Tavis: Pleased to welcome Robin Wright to this program. The talented actress stars opposite James McAvoy in the Robert Redford project “The Conspirator.” The film opens around the country this weekend, and so here now a scene from “The Conspirator.”
Tavis: Robin, good to have you on the program.
Robin Wright: Thank you, it’s good to be here.
Tavis: I confess by way of defending myself, I am not a Lincoln scholar, but I do not know why – I did not know – that there was a woman who was involved in these trials. I had no idea. Did you know before you –
Wright: I knew nothing of her. (Laughter)
Tavis: So I’m not the only one.
Wright: I actually fell asleep in history class for most of it, but –
Tavis: I was awake in history class. (Laughter) I loved history, but I still didn’t know this, yeah.
Wright: Well, if you think about it, it’s as in any field, who are the stars? The stars were Abe and John Wilkes Booth. Also the ambivalence around this event that happened in this historical moment of his assassination – still today it’s a nebulous thing. Did she? Didn’t she? I think that’s why Redford made the movie. It wasn’t so much about whether she was guilty or innocent, it’s about civil liberties, how she was treated.
Why was a military commission, not a civil trial, and how many parallels we can draw today?
Tavis: Today, yeah.
Wright: That’s why it’s not in the history books. I asked, because we spoke to a bunch of historians, why isn’t there more information, especially about Aiken, who defended – a Union war hero defending a Confederate sympathizer. There’s a movie, right? And how they grow to understand each other and love each other.
Tavis: We jumped in so fast, let me back up. I can see my mom watching right now saying, “Okay, slow up, baby, slow up.” (Laughter) Back up and tell me who this woman is, what she was guilty of or accused of. So let me let you do the honors to tell the story about what we’re talking about here.
Wright: Was she a co-conspirator in the plot to kill Abraham Lincoln, because her son was part of the conspiracy to kidnap the president under John Wilkes Booth’s order. There was a group of men and they stayed at my boardinghouse that I ran.
Tavis: Your character.
Wright: The character, sorry.
Tavis: Yeah, not your boardinghouse. Yeah, yeah, okay. So just because they stayed at her boardinghouse these questions – I shouldn’t say just because; because they stayed there, these questions come up as to what she knew, what she did not know.
To my reading of the film, and I think you intimated this earlier, I’m still not sure whether she knew or didn’t know, and yet to your point, that’s not really what Redford wants us to focus in on.
Wright: Exactly. I think it’s more a humanities story – how we can be in conflict with our morals, which she is – do you defend your offspring? In the general sense, yes, I would throw myself in front of a bus for my kids. But religiously and morally for her, is it the right thing to do for God, to lie? Is she lying? Is it selective hearing as a mother? There’s so many questions that it provokes, I think.
Tavis: But she didn’t have a chance in this trial, though.
Wright: Not a chance.
Tavis: Yeah, not a chance at all.
Wright: They needed to – they were using her as bait, and that is part of our history, that it was definitely being used to bring justice. It was expediency over the Constitution, basically, because my son, Mary Surratt’s son, was not going to appear and testify and free her.
Tavis: What makes this even more complicated beyond the argument about humanities, the issue of gender comes up, because no woman in this country prior to this has ever been hanged, so obviously, not to give the movie away, but –
Wright: There’s not a sequel.
Tavis: I guess I just did, yeah. (Laughter) Yeah, there is no sequel. She gets hanged, y’all. I shouldn’t be laughing about this. (Laughter) Yeah, she obviously has no chance at winning this case. She gets hanged in the end.
How did you read that as a woman playing this character that she ends up being the first woman to be hanged in this way?
Wright: I wasn’t really thinking about it when we were working. I was thinking about a faith and her alignment with God. I’m not a practice religion freak, I didn’t grow up in a religious family, but I have a faith. But it was nice to delve into that kind of conviction. It was a different kind of injustice to her. It was you’re taking away my ability to be my son’s mother.
Can we make this irrelevant? Because I don’t know if he’s guilty or not. He’s not going to appear to prove himself and to save me, but don’t take me away as his mother. That’s what I was thinking when I was walking to the gallows, basically.
Tavis: Since you referenced it a couple of times now, the role that her son plays in this is what, exactly?
Wright: The son plays –
Tavis: What role the son plays in this process.
Wright: He is a friend; he befriended, somehow, John Wilkes Booth.
Tavis: John Wilkes Booth, right.
Wright: I think being a Confederate sympathizer running boardinghouse, needing the money – she was in dire straits financially, because her husband had died and left her with a debt – and she needed boarders. The son came in and said, “Mom, I’ve got all my pals from school,” and they were planning a conspiracy and she didn’t know.
The thing that was mentioned in the film briefly, but it is very detailed in the books about Mary Surratt, the biographies, she was farsighted. She could not see. So when those men appeared at her house, she didn’t recognize them. That was truth. I think there was a lack of hearing issue, there was all of that. So maybe she heard it and it was muffled and veiled.
Tavis: How eerie was it – and eerie’s my word; I’m not sure it was – but was it eerie to have this particular film premiere at Ford’s Theater. You were there.
Tavis: How’d that feel?
Wright: It was moving.
Tavis: Yeah, moving?
Wright: Really moving to watch –
Tavis: Of all the things I thought you’d say, I didn’t think you would say “moving.” Why moving?
Wright: I know. It wasn’t eerie. It’s so intimate, the theater – it’s so small. I think it’s 200 seats, and right when you walk in you see the booth where he sat, which is like the mezzanine. It was one floor up. It was moving. It brought tears to my eyes. We had heard about it a couple of weeks before, but to walk in there and know that we’re premiering the movie about that event that was so harrowing – it changed – he changed – history.
Tavis: You referenced parallels earlier, Robin. I want to come back to the parallels you see between then and what’s happening in the world now. The immediate parallel that comes to mind – I shouldn’t say parallel, but the immediate thing relative to our government that comes to mind is that Ford’s Theater is part of the National Park Service.
Had this government shutdown gone down, the theater would have been closed. I suspect for you and Robert Redford, they might have found a way to open it up, but it would have –
Wright: Oh, no. We were calling AMC Theaters, “Can we get (unintelligible).”
Tavis: Can we borrow a theater for tonight, yeah. But how funny is that, that you guys were up against the clock to see if the government was going to shut down and whether or not there would be, in fact, a premiere at Ford’s Theater?
Wright: That’s right, and on that same issue, right? Where does the justice lie? No, we were laughing about the parallels.
Tavis: You referenced earlier, though, again, parallels between then and now with regard specifically to her military tribunal, et cetera, et cetera. What did you mean when you were referencing parallels between the movie and what’s happening in the world today?
Wright: I have been coached to not speak about those, truthfully, because – and I would like to honor that and Mr. Redford. We all know what they are. It’s corrupt natures and retribution. I think people will sabotage and it’s propaganda. It’s everything that we see in the papers and people bring up Guantanamo. That’s as far as I’m going to go.
So he just said, “I really don’t want to promote this film by using the parallels that are so self-evident,” and yet it’s such a great provocation to have people ask those questions to themselves.
Tavis: I want to honor – I like Robert Redford a lot and I want him to come back someday, so I’m’ going to honor (laughter) his request, as well. But I’ve had him on this show, I’ve had him on my radio show, we’ve talked a number of times over the years, and always a good conversation.
I think I understand it, so without asking you to violate his request, and I have my own answer to this question, but I’m curious as to yours, why not talk about those things in the promotion of the film? I think it’s actually a good idea. I understand, I think I get it, but you tell me why you think he doesn’t want to push that envelope, so to speak, in the promotion of the film.
Wright: Because his words – he said, “I’m a filmmaker, I’m a storyteller. I’m not a political analyst. I’m an activist, and I’m convicted in my beliefs and I will express those accordingly with my philanthropy.” He said, “I am interested in making a movie about the story within the story.”
Here we have a very accurate piece of history that we’re portraying, and he wanted to tell the story underneath, of the people, the human beings, the soul, the heart, and how we are one heart, ultimately.
Tavis: See, I was going to say – not that you asked – but I was going to say that I understand it in this regard. The film stands on its own. The lessons, the issues, the tensions, the hypocrisy, comes through pretty loud and clear in the film. If he has done his job as a director and you all have done your job as actors, you don’t have to draw those parallels to get folk to understand and to situate themselves in the story.
Wright: That’s right.
Tavis: And you did do that, so congratulations.
Wright: Thank you, man. I’m so happy to hear that. (Laughs)
Tavis: I’m just saying, just saying. Tell your son I said hello when you –
Wright: He loves you.
Tavis: I love him.
Wright: He wanted me to tell you that.
Tavis: I met him one day taking boxes off an elevator.
Wright: Yeah, I said, “Why do you love Tavis?” He goes, “Because I just love his attitude about life. He’s just so positive and optimistic.” I said, “Could you possibly learn from him?” (Laughter) That would be good.
Tavis: No, no, no, no, I think he’s going to be okay. Good to have you on.
Wright: Thank you so much.
Tavis: The film is called “The Conspirator,” starring one Robin Wright.
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