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'Manchurian Candidate' cast talks politics

Can the new "Manchurian Candidate" improve on a masterpiece? Members of the cast sit down with NBC's Katie Couric to talk film and politics.
Denzel Washington, Meryl Streep and Jonathan Demme talk with NBC's Katie Couric.
Denzel Washington, Meryl Streep and Jonathan Demme talk with NBC's Katie Couric.Dateline NBC
/ Source: Dateline NBC

The 1962 original was a Cold War classic. Can the new "Manchurian Candidate" improve on a masterpiece? In this version, an evil corporate empire replaces communism as the global threat. Issues of war and peace were very much on the minds of the stars and director when they sat down with Katie Couric. Academy Award winners Denzel Washington, Meryl Streep and Jonathan Demme revealed just how deep their political passions run in this election year.

It’s a political thriller, for a political season. "The Manchurian Candidate" is a movie intended to keep already-edgy Americans on the edge of their seats. 

Denzel Washington: "There's a need to find out what's going on, because there's a sense of responsibility. It unravels and you find out it goes, obviously, all the way to the top."

Meryl Streep: "It's something that people will recognize."

Jonathan Demme: "The movie aspires to making the audience extremely uncomfortable and disturbed by what's going on.And it's shocking."

They say politics makes strange bedfellows, but there's nothing strange about pairing an  Academy Award winning director, Jonathan Demme with two Academy Award winning actors, Meryl Streep and Denzel Washington. 

Katie Couric: "Tell me about the movie. Tell me about the characters. Denzel, why did you want to do this movie? Did you have fun working with Meryl? What's Meryl Streep like to work with? What do you think about Jonathan Demme? He's an incredible director, don't you think?"

Washington: "Yes, no, no, yes, no, no.  Yes, no, no yes, yes. Alright. Let's get out of here."

The three of these Hollywood titans working together looks good on paper, right? Except, "Manchurian Candidate" is a remake of what was once called a masterpiece.

Back in 1962, Frank Sinatra played the role of Major Bennett Marco, a Korean War veteran who's the only one who can stop a brainwashed fellow G.I. from assassinating a presidential candidate. The film, which was once taken out of circulation after the assassination of JFK, is now considered a classic.  

Couric: "Angela Lansbury, who was nominated for an Academy Award in the original 'Manchurian Candidate' recently said, ‘I'm so unhappy. I'm so sorry they had to mess with something that was so perfect.’"

Streep: "Oh."

Couric: "So, why did you mess with something that was so perfect?"

Deeme: "Well, I got a screenplay that was wonderful. And Denzel Washington was signed up to be in it. And I didn't require too much thought after reading it to say yes."

In this version, Denzel Washington does the Sinatra role his way, Major Marco's a career soldier who's haunted by his experience in the first Gulf War.

Couric: "Is that something you're cognizant of, Denzel, when you're taking on a role like this, that, gosh, this was played by Frank Sinatra. Or is that -- does that even enter your mind?"

: "No. If I had to sing it'd be different. I'd be real nervous. But no, I didn't think about it at all. I mean, it's interesting, like 'Much Ado About Nothing's' going to play in Central Park. No one questions the fact that it can be reinterpreted over and over again. Somehow, films are not allowed to do that."

Streep: "I mean, with all apologies to Angela, there were some things that could be fixed."

In the original, Angela Lansbury played the wicked wife of a senator, and mother to a would-be political assassin. In the update, Meryl Streep is the senator, scheming and engineering her son's rise to presidential power.

Couric: "Some people have described your character, Meryl, as Hillary Clinton's evil twin. And I'm just curious about whether you modeled your character in any way after people—"

Streep: "Her? No!"

Couric: "--people recognizable."

Streep: "No. I was thinking of, in particular, two people. But—"

Couric: "If you told me would you have to kill me?"

Streep: "Yeah. Then America would be mad at me. If I did that."

Liev Schreiber plays her son, Raymond Shaw, who's been brainwashed and programmed by a corporate conglomerate, that wants to take over the White House and the world.

Couric: "Manchurian Global obviously is this huge worldwide conglomerate, and they are the true evil empire in this film.  Is this an indictment in any way of corporate America. What are your thoughts on that?"

Deeme: "Well, I-- not corporate America per se, but I know one of the things that excited me about the script when it came was in the first movie, the great world threat was characterized as communism. And in our picture, the story suggests that the multi-national corporations that profit on war may just be a huge ingredient of a great global threat today. Now with the war in Iraq going on, we're reading about the misadventures of some of these multi-national corporations. So I don't think we're making anything up in our movie."

Couric: "But I mean it is taken to the extreme, come on."

Washington: "Let's hope so."

Deeme: "With all this stuff going on, I kept hoping that we'd be one step ahead of the game when our picture came out, and I feel like we're just barely competing with what we're reading about in the papers nowadays. So, I don't think we're all that farfetched. I think we're a lot more fun than the real world."

But lately, it seems the worlds of Hollywood and politics have collided, due in large part to Michael Moore's controversial "Fahrenheit 9/11" and the lengthy list of luminaries who attended that recent fundraiser for Sen. John Kerry.  

Streep: "Oh, I was there."

Couric: "I know you were there. And in fact, I read your quote. You said -- you talked about President Bush and his invocation of religion and you said—"

Streep: "No, of Jesus."

Couric: "Of Jesus, sorry. ‘Through the shock and awe, I wondered which of the megaton bombs Jesus, our president's personal savior, would have personally dropped on the sleeping families in Baghdad.’"

Streep: "It was a question about when you put Jesus on the campaign bus to stump for you, you have to really listen to what he says, because he says, ‘If a man smite thee on the cheek, let you turn the other that he may smite it also.’ And he says, ‘He who lives by the sword dies by the sword.’ And he says, ‘Love thine enemy.’ Jesus could have raised an army against the people that persecuted him. He didn't. So that's what I was pointing out in my speech, and I couldn't really imagine Jesus, like I couldn't imagine how Jesus would vote. Jesus was the Prince of Peace. Would the Prince of Peace vote for a war President?"

Washington: "And it's open to interpretation. Jesus also went into the temple and kicked everybody out."

Streep: "That's kicking the money-changers out of the temple."

Washington: "Well, you're right. So—"

Streep: "The money-changers should get out of Congress, I agree. And I agree, but he didn't—"

Washington: "He didn't. He didn't only say turn the other cheek though. You’ve got to read the whole book.  That's not what all he said."

Streep: "Oh, I do read the whole book."

Washington: "I do too. And that's not all he said."

Streep: "What does he say that said 'pick up a stick and kill somebody?'"

Washington: "Like I said, he did go into the temple and cleared the place well—"

Streep: "Of money, yeah."

Washington: "Okay, well, we're all—"

Streep: "Money's bad."

Washington: "We all make money. So does that make us bad? Maybe he's talking about us?"

Streep: "Well, yeah, maybe."

While the New Testament might have been an unexpected and volatile sidebar, politics proved equally incendiary for Denzel.   

Couric: "Denzel, are you-- do you feel-- you know some people say Hollywood folks should stick to acting."

Washington: "I don't know what Hollywood folks are, first of all. Hollywood is a town that has some stars on the sidewalk. I don't know anybody from there. So, I don't-- that's like saying-- calling you a type of folks. I'm not a Hollywood folk. I don't know who they are."

Couric: "Okay, all right, well, let me rephrase the question. Are you one of those people that—"

Washington: "Ah, there you go. Am I one of those people? Hmmm, isn't that interesting?"

Couric: "Oh, stop, stop, stop."

Washington: "No, don't stop.  I heard what you just said.  "Am I one of those people?"  No, I'm not."

Couric: "No, are you an actor who would rather not—"

Washington: "No, I'm not that either. I'm a human being. My job is acting."

Couric: "Okay, are you somebody who would rather not express his political views publicly? I mean how do you feel about that? Some people are more outspoken than others. And what I meant, are you one of the people who would rather keep it private? Don't make my questions loaded when they're not."

Washington: "Would I rather keep it private? No, I'm not one of those people. I think I speak what's on my mind."

Couric: "And how do you feel about the current political situation?"

Washington: "You know, I haven't seen ‘Fahrenheit 9/11,’ because I live in America. I grew up here. I'm an ex-slave. I'm a result of what this country can do. So it's nothing knew to me. I'm not surprised at all. It's just business as usual.  What I want to talk about is, what are we doing right now, today, for these young kids that are coming home? Are we embracing them? I don't hear about them being lifted up. I mean, I'm not just talking about a parade but—"

Couric: "Are they getting the support they need."

Washington: "Are they getting the support and love they need from us? And maybe that story's being told, but I sure haven't seen it that much in the news. Yeah, they're pointing fingers about who was right and whose wrong and who started what and where the weapons of mass destruction. But these kids are coming home."

Streep: "Uh-huh."

Washington: "You know, I have a son, 19, 19-year-olds are coming home completely different."

While these three agree, "Manchurian Candidate" doesn't have an ideological agenda, they admit it's no coincidence it's set against the backdrop of an election. If nothing else, Jonathan Demme hopes it sparks what it did here -- a dialogue.

Demme: "It's fundamental to a democracy that you're not only permitted to speak out, you're supposed to have an opinion, you're supposed to speak out, you're supposed to engage in a discourse.  And in this way, we arrive at ideas that can move us forward in a positive fashion. I wish everybody could get on TV and talk about how they feel. Maybe we'd learn something."