Exit Interview: Steve Lopez

The legendary Inquirer alum returns with a new book, The Soloist

Sure, Los Angeles Times columnist Steve Lopez had some great moments during his 12 years at the Philadelphia Inquirer, but nothing compared to how 2008 is shaping up. The 55-year-old’s new nonfiction book about Nathaniel Ayers, a homeless schizophrenic violin prodigy (seriously), will soon be followed by a movie starring Jamie Foxx and Robert Downey Jr. (­Figures—dude writes one book that’s set somewhere other than here and boom! Oscar buzz!) During some L.A. gridlock, Lopez reminisced about Philly, shared his advice for Oprah, and revealed his answer to Marley & Me.

Was there one Inquirer column of yours that still stands out?
There are some that people always want to talk to me about, like the time I rounded up Council members to snatch the Councilmobile that president Joe Coleman wasn’t letting anyone use. We circled City Hall, and I was yelling at Coleman to come go for a ride. This was the kind of highbrow journalism that people remember me for.

How is being a columnist in L.A. different from in Philly?
I was offered this job a year before I took it, but turned it down. I thought it was too difficult a city to write a local column in. Los Angeles being a city of transplants, you have to work harder to find common ground for readers that don’t have a heck of a lot in common. I just liked the idea of being afraid of something again, so I took the job.

You said that meeting Ayers nearly drove you to quit journalism and get into the mental health field. Seems like an appropriate career move for a reporter. [laughs]
What’s the difference between a newsroom and an asylum? I’m not sure there is one. Getting to know Nathaniel, I was inspired by the work people were doing and reminded of one of my Philadelphia heroes, Sister Mary Scullion. The newspaper industry didn’t have much life left. But Nathaniel’s passion for music reignited my interest in what I do for a living. I wouldn’t call it an art, but I love doing this. I’d be lost without it.

Here’s your chance to get out in front of this thing before Oprah tears you a new one—we’re not going to find out Nathaniel lives in a high-rise condo with his wife, three kids and a seven-figure salary, right? [laughs]
No. Nothing is made up, but there are things I have not revealed. I worry about what this exposure will mean to him. There’s a part of him that really enjoys the book and the movie, but for the most part, he couldn’t care less. It’s still about music and getting through the day. For all of his charms, there’s a dark side to the illness. It just rises up in him and he’s another person.

Did your failed attempts with film adaptations sour you on the idea of a movie project?
My experiences were so brief and fruitless that I didn’t have an opinion one way or the other of Hollywood. Oprah was hot for my book [Third and Indiana, about Philadelphia’s Badlands] and, I was told, even wanted to star in the movie. Then she dropped it just as quickly as she picked it up, and I never heard why. One of my big concerns [with The Soloist movie] was that it would be given a happy ending and give people the wrong idea about the challenges of mental illness. They said no, the movie will not end with him conducting the L.A. Philharmonic.

It’s bizarre to think that Iron Man, Robert Downey Jr., is playing you. Did he get all Method about it?
I encouraged him to do his own thing. I think an interpretation is a more valuable artistic contribution than an impression. I’m just not that exciting, so I don’t know why you’d want to get me down. I don’t know if he felt insulted that I was giving him acting advice, but he seemed okay with it.

How’s Jamie Foxx’s version of Nathaniel?
It’s freaky, actually. In makeup and costume, he looks just like him. He’s been taking lessons from one of the cellists in the orchestra, who’s amazed at his progress. I’m told Foxx’s mother is schizophrenic, and he flew to London and told the director, “This is my part. I want to do it.”

I still think Oprah should do you a solid and get you in the book club. Does she even have a book club anymore?
I don’t even know if she ever read the other book. I did autograph a book for her. I remember staring at the autograph page and I realized — [laughs] what do you say to Oprah? “Good luck with the career” wouldn’t be appropriate. “Call me if you need any help”?

What did you write?
I don’t remember. Looking forward to the ­project, what an honor … something like that.

When Marley & Me became a hit, did you kick yourself for not writing a sappy column about dogs?
It’s fine that somebody writes a book and millions of people buy it. What bothers me is the copycat books — this idea is working, so let’s do the same goddamn thing. I was thinking of doing a book about a dog that was so poorly behaved that I tortured it. Waterboarding Marley would have been great.
Probably wouldn’t get you on Oprah.

Ever think of buying ­Nathaniel a puppy?
That is not a bad idea for the sequel.