The Buzz

A reporter's notebook...on interviewing veteran stars

Categories: Celebrities

 Deana Sumanac interviewing Gordon Lightfoot earlier this year. (CBC)

There is Gordon, who read poetry for me. And then there's the other Gordon, who played me a song about the girl who broke his heart. Tommy also serenaded me. And then there's Christopher, who chatted me up in the chic lounge of his favourite hangout, the Beverly Hills Hotel. He might have called me a "gorgeous creature." Note to self: definitely try to hang out with that Christopher again.

It sounds like a little black book of favourite dates, and it is...sort of.

Here in the CBC Arts Unit, when an opportunity to interview a musician or an actor in his 70s or 80s arises, all eyes turn inevitably to me. Some of my most memorable interviews, the ones where I felt like I had really established a connection with the guest, were with Canada's septa- and octogenarian set. Because when it comes to interviewing magic, don't give me either of the Hemsworth boys....just give me a Gordon.

No publicists

These industry veterans don't come with a host of publicists and managers ready to snatch you from your seat if any of your questions go unplanned. Manager, if on premises during the interview at all, tends to be an old friend -- the kind who did not try to rip off the said star during the ebbs-and-flows of the many, many decades of his career. These guys trust themselves to do OK in an interview without the help of a "media handler." After all, they've seen the best and the worst of the journalistic set.

There is a more nuanced side to this, something that makes me a bit sad. I suspect these wise old foxes KNOW that when it comes to the hot interview of the moment, they aren't it. They know that, as far as attracting "eyeballs," the big get of the moment is a star of The Hunger Games or Twilight, not someone in the twilight of their career.

It's an implicit, unspoken understanding between them and the interviewer. There just tends to be a stern glance of "I know you're talking to me because you couldn't get Clooney," at the beginning of the interview. The glance remains until you earn their trust, and show them you're in it for the right reasons. Once you've demonstrated that, say, you know they tried to make Rowdyman into a musical at one point, writing the script themselves, they know you're in it for the right reasons. And that's when the magic begins.

A generation of storytellers

Because the true reason this generation captivates me is that it's a generation of storytellers. Being born pre-Twitter, brevity is not their strength (and if you're reading this, evidently not mine, either. Maybe we bond over that).

 Deana Sumanac with Christopher Plummer at the Beverly Hills Hotel. (CBC)

But the words that come out of their mouths help unfurl worlds so vibrant, it is quite LIKE watching a movie or listening to a really good album. I suppose that's why these guys are still around -- some, like this year's Oscar-newbie Christopher Plummer, at the top of their game.

These people will let you into the corners of their minds, will let you inhabit the worlds they inhabit, sometimes literally: they're far more likely to allow interviews at their homes than the TMZ-traumatized generation of today.

Christopher Plummer, reclining in the lounge of the Beverly Hills hotel as the ladies from hotel's staff swooned about "Mr. Plummer, our favourite guest for about five decades," told me about the wild ways of him and the rest of the gang that roamed Hollywood in the 1950s and 60s. With that great thespian voice, he told me how he didn't believe alcohol was bad for their creativity in those days, and he lamented that the young actors of today are not allowed to have the same freedom he and his friends had. I mean, who has the freedom to say that? Certainly not actors in their 20s and 30s.

Sad time for Pinsent

I met Gordon Pinsent for the first time shortly after the passing of his beloved wife, Charmion King. (I was a producer at the time). Memories of her, and his palpable loneliness, permeated every corner of their downtown Toronto apartment. He had just finished shooting Away from Her, about a man losing his wife to Alzheimer's. Ironically, the film was a rebirth of his career, but on a personal level, Pinsent was at an all-time low. And there's something about his honesty in that moment of intense personal pain that made us bond for many interviews to come.

 Gordon Pinsent was all smiles and quips. (Canadian Press) When I recently sat down with him, he was jolly and mischievous, all winks and snappy comebacks and Adidas track suit. He looked like he could head on the road with Jay-Z and Kanye any second. He was happy to release his first CD with Greg Keelor from Blue Rodeo and Travis Good from the Sadies. The CD was based on Pinsent's poetry and of course, many songs were about Charmion. It was good to see that, his grief transformed into a thing of beauty.

Ironically, it was not a veteran charmer that gave me a taste for interviewing these seasoned artists, but a notorious curmudgeon. Ian Tyson: "the one that got away." My interview with him, after he lost his legendary voice to a viral infection and had to learn to sing "in a new voice" well into his 70s, was one of my first pieces as a reporter. I flew to Calgary, then drove to his ranch in Longview, Alberta. The first day of the interview was dreamy: Tyson made me a tea in the stone house where he does all his writing, and talked openly about his estranged relationship with his daughter. I looked out the window, to the sprawling Turner Valley, flanked by The Rockies, and saw the oil rigs bobbing their heads into the ground -- the traditional ranching way of life Tyson adored disappearing before his very eyes.

Tyson the curmudgeon

And then, the second day, he was supposed to meet with us and we were going to shoot some footage as he rehearsed, singing in his "new voice." At 7 a.m., Glen the cameraman and I were already in Longview , waiting for Tyson on the long country road leading to his stone house. We saw him approaching, coming up from behind us -- he'd been tending to his horses.

 Ian Tyson walked away from a second day of interviews. (Canadian Press)

"Morning, Mr. Tyson! How's the day going?" "It was going okay till you guys showed up."

Um, yeah, I was told this might happen. He walked away, tall and lanky and Jack Palance-like. We wouldn't get our footage that day.

"Should we follow him anyway?" I asked Glen.

"He might have a shotgun," said Glen, matter-of-factly. So he pulled out his camera and using a long-lens, shot Tyson's feet on the road, walking away from us.

I stood there on the side of the road, seeing my reporting career disappear in the cloud of dust kicked up by Tyson's cowboy boots, but Glen's long-shot ended up saving our piece in the end. Tyson's "walking away" shot, something about this hunched old cowboy amidst the plains and mountains, spoke volumes about this talented, but impetuous man. I later learned he liked the piece. Whew. I wouldn't want to be on his bad side.

My point with the Tyson experience was that, even when they're bad, these guys are really good. Even in leaving you and near-ruining your story, they give you a story. And I can't say that's always the case with artists of my own generation.

And for the record.... I like octogenarian ladies, too. Betty White, I'm still waiting.

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