This week I interviewed Michelle Guthrie for One Plus One, a year after her appointment as the ABC's Managing Director.
What was it like to interview your boss? people have asked me.
Everyone has an opinion about Ms Guthrie and the ABC. The opinions are not always pleasant. I felt I had the weight of expectation on my shoulders. Apart from that complexity, the interviewer part of me was curious to know why someone who had reached such heights in the media and digital world, had such a light digital footprint herself. It was very hard to find detail about her life and what has influenced her trajectory.
For me, the most anxious moments were the hours BEFORE the interview.
I am approaching this in good faith, I told myself, just ask her about the pieces that you need to make this puzzle complete.
But as well as being an interviewer who overthinks everything, I am also a long-term employee of the public broadcaster, a 23 year veteran. Many of my peers have left either by choice or through redundancy. Media as an industry is in turmoil. So what changes are in store for a traditional TV journalist in the Michelle Guthrie era of my career?
It was a bubbly Michelle who stepped briskly into my studio arena this week. Immediate thoughts were that I towered over her( incredibly). She didn't want to shake hands. She opened her arms to give me a hug. I sensed quickly that she was not someone to mess with, and yet I could relax and know that she would give me the space to probe her. We chatted about clothes and finding the right style. I loved her swan shirt :)
So, who is Michelle Guthrie? From what she told me she was a good student who worked hard and then took the opportunities that lay in front of her. She said 'yes' a lot. She took risks. She has fantastic insights into women and leadership. She has a husband (who is a chef) living in Singapore and two lovely daughters. She wants to make the ABC relevant for our time, which means a greater connection to the world many of us call home: online. Change IS her buzzword. But, she prefers to be out of the public eye.
In summary, I'd give her the hashtag: #quietdisrupter
The question I get asked most about One Plus One is how do we choose our guests?
We do around forty-four interviews a year. We have a big wish-list and then lots of other fascinating names came forward too, all worthy of attention in their own way which, in our estimation, can hold the television viewer’s attention for 30 minutes. The guests are drawn from a variety of sources selected by producer Barbie Dutter and me.
This week my guest is Indian comedian Vir Das and I was lucky enough to speak to him hours after he stepped of a plane on his first ever visit to Australia. He's on his first international tour, performing in Sydney and Melbourne (May 18 - 27).
In preparation for the interview I watched Vir's hilarious Netflix show Abroad Understanding. I read widely and watched his You Tube channel, where there are some very touching videos. Every year around exam time, he does a video for school-kids. There's a worrying suicide-rate among Indian school-children because of exam pressure.
I was very interested in the movie 31st October based on the anti-Sikh protests after the assassination of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. Via played a serious dramatic role in that art-house film but he’s also a familiar Bollywood actor.
India has always fascinated me. In fact, it was the first country I fell for, even before China. Maybe because I grew up in colonial Hong Kong, I enjoyed books about the English view of colonial life: Heat and Dust, A Passage to India and I particularly enjoyed Sarah Lloyd’s An Indian Attachment (and later Rohinton Mistry’s A Fine Balance).
However, on my first visit to India - when I was nineteen - I was shocked by the poverty. One day my brother and I bought some cakes in Delhi’s Connaught Place. I carried them in a box, suspended in a plastic bag. As we walked around I could feel something hitting my leg, but when I turned around in that tight sea of humanity, I couldn’t see what was knocking me. Something hit me again and this time I looked down. It was a person. A legless person. A legless, handless person whose arms finished near the elbows - in stumps. The person made eye contact with me then pointed to the plastic bag. The one holding the cakes. I handed it over immediately.
Apart from poverty I’d seen in Hong Kong (yes, there was much poverty in the seventies and early eighties) I had not experienced anything like India. And yet I loved it. It was so... alive!
Now the sub-continent is a whole new world from the place I experienced in the 1980’s.
It has 1.3 billion people but still, there are great divisions between the wealthy, the middle-class and those who dwell in slums.
A few hours before Vir arrived for the interview I went to the BBC website to see what was making news in India. Sadly, the main story was about rape and whether Indian doctor would allow a 10 year old rape victim to have an abortion. The 2012 gang rape of Jyoti Singh Pandey still looms large in my mind.
So, mingling in with the research I had done, these were some of the issues playing in my mind when I sat down to interview Vir. He admits he speaks from a perspective of privilege. And I interviewed a comedian for some light relief, right? But my head is still awash with more questions that I need to unravel for myself over the next few days, through books, news, discussion. Vir Das opened a door.
(Photo credits: Vir Das and Jane - Tom Hancock, Sadhu - Jane Hutcheon, Protest - Getty Images)
I recently asked a guest whether she'd had a 'normal childhood.'
I was quoting something she'd said herself in a documentary.
People will often tell me they've had a 'normal' childhood.
Or they dispute that their childhood was normal.
But what is normal?
Is it nothing out of the ordinary?
What exactly is ordinary?
Apparently, normal is something between 'typical' and 'ideal'.
I would have said my childhood, growing up in colonial Hong Kong was normal. Nothing out of the ordinary. Nothing to see here.
Yet when I was a child, there were violent protests by Mao's sympathiser's blocking the city centre. Several bombs were set off to cause damage to the colonial government and its officials. Later I remember an apartment building collapsed after days of heavy rain, killing dozens of people and injuring others whom my family knew. The morning newspaper was filled with headlines of people fleeing China across a waterway and getting bitten by sharks in the process.
Or there was the day when I was convinced people on television could look through the TV set and actually see me, so I applied to be part of a children's TV show so that I could be sure of this incredibly phenomenon.
Maybe my childhood wasn't so normal?
I made a note not to ask that question again. But then again, very little seems normal at the moment. Perhaps that in itself is a good conversation starter.
I first met George Gittoes in Beijing in 1998. He had an artist's residency. I was the resident correspondent. He wanted to paint people and life. He disappeared for a little while. Then the day before he left, he turned up looking like a pizza delivery guy. Like a waiter, he held two small oil paintings up near his shoulders. They were my farewell gift and they had been freshly painted. as a gift.
This one is the Journey:
This is the little Chinese Gymnast.
George and I drifted apart. I was doing my war reporting in relative safety. He was living life large in the most dangerous places you could nominate.
Then his name popped up when he won the 2015 Sydney Peace Prize.
I discovered he'd been making documentaries and taking incredible photos to add to his incredible body of artwork.
Then in May, I interviewed him at the South Coast home he shares with his partner musician Hellen Rose (and their dogs).
He is delighted to see the little oil paintings he gave me once again and he offers to clean them.
But it was his notebooks that captured my imagination.
They are the works of art that the public isn't likely to see, yet they imprint the essence of his travels. They lasso his emotions and thoughts that then bleed into his grander canvases.
And as he strides into the interview room tall and smiling, Hugo Weaving sports a bushy beard and appears surprisingly relaxed as if he has all day to chat, which he does not.
As we wait for last minute camera adjustments, he mentions that after four months off in his hometown Sydney, he’s due to fly to Western Australia shortly to begin work on the much anticipated film Jasper Jones.
Since the 1980’s Hugo Weaving has carved out a successful career in theatre and film, mixing lower-budget Australian productions with huge international blockbusters including The Matrix series, V for Vendetta and The Lord of the Rings trilogy.
For Weaving, there has never been a dilemma about whether to relocate to Hollywood or remain in Australia.
"I’m happy to work overseas,” he tells me on One Plus One, “but my focus is here.”
This is a golden era of film-making in this country, we just don’t know that.
“I’ve been saying that for ages. I think our films are getting better and better. We (Australians) are just not going to see them.
Weaving believes there are two reasons for this.
“The problem is not in the film-makers or the creatives. The problem is somehow selling the idea of selling our own culture to ourselves,” he says.
“Or, we have an industry which is so slanted towards American films that it’s very, very hard for Australian films to get a look in.”
Weaving is clearly proud of the homegrown industry, despite deriving his reputation from high-grossing blockbusters.
His latest film borrows from both.
He’s appearing in The Dressmaker, a film directed by Jocelyn Moorhouse, based on Rosalie Ham’s novel of the same name.
It’s set in the fifties in a small, fictional Australian town named Dungatar.
The film opens with femme fatale Tilly Dunnage (played by Kate Winslet), returning to her home town from Europe. She’s a glamorous and gifted seamstress who travels with her portable Singer sewing machine. But she has a past. Years ago as a child, Tilly was sent away after being blamed for the death of a school-mate.
The film features a Who’s Who of Australian performers including Judy Davis, Liam Hemsworth, Sarah Snook, Rebecca Gibney, Kerry Fox, Shane Jacobson and Barry Otto, to name just a few.
Weaving - who plays Dungatar’s policeman Sergeant Horatio Farrat - said he was ‘immediately interested’ in the script when it landed in front of him.
“He’s essentially a very nice man,” Weaving says.
However, “he does have a secret…he’s a cross-dresser. He also feels guilty because he’s done something to the heroine, Tilly.”
“It's got a dark centre, a dark underbelly to it,” he says in his deliberate, mellifluous voice.
Weaving was extremely happy to work with director Jocelyn Moorhouse again. It was Moorhouse who cast Weaving in her critically acclaimed 1991 film ‘Proof’. They were both relative newcomers to the screen world. She recently returned to Australia after a stint in Hollywood with her husband, director and writer P. J. Hogan.
Proof was the first film I had read…that I so wanted to be in,” Weaving recalls warmly.
“I jumped on it and I thought, ‘that’s my film’. I was tested for it and thank-good (Moorhouse) wanted me to be in it.
‘Proof’ was released a decade after Weaving graduated from the National Institute of Dramatic Art (NIDA).
He was born in Nigeria, arriving in Australia as a teenager, after an upbringing where the family relocated every few years.
He says he did not have grand dreams when he first entered NIDA.
“I never think too far ahead,” he said.
Weaving does not like to put himself above anyone else. He seeks meaning through voracious reading, spending time with his friends and family (partner of thirty-one years Katrina Greenwood and his children Holly and Harry) and enjoying his farm in northern New South Wales.
“I have a pretty strong sense of myself as a not particularly special person,” he says.
He does, however, enjoy in-depth research and finding the redemptive qualities in the characters he plays. Those qualities are often to be found in how a character interacts with nature.
I adore nature,” Weaving says. “Without nature and without the natural world we have no perspective on ourselves…I think it’s really special and life-affirming and gives me a perspective on who I am.”
“I don’t have a grand notion of who human beings are because I don’t think they are any more special than a tree or a bird or a kangaroo.
But he clearly values what it means to be human and strives to get to the heart of what makes an individual tick whether playing Mitzi Del Bra in The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert or the cross-dressing Sergeant Horatio Farrat in the Dressmaker.
(Photos by Tom Hancock)
Watch the full One Plus One interview at 10 am Friday on ABC, at 5:30pm (AEST) Saturday on ABC News 24 and 2:30pm (AEDT) and 9:30pm (AEDT) Sunday on ABC News 24.
If you love contemporary music and the personalities who sang your favourite songs, the ones that remind you of a certain era, then there’s nothing better than a juicy autobiography tapped out by an ageing rocker.
Some of those memoirs leave out salacious details of the parties, the sex, the drugs and the alcohol. We may be left curious about the extent of the unreality of those performers' lives.
Some years ago, Moby told me that at the height of his fame, he hired a person just to organise his parties.
Other musicians, like Mark Seymour from Hunters & Collectors, don’t do tell-all. He didn’t talk much about things that happened during the parties and drinking, probably in deference to his partner and family.
So I was unprepared when I started reading Rick Springfield’s 2010 autobiography Late, Late at Night recently.
In short, Wow! and Whoa!
At one stage he tried to halt the publication of the memoir, but got talked out of it.
Rick Springfield was born in Sydney and lived in Melbourne as a teenager. He, became one of the biggest pop/rock stars in the world. His hit Jessie’s Girl scored him a Grammy Award in the early Eighties. He also studied acting and got a role in the hit soapie General Hospital, playing Dr Noah Drake.
Let’s say that his life in the US was lived to the full. Let's be kind and say fidelity was not his forte.
Incredible as it may seem to some of us, Rick is about to turn 66. He is touring again. He has never given up writing music. I got to interview him for One Plus One while he was in Australia promoting his film Ricki and the Flash. He has an American accent now, but he does a nice impersonation of his Mum, who still lives in Victoria. He’s a nice actor, by the way, and there weren’t many musicians/actors who could have played the part he did... and played it so well. He was Meryl Streep’s love interest in the film.
In our interview, Springfield doesn’t back away from his dodgy behaviour. But I think it’s missing the point to dwell on that. Everyone stuffs up.
I guess what fascinated me most, both in his book and in our chat, was the constant presence (since puberty, he says) of ‘Mr D’. Mr D, AKA ‘The Darkness’. It’s the alter-ego of Rick’s depression and Rick has give him a character. He once even saw him sitting at the edge of his bed. Audaciously, Mr D even sits in on the interview.
I feel slightly uneasy that we will air the discussion about Rick’s teenage suicide attempt. We talk about it because it was a defining moment. These days Rick is very glad to be alive. This is the message to take away from the discussion.
But I’m moving towards something else here, so stay with me.
In Late, Late at Night Rick describes the moment he decides to stop his music career following the birth of his first son in the mid 1980’s . He’s living in a big fancy Spanish-style house in Malibu, surrounded by luxury and elegance; a waterfall, tennis court and meditation gardens. It’s “the house of our dreams that I’ve worked so hard to secure,” he says in the book. In an effort to calm “what fees like the beginnings of a storm in my soul,” he starts to make a mental list of his accomplishments because he believes he has ever reason to be satisfied with what he’s achieved.
I’ve played sold-out concerts in theatres, halls, arenas, and speedways. A Grammy Award and numerous Grammy nominations, American Music Awards... I’m famous (good for prompt restaurant reservations), and I’m so wealthy that I can’t even count how much money I have (although, looking back, I will wish I’d given it a shot). And to top it off, I married my true soul mate and we’ve given birth to a baby genius.
And then it hits him.
Success has not changed me. It is not the panacea, and I am not a better person for it as I had hoped I might be. I certainly have not escaped the depression that has dogged me all my life, like I’d been pretending I had. I’ve changed everything around me that I can possibly change, but I am still the same. After all the mountain climbing, the battlements storming and victorious plundering, it’s still the same guy looking back at me from the bathroom mirror. I am not cured. And I am finally made aware of the “myth of fame” ... you can’t imagine what kind of a mind-f*ck it really is to truly understand that, in and of itself, fame is not ultimately transformative.
A good lesson. Or maybe just a good conversation to have.