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'Wordplay' Supporting Player Neal Conan


Hi. This is Peter Sagal, the host of the NPR News Quiz, Wait, Wait Don't Tell Me! No, you haven't had another blackout and woken up on the weekend. I am commandeering TALK OF THE NATION.

The new movie Wordplay is the most star-studded blockbuster of the summer movie season. The cast includes Jon Stewart, Bill Clinton, Bob Dole, but that is not all.

Listen to this clip from the film.

(Soundbite of movie Wordplay)

NEAL CONAN: (As himself) Coming up on eleven o'clock in the morning, we're just beginning to find out who the finalists may be. The excitement is palpable. It's the combination of logic and rage. On the one hand, everything works out beautifully, except if it doesn't; at which point, of course, you can just tear the thing up.

SAGAL: Critics are hailing the most exciting film debut since Jim Varney, in "Ernest Goes to Camp." We were lucky enough to snag this rising young ingenue, Mr. Neal Conan.

Neal Conan, thank you so much for taking the time out of your busy schedule to join us today.

CONAN: Jim Varney?

(Soundbite of laughter)

SAGAL: Hey, he went on to make $100 million with his films. Don't knock it.

CONAN: All right. Shakespearean trained, as I understand. But, yes.

SAGAL: Absolutely. So, Neal, can you tell me, what exactly is your role in the new documentary Wordplay?

CONAN: Well, I play a role at the annual Crossword Puzzle Tournament in Stanford, Connecticut, at which much of this film was made. And that's - I do the play-by-play of the finals; the last day, the last puzzle, the last three competitors are up there struggling to find out who's going to be that year's victor at the National Crossword Puzzle Tournament.

SAGAL: Well, that's great. Well, if you out there have questions about the world of Wordplay, or about the new Hollywood life of Neal Conan, for example, the rumors that Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt are planning to adopt him. Give us a call. The number, of course, 800-989-8255. That's 800-989-TALK. The e-mail address, as always, is talk@npr.org. So, Neal...

CONAN: Is his visa for Namibia still good?

SAGAL: It is. You know, I they'd want to do it there, so you'd have to be ready to go at a moment's notice. How do you think this is going to change your life from stead talk show host to movie star?

CONAN: I think there are occasions, especially when I'm on the subway and muttering to myself and people will recognize my voice. Now, a few people are going to recognize who I am by looking at me, and I'm not sure that I'm at all pleased by this development. Radio is good that way, don't you think?

SAGAL: I enjoyed my anonymity, even more than I did before. It's more pointed now. There's actually a tremendous amount of buzz about this movie, that this might be a big movie for the summer. How can that be? It's a movie about crossword puzzles, for goodness' sake.

CONAN: It's a movie about nerds. I mean, let's not be too careful with the word. The American Crossword Puzzle Tournament in Stamford, Connecticut, is the world's largest population of guys with pocket protectors anywhere in the country, I think. Possibly jet propulsion laboratory, I don't know. But this a group of people who get together every year and do something that they actually feel passionately about. And it's developed into quite a family and a cast of character who appear at the tournament every year. Well, the guy who made the film, he showed a version of it, we like to think of it as the Sundance cut. The Sundance cut was shown at the crossword puzzle tournament in Stamford this year, and, boy, it could have been a lot worse and people still would have loved it. But I actually thought it was pretty good.

SAGAL: Now, are you a part of this world, or are just called in as a special talent, based on your - obviously you play by play experience with the Aberdeen Arsenal.

CONAN: Absolutely. Of course, everybody knew about that. I was initially called in on that basis. It was Will's idea - he knew I was doing play by play, because he talks to my wife every Sunday morning - but anyway, then he came up with this idea to do play by play. And he knew that I was also a puzzle person. In fact, when I was writing the book, play-by-play, I was - my rule was I couldn't start writing that day until I had completed the Sunday - The New York Times crossword puzzle for that day. So Mondays I intended to start right at nine o'clock, and some Saturdays I didn't get started at all. So that was interesting.

Peter, though you've hijacked the program, there's something you really have to say at this moment in the program.

SAGAL: Yes, and watch me say it. Ready?


SAGAL: You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

So, we're ready to take your calls for Neal. If you'd like to talk to him about him, or his film debut or the film.

Like you said the movie centers on Will Shortz, who we, of course, at NPR have known for years.

CONAN: Indeed.

SAGAL: And listeners of NPR. Do you think this is going to finally make him the national cultural hero that he deserves to be?

CONAN: Oh, absolutely. Will comes out of this as an absolute star. Though, you know, Peter, I have to question the idea of - you know, a show based on asking people puzzle questions. It's not going to go anywhere.

SAGAL: It seems silly. No, I mean, my gosh. What idiot thought of that?

CONAN: It would be crazy.

SAGAL: It's nuts. It'll never work. So has the movie transformed your life? Do you find yourself, now that you've seen this intense competition, wanting to enter it yourself as a competitive crossword puzzle solver?

CONAN: No, absolutely not. Absolutely I do not want to enter this at all, because I do solve puzzles and I will eventually get them, but speed is not my forte.

SAGAL: Really? When you do a puzzle, do you do it in ink, do you do it in pencil?

CONAN: I do it in ink, basically because my father did it in ink and I like to pretend that I was as smart as my father, but that's probably not true. I end up with a lot of cross-outs.

SAGAL: I understand. Now, I know, I used to live in L.A., and I used to come across these figures, these actors, who had been in a movie once, maybe ten, fifteen years ago, and they had stuck around hoping that the magic would happen for them again. Do you think that's in your future?

CONAN: I think that I'm going to get another part in a major movie as soon as -just about the same time you get another screenwriting credit, after your startling success.

SAGAL: Yeah, swell. I've decided to retire on top, as you might as well.

Let's hear from a caller, Harold, in Minneapolis. You're on TALK OF THE NATION.

HAROLD (Caller): Yes, hi. I'm a big fan of those (unintelligible). And I'm wondering, Neal, if you had to join the Screen Actors Guild, and if you did, what you'd change your professional name to. Are you a one-name star, a two-name star, or a three-name star?

CONAN: Yes, I thought James Cagney would be a good name to try out. No, actually I did not have to join SAG. In fact, it's here at NPR we're members of AFTA, which is associated with SAG. But even if that came into play, I wouldn't have had to join, because I'm not actually performing. I'm being filmed as myself, though the credit doesn't say, Neal Conan - As Himself. I would have liked that. I would've liked that.

SAGAL: What does it say?

CONAN: It just says Neal Conan.

SAGAL: Oh, I see.

CONAN: Because we're all playing ourselves.

SAGAL: Better than having someone else as Neal Conan, I guess.

CONAN: Even President Clinton.

SAGAL: Really?

CONAN: Yeah.

SAGAL: Did you get to meet Clinton, Jon Stewart, and Mike Mussina, and the other celebrities in the film?

CONAN: I would've loved to have met Mike Mussina. But no, I didn't get a chance to meet any of the celebrity solvers that are in the film. Just the people at the tournament, and, well, they're going to be celebrities now, too, so there you go.

SAGAL: Harold, thank you so much for your call.

HAROLD: (Unintelligible).

SAGAL: Hey, lets hear from Judy(ph) before we have to go. Judy, you're on TALK OF THE NATION.

JUDY (Caller): Hi there. Hey, if you go to one of those tournaments up in Connecticut, do you take a dictionary with you, or do you have to it all in your brain?

CONAN: No, I've - I have seen people who, you know, no, nobody takes a dictionary into the room. You have to bring it all with your brain.

JUDY: Yeah.

CONAN: You can't even scribble down, you know, test answers on the cuff of your sleeve, because you don't know what the test is going to be, whether it's going to be, you know, you know, Dartford River, or, you know, or a kind of World War II gun. Now, of course, anybody - crossword puzzle person knows to write down, it's either...

JUDY: (Unintelligible)...

CONAN: (unintelligible) Come on.

JUDY: ...this is really good for Alzheimer's too, you know. It keeps you from getting it, so...

CONAN: Thanks very much, Judy.

JUDY: Bye.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SAGAL: We have time for one more call. Terry(ph), you're on TALK OF THE NATION.

TERRY (Caller): Hey, Neal, how're you doing?

CONAN: I'm doing well.

TERRY: I love your show. You're just a great host. You must go through a lot of work preparing for this all the time. I want to know, you were in a movie, here, you see, and we do have a couple of radio personalities here in Minnesota...

CONAN: Absolutely, yeah.

SAGAL: You're from Minnesota? I could have guessed.

TERRY: ...and (unintelligible). Is there something going on or what?

CONAN: Who knows? It's one of those cultural moments where I was at a screening last night, in fact, of Wordplay here in Washington. And there was the poster of Wordplay right next to the poster of - what's the name of that show from Minnesota again?

TERRY: Prairie Home Companion.

CONAN: That's it. Yeah. I knew I'd heard of it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

TERRY: Anyway, yeah...

SAGAL: Thank you so much for calling, Terry. All I've got to say, Neal...

TERRY: Yeah, you bet. Thank you.

SAGAL: ...all I've got to say, Neal...


SAGAL: ...is just remember all us little people now that you're on the way up.

CONAN: I'll step on you on the way down, too.

SAGAL: I know. I just know that your people are going to stop returning my calls any day now.

CONAN: All right. All right. I want my job back. The terror, the national nightmare is over. Peter Sagal, thanks very much for being with us.

SAGAL: Thanks, Neal.

CONAN: Peter Sagal is the host of the NPR News quiz, Wait, Wait Don't Tell Me, heard most weekends on your public radio stations. And thanks very much Peter for coming in and helping us out with that tough interview. We bring him in for the biggies, the real biggies.

I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.