In the decades since his 1989 documentary Roger & Me, which skewered corporate downsizing in his hometown of Flint, Michigan, Michael Moore has been one of the U.S.’s leading leftist culture warriors. He has explored and satirized major issues in books, TV shows and movies (including Fahrenheit 9/11, the highest-grossing film doc of all time)—but not, until now, on the American stage. This summer, Moore makes his Broadway debut in The Terms of My Surrender. “I’ve not done this,” he says. “For me that makes it thrilling—and dangerous.” We sat down with him after a recent rehearsal to discuss his solo show, which takes a hard look at the state of the union under Donald Trump.
What made you want to do a theater piece?
It’s what I always loved doing. I was writing and performing plays at five or six years old. My aunt married a guy on Staten Island, and we would drive here in the summer, and she took us to Broadway plays every year in the mid-to-late ’60s. We’d tell people back home in Flint that we “summered on Staten Island.” Of course no one knew what that meant. It sounded really luxurious! [Laughs]
Did you do any theater in school?
I always wanted to but I was scared in high school. Back in those days, you didn’t want to be known as a drama club person. Might have well have just hung a sign on yourself saying, not “Kick me,” but “Please beat the living hell outta me and leave me for dead along the side of the road.” But in 12th grade I tried out for the fall play and I got the lead, and then I tried out again in the spring play and I got the lead. Then, in my one full year of college, I won a prize for this play called The Tunnel. Over the years I would start writing plays, but never published them or produced them. I wrote a piece and performed it in London in the [2000s], but I was too scared to do it here, in part because it was still the Bush years. It was a difficult time for me in terms of the number of—not death threats, but death attempts that I was going through.
But The Terms of My Surrender is not that piece from London?
There’s a couple little segments from it that I’ve updated, but this is written for this engagement. Once it dawned on me, in in the early spring of 2016, that Trump was going to win, I started thinking, you know, Winter is coming. [Laughs] I need to build up the arsenal. What can I do when this disaster happens? And then I thought, You know what? I should do the thing that I can’t do in a movie or a book: be with a thousand people in a room, and perform this as a piece of theater. It’s not a political rally, and there’s not a whole bunch of video screens; I’ve shot no pieces for this production. For 87 minutes, you’re going to experience something you’re not expecting. Which is why we love to go to theater.
Your essay predicting Trump’s election was very prescient. In retrospect, it seems prophetic.
A lot of people cannot believe this is actually happening, or have this sense of wanting to give up on their fellow Americans, the ones who live between the Hudson River and La Cienega Boulevard. [Laughs] I’ll be on the Wall, where the White Walkers are. You get my drift? Or I guess if anyone’s reading this and all they can afford is basic cable: The Walking Dead. I mean, I live in Michigan, and that’s partly why I saw this coming: I was running into too many people who voted for Obama and told me they were voting for Trump. They don’t like Trump as a person, and they don’t really know what he stands for because they don’t think he knows what he stands for. He’s just their Molotov cocktail.
In that essay you compare it to Jesse Ventura getting elected Governor of Minnesota in the ’90s, which I think is apt. But how can people on the left reach out to those voters?
When we talk about this working class vote, we think “white person.” We don’t think black or Hispanic. But when if you stop and think about it, practically all of black and Hispanic America are working class people—there are very few of them in the wealthy class. So when we say “working class” we need to expand that thinking. In Michigan, 90,000 people—not apathetic people, people who went to the polls and voted—90,000 of them, mostly Democrat and many in black precincts, voted for everything on the ballot but left the President box blank at the top. [Clinton] lost by 10,000 votes in Michigan. That is a level of anger I didn’t really expect. So the more interesting conversation to have on social media isn’t trying to convince, um, what I will just refer to as yahoos…
The deplorables, yes. Where she was wrong with that was saying they were irredeemable; I don’t believe that. I believe just about everybody is redeemable.
And if you tell people they’re irredeemable, they have no motivation to be redeemed.
Right. But I accept that 20% are truly racist, awful—I can’t deal with that. What I want to know is what can I do to help the 8 million who voted for Obama and voted for Trump. That I can help with. She lost by only two votes per precinct in Michigan. Two votes! Come on! This is not a difficult task. That’s how I approach it.
It seems like the right has been more effective at putting together messages lately than the left.
The artists, the image makers, the branders, essentially all those people are on the liberal side of things. So why are we unable to communicate a simple message or come up with just two words? “Crooked Hillary”: Why can’t we do that? “Well, I want to see his tax returns and until we see his tax returns”—shut up! “Crooked Hillary”! We’re the people who can carry the audience through 17 major characters on Game of Thrones and leave us wanting more at the end of the hour. We can take a 208-second plane flight from LaGuardia into the Hudson River and make that an hour-and-45-minute movie. We are so good at this! So what the fuck is wrong with us?
When you look back on your career, is there anything you think you were wrong about?
No, I’ve always been right. That’s the curse! I would’ve had a less stressful life had I been more wrong. I make these films, I hope for change, and it gets worse. I tried to warn people about the American industrial complex, or school shootings—just look at my films. Or at the Oscars [in 2003], telling people on the fourth night of the war that there were no weapons of mass destruction. What do I get for being right? Booed off the Oscar stage! [Laughs] I don’t get anything. I get to watch my hometown collapse in such a profound way that in the end the Republican governor believes he can continue to poison the people through the water and nothing will happen to him—and in fact he was right and he gets reelected. Do you see what I'm saying?
Yet throughout the years, there have been people who have accused your work of being inaccurate or misleading.
I just wanna say this: All the facts in my film are correct—all my films. I got so tired of that. Starting with Bowling for Columbine in the early 2000s, I put a notation online for every fact in the movie: where the fact was from, so people could look it up. But before that I was really bothered by the likes of Pauline Kael and Film Comment, the people going after Roger & Me—they don't know anything that’s going on. Pauline Kael wrote something to the effect of, you know, “He says 30,000 people lost their jobs there. It was only 10,000.” I ran into her at the New York Film Critics Awards, and I said to her, “You know what that sounds like, don’t you? ‘It wasn’t really 6 million people killed. It was only 2 million.’” [Laughs] It’s like, what kind of awful person are you? You don’t even know anything. You haven’t lived through it.
How can those who feel defeated by the world find the strength to get up in the morning and fight it?
The cliché we’re usually raised with is that one person can’t make a difference: You can’t fight City Hall, don’t upset the apple cart, why bang your head against the wall? But one person can make a difference. All great change kind of occurs that way. I mean, the point is made in Hamilton. My personal history is full of numerous examples. I wouldn’t say that’s the message of this show, but you’ll go away, I think—I hope—empowered in a way you didn’t expect to be when you came in. And that includes the most cynical, or the ones who are too into believing it must be a certain way—who are very rigid in their leftism. You don’t go see Noam Chomsky to watch him sing and dance. Though actually, wouldn't you love it if suddenly Noam Chomsky just broke into something from The Sound of Music in the middle of a lecture?
I’d watch that!
I would watch that. I’d actually pay money to watch that.
So will you be doing something from The Sound of Music in this show?
No, no! [Laughs] No.
The Terms of My Surrender is at the Belasco Theatre through Oct 22 (michaelmooreonbroadway.com). $29–$149.