You Can Count On Me
Lily Percy, host: Hello, fellow movie fans. I’m Lily Percy, and I’ll be your guide this week as I talk with Hrishikesh Hirway about the movie that changed his life, You Can Count On Me. Don’t worry if you haven’t seen it. We’re gonna give you all the details so you’ll follow along.
[music: “Pilgrim” by Steve Earle & The Del McCoury Band]
The most important relationship in my life is the one that I have with my older brother, Juan Marcos. He, in many ways, raised me. He was a father figure to me growing up. When we first moved to the United States, he introduced me to almost everything — how to ride a bike, A Tribe Called Quest, and how to survive a new country as a kid. We supported each other, and when everything else around us seemed to fail us, we still knew that we had each other. This is what the movie You Can Count On Me showcases so beautifully — that sibling relationship, that one that you can count on when you can count on no one else in your life.
[excerpt: You Can Count On Me]
The brother and sister in You Can Count On Me — Terry and Sammy — are played by Mark Ruffalo and Laura Linney. And their relationship is honest [laughs]. It is brutally honest at times. Both of them are not perfect people, and in fact, their relationship is at a distance. Terry, Mark Ruffalo’s character, is a wanderer. He hasn’t quite figured out what his role and his place in life is and so he’s looking for himself. Sammy, Laura Linney’s character, has never left home. She has a son, Rudy. She has a stable job, and yet, she’s also looking for herself. That’s one of the things that makes the movie stand the test of time, almost twenty years later — is the fact that it depicts this human relationship and bond in a realistic way.
[excerpt: You Can Count On Me]
The real sibling relationship at the center of You Can Count On Me really struck Hrishikesh Hirway, the host of the podcasts Song Exploder and The West Wing Weekly. It struck him so deeply because he saw his himself in Terry, and the closeness of that relationship mirrored the one he had with his own sister, Priya. It’s one he hadn’t really seen anywhere else.
I’d like to take you back in time for a minute, by asking you to talk about the first time you saw You Can Count on Me. I’d love for you to close your eyes and think about how old you were, where you were, all of the circumstances that surrounded you that first time that you saw the movie.
Hrishikesh Hirway: It was in the summer — late summer of 2001. I was at home, in the house that I grew up in in Massachusetts, and I was about to leave and move to New York. I was trying to figure out where I was going to go to try and have this career as a film composer, maybe, and continue my life as a musician.
Ms. Percy: Had you graduated college already?
Mr. Hirway: Yeah, I had graduated college. I think my family was a little bit concerned about my direction, and I moved back home temporarily and got a job in Massachusetts and was working there and living in my parents’ place. My sister was also living there at the time.
Ms. Percy: And is your sister older or younger?
Mr. Hirway: My sister is older. The age difference between my sister and me is small enough that we could enjoy a lot of things together, and big enough that she, in some ways, was like a third parent for me. She’s the person who taught me how to read. She introduced me to so many of the things in my life now that I still love, she was the person who brought those to me at first. And especially, once she left for college, and I was in high school, we became really close. We started writing letters, and we’ve really been very close since then.
So I put on this movie. I had heard good things about it, but I didn’t know, really, anything about it, and at the time, I had been working at this internet company in Massachusetts, and that company, like so many startups around 2001, was fizzling out. They had started out really hot, and then they died down. It wasn’t a place that I was particularly passionate about this was just a day job. Anyway, that ended, and I didn’t want to look for another job. I just wanted to be a musician. I was temping and doing things here and there and sometimes I wouldn’t work because the temp jobs would actually pay less than if I just collected the unemployment that I was gonna get. So it was a strange time, and I was trying to actually figure out moving to L.A. I wanted to move to LA, but I was just too scared to move to L.A.
Ms. Percy: And in your family, had there ever been an artist before? Because your parents are immigrants, right?
Mr. Hirway: Yeah, my parents are from India; and no. The idea of me performing music was foreign enough, let alone trying to make a living doing it. The idea of going to Hollywood and trying to do something in the movie industry just added even more layers of complexity and foreignness to the whole thing.
So my sister came home from work, and it was towards the end of the movie. And I was 90 percent of the way done with it, and I loved it so much, and I wanted her to experience it too, so I waved her off; I was like, “Go somewhere else. Do not have any of this spoiled at all. I want you to see it fresh.” So I waved her away, and she was like, “OK.”
And my strongest memory of this is actually the moment after the movie ended. I went into my parents’ room, where my sister was watching TV. My sister was there, she had kind of quarantined herself, waiting for me to finish the movie. And I was just kind of marinating in the feelings of what I had just seen, and I sat next to her, and I put my arms around her and gave her a hug. And I think, we started talking about it a little bit, but I didn’t want to give too much away to her, and then I started crying. And then I started crying really hard. I think, to this day, probably the hardest I have ever cried as an adult, if you can consider a 21-year-old an adult. And my mom came in, and she was like, “What did you do?” to my — [laughs]
Ms. Percy: [laughs] Exactly, yeah. The older sibling gets blamed — “What happened?”
Mr. Hirway: [laughs] Yeah, exactly. My sister’s like, “I don’t know.” And she hadn’t seen the movie or anything, so she had no idea where this was coming from. But all of these feelings of, my own sense of guilt and responsibility, or lack of responsibility, to my family and the duties of being a good child and all this stuff — the movie crystallized it for me in a way that I don’t think it had been before.
Ms. Percy: So when did your sister watch it?
Mr. Hirway: I think I made her watch it that night.
Ms. Percy: I was gonna say, she can’t wait.
Mr. Hirway: Yeah, I think she watched it that night. And I might have watched it again, right then and there, with her.
Ms. Percy: And what was her reaction?
Mr. Hirway: She loved it. I think, in some ways, the emotional punch might have been spoiled a little bit by the fact that [laughs] I watched it, not knowing anything about it. She watched it, being like, “Oh, this movie just made my brother sob like a baby.” But she of course, loves that movie as well. I told her, “I felt like this movie was us.” I think that’s what I said to her, “This is us.”
[excerpt: You Can Count On Me]
Mr. Hirway: My sister is the more responsible, older sister who is staying in the place where we grew up and carrying on some of the traditions and values and idioms of our parents. And I was the screw-up who was following his whims and going off wherever, without much heed to responsibility, either personal responsibility or familial responsibility. And she said that she didn’t actually see it quite that way. She saw all the positive stuff between the sibling relationship; she was like, “Yeah, I see that.” But I think she thought that I was being too hard on myself, comparing myself to Terry. But that’s not how I felt about it. I really felt like I identified with Terry, the good and the bad in him, very deeply.
Ms. Percy: It’s so fascinating, because Roger Ebert, in his review of You Can Count On Me, said this — he just was like a prophet, to me, in so many ways — and he said this incredible thing: “This is not a movie about people solving things. This is a movie about people living day-to-day with their plans, fears, and desires.” And it really struck me, because what you’re saying — you saw yourself in Terry, who, in so many ways, is a fuck-up. That’s his role. And yet, the movie is also about how time and distance doesn’t break this bond that he has with his sister. And even though they’re such very different people, it’s about the reality of the day-to-day and what happens in their adult lives. And yet, even with all of that, they still don’t break that bond.
Mr. Hirway: The other thing that this gave voice to is something darker too. It wasn’t just sweetness and also not just self-directed guilt. One of my favorite moments is when Terry is packing his bag and he is venting at Rudy. And he says, “I just want to get out of this town, and if you’ve got any sense, you’ll get out of here too.”
Ms. Percy: [laughs] Rudy, who is his 8-year-old nephew. It’s just crazy, the way he talks to him.
Mr. Hirway: And he says, “Your mom’s gonna live in this town for the rest of her life, and you know why? Because she thinks she has to. Don’t ask me why, but that’s the truth. She thinks there’s all these things she has to do. But you want to know one thing about your mom? She’s a bigger fuck-up than I ever was” — because of the sense of obligation. It’s not just like, oh, how noble that the older sister is doing these things. To me, there was some sense of — I was a little angry at my sister.
Ms. Percy: Kind of trapped by expectations too, right?
Mr. Hirway: Yeah. And I get it, it’s an immigrant family that has certain expectations; and daughters in general, but especially older daughters, they don’t get to have the same kind of freedom that I would get to, as the baby boy of the family. But I was upset that my sister wouldn’t just reach out and grab whatever she wanted, the way that I did. Partly because I felt like she wasn’t getting to live the life that she wanted or could have, and also because it ended up imposing this guilt on me, that I’m going out and trying to do the thing that I want, and I have to feel bad about it, because my sister is sitting here, taking care of the house and taking care of my family, just because she thinks that’s what she has to do.
[excerpt: You Can Count On Me]
Ms. Percy: If you’re enjoying my conversation with Hrishikesh, or if you love This Movie Changed Me, reach out to us. We’re on Facebook and Instagram at thismoviechangedme — all one word — and Twitter at TMCMpodcast. Let us know what movies changed you, what you’re connecting with on the show, or what you wish we’d do differently. We always love hearing from you.
[music: “Vampire” by Bap Kennedy]
Ms. Percy: It’s fascinating, the kinds of hopes and expectations that our families have for us, and then that we have for each other as siblings. One of my favorite scenes in the movie is when Terry first comes back to their hometown, and he meets his sister, Sammy, at the restaurant. And I guess we should say that one of the reasons why they’re so close is because they both lost their parents when they were kids; their parents were killed in a car accident, and so they grew up really only having each other as the family unit. As a result, that bond that they already had was made even closer. So it’s very clear, Terry travels all the time; he’s this wanderer and a fuck-up, [laughs] as we’ve said. And he meets Sammy after a while, at this restaurant, and it’s really awkward. It’s awkward because she’s so excited, and he’s there, really, just to borrow money and to leave. It just reminds me, too, of what can happen in sibling relationships, which is what happens when you’re no longer living in the same house, and time and distance start to pull you apart, and you’re just really struggling to hold onto that dynamic that you had and not really losing that. And I just wondered how you and your sister have dealt with that kind of expectation of each other and how you’ve allowed each other to grow together.
Mr. Hirway: The scene that breaks my heart early on in the movie is when you see Laura Linney — when Sammy gets a letter from Terry, and she has a filing cabinet, and there’s a file that says, “Terry correspondence,” because you immediately know that he is not saving letters that he’s getting back from her.
Ms. Percy: [laughs] Yeah, exactly.
Mr. Hirway: He’s basically living out of a backpack. And just that shot of “Terry correspondence,” that really crushed me. I have tried really hard to not be that version, to not be the fuck-up, to be there for my sister. She’s never, ever, ever made me feel like I wasn’t holding up my end of the bargain, or anything like that. But she said something about how, at that time, she just always wanted to feel like, whatever I was doing or wherever I was going, that there was this safe place for me to come back to.
I think I have always felt this tremendous debt to my sister because of that. There are some things that you can’t repay when you’re the younger sibling. Like I said, my sister taught me how to read. There isn’t really any way to repay something like that. It’s a relationship that is just born of inequity, and we’re never gonna really be on even footing. I just felt like my sister was there for me in ways that my parents couldn’t be, not because they didn’t want to be or something, but just because there was a cultural gap. In addition to the generational gap that’s in every family, there’s also a cultural gap that existed not just between our parents and us, but also, between us and other American kids that I was friends with. They couldn’t relate to that cultural gap with their parents. Sometimes I felt like my sister was the only person who really understood all of this stuff. I don’t know. She just made things easier for me. Even still, watching the movie yesterday just brought all of that stuff flooding back.
Ms. Percy: I totally relate to what you’re saying, because I think there is something that happens for the older sibling. It’s almost like a translation. My parents are Colombian; we were born in Colombia. My brother came when he was ten, and I was four. And he was, in so many ways, my parent. But I think there’s also that thing that happens with immigrant parents, where the sibling that is learning first has to teach the younger sibling, and cradles you and really protects you in ways that you could never pay back. Like you’re saying, you could never pay that back.
It reminds me so much of the last scene in the movie, which, for me, has only become more resonant as I’ve gotten older and my brother has gotten older. It’s the scene where Sammy asks Terry, “What’s gonna happen to you?” And Terry says, “Nothing too bad. But I gotta tell you, Sammy, it’s really good to know, wherever I am and whatever stupid shit I’m doing, that you’re back at my home, rooting for me.” Ugh, that scene is so heartbreakingly beautiful.
Mr. Hirway: Yeah. My sister used to — sometimes I’d come to visit her, and in her car, she’d be listening to my CD.
Ms. Percy: Oh…
Mr. Hirway: And it just — I always felt like she was my biggest fan, not in a cheesy way or anything — because my parents, they would try and support me and stuff, but even they wouldn’t…
Ms. Percy: They wouldn’t get it, right? It’s not their world.
Mr. Hirway: The lyrics and things like that. She would appreciate it. I felt like she was back home rooting for me, and that scene crushes me. Plus, also, one of the things I love about this movie is the title, and this scene, and how they get there without ever saying —
Ms. Percy: They never say it. They allude to it. [laughs]
Mr. Hirway: Yeah, “Remember what we used to say to each other?”
Ms. Percy: Exactly. It’s brilliant. It reminds me of — this other film critic, David Edelstein, said in his review in Slate that when people open their mouths, the characters in this movie, “what comes out is never a definite expression of character: It’s an awkward compromise between how they feel and what they’re able to say; or how they feel and what they think they should say; or how they feel and what will best conceal how they actually feel.” [laughs] There’s always so much that is not being said that is right there, and it doesn’t even get expressed in words, but you feel it.
Mr. Hirway: Yeah.
[excerpt: You Can Count On Me]
Ms. Percy: Something that I wonder about is how this movie actually helped you — and maybe, as you’ve gotten older and watched it again and again, how it’s helped you to reconcile your own sense of responsibility with your family. I know that that was something that you talked about — it made you feel guilty, this idea of you going off and pursuing this career as an artist, as a musician. And I wonder how it’s helped you reconcile that.
Mr. Hirway: I think Terry, his character has been a warning for me, a cautionary tale. This character feels so much like me, and maybe a version of me, like a “there but for the grace of God, go I” version of me. For better or for worse, I end up trying very hard to justify the choices that I’ve made to my family. I think we’re now past the point where they’re worried about me. They don’t question the decisions that I’ve made or anything like that, for a long time, but I think I feel an extreme pressure to show them, almost on a weekly basis, I intend to check in with my parents to give them a progress report. One, because they want to hear from me; but also, I think, I tend to try and show, “Hey, this is happening, and this is happening, and this is happening, so look, you still don’t have to worry about me. These are interesting things that are happening to my life or that are happening in my life because of the choices that I made, not despite them.”
Ms. Percy: And your sister has your back [laughs] and supports you in that too, I’m sure.
Mr. Hirway: Yeah, she still is, I think, my number one fan. And it means so much to me.
[music: “I’m Still In Love With You” by Steve Earle & The Del McCoury Band]
Ms. Percy: Hrishikesh Hirway is a force to be reckoned with. He hosts the podcasts, Song Exploder and The West Wing Weekly. He also writes music with the band, Moors, and by himself as The One AM Radio. And if that’s not enough, he just scored the music for the Netflix original series, Everything Sucks.
Next time we’re going to be talking about the Coen Brothers’ cult classic, The Big Lebowski, which turns 20 this year. You’ve got two weeks to find it before our next conversation‚ and I highly recommend you get yourself a white russian for when you hang out with the dude.
Special shout-out this week to JulesYenn for her Apple Podcasts review. She says we’re “a welcome respite when [she] just can’t take anymore depressing situations” from other podcasts — and calls us “solid goodness in [her] ears.” We wanna be solid goodness in more people’s ears — so subscribe to us on Apple Podcasts, and leave us a review.
This Movie Changed Me is produced by Maia Tarrell, Chris Heagle, Tony Liu, and Marie Sambilay, and is an On Being Studios production.
I’m Lily Percy, and I have to go call my brother, and say thank you.