Eric Bogosian: Talking Big

Can Eric Bogosian tune in and turn on without selling out?

Eric Bogosian & Stewart Copeland during 'Talk Radio' Premiere in Los Angeles on December 9th, 1988 Credit: Jeff Kravitz/FilmMagic/Getty

He's going down in flames." That's how one character describes the predicament of Barry Champlain, the acerbic talk-show host whose psychic disintegration is the core of Talk Radio, the new movie directed by Oliver Stone and starring Eric Bogosian. Barry's chronically simmering crises reach a boil when a network offers to broadcast his Dallas-based show nationwide. Barry is intrigued by the notion of a bigger audience and greater stardom. But he's also worried about losing the freedom to say what he wants — and losing the slim hold he maintains on his sanity if the pressure of his job gets pumped up too high.

It turns out that the issue of "going national" is almost as unsettling for Eric Bogosian as it is for his character. Bogosian, who co-wrote the play on which Talk Radio is based, is fond of saying, "Barry is me." Bogosian's first feature-film role dangles the prospect of mass exposure — and has forced him to ask himself what he wants.

"I'm not writing about anybody over there," Bogosian says. "I'm writing about myself. When I create Barry Champlain, I know him inside out. When he's tempted by something, I'm tempted.... My audience suddenly moves from 200 people or 300 people to millions of people. How can I make all these millions of people love me, and is that something I should try to do? That's when I start to get all torn up by it. It's an issue for me, and so it became an issue in the movie. I do believe that if you keep looking at the nasty stuff you don't want to look at, you can live with it better. It's better than just ignoring it."

Bogosian, who is thirty-five, and his collaborator Tad Savinar created the character of Barry Champlain in 1983, and Talk Radio was first done as one of Bogosian's one-man performances in 1985 at the Portland Center for the Visual Arts. It came to national attention in 1987 when producer Joseph Papp brought it to the Public Theater, in New York, rewritten as a full-length play, the first of Bogosian's career.

Reshaping Talk Radio as a play brought a fitting culmination to the series of edgy solo performances Bogosian had been giving since the late Seventies. First as the stand-up comedian Ricky Paul, whose racist and sexist comments stiffened backs in fashionably liberal New York clubs, and later in a series of roles he created for the one-man shows FunHouse and Drinking in America, Bogosian defined a style of performance art that was equal parts black humor, social confrontation, pop-culture exhibitionism and psychological agitprop. Not an easy combination to bring to the big screen.

In a storefront office on Elizabeth Street, in Manhattan, that once served as his apartment — and in another era as a grocery store owned by Martin Scorsese's father — Bogosian describes the process of making Talk Radio into a film as "an enormous challenge, on many fronts.

"It wasn't just the writing, or the question of 'Can we make a movie?' but 'Can we make a movie and keep the thematic center of the play?'" he says, wearing a characteristic ensemble — a black sweat shirt and black jeans. "My central idea was not something which you could go into a Hollywood meeting and say, 'Here's my concept, bang-o.'"

Director Oliver Stone co-wrote the screenplay for Talk Radio with Bogosian, and the credits also acknowledge Stephen Singular's book Talked to Death: The Life and Murder of Alan Berg, the story of a liberal talk-show host in Denver who was killed by right-wing fanatics. Bogosian had little screenwriting experience, and his only acting in major productions had been a role in The Caine Mutiny Court Martial, which was filmed for television by Robert Altman, and appearances on The Twilight Zone and Miami Vice. Consequently, he was daunted by the idea of working with Stone, the Oscar-winning director who had made Platoon and Wall Street.

"We had to have a collaboration or it wouldn't make any sense, as far as the writing went," Bogosian says. "So if I walked in the door and said, 'Okay, here's some pages,' and he just went, 'Feh, you call those pages?' and, like, threw them on the floor ... I mean, that was probably my biggest fear going in.

"And in fact, things like that happened, because Oliver is very blunt, a very intense worker. But I also like to just get into it and work, let's not beat around the bush. Every time he would give me some kind of criticism, I would just try and pull myself together and come back as hard as I could." Despite — or perhaps because of — their mutual intensity, the two men ended up becoming friends, and Talk Radio was shot in twenty-six days for less than $6 million.

The film fleshes out Bogosian and Savinar's rigorously concise play, adding flashbacks that show Barry's personal life and his progress through the world of radio. It also moves the story from Cleveland to Dallas — an apparent nod to the legacy of violence and media-related trauma of the Kennedy assassination.

More generally, Talk Radio uses the tale of WGAB disc jockey Barry Champlain and his show, Night Talk, to explore the mass media and their corrosive impact on people's lives — the lives of both the celebrities who need to keep a tight grip on their identity and the fans who invest their faith in figures who are often little more than projections of their own fantasies.

Amid chatter about nuclear war, the Holocaust and racism, Barry's callers tell of problems that range from loneliness and substance abuse to paranoid fears about household appliances: "What if the garbage disposal came on while your hand was still down there?" one woman asks. Another listener sends Barry a dead rat wrapped in a Nazi flag.

Barry strings them along or cuts them off with the arbitrary imperiousness of a god — or is it just the cool judgment of a pro who instinctively knows which dilemmas will keep the folks out there in radioland from turning the dial?

For his part, Barry is ever insecure and eager for approval. He begins to unravel under the strain of his job and insists to one caller, "The show must serve some kind of purpose for you." The caller's damning, offhand answer, delivered in a quiet Southern accent, could have come out of a novel by Beckett or DeLillo: "Well, I wouldn't say that."

Bogosian listened to innumerable hours of talk radio in the course of inventing Barry, and to describe the dynamics of the medium, he launches into a monologue worthy of one of his characters. "It's important to remember that the guy who's hosting the show is a professional," he says. "He has a job. His job is not to the person calling; it's to all the people listening. Maybe twenty people are going to call in an evening; hundreds of thousands of people are going to listen. He's entertaining them, and he's really, really good at it. So we're watching an actor of sorts, a professional entertainer whose job is to find the drama in these live interactions. He's a character.

"This is where it really becomes interesting, because, as the public becomes more and more hungry for characters in the mass media — whether it be Barry Champlain or Mort Downey or Dan Rather or Bruce Springsteen — the audience wants to believe these guys are really who they say they are. The problem is that they are character actors. They are playing these roles — they get shitloads of money for doing it. And yet they're real people, and somewhere in their life they moved from the real person into the guy that everybody's watching. And it's kind of hard on them. People that have dropped their personas learn very quickly how pissed off the audience will get. If you're a guy whose job it is to blow his stack on the air, it can be one painful place to be day after day after day."

Bogosian, who grew up in an Armenian family in Woburn, Massachusetts, and graduated from Oberlin College, lives with his wife and sometime director, Jo Bonney, and their twenty-month-old son in a Manhattan apartment and a home in rural New Jersey. With Talk Radio behind him, Bogosian is working on his next solo performance, Sex, Drugs & Rock 'n' Roll, which will be staged off-Broadway in the spring and taped for HBO. Because he wants to concentrate on his film acting, that show will likely be Bogosian's last stage appearance for a while. He's also writing a screenplay in which he hopes to star. Tentatively titled Blue Smoke, it's set in the hipster jazz scene in New York in the Fifties.

For now, Bogosian will continue to look for ways to sharpen the subversive impulse in his work while reaching an audience larger than the New York underground. To illustrate the fate that must be avoided, he slips into an accent dripping with the knowing cynicism of the showbiz hack: "What slimy TV show do you want me to be on? I'll go do it I don't care. Give me the money.

"If I do that, it isn't like I broke some law with God; I broke a law with myself," Bogosian says, speaking once again in his own voice, an uncanny blend of New York street toughness and broad Massachusetts inflections. "I'm going to have to suffer because of it. I'm just trying to keep myself happy for as long as possible. I think if I so-called sell out, then I lose."