Why I Still Love The X-Files

Photo: Fox
Photo: Fox

Chances are, you’ve had this experience:

You loved something (or someone) deeply, intensely. It was a part of your world, a part of your heart, so much a part of your daily life that you sort of forgot how special it was. You forgot to appreciate it. You forgot to be grateful for it.

And then, one day, it was gone.

Maybe it was a loved one. Someone who was central to your life, gone forever, whom you wished so hard you could see just one more time. Or maybe it was a place. A town that grew and changed, a home you lived in that has since been destroyed.

You thought you’d never see the person, the place, the thing, ever again.

We don’t know what we have until it’s gone.

And usually, that’s how it remains. The loved one who has left — or worse, died — doesn’t come back. The home town is never the same.

The show that you loved came to an end. Over. For good.

The memories live on only in memory.

Thus it was destined to be with The X-Files, a show I loved deeply during its first airing.

At least, that was its destiny … until it returned.

A second chance.

January 24, 2016, was a red-letter date on my calendar. Marked with a giant X: for the return of The X-Files, of course.

Was I excited? Oh, yes. Giddy I was, downright giddy with anticipation. I posted so much on Facebook about the show’s return that friends started mocking me (with love, of course, always with love). “I had no idea you were excited about this,” said one. “Hey Pam, I hear they are airing new episodes of The X-Files starting tonight. I remember you kind of liked the show so I thought I’d let you know,” said another.

So January 24 came along, and at 7 p.m. Pacific I was snuggled up under my new favorite blanket, everything I could possibly need for the next hour within arm’s reach. Ready.

And then of course there was that football thing, some game, it ran over into The X-Files‘ start time. It was unbearable, but it finally ended. The iconic X-Files theme music kicked in, and my heart fluttered. The (more or less) original opening filled the screen, and my grin spread from ear to ear.

I grinned through the whole show, joy in my heart, elation in my soul. The X-Files was back.

When the first episode was over, I posted on Facebook: “That was perfect. So happy.”

There were, of course, the naysayers, the people who watched the show just waiting to hate it. “The first episode is awful,” they said, “the second not much better.”

I ignored them.

Ours is a critical society. We snark and we criticize because it’s easier to hate than to love. I am sure there were people waiting with bated breath, hands at keyboards, ready to pounce. To find the slightest imperfections, the smallest inconsistencies, the littlest confirmations of a pre-decided opinion: the reboot can’t possibly be as good as the original. Prove me wrong. Though of course I won’t let you.

But I don’t believe in living that way.

You don’t know what you have until it’s gone.

When something you once loved, that you thought was gone forever, comes back, you have to savor every episode, every line, every look, every nod to the past, every moment.

Was it what I expected?

Here’s the thing: Anyone over the age of … well, let’s say twenty-five or thirty, raise your hand if who you are today is who you thought you would be ten years ago. If your life today is what you thought it would be.

I feel pretty confident there are no hands raised. (If you accurately predicted ten years ago what your life would be like today, then hat’s off to you.)

That’s how life goes.

When you’re twenty-five, the number of paths you could take to forty-five is infinite.

When you’re forty-five, the number of paths from twenty-five has been whittled down to one. Everything else you could have done, everything else you could have been, it’s nothing but the might-have-been.

Life takes us places we never expected.

Of all those infinite paths between the end of The X-Files Season 9 and the beginning of Season 10, of all the possible journeys the characters could have taken, the writers had to pick one. It’s not the same as living the journey. Living your path, each tiny choice leads to the next, moment to moment. It makes sense because we witness it as it unfolds.

But reviving a TV show means making all those choices at once. Do The X-Files‘ creators’ and writers’ choices make sense? To some they will, to some they won’t. Was the path they picked the one I would have picked? In the end, it doesn’t actually matter.

Fictional characters though they may be, I love that I can see in today’s Mulder and Scully the weight of their choices since we last saw them. They are not the people they were when we left them, and they shouldn’t be. But who they are is, nonetheless, believable. That tension of love and frustration, that deep commitment balanced by the need to protect their own boundaries, the walls they’ve built up because of or in spite of themselves and their lives. The struggles and the wondering: did I make the right decisions? Should I have taken another path? Everything I believed, everything I’ve fought for, everything I’ve devoted my life to, has it all been worth it? These are questions we all grapple with in our own (real) lives. Much to the credit of the creators, cast, and crew, these same questions feel real in the new X-Files universe.

And as to the fact that Mulder and Scully aren’t together anymore: just as with any of our own relationships, it’s complicated. As David Duchovny said in an interview, there’s not just chemistry between Mulder and Scully now; there’s history, too. Which makes it feel real.

Sure, there are the deviations from the original story, accompanied by unspoken requests from the creators that we play along.

But I saw Cigarette Smoking Man die. Like, not just sort of die, not just maybe die. He was decimated, eviscerated, destroyed in a fiery ball of very hot fiery fire.

You want to bring him back? You want me to ignore the fact that that’s basically impossible?

Okay. I want to believe. For you, Chris Carter, I will believe.

Is The X-Files exactly what it was before? Of course not.

Did Alice Walker not tell us that we can’t step in the same river twice?

Did Julie Andrews not remind us that nothing lasts forever; nothing ever could?

Critics can go on criticizing, tearing apart whatever there is to tear apart, judging mercilessly while occasionally deeming a moment or two worthy of praise.

Me, I’m going to savor.

You’re back. It’s been a long time. Are the things you remember the same things I remember? Are the things that were important to me the same things that were important to you? I know I’ve changed. How have you changed? Will I recognize you? Will you still love me? Will I still love you?

Nothing lasts forever; nothing ever could. The X-Files is back, but soon, too soon, it will be gone again. As I write this, there are only three episodes left; by the time it’s published there might be only two.

I loved it in its original day, and I love it now. Chris Carter, David Duchovny, Gillian Anderson, Mitch Pileggi, and all the others, too many to name, thank you.

Turns out the good shows stick with you, the characters (and the actors who played them, and the people who created it all) stay in your heart.

Even after all this time? 



Also published at my Huffington Post blog.

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Q&A with Ernie Manouse on Manor of Speaking, Downton Abbey and its Final Season, PBS, and More

If you’ve linked to this page from the story at the Huffington Post, click here to find where the Q&A left off.

Ernie Manouse, seven-time Emmy winning PBS anchor and producer, and host of the Downton Abbey after show Manor of Speaking. Photo: Houston Public Media.
Ernie Manouse, seven-time Emmy winning PBS anchor and producer, and host of the Downton Abbey after show Manor of Speaking. Photo: Houston Public Media.

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.

Ernie and his panel of experts on Manor of Speaking. Photo: Houston Public Media.
Ernie and his panel of experts on Manor of Speaking. Photo: Houston Public Media.

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…

Downton Abbey's dearly (and not so dearly) departed are honored on Manor of Speaking's Mourner's Corner. Photo: Houston Public Media.
Downton Abbey’s dearly (and not so dearly) departed are honored on Manor of Speaking’s Mourner’s Corner. Photo: Houston Public Media.

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.

PS: Who do you think would better represent at the Great British Bake Off, Daisy or Mrs. Patmore?

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.

Ernie looking dapper and happy. Photo: Houston Public Media.
Ernie looking dapper and happy. Photo: Houston Public Media.

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!”

Mr. Rodgers looks on with the others as Lyle Lovett, a guest on the first episode of Manor of Speaking this season, captures the moment on his phone.
Mr. Rodgers looks on with the others as Lyle Lovett, a guest on the first episode of Manor of Speaking this season, captures the moment on his phone.

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!

They're going to need a bigger trophy case for all those Manor of Speaking Emmys!
They’re going to need a bigger trophy case for all those Manor of Speaking Emmys!

PS: That segues perfectly into my next question. You also have a show, in its 13th? season, InnerVIEWS with Ernie Manouse.

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.

Lyle Lovett joined the group for the first episode of Manor of Speaking this season. Photo: Houston Public Media.
Lyle Lovett joined the group for the first episode of Manor of Speaking this season. Photo: Houston Public Media.

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 …

PS: I love 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!

Find Ernie on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook, as well as at his own website.


We need more Ernie on TV! Can't wait to see what he comes up with next! Photo: Houston Public Media.
We need more Ernie on TV! Can’t wait to see what he comes up with next! Photo: Houston Public Media.

Also published at my Huffington Post blog.

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‘Everyone is Always Playing a Role’: Q&A with Noni Hazlehurst on A Place to Call Home, Australia, and Acting

If you’ve linked to this page from the story at the Huffington Post, click here to find where the Q&A left off.

Noni Hazlehurst as Elizabeth Bligh in A Place to Call Home. Photo: Acorn TV.
Noni Hazlehurst as Elizabeth Bligh in A Place to Call Home. Photo: Acorn TV.

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!


The cast of A Place to Call Home. Photo: Acorn TV.
The cast of A Place to Call Home. Photo: Acorn TV.


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.


Where it all began: Season 1, episode 1. Brett Climo (George Bligh), Marta Dusseldorp (Sarah Adams), and Noni (Elizabeth Bligh). Photo: Acorn TV.
Where it all began: Season 1, episode 1. Brett Climo (George Bligh), Marta Dusseldorp (Sarah Adams), and Noni (Elizabeth Bligh). Photo: Acorn TV.

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.


Noni as Elizabeth Bligh, queen of her small realm. Photo: Acorn TV.
Noni as Elizabeth Bligh, queen of her small realm. Photo: Acorn TV.

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.”


Brett Climo (George Bligh), Marta Dusseldorp (Sarah Adams), and Noni (Elizabeth Bligh). Photo: Acorn TV.
Brett Climo (George Bligh), Marta Dusseldorp (Sarah Adams), and Noni (Elizabeth Bligh). Photo: Acorn TV.

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.


Noni as Elizabeth Bligh in deep conversation with son George (Brett Climo). Photo: Acorn TV.
Noni as Elizabeth Bligh in deep conversation with son George (Brett Climo). Photo: Acorn TV.


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.

PS: Congratulations!

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).

As for Facebook, Noni mentioned the A Place to Call Home North America Fans page, run by Susan Cohen. The show also has an Official APTCH page.


Noni in A Place to Call Home. Photo: Acorn TV.
Noni in A Place to Call Home. Photo: Acorn TV.

Also published at my Huffington Post blog.

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The X-Files, Aliens, Comedy, Podcasts, and Spiders: My Super-Long Q&A with Dean Haglund

Dean Haglund in 2013. Photo: Gage Skidmore via Flickr. Licensed under CC-by-SA-2.0

All right. Let me geek out here a little bit.

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.


The Lone Gunmen: Byers (Bruce Harwood), Frohike (Tom Braidwood), and Langly (Dean Haglund)
The Lone Gunmen: Byers (Bruce Harwood), Frohike (Tom Braidwood), and Langly (Dean Haglund)

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.

“Ghost Adventurer Improv” from Dean Haglund’s YouTube channel
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.

The X-Files Revival season is set to air beginning January 24, 2016.

Find Dean Haglund on FacebookTwitter, and Instagram, as well as at his websiteand podcast.

Also published at my Huffington Post blog.

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“I Couldn’t Imagine Doing Anything Else”: Q&A with Poldark’s Ruby Bentall

Ruby Bentall (right) with Poldark castmates Heida Reed and Eleanor Tomlinson. All photos courtesy Ruby Bentall / Twitter.

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.

Ruby practicing her horseback riding for Poldark.
Ruby practicing her horseback riding for Poldark.

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.

Ruby with the cast of Poldark.

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).

Ruby with her mom, Janine Duvitski.
Ruby with her mom, Janine Duvitski.

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.

The behind-the-scenes elegance of portraying the 18th century life. Ruby with Eleanor Tomlinson ("Demelza Carne Poldark").
The behind-the-scenes elegance of portraying the 18th century life. Ruby with Eleanor Tomlinson (“Demelza Carne Poldark”).

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.

Ruby having fun on set of Poldark with Heida Reed ("Elizabeth Chynoweth") and Jack Farthing ("George Warleggen").
Ruby having fun on set of Poldark with Heida Reed (“Elizabeth Chynoweth”) and Jack Farthing (“George Warleggen”).

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!

Follow Ruby on Twitter.

Find Poldark on FacebookTwitter, and Instagram.

Also published at my Huffington Post blog.

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The Passerine Project: Bridging Brooklyn and Afghanistan Through Song

An Afghan poet who wrote in the shelters in Afghanistan through the AWWP's protection and work speaks to students before a Los Angeles event about what it is like to grow up in Afghanistan.
An Afghan poet who wrote in the shelters in Afghanistan through the AWWP’s protection and work speaks to students before a Los Angeles event about what it is like to grow up in Afghanistan.

It’s easy to take for granted the things we’ve never been without. If we have two healthy legs, we don’t think about what it means to be able to run and walk and jump. If our lungs work well, we don’t give a second thought to being able to breathe.

But what about story?

Those of us who are able to live and share our stories freely may take that for granted. We post what we want on whatever sites we want; we talk with whomever we like; we agree or disagree without fear of repercussions. Our stories are as essential to our well-being as food and air. So what would it be like to live a life where you were told your story didn’t matter; where you were, perhaps, not even granted the right to write your own story?

These are the kinds of questions that led renowned author and journalist Masha Hamilton to found the Afghan Women’s Writing Project (AWWP) in 2009. Hamilton has a long history of bold, on-the-ground work with refugees and those in troubled situations. She saw a need and created the infrastructure which has grown into what it is today. “After many years as a journalist, I had come to believe that telling our own stories is as important to a certain kind of survival as food and shelter,” says Hamilton.

Now an NGO, AWWP programs partner international writers, teachers, and journalists with English- Dari- and Pashto-speaking women from seven of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces in secure online writing workshops. Poems and essays are published each week in a virtual magazine where their once-silenced voices are “heard” and women are empowered to make change. In Afghanistan, AWWP runs a women-only internet café and provides safe spaces and educational support in outlying provinces so that Afghan women and girls can gather in person to write and share their stories with the world beyond their borders.


Gary Lightbody of Snow Patrol reads "Daughter of Nature" preceding young songwriter Esme Lee's performance. Photo: AWWP.
Gary Lightbody of Snow Patrol reads “Daughter of Nature” preceding young songwriter Esme Lee’s performance. Photo: AWWP.

While their stories are intense, poignant, powerful, these women often have not had the means to express them before. In a variety of ways, AWWP provides opportunities for women to tell their own stories and truths; it empowers and encourages them on their path to self-expression.

AWWP Board Member Shevy Smith is a producer/composer based in Topanga, CA, who is also creator and owner of the Forte Poesy Music program, which places an emphasis on songwriting as the catalyst for learning an instrument. Smith became involved with AWWP because, “I was moved by the poetry and prose on the AWWP site. I had traveled to Afghanistan twice with the USO and US Military as a musical artist on troop morale tours. I was drawn to the country and intrigued by the ancient history of the culture. Some events in my own personal life moved me to become involved on a deeper level, so I did a living room fundraiser with my friend, Jessica. It all grew from there to this large program we are running now. All along the way, I have been so impressed by the heart and integrity of the staff who run AWWP.”

The Passerine Project from Forte Poesy on Vimeo.

“We believe that to tell one’s story is a basic human right. So, it is our calling to create ways for that to happen,” says Smith. ” We have seen many women’s lives change as a result. They are emboldened to seek higher education and are more assured in their belief that their voices matter as a result of the program. We feel the best way to inform the future in Afghanistan is to provide opportunities from within.”

Noting the challenges of building awareness for the plight of women who must remain anonymous for their own safety, Smith partnered with AWWP to create The Passerine Project, a cross-cultural songwriting collaboration in which students adapt poems from AWWP writers into original songs. The third project in the series will be with the Brooklyn Collaborative and The Brooklyn New School.

Smith is traveling to New York this week, along with singer-songwriter Kendall Custer, to work with more than 120 students in grades 6 and 9 through 12.

“Shevy introduced me to AWWP two years ago,” says Custer. “She spearheaded an event for them in Los Angeles in March of 2014. That was the first time I understood the luxury it is to tell one’s story. I was in New York in January earlier this year. Before I knew I’d be back for this project, Shevy took me by the school we’ll be working at. I sat in a classroom with four students for a day and listened. I was sold. I can hardly relate, but if I can find a way for people to feel somehow less discounted because of variables they can’t control, I’m in.”

The Passerine Project from Forte Poesy on Vimeo.

Over the course of the five-week workshop, Smith and Custer will lead the students in an in-depth study of the poetry as they take on this ambitious project intent upon shedding light upon human rights issues and acknowledging the resilience of the Afghan women.

“By working with students in Brooklyn, we not only are teaching our young Americans ways of compassion, empathy, and expression; we are also providing a surrogate voice for the Afghan women who do not have the freedom to speak loudly on their own behalf,” says Smith.

Shevy Smith, left, works with Brooklyn students. Photo: AWWP.
Shevy Smith, left, works with Brooklyn students. Photo: AWWP.

Students will choose poems written by AWWP poets and adapt them to song, based upon how the poems made them feel. Students will also be able to Skype with some of the Afghan writers, collaborating in a unique and powerful cross-cultural co-write.

“Once you have written a song with someone and basically combined your shared experiences and perspectives, you have a connection and empathy for their situation,” says Smith. “We have seen such powerful links between the stories of the Afghan women and the lives of our young Brooklyn students, many who come from challenging backgrounds, as well. This project tends to make students very grateful for the things they take for granted, e.g. safety, education, freedom. It also teaches students to confront their own struggles through a productive medium: songwriting.”

Lisa Bonet reads "Like a Breeze" by Afghan poet Farida Fa. Photo: AWWP.
Lisa Bonet reads “Like a Breeze” by Afghan poet Farida Fa. Photo: AWWP.

On November 6, the workshop will culminate in a fundraising celebration of the human spirit with live song performances, preceded by celebrity readings, as the students work to raise funds for their co-writers in Afghanistan. The BMI Foundation, an organization that champions the rights and causes of songwriters worldwide, has come on board as the headlining sponsor of this workshop and event.

In addition to the online workshops, AWWP’s program also includes provision of laptops and internet service, monthly reading salons and training workshops in seven Afghan provinces, and two anthologies of writings from the AWWP writers, Washing the Dust from Our Hearts and The Sky is a Nest of Swallows. In addition, they opened Kabul’s first women-only writing cafe and in 2013 began broadcasting the writers work in a monthly radio program aired throughout Afghanistan. In AWWP’s Oral Stories initiative, several writers have been trained as interviewers to collect and transcribe oral stories from disabled and iliterate women so that their stories, too, might be shared with the world.

For more information, see the AWWP website.

Amber Tamblyn reads "Many Meanings" by Afghan poet Mariam. Photo: AWWP.
Amber Tamblyn reads “Many Meanings” by Afghan poet Mariam. Photo: AWWP.

Also published at my Huffington Post blog.

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“I Want to Be Challenged Every Day”: Q&A with Poldark’s Heida Reed


Heida Reed as Elizabeth Chynoweth in the BBC series Poldark, wearing her favorite tricorn hat. Photo: Mammoth Screen Ltd.
Heida Reed as Elizabeth Chynoweth in the BBC series Poldark, wearing her favorite tricorn hat. Photo: Mammoth Screen Ltd.

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.


Poldark cast members Ruby Bentall, Eleanor Tomlinson, Jack Farthing, and Kyle Soller visited Heida in Iceland this summer. Photo: Heida Reed via Twitter. All Heida's photos via Twitter used with permission.
Poldark cast members Ruby Bentall, Eleanor Tomlinson, Jack Farthing, and Kyle Soller visited Heida in Iceland this summer. Photo: Heida Reed via Twitter. All Heida’s photos via Twitter used with permission.

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?

A: I always go to the Blue Lagoon. Have lobster soup at this old bait shop “The Sea Baron” down by the harbour in Reykjavík. The Golden Circle which consists of the national park, a waterfall and the hot spring geysirs. The Glacier Lagoon (Jökulsárlón) and the Westfjords.

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.


Eleanor Tomlinson ("Demelza Carne Poldark") and Aidan Turner ("Ross Poldark") at Heida's for dinner, not eating fermented shark. Photo: Heida Reed via Twitter.
Eleanor Tomlinson (“Demelza Carne Poldark”) and Aidan Turner (“Ross Poldark”) at Heida’s for dinner, not eating fermented shark. Photo: Heida Reed via Twitter.

Q: Hákarl (fermented shark): Yes or no?

A: I’ve never had it. I think it’s something they seem to force on tourists. Although eating it is an old Viking tradition.

Q: Your original name is Heiða Rún Sigurðardóttir. Can you explain the Icelandic last-name system? Does having the last name of Sigurðardóttir mean you are related to other Sigurðardóttirs? 

A: No! My dad’s name is Sigurðar, therefore I am the daughter of Sigurðar; Sigurðardóttir. My brother is the son of Sigurðar; Sigurðsson.

[Learn more about Icelandic names.]

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.


Heida with Poldark cast members Ruby Bentall ("Verity Poldark") and Jack Farthing ("George Warleggan"). Photo: Heida Reed via Twitter.
Heida with Poldark cast members Ruby Bentall (“Verity Poldark”) and Jack Farthing (“George Warleggan”). Photo: Heida Reed via Twitter.

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.


Heida on location for Poldark, riding side saddle on her horse Dylan. Photo: Heida Reed via Twitter.
Heida on location for Poldark, riding side saddle on her horse Dylan. Photo: Heida Reed via Twitter.

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.


Heida in Iceland in autumn. Photo: Heida Reed via Twitter.
Heida in Iceland in autumn. Photo: Heida Reed via Twitter.

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!!]


Heida on location filming Poldark with Eleanor Tomlinson (Demelza). Photo: Heida Reed via Twitter.
Heida on location filming Poldark with Eleanor Tomlinson (Demelza). Photo: Heida Reed via Twitter.

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?


Heida in Scarlett. Photo: Heida Reed via Twitter.
Heida in Scarlett. Photo: Heida Reed via Twitter.

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.


Heida and others from the cast and crew of Poldark, bowling. Photo: Heida Reed via Twitter.
Heida and others from the cast and crew of Poldark, bowling. Photo: Heida Reed via Twitter.

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.

Follow Heida on Twitter and Instagram.

Find Poldark on FacebookTwitter, and Instagram.

Also published at my Huffington Post blog.

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“Work Hard, Stay Humble, Be Kind”: Fashioning a Dream and a Positive Message


Britney Keeler in her North Hollywood studio. Photo: Love & Bambii

“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.


Britney at work. Photo: Love & Bambii.
Britney at work. Photo: Love & Bambii.

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.

BK4-good vibesQ: 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.

BK3-chevron dressQ: 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.


Some products from Britney's boutique clothing line. Photos: Love & Bambii. Fashion photography by Ross Ferguson.
Some products from Britney’s boutique clothing line. Photos: Love & Bambii. Fashion photography by Ross Ferguson.

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.


Photo shoot with Ross Ferguson. Photo: Love & Bambii.
Photo shoot with Ross Ferguson. Photo: Love & Bambii.

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!


Photo: Love & Bambii.
Photo: Love & Bambii.

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.

Find Love & Bambii at loveandbambii.com, on EtsyFacebookTwitter, and Instagram. Britney also occasionally has a booth at the Melrose Trading Post in Hollywood, so to check her websites for updates on future events!

Also published at my Huffington Post blog.

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Nuts for Tourism: Q&A with the Banff Squirrel on Twitter and Visiting Banff/Lake Louise in the Canadian Rockies

Banff, Alberta, Canada.
The photobombing squirrel that started it all. Photo: Melissa Brandts. All photos used with permission of Banff Lake Louise Tourism.

Twitter can be an odd place. You might even say that sometimes it’s downright nuts.

And that’s just fine for the Banff Squirrel, who runs one of the most engaging and entertaining tourism accounts on Twitter. Tweets from @Banff_Squirrel, the account for Banff Lake Louise Tourism, are written by a squirrel that popped up–literally–in 2009 (see the photo, above, and story, below). The Squirrel’s bio lists him as the “Unlikely Spokes-Squirrel of Banff Lake Louise Tourism in Banff National Park, Canadian Rockies.”

As a fan of both Banff Squirrel and the Banff/Lake Louise area, I contacted the Squirrel to see if he’d be willing to take time out of his busy schedule (winter is coming, you know, and there are nuts to be hoarded) to do a Q&A with me. Much to my delight, he agreed. Thank you to the Squirrel and to all the people at Banff Lake Louise Tourism!

Q: First, since it’s been a few years now, can you share with us the story of the “Banff Squirrel”?

A: Well, I was hanging out at Lake Minnewanka here and this adorable couple from Minnesota came down to the shoreline and set up a timer camera shot. The whirring of the timer thingy sang to me, so I investigated the camera–apparently drawing its focus my way and blurring the couple. It ended up being featured by National Geographic, then things got crazy. There were several kazillion views through the interweb and some fine photoshops of me onto different scenarios, like the moon landing or a Godzilla movie.

Q: Whose idea was it to create a Banff Squirrel Twitter account? Did you all have to audition to determine who could best mimic a squirrel on Twitter?

A: There is no mimicry here, Stucky. Banff Lake Louise Tourism left me a gift basket of legumes with a note to stop by the office, after that photo went viral. I brought a wolverine with me to help with the negotiations, which was counterproductive as he got into one of the servers in the IT room and destroyed it. I am still working it off…

Q: There are a lot of anthropomorphized animals and also structures (a lot of bridges!) on Twitter. Why do you think that is? Was the Banff Squirrel first? 

A: *googling “anthropomorphized”* Interesting word, you must have gone to a fine school. I doubt I was the first non-human tweeting. But it was 2009 when we started this experiment, when twitter was still very young, so maybe. It might be that the personification of things like rodents and bridges is just funny, especially when they are given a voice. It is also a fun way to take advantage of entertaining incidents, like when the Bronx Zoo cobra escaped and showed up on twitter being really hysterical.

Q: What other wildlife might one encounter in the Banff National Park region? Are those creatures jealous they don’t have Twitter accounts?

A: There are 53 species of mammals here in the park, from the apex predator–the grizzly bear–all the way down to a pygmy shrew. Most of them are just too busy avoiding the grizzly bears to get too caught up in twittering. We also have some 260 species of birds, including seagulls, which always confuses me when I see them at 5,000 feet in the Rockies. I thought they were “sea” gulls?

One of Banff Squirrel's friends. Photo: Jay Cotterell.
One of Banff Squirrel’s friends. Photo: Jay Cotterell.

Q: Do you think having a squirrel represent the area has had an effect on raising the tourism profile? How and why?

A: It is a different way to go about things than most destinations, but it has worked for us. A wee rodent is pretty approachable, so maybe people are more inclined to engage with us. I don’t know how much I may have affected it, but the number of visitors has been increasing. I do know that we have affected many people who were considering coming to the park, and hopefully introduced our neck of the woods to some others.


"My proudest moment on Twitter," says Banff Squirrel.
“My proudest moment on Twitter,” says Banff Squirrel.

Q: Let’s talk about Banff and the region. Give us a brief rundown on Banff’s history?

A: In a nutshell, Canada was building the railroad across the country when, in 1883, three Scottish fellows stumbled upon a stinky sulphur smelling cave with a hot springs in it. A small park was made around it, which eventually grew to the 6641 square kms Banff is now. Nice views and hot springs are a good draw, they figured. With tourists now able to access this area (by train), investments were made–like the opening of the Banff Springs Hotel in 1888. Swiss guides came over and got us mountaineering, and the park started to grow in popularity to the present day 3+ million visitors a year. Of, course, there was lots going on before that. There is evidence of human activity around here dating some 13,000 years ago, when woolly mammoths were roaming around.

Q: What is the origin of the name “Banff”?

A: It is a funny name. There is a classic 1966 F Troop episode, with Paul Lynde playing a Mountie who is “ze burglar of Banf-f-f.” The park is actually named after Banffshire, Scotland. I believe the area reminded a couple high level railroad officials of their birthplace, with certain mountains also reminding them of Scottish castles.

Q: Banff was “created” as a tourist town. Does that make it less lovable? 

A: I think not. The “town” of Banff is only a 4-square-km municipality within the 6641 square kms of the greater Banff National Park. Its commercial growth is capped, and there is pretty much no more new land available to be developed. There is also the hamlet of Lake Louise here, and three ski resorts, but otherwise the vast majority of the park is undeveloped and protected. The town of Banff was formed specifically to serve the needs of people who want to visit and explore the area. Tourism is our industry, so our efforts are mainly to provide amenities that people will want or can enjoy. I also think the locals are a very friendly and approachable group of folks. The Town of Banff is held to a high environmental standard being in a park, and we are seeing this with things like hybrid buses and solar-powered public washrooms. So, yeah, it’s a bit of a conundrum–we want to be able to share this beautiful area with as many people as feasible, but that takes infrastructure, which isn’t what some people want to see when they think of a national park.


Banff Avenue.

Q: How many people live there year-round?

A: Around 8,500 people live here year-round. It is a great place to live, in that regard. People go to the grocery store and end up having fifteen different conversations with other locals.

Q: Lake Louise is really blue. Why is it so blue?

A: It is that colour, which blows a lot of people’s minds. What happens is that the numerous glaciers in the area are in motion. Really, really, slow motion. And they are heavy. So this movement grinds up the rock underneath the glaciers, pulverizing it into a fine powder, or “rock flour.” This rock flour makes its way to the lakes through creeks and rivers. Once in the lake, the rock flour settles just below the surface of the water, reflecting up those green/blue hues. A lot of people think we paint the bottom of the lakes from time to time, which always makes me chuckle.


Lake Louise. Photo: @rockieschick22 on Instagram.
Lake Louise. Photo: @rockieschick22 on Instagram.

Q: Does Lake Louise have a monster? Like Loch Ness in Scotland or Lagarfljót in Iceland or Okanagan Lake in British Columbia? If not, have you thought about getting one?

A: Nothing like Nessie or Ogopogo, but we do have a Mermonster in Lake Minnewanka. A lake long respected by the First Nations people of the area, some thought parts of the lake were a portal to another dimension. When the wind comes up and howls across the crevices along the lakeshore, it is haunting. Banff’s Norman Luxton used the legend to promote his boat tours in the early 1900s, even buying a “monster” he “caught” in the lake, which you could view if you took the tour. It looked like a monkey sewed to a salmon.

I have talked to Sasquatch out here a few times, but I don’t consider him a monster. Just shy.


Lake Minnewanka Mermonster?
Lake Minnewanka Mermonster?

Q: What are the most popular activities in the region?

A: Depends on the season. In winter, we have three ski resorts with 8,000 acres of runs, plus all of the backcountry skiing opportunities. The snow also welcomes cross country skiers, skaters, dog sledders, snowshoers or people that just like crisp fresh mountain air. There is a bit more variety in the summer, with more hikes than anyone could complete, lakes to paddle, horses to back, bike trails and roads, fly fishing hotbeds, and lots that I am forgetting. As when the park was first formed, hot springs are always a year-round draw.


Banff Squirrel is always dressed right for the season.
Banff Squirrel is always dressed right for the season.

Q: Banff and Lake Louise are fantastic destinations for active people. But what if a person has less mobility, what activities might they enjoy?

A: There is still a ton to do here if your mobility is limited. There are three sightseeing gondolas, and we have other cool attractions like the Glacier Skywalk that are easy to navigate. We have some beautiful museums and historic landmarks to explore. Some trails are wheelchair accessible, like Johnston Canyon. I like to think there is something for everyone.

Q: Does Banff have fun activities for younger kids?

A: Well, all of that nature-y stuff is super for the whole family. Shorter hikes, bike rides, float trips, camping, wildflower treks are all great. We also have an indoor waterpark (at the Douglas Fir resort), a bowling alley, golf simulators and a movie theatre. Parks Canada also has entertaining and informative programs and performances they run that are great for the whole family.


Reading a friend into a long sleep.

Q: Talk to me about travel logistics. How can people get to Banff? What’s the nearest airport? Do trains come through Banff? 

A: All of the action in Banff was started by the train coming through town. The Banff station just got a beauty facelift (and is the newest and least busy info centre for trip planning help from Parks Canada and Banff Lake Louise Tourism), and Lake Louise has another historic station. Impressive trains like the Rocky Mountaineer come through, but not really as an airport transit–they are more like vacations unto themselves. Most folks fly to Calgary (YYC) and then it is about a scenic 90-minute drive to the town of Banff. Lake Louise is another 57 kms west, within the park. You can rent a car from YYC, or use one of the airporter services that run often and daily.


Lake Louise Train Station, 1940s. Photo: D. Paterson.
Lake Louise Train Station, 1940s. Photo: D. Paterson.

Q: If a person doesn’t drive there him/herself, what’s the best way to get around? Are there car rentals available in town? Buses? Trolleys? Moose-back rides?

A: Getting around the town of Banff is pretty easy–as I said, it is not that big and we have local public buses, buses to Canmore and taxis. There are also summer shuttles to Mt. Norquay and the Sulphur Mountain Gondola, as well as shuttles in the summer in Lake Louise. I ride my bike most of the year, everywhere, even in winter. During the ski season, the ski hills run buses that frequently go to/from area hotels to the resorts, which is nice–especially if your forte is après-skiing. You can also rent a car in Banff or Lake Louise, including from the major brands like Avis, Budget, and Hertz.

Q: What are some resources where people can find out more about Banff?

A: We have me tweeting at @banff_squirrel, and I am always ready to answer any questions you might have, or just talk about stuff. There is sweet Instagram page at @banff_lakelouise for inspiration and we are on Facebook at banffnationalpark. If you search #mybanff, you will see a lot of cool stuff on Instagram and Twitter.

The banfflakelouise.com website is loaded with great info and trip planning ideas, along with info on local events festivals, and the best rates on hotels here. You can also buy your parks pass online through the website.

Well, I have to go now, Pam–there is a pika territory dispute at Helen Lake that I need to moderate before someone gets nibbled on. Thanks for the questions and have a splendid day.

Thank you, Banff Squirrel! I hope to see you soon!

Also published at my Huffington Post blog.

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The Reckoning, the Rumble, the Revolution: Brené Brown’s Rising Strong

Our job is not to deny the story, but to defy the ending–to rise strong, recognize our story, and rumble with the truth until we get to a place where we think, Yes. This is what happened. This is my truth. And I will choose how the story ends.
Brené Brown, Rising Strong

Rising Strong by Brené Brown

“No one could see the color blue until modern times.”

That’s the title of an article that came out in Business Insider earlier this year. I saw the headline when the story came out, and of course I was intrigued. No one could see blue? How could that be?

The article states, “…ancient languages didn’t have a word for blue–not Greek, not Chinese, not Japanese, not Hebrew. And without a word for the color, there is evidence that they may not have seen it at all.”

And then, the article poses a question: “Do you really see something if you don’t have a word for it?”

When I read Brené Brown’s books, watch her videos, and witness how the people around me react to what Brené has to say, in some ways it feels like Brené has done the equivalent of introducing our modern society to the color blue. Her research and work have given us a new vocabulary, a way to talk with each other about the ideas and feelings and fears we’ve all had but haven’t quite known how to articulate. It’s like we’ve all had a sense of the concepts Brené studies–specifically shame, vulnerability, and courage–but never before have we had the words to fully express what we’ve been feeling, or to share with each other our experiences.

I should back up and start by saying that I love Brené and am intensely grateful for her work. I think it’s telling that my autocorrect/autosuggest knows by now to offer up “Brené”–complete with that accent mark over the e–when I’m texting someone. It is not unusual for me to quote or reference her ideas. I’ve read all her books, watched most of her videos, listened to her The Power of Vulnerability CDs more times than I can remember (and passed them on to a large handful of people), and I took Brené’s eCourse offered on Oprah.com back in 2014. (Brené also now offers courses through her new online learning community, COURAGEworks). I’ve heard the terms “Brené Brown junkie,” or “the cult of Brené Brown,” and while I understand what people mean, I think the phrases are a bit unfair. The fact that something resonates with a lot of people doesn’t make it invalid. Brené’s research resonates deeply with me, and the work is work I still need to do. It may not be for everyone, but it’s definitely for me.

And so it was with eager anticipation that I awaited Rising Strong, Brené’s fourth book, released last week. (See the book’s beautiful video trailer at the end of this post.)

Rising Strong continues Brené’s research into the exploration of the wholehearted journey. As Brené says, her most recent three books can be summed up as:

“The thread that runs through all three of these books,” she says, “is our yearning to live a wholehearted life.”

Brené's past books.
Brené’s previous books.

“In the past two years [since the publication of Daring Greatly], my team and I have … received emails every week from people who write, ‘I dared greatly. I got my butt kicked and now I’m down for the count. How do I get back up?’ I knew when I was writing The Gifts and Daring Greatly that I would ultimately write a book about falling down. I’ve collected that data all along, and what I’ve learned about surviving hurt has saved me again and again. It saved me and, in the process, it changed me,” she says.

Thus comes Rising Strong, a road map for how to get back up when we fall.

The Rising Strong Process includes:

  • The Reckoning: walking into our story
  • The Rumble: owning our story
  • The Revolution: writing a new ending and changing how we engage with the world

To me, Rising Strong is largely a book about story.

Owning our story and loving ourselves through that process is the bravest thing we’ll ever do.
Brené Brown

We are wired for story, says Brené. (That is, in fact, Rule #4 in her Rules of Engagement for Rising Strong.) I couldn’t agree more. (Personally, I think storytelling, rather than prostitution, is likely the world’s oldest profession.)

When you think about it, practically everything we do is in some way related to the stories we tell ourselves. Whether the story is small–say, a reaction to someone who cut us off in traffic (are they a jerk? In a hurry to get to the hospital?)–or grand–such as our narratives of who we are, who we want to be, who we think we have to be–stories rule our lives.

“We feel the most alive when we’re connecting with others and being brave with our stories–it’s in our biology,” says Brené.

One of the most powerful practices I learned from Rising Strong is the idea of incorporating into our lives and communications the phrase, “the story I’m making up is….” That is, recognizing and acknowledging that the interpretations of events we’ve created in our heads–the stories from which our fears flow–are maybe, just maybe, not one hundred percent accurate.

I often think of myself as a jack of all trades, master of none. But the fact is, my brain is pretty much an admiral when it comes to making up stories. I’m a writer–of too-long emails and texts, of the occasional blog, of books of both fiction and non-fiction–so being able to make up stories comes in handy. For example, in the book I’m working on right now, I’m making up whole worlds, whole universes. Without the ability to make up stories, I’d be lost in my chosen career.

But when it comes to real life, the ability to weave a hundred different stories from one event can be exhausting. Inside my brain, things can get messy.

Life does not consist mainly, or even largely, of facts or happenings. It consists mainly of the storm of thoughts that is forever flowing through one’s head.
Mark Twain

While the reckoning, the rumble, and the revolution are all critical to the rising strong process, Brené says it’s the rumble that is the messiest. It’s the space where “you’re too far in to turn around and not close enough to the end to see the light.” It’s the place of the greatest struggle, and, says Brené, it’s a nonnegotiable part of the process.

“The rumble begins with turning up our curiosity level and becoming aware of the story we’re telling ourselves about our hurt, anger, frustration, or pain.”

Brené calls the initial story we tell ourselves the “sh*tty first draft” or “SFD” (a phrase she borrows from writer Anne Lamott). Writing down the unedited, unfiltered, unpolished stories we are hearing in our heads about the situations that are causing us to feel fear, hurt, pain, anger, shame, etc., allows us to investigate the tough questions about what’s really happening, to evaluate what we’re thinking, and to ask whether our stories are true, or a way to disengage and self-protect.

Rising Strong is rich with anecdotes from Brené’s own life. This, to me, is part of the strength of the book. Over and over as I read Brené’s books, I recognize the truth in the title of her first book: I Thought It Was Just Me. Any shame we may feel in seeing ourselves in these stories is moderated by the knowledge that Brené is right there with us. Our fears and shames can feel suffocating when we believe we are alone in them. Brené’s work reminds us: we are not alone.

Brené Brown
Brené Brown

In Rising Strong, Brené also addresses the complex nature of failure. We “gold-plate” failure and grit, she says, skipping over or sugar-coating the process and the pain involved in falling and in deciding to rise again.

“Rather than gold-plating grit and trying to make failure look fashionable, we’d be better off learning how to recognize the beauty in truth and tenacity,” she says.

Brené notes, “In her book The Rise, Sarah Lewis writes, ‘The word failure is imperfect. Once we begin to transform it, it ceases to be that any longer. The term is always slipping off the edges of our vision, not simply because it’s hard to see without wincing, but because once we are ready to talk about it, we often call the event something else–a learning experience, a trial, a reinvention–no longer the static concept of failure.’ Failure can become nourishment if we are willing to get curious, show up vulnerable and human, and put rising strong into practice.”

Brené also talks about the challenging idea that everyone is simply doing they best they can in any given moment. It’s a difficult concept to embrace when we’re dealing with people whose actions so very thoroughly conflict with our own needs and values. But personally, I think if more of us could embrace that belief in our day-to-day dealings (especially on the internet), it could have a profound impact on our interactions and our world.

And, following what she has said is one of the most profound findings of her research, Brené discusses boundaries and the idea that the most boundaried people she’s ever met are also the most compassionate. That one takes a while to digest, but it makes tremendous sense. “Compassionate people ask for what they need,” she says. “They say no when they need to, and when they say yes, they mean it.”

There’s far too much good stuff in Rising Strong for me to cover it all. Of course by now it’s obvious that I recommend it, and all Brené’s other work. We are story-full beings, and miscommunications can contribute to our greatest woes. Learning how better to communicate with each other, and how better to understand and manage the (not completely accurate) stories we tell ourselves can, in my opinion, only lead to greater connection. And, as I learned in another book released this summer, Michelle Gielan’s Broadcasting Happiness, social connection is the greatest predictor of happiness. The work is hard, but the journey is worthwhile.

Success is not final, failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts.
Winston Churchill

Of the ten Rules of Engagement for Rising Strong, I think one of the most powerful is Rule #9: Courage is contagious. Brené’s books are a tangible manifestation of this rule. Putting books out into the world, to be critiqued and criticized by potentially billions of people, is a vulnerable and courageous act. By sharing her own stories, sharing her own vulnerability with us, Brené empowers us each to be a little more courageous in our own lives. When reading Brené’s books, I always feel a little stronger, a little braver, a little more courageous. Not invincible; reading her books doesn’t make me suddenly feel like I will never fall. But definitely more resilient, like if I fall, I can pull myself back up again.

Says Brené, “In my work, I’ve found that moving out of powerlessness, and even despair, requires hope. Hope is not an emotion: It’s a cognitive process…. hope is learned.”

Rising Strong, like all Brené’s books, gives me hope.

We are the authors of our lives.
We write our own daring endings.

Brené Brown

Find Brené at her website, on Facebook, and on Twitter.
Learn more about the COURAGEworks online learning community.

Rising Strong Trailer from Brené Brown on Vimeo.

Also published at my Huffington Post blog.

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