Edward Asner Interview by Malcolm Hillgartner
MALCOLM HILLGARTNER: Welcome to Downpour.com’s interview series. I’m Malcolm Hillgartner, and today it’s my pleasure to be speaking with Edward Asner and Tavia Gilbert, who are, respectively, the narrator of the introduction and producer/narrator of Let Me Stand Alone by Rachel Corrie. Ed is a seven-time Emmy Award–winning actor, best known for his role as Lou Grant in The Mary Tyler Moore Show and the spin-off series, Lou Grant. He has a career spanning more than fifty years with countless credits, including dozens of television appearances; voice-over work, which includes the award-winning animated film Up; and audiobook narrations. Tavia Gilbert is an AudioFile Earphones and Parents’ Choice Award–winning narrator and recipient of multiple Audie Award nominations. She is also a producer, director, writer, and actor onstage and in film. Blackstone Audio, in partnership with Talkbox, published the audio version of Let Me Stand Alone on May 1, 2013. Welcome Ed and Tavia. Thanks for joining us today.
TAVIA GILBERT: Thank you so much.
EDWARD ASNER: My pleasure.
MH: Let Me Stand Alone is a selection of the activist Rachel Corrie’s journals and letters, chosen by her family, and it tells her story in her own words. Tavia, what motivated you to produce and narrate this audiobook?
TG: Several things, but I think primarily because—and forgive me for calling you out on this—but because I realized people think of Rachel Corrie as “the activist Rachel Corrie.” When I discovered the richness of her writing and the heart and the soul of her writing and her thoughts, her contemplations, I thought, “I don’t believe Rachel ever would have wanted her legacy to be ‘the activist Rachel Corrie’ as much as she would have wanted to be known as ‘the writer Rachel Corrie.’” She and I have many similarities. We grew up in the Pacific Northwest. We are close in age—I’m a couple years older. We grew up in middle-class families. We both grew up I think with an unusual amount of concern for justice, for peace, for other people’s safety and well-being in the world, although Rachel was far braver than me. So when I discovered that her writings had never been put into audio, I felt that I was the right person to do that work, and it became very crucial to me that I do it, despite my fear that I wouldn’t do it justice, or that I would be opening myself to criticism. I’m very, very honored that her family entrusted her words to my voice. It’s an honor to be her voice.
MH: You’re absolutely right. I’ll repeat what is in some of the information about her: She was a twenty-three-year-old American peace activist who died in the Gaza Strip in 2003 protesting the demolition of a Palestinian family’s home. There’s been terrific controversy over the years about her death and I’m sure that part of it is quite well-known, but what were the aspects in terms of the rest of her life—tell us a little about her other writings.
TG: She started writing when she was quite young. When she was maybe about ten years old she started keeping a journal. She was deeply concerned, particularly about children’s safety and very, very troubled to learn at a very young age that not every child across the globe had a sense of safety, comfort, peace, security, as she did. So she wrote about those concerns, about her passion for the environment, about her love for the mountains and the geography of where she grew up. Rachel was hilarious. She was very self-aware and very self-deprecating in a hilarious way. She had me laughing out loud at her self-awareness, of what a quirky, sort of awkward, funny character she was. When she was a teenager she traveled to Russia and had, I suppose, what could be termed a spiritual awakening, again at the amount of peace and safety and affluence and prosperity that she had enjoyed all of her life. Then, like most Americans, things changed for her after September 11. She became much more urgent about being a part of a world community and using her affluence—relative. I don’t believe that her family was particularly affluent, but in proportion to the rest of the globe, my God, we’re all obscenely wealthy. And she understood that, that she was a person of privilege: white skin, middle class, never going hungry a day in her life. She felt deeply obligated and humbled and honored to use her voice to tell the world: “We’re lucky.” “We’re safe.” We live in heaven compared to so many people, and the suffering of the Palestinians on a day-to-day basis became a huge concern of hers. When she went to the Gaza Strip and she saw the reality of the insecurity and the danger in which they lived every day, she couldn’t just stand idly by, or turn away from it. Again, I admire her more than I can put into words because she took action. She used her voice. She stood her ground. She died a horrific and completely unnecessary death, but I just think she was not setting out to be a martyr, but she was setting out to say: “I will not be complicit in this situation. I refuse.”
MH: It sounds to me like you almost feel she’s a kindred spirit. Did you ever meet her?
TG: I didn’t. I’ve met her family through email and through Skype. My parents met her parents when they went to hear her parents speak. But I do feel very much as though I know her intimately after having voiced her journals and having experienced her evolution and progression as a human being and embodying her voice and contemplations from ten years old all the way up until just days before her death. I do feel like she’s a very, very close friend, although that’s not the case. I feel a deep amount of love for her.
MH: Ed, you narrate the introduction, which was written by Rachel’s father. How did you come to be involved in the project, and what was it like reading something that came from such a deep and personal place in the Corrie family?
EA: Rachel was a heroine to me from the get-go. At first, when you look at such an incident you say, “Oh, you foolish girl. You trusted the driver, and you didn’t get out of the way.” But the more I became involved in the story, the more I realized the intensity and the bravery and the wickedness of the incident and how good people commit crimes. The fact that out of this perhaps accident, a great cause for justice and peace was struck. I was fascinated by the story. I was fascinated by the way her father wrote. I was greatly honored to be a part of it. To hear Tavia speak now, what an eloquent voice to take responsibility for this opus.
TG: That’s nice Ed. Thank you.
MH: Her words seem to resonate with people today, and it’s been ten years since she died. Why do you think the stories of her efforts for peace continue to resonate? Are still so impactful?
TG: I think she was, again, not setting out to be a martyr. She was just like any passionate, bright, young woman anyone has ever met. She could have been your daughter, your friend, your son’s first girlfriend. She was somebody that we all know. She was extraordinary. Magnificently bright, very talented, but she wasn’t from a rarified part of the world or out of normal life culture. She lived in Olympia, Washington. She went to college at a college where there were just regular kids around. She was just a regular person. Her parents probably didn’t love the fact that she smoked cigarettes, but I always think, “You know, she was just smoking cigarettes and dancing around her apartment to Pat Benatar and writing this magnificent short story of the first time she fell in love and riding the bus in Olympia to go to work.” She was just a normal person, and at the same time she was an extraordinary soul. So I think her story, her writing, is resonant because she wasn’t on a mission to sacrifice herself for a cause. She was a person who was present, awake, aware, inquisitive, asking why. “Why is this happening and can I bear to just be a part of the way it is; without asking questions, without demanding answers, without saying this is unacceptable? No matter what my respect for the Jewish faith, no matter what my fear is that I’m going to be labeled anti-Semitic, no matter what my fear that I’m going to be in danger, I’m not going to be so afraid that I am unable and unwilling to say this is wrong. People are suffering deeply and unnecessarily and I won’t be complicit.” I think that makes her work resonant today and always.
MH: The circumstance of her death, which was so tragic, has also continued to be controversial. Have you had any sort of feedback as the book’s been released—pro or con—out there from people in the community?
TG: I’ve been very fortunate that the response that I’ve received from people has been overwhelmingly positive. I’m aware that by putting myself in alignment with the Corrie family and the controversy of Rachel’s story I may be opening myself to criticism. However, I think if anyone reads her work or listens to the audiobook and truly, deeply keeps an open mind, the controversy fades away, because she directly addresses it. “I am not anti-Semitic. This is not about a religious bigotry. This is about a political situation. The politics are absurd.”
EA: This tale reminds me of the visit I paid to Israel. I stayed in east Jerusalem and was in the company of a number of various Arabs and Arab groups. I was there for the Middle East Children’s Alliance, and I went to see a historical spectacle put on by the Jerusalem Arabs and got to talk to some of them. It really stood out on my trip that various actors would say how they had to play this role or that role or this role because they could be picked up at any time and jailed and somebody would have to cover for them. So they knew various roles, and if they didn’t stay out of jail for merely being picked up on the street, then they couldn’t perform, and others would take their place. They demonstrated a form of bravery to me that has always stuck with me. Rachel Corrie is typical of the bravery I think of Jewish women, who stand at the forefront of peace and progress and take on the jobs. When the Jews first came to this country, it was the Jewish wives who adapted faster, got out and got the jobs while the husbands stayed at home and read the Torah. Rachel Corrie is typical of those women who don’t let Johanna do it. “It’s my job.”
MH: Ed, it’s almost like there’s a call to action here. Do you have a specific hope for what people will come away with after they listen to this audiobook?
EA: To understand that the innocent die in this cause, and that they must be very careful where they draw their lines of support and endeavor in terms of peace. This girl died for peace and there are others who every day put their asses on the line and are threatened. Their lives are threatened while working for peace. I just hope that the example that was demonstrated to the world by the Irish after that horrible, endless, endless war of centuries—that the Jews and the Arabs, Semites in actuality, can finally find the glimmer of hope to set an example to the rest of the world and emulate the Irish.
TG: What I’ve done here I think is really quite small. I’m an audiobook narrator. That’s how I make my living: I’m an actor. What I’ve done is to put Rachel’s diary into audio. It’s not a big thing, but I have heroes, including Ed Asner, who has had a long, long career in a cutthroat business and has never sold out because it would be easier or more expeditious or safer or more successful—having the promise of more success—if he just kept his mouth shut. Malcolm, you asked how Ed got involved in this project. Ed is a friend of a friend. We’d had a great breakfast a couple years ago in Portland, Maine, and I got to know him and had a deep connection to him. I asked him out to dinner when I was in LA a couple years ago and my intention of having dinner with him was not to invite him to be part of this project. This was at the beginning stages, and at the time I wasn’t talking too much about it yet. Because of this idea that this could be opening myself up to criticism or some sort of push-back, I was certainly not going to speak openly to anybody at that point. But we had a great conversation over dinner in LA. I asked him about the course of his career and the course of his involvement in deeply political acts throughout his career and asked, “Have you sacrificed for your political beliefs? Have you made sacrifices? Would your career have been different had you not been so willing to be forthright and speak truthfully?” He said, “Certainly, yes. Absolutely,” and detailed a number of ways that he had been willing to make sacrifices. I thought that if Rachel can make this sacrifice, if Ed can make these sacrifices, the least I can do is record this woman’s words. And then—I started to talk to him about the diary—and he patted my hand and said, “I will help you in any way I can.” I said, “Actually, there is something you could do that would be deeply meaningful and significant to the project, if you would read the introduction that her father wrote.” So I’m not minimizing it entirely, but in perspective I think it’s a small thing and it’s because I’ve been inspired by people like Rachel and Ed.
EA: You are a constructive, orderly builder.
EA: I have done is been a blundering ox.
EA: Thank God I’ve made few mistakes while blundering. But I truly have been a blundering ox compared to your wonderful, stable, progressive, aligned progress.
TG: Well, thank you. It’s really such an enormous honor to have my name on a project with Ed and to have his contribution. It would have been had we collaborated on anything, but to have a collaboration on something of this importance and resonance and meaning is one of the greatest honors of my life.
EA: It’s an important piece you’ve done.
TG: Thank you.
EA: And I am truly honored to be with you.
MH: Both of you, your passionate commitment to this is really impressive. It’s just been great hearing you speak about it. I just want to thank you both for sharing your thoughts and feelings about this today. Again, we’re really very excited here about the audiobook release of Let Me Stand Alone by Rachel Corrie. Thank you both.
TG: Thank you so much.
EA: Thank you.
MH: Thank you for joining us for this Downpour.com interview with Edward Asner and Tavia Gilbert. You can find Let Me Stand Alone by Rachel Corrie and all of Blackstone Audio’s titles at Downpour.com.
This interview was recorded in May 2013.
Disclaimer: This audio and transcript have been edited slightly from the original recording for quality and readability.
Let Me Stand Alone
determination to make a better, more peaceful world took her from Olympia,
Washington, to the Middle East, where she died in 2003 while trying to block
the demolition of a Palestinian family’s home in the Gaza Strip. A
twenty-three-year-old American activist, Corrie also possessed a striking gift
for poetry, writing, and drawing. Let Me Stand Alone, a selection of her
journals and letters as chosen by her family, reveals her story in
her own hand, from her precocious reflections as a young girl to her final
emails. Corrie’s words—whether writing about the looming issues of our time or
the ordinary angst of an American teen—bring to life all that it means to come
of age: a dawning sense of self, a thirst for one’s own ideals, and an evolving
connection to others, near and far.