The On Being Project

You've Got Mail
  • Casper ter Kuile

You've Got Mail

Harry Potter and the Sacred Text’s Casper ter Kuile talks about this classic Meg Ryan/Tom Hanks movie, one he always watches with a pint of ice cream. It shaped the world he longed for as a 14-year-old, and later on, even the kind of man he would marry.

Share Your Reflection


  • Casper ter Kuile

    Casper ter Kuile

    is the co-host of the totally addictive podcast Harry Potter and the Sacred Text, which explores the magic of that book chapter by chapter and what it can teach us about our own lives. And we’re excited that he will be joining the On Being Project’s new Impact Lab this spring.


Lily Percy, host: Hello, movie fans. I’m Lily Percy, and I’ll be your guide this week as I talk with my friend and co-host of the podcast Harry Potter and the Sacred Text, Casper ter Kuile, about the movie that changed his life: You’ve Got Mail. If you’ve seen You’ve Got Mail, then you know what to expect, and you’ll be in for a treat. But if you haven’t, don’t worry about it, as we’re gonna give you all of the details that you need to be just as excited about this conversation as we are.

[music: “The Puppy Song” by Harry Nilsson from You’ve Got Mail: Music from the Motion Picture]

Ms. Percy: I resisted watching You’ve Got Mail, for many, many years. I’m a big romantic comedy fan, so it’s not because of the romance in it or the fact that Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan are the main, principal actors, because that’s a huge sell for me. But I resisted it because it was a remake of the original, Shop Around the Corner with Jimmy Stewart.

And I just never thought they would be able to do justice to a movie that was so much about unrequited love and the idea of falling for someone that you shouldn’t love — that is the complete opposite of you and that, quite frankly, is almost like your archnemesis, in some ways. But when I finally watched You’ve Got Mail in a moment of weakness, I fell in love with it.

[excerpt: You’ve Got Mail]

Ms. Percy: I fell in love with all the ideas behind this New York that doesn’t exist — this nostalgic, warm fall, Christmassy New York, where everything is beautiful, and people say hello to each other on the street, and everyone seems to know each other — and I fell in love with the idea of falling in love, which is really what this movie is about, even if you find that love on the internet.

[excerpt: You’ve Got Mail]

Ms. Percy: So You’ve Got Mail is about two people — Joe, played by Tom Hanks, and Kathleen, played by Meg Ryan — who meet online, the early days of the AOL chatroom. They know that they both love books. They know that they both live in New York. And that’s about it — they don’t know anything else about each other. And through the back-and-forth emails that they send each other, they fall in love. They’re vulnerable with each other. They’re able to share everything that they don’t share with even the significant others in their own life, with the people in their own lives. They’re able to really confess to each other in a way that only the internet and the anonymity of the internet can provide.

[excerpt: You’ve Got Mail]

Ms. Percy: So as much as I’ve become a huge convert to You’ve Got Mail and a huge fan of it, I’m nowhere near as big a fan of it as my dear friend, Casper ter Kuile. I first met Casper a few years ago, and in one of our early hangouts he revealed to me his love for You’ve Got Mail. And I just knew that it was a movie that he had to talk about with me. It’s a movie that changed his life profoundly and, ultimately, even foreshadowed the way that he looked at love.

[music: “The You’ve Got Mail Suite” by George Fenton from You’ve Got Mail: Music from the Motion Picture]

Ms. Percy: So I'm gonna transport you to a little place right now, I hope. I don't know if you know this, but Mr. Rogers, when he — you know Mr. Rogers? I know you're not an American.

Mr. ter Kuile: I do.

Ms. Percy: You do know Mr. Rogers. [laughs]

Mr. ter Kuile: I have learned about it, yes.

Ms. Percy: You learned about Mr. Fred Rogers. When he was accepting his Lifetime Achievement Award at the Daytime Emmys, he did this amazing thing as part of his acceptance speech where he asked everyone in the room to take ten seconds and think about all of the people that brought them to where they were at that moment. And I'm not gonna ask you to do that. [laughs] You can do that mentally, while I'm talking. But what I am gonna ask you to do is to think back to the first time that you watched You've Got Mail and think about the way you felt, where you were, how old you were, all of those things, and just go back to that time when you first saw it. And I'll just look at the clock, and I'll chime in when the ten seconds are up.

Mr. ter Kuile: OK, thank you.

Ms. Percy: So what memories came up for you, when you were thinking about You've Got Mail and that first time you saw it?

Mr. ter Kuile: I think I saw it when I was maybe 14. And I was a little 14-year-old queer kid in a boys' boarding house at a very fancy English school, and I felt so alone. I was so disconnected from the rest of the students, and — I don't know, I was bad at the things you were supposed to be good at. And I remember watching You've Got Mail and — first of all, obviously, it takes place in Manhattan.

Ms. Percy: The magical New York.

Mr. ter Kuile: And so it's a magical New York place —

Ms. Percy: And a New York that doesn't exist, by the way. It's a New York that you're nostalgic for.

Mr. ter Kuile: Don't ruin the illusion. [laughs]

Ms. Percy: I know.

Mr. ter Kuile: But it was this dream of another place, where people have conversations about literature, and they go on fancy dates, and they live on a boat because they've left their girlfriend, [laughs] or whatever it is. And just everything seemed shiny and beautiful. It was fall, and there were parks and fairs. It just seemed like this kind of adult world that I didn't yet have access to, that I longed for. That's what I remember — of longing for not only their lifestyle, but also, love that you could find as an adult, which I definitely wasn't finding as a 14-year-old.

Ms. Percy: I love that you mentioned longing, because that's the thing that came through for me last night, when I was watching it again for, like, the thirtieth time, was how much this movie captures that feeling of longing perfectly — what it feels to long for something; and not just love, but just longing in general — just to be longing. And I think about you as a 14-year-old and how that clearly came through to you.

Mr. ter Kuile: Oh, my God, Lily, it was so much worse. There's this scene where Kathleen Kelly, who’s played by Meg Ryan, writes a missive to this man that she met in this chat room —

Ms. Percy: To Joe.

Mr. ter Kuile: Right. She doesn't even know, really, who he is. And she says, at some point, "I just wanted to write this down. So good night, dear void. Even if it's just going into the void, good night, dear void." And I remember, like, I wrote that in my diary to myself. [laughs] I really thought I was that kind of person.

Ms. Percy: Oh, my God.

Mr. ter Kuile: Just, like — yeah, just, like, you have so many feelings, and where is it all going?

And I think that's what I love about this movie, is, yes, it's a love story, but they don't meet until the very last scene of the movie. The story is really about an idea of someone. And I met my husband online, so there’s an echo in my own life here. But there is a — the story and the love that builds inside both of these characters is one of longing, and of really projection onto the unknown of what might be. And I'm someone who always lives kind of in the future. I love to think about future plans. And I think this movie is so much about that — that it's — you get to create perfection in your mind before it even happens.

[excerpt: You’ve Got Mail]

Ms. Percy: And there's something about the written word and the anonymity that they both had, not knowing who each other was, that allowed them to really just be so honest and vulnerable and write something like what you were talking about. And also, just — it almost felt like confession, when I was watching it yesterday. It's like they're continuously confessing to each other.

Mr. ter Kuile: Well, especially because they share the worst parts of themselves, right? There's this zinger moment when Kathleen finally gets to say, "You're nothing but a suit" to this man who's crushed her business. And suddenly, she sees herself in a whole different way, and she's like, "I don't want to be that person." And I think we all do that, whether it's suddenly being very mean, or we have the perfect insult, or we judge someone in some way. And it's funny, or it works well, or we get what we wanted from that moment, but afterwards we feel that kind of icky feeling of embarrassment and shame. And I love that that's so central to their relationship — is being completely honest about who they are with each other. There is no pretense.

Ms. Percy: And the way that they write to each other, it allows them to write so romantically, in a way that it felt almost like I was reading an Austen novel. It's no coincidence that she's reading Pride and Prejudice all throughout the movie.

I wanted to just read a couple of the things that they say to each other, just how poetic they are.

Joe, early on, in one of the exchanges, he writes:

[excerpt: You’ve Got Mail]

Mr. ter Kuile: "Sharpened pencils." [laughs]

Ms. Percy: "If I knew your name and address." I mean what man would say that to a woman in real life? I mean seriously.

Mr. ter Kuile: Right?

Ms. Percy: It’s amazing that he's able to say this.

[excerpt: You’ve Got Mail]

Ms. Percy: It's — ugh. It's just — swoon. And then Kathleen, played by Meg Ryan — and I should say, Joe is played by Tom Hanks — she writes:

[excerpt: You’ve Got Mail]

Together: “You've got mail.”

Ms. Percy: "I hear nothing." [laughs]

Mr. ter Kuile: My skin is tingling. “I hear nothing."

Together: "Nothing, not even a sound on the streets of New York…"

Ms. Percy: "Just the beat of my own heart. I have mail — from you."

Mr. ter Kuile: “From you.”

Ms. Percy: When you read it out loud, it sounds kind of cheesy, but oh, my God, it's so poetic.

Mr. ter Kuile: Just wait for the Cranberries soundtrack to kick in underneath. Oh, it's so great. And it's the perfect fall movie, because you see — there's pumpkins, and there's this idealized sense of time and the seasons, as well. And then Christmas comes, and she's decorating the tree, and Joni Mitchell's playing, and — I don't know, it's just such an evocative — and it's so funny. That's something that I think is really underrated about this movie.

Ms. Percy: It really is.

Mr. ter Kuile: There are some hilarious lines.

Ms. Percy: Great one-liners.

Mr. ter Kuile: Oh, my God. "I'm going to the nut shop, where it's fun." [laughs] Or — or — [laughs] Tom Hanks's girlfriend, played by Parker Posey, is this kind of horrific, publishing-world character. And she finds out that someone who she doesn't like has died, and she says, "Ugh, that's one less person I'm not talking to," [laughs] which is just so brutal.

Ms. Percy: I love how he describes her — Patricia. He's like, "Patricia's amazing. Patricia makes coffee nervous." [laughs] So good.

Mr. ter Kuile: [laughs] And then the scene where Joe realizes he has to end the relationship with her, they get stuck in an elevator with the elevator attendant and a fabulously wealthy woman with a little dog and a big fur coat or something. And the woman starts by saying, "If I ever get out of this elevator, I'm gonna speak to my mama again." And then the elevator attendant says, "If I ever get out of this elevator, I'm gonna marry Orit. I don't know what's been stopping me." And then [laughs]…

Ms. Percy: Cue Patricia.

Mr. ter Kuile: Yeah, Patricia's like, "If I ever get out of this elevator, I'm having my eyes lasered" — which already, like, says, OK…

Ms. Percy: And that's when Joe looks at her and is like, mm-hmm.

Mr. ter Kuile: And then he starts to say:

[excerpt: You’ve Got Mail]

Mr. ter Kuile: [laughs] It's just like, yeah, get out of this relationship, right? The moment when it's clear that the love has gone — I think we've all had this moment where you — I remember, I brought a boyfriend home who was actually my boss, and he was a lot older than me. A wonderful man, in many ways —

Ms. Percy: Ooh, Casper, naughty. Love it.

Mr. ter Kuile: I know, very bad. And I brought him home to meet my parents, and the moment my mother opened the front door, I suddenly looked through her eyes at our relationship, and I was like, “What am I doing? No way do I need to be with this person.” And so I love the illustration of both the bringing-together in love, but also the moment when you're like, “I need to get out.”

Ms. Percy: We all need to be aware of the "Where are my Tic Tacs?" moment. [laughs]

Mr. ter Kuile: [laughs] Exactly.

[excerpt: You’ve Got Mail]

Ms. Percy: So I love that you talked about the fact that you met your husband online. And I wonder if — especially re-watching this movie, if there are lessons that you've carried into your relationship, lessons about love that this movie has taught you.

Mr. ter Kuile: I think the thing that it really taught me was that the person that we think we want to fall in love with is often the very opposite of the person who we should really fall in love with. In so many ways, these two characters are ill-suited for each other. They have different values about their work. They end up in real conflict around their work, especially. And I remember, I thought I wanted some big, hunky, rugby-playing kind of guy, and the man who I ended up meeting online and falling in love with and marrying was a musician, a classical musician who sang opera and who loves aesthetic things of beauty and creates — everything he makes is beautiful, whether it’s laying the dining table, cooking a dish, or singing a concert. And I never thought that’s what I really wanted. And I don’t know, I think there’s something in that of — the thing that maybe will make us most happy is the thing we least expect to fall in love with.

Ms. Percy: And then maybe it happens in your body before it even happens in your mind. You can’t even intellectualize it or understand it, and you have to really trust that.

Mr. ter Kuile: Yeah, that’s what she says: “Three little words: ‘I’ve got mail’ — from you.” She feels it in anticipation before she’s really able to explain it. And even when he stood her up, she’s — it’s not rational to continue a conversation with that person, when they’ve done something that has hurt you in that way. But — I don’t know, there’s this powerful connection there, which she’s willing to trust and try again. I love that.

[excerpt: You’ve Got Mail]

Ms. Percy: So how has this movie changed for you as you’ve gotten older, as you’ve continued to re-watch it? And now I’m in my mid-30s, and watching this, I was like, oh, this is the age that Meg Ryan is in this movie. She’s in her 30s, and — they never specifically say what age — but it’s kind of amazing, when you watch a movie through time, to see — when you catch up to the age of the characters. [laughs] So I’m just curious as to how it’s changed for you when you watch it now, at your current age, versus when you were 14.

Mr. ter Kuile: Well, I’m very specific about how I watch it. I’m not allowed to watch it with anyone else, because I don’t want them to dilute or poison the experience.

Ms. Percy: Or even comment at all sarcastically about anything.

Mr. ter Kuile: Or comment, exactly. I’m like, this is a sacred thing. This is just for me. And I watch it with a pint of Häagen-Dazs ice cream, by myself. And I really don’t just watch it flippantly. I will very specifically — I’m like, “Is it this” — and it’s often, “Is it this bad, that I need You’ve Got Mail? Yes, it is. OK.” And I’ll create the ritual time and space for it.

And I think the things that — there are some smaller things that have changed, like I live in America now, so I understand some of the references much more easily. I just get more of what’s going on. But every time I watch it, there’s something new.

Ms. Percy: It’s so funny, because the one thing I noticed that I had never noticed, yesterday, watching it, was — so the very famous last scene, where we hear Joe tell Shopgirl, “Don’t cry, Shopgirl. Don’t cry,” and Kathleen says, “I wanted it to be you. I wanted it to be you so badly,” and we’re crying as we’re watching this scene…

Mr. ter Kuile: Right.

Ms. Percy: They’re getting attacked by the dog.

Mr. ter Kuile: Yes, the dog is humping them. [laughs]

Ms. Percy: The dog is literally humping him. And I thought, this is Nora Ephron’s — just — this is the key thing to her, is that — always that lightness and humor amidst everything.

Mr. ter Kuile: Absolutely.

Ms. Percy: Even in this romantic, poignant moment, she’s like, “OK, let’s let the dog hump Tom Hanks.” [laughs]

Mr. ter Kuile: Exactly. “Brinkley. Brinkley.”

Ms. Percy: “Brinkley.”

Mr. ter Kuile: Yes. [laughs] And Nora Ephron really is a genius. This, I just think, is just fabulous writing.

Ms. Percy: And her sister, Delia, who she wrote it with, yeah.

Mr. ter Kuile: Oh, that’s right, yeah. You know what? That’s funny, that you mention that, because it feels so — the love between them actually nearly doesn’t feel romantic. It nearly feels familial, to me.

Ms. Percy: Yeah, that’s a great point, yeah.

Mr. ter Kuile: You know what? It’s not an erotic love. And none of the relationships in the film are really about sex, or about intimacy in that way. And I think that their writing, as two sisters, really infuses the whole plot. It feels like you’re in on the jokes all the time, because it has that familial sense.

Ms. Percy: Well, and I realize now — I never had this realization before you just said this — that I think she was also instructing us, teaching us all the many forms love takes, right? And not just in this romantic, sexual way, but in all the ways that we can find it in our lives.

Mr. ter Kuile: Yes, and I think that’s such a solid foundation. I think so many marriages are about — you go through a phase of passion, but things that really sustain a lot of relationships are a deep, deep friendship. And that’s what they build, during that time when they’re writing to each other, is that foundation. And hopefully they get it on, after the camera pans out. [laughs]

Ms. Percy: And hopefully not with the dog there. [laughs]

Mr. ter Kuile: Oh, absolutely. [laughs]

[music: “Signed Sealed Delivered I’m Yours” by Stevie Wonder]

Ms. Percy: Casper ter Kuile is the co-host of the totally addictive podcast, Harry Potter and the Sacred Text, where they talk about the magic of that book, chapter by chapter, and explore what it can teach us about our own lives. And we're also excited that he's going to be joining The On Being Project's new Impact Lab this spring.

Next time, on This Movie Changed Me, we’re going to be talking about the beautiful movie Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. If you want to check that out before our conversation, you’ve got two weeks. And you can find it streaming on Amazon Video, iTunes, GooglePlay, YouTube, and Vudu. Just remember to bring a box of tissues. And chocolate would also be a good idea.

This Movie Changed Me is produced by Maia Tarrell, Chris Heagle, Marie Sambilay, and Tony Liu, and is an On Being Studios production. Subscribe to us on Apple Podcasts or wherever you find your podcasts. And if you have time, please leave us a review, because that actually, really matters. I’m Lily Percy. Do yourself a favor and go watch a Tom Hanks movie.