fifteen-minute interview with Jack and Meg White might not seem like the pop-cultural equivalent of the SALT II talks. Until you’re solemnly instructed to ask no personal questions. Then sent email and voicemail reminding you to ask no personal questions. Then given an in-person “friendly reminder” outside the interview room that if the delicate personal sphere were compromised in any way, Jack and Meg would get up and leave the table.
Which is actually fine. Lately, what’s interesting about the Whites isn’t their marital status, court records or real favorite color; it’s the quick and recent expansion of their talents. In the last year, they released the album Elephant, which topped a number of critics’ year-end lists, while Jack co-starred in Cold Mountain alongside Nicole Kidman and produced an excellent album for Loretta Lynn.
Now the couple has collaborated with indie god Jim Jarmusch on Coffee & Cigarettes, a collection of short films that allows various indie favorites (Bill Murray, RZA, Cate Blanchett) to play slightly cracked versions of themselves. In the Whites’ segment, Jack is a mad genius fixated on an instrument (in this case, a Tesla electrical generator); Meg, a fetchingly coy sounding board with more on her mind than she lets on. They, and the film, are really good.
In person, they were kind, funny and forthcoming. While their polyester-panted security detail watched from the corner, we talked about acting ambitions, Orson Welles and exploding elephants. — Michael Martin
Musicians can make terrible actors. Were you worried this might become your Glitter? [General laughter] What’s your performance technique: Meisner or Stanislavski? How did you get involved with the project? Is that what swayed you? Jack, are you surprised by the interest in you as an actor? Especially with the personas and lore you’ve created for yourselves. What’s the bigger construction: the Meg and Jack characters in this film, or the Meg and Jack characters onstage? And were your roles parallel to those in real life: Jack the manic believer, Meg the voice of reason? Are you fans of Tesla? If you could pick alter egos from cinema history, who would they be? Besides Cold Mountain, what’s on your acting CV? If you could pick another director to work with, who would it be? Jack, you make a convincing science geek. Was it a nerve-wracking shoot? What kind of direction would he give you?
Meg: Well, the advantage was that we were playing ourselves, so if you can’t do that properly —
Jack: There is less contempt for musicians to act then there are for actors who want to make a record. Even if they’ve had that in them before they started acting, there’s so much contempt for that. I always feel sorry for them. I think people believe music comes from some really natural expression and acting is fabricated, that that’s the purpose of acting: you’re pretending. Music is not pretending, so it’s almost like someone who pretends is trying not to pretend and be real or something
Meg: Also because there’s an element of acting in music, and there isn’t an element of music in acting. People always try to separate the two.
Jack: "Be yourself." It wasn’t that hard.
Meg: [laughs] Yeah, it was really unlike what we would normally do.
Jack: [pregnant laughter] You’re right about that.
Meg: We met Jim, we started talking with him, and he asked us if we wanted to do one of these little shorts of his.
Jack: He was actually wearing little shorts at the time.
Jack: Oh, it swayed me all right. It swayed me.
Jack: Yeah, I suppose so. Anthony Minghella, the director of Cold Mountain, said that any performer who performs in any way on stage is in some way an actor, and it’s easy to translate, because if you have the desire or creativity to perform, maybe you’re not a good actor, but you’re doing some sort of acting in some sense, because you’re presenting something to people. Which in a way is unnatural, especially with all the electricity involved. It’s different than sitting on your front porch playing acoustic guitar or something. Which could be, whatever. Quote endquote natural. That would be unnatural to be on stage in front of people and having lights shot out of you and giant amplifiers. And he’s right, there is acting involved in that. So it’s probably not too much of a stretch sometimes.
Meg: [drags on cigarette]
Jack: I don’t know. I suppose they’re both interesting.
Meg: Both are different aspects of our personalities.
Jack: The film was a different take on it for sure, because we sat down and said, “This is the script, this is what we’re going to do, how do you say these words as good as possible?” You know, as we walk out to go on stage we’re not contriving things, like ‘We’re going to do this and this and this.” We never really rehearse; we just do it in the moment. We just do the first thing that comes into our heads.
Jack: Difficult to tell sometimes. I think our characters were a funny take on any two people – the way that she’s listening to me go on and on when she really knows about it anyway, she’s just listening to me talk. I think anyone could relate to that.
Jack: I am a huge fan. That’s what motivated Jim to write that script; he had this Tesla book on his desk and we wanted him to direct this video for us for our next album where I played Tesla and I battled Thomas Edison with our inventions. In real life, Edison electrocuted an elephant through Tesla’s alternating current theory. That was going to be part of the video, but it got too expensive, renting an elephant and everything.
Jack: Probably Orson Welles. I think he was really in touch with beauty and he knew how to get points across really well. I think that he was like a lot of guitar players who were drummers first and are better guitar players because of it. Because Welles started out in radio, I think that made him a better filmmaker. I heard him say one time, you should know the relationships of the people in a film with the sound turned off. Without any dialogue or any music, you should feel the difference between people or whatever it is. And it’s really important, and coming from that standpoint, it just makes everything even better.
Meg: [contemplates] I have no idea.
Jack: I was in a film when I was ten years old. They filmed a movie in Detroit called The Rosary Murders with Donald Sutherland. I was an altar boy. Donald was actually in Cold Mountain, and I came up to him and said, “Hey, this is our second film together.”
Meg: John Waters!
Jack: Yeah, Meg should be in a John Waters movie; that would be pretty perfect.
Meg: I’m really good at teasing my hair.
Jack: That’s half the battle.
Jack: I really, really love science. I read a lot about it. It’s one of those subjects I would actually like to go back and take classes about, because it’s one of the few things in high school I liked. What’s interesting is that eBay has become the new drugstore. There was this article that said that chemistry sets in the 1800s contained elements that could blow your house up. It’s amazing that boys grew up to become scientists without killing themselves. And now you can’t get a lot of elements, especially after 9/11. You can’t buy aluminum shavings at the drugstore, but people are selling them online. The internet is the new chemistry set.
Meg: [musingly] The chemistry teacher in high school probably had to rework his whole plan after 9/11. They used to blow everything up in that class.
Jack: I think anything with Jim is probably pretty easy. He’s good at the funniest things too. I remember he said, we need a lot of shooting like this, then we can move this over here and move that over there, and Jim said, “Well, I don’t know how to do that.” And he wasn’t joking. It was so nice to hear someone say “I don’t know how to do that” out loud.
Meg: Nothing, really.
Jack: He really likes space. He kept telling us to slow down and give things space. Oh, and he told me to shut up a lot and let Meg talk.
Meg: [pause] Yeah, that was part of it.
Musicians can make terrible actors. Were you worried this might become your Glitter?
What’s your performance technique: Meisner or Stanislavski?
How did you get involved with the project?
Is that what swayed you?
Jack, are you surprised by the interest in you as an actor?
Especially with the personas and lore you’ve created for yourselves. What’s the bigger construction: the Meg and Jack characters in this film, or the Meg and Jack characters onstage?
And were your roles parallel to those in real life: Jack the manic believer, Meg the voice of reason?
Are you fans of Tesla?
If you could pick alter egos from cinema history, who would they be?
Besides Cold Mountain, what’s on your acting CV?
If you could pick another director to work with, who would it be?
Jack, you make a convincing science geek.
Was it a nerve-wracking shoot?
What kind of direction would he give you?