the most I could do.

So luckily, I had some time to prepare for it before we started shooting, so I could build up to it. But one of the key things for me was the externals of the character - in other words, finding the proper look for him. And sometimes it helps to work, you know, in essence, from the outside in. And what you do is you're putting on a mask for - you know, to use a hackneyed expression. But that mask helps you sort of free yourself emotionally, because when you look in the mirror, it's not you. It's somebody else.

DAVIES: When I looked at the film, I thought, you know, I'm not sure that's Stanley Tucci, and my wife had the same reaction. We watched it together. Talk a little bit about what you did to physically transform your appearance.

Mr. TUCCI: I felt that we needed to find what this guy looked like -what this person - who this person was in 1973 in sort of middle America. You know, it takes place outside of - in the suburbs of Philadelphia, let's say. And we had to find what that person was. That person had to be a very nondescript person, an innocuous-looking person, an everyman. And he wouldn't look like me. He wouldn't be as dark as I am. He wouldn't have dark eyes. He wouldn't - he needed to blend in. And what we ended up creating was this fellow with sort of sandy hair and beige clothes and a moustache and glasses, and I added teeth just to change the shape of my mouth a little bit - even though you don't ever actually see the teeth, but they also helped me change the way I talked. And I wanted to talk in that slight sort of Pennsylvania-Philly accent where you have soft W's or baby-talk R's and L's, and add a little paunch and change this color of my skin a little bit.

In fact, there are shots of me at the beginning of the film, in this mall, and you'd - even I didn't see me there, which - you know, in a crowd. And then I knew that we had achieved our goal.

DAVIES: You know, the other interesting thing that occurred to me is that you're doing this really intense scene with a 15-year-old actress. Saoirse...

Mr. TUCCI: She was 13 at the time.

DAVIES: Thirteen, okay, Saoirse Ronan. Talk a little bit about how you worked with her. Did - you know, and built the kind of - I don't know -trust and rapport that you needed to do this.

Mr. TUCCI: Well, Saoirse is a very mature 13-year-old, now - and a very mature 15-year-old, mature as an actress but mature as a person, too. She has a worldliness and a wisdom that I've never seen before in anybody that age and a very wonderful, sophisticated, ironic, caustic sense of humor, which was the saving grace for all of us.

Saoirse was the one who made us feel comfortable about the movie that we were making. I looked to her, maybe, for security, in a way. If I knew she was okay, then everything was okay. And sometimes after the - you know, after takes, I'd say are you all right? Is everything - did I hurt you? Did that happen - did you hurt your leg when you were on the ladder? Did you - and then sometimes, I would just say are you okay, meaning just emotionally.

And she always said I'm fine. You know, she's this little, skinny Irish girl. She'd say: I'm fine, Stanley. Don't worry about it. I'm all right. I'm all right. You know, and then in the makeup trailer, it was lots of jokes about murder and lots of jokes about whatever, because you have to do it to sort of keep yourself sane.

I remember her coming up to me in the makeup trailer and putting her arm around me and saying: Stanley, you know, if anyone had to kill me, I'm awfully glad that you're my murderer.

(Soundbite of laughter)

DAVIES: Our guest is Stanley Tucci. He stars in the new film "The Lovely Bones." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

DAVIES: If you're just joining us, our guest is actor Stanley Tucci. He stars in the new film "The Lovely Bones."

Well, I wanted to talk about a more - a couple of more recent roles of yours, and one of them being "The Devil Wears Prada," where you play Nigel. He's the art director at Runway, the fashion magazine, working for Miranda Priestly. She's, of course, played by Meryl Streep, this high-powered, egocentric, abusive diva of a magazine publisher. And the story centers around a young woman, Andy, who is played by Anne Hathaway, who comes and is Meryl Streep's new assistant and finds it very difficult.

And she's come to you in this scene and is just so frustrated that she seems to get no credit for how hard she's trying, and you're going to set her straight. And I think I should say, just for context, that although she's a very attractive woman, she is looked down upon by everybody in this world as being a frumpy, unattractive and having no fashion sense - and heavens, she is a size six.

(Soundbite of movie, "The Devil Wears Prada")

Mr. TUCCI: (As Nigel) What is it that you want me to say to you? Huh? Do you want me to say poor you? Miranda's picking on you - poor you, poor Andy. Hmm? Wake up, six. She's just doing her job. Don't you know that you are working at the place that published some of the greatest artists of the century: Halston, Lagerfeld, de la Renta? And what they did, what they created was greater than art because you live your life in it. Well, not you, obviously, but some people.

You think this is just a magazine? Hmm? This is not just a magazine. This is a shining beacon of hope for - oh, I don't know, let's say a young boy growing up in Rhode Island with six brothers pretending to go to soccer practice when he was really going to sewing class and reading Runway under the covers at night with a flashlight.

You have no idea how many legends have walked these halls, and what's worse, you don't care because this place, where so many people would die to work, you only deign to work. And you want to know why she doesn't kiss you on the forehead and give you a gold star on your homework at the end of the day. Wake up, sweetheart.

DAVIES: And that's my guest, Stanley Tucci, playing Nigel the art director in "The Devil Wears Prada." Do you want to talk a little bit about getting into this world of fashion publishing?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. TUCCI: I didn't have any time to get into the world of fashion publishing. I was cast - they were shooting already, and I was cast about three days before I started shooting. So I had to figure out who this guy was very quickly.

Now, luckily, it was beautifully written, as you can tell by that piece. That's a really beautifully written speech. You know, but you also have to remember that Pat Fields, who designed the costumes, was an incredible gift to me, and they were some of the best costume fittings, the most enjoyable costume fittings I have ever had. I think I spent more time in costume fittings than I did in front of the camera.

But they were fascinating. She taught me more about dressing a character from stuff that's pulled from, you know, collections than anybody ever.

DAVIES: So are you not a guy who would have paid enormous attention to what you wear in the past?

Mr. TUCCI: No, I actually am. I actually - that was one of the reasons I was very excited to do the role, because I actually love clothes, and you know, my friends - my friends' wives will often say: Stanley, will you please take him shopping? Please take them shopping. Please take them shopping. I'm a sucker for a nice suit.

DAVIES: So this fit.

Mr. TUCCI: Yes, it fit.

DAVIES: Now after that, you appeared with Meryl Streep again in the film "Julie & Julia," which is this interesting Nora Ephron film in which Meryl Streep plays Julia Child, as she's in France with her husband, Paul Child, kind of learning French cooking and then eventually becoming, you know, the cooking instructor that we all came to know.

Mr. TUCCI: Right.

DAVIES: And then there's this other story of another young woman who, many, many, many years later, is writing a blog about cooking all of her recipes.

But you play Paul, Julia Child's husband, and I thought we'd listen to a bit from that film, where you're with Julia Child, played by Meryl Streep, and you're offering her some comfort after her cookbook - which, of course, would eventually become so important - has actually just been rejected by a publisher.

(Soundbite of movie, "Julie & Julia")

Mr. TUCCI: (As Paul Child) We'll figure it out. You can teach in our kitchen.

Ms. MERYL STREEP (Actor): (As Julia Child) True.

Mr. TUCCI: (As Paul) You can teach on television.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. STREEP: (As Julia) Television? Me?

Mr. TUCCI: (As Paul) Yes.

Ms. STREEP: (As Julia) Oh, Paul.

Mr. TUCCI: (As Paul) Oh no, Julia, I think you would be excellent on television.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. TUCCI: (As Paul) I do.

Ms. STREEP: (As Julia) Paul...

Mr. TUCCI: (As Paul) I do. I'm not kidding you. I'm not. Someone is going to publish your book. Someone is going to read your book and realize what you've done because your book is amazing. Your book is a work of genius. Your book is going to change the world. Do you hear me?

Ms. STREEP: (As Julia) You are so sweet.

DAVIES: And that is Stanley Tucci with Meryl Streep in the film "Julie & Julia," and you're playing Julia Child's husband there. Do you want to say a little bit about this role?

Mr. TUCCI: Oh, my God. It was so much fun. It was - like "The Devil Wears Prada," it was kind of a dream role. There wasn't a tremendous amount on the page, necessarily, but it was the spirit of him and his adoration of her and of a great lifestyle that attracted me to doing the film, and he was a fascinating - I mean, they were a fascinating couple.

I was kind of obsessed with Julia Child - I've been ever since I was a kid. My mom watched Julia Child. She revered Julia Child. I remember watching her show when I was young and almost crying at the end of it because she was so passionate about what she did. She loved what she did so much.

DAVIES: Seriously?

Mr. TUCCI: Yeah. Oh, yeah.

DAVIES: You got wrought up in her making a souffle?

Mr. TUCCI: I wouldn't say wrought up, but I was moved. I was moved at the end of it, and it was only years later, when I thought back on it, I thought why did I feel that way? What made me feel that way? And I realized it was because, like I said, her passion for what she did, her love for what she did was so profound that you hoped to go through your life like that.

DAVIES: Right. Well, I've read that you and Meryl Streep are actually quite good friends...

Mr. TUCCI: Yes.

DAVIES: ...and that you, around the holidays, duel at games of charades. Is that true?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. TUCCI: Yes. Well, we had a friend of ours who used to have a party every year. That person was Natasha Richardson, unfortunately, who was a very good friend of ours, who passed away, as you know. And we used to -she had a wonderful Christmas party every year, and we would play charades. Tash would organize teams of charades, and a lot of times, Tasha and I were the captains or, you know, Meryl would be a captain, and it was great fun.

It was a lot of very famous, very talented actors. And the first time I went there, I was so nervous and embarrassed that I could barely play charades.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. TUCCI: But after a few years, and then once you realize, you know, you have to have a number of martinis to do it, then you're fine. And it was always great, great fun.

DAVIES: Right. And nobody had an understudy for the charades game.

Mr. TUCCI: Nobody had an understudy, no. There were some people who just skipped out, though, after - you know, once the game was about to start. But Meryl, it's very hard to play charades with Meryl because she's just too good.

(Soundbite of laughter)

DAVIES: Our guest is Stanley Tucci. He's had a long, varied career. His latest film is "The Lovely Bones," based on the novel by Alice Sebold.

You know, I want to ask you this - and if this is too personal, feel free to take a pass. But this film, "The Lovely Bones," is, in part, about how randomly cruel life can be. And I know that earlier this year, you lost your wife, Kate, to cancer, and you have these three school-age children. And, you know, you've had such a terrific career in so many ways, you know, film and television and plays and directing and acting. And then, you know, such a life-shattering event occurs, and I'm just -how are you doing?

Mr. TUCCI: Well, alternately good and bad. It's all - you know, it's been a really wonderful year when it comes to career, but certainly, I never would be where I am now without Kate, and I'm sad that I am here now without Kate. She was an extraordinary person. She was the strongest person I've ever met, and she died unnecessarily of cancer.

There were - we found alternative treatments at the end that were helping her, but it was too late. Too much damage was done by conventional treatments. It was not the cancer that killed her. It was the conventional treatments that killed her.

And that's the most frustrating thing. The - having the knowledge that I have now, the understanding of cancer and its treatments and having discovered these alternative treatments is, it's wonderful, it's exciting, I know that I can help other people, but I'm sad that we discovered them literally three months too late.

So, of course, there's all the blaming of yourself, which you can't do, but you kind of do do. And I'm just - I'm mostly sad. I'm sad for Kate that she can't be here, and I'm sad for my children that they didn't have the opportunity to spend more time with her because she was an extraordinary person.

DAVIES: Well, we're sorry for your loss.

Mr. TUCCI: Thank you.

DAVIES: And Stanley Tucci, I want to thank you so much for speaking with us.

Mr. TUCCI: Thank you so much. It's been really a pleasure.

BIANCULLI: Stanley Tucci, speaking to FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies. Stanley's new movie is "The Lovely Bones," based on the novel by Alice Sebold. I'm David Bianculli, and this is FRESH AIR.

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