Kerry Bishé: Halt And Catch Science

Aug 4, 2017

Kerry Bishé started her career performing with the Montana Shakespeare in the Parks company. She and the other actors traveled all over the state, setting up the stage with their bare hands. This simplicity of life appealed to Bishé, who considers herself quite the Luddite. "I collect typewriters...they're amazing," She told host Ophira Eisenberg. "I can see it working, there's ink on a ribbon--it's so good."

This passion for simpler technology is a far cry from her character in the AMC series Halt & Catch Fire — Donna Clark, a computer engineer in the early days of personal computing in the 1980s. Bishé tried to understand her character by taking apart and putting back together some old Speak & Spells, an 80s educational toy that read text. Once she realized that the hard part was putting the machines back together, she had a change of heart. "I realized...that I don't actually need to understand the way computers work. My job is to understand the people that understand the way computers work."

Bishé's interest in these very people led to a surprising responsibility: advocating for the depiction of science in media, as well as for the inclusion of women and girls in Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) programs and careers. Bishé told Eisenberg that she hated science in school. It wasn't until after graduating college when she picked up books about neuroscience, psychology, and physics on her own that she discovered her love for the sciences. "I'm a real amateur enthusiast," she explained. Bishé sees the way STEM is taught in schools as part of what made her dislike it so strongly.

As for the representation of science in media, well, that'll help girls too. "The kinds of people that we see on television making science are old white guys with crazy hair, and those aren't the only people making science." Bishé said that seeing women in science on TV and in the movies really affects girls, who can see themselves doing those jobs. As part of this advocacy work, Bishé was invited to the White House Science Fair in 2016, an experience that she remembers fondly. "I feel like they took me there to inspire kids to pursue science, but I was much more inspired!"

In light of her passion for STEM, Kerry Bishé tests her mettle in a quiz about women rock stars of computer science!

Heard on Kerry Bishé: Halt And Catch Science

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JONATHAN COULTON: This is ASK ME ANOTHER, NPR's hour of puzzles, word games and trivia. I'm Jonathan Coulton here with puzzle guru Art Chung. Now here's your host, Ophira Eisenberg.

(APPLAUSE)

OPHIRA EISENBERG, HOST:

Thanks, Jonathan. Before the break, our contestant Emma won her way to the final round at the end of the show. We'll find out a little later who she will face off against. But first, let's welcome our special guest. You've seen her in the film "Argo" and on the TV series "Scrubs" as Lucy Bennett. She currently stars in the AMC series "Halt And Catch Fire" in its fourth and final season. Please welcome Kerry Bishe.

(APPLAUSE)

KERRY BISHE: Hello. How are you?

EISENBERG: Hi, Kerry.

BISHE: Hi, I'm so happy to be here.

EISENBERG: Hi, welcome to ASK ME ANOTHER.

BISHE: Thank you so much.

EISENBERG: You're welcome. So you were born in New Zealand.

BISHE: Listen, I don't like to talk about that.

EISENBERG: OK, it was a long time ago. Raised in Jersey?

BISHE: Raised in Jersey, yes.

EISENBERG: But your first big acting as a theater actor was for the parks in Montana?

BISHE: Montana Shakespeare in the Parks, yeah.

EISENBERG: So was that an amazing experience as...

BISHE: Oh, yeah, you know, it's one of those, like, the best worst time of your life. It's 10 actors on the road with no staff, really, with you. And you have to build the stage every day and the set and do the play. And then you go home with Montanans to their homes and sleep in their, like...

EISENBERG: Oh, you stay in people's homes?

BISHE: Yeah, in their, like, kid's bedroom who's off at college. And they have to get up in the morning to, like, go work the field, and you're like - I mean, it was amazing. Really great.

EISENBERG: OK, so fast forward. You are cast as one of the hostages in Ben Affleck's '70s thriller, "Argo."

BISHE: Yes.

EISENBERG: And the preparation for that film was kind of unorthodox, right?

BISHE: Yeah. So the houseguests, Ben had us all live in a house together to kind of get the feeling of what it might be like to be that claustrophobic and have to be stuck with each other, which I thought sounded like a really great idea. And then as the day approached I was like, really terrified. You know, a bunch of actors in a house together without being able to leave sounds really like a nightmare reality show or something.

EISENBERG: Right. And how long were - did you have to be in this house together?

BISHE: Five days. We weren't allowed to leave. We couldn't have phones or computers. We couldn't check the sports scores - not that I cared.

EISENBERG: Why couldn't you have phones or computers?

BISHE: Because we were trying to really replicate the circumstances under which these people would be kept without information. We had...

EISENBERG: OK, so real method acting or whatever.

BISHE: Yeah, I mean, kind of. It all sounds crazier the more I talk about it like this. They got us the actual newspapers and magazines from 1979 that they would have read. I mean, not even duplicates, like, the actual - it was really spectacular, incredibly detailed.

EISENBERG: And would you like to repeat that experiment?

BISHE: Never. No.

EISENBERG: OK. Yep. So now you star in "Halt And Catch Fire." It's in its final season. You play Donna Clark. Now, in the first season of this show, you know, you had a strong part. But in the second season it really is revolving around you and your business partner, played by Mackenzie Davis. Now, did you know in the beginning where your character was going? Or was the fact that your role grew so much a surprise?

BISHE: I don't think anyone knew what was going to happen. My experience of television so far is it's kind of a crapshoot and no one really knows what's going to happen.

EISENBERG: (Laughter) Yeah.

BISHE: So - and that's sort of the tough thing as an actor. You do a movie or a play and you've read the whole script...

EISENBERG: Sure.

BISHE: ...And you know who the team is. And if you're on a TV show, you never know what's going to happen week to week with your character. So it's a little bit frightening. But in the first episode of the show, you know, I play sort of this - she's a harried housewife.

EISENBERG: Yeah.

BISHE: And at a certain point she breaks out - do you remember the Speak & Spell? It was a toy from the '80s.

EISENBERG: Yeah.

BISHE: So I take one of those apart 'cause it won't work and I'm trying to fix it for my daughter and explain how it works. And you kind of get this inkling that maybe this woman is a little more interesting than you thought she might be.

EISENBERG: Because she's a computer engineer.

BISHE: She is. Yeah, she works at Texas Instruments.

EISENBERG: Right. But in the first season you sort of focused on her tertiary role as the wife.

BISHE: I did so much standing at the sink.

EISENBERG: (Laughter).

BISHE: I pretended to wash so many dishes (laughter). And you can't turn on the water for sound. You know, so you're just like pretending. I was a mime in college, though, so it was really cool. And everyone wanted to be a mime, I swear.

EISENBERG: Yeah.

(LAUGHTER)

EISENBERG: So - yeah, so this character that you play is a computer engineer. And you yourself, your computer knowledge - is there any crossover between your computer knowledge?

BISHE: Pretty much absolute zero. I'm a real Luddite in my real life.

EISENBERG: OK.

BISHE: I collect typewriters.

EISENBERG: Why do you collect typewriters?

BISHE: Because they're amazing.

EISENBERG: Oh, OK.

BISHE: They're a machine that, like, you can kind of see how it works. To me, I swear, like, electricity is still like magic. Like, I don't really know...

EISENBERG: Electricity is magic. I agree.

BISHE: It's really magical.

EISENBERG: Yeah. So you like the actual tactile - like, you press the button...

BISHE: Yeah, it's fantastic. I can see it working. There's ink on a ribbon. It's so good.

EISENBERG: OK, so where do you buy these typewriters?

BISHE: EBay or, you know...

EISENBERG: OK. How many do you have?

BISHE: Too many (laughter).

EISENBERG: Like, 20. Are we talking 20?

BISHE: Well, I have a travel typewriter that I carried around Europe with me once on a trip...

EISENBERG: You took a typewriter with you?

BISHE: Let me tell you, you know, they tell you to take out your laptop, computers in the security line, so I would just sort of, you know, very cavalierly put my typewriter on the thing. And everyone stopped me always and they're like, what is this? I was like, it's a typewriter.

EISENBERG: And would they swab it like, this is very suspicious?

BISHE: They were really suspicious for - momentarily, and then they were totally intrigued and baffled...

EISENBERG: Yeah.

BISHE: ...As to why a person would carry one...

EISENBERG: Yeah. Did anyone ask you to turn it on?

(LAUGHTER)

BISHE: I wish they had.

EISENBERG: Yeah. So this character is totally a different kind of thing for you to play. But how do you deal with all the jargon - right? - because you're dealing with this very heavy computer jargon?

BISHE: Well, you know, there's a lot of things. I, like, tried to learn some stuff about computers. My brother has a Ph.D. in biochemistry, which I find so totally impressive. I realized when I was doing that that I don't actually really need to understand the way the computers work. It's really - my job is to understand the people that understand the way computers work.

EISENBERG: So not many actors become activists based on the roles they play in a television series, but you decided to become an advocate for the inclusion of women and girls in STEM, which if you don't know, is science, technology, engineering and math and the representation of it in television, film and media. So what are the challenges facing women getting into science?

BISHE: Oh boy. Well, let's start with - I hated science in school. I hated it until I graduated college and I started reading books about neuroscience and psychology and physics. And I got really into it. I'm a real amateur enthusiast for science. And I found that so curious about why they - how they teach it in school that turned me off of it so hard for so long. And that's one of the things that we talk about, so positive role models in culture, how we talk about, you know, the kinds of people that we see on television making science are old white guys with crazy hair. And that's - those aren't the people that are the only people making science.

EISENBERG: Right. And so what kind of stuff do you do when you're advocating for...

BISHE: I went to the White House Science Fair last year, which, let me tell you, is a spectacular event. These kids are genius. They're building rockets. And this one 18-year-old girl invented the first test for Ebola that you can do in the field that doesn't need to be refrigerated. I was like, what are you - this is insane. It's so cool. I got to play with these kids' robot. Like, I feel like they took me there so that I could, like, inspire kids to pursue science. And I was definitely...

EISENBERG: You were the one that was...

BISHE: ...Much more inspired.

EISENBERG: Yeah. And do you think things are getting better?

BISHE: In fact, they're getting worse. I wish I could say it was getting better, but...

EISENBERG: Well, I mean, I kind of knew that as a general answer, but...

(LAUGHTER)

BISHE: More women graduated with degrees in computer science in the 1980s than they do now. The jobs got more important, and then more men started doing them.

EISENBERG: Yeah. So what are we going to do, Kerry?

BISHE: I don't know, take our girls to coding class?

EISENBERG: Yeah, that sounds like a good activity.

(APPLAUSE)

EISENBERG: Kerry Bishe, the fun is just actually beginning on this show because we've cooked up a pretty good ASK ME ANOTHER challenge for you. Are you ready for your ASK ME ANOTHER game?

BISHE: Ready as I'll ever be.

EISENBERG: All right, Kerry Bishe, everybody.

(APPLAUSE)

EISENBERG: Kerry, your game is two truths and a lie - women rock stars of computer science. So I'm going to read you three pieces of information about a notable woman in computer science. Two of the statements are true, one is fake. You just have to guess which one we made up.

BISHE: OK.

EISENBERG: OK. And if you do well enough, Sydney Herrin (ph) from Burlington, N.C., will win an ASK ME ANOTHER Rubik's Cube. OK. Here we go. In the 1800s, Ada Lovelace theorized concepts that are still used in modern computing. Many consider her to be the first computer programmer. Which of these statements about Ada Lovelace is not true? A - she predicted that computers would be able to compose music. B - she predicted that computers would replace the need for actual human friends. Or C - she was a gambler who tried to use math to predict horse race results.

BISHE: I just read the one paltry book that they have about Ada Lovelace, like, in the world. So I know this one.

EISENBERG: OK.

BISHE: B is made up.

EISENBERG: B. Right, B - she did not predict that computers would replace the name.

BISHE: She blew the family fortune because she thought she could come up with an algorithm to predict who would win a horse race, which I think is fantastic.

EISENBERG: That she was a gambler and she blew...

BISHE: Yeah, yeah. That was right.

EISENBERG: Because her algorithm wasn't great.

BISHE: No, I don't know that that really works.

EISENBERG: Yeah. OK.

(LAUGHTER)

EISENBERG: She sounds like a good time, though.

BISHE: Yeah, super fun.

EISENBERG: Yeah, excellent. By the way, you were correct.

BISHE: Thank you.

(APPLAUSE)

EISENBERG: In the mid-20th century, Admiral Grace Hopper was a computer scientist in the U.S. Navy. She's known as the mother of the programming language COBOL. Which of these things about her is not true? A - she famously used an actual grain of pepper to represent the distance electricity travels in one-trillionth of a second. B - she popularized the computer term debugging when her colleagues removed a moth stuck in a computer. Or C - she named the F2 button.

BISHE: Oh, man. I don't even know what the F2 button does. The other ones sound really fun, so let's say - I don't think she invented the F2 button.

EISENBERG: No. Oh. Yeah, I said she named the F2 button but yeah.

BISHE: She didn't name it.

EISENBERG: Both - she did not name it.

BISHE: No.

EISENBERG: It's called F2. You are correct. That was the lie.

(APPLAUSE)

EISENBERG: Debugging, just to underline that point, is termed after removing a moth stuck inside of a computer. But that moth had a story.

(LAUGHTER)

EISENBERG: A little inside public radio joke.

(LAUGHTER)

EISENBERG: Dame Vera Stephanie Shirley became president of the British Computer Society in 1989. Which of these things about her is not true? A - to help herself in the sexist business world, Stephanie adopted the nickname Steve. B - she founded a software company that programmed the black box recorder for the Concorde supersonic jet. Or C - she created the MIDI music format and the first song she programmed was the Benny Hill theme, "Yakety Sax."

BISHE: I got to think that it's not C.

EISENBERG: It's not that she created the MIDI music format?

BISHE: I don't think she did.

EISENBERG: She did not. You are correct. Yeah.

(APPLAUSE)

EISENBERG: OK. Elizabeth J. Feinler led a group at the Department of Defense that developed a number of important parts of what is now the Internet. Which of these is not one of them? A - domain names that end in dot com, dot org and so on. B - early directories that Feinler described as kind of a prehistoric Google. Or C - the first pop-up ad, which was for a party at an Arlington roller rink. Which is the lie?

BISHE: I really like the pop-up ad for a roller rink, so we're going to go with that's true. And we're going to say kind of like a precursor to Google is a lie.

EISENBERG: The prehistoric Google, the directory?

BISHE: Yeah.

EISENBERG: Actually, she did do the prehistoric Google.

BISHE: No.

EISENBERG: Yeah. The pop-up ad for a party in Arlington roller rink, that was the lie. That was the lie.

BISHE: That just sounds like something I'd like to go do.

EISENBERG: I know. I - like, we made up - it was an Arlington roller rink. I'm sure the first pop-up ad was, you know, for a mortgage or something like that.

BISHE: No, it was definitely porn.

EISENBERG: Or porn.

(LAUGHTER)

EISENBERG: Puzzle guru Art Chung, how did Kerry do?

ART CHUNG: She did just enough to win. Congratulations, Kerry, you and listener Sydney Herrin win ASK ME ANOTHER Rubik's Cubes.

(APPLAUSE)

EISENBERG: Yeah. AMC's "Halt And Catch Fire" premieres its fourth and final season on August 19. Give it up for Kerry Bishe, everybody.

(APPLAUSE) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.