Christopher Abbott On 'Catch-22'
SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
When we first see Christopher Abbott in the miniseries production of "Catch-22," he's naked and screaming. No one seems to notice. He plays Yossarian, Yo-Yo, the bombardier of a U.S. squadron stationed in Italy during World War II.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "CATCH-22")
CHRISTOPHER ABBOTT: (As Yossarian) Ground me, I'm crazy.
GRANT HESLOV: (As Doc Daneeka) You're not crazy.
ABBOTT: (As Yossarian) But I am. Ask anyone. They'll tell you how crazy I am.
HESLOV: (As Doc Daneeka) Yeah. But they're crazy.
ABBOTT: (As Yossarian) Then why don't you ground them?
HESLOV: (As Doc Daneeka) Why don't they ask me to ground them?
ABBOTT: (As Yoassarian) Because they're crazy.
HESLOV: (As Doc Daneeka) Of course...
ABBOTT: (As Yossarian) That's why.
HESLOV: (As Doc Daneeka) They're crazy. I just told you they're crazy, didn't I? And you can't have crazy people decide whether you're crazy or not.
ABBOTT: (As Yossarian) That's some catch, that Catch-22.
HESLOV: (As Doc Daneeka) It's the best there is.
SIMON: Joseph Heller's classic 1961 novel on the illogic and absurdity of war was made into a two-hour movie by Mike Nichols in 1970. It's now a six-hour miniseries on Hulu, this time produced and directed by George Clooney, filmed in sun-bleached browns and tans. And it stars Christopher Abbott, who joins us now from New York. Thanks so much for being with us.
ABBOTT: Thanks for having me.
SIMON: Yossarian's such a classic character. In any way, were you intimidated because millions of people think they already know him?
ABBOTT: Yes, at first, exactly for that reason. You know, it's almost different than the idea of playing, like, a, quote-unquote, "iconic character," even in film. It's this literary iconic character. The idea of the character is in the imaginations of the readers themselves, not a person who was already cast in something else, you know? But, ultimately, I had to let that go because I had other things to worry about, put it that way.
SIMON: Memorizing your lines.
ABBOTT: (Laughter) That, first and foremost.
SIMON: Appearing naked as much as you do, too.
SIMON: One thing I noticed - and inevitably, those of us who've seen the film are going to make comparisons with the miniseries. But in that film so many people have seen - of course, Alan Arkin was Yossarian. There was Art Garfunkel, Jon Voight as some of the flyers. Now it's you, and it looks like a much younger group of actors, which, in a way, is more real, isn't it?
ABBOTT: I think it's a little bit more appropriate to the - what was actually happening in the time period. You know, a lot of the pilots and bombardiers and gunners and stuff, a lot of them were 19, 20 years old, which is - kind of makes the battles and the drama of it that much more harrowing when there's young kids up there.
SIMON: Yossarian says at some point, I'm not ashamed. I'm afraid. Help us understand how that comes about in him.
ABBOTT: You know, he's - for me, I think the character Yossarian is someone who, even though he's trying to kind of get out of these missions, he's not - it's not that he's afraid to die. He's just afraid to die at the hands of his, you know, superiors. So I think that's where that kind of comes from. It's one of the many characteristics that kind of drew me to him, too, because I think the reason why he wants to get out so bad is his lust for life.
SIMON: We should explain, these are flyers who don't know the enemy. They never - probably never met a Nazi. Their enemy day to day are their superior officers and people in the Army bureaucracy.
ABBOTT: Right. Yossarian kind of has this somewhat existential view on life and a line in the show also is, you know, the enemy is anyone who's going to get you killed, no matter whose side that he's on. And it's just a very interesting thought to me because the idea, especially during World War II is, you know, you're fighting for a just cause. And it is. And it was. And Yossarian thinks that as well. But when you kind of break it down moment to moment, you know, everyone's trying to kill him, whether they're his fellow officers or the Germans.
SIMON: Yeah. I've got to tell you, and I say this with respect for your portrayal, Yossarian can be difficult to like.
ABBOTT: Mmm hmm.
SIMON: I mean, I understand why he's afraid and, you know, battle stress is real. But he does things to try and make himself safer, which wind up making his colleagues less safe. And that's not admirable.
ABBOTT: I mean, it's part of the kind of dichotomy of the character, too. And it's why you root for him still even though I guess some of the actions are questionable. My job as the actor always is to kind of justify the character - right? - so - and always kind of see the right side of things. So, you know, for me, when he does put his fellow soldiers kind of at risk, it's never with intention. There's an episode where he kind of pulls the wires of an intercom system to get them to kind of go back and turn around. He did that, obviously, selfishly. But he's also trying - he has an idea in his head that he's saving the other men in the in the plane with him. But...
SIMON: But it leads...
ABBOTT: ...It backfires.
SIMON: Yeah. It back - it leads to two very unfortunate - every death is unfortunate. But it leads...
ABBOTT: Unintentionally, though, on his part.
SIMON: Yeah. Well, certainly unintentionally, but on the other hand, he should know, you know, for every action, there's a reaction. You make yourself safer, you'll make somebody else unsafe.
ABBOTT: Right. And - but he's also having the kind of mentality that it's a coin toss anyway (laughter) when you're up there. And I think statistically, in real life it was. I think for these - some of these bomber crews, I think there was just over - just under 50% chance every time you go up.
SIMON: "Catch-22," the novel, came out in 1961. But I think it, you know, gained in popularity and reputation and was being read in school. So it becomes kind of all mixed up with American public opinion during the war in Vietnam, which became a very unpopular war. What do you think this miniseries has to say to people today?
ABBOTT: Well, I think that there's never a wrong time to talk about the absurdity of war. And although some wars are just, it - at least all wars start with something absurd, an absurd event. And on top of it all, history repeats itself. And these kind of inane bureaucratic walls that Yossarian kind of goes up against kind of feels like it's happened and in life, as well.
SIMON: Christopher Abbott is Yossarian in the Hulu miniseries of "Catch-22." Thank you so much for being with us.
ABBOTT: Thanks for having me.
(SOUNDBITE OF RUPERT GREGSON-WILLIAMS AND HARRY GREGSON-WILLIAMS' "CATCH-22") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.