If you’ve linked to this page from the story at the Huffington Post, click here to find where the Q&A left off.
There are some people who were born to write, and author Molly Ringle is one of them. When I see her approach to writing and the way she writes, or hear how she talks about writing, it’s clear: for her, writing is a form of play. Words are her puppets, and she is putting on shows. She makes it all look so easy, and the books she writes are nothing less than delightful.
Pam Stucky: You have written books on such a wide variety of topics, from ghosts to cousins to your latest, a modern revival tale of Greek mythology. I know this is a horrible question, and I never really know how to answer when people ask me, but: where do you get your ideas? Do you have a bunch of ideas in a file somewhere, waiting for when you are ready to work on the next thing?
Molly Ringle: I do in fact have a story idea file! (It’s literally called that: “STORY IDEA FILE.”) It’s just a Word document, a list with a few lines about each idea. I imagine I’ll never get around to fleshing out all of them, but they are there if I want them, and I do occasionally go back into that file and pick the next book project from it. The ideas may come from a dream I had, or a story that inspired me, or an intriguing business card I found, or an intriguing historical detail I read about, or anywhere really. Often, though, the next project chooses itself by hanging around in my brain and refusing to be ignored, and it doesn’t always have to be written down in that file. With the Persephone trilogy, for instance, I knew for years and years that I’d eventually get around to rewriting that story lurking in the back of my mind. And finally I did!
PS: Immortal’s Spring, the third book in your Chrysomelia Stories series, is coming out June 1. Having written series before myself, I know it’s hard to talk about a third book in case people haven’t read the first. Give us a synopsis of the first book, Persephone’s Orchard, and what inspired you to write it. Then, to the extent that you can without spoilers, describe how the story evolves in the next two books.
MR: The first book introduces Sophie, a modern college freshman in the Pacific Northwest, who’s treated to a brief but startling visit to the spirit world, and finds out she was the goddess Persephone in a past life. She strikes up a tentative friendship with Adrian, the mysterious guy who took her there, and soon her dreams and waking life are flooded with memories going all the way back to Bronze Age Greece. It’s a retelling of the myth of Persephone and Hades, but cast as a love story rather than its traditional kidnapping story.
I was inspired to write it because that was the myth that stuck with me the strongest when I was perusing my copy of D’Aulaires’ Book of Greek Mythology as a kid–land of the dead, an impromptu marriage, her mother going nuts, crazy stuff happening to the seasons! It’s the kind of myth you can say so much about, because it wraps up a lot of issues within it.
So in the subsequent two volumes of my trilogy, the danger increases as Sophie and Adrian and their allies clash with a vicious anti-immortal cult. And we also unfold the stories of some other Greek gods, who have been reborn into modern bodies too. It involves many love stories and family problems, and lots of adventure and magic.
PS: Would you call your series a “retelling” of one of the Greek myths? Do I have to have a solid foundation in Greek mythology to understand this series?
MR: I would say the trilogy counts as a “retelling” of the Persephone and Hades myth (and some other Greek myths too), though with many liberties taken and changes made. In one of the afterwords I call it “Greek god fan-fiction.” It ought to be accessible even to those who don’t know the mythology, but it has several fun bits of symbolism and other hat-tips in it for those who do know it.
PS: Did you do a lot of research for this series? Did you go back and read all the old Greek myths? With these stories being your own fiction, obviously you could do whatever you wanted; your stories didn’t have to stay true to the old myths. How did you decide how closely you wanted to parallel the original tales?
MR: I haven’t read all the myths–there are a lot of old sources out there!–but I did read more of them than I had ever read before. I figured I should know the existing material fairly well before I changed it all up. I read a lot of modern translations of various ancient sources (I do not speak Greek myself, ancient nor modern), and I consulted theoi.com frequently, which is an amazing site that cross-references just about every Greek mythology deity or figure ever known. Turns out the different versions of the myths sometimes contradict each other, so in changing the stories to my liking, I was pretty much only doing what every other myth-teller had ever done in the past. And I did change them a lot. Faithfulness to the myths wasn’t really my main aim; telling a good story was. My method was to use the myths as an inspiration, and to be more or less true to the character of each god (as far as we can infer such things), but beyond that I let the story go wherever it needed to in order to satisfy me.
PS: As a writer, I often think about the idea that “every person is the protagonist of his or her own story.” Do you agree? How do you get inside your antagonists’ heads in order to make them more real to your readers?
MR: Antagonists are so hard for me! I know that in real life people do sometimes commit acts like murder or torture, or believe wholeheartedly in genocide or the scary methods of some cult. But it’s very hard for me to wrap my mind around why they think they’re justified in doing those things, and I don’t like trying to get into that headspace. Still, I give it my best shot, and I humanize my antagonists at least a little by giving them, say, fondness toward a family member or lover, or a willingness to compromise every so often, or a harmless opinion the rest of us can agree with.
As for whether the protagonists are basically me: I think a lot of them do have at least some traits I possess. But they usually get features I don’t have, too; such as notable bravery, or being fond of loud parties, or pursuing some profession that I never have and probably never will. (Sidenote: I rarely have my characters be writers. I know it works for Stephen King and many others, but it just feels too much like self-insertion for me somehow.)
If you’re joining this post linked from the Huffington Post article, start here!
PS: I was listening to a podcast interview with Paulo Coelho recently, in which he basically pooh-pooh’d the idea of characters “speaking” to authors or characters having their own lives that they revealed to authors. I know I’ve had moments where characters seemed to have lives of their own, which they were just revealing to me. What do you think? How do you build your characters? Do you have any process you use to get to know them better as you shape your stories?
MR: I have certainly had the experience of wanting to make a character do or say a particular thing, and having it just not work, because that was not in their nature. But it does sometimes take half a book or so before I get familiar enough with their nature to know such things. That first half of the first draft can be rough going for me; I can be inconsistent and unsure when it comes to characterization. Then I start to know them better, and it smooths out, and I go back and fix the earlier scenes.
But if I need help getting to the smooth-sailing stage, I find it useful to try writing up something on the side about them, like a journal entry about their likes, dislikes, history, fears, hopes, etc.; or an interview with them. Another thing that helps me is casting the characters. For some reason, when I pick an actor (or just a random photo of someone) who looks right to me, it really helps bring the character to life. It may be because I can better picture how they might move and talk, and I can notice details of their physical appearance, features I might not have thought about when the character was just an amorphous being in my head. Pinterest boards have proven excellent for this exercise!
PS: Having written as many books as you have (seven published works), has your writing process changed from when you started? What do you know now that you didn’t know when you started?
MR: By now I’ve learned that sometimes it works better for me to outline first, but I also know that sometimes it doesn’t. That is, I’m neither wholly a “plotter” nor a “pantser,” but somewhere in between on the spectrum, and that’s okay.
Also, I used to need several more revisions than I need now. I’ve gotten better at targeting what needs fixing, so that I can do the major (and minor) edits in just a few pass-throughs. When I was younger the revision process was kind of a long, ongoing, aimless mess. Now I’m more organized.
I’ve also gotten a lot better at telling myself, during the first draft, “It’s all right, it doesn’t have to be great, just keep going and we’ll fix the clunky parts later.” And I’m better at listening to myself when I say that. So that’s usually what I tell people when they want advice about how to write a book: just write the book, and let the first draft suck, because you’ll fix it later. And only by finishing a draft do you even know what the whole book needs, anyway.
If you’ve linked to this page from the story at the Huffington Post, click here to find where the Q&A left off.
Ages ago, when I first got cable TV, I got it for one reason: the Travel channel.
If you’ve watched the Travel channel over the years, you know it has … well, evolved. Or maybe “devolved” is a better way to say it.
This is one of the reasons I love public TV—PBS—so much. The travel adventures we are introduced to on PBS are pure, unadulterated, real. Untarnished by commercial interests. Authentic.
This includes Richard Bangs’ Quest series, which currently airs on the “Create” channel of my local PBS station (hi, KCTS!). Richard travels all over the world, but it was his exploration of Switzerland—my ancestral homeland—that made me think, “I need to interview this man!” His way with words is mesmerizing, almost putting viewers into a travel trance. You come away from his shows feeling you truly have, somehow, been transported along with him, traveling and exploring far away in some distant land.
Richard Bangs has often been called the father of modern adventure travel, having spent more than 30 years as an explorer and communicator, pioneering “virtual” expeditions on the World Wide Web and leading first descents of 35 rivers around the world. Richard has authored over 19 books, 1000s of magazine articles, produced a score of documentaries, and currently produces and hosts a series of public TV specials. He also is a regular contributer to the Huffington Post.
Thank you, Richard, for your time!
Pam Stucky: I am a big planner when it comes to travel, but I know people who look down their noses at that, thinking nothing beats spontaneity while on the road. What’s your philosophy on that debate?
Richard Bangs: Looking down noses is not polite. I think the answer to this is personal, and depends on how each individual approaches the travel experience. There are many who enjoy the research phase as much as the actual experience, and research is in itself a cerebral exploratory. There are others who prefer the “Man from Mars” approach, and do no pre-research so it is as though they have dropped in from outer space, and the experience is entirely personal, unfiltered through previous eyes and interpretations. I am a bit of a hybrid in that I prefer the freshness and surprise that comes from not knowing or expecting too much….imagine rounding a corner and seeing the Taj Mahal for the first time never having seen a published image…Wow! That would knock you back…same with Angkor Wat, the Pyramids of Giza, Machu Picchu, Victoria Falls, The Great Wall, etc., etc. Instead, because we have all been so overexposed to these icons, the actual experience is usually disappointing, as we witness the actual thing in less than the optimum photo rendition….it is harshly midday; it is crowed with tourists; hazed with pollution; it’s buggy, humid, and hawkers are hustling.
So, I prefer to parachute into a place with minimal background research, and few expectations, and I find I am almost always delighted and awed, and even if some place has been seen and dissected by millions before, it feels like my own discovery. I am not swayed by brochure copy, by overly vivid travel writers, or even well-filtered Instagram.
However, when I return, notebook full of my own impressions, emotions and conversations, then I usually go into research phase, diving into volumes that touch upon what I found interesting, and seeking answers to the questions raised through my travels. It allows me a deeper understanding of what I experienced, and it gives me the chance to make the journey a second time.
PS: Having reached midlife, I’ve lately been reading a lot of books about happiness and midlife and the like. One thing that stands out is that every researcher points to “purpose” as one of the keys to wellbeing and a good life. Therefore, the title of your show Adventures with Purpose is especially intriguing to me. What was the “purpose” you intended to highlight in the title?
RB: I spent the early part of my career exploring the hidden crooks of the wilderness world, and was delighted to share the magic of these special places uncovered…but over time as I returned I couldn’t help but notice how these extraordinary spaces had been degraded, dammed, diluted, desiccated, or outright destroyed…I also knew that when folks found a personal connection with these places, they then treated them as though family, and would fight for preservation and integrity…..but, visitation numbers would always be low…figures inversely related to remoteness….so, I set out to reach a broader, influential audience, PBS, and moved forward with a series of specials that hopefully celebrate a destination, but also tells its stories in an evocative, emotive way, one that elicits connectivity, inspiration to visit, and to become involved….I believe it’s working.
PS: Clarify for me: what is the difference between your Adventures with Purpose series and your Quest series?
RB: I made the first descent of the Omo River in Ethiopia in 1973, and decided we should record the effort with the tools available, including 16 mm movie film. The result, The Omo River Expedition, ended up on PBS, so that began a long relationship. The current series is called Richard Bangs’ Quests, and is an evolution from Richard Bangs’ Adventures with Purpose, though the underlying mission remains the same….a quest to understand and celebrate the assets of a destination, and extract what lessons might be learned and applied elsewhere, from pioneering environmental practices to progressive policies to the unsung heroes who make a difference. I also, at the core, believe the best way to preserve a wilderness or threatened culture is through visitation, as then the place and its issues become personal, an emotional attachment is knotted, and a constituency is formed which will invest the time, monies, and resources to save that which is meaningful. I think this is achieved in a couple ways with the PBS series (and all media with which I am involved) in that I hope to inspire viewers to actually come and visit a place featured; and if they can’t, then at least I hope I can impart enough of the wonder and beauty virtually to entice support when the inevitable time comes.
PS: Why do you travel? What are you seeking when you travel? What do you find?
RB: I was inspired by the mythopoetics a generation before me. Once a province of the improbable, “adventure travel” was something seen in the pages of National Geographic, not available to the average Jane or Joe. The only adventure travel on Main Street was when a well-planned vacation went wrong. Then the likes of Edmund Hillary, Tensing Norgay, Jacques Cousteau, Thor Heyerdahl and others of that ilk changed it all by showing it was possible, accessible, and with enough passion, practice, and will, it could be undertaken, and relished. I was a beneficiary of these pioneers, and enjoyed the confluence of airline deregulation, political borders smoking away, and a period of relative affluence which allowed a new generation to seek and delight in adventure travel. I started Sobek at this magical intersection, and, with alacrity, began to chronicle our explorations. What a magnificent ride it has been.
If you’re joining this post linked from the Huffington Post article, start here!
(Sorry about that! I hate breaking up posts but it was too long for HP.)
PS: Water shows up again and again in your travels and your writing. You are clearly deeply passionate about water. Tell me more.
RB: Here’s a story of how water crashed into my consciousness: My father never really cared much for the outdoors. He preferred a cozy chair and a fat book, a night at the movies, maybe a ball game on TV, certainly restaurant food. But one weekend when I was a small boy he took me camping. I don’t remember where he took me, but it was by a river, a swift-flowing stream, clear and crisp. I have a faint memory now that my dad had a difficult time setting up the tent, but somehow worked it out and he was proud of the task. With some soda pop and our fishing poles, we went down to the river to have one of those seminal father-son bonding experiences.
The air told me first that we were someplace special. It whooshed, delivering the cool message of a fast river on a hot summer day. Then a muffled sound came from behind, back at camp, and we turned around and could see through the trees that the tent had collapsed. My dad said something under his breath and started up the hill, then turned back to me and said, “Don’t go in the river!”
They were the wrong words.
At first I put my hand in the water to swish it around and was fascinated by the vitality, the power that coursed through my arm, into my chest, and up into my brain. I looked in the middle of the stream, where tiny waves burst into a million gems and then disappeared. It was magic, pure magic. I stepped into the river to my waist and felt the water wrap around and hug me and then tug at me like a dog pulling a blanket. Another step and the water reached my chest and pulled me down wholly into its vigorous embrace. I was being washed downstream.
Effortlessly, the current was carrying me away from confinement, toward new and unknown adventures. I looked down and watched as a color wheel of pebbles passed beneath me like a cascade of hard candy. After a few seconds I kicked my way to shore perhaps a hundred yards downstream. When I crawled back to land I had changed. My little trip down the river had been the most exhilarating experience of my life. I felt charged with energy, giddy, cleansed, and fresh, more alive than I could remember. I practically skipped back to the fishing poles and sat down with a whole new attitude, and secret.
When my father came back, he never noticed anything different. And I didn’t volunteer anything. The August sun had dried my shorts and hair, and I was holding my pole as though it had grown as an extension of my arm since he left. Only my smile was different—larger, knowing. I grew in that little trip, like corn in the night.
PS: You have a masters degree in journalism. What are some of the key lessons you learned that help you today in travel writing?
RB: I might say that the key lesson is that rather than report for someone else, or even do the bidding of an assignment, you should pursue your own passion, and along the way step on the cobblestones of understanding. I set out quite young, with few resources, to experience the world with a vengeance, a never-ending hunt for unwinding the unknowingness that always pricks at me. I found early on that chronicling these experiences gave me a double hit of enjoyment and enlightenment….I would experience the experience, and then sit down to distill it all and hopefully reach some deeper meaning and joy. That continues to this day.
PS: We are now a short-attention-span, sound-bite culture, but you tell stories in a way that demand attention and savoring. Do you think your way of unrolling a travel story is a lost art?
RB: Life and travel are richer than 140 characters.
I do like to share stories with depth and meaning, and though they may not be “snackable,” they are, I would like to believe, worth the time for the right audience, and the medium of the internet can certainly be a powerful platform.
With its power to break the tyranny of geography, to allow people anywhere in the world to virtually travel to wild places through the portals of their screens, and its capacity for information exchange and communications, the Internet can be a more effective tool than anything yet devised to preserve the wilderness through multi-media story-telling. The ledger is long of wilderness areas gone down because there wasn’t a constituency to do battle. Arizona’s and Utah’s Glen Canyon, entombed beneath one of the largest artificial lakes in the world, is the poster child. A basic problem is that wilderness areas are hard to get to, and the numbers who see them, experience them, fall in love with them, are too often too small to make a difference. That’s where the Net could be the instrument of awareness, appreciation and activism that no oversized nature book ever could. For the first time we can showcase the beauty and magic of a wild place to a global audience, and millions can participate in a journey through it, without ever breaking a branch or stepping on cryptobiotic soil. To a degree National Geographic has done this for over a century; and Discovery and others have done this on television and video. But those were passive receiver experiences, where a publisher, editor or producer added his or her own vision to the primary experience, passing it along to a quiescent audience. Now, for the first time, a worldwide audience can receive the data unfiltered from the primary reporter, in all its raw and brutal honesty. And members of that same audience can become players, become active on some levels, participating in the experience by asking questions, suggesting ideas, and sharing information.
The internet is the most powerful intercommunications tool yet, one that tears down the media power towers, erases the information filters of middlemen, and allows anyone to jump into the thick of things and asseverate a voice and opinion. I’m convinced that when the time comes for a call to action to stop the compromising of sacred and magic places, the patronage for preservation will be that much greater for the Web. A few years ago we lost a fight to save Chile’s crown jewel of a wild river, the Bio-Bio, from the concrete slug of a private big dam; but then only a few thousand had ever seen the river. Now more people than visit all the parks in the world, regardless of wallet size, physical abilities, age or weight, can be introduced to a far-away wilderness in a more immediate way, and that means that many more who can fall in love with a wild place, grasp its issues, and perhaps lend a hand when it needs many.
PS: I’m also particularly interested in the idea of “failure.” I think we’ve become too failure-averse, and therefore I’m interested in talking with successful people about their thoughts on failure. What’s your perspective on the topic? What is failure? What is success?
RB: I agree that we are, as a society, too failure-averse, and I see it especially in our schools and among parents who over-protect and over-reward their children. It is through risk and failure that we learn and evolve. I worked at Microsoft for a while in the 90s (helping to create travel products, including Expedia), and I absolutely loved Bill Gates’s mandate and the culture he created around it…it was to take risks, and not be afraid of botching up. Most companies punish failure, and that inhibits creativity and entrepreneurship. But back then, Bill encouraged us to try new things, and not be put off by the consequences of failure, because by trying, we all learned, and sometimes we made bold breakthroughs and discoveries. If a ship’s primary concern is to avoid failure, it would never leave port.
I’ve had many failures in my career, some catastrophic. One was an attempt to make the first descent of the Baro River in Ethiopia. A young man drowned, and it haunted me to the degree I almost left the field. But then I recognized a hard truth…that it is better to go forward and be in the ring and perhaps suffer the consequences than to never step at all and die on the inside.
In Edmund Burke’s 1757 essay, Of the Sublime and Beautiful, he posits that terror “is a source of the sublime; that is, it is productive of the strongest emotion which the mind is capable of feeling.”
If there is a common element to the code of adventure it is the frisson that comes from touching the maw. At the moment of plunge into a giant rapid we are febrile but also unlocked in a way that never happens in the comfort zone, so that the slightest tap makes us shiver to the bottom of our beings. It is then that we make our greatest discoveries about ourselves.
In Hemingway’s classic story, The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber, a milquetoast of a man finds an instant of bliss as he fearlessly (and fatally) faces a charging buffalo. I believe that pursuing your passion, tacking adventure, embracing risk, allows a lifetime deep and rich and connected, if only for a flash, and that it is better than the shelter and security of a dull and deadly existence.
Thank you, Richard! If you haven’t already discovered Richard’s shows on your local PBS station, be sure to check the schedule to find when he’s on air next!
If you’ve linked to this page from the story at the Huffington Post, click here to find where the Q&A left off.
After I did my last interview with Marta Dusseldorp, star of A Place to Call Home, the people at Acorn TV sent me the DVDs of one of Marta’s other shows, Janet King. For a while, I set the DVDs aside. After all, if you’ve read the intro to my Pam on the Map books, you know I’m a woman of integrity: I won’t be bribed or bought! And furthermore, I’m not really a reviewer. I’m not good at capturing the nuances of a show that might or might not delight audiences, and I don’t watch enough shows to make apt comparisons. I know that my opinion of a show has little to do with whether someone else will or won’t like it. It’s all so subjective.
However, one night I was looking for something to watch, and my eyes lit on the Janet King DVDs. Why not? I thought, and next thing you know I was three hours into the eight-hour season. The storyline of Janet King (a crime drama; eight episodes in season 1) is compelling, and the show is well-written. The acting is excellent, the cinematography is intriguing (which is, I’m sure, a challenge, as most of the show takes place in an office or court room). There are red herrings and suspense and twists and turns. I stayed up too late watching it two nights in a row. I loved it.
What’s more, I love Marta. You wouldn’t know in talking to her that she’s one of Australia’s busiest actors. In speaking with her, you get the feeling she has all the time in the world for you. She’s present and with you in every moment; there’s nothing else she needs to be doing, nowhere else she needs to be. Whether that’s the truth, or she has mastered the art of mindfulness, I don’t know. But after watching a few episodes of Janet King, I was hooked. I emailed Marta to see if she’d do another Q&A with me, and of course, being the fabulous person she is, she said yes.
From the Acorn publicity materials: “The 8-part Australian series focuses on the life of Janet King, a senior crown prosecutor. Determined to prove she still has her edge, Janet returns from maternity leave to find her workplace even more demanding than when she left. She quickly becomes involved in a high-profile and controversial case, making several enemies throughout her search for the truth – enemies that will threaten her career, family, and ultimately her life.”
All episodes of Janet King are now available online at Acorn TV, which is good, because this show is eminently binge-worthy!
Here’s our Q&A, edited some for time and because my audio recording of our conversation turned out to be not so great. Any errors in fact or transcription are mine, not Marta’s, with my apologies. If anyone has a recommendation for a quality, inexpensive way to record outgoing international calls, let me know!
As always, my deep gratitude to Marta for her time!
Pam Stucky: I’ve watched all of seasons 1 through 3 of A Place to Call Home, and season 1 of Janet King. I’ve noticed, there are some pretty intense storylines involved in both of them. Does that ever weigh you down? There’s the pedophilia and the murder and the Holocaust, just to name a few. How do you keep from bringing that home, and how do you keep that from infiltrating your personal life and your mind?
Marta Dusseldorp: Well, season 3 of A Place Called Home I did with my real-life husband [Ben Winspear], who played Rene, my husband on the show. So I found that quite easy, and then when he died on the show, it was quite difficult. We would talk a lot about that at home–well not too much, but enough that it was a very comfortable place for both of us and something that I found really special. And then when he died [on the show], I had a moment that I thought, oh, this is a bit too hard. And then you do another take, and you get through it, and it was fine. And then Janet King season 1, I think the hardest part about that was it was a spin-off from another show and I wasn’t sure it was going to work. I had never been that kind of a lead character, and I was very nervous that I didn’t have what it took. So that took a lot of my emotional energy at the beginning, and then slowly I started getting into it, and I had a ball being able to do almost everything and work with everyone on the set.
PS: Did it start airing while you were still filming?
MD: No, it was a whole year, for some reason, before they put it to air on ABC [Australian Broadcasting Corporation], so I had a long time between shooting it and it going to air. By the time it went to air I had kind of moved away from it, so it was really joyful watching it, because I couldn’t feel it in my body anymore. It was a real pleasure, actually. And people just loved it here, so that allayed my fears that it hadn’t worked. But emotionally, I have to say that I’m like everyone. Some days, I’m at my wit’s end and I just want to curl up in a ball, and I have other days where I’m really proud and very excited, and it’s usually to do with the people around me. I don’t believe you ever do anything, really, in my job, in isolation. So if everyone around me is prepared–and they usually are unbelievably prepared and open and generous–and then I have a great time. We have pretty great crews in this country, I have to say. I think they’re the hardest working–not that I’ve worked with many overseas, but they’re just fabulous people [here] and that really helps, too, because everyone comes, actually, with a smile on their face, they really do the best that they can, so that really helps.
PS: That does help. You mentioned another show which Janet King spun off from, which I know was Crownies. For people that have not seen Crownies, can you give us a brief history of the show, and of your role in the show? Is there anything a person would need to know to get caught up on that before starting in on Janet King?
MD: Not really. I thought they did a really great job making that transfer. Crownieswas about the younger assistants to the Crown Prosecutors, the ones who do all the grunt work, and the Crown Prosecutors are sort of the front people. That’s what that show was angled toward, and I think it was an attempt at bringing in a younger demographic to ABC. It went to 22 episodes [as opposed to Janet King‘s eight]; it was much sexier, in the sense of people falling in love, and having sex on desks in the office. It had serious stories, you know, but it was also geared toward the quirkier, funnier side of the office. And Janet [the character] was kind of this stalwart who stood in the middle and said, “Stop laughing, stop smiling, and get on the job!” That was kind of her role in regards to the 22-episode arc.
And at the same time she has this relationship with a woman, Ash, her partner, and she underwent IVF [in vitro fertilization]. And she got more and more and more pregnant through the series, through the 22 episodes. So what happened was there was this funny sort of banging out between her seriousness, and her lack of sense of humor, and her becoming like a beached whale, and trying to be taken seriously as she became more and more pregnant with twins. That was that show. And then I think at the end of it, ABC, I think I read somewhere that they heard the audience felt like they identified more with the Janet character. So they decided to try a spin-off that goes up to the senior Crown Prosecutor level. A lot more serious and dangerous and more of the thriller genre. And then they shortened it, of course, to the eight-parter. Yeah, the audience numbers show that ABC made a good decision at that point, at that stage. And television has changed so fast, people’s appetites, what they want to see, how long they want to sit and watch, and when they want to watch it. I find all networks are now negotiating that.
PS: Yes, like, I don’t know if you’ve ever watched The X-Files …
MD: Yes, that’s right.
PS: They came back for six episodes, and now they’re saying they might do more seasons if they could just have a short season. But those actors don’t want to do the full 22-episode seasons anymore.
MD: I think audiences don’t want to watch 22 episodes anymore, either. I think it has to have hiatus, like The Walking Dead, and then watch the next 12 episodes in six month’s time. It’s interesting, isn’t it? Because Jack Irish, which was always telemovies–we did three telemovies, based on the Australian books by Peter Temple, straight out of the books, actually, with a little bit of change. And then the ABC said, we would like to make it into a six-parter. Would Guy [Pearce] be interested? Would you be interested? And they said yes. So they took the fourth book and morphed it into more fiction on top of fiction. So that’s how that came about.
PS: Were you involved in all three of those telemovies as well as the series?
MD: Yeah. My character was introduced at the beginning of the first telemovie, and then they kept her in there throughout, which I think is great, because, it’s portraying a character completely different from the other two [Sarah Adams on A Place to Call Home and Janet King on Janet King]. And I got to work with Guy, which taught me a lot, as well. His breadth of experience and generosity as an actor taught me a lot.
PS: What kinds of things did you learn from him?
MD: He’s got an incredible stamina. I’m going back now to the first telemovie, this is before I was on Janet King or A Place to Call Home. He’s so focused on set, and he’s totally dedicated to detail and nuance. It made me realize that my sort of spectrum was okay, but that really focusing on the little things you could make it better and better, rather than dealing with the sweeping things, which I think you can deal with quite quickly. And then you get into the nitty gritty, and that’s where the audience are more interested, which is in the quick changes inside of the character. The emotional journey. He’s really great at that, if you watch him. And then, after the take’s over, he’s super relaxed and charming and fun to be with, and that’s my favorite type of co-worker. Someone who works really hard when you have to, and when you’re not, is relaxed in real life, and serious but not too serious.
If you’re joining this post linked from the Huffington Post article, start here!
(Sorry about that! I hate breaking up posts but it was too long for HP.)
PS: Janet King season 1 told a story over the course of the eight episodes (as opposed to standalone episodes), subtitled The Enemy Within. There are some major twists and turns and red herrings in the season! Do you, as actors, have a chance to read the full season’s scripts before you start?
MD: Yes, in the sense that I sit down with the head story person, Greg Haddrick; he and a woman, Jane Allen, were on season 1. And so I would sit down with them and they would take me through my arc, so I knew exactly where it was going. The scripts aren’t written before you start. That’s something I would love, but it’s sometimes not possible for that to happen. So I had a fair idea [of what was going to happen]. For season 2, which is on air now in Australia, I was in the writer’s room from the very beginning this time, because I felt I needed to catch up with things in season 1, and that took a lot of energy, so I asked to be in from the very beginning of season 2, before—while they were talking. So I was completely embedded in the story and the twists and turns, so I didn’t have to do as much work when I was shooting, to keep up with where the story was going and changing, if you know what I mean. And that had a profound effect on me, because in season 2, it was so inside me that I had to barely think about it. And all the things that make up the spectacle of Janet, that was completely effortless for me, because I’d been there from the very beginning. It was like seeing a baby born and just being so connected to that child. It became much easier to work. I feel very lucky on Janet that if we were to do it again that would be the process, and so I’d be as close to the material, and it would mean as much to me. Because there’s nothing like being in the room when an idea hits the table and everyone realizes: that’s it, that should be part of the series. And actually, everyone gasps, in the room. That does happen! They all go, “(gasp)! That’s it!” And then when we’re shooting the scene, in season 2, I’m thinking, “It worked!” It added a whole level. In season 1, a lot of times I was going, “So, who’s that? Right. And I’m? … okay. So, do I find out … ?”
PS: So that’s my question. You have characters who are not always who they seem to be … I don’t want to give anything away. Does it help to know in advance if someone is going to turn out to be someone other than they seem? Or does that hinder you?
MD: It’s fine. I think it’s important to know. You have to have the ability to go against it. In season 1, when I found out who [the villain] was, then I was able to play it up, get incredibly close to that person in the scene, so that the audience goes, “Oh no!” So you can actually manipulate it, so that it’s better. You focus on the friendship more, you put your confidence in them, or share something you shouldn’t, or … yeah, I like playing with that, actually.
PS: As far as Janet King, the character, what do you love most about playing Janet?
MD: I like the directness, and I like that she doesn’t always say and do the right things. I love that she can be misinterpreted, and the audience can hate her for a minute, and then realize she’s doing it for the greater good…. I love that she’s in a same-sex relationship with a woman that she loves dearly, and they’re in a functioning marriage that’s kind of, you know, a little bit boring and a little bit strained, and a little bit unsexy, which, after nine years and the nine-month-old twins, that’s what we all are. I wanted that to be really based in the reality that everyone experiences. But I also love that she doesn’t define herself in relation to men. I think she’s not a man-hater; she just wants everyone to treat everyone as they should be treated. And when she doesn’t get that respect, then she’ll arc up, man or woman, it doesn’t matter to her. I love that there’s a lead woman on screen …. It’s unusual [in Australia] and I like that, I like being part of that push. Although that’s changing, the more I think about it, there’s lots of great women in the country are leading in beautiful ways. That’s changed since I started with Janet.
PS: Is there a season 3 planned?
MD: I hope so. Season 2 is going really well; it’s been overwhelming, actually, how much people have loved it. As I said, it’s a changing landscape. But I hope so; I’d love to do another one. I guess we’ll find out soon!
PS: Okay, random question: Have you ever done any comedy? Your shows are all so intense that I can’t help but wonder!
MD: Not really. I’m not very funny, Pam. I mean, I’d be happy to try. Occasionally I do try to throw in funny bits into my scenes, and they usually fall flat, which means they’re laughing at me, which I guess is okay, too; that seems to be what clowns do. Yeah, I’d love to!
PS: I think you should have a goal for one funny scene per episode. Don’t overwhelm yourself.
PS: Occasionally when we’re talking—you say you’re not funny, but occasionally, something funny will pop out, and I’ll think, “Oh, that was funny!” So I think we should investigate this.
MD: The Reluctant Comedian.
PS: And there would have to be a Jack. You could have you, and three characters named Jack. [Because every show Marta is in has a Jack!] I can write it for you!
PS: Last time we talked you said you were working on doing more of your own projects. What are you working on these days; has anything moved forward? I know you’ve been busy.
MD: Yeah, I’m still talking to people about various projects. In the break that I had we went on family holiday, and then I made it to LA. I found my visit to LA really invigorating. I talked to some extraordinary people, and I just felt really excited about the possibilities of coming there. So I’ve added that to the list of things I want to prioritize and aim toward once these shows are finished. So I’m balancing that out. But I’m still talking to people, trying to come up with ideas. One of the projects I think I was talking about with you before, we’re still developing, still pushing forward, and we’ve brought on a producer to that. And I’m still working on my own story, but that’s in the background. I’ve got management now in America, and I think there is a possibility to come over there and do something there as well. There’s a lot to think about. I think they are great ideas, and very different, and important stories. There’s a lot going on right now, but I’m excited about changing the landscape. Maybe end of next year.
PS: So you’re currently working on season 4 for A Place to Call Home, how long does that go, and then what’s next?
MD: It goes until August, and then I’m doing a play.
PS: Oh? What play?
MD: I’m doing an Australian play written by Benedict Andrews. I worked with him at the Sydney Theatre Company. He’s written a fabulous play called Gloria, and that will be late this year.
PS: Fantastic! Well, is there anything else you’d like to tell us about Janet King, or Jack Irish, or anything else?
MD: I think we’ve about covered it!
PS: Thank you so much, Marta! Please keep in touch about all your projects!
Damian McGinty, talented singer and actor, and star of Glee, The Glee Project, and Celtic Thunder, is headed to Australia, joining his old group as a Special Guest for his first tour Down Under! I caught up with him earlier this week for a quick Q&A to chat about the upcoming tour, his career, and his views on life.
Pam Stucky: The first time you were scheduled to be in Australia was March 2011, but you didn’t make it. Just to clarify for the people, what happened? The excuse given was that you had to study harder, but what was the reality?
Damian McGinty: Yes. The word at the time was that I had to study harder. But really what was happening was I was shooting a show called The Glee Project, which I’m sure a lot of people are familiar with. Obviously we had signed a lot of contracts and everything had to be a secret, as we shot the show in advance of it being aired. It was being aired in June, and we shot it in January, February, March, April, for like 12 or 13 weeks, over a three-month process. So, yeah, I was scheduled to go to Australia with Celtic Thunder, and sadly it ended up being a scheduling conflict, so I had to unfortunately pull out of that. I was in Los Angeles filming, but the producers of Celtic Thunder had to tell the world the reason I’d gone missing was because I was not doing well in school, and had to study more and do exams. Which actually wasn’t true. So I’ll just put that out, clear that up, five years later. I actually did pass all my exams.
PS: And now, finally, you’re headed to Australia and you’re excited!
DMcG: Yeah, absolutely! I’ve always wanted to go. It’s always been on my young bucket list. But I always promised myself I wouldn’t go there until work took me there. Finally, at the ripe old age of 23, it has.
PS: This is your first tour in Australia, but your ninth tour overall. You’ve already traveled more than a quarter of a million miles over the course of your career, meeting thousands of people. Traveling the world and meeting so many people of all walks of life, all backgrounds, all political leanings, you’ve already had the opportunity to talk to far more people than most of us ever will. What has meeting and spending time with such a wide variety of people taught you about humans and humanity?
DMcG: Being fortunate enough to get the opportunity to travel so much at such a young age, I have been fortunate to meet a lot of people, and I’ve been very fortunate to have heard a lot of people’s stories. Whether it be a sad one, or whether it be an encouraging one, or whether it be a challenging one or a traumatizing one or a happy one, you know, you hear stories from all walks of life. I actually think that really helped me in my growing up process, hearing other people’s experiences, and seeing first-hand through other people the sorts of scenarios that the world and life can offer up, conjure up, the different challenges and the different rewards and the different routes that are all possible in life. Meeting so many different people from so many different places with so many stories sort of helped me grow up, in a weird way. It made me thankful for meeting all those people; it made me thankful for the life I have, for the friends and family I have. It gave me a bit of wisdom, I guess, and a better understanding of life itself, which is such a complicated, precious thing. It’s always nice, as well, traveling and hearing the good things, but it’s encouraging hearing the bad things and seeing people get through those bad things, and seeing them reach the other side. Hearing them say that maybe the reason they did that is because of my music or Celtic Thunder’s music or whatever, hearing those stories is encouraging to me.
It’s very obvious that I’m now doing this as a career. This is my life, this is my career. Therefore, I make a living out of it. But primarily the reason I’ve always wanted to tour and always wanted to sing and always wanted to sell records is to really reach out to people, and connect to people. Because I think outside of the obvious need to make money to live day-to-day and function in the real world, I think outside of that, primarily life is all about connecting with different people, and hearing stories, and trying to encourage people, and all that good stuff. That makes all the miles worth it. If it is a quarter of a million miles, that is a lot of miles. I think before this year ends I add about another 50,000 to that! So I can’t wait.
PS: This question overlaps with your answer on that last one, but I’ll ask anyway: What do you hope people get out of attending one of your performances? What impact do you hope you have on a person’s day?
DMcG: Yeah, pretty much, what I just touched on. Attending a performance, first of all, I hope they have a good time. I hope it gives them an experience they won’t forget, that takes them away from the day-to-day routine. I think that’s why we all go to see concerts. That’s why I go see concerts. I go see concerts because I love the artist, because I want two or three hours of just bliss of something I really love and appreciate. For people coming to our show, in Australia or in North America, that’s what you always want to offer up. You want to offer an experience–vocally, yes, but also visually, a performance that they’re not going to forget. Something that touches people, and something that encourages people. And that gives them a good time.
PS: On the flip side of that: What do you get out of performing? What does it bring to your life? How does who you are impact how you perform?
DMcG: I think one thing that I’ve always done–and this was not on purpose or planned, ever–I think something I’ve always brought to my own performances specifically is a relatability. When I’m performing, I’m very much myself. A lot of people perform and become this different thing. Look at Lady Gaga: she’s very clearly different in real life than what she is on stage. I sort of pride myself on the fact that I love putting on a performance, and yes, of course, the performer is technically different than the person. But there are huge elements of my performance that are just genuine, that are just me, as a person. I try to be relatable, and I try to be myself as much as I can, and hope that people can relate to that. It’s sort of interesting, because I think without really knowing it, that is what helped me win The Glee Project, that aspect of my performance.
PS: Being yourself.
DMcG: Being myself. Yeah. A lot of people talk about it. In the day and the world we live in, it’s easy to get persuaded, or it’s easy to get swayed by things that are going on, whether it be technology, or whether it be things we’re watching on television, or whether it be movies, whatever. It’s easy to let your character sway toward that a little bit. I personally believe trying to be yourself is the most important thing. Understanding that everybody is different, being yourself is a great thing. That’s what I try to bring into a performance. I try to let them know Damian a little bit more, even though I’m up on stage and I am still performing, but I try to let them in a little bit, and tell them stories, and make it as relatable as possible.
PS: You were 14 when Celtic Thunder filmed its first show at The Helix in Dublin in August 2007; 15 when the show first hit the air in the US on PBS in February 2008; and you turned 16 just before your first tour in the fall of 2008. If you could go back, what advice would you give yourself? What would you tell yourself about what was to come in the next eight years and beyond?
DMcG: First of all, I certainly wouldn’t change anything. That’s for sure. I would tell the 14-year-old me that “Your voice is going to change as soon as you record ‘Puppy Love.'” I would probably give myself a heads-up on that, because that happened quite suddenly. I would try to tell myself a little earlier that I would have to be very, very focused at a very young age, and be very disciplined throughout my career. Because this career, a musician’s career, a performer’s career, is very different from a 9-to-5 career. In a 9-to-5, you know what you’re going to do, and you go in every day, and obviously you’ve got a job to do. But in my career, there are times when I’m working for seven months, then there’s times where I’ll have three months where it’s a little less busy, but I still have to keep myself disciplined. I still have to try to create things. I still have to try to keep building a brand, which is obviously the long-term target of my career, to build a really strong Damian McGinty brand.
I sort of knew back then, anyway, but I would tell myself that it is going to take a lot of hard work and take a lot of discipline. I guess what my dad always told me is that there are going to be things that come your way in life, particularly when you’re in this business, the music business, and you’re living in LA, and just remember that no matter what, you have a choice. I don’t need to go back and tell myself that because my dad instilled that in me, and that’s something I’ll never forget. And it’s really stood to me. Because, yeah, you face different challenges, within LA, within life in general. Everyone does. Any challenge I’ve ever faced, whether it be positive, negative, difficult, easy, it’s always been in my head: “You always have a choice.” So I always try to make a good choice.
PS: I happen to know you’re a pretty wise soul. At your ripe old age of 23, what have you come to believe about life and living in the world? What matters? How should we live?
DMcG: I can only speak from personal experience, my own side of things. The thing I would say, I think the most obvious thing, is the people. You can meet a lot of people, but really you go through life and you have this core group of people who are very important to you, who you have a connection with, and you can’t … it takes a lot of time, it takes a lot of work. It takes a lot of nurturing and growing within any relationship. And I think that connection with certain people is really what it’s all about. We can all try to be successful, and we can all try to do as good as we can, whether it be building brands, whether it be getting a promotion, whether it be getting a raise, we can all do that. Meanwhile, when it’s all said and done, that’s not really that relevant in the bigger picture.
I think traveling a lot, as well, I guess I’m sort of fortunate and unfortunate. Fortunate because it makes me realize a lot more about the people I miss back home, and about how great they are, and how difficult it is being away from them, and how fortunate I am to have them. I guess I’m unfortunate because of the same reasons. Because I amaway from them, and I do miss them. But life is not always daffodils and roses. It can be challenging. You always face the unexpected, and your situation is maybe never what you’d like it painted to be. If it was up to me, I’d love to live back home, and see my family and my parents every single day, and see my best friends that I grew up with, I would love to see them every day, and still do what I love. But sometimes, you know, that’s not possible, and you need to make sacrifices. That’s just life.
[At this point our call was dropped so we re-connected and continued.]
DMcG: It’s about relationships, and about connection with different people. Obviously different people are going to think different things, but that’s what I think, and that’s what I’ve learned so far. That’s certainly what is most important to me outside of business and all that stuff.
PS: You’ve been posting some teasers about a big project you’ve got going on right now. Anything you can announce just yet?
DMcG: There’s going to be news on it very soon. It’s something I’m excited about. It’s something that is actually leading to a bigger project, which is going to be next year, and I know that is doubly weird and secretive. But yeah, there is going to be an announcement very soon. It’s about a themed record that will be released in the near future. Take from that what you want.
[To be sure to stay up to date with Damian’s work, sign up for his newsletter and follow him on social media. See links at the end of this article.]
PS: We will definitely stay tuned. What’s next, after Australia?
DMcG: We’re mastering and finishing the record we’re working on, and then I’m going to have a lot of touring in the autumn, and I’m working on a bigger project for 2017. There’s a lot going on right now, but it’s exciting. There’s going to be a lot of news coming out in the near future, in the next few months. Despite all the touring in the last few years and being really busy and performing–we just had a new Celtic Thunder number-one record, which is great–I’ve really been behind the scenes trying to create a lot, and trying to get a lot of work done for the future. And now those efforts are bearing fruit and I’m excited about that. Yeah, people are going to see results of a lot of hard work, very soon. I really hope they like it.
PS: Anything else you want to add?
DMcG: I can’t wait to get to Australia. It’s going to be great. I’m going home for a few days tomorrow, and then I fly to Sydney next week, so I’m excited. It’s going to be a great time.
PS: How long is that flight to Sydney?
DMcG: Way too long. Dublin to Sydney is like eight hours to Dubai, then like 14 hours to Sydney or something like that. Something that is not pleasant, and I am honestly not that thrilled about it, but you know, sometimes to get to great things you have to go through challenging times. Being on an airplane for 22 hours fits in that category.
PS: I hope it goes well. I know you’ll have a fantastic tour. Thanks so much for your time, Damian!
DMcG: Thanks, Pam!
See Damian’s new cover of the Bee Gees hit “How Deep is Your Love” below or at this link!
If you’ve linked to this page from the story at the Huffington Post, click here to find where the Q&A left off.
If you’re a Downton Abbey fan, you might already know that one of the most delightful personalities on PBS today is seven-time Emmy winning PBS Anchor/Producer Ernie Manouse of Houston Public Media. And one of the best shows on PBS right now is Ernie’s Downton Abbey after show, Manor of Speaking.
Manor of Speaking is like a post-Downton water cooler gathering–a chance to re-hash the show and also learn a bit about the era, hosted with the perfect balance of decorum and dishiness by Ernie Manouse. In fact, Ernie told me that someone once told him they started watching Downton Abbey because they were such fans of Manor of Speaking! If you’re a fan of Downton Abbey but not yet watching Manor of Speaking, you’re missing out!
With the final season of Downton Abbey airing on PBS starting January 3 (check your local listings), I knew I had to talk with Ernie about Downton Abbey, Manor of Speaking, and beyond. Ernie is smart, funny, engaging, quick-witted, interesting, charismatic, and all-around fabulous, and I am so grateful for his time!
At first, I sent questions for Ernie to answer via email. However, as a fan of Manor of Speaking and of Ernie, it turns out I was a little over-enthusiastic and sent him about a million questions. He started answering via email, but eventually we decided just to chat on the phone instead! So halfway through the Q&A below, the answers get a lot more in depth. (The first question was from our phone conversation; I decided to move it to the top.)
In a tip of the hat to the Manor of Speaking audience interaction style, at a couple of points below I’ve invited reader responses. Leave a comment and let us know what you’re thinking!
Pam Stucky: What did you love about Downton Abbey? Why do you think it enraptured us all so much?
Ernie Manouse: There have been so many of these costume dramas that we’ve seen over the years from Masterpiece, but the reason that this one works, the reason that this one pulls us all in, is because I think they have an amazing ability of taking today’s issues, common concerns that we have in our generation, and placing them on a period story. What Mary’s going through, people today are going through. When the Granthams lost their money, it was a time when we all were facing financial troubles, with the drop in markets and all that. Julian Fellowes has been very clever in taking what look like old issues but they’re actually current issues, so I think that quickly ties us to these characters. We can relate to what they’re going through. I think that’s what makes it different from all the other period pieces that they put on Masterpiece.
Also, they’re skillful in the way they direct the episodes. It might be a long scene, but they cut it up. They cut back and forth with another scene, so there’s always movement in the show. So it’s not a five-minute scene in the drawing room. There’s a moment in the library, then they’re in the kitchen, then they’re in the drawing room, then back in the kitchen. It gives the sense of movement. I think they’re telling the same story, but with a faster eye, and I think for today’s generations, that, and their being stories you can connect to, the two together really make for a strong show that draws us in. That, and that fact that it’s wonderfully written and they’re great characters, and we love to see them suffer, and we love to see Mary get her way, there’s these things that are guilty pleasures. That’s my take on it.
PS: Personally I think one of the reasons your after show, Manor of Speaking, is so popular is because it reconnects us in an increasingly disconnected world; it serves as a sort of nationwide water cooler where we can all gossip about our favorite show. What do you think? Why do people love it? What feedback have you gotten about Manor of Speaking?
EM: I think the reason that the show is so popular is that we have a warm friendly way of reconnecting with the audience after the show is over. I think the humor, warmth and wit shows a love and appreciation for Downton Abbey but also gives us the opportunity to poke a little fun and it in a loving way. We serve as a sort of book club where maybe the folks at home watched the show, had a glass of wine, and joined us in our manor house. I worry sometimes some of our viewers are watching the show alone, and when it ends the experience is over for them, but they still want to share. Our show gives viewers a chance to engage, to share, to see what other viewers are saying through social media, and to laugh and celebrate their favorite program.
PS: One of the fun things about Manor of Speaking is that you have on experts, who can explain some of the finer details and subtle nuances of the historical aspects and accuracies of the show. Have they ever caught the DA producers in a historical inaccuracy?
EM: The best answer would be what Alastair Bruce (Downton’s historical consultant) told me–the job is to inform the production of what was historically accurate, and then what the producers, directors and such do with it is up to them. But for us, Helen Mann has noticed a few timeline inaccuracies, or at least “strange timings”… But for the most part they are pretty on point.
PS: Have you seen all of the final season yet? What did you think? [This Q&A with Ernie was done before Christmas and the airing of the final Christmas episode in the UK.]
EM: I have–all but the last [Christmas] episode. I think it has given us what we would want: intrigue, humor, scandal, emotion, and excitement. It seems a fitting end to a wonderful series.
PS: If you haven’t seen the series finale [Christmas episode], how do you think it should end?
EM: I have always joked that the series should end on a close up of Mr. Bates … Slow pull out revealing Anna at his side, holding in her arms their small child … Pull out further to reveal Bates holding an ax with blood on it … and finally, a wide shot with the cast dead at their feet … Turns out Bates killed them all–all through the series–poisoned Mr. Pamuk, cut Matthew’s brake cord, etc. … And the baby’s name … Norman, Norman Bates! [Of Psycho fame, of course!]
PS: I think that would be perfect! Favorite storyline from the past seasons?
EM: I have enjoyed Thomas’ journey. They have given him plenty of opportunities to show dimension and character growth. I actually initially was not at all interested in Rose, but in Season 5 I became very invested in her and Atticus’ story.
PS: Which storyline do you think played out too long?
EM: Mr. Green and Bates’ imprisonment–those two…. Enough said!!! I will not prolong it any further!
PS: Which storyline do you wish they’d given more time?
EM: Gregson in Germany–I really would have been curious to learn more about what went on there…
PS: Which characters did you find yourself wishing you’d seen more of?
EM: Cora’s mother and Jimmy.
PS: Thomas: Good guy or bad guy?
EM: Most complicated, intriguing character. That’s what makes him endlessly fascinating. I think at his vote he is a wounded good guy, who has built up his walls and feels he needs to strike before he is found out. He is my favorite character on the show.
PS: Of all of Lady Mary’s suitors, who do you think was best suited for her?
EM: He wasn’t her suitor, but Tom Branson–since they both lost their loves, I always wanted to see them happy together. Otherwise, of course Matthew, then Gillingham.
PS: Carson and Mrs. Hughes: Why do you think we love this pairing so much? Where do you think they’ll be in twenty years?
EM: Happily married–they have since the beginning seemed as the mother and father of the downstairs staff, a loving unit who oversee their children with love, and a firm hand.
PS: Okay, and Bates and Anna. Come on! There is no chemistry there. Am I right? What do you think of Bates and Anna?
EM: See my answer for how the series should end ;-). But the audience does just love to see them in turmoil. I will say I was caught off guard when they were coupled–I guess I missed all the subtle cues!
If you’re joining this post linked from the Huffington Post article, start here!
(Sorry about that! I hate breaking up posts but it was too long for HP and I didn’t want to leave out any of the Q&A, as Ernie is just spectacular and interesting and fabulous. Back to the Q&A …)
And then Ernie and I got on the phone together … and the answers got a lot longer (which I love!!)!
PS: Do you think we’ll see a Downton Abbey spinoff? If so, what should it be?
EM: I know that early on there was an idea for a spinoff, which actually I kind of like, but I don’t think it’s going to happen now. It was going to be the Robert and Cora story. They were going to go back and tell the Robert and Cora story, how they met, and how they came to be who they are today. I think that’s actually a pretty fascinating story, and I would have loved to have seen that, I would have loved to have seen the negotiations between Violet and Cora’s mother. I would have loved to have seen all of it. I think that would have been a great story. That would be a spinoff I would enjoy.
Also, as I’ve said throughout, my favorite character is Thomas. I’m fascinated by him, I think Rob James-Collier has done an amazing job. Because of his complexity, he’s an interesting character to follow.
I don’t know how much you’ve seen of Season 6. [PS: I’ve seen all of it except the Christmas episode.] They even continue into Season 6 making Thomas really a complex character. I think some people think they draw him a little too often from the same card, like “He’s bad,” but I think they’ve done a good job. Especially in the Season 3 or 4 where he first warmed to Jimmy, and kind of showed a dimension of him that was like, he does care, and he loves. But the world has made him “bad.”
READERS: What do you think? What kind of spinoff would you want to see? What characters do you want to see more of? Answer in the comments!
PS: In a smackdown between the Dowager Countess and Professor McGonagall [Dame Maggie Smith’s character in Harry Potter], who would win?
EM: If it’s a battle of wits, it’s gotta be Violet. Physically, McGonagall.
EM: Oh, please! Mrs. Patmore! Of course! Daisy knows everything she knows from Mrs. Patmore. Anyway, Daisy would have yelled at the judges if they got it “wrong,” and she’d be in trouble, because Daisy’s gotten way too uppity.
PS: How did you come up with the idea for and format of Manor of Speaking? I hear there’s a connection to Celtic Thunder (which, of course, is the show that launched the career of a mutual friend of ours, whom PBS audiences might also be familiar with, Irish singer/actor Damian McGinty)?
EM: I was in Ireland shooting the national pledge breaks for the Celtic Thunder show, and shot for a week. At the end of the week, they shot the show on Friday, so I had the weekend. I decided I was going to stay in Europe for the weekend because it was my birthday. I decided I’d go to Amsterdam for my birthday. I’d be all alone, but I’d go to Amsterdam, have fun, and fly home. So. Finished shooting Friday night, flew out Saturday morning to Amsterdam, got to my hotel room. I always travel with a media player and a digital media reader, that’s just the way I am. So I hooked it up, and I had gotten a little touch of a cold on the flight, and I thought, well, I’ll just sit in my room a bit and watch a little TV.
I realized I had Season 1 and Season 2 of Downton Abbey on my player, so I thought, I’ll watch those. So, I started, and I watched both seasons, episode after episode. I didn’t go out, didn’t enjoy Amsterdam, I spent my whole birthday weekend in my hotel room in Amsterdam watching Downton Abbey. When I finished it, after every episode, I was like, “I wish I had someone to talk to about this show!” Not only was I not around anybody I knew, I wasn’t watching it when anybody else was watching it. So there was no one to share it with.
When I got back to the U.S., I was at work, and one of the people I work with came up to me and said, “You know, Downton Abbey is doing really well. I wonder if there’s something we could do for membership drive with it. Do you have any ideas?” And I said, “No, but I’ve got a great idea for an after show, because if our audience is anything like I was, when each episode ends, you want to talk about it. You want to share it with someone who just experienced it with you.” And so, that was the birth of Manor of Speaking. It was a show just to help people decompress after an episode. I knew I didn’t want it to be stodgy, I didn’t want it to be too heavily thought out. I wanted it to feel like you and a bunch of your friends got a bottle of wine and were in a book club, and you just wanted to have fun with it.
I think at times people think we’re a little disrespectful of the depth of it, but I think that’s what makes it work. We love the show so much, we can have fun with it. We can laugh with it, we can be sad with it.
So we came up with that concept. Then we decided we wanted to interact with the audience, so we wanted to have tweets. But we thought, well, if we’re in a manor house, how are we going to get tweets? So my director came up with the idea, “You should have a butler deliver tweets to you.” That’s where the idea of me having a butler came along.
We have a friend of mine who’s an actor … it’s a long story of how he got to do it. Suffice it to say, he took the character and ran with it. All we knew is it was going to be a butler bringing tweets. He came up with the name, he came up with the schtick we do each week of me asking questions and him giving an answer, he just kind of made the Mr. Rodgers character into something. That’s all on Luke Wrobel, who created it…. Luke just was right for that role. He’s been wonderful. He’s gotten Emmy nominations twice for playing Mr. Rodgers, it’s just worked out great.
PS: How does that work with the tweets? I know being on the west coast, they aren’t our tweets. Are they east coast tweets? How does it work? Is it a live show? Is it pre-taped? What’s the magic behind the tweets?
EM: (Evil laugh.) You want to know the dirty secret of our tweets? Okay. The deal is we pre-tape our show on Tuesday nights. We have to pre-tape the show. The first season we did it live, but now we have to pre-tape the show because we distribute it. We’re on about 140 PBS stations across the country. So we need to send out the tape, and it needs to be processed and all that, it’s complicated, but that’s how it works. So the thought was, how do we keep the live tweets on the show? So when the show airs in the UK, we gather all the tweets that are generated by that episode. The tweets that we’re posting are real tweets, and they were inspired by the episode you just saw.
Then, when I lay out what we’re going to do on the show that night, we kind of know what areas we’re going to talk about. We know that in the first break we’re going to talk about this storyline, and in the next break we’re going to talk about that storyline. So we have a “Tweets Producer” who basically culls through all the tweets the UK does, and then matches them up. We know we’re going to be talking about this storyline, so all the tweets will reflect that storyline, and look like they’re coming in in the moment.
That’s the first week. But on the second week that we do our show, by that time the first episode has aired in the US already. So we go through all the tweets that come in during that episode [in the US], and any that are more generic or character-driven and tie in with what we’re talking about the next week, we’ll incorporate those into our show. So if on the first episode you tweet something about Violet, and then she does something in the second episode that we’re going to talk about, your tweet might show up there. So in the first week we don’t have your tweets on, but by the second week we’re starting to incorporate tweets from the US.
It’s a very complicated process, and then out of all the tweets that come in, we cull through them and I pick out like nine of my favorite tweets, no matter what they’re about, and those are the ones that make it to Mr. Rodgers’ tray.
I think that’s the biggest question people ask when they realize the show is pre-taped. They’re like, “How do you get the tweets, then?!” “It’s magic! It’s Mr. Rodgers’ magic!”
PS: So back to Damian McGinty, I have to ask you because I know you know I thought he should have been cast in Downton Abbey at some point. If you were to cast Damian in Downton Abbey–too late now, of course, but there are always time machines–what role would you give him?
EM: I would think, two roles that maybe he would be good for. People aren’t going to like this. One, he could be a new house butler, a house boy, but I also think for some reason Daisy might encounter him out at the farm. He could be a good love interest for Daisy.
PS: I had thought that he could be Tom Branson’s younger cousin, come to visit.
EM: Ahhh. See, my thing is, because I know him, I know he’s not stodgy and stiff-collar, so I had to see him as one of the more down-to-earth people.
READERS: If you know Damian McGinty, what role would you have created for him on Downton Abbey? Tell us in the comments!
PS: How do you handle it, especially in … I don’t remember what season it was, but there have been some pretty heavy storylines, and then you have a sort of light, dishy, gossipy show, how do you balance that? How do you maintain the tone of your show when the tone of Downton Abbey gets heavy?
EM: I think that’s the best thing about Manor of Speaking, because we’re there with the audience to help them decompress from the story. The best example of that would have to be the episode when Anna was raped. [After that episode] all over the country, stations got phone calls and complaints, people were upset and bothered by it, but our station didn’t get a single complaint call, and that was because of Manor of Speaking, I think.
What we did was, when we came out of that episode, knowing it was going to be so heavy and disturbing, and also knowing that in the UK it got the reaction it did, we opened our show with a grief counselor on the panel, from the Houston Area Women’s Center. Just me and that woman. And we came to us, and we explained why sharing that story was important in today’s day and age, what we can learn from that story, and told our audience, if you find yourself in a similar situation, or if the storyline brought up feelings or memories in you, we had a help line, and we put that number up. I think that transitioned our audience through that uncomfortable moment. Then we went into the open of our show, and then we did our regular show. We kept that woman on the couch, because, you know, we reminded everyone, these are characters. It’s a story.
I think it was a huge service to our community. That’s when we broke format, and it’s the only show when we’ve actually broken format. It was important to do, and I’m happy we were there to do it, and the audience reaction was very strong to it. We didn’t get any negative reaction. We handled the rest of the show, looking at the other storylines, the same way as we always did. We didn’t then want to make the whole thing down and sad and all of that. But it was important to realize there are serious issues that are dealt with. Luckily for us, they haven’t given us a whole lot of those, so we’ve been able to keep our laughter and our humor going. We try to match the audience where the audience is.
PS: I think that’s fabulous you did that. I’m sure that made a real difference for some people. But, you’re almost done with Manor of Speaking now! What’s going to happen next? Will you do this format for other shows?
EM: I think if the right program came along, we would do it. You have to realize that Downton Abbey is very unique in the way people react to the show. And it’s also cleverly written in a way that allows us to have fun with it. It has fun with itself, and so we’re not being disrespectful to it. There are some shows where I think they take themselves so seriously and the audience does, too, that if we came out and did this, they would be offended. But Downton Abbey has a good sense of humor. If something comes along, we’re ready to do it again. But other than that, I’ll go back to doing InnerVIEWS and the other shows that I do.
READERS: We need more Ernie, am I right? Are there other shows you’d love to see Ernie do an after show for? I’ve suggested Poldark and A Place to Call Home–I especially think A Place to Call Home is ripe for an after show! (If you’re not familiar with the 1950s Australian post-war drama, check out my interview with one of the show’s stars, Marta Dusseldorp, and then call your local PBS station to tell them you want to see it!) What shows do you think need an after show like Manor of Speaking? Let us know in the comments!
EM: Now we’re in our 14th season, and we’re already taping for season 15.
PS: Fantastic. Tell me about that. How do you decide who to have on? What is your goal in your interviews, your guiding mission?
EM: A couple different things. One is, they have to be someone who has a story or career worthy of a half hour conversation. You think, “Oh, that’s easy.” But it’s not. There are so many people that are popular today for one or two things, and to sustain that for half an hour would be hard. I like to find somebody who has a good body of work that we can talk about. But also who’s done something with themselves. When people ask me to describe what the show is, I often say that it investigates the creative mind. I want to know how people achieve what they achieve, and how they got to where they’re at, and then also how they give back with it, what they do with what they’ve learned. That’s usually the overlying guideline for that show.
The other thing is when we put up their name underneath them, we don’t have to explain who they are. So if it says “Judy Collins,” I don’t have to put underneath it, “Singer.” People will just know who they are. That’s what I look for. Also, I tend to like people somebody I tend to like. You know? So someone I’m a fan of or who I like. I’ve been fortunate. Yes, I’ve done some people where I’m not a huge fan of their work, just because I haven’t been exposed to it or it’s not in my wheelhouse, but that doesn’t mean they don’t belong there. For the most part, I’ve been lucky, and I get to pick who I want, when I want.
PS: And you clearly love interviewing people, talking with people. What is the draw for you? What is it that you love about that?
EM: I said very early in this career that if I ever sat down with a celebrity or star or somebody of accomplishment or of note, and I was bored with it, that I should retire. Because really, it’s a fascination of talking with these people, of being in the room with someone who can tell me these stories, you know? They were there, and they can share it. I think it was Walter Cronkite who said, “My natural curiosity,” and I was like, yeah, that’s what it is. It’s my natural curiosity that carries me through these interviews.
It’s wild. I mean, if I want to talk about visiting the moon, I can talk with somebody who actually stood on the moon. If I want to talk with somebody about having eighteen top 10 singles in their career, I can sit down with Taylor Dayne, and she did it. You know, it’s not, I can sit with friends and speculate, “What would it be like?” Or I can talk with the people who really did it. It’s so cool.
PS: That is definitely very cool. So tell me, what else do you have going on with PBS, and in your career?
EM: I also do a show on PBS here in Houston called Arts InSight. InnerVIEWS airs across the country on multiple stations, Manor of Speaking airs across the country, and Arts InSight is a local show, but we share our content with thirty-two other stations, called the “major market group.” Our stories, that we do at our station, go to other stations, and their stories come to ours, and I host the Houston version of the show, but all the other stations have their version of the show. So we do that.
But now, with the shutting down of the manor house at the end of March, my station offered me a very nice situation. And that is that starting in March, I pretty much have my own production company within our station, and I can do whatever I want. They want me to find stories, and tell stories, and make shows, and I have the full use of all the facilities we have at our station. So that’s a huge deal to get. The only stipulation is they don’t want long-term series. They don’t want like a weekly series that would run for ten years. What they want is maybe a short, limited series, like Manor of Speaking, pledge specials, music specials, art shows, documentaries, whatever I want to do, it’s free for me to do, as long as at the end of the day we’ve made “event television.” So that’s what we’re going to be making. And then we’ll be distributing them.
PS: So do you have ideas already, anything you can talk about?
EM: Yeah, I have something, I know what the very first production is going to be. It’s going to be a documentary about a crime that happened here in Houston, that kind of changed Houston and had impacts across the country. But I don’t want to say what it is quite yet. But you’ll probably be seeing it on Twitter before long, so you’ll know.
PS: You and I both love PBS. Personally, I think public free access to education and information is critical to the health of a community — things like PBS, NPR, and public libraries being at the core of that idea. Talk to me a little bit about why you love PBS, and why you think PBS is important?
EM: I love PBS because I feel we’re given the time and the resources to tell the stories in a complete and competent manner. I think too often, with the way the world is today, everything has to be done in sound bites, or ninety-second stories, or even if it’s a two-hour news magazine, not to call any out by name, it’s built around the commercial breaks, so the story has to have a very certain arc, so that at each commercial there’s a cliffhanger. And that doesn’t really serve telling a true story in a truthful way. At PBS what we’ve been allowed to do is tell stories the way the stories need to be told. If it warrants a half an hour, it gets a half an hour. If it warrants an hour, it gets an hour. For the most part, we’re not judging for you. We’re giving you the information, and then you get to decide. I think that’s so important. That’s one thing I try to keep with anything I do, that I’m not telling you how to think. These are the different sides of the story. Now your responsibility is to figure out where you fall on it. It’s not my job to tell you. My job is to give you the information so you can decide for yourself. And that’s really the beauty of working in PBS, and especially Houston Public Media. We’ve been very fair and balanced in what we do. I know sometimes some people will say, “Ah! PBS is so liberal!” And then other people will say, “Ah! PBS is so conservative!” So I’m happy they say it’s both.
PS: What do you hope the next five to ten years of your career look like? What would you like to do that you haven’t yet done?
EM: I think that I just get to continue to do the work that I’ve enjoyed doing. It’s going to be hard to put Manor of Speaking to bed, because that show so beautifully fits in my wheelhouse, it’s what I like to do. As much as InnerVIEWS is one side of me, the in-depth, thoughtful conversations, Manor of Speaking is the quirky, funny, quick-witted, one-liner side of me that most of my friends probably know.
PS: It’s clear that you’re very comfortable in that. It comes across that that’s you.
EM: I’m friends with Lyle Lovett, the country singer, and Lyle is on the first episode of Manor of Speaking this season, he’s going to sit on the couches with us. [The first episode has already been taped.] After the show, he said he’d never realized that the whole show is ad-libbed by me. There’s no script. Manor of Speaking is all just off the top of my head. And he was like, you know, he’s known me for a while, he knows my sense of humor, and he knew that was there, but he was like, “Every single toss, everything you do on the show is just in the moment.” And I was like, “Yep.”
So once the show starts, for me, it’s a challenge, and it’s a roller-coaster ride, and in my mind a little game, “Will I hit the points, will I get it right, will I make this work?” Because we don’t have anything to fall back on. Even though the show is now pre-taped, it’s live-to-tape. We go through it as though it’s live. There are no re-shoots, there are no fixes, we just do what we do. So I’ll miss the adrenaline, the excitement, the fun of all that.
PS: You’ll have to find something to replace that. If I think of something, I’ll let you know.
EM: Please, let me know!
READERS: Do you have any ideas for Ernie or his production company? What small series, pledge specials, music specials, documentaries, etc., do you want to see? Leave your ideas in the comments!
EM: I’ll tell you some other people who are going to pop up on the show this season. We’ve got Lyle Lovett on the couch, we have Brené Brown …
EM: She’s going to be on the couch, she’s on the second week. Ina Garten, the Barefoot Contessa, is going to do Across the Pond with us. A few other surprises up our sleeves, but those are the ones I know are written in stone.
PS: That sounds fantastic. So much to look forward to! Ernie, thank you so much for your time! You’ve been just fabulous to chat with, and I’m so grateful. I hope we see more of you! Happy New Year!
EM: Thanks, Pam!
So, fans of Manor of Speaking, Downton Abbey, Ernie, and more, there you have it! Be sure to catch Manor of Speaking right after the Downton Abbey Season 6 premiere on January 3. It sounds like a fantastic season ahead!
If you’ve linked to this page from the story at the Huffington Post, click here to find where the Q&A left off.
I’m not keeping track, of course, but I have to tell you, this Q&A is among my favorites so far. After chatting with Noni Hazlehurst for forty-five minutes a couple of months ago (I waited to post this interview until APTCH Season 2 was about to air on my local PBS station), I found myself wondering: how has this outspoken, opinionated, charismatic, compelling, interesting, engaging, fabulous and funny woman stayed off my radar for so long? Especially considering her status in Australia as something of a legend. Nonetheless, fear not, Noni Hazlehurst is here now, and we had a fantastic chat, for which I’m so grateful!
If you haven’t already watched the Australian 1950s post-war drama in which Noni stars, A Place to Come Home (APTCH), the time to start is now. The Wall Street Journal recently included APTCH in its list of “The Best Television of 2015“–a very short list and a well-deserved honor!
To find out more about the story of APTCH and its on-again-off-again, canceled-then-revived history on Australian and now U.S. TV, check out my interview with Marta Dusseldorp, another of the show’s stars (and another fabulous person), who plays Sarah Adams.
APTCH is showing on some PBS stations in the U.S.; if you’re in Seattle, like me, watch the Season 1 marathon on KCTS 9 on Saturday, December 26, starting at 10:30 a.m.; then KCTS will start airing Season 2 on January 7 at 8 p.m.
Now, a warning. There’s always a challenge in doing interviews: I don’t want to do the interview without having done my research; at the same time, I know not all readers will come to the article with all the same information that I had. Noni (pronounced KNOW-knee, if you’re wondering) and I don’t get into too many spoilers below, but we do discuss her character’s state of being and state of mind up to the end of Season 2, which does include allusions to what happened through the series so far. If that’s more spoilers than you like, hasten thee quickly to get caught up before reading on! You can get the DVDs from Amazon (Season 1, Season 2) or stream online at Acorn TV.
Noni and I talked over the phone, which wasn’t without its mishaps. The 8000 miles between Seattle and Sydney created a lag of a few seconds. This led to some awkward overlap, which I’ve tried to clean up.
Noni was an absolute delight to talk to. Now, on to the Q&A!
Pam Stucky: How did you come to be a part of A Place to Call Home? How did you get connected with the show?
Noni Hazlehurst: It was a pretty conventional casting process. I did a screen test and was the first one to be cast. I screen tested with a couple of potential Sarahs [Sarah Adams, the other female lead, played by Marta Dusseldorp], and my vote was for Marta, and luckily they agreed and she won that role. I guess the difference was that normally I wouldn’t screen test for a series in Australia because I’ve sort of done enough that people know what I do. But I liked the script so much that I was happy to do it. So, you know, there’s always an exception.
PS: Did they contact you, or had you heard about the script and expressed your interest? How did you find out about it?
NH: I was invited to screen test.
PS: The character you portray, Elizabeth [Bligh], I don’t want to call her a “villain,” really, but she’s complex, obviously. I’m a writer myself, and I always think that when you’re writing a “villain,” you have to think of everyone as the protagonist of their own story. You can’t write someone as an evil person. And I’m imagining that as a performer you have to get your head into your character’s mind as well, so you’re not really playing a villain, either. I’m wondering if you agree with that, and how do you think Elizabeth Bligh sees herself?
NH: I totally agree with that. No one is all one thing. And we are far too judgmental in our lives, of ourselves and others. I get very frustrated when people say, “Elizabeth is such a bitch.” I mean, from Elizabeth’s point of view, she married at seventeen to a man who turned out to be gay, who was also a wealthy landowner in the district, you know, and we’re talking just post-Victorian times. She made a pact with the guy, you know, she honored her marriage, she honored his status, she honored him as a husband, and they had a loving relationship, albeit a very distant one.
But she’s very much a victim of her time, in that … I have English parentage, so I understand that the English are masters at putting up a front. Particularly in those days, you know. They never spoke about anything personal. It was very much several layers of onions to protect whatever person they might have been. In fact, there was very little credence given to any idea of an “inner person.” It was all about how you appeared in the world. And so her whole life has been dedicated to appearing in the world, her small world, albeit a small world, appearing in the world as someone in the upper echelon of that world. Someone who’s an upholder of values and standards, and who is to be seen as a model of behavior. She’s the queen of her own little domain, and so she will do anything to protect that. She’s a very protective lioness of her cubs. In that small environment, it’s become too inward-looking, as in any kind of upper crust aristocratic class, you know, they’re very inward-looking. They don’t let people in easily, if at all.
So, I totally understand why she behaves the way she does, but the interesting thing is that by the end of Season 2, she’s lost her place. You know, her family don’t want her there, the consequences of her actions, albeit with good intentions, have been devastating for her beloved son. And so she’s at a point where she has to completely redefine herself. And I thank the writers that at least they’ve given her the intelligence to understand that she has to change, and not hold fast to this person she thought she was, because that person is irrelevant, in a sense. So it’s quite an interesting journey to play.
PS: You’ve filmed Season 3 already, or you’re in the middle of Season 3?
NH: The third series is currently airing. We start shooting Season 4 in mid-February.
PS: So you clearly know what’s happened between the end of Season 2 and the end of Season 3; you know Elizabeth’s story arc. I’m curious what your own hopes for her are, obviously you already know what happens, but what do you hope for her?
NH: Oh, absolutely. Well, what I would hope for her is that she’s able to embrace the times. You know, it’s a really interesting period in Australia because we were shifting from our traditional view of England being “home,” and because of the advent of television and movies and so on, reaching greater and greater heights coming from Hollywood. Our culture started to turn towards America, and rock ‘n’ roll, and all those things that drove the older generations crazy, and felt that the end of the world was coming. Given her daughter, who’s very avant garde, and given the fact that she has no alternative but to look around her and see, now, what is her place in the world going to be, I hope that she can grow and evolve in a way that’s positive. And I know that she wants to be of service. She’s very much of that kind of environmental upbringing, that you had several roles to play in the community. So she needs to find her place.
PS: She’s such a complex character, which I think is fascinating, and you’ve played her with great nuance.
NH: Thank you.
PS: And she clearly has that deep, caring love for Jack, and at the same time the very strong, you know, I’ve read that you were saying the story of A Place to Call Home is about bigotry and intolerance, and she sort of personifies that in some ways. Is that difficult to balance that portrayal?
NH: No. Because I don’t judge … she only had the information that was available to her according to the times and her upbringing, and she’s had a very protected life. You know, we had a “White Australia policy” in the fifties. And our recently deposed, and deservedly so, Prime Minister, has been stalking the world stage talking about “we can’t change Europe by letting in brown people,” effectively is what he’s saying. There are deeply, deeply racist undercurrents in Australia, as in the United States, as in pretty much everywhere in the white western world.
So I understand. And we deliberately try to show how bigoted people were, hopefully as a talking point, that people can say, “Oh, well, we’ve come a long way, baby … or not.” You know, same with the role of women, same with the role of the indigenous people, which is a theme that will emerge later in the series. And obviously the homosexual theme, that’s so strong and has caused a lot of people to go, “Wow, I didn’t realize so recently that it was so bad.” You know, we don’t learn our history anymore. So if you do it through a vicarious medium like television, you have a responsibility to be accurate. So I don’t worry about representing someone like that because I want to be true to who the people were then, to make it interesting.
PS: I always believe that we all think we’re doing the best that we can with what we have, so you have to come from that place.
NH: Hopefully, hopefully that’s what we’re thinking.
If you’re joining this post linked from the Huffington Post article, start here!
(Sorry about that! I hate breaking up posts but it was too long for HP.)
PS: This relates to what you’ve been talking about already, but you said in another interview that Elizabeth Bligh is a metaphor for Australia at the time. Not being from Australia I thought that was a really fascinating statement, and I’m wondering if you can tell me more about what that means?
NH: I was born in 1953, and my parents came out from England as migrants in 1950, because England was so decimated by the war. My parents were very conservative. I remember strongly the secrets that people held, and I remember as a very small child, maybe about eight, thinking, “I wonder if the people who see us at church on a Sunday, what they would think if they saw us on a Saturday?” Because we were very different. You know? We behaved differently. So I started to understand the layers, that everyone is always playing a role. We’re all acting all the time. So then you start looking at what is authentic. So in Australia, you know, it was all about front. It was all about the mask. It was all about keeping people down, keeping them stupid, and it’s only fallen apart now because of technology, really, where things can no longer be kept secret.
My mother had some incredible family secrets that she never told me. I found out from my brother, things about the family, that she was too ashamed to talk about. And they were things that you wouldn’t even, you’d just go, “oh dear, that’s sad,” now. But to my mother, they were the source of unending shame and pain. She didn’t share her pain, just as returning soldiers didn’t share their pain. They didn’t see it as a right, or even an issue. It was just, you know, post-traumatic stress.
The shift in the focus away from outward service to inward service has started since the 50s, particularly in Australia, since we are an island, you know, we see ourselves as being different. We’ve always looked to other civilizations for our lead, particularly the British civilizations. We still are subjects of the Queen, for God’s sake. So that royalty, that love of the mother country, was so strong. And the Queen was seen as the role model of perfect behavior, particularly for a woman, to do nothing, say nothing, and just be a figurehead. So that’s what you could aspire to, if you were a woman. Other than that, you were just going to be a wife. And the men had it all. The men had it all their own way.
It’s a really interesting time to look at how feminism might have stemmed from there. You know, that push to put women back in the home in the 50s, with all the appliances that we were sold, to get us out of the work force, to leave the jobs for the men back from the war. There was huge cultural shift in Australia at that time. And that’s why I think the 50s are so interesting, because the gaps between what happened in the early 50s and what was coming in the 60s are enormous. The shifts, cultural and societal shifts, are incredible.
PS: You were saying this was fairly recent in Australia. How recent would “recent” be in these shifts of mindset? Do you think there’s still an undercurrent, as you were saying, of a lot of this?
NH: It’s a much wider playing field now. As in America, we have the ultra far-right conservatives in the government, so they’re the ones who want to still cling desperately to that status quo of, “there is no climate change,” “technology and social media are just electronic graffiti,” you know. And “anyone who complains about the environment is an activist.” We still have that kind of, “we’re the ruling class and we know how things should be.” That’s old money. That’s what controls the world, still. But they can’t stop people getting together now. That’s a wonderful thing, that we can have People Power. And in those days, you could not have People Power unless you went out on the streets.
PS: You’ve said that Elizabeth has played a role for so long, she doesn’t know who she is. Do you think she deceives even herself, or is she self-aware? Does she know who she is behind the masks?
NH: Oh, no, I don’t think she has a clue who she is. I don’t think she has a clue. I mean, self analysis was not done in the 50s. I’m constantly pulling those things out of scripts, you know. The underwriters often write things like the character saying things like, “I have an issue,” or “we’re going to deal with this issue.” But you know, they didn’t have issues, and they didn’t deal with issues. You know, you just didn’t. Psychiatry and psychology were only starting to be accepted into even the mainstream thinking in the 60s. So, you know, it was still pretty way out to try an analyze yourself.
PS: If you, Noni Hazlehurst, were to give Elizabeth Bligh advice, what would you tell her?
NH: I’d tell her to travel. I mean, she has traveled, she’s been to England several times, I’d imagine, I know she starts the series coming back from England, Series [Season] 1. Yeah, I’d tell her to broaden her horizons. She’s lived in this tiny little country town, you know, that’s two hours from Sydney, and been Queen of the May, and, yeah, she needs to get out and meet more people. Otherwise she’s going to be very lonely. If there was such a thing as depression in the 50s, then she would be at risk of going down. You know, a lot of people never realize that their behavior has alienated people, they just keep on keeping on, and they do end up very lonely.
PS: She definitely seems to be so alone at the end of Season 2. In some ways, it seems it’s a little like the “empty nest syndrome.”
NH: Completely. Completely the empty nest syndrome. And not only the empty nest syndrome, but also, by all her best intentions, her children aren’t happy, they’re involved in tragedies and disappointments, and it’s all been for nothing, it seems.
PS: Her actions are definitely based on good intentions, and I think that to have everything fall apart, based on your good intentions, would feel, “Well, now what? Now who am I? Where do I go from here?”
NH: It’s very humbling. My children are 27 and 21, and the youngest one only left home recently, and you know, so, yes, how do I redefine myself when I’m not an “active mother” anymore?
PS: Speaking of redefining, in season three, what can we expect of Elizabeth?
NH: What can I tell you? She’s searching, she’s definitely searching, but of course circumstances arise beyond her control, as they do in all our lives, some to do with the family, some not, that mean that she is still partially involved in what’s happening at home. She forges a stronger bond with her daughter, which is well overdue, long overdue. And she tries to widen her horizons, and she does get put into some situations that are not comfortable for her. You do see an evolution of sorts. You certainly see a more humbled version of Elizabeth. She’s, to use an Australian expression, “had the stuffing knocked out of her.”
PS: We get a lot of British shows in the U.S., but we do not get a lot of Australian shows. I’m wondering why you think A Place to Call Home managed to make the leap? What do you think it was about this show that was an international draw?
NH: I think the budget. I think one of the problems with our movies and our television is that we’re such a small country that it’s really difficult to get returns on investment in the local market, particularly commercial free-to-air television, which has dominated the scene until quite recently. They want to spend the money on sport, they want to spend the money on news, but they’re getting a diminishing share of advertising revenue, and so their budgets for drama have never been all that healthy.
I think the fact that we’ve been able to attract a fantastic cinematographer, who stayed with the series and wants to stay with the series, a fantastic art department who have been with us the whole way, an amazing hair and makeup team and wardrobe team, they’re all at the top of their game. And so we’ve been able to achieve the standard that we’ve all been capable of, but so many of our people go overseas and prove that. But finally we have a product that we can be proud of because the money has been put on the screen. We can’t compete if we don’t do that.
PS: This question adds to that one. To quote you back to yourself again, you said in another interview, “You look at a rundown of the (Australian) production slate and invariably it’s apocalyptic, road movie, depressing, coming of age, just as the slate of television is cop, cop, cop, hospital, hospital, hospital.” If you were in charge of Australian film and TV and were deciding what changes to make, what kind of advice would you give to the industry?
NH: Well, I certainly think, as is the push in Hollywood and in England as well and everywhere, for more female representation. I think we should get away from calling anything that deals with women a “chick flick,” would be a good start. I certainly think we need to reflect life more as it is actually experienced by people. I think we still predominantly show a white middle class representation of who we are, which is far from the truth now, as it is in the States. But we have even fewer different races represented on our screens than you do. I just think we need to grow up, you know.
I just feel embarrassed sometimes when I do a comparison of what we have here as local entertainment with the best from overseas. It’s naïve to think that we can appeal with the kind of homesy, folksy sentimental kind of show that’s not much more sophisticated than The Waltons in some instances. The world’s moved on, you know, and I really think we have to move along with it, and either do these historical things that are of interest to people all over the world, but also, try and create some oases. I think one of the reasons our show is successful is because the world is so complex, and we do seem to be hurtling toward hell in a hand basket. I think people are enjoying a reminder of when things were simpler and quieter, and people were more respectful in general. You know, it’s a little oasis. So I think there’s something to be said there.
But certainly, more female representation, less male protagonists, would be a good start.
PS: I completely agree on that. Okay, in an interview [see video, above] about Larry Moss’s Masterclass, you said something that really resonated with me: “Most of the time most of us are disengaged and unconnected, and we have a front up, of our ego… There is harm to be done in masking yourself and not being able to be open.” Which goes back to what we were saying about Elizabeth. Tell me more about that idea, and how you have worked to overcome that, and how do we go about reversing that?
NH: I think it goes back to what I was saying before about we’re all acting all the time. I find acting easy; I find being hard. You talk about mindfulness, being in the moment, being present and all those things; that’s what we’re trying to achieve. I think one of the things that was most salutary for me in my life was hosting a very small children’s program–a program for very small children–called Play School [the second-longest-running children’s show in the world], which I hosted for twenty-four years, while I was doing my adult acting as well. And if you can convince a three-year-old that you’re present on television, with a thirty-two page script which you’ve rehearsed five times, there’s no autocue [teleprompter], that you’re trying to appeal to a pre-school child, if you succeed at that, you will hold their attention for half an hour. If you don’t succeed, if you’re acting that you’re feeling happy or acting that you’re feeling pretty or whatever, a three-year-old child will just switch off. They’re not interested in people who aren’t present. They know how to be. Whereas an adult will sit and watch you because they’ve paid money or because they can’t be bothered getting up.
Little children taught me so much about communication. Doing that show, you use the camera as if it were one child. So you’re not going, “Hi, kids!” You’re actually going, “Hello,” and the child responds. They answer you back as if you’re there with them. So what Larry did for me, Larry changed my life. I started teaching after I did this Masterclass with Larry, and it was the scariest thing I’ve ever done as an actor. He removed nerves from me for all time because he said, “The audience doesn’t come to see you. They come to see themselves.” And I just found that so, so profound for me, because all of a sudden, oh my God, it’s not about me! It’s not about people judging me. It’s about me telling a story. And so all I have to do is tell the story faithfully and truthfully, to the best of my ability, and find stories that are worth telling, that I think contribute something.
I get adrenalized, sure, before a performance. I just toured a one-woman play around Victoria and Tasmania, but yeah, I get adrenalized, but I don’t get nervous because all I have to do is tell the story. So that separation of ego, you know, people think actors are full of ego and fragile and all the rest of it. The good actors don’t come from a place of ego. They come from a place of humanity. And they’re not delicate. They have to be very tough, because they have to be vulnerable. You can’t pretend you’re a powerful being in the world, because no one is special. I tell my kids all the time, you’re not special. You’re unique, but you’re not special. Because, well, if you’re special, someone else isn’t, so how does that work?
So from an acting point of view, I have all those attributes that any person in the world has, inside me, somewhere. My job is to bring the to the fore, and say, under what circumstances could I behave like this? And then I create the circumstances that give me the behavior, in my mind, and I can justify the behavior, no matter what it is. You know, if I was asked to be a murderer, if someone was to threaten my kids, I’d murder them. So I can understand the strength of feeling required. We all have those things, but we just choose the certain attributes that we think are the best ones to portray ourselves with in our daily lives or in whatever circumstances require.
PS: Yes, I’ve had those conversations with people who say, “I can’t imagine ever doing these things!” and I say, yes, but what if they threatened your child? And they get it, they always, say, “Oh, well, yes, of course!”
NH: And what if you’d been brought up by people who were amoral, and you would be the product of your upbringing, and your education. Some people never get to realize that if you have a different choice, that you can actually make different choices. Some people never question the way they behave. Or their conditioning.
PS: Going back to something you said today, and which you also said in another interview, that you don’t care what you’re doing so long as it’s a story worth telling. What is a story worth telling? What makes a story worth telling?
NH: Well, I guess my criterion has always been, would I pay money to see this? Would I give this two hours of my attention? If I would, then I’m happy to think about doing it. To me, a story worth telling is something that resonates for me as something that needs to be told, whether it’s a story of the consequences of bad attitudes, or whether it’s something that helps break down stereotypes and myths, particularly about women….
[At this point, the sound on our call went out. We were reconnected and somewhat successfully recalled where we were when the call dropped.]
NH: Yeah. I guess it’s, what is the reason for any artistic endeavor? It’s to express how you feel about something. To try to say to people, “Is this the way you want to be? Do you feel like this? Am I alone here?” Something that resonates with the human heart, I think, is what I’m after, whether it’s in a negative way or a positive way. I think, as a woman, I’ve been told all my life that I’m just too emotional, or I’m feeling too much, and I look around, and I see the results of rationality and logic, and I don’t think there’s all that much to write home about.
So I’m very keen to pursue things that make people feel, and that move them, and perhaps cause them to reevaluate some of the attitudes that are causing pain in their lives. They’re the kind of projects that interest me. I’m not interested in sci-fi, I’m not interested in apocalyptic movies at all. The world is bad enough without going to see 3D versions of these. I want human stories that resonate for me and make me feel like it was something worth experiencing. Something that enriches me.
PS: You have a lot of interest in a lot of projects in the future, directing and radio and so on. One thing you said is that “I would love to see more negotiation and tolerance. It would be nice to foster these ideas on radio or television, promoting a kinder, more tolerant society which appreciates the arts, mixing in good news and a celebration of inner beauty.” That’s a big order. How do you think each of us as individuals can better approach kindness and tolerance, especially when faced with ideas that conflict with our own values, and with social media where people get their umbrage up? What are some small steps we can take?
NH: It’s huge, isn’t it? I mean, it’s a source of constant despair to me that people are so unkind, and so lacking in empathy. We have a political party in power here, as I said, that has talked about caring about people as being impossible, it’s “unfunded empathy.” “We can’t afford unfunded empathy.” Which is nonsense. It’s just nonsense. And, you know, these are people who espouse Christian values, which makes it even more repugnant.
I don’t ascribe to what on this end of the world is the conservative philosophy that if you haven’t made it you just haven’t tried hard enough. There are many, many, many, many people who will never make it, and it’s not because they’re stupid or failures or slow. Look, I think kindness and empathy, all you can do is live it. You know? All you can do is give people the benefit of the doubt, and try and correct terrible attitudes when you come across them. I just feel people are not called out on this stuff often enough. And it’s pretty pointless doing it on Twitter and Facebook sometimes because you’re just preaching to the converted, you know, you’re just all agreeing with each other.
I certainly think you need to in a metaphoric sense have a kind of purple cloak of kindness around yourself every time you walk out the door, to protect yourself from other influences that are malevolent. And that’s not paranoiac, that’s just saying the way most of us are living in cities is not the way we’re meant to live. In a survey recently, from the States, I think, they said to people, “How would you prefer to spend the last years of your life? In a high-rise apartment, in a suburban house, or in a rural cottage with a picket fence in the country?” And guess what most people wanted? You know, they wanted a simpler, calmer, more close-to-nature life. That’s our dream. That’s what we long for as human beings. And you cannot live that life if you’re unkind and you lack empathy.
I guess it’s just remaining true to our ideals and trying to stay with like-minded people for our own survival. Ultimately, I’m optimistic that there will be enough of us to overcome these guys.
PS: I hope so. I hope you’re right.
NH: Me too.
PS: Okay, I’m going to let you go soon, but last questions: For your personal self, how do you define success and happiness? I’m very interested in people’s visions of what happiness means.
NH: To me happiness is something that, it’s like a butterfly that kind of flicks past me now and again, and I get to spend some time with it, and it’s fantastic. And the chance for it to be there is there at any moment. It’s not a permanent state that I aspire to, because that’s Utopia, and it doesn’t exist. But it’s something that comes and goes, and it’s appreciated all the more because of that. Success, probably similarly. I’m very excited right now because I have a very small role in Truth, the James Vanderbilt movie that just came out with Robert Redford and Cate Blanchett. My little scene is getting some attention, which is really lovely.
NH: Thank you, I’m thrilled. You know, I was worried it was going to be cut, because it wasn’t really essential to the movie! I was living in fear of that one. But you know, to me, that’s very exciting, that a scene is singled out in the States as being worthy of attention. So to me, that’s success. I’m really happy about that. But I suppose for me, I think, probably the year that [A Place to Call Home was] canceled, I had about five months out of work, that’s the longest I’ve been out of work since 1973, so I’m very, very fortunate.
You know, also, that I had parents in Vaudeville and I’m a third generation performer, so my parents prepared me. I had to be able to sing and dance, to do accents, to do comedy, you know, they taught me all that stuff when I was a little child. And that the industry didn’t owe me a living. I was very fortunate there. So I feel successful. And although there are a lot of things that really frustrate me about being a female, and about being a 62-year-old female, and about being an actor, and about living surrounded by rednecks sometimes, I still think I’m incredibly fortunate to have my talents developed and recognized and valued by some people. That’s success for me, and that’s enough. But of course, if I got offered something else, I’d be very happy to do it! (laughs)
PS: Well, I’m delighted that this show has come to the U.S., because I didn’t know about you before, and I’m just so pleased to know about you now. Is there anything else that you’d like the world to know about A Place to Call Home, about you specifically, anything else you want to talk about? Anything we haven’t covered?
NH: I think I’m really pleased that this little country is punching above its weight, you know, in so many areas, but particularly in the arts. It’s just wonderful to get feedback from our American fans. It’s delightful to know that what you’re doing resonates, and I think that’s probably true in any kind of artform. If you’re true, if you tell a story as faithfully as you can, it will resonate. If you stay true to your culture and you don’t bring in an American to pretend, to be a person in the cast just to get the production happening, you know, you stay true to who you are, it will resonate. But personally, just getting back to the kindness thing, you know, my aim is to have a “Good News Network.”
PS: I love that.
NH: I would just love to have a network that was devoted to making people feel okay. And bring them the good news. People all over the world are doing amazing things that are just wonderful, and we never get to hear about them. We’re presenting such a skewed view of what human beings are like when what we call “news” is actually just “bad news.”
PS: I could not agree more.
NH: I think there’s a reason why so many people, particularly young people, are suffering from increased anxiety and depression and suicide, because they feel utterly overwhelmed by all the bad news.
PS: And it’s thrust at you constantly. It’s not just that there’s bad news, but that you see it all day long on social media.
NH: It’s ubiquitous, yeah.
And with that question answered, I checked with Noni about Twitter and Facebook and where else to find her, and the fabulous conversation was over. Noni Hazlehurst, where have you been all my life? I’m very much looking forward to seeing more of her in the future.
You can find Noni on Twitter (she does not post a lot).
Back in the day, that day being the late 90s and early 00s, when The X-Files was in its initial airing, I was a huge fan. And I still am. I still think it was one of the best shows ever made.
So about a year ago — before I had any idea that Chris Carter was thinking of bringing back The X-Files, I decided to re-watch the whole series. Giant cell phones and shoulder pads aside, I was delighted to see the writing still stands the test of time. There’s just something about The X-Files that draws me in, every time, whether the mythology or MOTW episodes. (Fellow X-Philes know what I’m saying here.)
When I was maybe somewhere in Season 5 on my rewatch, I heard the news: The X-Files is coming back! I was giddy. I finished my rewatch and waited. And then when #TheXFiles201Days rewatch was announced (watching one episode a day every day for the 201 days leading up to the new series premiere in January), I watched again. (I will neither confirm nor deny that it took me far less than 100 days to watch the 201 episodes both times.)
And in the course of watching, I was reminded of The Lone Gunmen. Oh, The Lone Gunmen! How could we not love the three quirky, funny, charming in their own way, cynical but kind, blazingly smart conspiracy theorists who helped Mulder and Scully on their quest for The Truth? There was Melvin Frohike, there was John Fitzgerald Byers, and then, of course, there was Richard Langly.
On a whim, I emailed Dean Haglund — the actor who portrayed Langly with the perfect blend of wit, sarcasm, and flair. Would he be willing to do a Q&A with me?
When I got an email back from Dean saying he was willing, I have to say, I may have squeed a bit. Because COME ON!! That is some serious awesome right there. I gathered myself up to try to pretend to be professional about this.
Dean came through with some fantastic answers, thoughts, and insights. He was last on my personal radar back in the days of The X-Files … It’s amazing how much can happen in fifteen years. He’s been busy!
Note: If you haven’t seen the original The X-Files series, there are some spoilers here. But you’ve had more than a decade in which to watch it, so I’m going to say the statute of limitations on spoilers has passed. You’ve been warned.
Also, I have to apologize for the length of this post. I got so excited about talking with Dean that I asked him a ton of questions, and he, being awesome, answered all of them. I thought about splitting this up into two or more posts, but I decided that personally I hate having to remember to go back later and find part 2 of anything. So here is the full Q&A in all its lengthy glory!!
Thank you, Dean!
Q: Hi, Dean! Thank you for taking the time to Q&A with me! I appreciate it so much.
Let’s start with The X-Files. I know you’ve signed a confidentiality agreement and can’t say much about your/The Lone Gunmen’s appearance(s) in the January 2016 X-Files Revival series. What can you say? For starters, how many episodes are you in? Sounds like you did a one- or two-day whirlwind trip to Vancouver from Australia to film one episode?
A: Just one episode for us. It was a whirlwind trip. Originally they had me getting off the plane and heading straight to set to shoot our scene, and THEN I’d get to the hotel to check in long enough to shower and grab a nap, and then head back to the airport to fly home.
Luckily, that changed, and I had a few days in Vancouver for wardrobe fitting and time to see some family. That was good, but the macho part of me wished for the first schedule just so I could have an awesome war story to tell.
Q: The Lone Gunmen died at the end of The X-Files … heart wrenching, of course. But we all know no one really dies on The X-Files. Can you tell me, are The Lone Gunmen alive as real live living fully human human beings in the Revival?
A: Hmmm … “real live living fully human human beings” — were the three of them EVER that? The joy of The X-files is how it plays on so many different realities never knowing what is the truth and what is the deception. So my approach to my character has always been that we are alive and have always been alive, and were never “killed off,” but held a fake funeral in “Jump the Shark” to get the heat off of us.
Q: In your podcast, you said a couple of rather intriguing things:
“It’s probably a final chapter for the characters we know, and maybe introducing some new characters.”
“We [The Lone Gunmen] are in this season wrap-up, but that may be the last time you see us. Make way for the new kids.”
Any further comment on that?
A: If I were an executive at FOX, I would know that this X-Files comes with a pre-built-in marketing campaign that takes care of a lot of the heavy lifting that is required when you launch a new series. So if there was a rare occurrence of all the schedules of all the key players lining up so that a revival of your biggest money-maker of the 90s was happening, I would think that I would want to keep that momentum going even when all the key people have to go on to other projects that they have previously committed to. I would do that by strategizing how to introduce new elements that would hopefully catch on and keep it alive longer. It would be silly not to.
Q: You talk in Chillpak Hollywood Hour #435 about the challenges of re-visiting a role twenty years later — that is, not just have you aged, but the character has aged. How did you approach that? Did you (alone or with the others) think and talk about how your characters’ personalities might have changed over time? For example, how would the world events of the last twenty years have affected Langly’s personal evolution, his personal narrative and perspective on the world? How do you think he would have changed?
A: Before we got the script, we three Gunmen laughed at the many scenarios we could possibly be in now, twenty years down the road. Everything from sitting in a hot tub in Silicon Valley to back in an airport handing out UFO brochures. And, more thoughtfully, I have discussed how the nature of underground research and alternative media reporting has changed since the show first aired. The “conspiracy theorist” is no longer a crazy person with a tinfoil hat, but they are the Edward Snowdens and the Wikileaks that bring down major institutions and are the catalysts for social change. The Lone Gunmen Newspaper (that our characters put out and from whence we got our name) would now be a website linked to so many similar sites. And all of that info morphs into a parallel society where all official stories are questioned and so forth, making the three of us either very wealthy or deeper undercover.
Q: The 1990s/2000s, the time when the show was originally aired, had to have been a heady and somewhat surreal time for all of you, without any of the benefit of hindsight or perspective, or even the wisdom of age. If you could go back to 1994 when The Lone Gunmen first aired in The X-Files episode “E.B.E.,” what would you tell yourself about the ride you were about to take?
A: I am not sure I would tell me anything. The sheer joy of it coming unexpectedly, and even improbably, made it all the more fun. I suppose I would have maybe said get a better agent sooner, but I am still telling myself today!!
Q: The idea of going back to a show twenty years later is fascinating to me from the standpoint of “stepping in the same river twice.” You’re twenty years older now. You have life perspective that you couldn’t have had then. Now you have the opportunity to, as it were, step in the same river again. How was the experience different this time from last time?
A: Shockingly, the experience was almost exactly the same. I even said to Tom Braidwood [who portrayed Melvin Frohike, and who also was an assistant director on The X-Files for several seasons] at one point on set, “I think that when I flew here, I didn’t cross the international date line, I crossed a time warp and came back twenty years, because not one single thing has changed.” Same atmosphere, some of the same crew members, even the same long hours. It was weird.
Q: You are inextricably and forever linked to The X-Files. Is that a good thing or bad thing or both? Why?
A: It’s great, it was an epic show that was a quality piece of television craft but also an amazing group of artisans who were working to the peak of their strengths, and it has held up pretty well, so that a whole new generation is digging it. So I am happy to have a small part in that.
Q: Because of your role, you’ve said have a lot of people talking with you, about conspiracies and aliens and whatnot. And not just conspiracy theorists — as I understand it, you have, on occasion, had people involved with the CIA or FBI or whatnot tell you that the things that happened on The X-Files were not so far from real incidents that they’ve investigated or heard about. Is that true?
A: That is true, and while I don’t think that I can share all the stories I have heard over the years, I bring them up sometimes on my podcast and when I guest on other radio shows. As for it all being true, or are some just the blabbing of a drunk fellow, the best answer I can give to that is some of what I was told would then be verified in the regular media as true years later. So, I remember all these tales and then wait.
Q: Not too long ago in another interview you said: “Astronaut [Edgar] Mitchell just went on a newscast and said, ‘I’ve seen ETs. We have government proof that they’re here.’ And that’s Mitchell, who went up in Apollo 7.” That is a rather intense and incredible statement! I have to know more. Have you heard any more about that? Like, what exactly is an ET in his terminology? Is it an alien life form, like an amoeba? Or is he talking about intelligent life? Here? On Earth? How and why would this be kept secret? What do you think about that? What does our government know???
A: I have been in a position, because of The X-Files, to talk with many real life researchers and Ufologists about all manner of ET-related items, and all of them have a varying degrees of similar facts about the matter. But as Richard Dolan said to me in my documentary The Truth Is Out There, “If the government ever DID come forth with all the info they had on UFOs over the years, two more damaging questions would have to answered: How did you keep this all of this secret, and why was the press so complicit in covering that up? And that, he thinks, would unravel the entire system, so therefore the status quo is to continue the “truth embargo” as it is known now.
Q: What do you personally believe? About aliens, about alien-human interaction, about parallel or alternate universes, about any of that?
A: Again, the people who have spent their lives researching this and working in these fields have amazing evidence of all of this existing and I have never been smart enough to poke holes in a lot of their work. And as I have always said, the only thing more scary than knowing we are not alone in the universe, is knowing we ARE alone in the universe.
Q: You’ve said that your first love is cartooning. You did a book called Why the Lone Gunmen was Canceled. Is it available anywhere? If not, have you thought about bringing it back as a self-published book, to coincide with The X-Files Revival?
A: I did a limited edition run of it in hard copy that I only sell at the conventions, and once those are sold out (which should be by the time this is out) I will have a e-version of it available on my website, which will be cheaper since those can’t be signed and personalized.
Q: A while back, you invented a laptop cooling system called a ChillPak. Tell me about that? As I understand it, it’s not available for sale any longer? Which is a bummer, because I could use one!
A: Yes it is odd that the company that bought the patent doesn’t seem that keen on getting these out into the market place. I am using one right now I as I type this in 35°C weather on my deck in Sydney [Australia], and the keys are still cool to the touch.
I won a silver medal at the International Inventors Expo in Geneva a few years back, and that really helped move some units, but my manufacturing plan all along was to make a quality product so much so that the one I am using right now is the PROTOTYPE. I chose to not plan the obsolesce into it and that made me the problem to many distributors. I guess that is what the new company is trying to figure out.
Q: Which is a good segue to: You have a podcast called the “Chillpak Hollywood Hour” (tagline: “From the Offices of Rational Exuberance”), a weekly podcast in which you and Phil Leirness cover a wide range of all things Hollywood. How did you meet Phil, and how did the podcast come about?
A: Phil and I have known each other for as many years as we care not to remember, and we are not sure how we met, only that we have always known each other in a town where it’s about who you know. I had my office next to his when he was working in Foreign Film distribution, and we would talk every Monday about all things Hollywood and what movies we had seen. The intern that I had at the time said it was very interesting listening to us and we should make it a podcast. Eight years later, here we are, still providing a free hour show for our legions of fans, because Phil and I are still working on projects. So the show is sometimes like a production meeting on the air.
Q: I listened to a few episodes in research for this interview, and loved it. (I started listening just as due diligence for the interview, but really enjoyed it and will keep listening!) Can you talk a little about what topics you cover? How do you guys decide what to cover each week? What is the goal of the podcast?
A: The goal of the podcast? If knew that, then we might have stopped it years ago 🙂
We cover all sorts of events both Hollywood and globally, as we sometimes say “Movies, celebrity deaths, and school closings.” We have segments like “lawsuit of the week” that pertain to either lawsuits that involve arts and entertainment or small claims court items that we are embroiled in. Phil sort of comes up with a running order of things and then we discuss them from our wide and varied vantage points. And then mock each other while we are at it.
Q: In addition to being an actor, inventor, podcaster, and cartoonist, you are also a stand-up comedian. Tell me about comedy. What is it that you love about performing comedy?
A: The immediacy of a crowd reaction. Maybe I am just impatient, but to film something and then wait a year for a review to come in about your performance, well, sometimes I forget what exactly was my headspace at the time of that performance so it is a bit irrelevant. Whereas, if you are not funny you know it immediately and when you are, it is an addictive sensation. I think that I am a laugh junkie, and that I have made my set now to be about how many laughs you can cram in a hour show.
Q: Tell me a little about your act. What can people expect?
A: Now, I have abandoned my written material to an ALL IMPROVISED act that basically calls upon the audience suggestions to provide me with much of the show. I recreate an X-Files episode live on stage, with whatever suggestion is shouted out included in the plot line. I also call upon random audience members to join me onstage to be “Mulder” and others to fill out the cast. I have performed this show in every continent on the globe and it has been a hit, even when it has been in a language I didn’t really understand fluently. In fact, sometimes that has made it funnier.
Q: You’re in Australia right now, is that right? I can’t overstate how much I love Australia! I visited when I was 19, and have been wanting to go back ever since. So tell me, what took you to Australia, and when, and for how long?
A: My better half was promoted in her job and that took me and our two Dobermans across the sea. We confirmed this deal in November of 2014 which is when you have to draw blood from your dogs to start the 150-day clock clicking. From there it is a regular schedule of vet visits to confirm the dogs have their proper shots, and no new diseases, and the blood work has to be run through the USDA vet lab in Kansas and faxed to the Department of Agriculture in Australia. Then they had to have custom built crates to fly on QANTAS airlines, which is the only airplane to have a lit, temperature-controlled cabin room under the cockpit made especially for pets migrating overseas. Once over, their paperwork is confirmed at the airport for six hours and then a special van takes them to a quarantine lock up facility for ten days while they confirm they are disease free. This is apparently an IMPROVEMENT to when the dogs had to be kept for 90 days with no owners’ visits. Anyway, they passed with flying colors and now are the topic of conversation all over the neighborhood.
Q: Have you been able to get around the country much? What are some of your favorite places to visit in Australia?
A: Yes, I have done a few conventions so far that have taken me from Melbourne to Perth. I am looking forward to hitting some of the smaller towns with my comedy act because so much of this country reminds me of Canada. I can imagine that small towns of 200 people will be somewhat similar to my hometown I grew up in. And if it is not, how I will love the difference.
Q: Australia is home to so many of the world’s most deadly animals (which really is just my segue into linking to this spectacularly horrifying spider video — arachnophobes should not watch!). Have you encountered anything frightening and deadly?
A: I captured a huntsman [spider] on my stairs just the other day and released it into the wild (that being my neighbor’s yard). All the YouTube fellows seem to lack a certain “flick of the wrist” when it comes to capturing the larger arachnoids. I am sure that my large mop bucket will be my first line of defense when it comes to the deadlier varietals. I have reviewed the web pages that catalogue which versions could kill me, and luckily they prefer a more country-like setting than the urban neighborhood I am presently situated in. But I am ever vigilant, ready to place Australia’s worst into a tupperware container. (Did I mention I grew up where bears could kill you? They don’t have that here.)
Q: After Australia, what’s next? Where is “home” for you, or is that an ever-changing target?
A: To answer what is great about being on The X-Files is its global reach, seen in 167 countries; it has allowed me to travel the blue ball and have someone either know me or be thrilled that I was on a show that they know. That means I am never a stranger anywhere I go, and gives me the opportunity to choose my habitat by literally throwing a dart at a globe. The freedom that permits one to feel welcome where ever the hang their hat cannot be overstated. So clearly, I love Australia so much, its people, culture, and wildlife (i.e., nightlife), and am so pleased to call it home for the next foreseeable future, but knowing the nature of my work and the joy of an interconnected world, I think this is not the last place I will be placing my feet up on a coffee table. Sydney feels like home so much now, but I know that this will change, and it will not be a slight on this fantastic city.
Q: You turned 50 this year (happy birthday!). What have you figured out about life? What do you know that you didn’t know before? What did you used to think was true, that you now know isn’t?
A: This is hardest question of the bunch. This is one that I have stopped to walk my dogs and consider. And then at the end of the walk with the dogs plopped happily back on the furniture, I realized that I know there is no problem so big that a walk with the dogs can’t solve.
Q: What do you want the next five years of life to look like?
A: Full of laughs and travel. Much like the last thirty. But I also think that there is a lot of opportunity for new projects and endeavors here, just a matter of time.
Q: Final question. At the beginning of the 20th century, if you’d told people we’d have a man on the moon before the century was out, they would have thought you were crazy. And of course, they’d have been wrong. Many years ago I thought for a while about what I thought will never happen in my lifetime, and I decided we would not, in my lifetime, have people living on Mars. And yet, it seems I could end up wrong. What about you: What do you think will never happen in our lifetime?
A: The short answer is nothing. I believe in the potential of all things possibly imagined that can be made into a reality. My uncle was a Swedish scientist and in the 1970s he would speak of computers controlling most things in the future, and self driving cars and wireless communication. All the things that we are living with now. While some of it seems invasive (wait till your insurance company installs a internet-enabled toilet with built-in analyzer to make sure you are drug-free daily) other stuff, like renewable technologies that may save us from climate catastrophe, may make all things better.
I’m so delighted to have had the chance to interview a number of the fabulous actors who are starring in the BBC show Poldark, an 18th-century British drama based on the first two Poldark novels by Winston Graham. (Poldark aired in the U.S. on PBS). Here I continue these interviews in a Q&A with the lovely Ruby Bentall, who plays Verity Poldark, a charming, strong, smart, and highly capable young woman, trapped by her spinster status.
Ruby is busy filming the second season of Poldark, so I’m especially grateful for her time in answering my questions! Also, if you’re in the UK, be sure to set a calendar reminder to watch Ruby in ITV’s Jekyll and Hyde, a 10-part action-adventure drama based on Robert Louis Stevenson’s story, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, premiering on October 25!
See also my interviews with more Poldark actors: Heida Reed (“Elizabeth Chynoweth”), Aidan Turner (“Ross Poldark”) and Robin Ellis (the “original” “Ross Poldark” from the 1970s series).
Q: The name Ruby is near and dear to me, as it’s the name of the main character in my first set of books. How did you get the name Ruby? Are you named for someone?
A: My name comes from my mum’s Aunty Ruby. She lived to see me born and sounds like the most bonkers of women. My middle name is Jean, which was after both my grandmothers.
Q: I know you started filming Poldark’s second season in September, and are going to be shooting through sometime in April. How has the filming been going so far this year? Any surprises?
A: So far I have only done two scenes, but I think it is going well. The beginning of a job is always the most chaotic as everyone is getting used to everything, and trying to sort out the kinks. We have a (mostly) new crew and production team, so it should calm down soon. Filming in Bristol should be much easier, as it’s less moving around and more indoor stuff, so we are less dependent on the weather.
Q: Have you read the Poldark books? How did you prepare for the role originally, and did you do any additional preparation for season two?
A: I have read the first four books. I read the first two this year and have just finished the next two. Reading the books was very helpful in preparing for the role, as you get your character’s inner monologue and other people’s thoughts on them. I did a bit of research also into women of that class’s education and expectations of life. I have done a few period dramas and have always loved history, so felt like I knew quite a bit about the world, but I have not played someone of Verity’s class for a while and didn’t know quite what was expected of a woman if she didn’t marry.
I love all that sort of stuff. I wasn’t particularly good at school so always found essay writing hard, so I didn’t do that well at English or history, even though I enjoyed it. It’s one of the things I love most about acting, that I get to do research and read books, but it’s just for me and I don’t have to write about it.
Q: You all had great weather in Cornwall for filming season one — you were, I read, able to swim every day and go on long walks. How is it for season two?
A: Last year’s weather was amazing in Cornwall. This year was a little more raining but I still walked lots; however, I was too much of a wuss to swim. I paddled a lot. I went for a lovely four-hour coastal walk from Portreath to Portowan.
Q: Verity’s life is severely constrained by expectations and circumstance. If you could write Verity into an alternate Poldark universe, what storylines would you give her? Anything and everything is possible!
A: I have never thought about this but last year I wore this cape and massive hat with a feather, and the boys (Kyle [Soller] and Jack [Farthing]) used to say I looked like Puss in Boots, and I would do an impression of Antonio Banderas, so maybe Verity could become some badass sword fighter.
Q: The other day I had this brilliant realization. I’ve decided George Warleggen [one of Poldark’s antagonists] is Draco Malfoy, which would, I suppose, make Ross Poldark Harry Potter. In this scenario, who would Verity be?
A: I guess Verity would be Peter Pettigrew before he went to the bad side, sort of looked over and used.
Q: Your parents were both actors. Did they encourage or discourage acting for you?
A: I think my parents were worried when I said I wanted to be an actress, but they also understood what that feeling is like. Maybe if I had shone at anything at school they would have encouraged me to try that, but it has been the only thing I have ever wanted to do.
I was a bit poorly when I was younger and in between hospital trips, because my mum had my other siblings to look after, sometimes my dad, who was doing Taming of the Shrew at the RSC [Royal Shakespeare Company], used to have to take me to work. I would stand in the wings and be made a great fuss of by the other actors and watch them all and I thought, I have to work here when I’m older. As a child all I wanted to do was be in Shakespeare play at the RSC (pretty pretentious haha).
Q: What would be some of your ideal roles? Is there a particular genre you’d like to try?
A: I still have never done any Shakespeare or classical theatre and I am desperate to. I would also love to do something modern. I have not done anything contemporary since 2011. It’s getting a bit ridiculous.
Q: You’ve been acting for a long time now. Do you ever feel the desire to take a break and try something else? What might you like to try? Whether something within the industry (directing? writing?) or outside it completely.
A: I have only been acting since I was about eighteen. I couldn’t imagine doing anything else. I don’t think there is anything else I could do. I would not like to direct, I would be one of those terrible directors who can’t help line reading the actors their lines, because I would just want to be doing their parts. Also I don’t cope well under stress. I sometimes think about writing just to keep my mind active when I’m not working, but I don’t think I would be good enough.
Q: You’ve said: “I always play stupid people who are very sweet. I’m often cast as the idiot — I don’t know why! You start getting a complex.” Are you enjoying the break from playing stupid? Do you think you’ve broken free from the typecast?
A: Yes, one of the things I’ve loved most about playing Verity is that she is bright. It has been so nice. My next part, Jekyll and Hyde, which starts on the 25th of October, also is not an idiot; she is odd but not dumb. It’s weird, in the last few years I’ve started playing adults, having played teenagers for most of my career. I don’t know whether I like that or not!
Q: How would you describe your personality?
A: My personality! That is hard, I guess, like everyone, it’s a mix. I can be bossy, I hope kind, quite confident, and silly.
Q: What do you like to do in your time off?
A: Read, dance around the house, I go to the theatre a lot, see my friends and family.
Q: What do you want your life to look like in five years?
A: Lots more work, maybe a lead in something, classical theatre, a bloke and a few babies. So, not much!
Q: What makes you happy?
A: My family, friends, and working.
Thank you so much for your time, Ruby! Enjoy the rest of the filming of Poldark, and best wishes with Jekyll and Hyde and all your other endeavors!
If you watched the BBC show Poldark this year (which aired in the U.S. on PBS), you’re not alone; the 2015 remake of the 1970s hit series is attracted huge numbers of viewers around the world, all of whom are eagerly awaiting the second season of the show, set to air in 2016.
And, of course, one of the things we love most about Poldark is the abundance of strong female characters, including Elizabeth Chynoweth, who is portrayed in the new series with beauty, grace, and strength by actress Heida Reed.
I was delighted at the opportunity to interview Heida, but my interest in talking with her was even more greatly piqued when I found out she hails from Iceland, a spectacular country which I visited two years ago.
I’m so grateful Heida agreed to chat with me, especially considering she’s very hard at work these days filming Poldark season two. Below are some of Heida’s thoughts on Iceland, Poldark, acting, and life. Thank you, Heida!
See also my interviews with Aidan Turner (“Ross Poldark”) and Robin Ellis (the “original” “Ross Poldark” from the 1970s series).
Q: I visited Iceland in 2013 to write a book about it, so I’ve done a lot of research on the country. There are a lot of conflicting opinions concerning the lovability (or lack of lovability) of Iceland in winter. Give me your insider’s insight: Winter in Iceland is ________?
A: Winter in Iceland is harsh but beautiful. If you’re cold, all the houses are geothermally heated. So is the water and it is always warm and cosy inside. It’s the wind that’s the worst. If it’s calm, there’s nothing you won’t love.
Q: Would you recommend people visit in winter?
A: Absolutely. Only way to see the northen lights properly. If it’s snowing, there’s nothing like it.
Several Poldark cast members visited Heida in Iceland this summer. Photo: Heida Reed via Twitter. All Heida’s photos via Twitter used with permission.
Q: What are some of your favorite destinations in Iceland that you would recommend?
Q: Iceland is now a hot travel destination, but that’s a fairly recent development. You grew up there (near Reykjavík) before Iceland was really “discovered” by the outside world. (Is that a fair assessment?) What was it like growing up in Iceland? Did it feel isolated? What made you want to leave?
A: It has definitely changed since I grew up there in terms of tourism. The places I’ve mentioned before were mostly just visited by natives and there wasn’t much structure around them. Now it’s a little different but still great. Iceland has never felt isolated to me. Due to the second world war and British and American soldiers stationing on the island, it has since been very Americanised when it comes to popular culture and the media. I loved growing up in Iceland. Nature is very important to us and we try our hardest to preserve it. Wherever you live on the island you’re always by the sea. No one really lives inland. There’s a feeling of infinity that comes with being by the sea. As soon as I’m by it, I feel I can breathe properly. I left because I wanted an international career and to study in English. Our language is only spoken by 300,000 people and therefore it is a bit tricky to approach a career abroad without expanding your language skills.
Q: What made you want to change your last name, and how did you choose Reed?
A: Well I think it’s obvious why I changed it. I’ve never met a person abroad who can actually pronounce it. My middle name is Rún. As in “rune” like the secret runes in ancient Icelandic magic. At first I changed it to Heida Rune, but was advised later on to just change it to something more English. A friend suggested Reed, and I thought it sounded nice. Sometimes I wish I’d given it more thought than that, but I quite like it most days.
Q: How would you describe the character of Elizabeth Chynoweth, your role in Poldark? What are her best strengths, her most challenging weaknesses?
A: Elizabeth is very much a girl of her time. Ross is right when he says, she was born to be admired. It’s not so much that that is what she lives for, but it’s all she knows. She has been taught from birth how to behave and act in polite society and to always do what is expected of her. I always say Elizabeth is cursed with doing the right and proper thing and seems to be continually punished for her decisions. She lacks the courage of her own convictions, as she says to Ross when Verity runs off to be with Blamey. Her biggest weakness would be the deep need she has for Ross’s admiration. She loves him, but even though she knows she can’t have him, she still needs to know that a part of his heart belongs to her.
Q: You’ve said that Debbie Horsfield‘s portrayal of Elizabeth is somewhat different than the Elizabeth created by Winston Graham in the original books. For those who haven’t read the books, tell us more about what you see as the differences?
A: In the books Elizabeth is a lot colder and more matter of fact. It seems sometimes unfathomable why someone like Ross would hold such a big torch for someone so lacking in warmth. Debbie’s version of Elizabeth is just a lot more rounded. She’s not the warmest person in the world, but she is written with the idea in mind that you would at least understand why Ross could have loved her so. Also if she starts off hard and cold and stays that way throughout the story, that is very monotonous for an actor to perform. Then she has nowhere to go because, later on, she does have a reason to harden somewhat. At the beginning of the story, I don’t think she does.
Q: If Elizabeth were a modern-day woman, living in 2015, what would her life be? Would she be working? Married to a prince? A CEO of a company? Who would she be?
A: To be honest I think is impossible to say how she would be if she didn’t have to live up to the standards she has to in the 18th century. But if I’d had to take a guess I don’t think she would be career driven. She would probably be married to a wealthy man who adores her. I think her focus would be family, children, and society.
Q: Through no fault of her own, Elizabeth has taken quite a fall in social standing by the end of the first season of Poldark. And, basically, she had no control over that, due simply to the fact of being a woman. Has your experience with Poldark given you pause to think about the state of womanhood throughout history, and how far we have–or haven’t–come?
A: Absolutely. Having been raised in a modern, liberal society as an independent woman whose choices in life are limitless, it is actually incredibly hard to put yourself in the shoes and mindframe of a woman whose life is laid out for her and livelihood depends on the financial success of her husband. Of course we have come along way in the battle for gender equality but we have a lot more to achieve before we can count ourselves equal.
Q: Before you saw any Poldark season two scripts, you said you were looking forward to Elizabeth having a stronger character in season two than she did in season one. Now that you’ve seen the scripts, are you pleased with what you’re seeing?
A: Very much so. There’s a much bigger journey she goes on in the second series. Mainly due to the fact that there is more to deal with. She is put in impossible situations and she has to either live or perish in those conditions.
Q: I saw in interviews somewhere that both you and Eleanor Tomlinson each think that your own character is best for Ross Poldark. (That is, you think Elizabeth is best for him, and Eleanor thinks Demelza is.) Why do you think Elizabeth would be best for him? Why not Demelza?
A: I think I said, It would have worked out, had they ended up together. Whether she’s best for Ross or not, I can’t say. I’m not sure about that necessarily. I think the question should be Who’s best for Elizabeth? 😉
[Pam’s note: Indeed!!]
Q: I’ve heard actors say that when they take on a role, in order to convincingly play the character they have to love and believe in the character–even if, to the outside world, the character is an unlikeable villain. Do you agree? Tell me more.
A: I agree. I think you need to believe in your character the way they would themselves if they were real. I try not to objectify them as one thing. That way they can’t breathe the way they deserve to. I’ve definitely taken it personally when I’ve seen comments about Elizabeth being a bitch or a wet blanket. But then so would she. Of course I’m able to separate myself from what is aimed at her and what is aimed at me, but I take it as a good thing when I take it personally. Because it means I am fighting for her. With her. I see things from her perspective no matter whether her intentions and actions are right or wrong. That is not up to me to judge. That’s the audience’s job.
Q: If you had to act in a different role on Poldark, which would you choose and why? Either male or female!
A: I think I’d like to be George. He has such a machiavellian mentality which is a joy to play as an actor.
Q: When you think about the huge success of Poldark, is that thrilling–as in, “finally, I’ve made it!”–or is it scary, as in, “what if this is the biggest role I’ll ever have?” Does it feel intimidating, like there’s no way anything else can match the success? Or does that knowledge offer a sort of solace, like the pressure is off?
A: No the pressure I put on myself is never off. I don’t see this as the “I’ve made it” role, but then I don’t think I ever will with any of them. If you have that mentality I think you’re in danger of your work suffering once you think your “moment has arrived.” I’ll never think I’ve made it. I’ll always want to feel like I’m on my way rather than at some end post. Because what do you do once you’ve reached it?
Q: Earlier this year, you performed in Scarlet at London’s Southwark Playhouse, a play about a victim of revenge porn. You’ve said the play was about sexual identity, self acceptance, online bullying, and the expectations that people have of young women. That’s a very different role from Elizabeth in Poldark! Is it a goal/priority to choose a wide variety of roles to showcase different aspects of your talent or grow your own skills, or do you just take on what is interesting and available in the moment?
A: I think it’s a combination of all of that. I certainly hope to get to play as many varied roles as possible during my career. It’s not so much about showcasing different aspects of my talent. It is more about telling different stories through different characters. Scarlet’s story is extremely important in the society we live in today and I am very proud to have been a part of that work.
Q: You love board games. Favorites? Why?
A: I love Pictionary, Actionary and Trivial Pursuit and I’m obsessed with Cards Against Humanity. We play it on set all the time! Board games and cards just make me laugh. The more serious people are with the rules the better. I just think it brings out the best and worst in people and it makes me laugh so much.
Q: You love traveling. Dream destinations? Why?
A: I want to go to Fiji and Bali and Nepal. I’m in love with the East. I love the mentality there and the landscape is so beautiful and different from Europe.
Q: You’re in your late 20s, which is generally a time of a lot of soul-searching and thinking. Has that been the case for you, as well? If so, what are the Big Issues you think about? What do you think matters; what is your Truth?
A: The older I get, the more I realise that I know nothing. But that’s ok. There’s freedom in accepting that not everything is black and white and you can’t always define things. I think my truth lies somewhere in the acceptance of uncertainty and being able to put my ego aside in order to be honest with myself and others.
Q: What are your short- and long-term hopes, goals and dreams? What do you want?
A: I want to keep working, I want to work with my idols, I want my work to take me to all kinds of different places, I want to be challenged every day and with every new role and fellow actor, I want to challenge them back and create something that affects whoever’s watching. I want to share my life with amazing people who take me as I am, flawed in so many ways, but unapologetic.
￼“Fashion doesn’t always have to scream. Sometimes it’s just a whisper, softly telling the world that I am here and I am beautiful.” ~ Love & Bambii
Britney Keeler thought she was going to be a physician. Instead she’s an entrepreneur of a fashion line with a message of kindness and a goal to make a positive impact on the world.
Sometimes we find our dreams; sometimes our dreams find us.
I first heard about Britney as a young entrepreneur with a company that promotes a positive image and message. “A beacon for young aspirational, female entrepreneurs who need a role model,” I was told.
With an introduction like that, how could I not be intrigued?
I reached out to Britney for a Q&A to find out more. Below, she shares her story, her mission, her challenges and her goals. After chatting with her, I agree. “Work hard, stay humble, be kind,” she says. With a life motto like that, I know she’ll go far.
Q: Hi, Britney! Thanks so much for chatting with me! First, the name of your company: Love & Bambii. How did you decide on this name?
A: It sounds silly but my friends and I have always said that my “spirit-animal” is a deer or more specifically “Bambi,” so it was important for me to incorporate that into the name, henceforth… Love & Bambii was born! I added the extra “i” to avoid potential backlash from Disney for using a character’s name, better safe than sorry.
Q: You’re only 23 now, and already you have your own clothing line. Tell me how this happened! When did you first come up with the idea? What, exactly, was the initial idea, and what did it blossom into?
A: Honestly, I never really planned it; I’ve always loved fashion but I never really thought it was something that would end up as my career. It all started when I went to Coachella for the first time a few years back and decided to make an outfit for myself (a very colorful ensemble), and while wearing it I was stopped more times than I could count by people asking where I got it or if they could take a picture of me for their fashion blog. I was a bit surprised but more so intrigued by the fact that I had created something that a lot of people seemed to love. From there my mom suggested that I make a few more and to put them up on our favorite shopping website Etsy, and the outfits sold within a week. After that, it had a bit of a snowball effect and it all just fell together.
Q: Having an idea is one thing, but acting on that idea is a completely other thing—and, I’d guess, the part of the equation that stops a lot of people. After you thought, “I want to have my own online boutique,” what did you do next?
A: As I touched upon in the last question, it was never really something that I planned. I was actually aspiring to be a physician and had just gotten my EMT license to make sure I liked working in the medical field when this all happened. I just never thought I had the personality to be in fashion, by nature I am a very shy and introverted individual but once I started, I realized that didn’t matter and that there was a place for me in this industry that I have since fallen in love with. The beginning was a bit chaotic since I had very limited experience in fashion. I never went to fashion school or worked in retail so I truly had to learn on the job. My mom jumped on board with me early on and we have worked together ever since, building up our Etsy shop which has changed a lot over the years. We started out making costume pieces and slowly evolved into clothing. We now even have a children’s line that was launched just a few months ago.
Q: Did you find any mentors to help you? Who, if anyone, helped you take your idea and make it into a reality? How did you find them?
A: Someone who really inspired me was a woman named Kimberly Gordon; she is the owner and co-founder of Wildfox. I came upon her Tumblr a few months into starting up and was incredibly inspired by her story as it was quite similar to my own; she and her friend started making tee shirts for themselves in her bedroom and it has turned into one of the world’s largest fashion labels. I only recently met her at a networking event, which only strengthened my respect for her.
All of this aside, my biggest mentor would definitely have to be my business partner, my mother. She is one of the most headstrong, albeit stubborn people I have ever met but she has always been my biggest supporter and would do anything to see me succeed. Being my mom, she isn’t afraid to give me her opinion and even though we butt heads sometimes, we are a great team. She has owned a business alongside my dad for 15 years so she’s better with numbers and the technical side of things than I am, which allows me the flexibility to focus predominately on the designing side. We’re a great team.
Q: Do you design all of the items yourself?
A: Yes, all of the designs are a collaboration between my mom and me. One of us will come up with a rough design and bring it to the other and we build it from there. We each have massive notebooks filled with jotted-down notes and seeds for ideas that we come up with while on the go or while working. Half of them never see the light of day, but it’s still fun to go over what we have come up with to see if any of them are viable designs.
￼Q: Do you do the production of all the items yourself?
A: We do not make the base pieces ourselves but we hand decorate each piece from our studio in North Hollywood. We work with sequin fabric a lot so I love finding pretty new sequin colors to design with. Our studio literally looks like a unicorn exploded with sequins hiding in every nook and cranny; I oftentimes come home to find sequins stuck all over me. We only recently started working with printed designs but I especially love it as it allows me much more creative freedom than sequin patches do. My favorite new addition though is definitely the kids section, I feel like I am building my future child’s wardrobe and kids are much more fun to work with!
Q: How did you figure out who would be the right people to handle the production?
A: We always make sure that our base piece supplier’s use fair trade methods in their production and have ethics that align with our own. Our biggest supplier is Alternative Apparel who are a certified Green Business meaning they use sustainable methods to create their products.
Q: Do you have a personal or company mission statement or philosophy—an idea or set of ideas that drive how you run your company (and life)?
A: Our company’s philosophy is this: “Fashion doesn’t always have to scream, sometimes it is just a whisper, softly telling the world that I am here and I am beautiful.”
We believe that your clothing should be a compliment to you, not something that takes away from who you are and more importantly it should make you feel good about yourself. One of my biggest problems with current fashion is its obsession with negativity. It seems that teen culture is obsessed with slogans than demean one another, shirts that make young girls think it’s okay to be rude, self-absorbed individuals. I think that many people in the fashion industry don’t truly understand the impact they are having on girls’ lives and I want to turn the trend that seems to focus on the negative, to instead focus on the positive.
Personally, the number one quote that I live by is, “Work hard, stay humble, be kind.” I try to live my life by this and ever since I have, my life has changed for the better. I always look for the good in bad situations like yin and yang, and this has really helped me get through hard times both in life and work, and I try to exude this message in everything I do.
If you look at a Love & Bambii piece, you will find notes of positivity hidden everywhere. My personal favorite is our hangtag that reads, “Be kind. Work hard. Stay humble. Smile often. Stay loyal. Keep honest. Never stop learning. Be thankful always and love.” I hope my customers who who read it, will take it to heart.
Q: What have been some of the greatest challenges in setting up your own business?
A: The list is truly never-ending, there are thousands of clothing designers out there, new ones popping up every day. With this constant influx of new faces, and it can be hard to be seen amongst the crowd. Fashion is a business of incessant ebbs and flows, one month I’m overwhelmed with the amount of orders coming in and the next, I find myself wondering where everyone has gone! This can be extremely disheartening especially since this is my sole form of income. It can be hard sometimes to resist throwing in the towel for a more reliable and consistent job but then I look at what I do, what I am trying to do, and realize how much I truly love it and know that I can’t give up. Running a small business requires a massive amount of responsibility to be put on a very small number of peoples’ shoulders and in my case, that means just my mom and me. It’s extremely hard work; I never get actual days off because even if I’m at the beach on a Sunday, I’m still answering dozens of questions and emails, helping my mom keep track of inventory or the thousand other things it takes to run a business without any employees to delegate to. Hopefully we will be able to bring on some full time assistants in the not-so-distant future.
Q: What aspects of your personality do you think have helped propel you to success?
A: Despite a few years in teenhood that we all go through at some point or another, I have always been an extremely optimistic and positive person. It takes a lot to upset me (I get this from my dad) and I handle stress extremely well. I’ve always believed in “killing people with kindness.” Nothing good ever comes from showing animosity; you may gain respect out of fear but people aren’t going to like you. This all has led me to gaining and keeping amazing connections with people I have met over the years as well as most importantly, enabled me to deal with stresses as they come and work through them calmly and professionally.
Q: What are your goals for this company?
A: My main goal is to make an impact on the fashion industry in a good way (however small this impact may be). I want girls to grow up believing they are beautiful and for people to be kinder to one another. I know this sounds a bit far-fetched for a clothing company but clothing is a lifestyle, you wear what you feel and this is especially true for young girls. You look at almost any clothing line and it will have a “vibe,” and I want Love & Bambii to radiate good vibes! I hope that one day I will have made an impact on at least a few people, whether it be bringing a smile to a person who needs it when they see my shirt on the street or by a teen girl who feels just a little bit better when she sees her shirt from Love & Bambii’s tag reading “You are beautiful in every single way” after she was just made fun of at school.
A goal that I only recently surpassed was selling to twenty-five countries. I just shipped out an order to Brazil, which marked number twenty-five!
Q: What have you learned about yourself in the process of bringing your own business to life?
A: One thing that really stands out is the day I realized that I needed to discipline myself into becoming more assertive. I was at a networking event and I was talking to a girl at my table that has been extremely successful in fashion blogging, it genuinely took me a good thirty minutes to work up the courage to hand her a business card just to ask her to check out my website. I was so intimidated by her success that I was actually afraid to just hand her a dang business card. It was after that event that I made a genuine effort to become bolder not only in my work but also in life.
Q: If you could go back and give yourself advice at the outset of your journey, what would you tell yourself?
A: I would tell myself “you can’t always make everyone happy.” I’ve always been a people pleaser and it was a rough road at the start when I would receive tough criticism in reviews or feedback. It took me a while to learn this, but if I had understood it a little better beforehand, it would have saved me long stressful hours and sleepless nights over issues that I would now be able to solve and put behind me in a heartbeat.
Thank you, Britney, for your time, and best wishes on your endeavors!
Britney Keeler, 23, is the founder of the boutique clothing line Love & Bambii, which she started in 2012 as a 20-year-old. The brand focuses on clothing and styles that promote a positive message for women, teen girls, and children.