An Interview with Pascal Ulli
With Caroline Ulli
August 2001, Swiss actor/director Pascal Ulli presented the first-ever stage adaptation
of Jim Carroll's The Basketball Diaries at the St. Mark's Theater in New
York City (for details, see my synopsis and review);
he also presented it in Zurich in 1999 to much acclaim. Ulli is well-known in
Switzerland as a cult film star, TV actor, and up-and-coming stage actor and director.
He and his wife Caroline, who handled the sound and lighting for the New York
performance, met with me and journalist Brad Balfour at Paprika restaurant on
St. Mark's Place for an hour-long interview on August 24, 2001.
and Caroline Ulli in front of St. Mark's Theater
--Photo by Cassie Carter
this interview came about seems to me a very New York scenario. While standing
in line outside the St. Mark's Theater to see Jim Carroll's The Basketball
Diaries for the first time on August 23, I met Brad Balfour, a journalist
making the rounds at the Fringe Festival. After the show, we were so engaged in
talking about the play that we barely noticed that the audience had cleared out.
Pascal Ulli emerged from backstage and we talked to him until the entire stage
crew was lined up anxiously along the side of the stage, wondering if they were
ever going to go home. We moved our conversation to a restaurant across the street,
where Pascal, his wife Caroline, Brad, and I talked for another hour or so over
a bottle of wine. In the end, we decided it would be a lot of fun for the four
of us to do a formal interview for CatholicBoy.com.
four of us met on August 24th at Paprika, a restaurant on St. Mark's Place, and
put in more than an hour on this interview. If I was impressed by Pascal Ulli's
performance, I was even more impressed after talking with him with the incredible
sensitivity and intelligence he put into this play. I am equally impressed with
unassuming Caroline Ulli, who looks like a supermodel and who always came to the
rescue when Pascal was at loss for English vocabulary.
interview is transcribed verbatim from a digital recording. In transcribing the
interview, I made every effort to preserve the phrasing to show how each individual
like to thank Brad Balcour for conducting this interview so beautifully, and Pascal
and Caroline Ulli for so generously donating their time. And thanks again to Pascal
for helping me edit the interview and correcting all of the foreign words and
phrases I wasn't able to translate.
Balfour: So you've spent time in the United States. Is that one of the
reasons why you decided to do this? Tell me about how you discovered Jim Carroll.
Pascal Ulli: First of all, what made me put a book into a play, this happened
because I saw an actor in Zurich doing Camus' La Peste [The Plague], and
I was really deeply impressed. Like it's such a great thing that an actor plays
. . . acts out a book in these times when people don't have time to read, and
it's really a great thing when you go home and pick [up] the book again, so I
was looking for a book actually that is close to me, and I thought it has to be
in the first person, like if I want to do it solo, that was my thing, I want to
play a book. But I did not want to act out the characters; a diary would be the
best, I thought. So I was looking around for the perfect book. I did a similar
thing a little bit with a book from Birger Sellin, who is an autistic guy who
started type and wrote a book. This is an amazing book, but it was to heavy to
do this, it didn't work. So I was looking for this book, then I saw a movie, The
Basketball Diaries, right? So I thought the movie was . . . I liked Leonardo
DiCaprio a lot. And then I saw that it was made out of a book, of a diary; that
caught my attention, so I bought the book, and then I fell in love with the book.
And I thought, hey, well the movie itself as a movie is okay, but the book for
me, that's something, that's art, that's really something, and I think that doesn't
come out in the movie, the literature. It's not in the movie--it's a movie, right?
But the book, the language of Jim Carroll, the writing of Jim Carroll that's in
there, so I thought even though there was a movie made out of it, that this was
the perfect book for me. And also because this character Jim Carroll as I read
him there in this book, he had some sort of similarities with me--that he thinks
he's smarter than other people . . . You have to see that it's a really crazy
thing to do to produce, direct, and bring it on stage, and play it and act it
out, and I was producing a TV spot in Zurich for that, and I was opening my mouth
so big in Zurich. And so all these people packed in this house to see . . . well,
yeah, and it worked. I really tried to bring the book [to life] because I knew
the book works, you know? The hard thing was how can I . . . because there are
so many different things in the book that . . . I left out a lot of homosexual
parts of the book; actually there's just one thing in it . . .
Carter: That's pretty much it anyway. There's the first entry, and then
you mention the . . .
Ulli: . . . yeah yeah, "The fag hustling scene gets hairier and
hairier. . . ." I focused on the drug part because . . . This is actually
a story. I used to do drugs, not heroin but other drugs, and I have friends who
died, and I thought reading the book, if these guys had read the book before,
I think it would maybe [have] turned out differently. So I concentrated on the
drug part of the story. Which also in Zurich is a big issue. Like we had it all
over there, our famous Needle Park . . . and so the Swiss government is actually
doing a lot. Like they give heroin away for very heavy addicts so they don't have
to buy it in the streets, the shit, so they give a lot of . . . proper thing that
. . . anticriminalizes it? . . . de-criminalizes it (laughs). So there's
a lot happening. And also the play was finally produced with money from [the]
Anti-Drug League of Switzerland.
How did you get together with them?
Ulli: I called [laughs]. . . and told them what I wanted to do, and
I found a pretty nice littletheater in the middle of our drug district. It's called
Circle Five -- Kreis fünf -- die Langstrasse, the long street, and
I was just playing in that little theater; it had a window where you could see
die Langstrasse with all the junkies and the cops. But also it was very
interesting that in Switzerland a lot of people were very interested in me, not
in the the drug thing, and they couldn't deal with junkies and think, god, it's
ugly and they're scary. I mean they lost that totally, that junkies are scary,
'cause like, hey, they're weak actually. You know, as Jim Carroll says, they're
as vulnerable as the victim, you know? So I think I helped a little bit to open
up to theatrical works that these people are people, human beings.
BB: You were able to relate to this New York experience.
You spent some time in New York.
Ulli: I was here '91-'92, I was in acting school, H-B Studio, Bank
Street. Actually I wanted to go to acting school in Germany, but, well, I did
fifteen of these exams--I came a long way, but they'd say, "Listen, you're
talented, but go try Vienna"; in Vienna they'd say, "Go try Munich."
I came to New York and there they took me, and it was very interesting for me.
I grew up here in New York, finding an apartment, dealing with the phone company,
all that stuff.
BB: It made you more mature.
Ulli: Yeah, sure. Switzerland is a safe place to live, actually. Everything
is neat . . .
BB: So when you read the book, now you read the
book after that time you spent in New York. Did it all come together by you reading
it and having that New York experience?
Ulli: No, actually, reading the book . . . of course it's New York,
that you read about the streets you know or you heard [about] . . . but that's
not the point. The thing is that when you see Needle Park in Zurich, and what
is in the newspapers about junkies today. So this made me really [think] this
is an interesting scene. We live in the year 2001 now, and I did it in '99. Like
'99, and you read the book from '63, not so much [has] changed, like point of
view towards junkies, point of view towards rich people using. I mean in Zurich,
Bahnhofstrasse, all the bankers, they're all on cocaine, like everybody's on cocaine,
and they're pointing their fingers to the junkies. Hey, this is nuts, you know.
Everybody knows, nobody says it, you know? This is Lüge? [asking his wife
Caroline for translation] this lie, this big lie, you know, this is still
the same. So I thought this is very good, actually to bring a play or book onstage,
takes place in '63, and you are in '99, to think, hey, well, not much changed.
Even though we had Daniel Cohn-Bendit in '68 [leader of the 68' student revolution
in Paris] and all that stuff. Hey, doesn't change.
BB: Was it fun for you to go back and explore
a little bit of the 60s through the book?
Ulli: Yeah, I for example learned to know Patti Smith, so yeah, sure,
because I didn't know her before.
BB: Really? So . . . the book really opened your
eyes in that way. So when you read the book, and you were coming from the point
of view of a German speaker learning English, how was it to get the language and
to get a sense of the poetry and the rhythm?
Ulli: This is really a hard part, 'cause like, when this is not your
language, I mean, I'm actually glad that people can understand it [laughs], at
this moment, and they do. I mean, they can follow, right? And I had the choice
to come to New York and show it in German, you know? This doesn't make sense,
so only German-speaking people from New York come to see it. So what else, should
I find another actor? No, it's my work, so, I thought people would understand,
hey, here's this Swiss guy coming here and he does it in English. Well, New York
is a melting pot. I mean, I speak better English than most of the cab drivers,
right? So Jim
Carroll, he's a New Yorker. I'm Swiss, but I'm some sort of become also a New
so international here anyway.
Ulli: Yeah, you see, it's English, it's in English, he wrote it in
English, so I do it in English, and I hope that doesn't bother 'cause I'm not
Jim Carroll, everybody comes in there he knows I'm not Jim Carroll; everybody
knows it's not 1963. I mean, I want the people [to] like the character I present
on stage, even though he is Swiss or whatever. I try to figure out some characteristic
points, like the fun, this really . . . eye twinkling . . . you say that?
. . . part of it, you know? Like I hear Jim Carroll do it on audiotapes, you know,
where you hear his voice and all? But this is, he does this like literature, and
I wanted it to have a human being trying to talk to the audience. It's happening
now, like I talk to my diary. At the beginning, the diary is ontstage, you see
it, I read out of it, and suddenly you all become the diary, and at the end you
go back and the diary becomes a diary again.
CC: It seems like in
one negative review I've read, the reviewer didn't understand how it was put together.
It may be that you have to be pretty close to that book to really understand the
structure of it.
Ulli: No, you don't have to be close to understand the structure, not
at all. I mean, most viewers understood it and also most reviewers (80% of them
wrote great reviews by the way) did [laughs]. This specific reviewer you're talking
about was actually not reviewing the play but tried to tell the world what he
knows about acting, that a monologue on stage has to be done in a certain way,
with certain rules which he obviously knows, but hey . . . in art, especially
on stage, there are no strict rules and for me, my only "rule" was to be as close
as possible to Carroll's text. And well, Jim Carroll writes in his diary and with
his writing he talks to the world, to "wake a lot of dudes of their asses" and
well, that's what I do on stage, I write in a diary and talk to the world, or
better to a very very small part of the world, to the audience who came to see
my show and want to listen to the text of Jim Carroll. And if this specific reviewer
then writes an essay about acting and how one should do a monologue, how talking
to yourself on stage should be done, then I suggest that this reviewer stops writing
and starts acting . . . but well I guess he wanted to be an actor in the first
place and failed, so became a journalist who does theater reviews . . . [laughs].
But to come back
to your question: I don't think you have to be close to the book to understand
the play, the play is even easier to undertsand I think, because I follow in my
adaptation the drug part of Carroll's diary entries and I give the entries which
in the book are put down in a loose structure by time a clear easy understandable
red line (the drug addiction). I think the point whether you can understand the
play or not is wheter you are willing to see a junkie as a human beeing and if
you are willing to listen to a junkie, because in this particular case of Jim
Carroll, the junkie has a lot to tell you and you could learn a lot from him if
you are willing to listen. It really depends. I had people in my show, a 40-year-old
man, tears in his eyes, came and hugged me and was crying like a baby. These are
people who let in their heart the story. And the other people who don't want it,
they, when the third act (not here, in Zurich), when the third act comes, and
he falls down, the big fall, he goes down with heroin, if you don't want to see
this, you just close. . . . You get two possible [reactions]: you leave the theater,
you laugh, or you close, so. Or you let it in, and when you let it in, it's heart.
And not a lot of people are really . . . like hey, you come to the theater, people
maybe they don't know what it's all about, they think Basketball Diaries,
yeah, I heard of it, it's a movie, a cool movie, I wanna go see the play, and
this hits you hard [pounds fist on chest], you know. And so I understand
if people think, look, I don't want to hear this now. Like this is the thing.
When a junkie comes up to you, what do you do, you change the streetcorner [move
to the other side of the street]. And here you're trapped in the theater, you
know, so close.
That's the beauty part of it. You can watch the movie, and you can see
there's this big elaborate setting. That's on a screen. That's Leonardo DiCaprio,
and he's way far away from you. It's very different when you have a real person
there. . . .
Ulli: We have people faint actually
because of the syringe. . . .
Ulli: Yeah, and getting sick. And we also had a lot of ex-junkies [at]
The show. A good friend of ours was [at] the premier in Zurich, and she was grateful
that I was not doing the typical . . . cliche thing . . . that I tried
to be honest, to show the human behind it.
BB: Did you look at other movies with junkies in
them? Have you seen other films or people close to you?
Ulli: No, but as a method actor, I was in the streets of Zurich hanging
out with the junkies. You cannot really have a real conversation because it's
all about getting next dope, and so on. But you get the impression. Being out
on the street--it was February and it gets so cold. I mean you see what's missing,
it's the warmth. I mean, you get the feeling, and basically also what I did with
LSD and all that shit. I mean, it still reminds you of . . .
Tamara . . .
Ulli: Yeah, and Tamara told me, the friend of mine, the junkie, ex-junkie.
She lived in Needle Park in Zurich for like four years. I mean this is deep .
. . this is just the same rule, like I say always, New York nightlife ten years
ago is now what's happening in Zurich.
BB: When you prepared for doing this the first time
in Zurich, you were going to do it in Swiss German . . .
Ulli: No, in High German.
BB: In High German, now is that how the book was
translated when found it?
Ulli: Yes, by Piper Verlag, German translation, also with Leonardo
DiCaprio on the cover.
CC: Oh really, they've got him on the cover there
too? I know there's an earlier translation. There's also a German translation
of Living at the Movies.
Ulli: It came out I think after the movie, but there's a picture of
Jim Carroll in the back. Not like the new American version . . . in the new American
version there's no picture anymore of Jim Carroll. So the German edition is better.
CC: Leonardo DiCaprio sells better.
So obviously because you've been able to read it in both the German and
the English, when you experienced it in the English, did you see things that were
missing in the German, or what did you learn from reading it in the English and
reading it in the German?
Ulli: It's very interesting. It's fun, like German and English work
not bad. Like Shakespeare in German is okay, and Schiller in English is okay;
like Molière in English sucks, and also Molière in German sucks. So English and
German goes not bad together. The problem is all these fucks and shit and in German
this sounds very odd.
BB & CC: That's interesting.
Ulli: A lot of people now in Europe they mix English words with German.
So nowadays it's not a problem to say fuck, Scheisse, shit, fuck, Scheisspolizisten,
Bullen . . . and so they really got the good street slang, German street slang,
who also exists, so the translation is very good. What loses a little bit, of
course, is the poetry part. Like the example with the "solo" [part]:
"and I went solo . . . so low." But there are other parts
that are okay.
CC: Word play and puns. That's always a difficult
thing in translation; that kind of poetry doesn't translate.
Ulli: Also, actually, the English is much shorter. The German show
takes five minutes longer just because the phrases are much longer. But the translation
is great and people were laughing at much the same points of the stories, so you
get the stories.
BB: So when you went from the German to the English,
did you learn some things about the experience that were different for you? Did
it make you think about things differentlyt? Did it give you different images
in your head?
Ulli: Already in preparing the German version I was also working with
the English version. I always had them both. And . . .
CC: Were you working with the Audio Literature tapes
of The Basketball Diaries from the beginning?
Ulli: No, the tapes I ordered when I knew I would come to New York.
So I had Jim Carroll pronouncing all the words in the correct way, you know? That
for me was important. But what I was not trying to do was . . . like I could imitate,
because I'm a great imitator. But why should I do this? 'Cause he's Jim, and I'm
Pascal, and that's the fun of it! Also, I'm getting too old for this. I think
I'm going to do it one or two years more and then I have to stop it.
BB: One of the things you figured out that is difficult
is that you have to show that transition of time, from him being younger and getting
older. How did you work with that?
Ulli: I cut out everything who tells how old he is, 'cause like I'm
not 13 years old. I mean in the [theater] program [booklet] is Kerouac saying
that "Jim Carroll writes better prose at 13 years of age than 89 percent
of the writers working today," so there you know he did this, because this
is fantastic about the book, that he did it so young.
CC: You do have one thing in there that is very powerful.
The part about, "I have to go back to high school . . ."
Ulli: Yeah, sure. These things for American people are, sure. . . it's
not me sitting on the stage saying, well, I'm thirteen now. I cut out these
things. The high school thing is in it, but . . .
CC: It works fine.
Ulli: I think it's okay. I look young, and it's not about the age.
It's not about age; it's a young guy, and I think the way I act it out you get
the impression that he's quite young.
BB: So what other things did you learn or discover
by working on this? Did you go back and read other literature, any other things
Ulli: I got actually into Kerouac, I did a beatnik reading session
in Zurich with Allen Ginsberg texts. And so I just discovered a lot of people
around him. Yeah, my wife showed me Patti Smith.
BB: It's interesting because Johnny Depp as an actor
got really involved with the Beats and did that record on the Beats, and the movie
The Source. So you should probably meet Johnny Depp and speak to him; he
should come and see your performance. I think it's great you're taking someone
who's been a little bit lost for a while to the mainstream and you're putting
him into another context. And I think that's a good thing to do. What would you
say to Jim if you get the chance to meet him? Have you thought about what you
would say to him?
Ulli: No! No,
I think I'm the younger guy, so um . . . I think I'd just listen.
What would you like to ask him?
Ulli: I'd ask him what he thinks about it [the play], and if he'd want
me to it more times or shall I stop it.
BB: You were saying you tried to reach Jim. Tell
us a little about your adventure in trying to get ahold of him.
Ulli: At first I wanted to try to get ahold of the rights, because
it's like . . . Swiss people are correct people and when you do a thing like that
and there's an author, he has to get money out of it, right? So I was trying already
when I was doing it in German to get ahold of the rights. I heard Piper Verlag
told me there's this guy responsible for the rights here in the States, his name
was Mr. Michael Wolfe, I think, Wolfe? So I wrote this guy a letter and never
came nothing back. Then I went to the people and said I just want to do the German
version, and they gave me the rights for the German version. So I did it an paid
ten percent to Piper Verlag in Germany. Then I was invited for New York Fringe
Festival and I knew I wanted to present it in English, so I started to get hold
of the rights. First I talked to a lot of people till I got to William Morris
Agency, which apparently seem to have the rights. So I was talking to people there
and was from one guy to the other guy to the other guy. It was likeTunesia, from
one office to the other office. And finally I had a human being at the other end,
Mr. Mc Chesney, and he was like, "Yeah, yeah, yeah, we find the rights, we've
got the rights. Can you send us something?" So I wrote a whole letter: what
I do, what I plan, blah blah. I faxed that over, then I heard nothing for two
weeks, called again. "Yeah yeah, I'm checking that, I'm checking that. There
should be no problem. You should get the rights. This is no problem. But we don't
know exactly. . . ." Okay, then I call them again. They say, "Yeah,
I'm gonna send you an email in two hours, it's no problem!" So the
email never came, and then I get a little bit uptight, because I have other to
things to do than call the States for rights, you know? So I sat down and on the
Jim Carroll website, CatholicBoy.com,
I got [the address] where you could reach Jim Carroll, 'cause he's not in the
phonebook, and so I sent a letter, uh . . . to you, Cassie [laughs]. And I wrote
on it, this is not a fan letter but a business letter, where I tell Jim actually
what I'm doing, that I'm coming here, if he doesn't want me to come here to play
I won't come, and that of course I want him to get his ten percent if he could
give me his bank account so I can send him money when it's done, when it's a success.
So I wrote that letter to him because the people who were in charge of the rights
were actually not really interested in it . . . too small. This is a problem,
because when you put this book onstage, how I am, like this is a cult classic
book, and if you put this one on Broadway, it's dead. You know, if it's on Broadway
. . . I think it's dead. It should be like in this kind of theater for fifty people.
You know . . . [singing] "Give me the syringe . . ."
Since we haven't met you before or seen you onstage, let's talk a little
about your background . . . get the usual biography out of the way.
Ulli: I was born in Bern, Switzerland, in 1969. I was like four years
old and in the circus I saw like a famous clown called Dimitri, a Swiss clown,
and from that day on I knew I had to be a clown or an actor.
In school I acted, and then after finishing high school--or is that college? Is
that college or high school? We don't know . . .
High school is when you're a teenager.
Ulli: Yeah. So I was going to acting school and I was doing exams,
and I came to New York to do an exam at H-B [Studio] and was [accepted]. I was
there in '91-'92. And I had the decision, should I stay in New York or go back
to Switzerland. I though, I'll go back to Switzerland, which was a good decision.
But I saw off-off Broadway plays and I wanted to do actually off-off Broadway
in Zurich. So I founded a theatre company called Off Off Stage -- Off-Off Bühne
in German-- and we started to work with a play I bought the rights [for],
David Mamet's Sexual Perversity in Chicago. That was a fun story, because
at the moment in Switzerland, Europe, Mamet was unknown, like nobody knew him.
And was producing the play. It took me two years for the first time -- it's
hard to produce the thing -- and got the money. And when the premier, opening
night was coming, a month before it came out, Oleanna
 [was] in all the major theaters in Europe. So all of a sudden he [Mamet]
was like in Vogue, all the double-size pages all about David Mamet, and
we came out a month later with the first play he ever wrote. So this thing was
sold out twenty times, and we were doing also with movie screens -- we got two
screens onstage. And so we were famous with the first play we did. And then so
we got money from the government, from Zurich the city, and when we did our next
play we were invited to a big German festival called Impulse, and in '98 we won
the first prize --
for the first time the prize went not to a German or an Austrian group but to
a Swiss group. We were the Off-Off Bühne who won the prize. At the same
time I was doing a film called Nacht
der Gaukler -- Night of the Tricksters -- and this became a cult movie
in Switzerland. It was done with 100,000 Swiss Francs.
What was the story?
about a civil servant who observes a murder done by the dictator of the country.
He is like a typical civil servant -- he goes to say, "hey, I saw this murder,"
so guy calls the big chief and they put a big box in his apartment, and he goes
there, and actually the big box is his, uh, grave? His sarg?
& CC: Sarcophagus? Coffin?
coffin, the coffin, yeah. It was done in black and white, and it came out at the
Locarno Film Festival.
You played the lead?
played the lead, and this film was big. We won five international prizes at different
festivals, and I was nominated for Best Promising European Actor in Geneva at
the festival "stars of tomorrow" . . . this is the only actors festival in Europe.
Banderas was nominated in the 80s; Franca Potente won two years ago. I was actually
the first Swiss actor to win there. I wasn't only nominated; I won the audience
award. So suddenly
I was in the business in Germany. I was known. And I met famous people! a year
later I was invited as guest of honour at the Geneva film festival and I met Udo
Kier. And then it took a bit but then I did my first major movie in Germany called
Over the Rainbow
and this also for an actor was a heavy experience. There was a famous rock star
. . . actually I play a rock star in that movie . . . and one of the side characters
was done by a real German rock star, Bela B. from the German rock group Die
Ärzte, and he's like a huge star in Germany. So I as this Swiss actor was
the main actor in this film and touring with this super German star.
What was the story in that one?
girls, they bet all the time, and also they do this bet that they come to my apartment
and throw away the key, and the girl who is the longest in the apartment can have
me. And at
the end, I'm dead; they kill me with drugs. It's weird story.
And this didn't get distributed in the States? It sounds like a movie we'd
like over here.
no. But it for me was a big experience to do a major German film playing the main
part. And so now I work for German television also, and in theatre, basicallythis
year I do four plays and four movies.
We were talking earlier about who you look like. You look a little like
early Jack Nicholson.
Ulli: [Does an impression of Jack Nicholson in The
Shining.] It's funny because they compare me all the time with someone. I
know, I've seen Easy Rider. Jack
Nicholson is one of them. But the European press calls me "the Swiss Alain
Delon," and this, because I'm a big Belmondo fan, this gets on my
nerves. But it's not bad to be compared with Alain Delon, I mean it's okay. And
then we did a short movie called Dr. Younamis' Couch
where we were making fun out of it. So I played this actor-psycho
who goes to see a shrink because he thinks he's Alain Delon. So I was watching
all of these Alain Delon movies, and there are angles where you cannot tell --
I mean there were casting agencies from France writing back if I'm nuts to send
a headshot of Alain Delon along with my casting papers. So it's really amazing
sometimes. But I can look like . . I did movies with blonde hair, I looked like
Klaus Kinski. I don't look like myself, and I change a lot, like you saw on the
website. But this compare thing, this is okay; this is what happens to every actor.
I mean, yeah. I'm having a good life in Europe, and, actually, through that movie
where I played the Alain
Delon character, I went to the bookstore to
read books about Alain
Delon, and who do I meet in this bookstore?
My wife! And we fell in love, and we married, and we have this kid now.
BB: [To Caroline] What book were you looking for?
was working there . . .yes, because I was studying . . . I was studying film.
call it day job, right? [laughs]
[To Caroline] So you were a film student at the time, but you're not
I mean we did some things together, but I wasn't in school to study acting.
[To Caroline] You always wanted to be on the other side of the camera.
basically. I mean, I'm quite old to be starting now. . I
was working there . . . yes, because I was studying . . . I was studying film.
I mean, I don't mind.
[To Caroline, with irony] Oh you're so old. You're so old.
I think you have to start quite young, to be good at it. Whatever. I mean, whatever
happens. We'll do something together. But I really love directing. That's what
[To Pascal] Have you thought about directing a film?
Ulli: Yeah, that was my first job as a director, which was easy [with]
me as an actor; it goes together well. But then I directed, together with her,
an old actor, an old Swiss actor, 63 years old. That was very challenging. Yeah,
and I want to continue that. I'm not the kind of actor that does things that people
tell me. Sometimes I meet the person that I want to do a project with and then
I say, okay, it's your movie, I do what you say. But this is rarely. I'm a producer,
actually. What I show to the people, I take responsibility for that. And so when
I'm just acting, sometimes I can't. When I was 20 years old, I was sure I was
just acting, what I could get . . . to learn. Now things changed. I'm responsible
for what I do. So the best thing is that I produce and act.
[To Pascal] Tell us about what feedback you've gotten about the play here
in New York at the Fringe Festival, both good and bad.
Ulli: The thing is, actually, the bad ones you don't get. Like the
people will walk out; they don't talk to you.
I told you a few things honestly.
Ulli: Yeah yeah, sure. There is the question about me with my accent
of a Swiss person, and can I play a New Yorker, and that is also what I asked
myself. But yeah, I answer that question for me, so many people in New York are
talking English, and this is the melting pot, and it happens that maybe my character
was born in Switzerland. I think it's not the important issue in this play. Like,
sure, if it really keeps people away from listening to what I say, then it's bad,
you know? But if people listen to the thing, then it's okay.
The biggest criticism I had was on the pacing. Because maybe the pacing
changes a little when you speak with a German accent. Also the fact that it's
in three acts, and that it gets a little rushed at the end, that maybe you need
to stretch it a little more.
Ulli: Every night is different, and sometimes I stretch it much more;
it depends on how the audience is there. You know, when I feel, okay, now we need
a little bit of tempo [snapping his fingers], because this is life, so I do little
bit of tempo. Like I read a review where they say, well, I couldn't stand the
third act, it really made me puke, I say, maybe we don't do it that hard this
time. You know, it really depends. The night that you were there it was so packed;
there were ten people more than should have been in this theater actually, and
it was hot. So I think it was the right decision to be a little bit faster, because
the people were right there; I don't think I lost the people. But, hey, this is
life, and I'm not perfect, and I really give my best to let you in this character
and so on.
So if you got chance to do it here with a little bit more of an elaborate
environment, how would you change it?
Ulli: I would get a language coach, I think. Because I'm very good
at imitating, and what you see here is the result of two months, and I haven't
spoken English for almost ten years. And I don't think it's bad, to be honest.
And I learned a lot; I improved in these two months, and every night it's better.
If I were really coming here to do it for real, not at the Fringe but as a show,
I think I'm gonna take a language coach where we work on it. But I don't want
to lose the personality that I have, because this happens -- I have the same problem
with German, like I know how to speak properly German so no one can spot me as
a Swiss -- but sometimes you lose a little bit of your personality, and I think
this is also part of this play, is my personality. The thing about this play is
it's my person doing Jim Carroll's book. It's my show, basically . . .
with his text, yeah, but still it's my adaptation.
You've done this play in a couple cities in Germany, and I would think
it would be really appropriate to Berlin because of the Bohemian tradition.
Ulli: Yeah, but German theater is so way out of what we do here, method
acting or what I like to do. Like these people puke on stage, they now are bringing
real Nazis on stage, and they also have the plays where they put real homeless
people on stage throwing tomatoes at the public. So I'm not quite sure they're
. . . uh, you know, Berlin, yeah. It's a big city, my agent lives in Berlin, and
I want to try, if I find the right theater, to do it there, but no, I think Zurich
is much . . . because Zurich is the second most important German language city
at the moment in theater. Much more than Hamburg. Zurich is number two at the
moment; Berlin is number one, and then comes Zurich. Like we have the Schauspielhaus,we
have a very big guy, Marthaler, we have the the Gessnerallee who's the big theater
of the free German speaking theater, we have the the little theaters very known,
Neumarkt, we have a great opera house, one of the world's best opera houses. Zurich
is the place to be in theater. Not in film but in theater.
With regard to theater art, I'd be curious to see what would happen
if you toured this at some of the major festivals, like Edinburgh.
Ulli: No, I think that I want to try for sure . . . it depends a little
bit. I'm a happy working actor, so I have a lot of things to do. Coming to the
festival, like New York was a dream for me to come here, and also I hoped that
. . . [laughing] if Jim Carroll doesn't respond to my letter, then he sees an
ad in the paper and goes, "Who the fuck is doing my [book]?!" and comes
to see it. So I'm here! I'm facing the dragon! So, yeah, Edinburgh is interesting,
but it really depends. Like I have a lot of work and Fringe New York doesn't pay
me -- usually I get paid much better when I play.
What's coming up next?
Ulli: Next I go home and I do a TV series called Mannezimmer.
It's one of the famous sitcoms. I do two episodes where I play a cocaine addict.
And then I do, together with my wife, I direct a play which my wife adapted for
the stage. It's also a book; it's called Views of a Clown by Heinrich Böll,
his great novel of the clown. It's Views of a Clown. This guy has an alcohol
problem . . .
BB: You're covering all the drugs!
Ulli: [Laughs] And also, as I told you, that I wanted to become a clown.
So for that show, I have a real clown number, which I was rehearsing with one
of the great clowns, the founder of the Theater am Geländer from Prague. And we
were there with Maxim (my son) and my wife; we were Tessin and
I got a crash course in pantomime clown. That's the opening of the show, and the
opening night is the 26th of September. Then I've got to do another play called
Factory, which I also co-produce with Off-Off Bühne, Off-Off Stage,
where I play one of the main characters, and where we were improvising over the
internet. This will have opening night the 12th of December. And then I'm gonna
make . . . nothing, I hope. There's a film from France, but not yet signed, so
we don't know, but a lot's coming up.
BB: So are you looking to do some films here in the
BB: Have you talked to anybody?
Ulli: No. You really have to play this, umm . . . My agent in Germany
is one of Horst Buchholz, who is also known in the States, and she's got some
also international books on the table, and we're working at this. I mean I did
up to now, all in all, ten movies, five of them lead characters, so it's coming.
And coming to the States, me with the German accent, I've gotta be the bad guy,
right? And I'm a little bit young.
I want to get a little bit of money out of Germany. Coming to the States is always
fun with money in your pockets; it's not fun to come here and, "hey, can
you . . ." No, but I want to come here and produce. Want to know my big dream?
Be the producer/director and the actor of Mephisto . . . I want to do the movie
Faust. I want to put Goethe on screen, and I want to Direct, produce, and
BB: And you would do it out of Switzerland? Germany?
Ulli: I would produce it in German, of course. German German -- yeah,
the original Goethe. And also I wrote my first play a year ago, and so I'm also
writing . . . but not as good as Jim is. So I'm really just . . . keep on working,
and hope to work with good fellow actors. And also there's something about solo
shows that you really look forward to, to play with colleagues.
Who would you like to meet?
Ulli: Al Pacino, Robert DeNiro, and Johnny Depp.
Are there other people that come out of . . .
Ulli: Oh, yeah. Klaus Maria Brandauer; definitely Klaus Maria Brandauer.
BB: Udo Kier is somebody I'd like to meet.
Ulli: Yeah, I met him. We had a few drinks together. He's a very charming
guy. You know, he's very charming, funny, and he told me a fun story actually.
He was doing
this book for Madonna, Sex? Yeah? They had an appointmentat 2:00. She shows
up at 6:00, four hours late, and he freaks out, like he goes nuts. Like Klaus
Kinski he goes, "Blehhhh, are you fuckin' nuts, who the fuck you think you
are!" It was the first time within years that someone talks in this tone
with Madonna, so she was actually quite fond of him afterwards [laughs]. Because
I think this is good, when you come four hours late, even if you're Madonna or
who the fuck you are, that's good.
Is there anything else I have missed? Cassie, do you have any questions?
Yes, I have a couple of questions. I think the main thing I want to know
is, what is the most challenging thing about adapting The Basketball Diaries
for the stage?
Ulli: The hard thing is to be in public with the audience at the same
time [as] being so private, because you're writing into your diary, alone. To
really not go too far just talking to the audience, so it's not like, ugh, stop
talking to me, but it's still . . . this was very challenging. And also to show
. . . I mean you read about what it is to, like . . . I do the shot, I mainline,
so . . . how does this look like? How do you do it, actually? Just how it is when
you are totally stoned. Just trying to get a feeling, a bit of what this is all
about. And all the way showing that kind of . . . how it is, also but still keep
on talking and bringing over stories and bringing the poetry to the audience [so]
that they get the sense of the book, and always stick to the book. And also do
this one hour, like the whole text, the mass of the text. But that you don't get
the feeling it's just somebody
. . . reciting? Reciting the text. No, but that this is real, that it's
just comes out, one word after the other.
Is it ever hard to decide what action to put at a point in the text? You've
got the text. You've got this very minimal set. Is there ever a time where it's
difficult to choose what the action is going to be that's taking place on the
Ulli: No, I just wanted to have really these passages with no words;
there are some of them, not a lot, but some of them. Like with "Horses,"
the Patti Smith [song] and coming in running [panting] with the hurrying. And
with the broken ankle, this comes out of one of the stories. Actually all that
I do is in the book. It's in there. I mean, all the actions are in the book, basically.
And the big challenge was how do I do it that actually it is a story -- that people
get some sort of a story, you know, what happens.
The narrative. The book is not a linear narrative.
Ulli: No, not at all. I was picking from there, put it up there . .
Making it flow as a narrative.
Ulli: Yeah. What I did was very simple. Like you start out when he's
already taking heroin, but he's cool. This is great, you know. And he reads some
of his first entries and you know what is happening, what the guy is. And then,
yeah, then comes already the fall, and how he gets badder and badder. The really
important thing for the show is that the people love this guy in the first act.
They have to love this guy, or else they cannot stand the third act.
It's challenging. It's hard to do.
It's difficult to show the transition and yet make it all consistent,
and also show that there's something of an evolution in the time period.
Ulli: We did the time period with blackouts, we tried that. It's a
hard thing, and it's solo. The thing is, this piece should give me back my independence.
Because when I do a big movie, I have contracts and I have this and shit and uggh.
And, you know, I cannot do my hair the way I want, and all these things. Or if
I do itwith Off-Off Bühne, where there are thirty people involved, I depend on
the agendas of thirty people. But The Basketball Diaries gave me back my
independence. I can do it almost anywhere. On the stage, what I need is two lights;
a sofa most of the time I find in the streets; a basketball, and that's basically
it. And I just do it. And if ten people show up I can go eat. So this gives me
my independence, and for Jim Carroll I think almost the same: it gave him a lot
of independence, that book.
In our discussion before this interview, Cassie raised something I think
is interesting to talk about here, about how you add real elements here. How you
actually drink the beer, you actually shoot the basketball . . .
Ulli: [Ironically] Even that real pot on the stage . . .
Yeah [laughing], the real pot on the stage. I thought that was interesting
that you added that element. Was that a conscious thing?
Ulli: With the beer, you [Cassie] told me that he doesn't drink beer.
Funny thing is, I hate beer, I never drink beer. But first of all, the beer is
in the book, "the beer drinking scene," and it's also a thing of what
is this drug thing? How does this start? It starts with alcohol. Like you're in
the soccer team; when you play good -- we don't play basketball, we play soccer
-- when we win, what do they do? They invite you for a beer. Your fourteen years
old and you're allowed to drink beer. "Hey, great job, drink a beer."
So this sticks in all the heads, you know? You cannot change. First step, he drinks
a beer. Second step, he smokes pot. Alcohol, pot . . .
Alcohol and cigarettes.
Ulli: Yeah, those are first things. Cigarettes, right.
Yeah, cigarettes are the first drug of addiction. But, yeah, I thought
that was a nice touch that you added in to it. So, Cassie, I wanted to make sure
you got in all the questions you wanted to ask. You said you wanted to see the
process of an interview, so I wanted to get all the things out that I would ask
someone to bring into in an interview, where
you tell a little bit about your background and all.
I would have asked the same things. [Truth: I would not have thought of
the questions so naturally . . . thanks, Brad!] Actually, Pascal, I have one more
question. What would you do if you had more resources in terms of money, time,
How would it look differently, how long would you make it? What are your
thoughts there? Are you writing in notebooks saying, okay, I'm going to do this.
I'm going to have set changes, or I'm gonna have clothing changes, if you get
Ulli: Actually, no. I like it the way it is. Because, you know, the
more I add, the more freedom gets lost. I think this makes it this one guy onstage,
so close. And I don't want to do it for 200 people; 100 is the maximum to get
close, to see me sweating, eh? To see this. It's also very physical thing. I mean,
I lose water, I means tons of. And if you are there, you get that feeling, and
I think this is what it's about when it's onstage. And then you go home and, hopefully,
read the book. But actually I wouldn't change a thing. Yeah, I'd rehearse more
in my English, like when I do it in English. But yeah, maybe the costume is also
the discussion. But I also tried to have a thing . . . like, yeah, I knew, the
school uniform. But then when I use the school uniform, I have to change, and
it makes it so complicated. So I tried to have something that passes almost, and
you think, okay. And I found this myself, my old rag T-shirt, my own jeans, the
shoes I think are okay. That's why I'm presenting it that way; that's how I feel
about the book, about me doing it. That's my way to do it.
Would you like to get ahold of something new of Jim Carroll's, something
he hasn't shown to anybody else and get to read it first? Do you get to see things
before anybody else?
Ulli: No, actually I would love to see him in concert, like onstage.
Yeah, I would love to see him perform, sure. But I would also love for him to
come to Europe, when I do the show in German, so he could do a reading in English.
So this makes sense. I would do it in German, and he gives a concert, then does
a reading, this in Berlin or so. This would be something. You have to know, it's
not so known. Even the movie. The movie was not in the movie theaters. On TV,
yeah, and Leo became famous with Titanic, and they showed this movie. But
this was not like here; I mean, it's not like like, "oh yeah, The Basketball
Diaries, I I know hat." Actually in German, the title is In den Strassen
von New York. "In the streets of New York." Yeah, they changed even
I guess people didn't understand The Basketball Diaries.
Oh there are some . . . unique titles in translation. "Jim on the
basketball court" is one. Titles are very funny. So you're saying that the
Basketball Diaries film was not actually released in theaters?
Ulli: Not in theaters.
Like in Norway they did it with subtitles. I think they actually dubbed
it. There was a Norwegian translation that came out at the same time and it was
a big deal.
Ulli: No, we saw it on TV actually, and people really don't know it
actually. They don't know the book, that this is a book.
Well, he definitely has the cult that goes along with all the other subterranean,
New York, Bohemian, you know, the Beat poetry tradition, which I very much
think it belongs in--in the rock and roll tradition, which it very much belongs
in, and well it should. Because I think the tradition needs to be upheld, and
traditions need to flow. You know, new generations are doing certain things along
that line. I think right now we're in a little bit of a lame period. I mean some
hip hop kinda keeps up --
Ulli: It's some sort of a commercial period. This is a period that
sucks. I mean, music-wise, hey, what the? No, sorry . . .
I think we should line up boy bands against the wall. I think if anything
has brought out my fascism, it's boy bands.
imagine for people like Jim Carroll, or even the Stones -- although they're commercial,
kind of, but still they're artists, you know -- I mean, I don't know what these
people think about these times. I mean it's all about . .. That's one of the reasons
about . . . I mean, I came into drugs because I wanted to be different . . . of
all the normal guys. But then suddenly ecstasy and all that stuff became so much
. . . commercialized? And suddenly you're realizing, I'm the biggest motherfucking
asshole on this planet, being used by these stupid . . . big comapnies.
That they actually think it's great -- hey,
it's great, we feed these guys pills on weekends and during the week they're willing
to type some stupid things in a stupid computer, so the big fucking companies
get bigger. And this [taps
on wine glass] is also actually what made me think this book is also true
now, with this sentence, "Junk is just a nine to five gig in the end,"
and that's what it is.