Wednesday, May 3, 2017

Interview: A Look Back at John Cusack's Career

John Cusack
With this year’s MegaCon in Orlando, Florida, fast approaching, what better time to share the John Cusack panel from last year? If you’re like me, you grew up watching his movies. From “Better Off Dead” and “Sixteen Candles” to “Gross Pointe Blank” and “The Raven,” John really is a household name. I had the opportunity this fall to join a panel discussion with John about his career, past and present. So buckle up and take a ride through cinema history with me.

Question: One of my favorite of your collaborations is with Nick Hornby, who wrote and adapted “High Fidelity.” Any chance of more stuff from you two?

John Cusack: It’s up to Nick because he writes the books, but I stay in contact with him, and his books are in such demand and he’s in demand. I thought it was a pretty good combo, so I’d love to do it again, definitely. He’s a terrific writer.

Q: You often used to work with your hometown Illinois crew (including sisters Joan and Ann, and friend Jeremy Piven) on films; any chance we’ll see you guys together again?

JC: I haven’t done anything with any of my friends that I used to work with a lot before because life seems to take us in different directions. We’re all in different places. But it will always be fun to get back home again.

Q: How about Broadway; have you been offered anything or would you like to tread the boards one day?

JC: On Broadway there’s a play called “The Price”; it’s an Arthur Miller play, which I like, but I haven’t found or been offered anything that I really wanted to do.

Q: More recently, tell me about your experience filming “Chi-Raq.”

JC: I don’t know how familiar you are with the film — we shot on the Southwest side of Chicago with 1,400 extras, but it’s real terrible, terrible situation. But there’s a lot of people doing great work over there trying to take back the city block by block. I play a white Catholic priest (Father Mike Corridan) on the South side of Chicago who’s been there 40 years. And so he’s spent every Sunday preaching there, and (director) Spike (Lee) and I were taking notes. Spike was writing and we were doing stuff. We spent a lot of time there and found a way to bring the story to the screen.

Q: Would you like to be involved more in indie movies? However, you seem to be proficient at any genre you try your hand in.

JC: I really like doing the supernatural genre. It just depends on what I can get going. The movie business is strange. I think it might be easier to do something like that on cable TV now because people seem to want to make movies either where they make it for like 4 million bucks and they’re art movies, or they want you to put on the tights and be a superhero. You can’t pick ones in between at the moment. But maybe I’m capable of something like that.

Q: In your opinion, what makes a movie work?

JC: I don’t know. I think any time when movies work and they’re good, there’s some part that you relate to. And sometimes you are doing them, and you think they are going to do one thing, and then the producers and the studio jump on and change it so that they don’t really reflect what they had in mind. So, it depends on the film. But usually when they work out, then you feel that there’s some part of you that’s connected to them.

Q: You’ve been known to really get into your roles, and acquire the skills that your character has.

JC: I think sometimes if you learn a skill, you pick it up right. So, if the character is doing something, you immerse yourself in it. So, like when I played Lloyd Dobler and he was a kickboxer, that’s when I started doing martial arts, and I’ve been doing that for 25 years now.

Q: I’ve read where you’ve really enjoyed working with Billy Bob Thornton.

JC: The best thing about playing with Billy Bob is just to hang out with him all the time on the set, because he’s one of the coolest, funniest people you will ever meet. One of the best people you will ever meet too. You can come on the set, and all of a sudden you’ll walk in and he’s put barnyard animals in your trailer. He’s an awesome guy.

John Cusack in 2014 at the Cannes Film Festival
Q: How do you feel about this rash of folks remaking old movies instead of creating new ones, and also all the sequels? Is there a movie you would like to remake, or a sequel you’d do?

JC: I don’t think it’s good to do a remake of a movie unless you think you can do it differently or can add something to it that it didn’t have. There is an old movie that was based on a novel called “Fat City.” It was a John Huston film, and it starred Stacy Keach and he played a boxer. I’ve been a boxing fan for a long time, so I thought, “Man, I’m 49, so I’d like to do one while I can still do it.” So I thought, “If I could do ‘Fat City’ that would be really cool.” It was done in that sort of Technicolor ’70s era when they started to make everything super-bright. At the same time it was thought to be cool, but it actually looks dated now. But I thought that might be a cool remake to do.

And then with sequels, you have to get people back together and do it the right way. If I were offered to do a sequel to one of my own movies, I’d do it, but you want to do it right.

Q: Are you hooked on any TV series at the moment?

JC: I really like “Better Call Saul.” I like everything that Vince Gilligan is up to. I think it’s such interesting stuff he’s doing. Any of those types of shows. And I’m also like a strangely secret zombie-movie fan. So, I could show up on “The Walking Dead.”

Q: You have been in the movie business for so long; what keeps you coming back?

JC: The love of it and luck, and just getting out of Hollywood whenever I can. What I’m saying is, when you stay in it all the time, it’s good to get away from it and be a normal person.

Q: Any advice for someone who wants to make it in Hollywood?

JC: If you can do some theater. Make your own movies. I mean, you can shoot it anywhere. Don’t ask permission. Learn it as you go. Make it up as you go along. And just do it because everyone says, “Well, I want to be an actor.” And then they don’t act. If you want to be a basketball player, you have to play basketball. You just couldn’t walk out onto the court and never been to the game. If you can, just do theater and do plays. Do scene classes. It’s like athletics. You just have to do it. And do it yourself. Don’t ask permission. Make your own movies.

Q: What are some parts of the business that you don’t like?

JC: Sometimes doing press work. The acting part you can do, but it’s like the stuff around it. I think sometimes selling is a lot different than acting.

Q: What is a recent movie role that you’re glad you took on?

JC: I got to go to China last year and film “Dragon Blade” with Jackie Chan. If you get a call saying, “Hey do you want to go out to the Gobi Desert and do this fight scene with Jackie Chan in a Chinese-language movie?” You just go: “When am I ever going to get a chance to do that? I’ve got to go do that! So, it was a wild experience and really fun. And then usually if the movies work out, those are really good experiences.

Q: Do you get or have you even been star-struck while working on a movie?

JC: Yeah, especially when I was younger. I remember Paul Newman, and I was like, “Oh, man!” Paul Newman was such a gentleman. He was pretty great to do a movie with. I couldn’t believe it. I got to work with a lot of my heroes growing up. And I couldn’t believe it. How did this happen, you know? Woody Allen and Al Pacino. Gene Hackman. All those guys. I grew up watching them.

Q: You’ve done a bit of voice work for animated movies. Do you like doing that kind of work?

JC: Yeah, I do like it because it’s fun to watch them figure out how to create the characters visually, and then you start to do the voices, and then you see a little bit more of it. Then you see more and more again. And the work that they put into those movies is incredible. It’s sort of a lazy job to do the voices because you just get to go into a studio and play. It’s a fun gig.

Don't miss this year's MegaCon Orlando from May 25-28 at the Convention Center on International Drive in Orlando, Florida. Find all the info you need here.

Friday, April 21, 2017

INTERVIEW: Nikki DeLoach on Taking Risks

Nikki DeLoach, left
Photo courtesy Hallmark Channel
Ever since the brilliant and groundbreaking MTV comedy series “Awkward” ended in 2016, series star Nikki DeLoach has been hard at work on the silver screen, forming quite a relationship with the Hallmark Channel. Next up for Nikki is Hallmark’s “The Perfect Catch,” which premieres Saturday, April 22 at 8 p.m. EST/PST. Nikki stars as Jessica Parker, a local diner owner who is a single parent to an 8-year-old son. When Jessica’s former high school boyfriend, superstar baseball player Chase Tanner (played by Andrew Walker), returns to town, Jessica finds the inspiration to reinvent her struggling diner and revisits the past to find something even better for the future. I spoke with her recently about this role, as well as her burgeoning relationship with Hallmark.

Celebrity Extra: Can you tell me in your own words what “The Perfect Catch” is about?

Nikki DeLoach: It’s really interesting because this movie was really a two-hander, wherein a lot of Hallmark’s movies are just about the woman with the male playing a secondary role. What I really loved about this particular movie was the fact that it’s a bit of a two-hander for me and Andrew Walker, who plays my love interest, Chase. He gets to have a really great storyline as well as my character, Jessica. Essentially, Jessica is a girl who never left her small town, and her life hasn’t turned out as she thought it would. She’s a dreamer whose dreams never really happened. She’s now a single mother who is struggling to make life work and struggling to run her grandfather’s diner, which has become a dream of hers to make it a success and keep it going.

CE: Enter her ex-boyfriend …

ND: Yes, Chase had a very different life from Jessica. He left town right out of high school, and he went to the big leagues and became a professional baseball player. He has since experienced a fall from grace after a bad game in the World Series. He was cut from his team, and all the fans are angry with him. He comes back to his hometown to lick his wounds and to regroup, and also to wait on a new contract, for another team to pick him up. So he comes back to town, ego a little bruised, and Chase and Jessica run into each other. They were high school sweethearts, and when he went away, she decided not to go with him because she didn’t want to hold him back, and that was the last time she ever saw him.

CE: Now that they are adults, having lived their lives away from each other, how does his return affect Jessica?

ND: He inspires her to dream bigger, to take some risks in her life and go after the dreams that she always wanted to have. And she in turn reminds him of what’s really important in life and that sometimes maybe you can come home. I won’t totally give away the ending, but it is Hallmark, so they do end up together, but with some twists and turns along the way.

CE: How does Jessica’s son fit into all this?

ND: Well, her son’s father left town to pursue his musical dreams. He gave her son the baseball bug, but he never gave him the training. And here Jessica is, the single mom who is terrible at baseball, trying to pitch to him and practice with him. The other kids make fun of him because everyone else has their dads around to help them, and here he has just a sad mom. But she’s doing her best, and then in comes Chase, who’s a professional ballplayer, and her son brazenly asks him, “Can you help me practice for this game I have this weekend?” Through her son, Chase and Jessica reconnect.

CE: In what ways could you relate to and empathize with your character, Jessica?

ND: I’m not a single mom because I have a husband, but he’s an entertainment attorney who leaves in the morning and gets home after my son goes to bed. His job is a lot — it’s a lot of work — and so a lot of times it feels like I’m raising my son on my own, and it’s really hard. Granted, it’s not half as hard as real single moms out there, but I felt like I could really relate to her because I’m taking my son to soccer practice and doing all these things with him that of course my husband would want to be a part of, and it’s hard to do that on your own.

I also related to her in terms of your dreams coming to fruition. I’ve been in this business for 30 years; I started out as a child actor, and there have been several times in my career where I lost everything and had to start all over again. And every single time you have to start all over, it gets harder and harder to take those risks because your heart has been broken and you’ve been disappointed so many times. So I really related to the dreamer in her whose dreams never really came to fruition. In the script, she takes that one last risk to make everything happen for her, and I feel like I did that in my own career and in my own way. And it’s paying off, but I really loved that about her story because I think there are a lot of women out there where it’s hard to make the time to make their dreams come true, and it’s hard to also find the courage. They have been disillusioned and their hearts have been broken. It’s never too late to go for what you want in life.

CE: What other messages would you say this movie has for its viewers?

ND: The message for Chase’s character is that sometimes it’s not too late to come home and essentially start your life all over again. For Jessica, it’s sometimes it’s not too late to start your life over again and to have the life you’ve always wanted. Both of them are parallel in similar yet different ways.

CE: What was the shoot like? I hear it was pretty cold while you were filming.

ND: Yes, we filmed in Vancouver, and it’s a spring movie, but it was freezing outside. They were having a winter that all the locals said they had not had in 30 years. It seriously rained every single day of production, and it snowed and rained for the first two weeks, and it even hailed for two of the days. We were up against a lot — when half of your movie is supposed to be exteriors and then rain is pouring down every single day, it makes it difficult. On any given day, if we caught a break in the rain for an hour or so, we would book it outside and try to get what we could outside. You had to be prepared for that because they would say, “Let’s just go to scene 36,” and you have to wrap your head around 36 and learn the lines for 36, and get out there and be ready to do it. And sometimes you would get only one take in before the rain came back.

CE: Were you guys able to make the most of a tricky filming situation?

ND: On any other set, those circumstances would have made it a very difficult shoot and a very unhappy shoot, but this was quite the opposite. Everything we were up against with the weather, our director was sensational; he had a great attitude. Our crew was wonderful. The cast — we were always in such good spirits. We were just happy to be there and filming this movie.

Nikki DeLoach (center) on the set of
The Perfect CatchPhoto courtesy Hallmark Channel
CE: You’ve worked with Hallmark before — tell me what they are like as a boss.

ND: It seems so sterile to call them an employer because what they are is family. I get to belong to this wonderful family that is making really great programming. An entire family can sit down and watch, and you can never find that on network television. I so appreciate that, and everything they say that they stand for, they really do. From the president, Bill Abbott, to his top executives Randy Po and Michelle Vicary — they all stand for the values that they say they maintain. And they treat you so well; I’m treated so well by them, my family is treated so well by them. They take care of us, and honestly, I have an amazing time every time I get to do a project with them. It’s really brought a lot of happiness into my life.

CE: Since you like working with Hallmark so much, and you previously made a Christmas movie with Andrew Walker and now this spring-fling movie, I think you two should make a Hallmark movie for each season. Next up, the Fourth of July.

ND: Yes! Hallmark needs to see us as the seasonal couple, where we’re in four movies together and, honestly, that would be Andrew’s and my dream come true. We love working together. I have a family; he has a family. We both have a lot going on in our lives, and actually he loves my husband more than he loves me. We did a movie together in Winnipeg, and my husband came up to visit for a week. The boys went out — they went out every night — and I’d be at home, studying my lines and having to get up at 6 the next morning. And the boys would be out watching hockey games and football games, just having a blast. The two of them became really great friends. I absolutely love his wife. You meet good people sometimes, and you feel like you’ve known them your entire life. Andrew feels like the older brother I never had, and he’s become family to me and vice versa, so we really love working together. I have said to Hallmark, “Put us together as much as you want because that really works for us.”

CE: One of my all-time favorite shows was MTV’s “Awkward.” The writing was brilliant, the casting absolutely wonderful. Do you all ever discuss doing a reunion movie?

ND: We do! We have a lot of people who tuned in, and they really want more. There have been ideas bounced around of doing a movie for MTV that would bring everyone back together over a summer, and I really hope that happens. I’m like, “Maybe I’ll pitch the idea; I’ll come up with a concept and pitch it.” And thank you for saying that. That was one of the greatest experiences of my life, getting to work on that show and do that material every day and to play the character of Lacey, who will go down in history as one of my favorite people that I’ve ever gotten to play. I just love her, and I miss her every day. I miss that whole cast, just being with them. We talk all the time and we see each other all the time, but it’s different when you’re used to seeing them every day.

Friday, April 14, 2017

Interview: Cassidy Gifford on Finding Balance in Your Work and Life

Cassidy Gifford
Photo by Stephanie Diani
Cassidy Gifford isn’t a household name — yet. Her parents, Kathie Lee and the late Frank definitely are, but Cassidy is making her own mark in Hollywood. The talented actress is just getting her start, but she is certainly one to watch. On April 15 at 9 p.m. EST/PST, she stars in the Hallmark Channel original movie “Like Cats and Dogs.” Cassidy plays Lara Hale, a dog lover, who through some mix-up is stuck sharing a vacation rental for the summer with Spencer, who is a cat lover. Spencer and Lara could not be more different, and they will have to figure out a way to get along without killing each other. I spoke with Cassidy recently, and she is thrilled to play this role and to star in her first romantic comedy.

Celebrity Extra: Tell me about the role of Lara and what attracted you to her and the movie.

Cassidy Gifford: Lara Hales is a 22-year-old free spirit who has hit a point in her life that I think most of us at this age can relate to: a stagnant existence where we’re not really sure where we want to end up or what we want to do. So she ends up renting a place for spring break to get away from my very, very serious and by-the-book parents, who own an accounting firm that she works at in this sweet little town in Michigan called South Haven. So, it’s kind of an escape for her and her dog Frank —whose name is Billy in real life, and I fell absolutely in love with him.

CE: And then enter Spencer (played by Wyatt Nash) …

CG: Wyatt is just terrific. He plays Spencer Hopkins, who is the seeming antithesis of Lara; he’s very serious and he’s writing his thesis and he’s dating this girl who is very similar to him. He’s very straight-laced, to the point that it’s almost debilitating. Some people are so stuck in their ways, and it can almost be toxic. And I know a lot of people who are actually like that. He ends up booking a place on our version of Airbnb, which is called Go BnB in the movie, and we end up living in the same spot.

CE: Let me guess: This is where the cats and dogs come in?

CG: Yes. He has a cat; he’s a cat person. And I have a dog, and I’m a dog person. Hilarity ensues, as you can imagine, because we end up at the same place and we end up trying to stick it out together, and it’s just a very sweet story. It’s the story of two young people seemingly stuck in their own respective ways and not realizing that is what is getting in their way. It’s a tale of two people who are at different but similar points in their lives, and they don’t realize that what they need is the opposite of what they are getting.

CE: How was the filming process? What was it like to work with the cast and crew?

CG: The movie is really sweet and it’s real, and as actors, we were given the chance to play a little bit. Our director, Ron Oliver, is terrific, and he gave us a lot of freedom to improv, and if it didn’t feel right, he would say, “Try it again until it does.” It was a really cool, collaborative project, and that’s something that I hadn’t had the opportunity to do before, and it was awesome. I fell in love with Vancouver — that’s where we were shooting — and the people there and just everything. I can’t even begin to describe how grateful I am to have had the experience.

CE: You were saying earlier how much you enjoyed filming in Vancouver. Tell me more about that experience.

CG: It was so stunning. We were staying downtown, so our commute to work every day was about an hour, an hour and a half. And I had always thought that California is cool because if you go a couple miles in any direction, you can be at the beach or you can go downtown, a couple hours north and you can be in the mountains, but Vancouver was like, you go 4 miles in any direction and it was almost a different climate. It was crazy! We’d be downtown and it would be raining when we got picked up, and then we would end up where we were filming and it was like Narnia — there was just snow. I’m from the East Coast, so I’m used to snow, but we were filming a spring romantic comedy, and so it was slightly different because we ended up having to shoot around a lot of it.

CE: How did you work your way around it?

CG: The first week we had shot some things on different locations on the water, and we were out on the pier getting a lot of our exterior shots, and then when we moved to the house, it was snowing pretty much every single day for the rest of the shoot. We had to get everything outside that we hadn’t shot, and then one morning it was just stunning — the snow had melted because it had gotten just warm enough, so we completely flipped the schedule around. We were shooting outside all day, even though it was cold; it was warmer than it had been, so we got everything we needed outside. Our director and the entire crew had a good eye for what we needed, and they flipped everything around and made it work, and it ended up being more than we could have ever imagined.

Basically, it was like trying to film a springtime rom-com in Narnia. But it worked out. It made us laugh, and it was funny because we were cold and freezing our butts off, but it was fun because we were all in it together. It definitely made it more interesting, especially with the dog and the cat, who were such good sports about it too. They were just the cutest things in the world, even though the cat wouldn’t listen — he would not listen. He was so stubborn, but it made it funnier.

CE: Speaking of dogs and cats, you said that you are a dog person; what about your co-star Wyatt Nash?

CG: It was so funny because going into it, Wyatt was a cat person, and I am obviously a dog person, but over the course of the movie, I would give him a hard time. It’s not that I don’t like cats; I love animals. But I grew up being allergic to cats. I grew out of it, but I have this intrinsic thing to stay away from them, otherwise I would break out in hives, and so it’s this subconscious thing where I don’t get that close to them because of spending 15 years of my life being afraid of them because I couldn’t breathe or I would break out in hives. As filming went on, Wyatt would come to set every day and go to the dog first, and by the end of the shoot, he was like, “OK, I think I’m a dog person.” So, we started fighting over who loved the dog more, whose name is Billy in real life, but we were fighting over him and who could give him more treats.

Wyatt and I had so much fun. We ended up becoming such good friends, and the fact that he lives in LA ... on the first day, we learned that we went to the same church and went to the same place to work out. His fiancee came to visit, and she was just so sweet, and I ended up being their third wheel for the last week and a half of filming. It was a blast. If I had to choose between the two of them, it would be a tie because they are both so sweet, and we all had so much fun and became like a unit.

Cassidy Gifford
Photo courtesy the Hallmark Channel
CE: Can you tell me in which ways you can relate to your character, Lara?

CG: I wouldn’t say I’m the crazy free spirit. I definitely have structure in my life, but I am very much a go-with-the-flow kind of person. I tend to believe that things are going to work out even when you’re at your crappiest point; there will be a light at the end of the tunnel — to keep throwing clichés at you. I believe that things do end up working out, and there are going to be more pitfalls that you stumble upon because that’s life, but I think that balance is key.

Lara definitely likes junk food, and so do I — much to my dismay. That’s another thing that Spencer and Lara don’t have in common; he’s very healthy and blending his smoothies. I always have Fritos in my bag or a jar of Skippy peanut butter or something that isn’t good for me. I believe that yes, you have to do healthy, of course, but at the same time, if you’re cheating yourself out of every little pleasure in life, that’s no way to live. I think you should be able to work out and eat healthy, and on the weekends you should be allowed to binge a little bit and have some fun. I think that balance is key. That’s something my dad (Frank Gifford) always said growing up: Moderation is the key to life. I think that is a similar quality that Lara and I share as well. It made it a little bit easier to relate to her.

CE: I’ve heard great things about working with the Hallmark Channel. What was the experience like for you?

CG: It is wonderful, and I can’t tell you how much I loved them there. I had been meeting with them for about a year. There was another project that I couldn’t do because of scheduling for another thing I was shooting. But then when they came to me with this about two months ago — I’m a dog person anyway — so when I read the script, I thought, OK, this is something I am definitely interested in. And then our director, Ron Oliver, rewrote a lot of parts about it, and the whole ending he changed, which ended up filtering into the beginning, which ended up changing a lot of things. And when I got the new script, I thought, I have to do this.

The people at Hallmark are so kind and so sweet, and they are trying to bring a little bit of goodness back into this world. Everything from the news — you’re just bombarded and every day — it’s just all bad news. I feel like Hallmark has a really good eye for realizing that there really is an audience who wants to see something that’s endearing but still has family values. And there’s a way to have that wholesome quality without being corny or cliché and over the top. I think with this project, people are going to like it because it’s sweet and it’s fun, but it’s real.

CE: Tell me what it was like filming this movie, with it being your first romantic comedy. A lot of your earlier work has been in horror movies and thrillers, so this must have been a nice change of pace.

CG: There’s a running joke between my family and friends that any time I get cast in something, they’re like, “Oh, are you going to die in it?” Which I don’t think is that funny because I’m the one doing it. The life of an actress is you take the work when you can get it. You hear “no” a lot more than you do “yes.” So I was so excited to play this role because it’s completely different from my previous roles. It’s similar to other movies I’ve done in that you get to know your cast and find your rhythm day in and day out, but this role was so much fun to play.

Wyatt (Nash, who plays Spencer) and I got to know one another after about a week. We got comfortable on the first day — it was so great. And you can’t always expect that, and I feel very fortunate that the people I’ve worked with and the different casts that I’ve been a part of that we’ve gotten along so well. But Wyatt and I had a blast because it was pretty much us and the two animals for a majority of the movie, so it gave us a lot of freedom to play and to improv. It was so much fun because there wasn’t this looming darkness hanging over. You can’t help that if you’re doing a horror or thriller.

I just finished doing an independent thriller this past fall in upstate New York where I play a girl suffering from bipolar disorder, and even though I was learning so much, there is just this lightness of doing a romantic comedy. I love watching romantic comedies, and if you love watching them, then being a part of one is a dream — it’s something I’ve always wanted to do. And to have the freedom to improv, it makes it feel like it’s yours, and you feel like you have more of a stake in it because it allows you to be vulnerable in a completely different way.

Sometimes, being funny is more nerve-wracking than it is to scare someone. It’s easier when you know that’s the extent you’re going to go to, but when you’re doing comedy, there’s a risk in it that’s different. I was kind of nervous going into it, but once I got to know Wyatt, we realized that we have very similar senses of humor and we could poke fun at each other; it just made a world of difference for us. We’d ride to work in the morning and we’d laugh pretty much the entire way, and by the time we got there, it was like, oh, we’re just continuing what we’ve been doing. It doesn’t even feel like work. It was really cool, and it was totally different from anything I’ve ever done. I couldn’t have loved it more.

CE: What do you hope people take away from “Like Cats and Dogs”?

CG: I think we as humans get so easily stuck in ruts of complacency and feeling comfortable and being in our safe space, that even small changes to our daily life can be great as long as we’re open to them. It’s so much easier to just be the way we are, especially when it works — that’s when it’s easiest to do. Even when making smallish changes, we tend to think, I’m going to stay the course because it’s getting me where I need to go. But to just be open to small little lifestyle changes, like making a healthy choice in our diet (which is what Spencer makes Lara do) or just loosening up (which Lara teaches Spencer). Just making little concessions that you don’t realize could actually be good for you. Finding a balance between lightening up and also having structure — it’s worth it to see both ends of the spectrum and to realize that there is a healthy, happy medium.

Sunday, April 2, 2017

INTERVIEW — Jewel: "I Want My Life to Be My Best Work of Art

Jewel
(Copyright Crown Media United States, LLC
Photographer: Ryan Plummer)
Hot on the heels of the super-successful first installment of the “Fixer Upper Mysteries” franchise on Hallmark Movies and Mysteries channel comes “Concrete Evidence: A Fixer Upper Mystery.” The series stars singer/songwriter/poet/actress Jewel, who plays Shannon Hughes, the owner of Hughes Restoration and an expert in Victorian-era home restoration. Through her work, she stumbles across clues hidden in the old homes, uncovering past secrets, making her an unlikely sleuth to crack these unsolved mysteries. I spoke with Jewel recently about the movie, which premieres tonight, April 2, at 9 p.m. ET/PT, and she was gracious and humbled by the reception the franchise has received so far.

“We signed on for nine installments, depending on the success of the series. And I guess the first one broke a lot of ratings records, which I was really humbled by, and I was very excited to do a second one,” Jewel says.

The multifaceted star was able to channel what she has learned in her life up until now to help prepare herself for the role of Shannon Hughes, telling me: “I started building off this mindfulness platform based on exercises I used to overcome anxiety and panic attacks. And sharing a lot of exercises in my book, ‘Never Broken,’ and a website I just founded, JewelNeverBroken.com, where I share the actual exercises.

“One of the things that I’ve been teaching people and talking a lot about is getting out of your head and not overthink things and how to listen to your intuition. To help quiet the fear, help quiet the anxiety and actually hear that inner voice when you’re talking — and that’s actually what Shannon’s superpower is. She is a woman who once didn’t trust her intuition, and it cost her very dearly with her mother, and she made a promise to herself to never ignore her intuition again. Her fight is really every woman’s fight, and every human’s right, which is to speak up for your inner knowing, and to act on that. It was so synergistic with the platform that I’m building, and getting to act a character that’s actually trying to live the same thing was a real fun opportunity. And it fits my ideal of trying to switch my work so I can be a mom and still be creative.”

The shooting schedule was intense, but she still found time to have fun with her son while on-set in British Columbia. “Shooting days were 16 hours to 18 hours. Sometimes it was just: ‘Holy mackerel! This is long.’ But my son had a really great time in Victoria; he really loves it.”

While the shooting may have been intense, the crew was on-point when it came down to getting the job done, as Jewels explains: “It’s a little bit of mad dash, and I think everyone was so buried in having to get through their work. The poor director, I don’t know how he did it. It’s so many thoughts in one day. Everyone shows up really prepared, and you’re kind of underwater. But everyone is so good spirited — the crew works so hard. The cast is so professional, and fun. They’re all nice people, so we had a good time grinding it through.”

As a lot of movie crews have found out while filming in Vancouver earlier this year, the area had record snowfalls — which didn’t bode well for movies that are supposed to be set in springtime. But they worked around it. “The producers handled it — it’s kind of this giant puzzle piece of how can we be efficient with everybody’s time, the actors’ time, the locations’ time. It’s this amazing puzzle that gets put together. They did a great job of switching everything around so we were shooting interiors, hoping the snow would melt by the time we got to the exterior shots.”

As the action of “Concrete Evidence” begins, Jewel tells me: “You find Shannon renovating Mac’s house, kind of where we left off in the last movie. We discover a body, which leaves us trying to solve the crime of a young girl’s disappearance from when I was in high school. We meet some of the characters I went to school with, go back to the school that my character went to, and those types of things.”

Jewel and Colin Ferguson
(Copyright Crown Media United States, LLC / Photographer: Ryan Plummer)
For those of you who saw the first movie, there were some sparks between Shannon and Mac (played by Colin Ferguson), so will that carry over into this second installment? Jewels explains: “There is a very slow build. There are definitely more sparks between them in this movie. He is a professional investigative journalist, and he helped her a lot in the first film, helped her find her way. They partner up again on this film.”

According to Jewel, it’s easy to partner up with an actor who’s as great to work with as Colin is. “He’s a dream. He’s a really gregarious, outgoing, funny, sweet person. He’s great to work with.”

She also works closely with Erin Karpluk, who plays Shannon’s best friend, Jennifer. “She’s kind of my partner in crime as we go back to the school to investigate. There are so many people at the school that we’re looking at, so we’re all pitching in and helping.” And like Colin, Erin made each day a pleasure for Jewel at work: “She’s a good girl. I really love her; I think she is a very talented actress. I’d like to see her have a bigger role in coming installments, for sure.”

With all this love and camaraderie going on, surely there were some fun and candid moments on the set, especially when you’re into the 16th hour of the working day and getting a little giddy. Jewel revealed: “I’m trying to remember specific moments. I don’t know if any of them are PG. When I get tired at night, my retention is not very good, and I wasn’t able to get through this one scene very easily, and I just kind of took to swearing at myself. It probably sounded like very prudish, 1950s swear words. It was a very odd mix, but it was making the crew laugh.

“There was another time in the first movie where there was this crazy windstorm that we were filming in, and every time they went for my close-up, the wind would just hammer me and blow me almost off my feet. And it was without fail. I bet we did about 20 takes, and every single time I reached my mark, I was blown off my mark, as if God was playing a joke on me. It was pretty funny.”

As a singer, songwriter, poet and actress, Jewel explains how they each compare and how she gets into the mindset of preparation and execution of each particular craft. “There are definitely different aspects of the craft. But the way I find my way into acting is pretty similar. I wasn’t formally taught music; I taught myself guitar, and you teach yourself songwriting — same thing with poetry. I never formally graduated school, just studied writing. But I’ve always had an intuitive sense of looking inward, which again came from my mindfulness practice and meditating from such a young age, and being curious and reading a lot. And so I was able to look inward to find my own authentic way.

“I think if you’re willing to sit in the silence and be uncomfortable and really look inward, you’re going to find originality. It’s a little harder, but hopefully it makes for something a little more interesting to listen to — and we’ll see about watching. I’m a little farther behind on the acting part. I just use my same skill set for looking inward and trusting my instincts, listening to my body. The way my body feels in a scene is usually the right instinct, and following that and listening to it intuitively in real time as it’s happening. I don’t preplan how I’m going to behave in a scene because I think that it makes it fake, and if the other actors aren’t doing what you thought they were going to do, you’re going to be out of sync with real life and what’s happening in front of you in the room. I just like to push it intuitively as I do anything.”

Photo courtesy JewelNeverBroken.com
Jewel has had to rely on her instincts and intuition from a young age, explaining: “I wrote my memoir ‘Never Broken’ because I’m often asked how I could go from an abusive background to going out on my own, to being homeless, to a lot of the things that I’ve faced, and then ‘succeed.’ For me, I don’t perceive my success with my career; I perceive my success with my piece of mind. Because I knew when I moved out at 15, statistically kids like me end up repeating the cycle they were raised in. Statistically I should be in an abusive relationship or on drugs and repeating what I call the emotional languages that I was raised with. So I wanted to see if I could beat the odds, and I did well for a couple of years. Fast-forward three short years, and I was homeless, shoplifting a dress, and I looked in the mirror and thought, I’m a statistic. I didn’t beat the odds. I was having severe panic attacks, and I remembered what Buddha said: ‘Happiness doesn’t depend on who you are or what you have. It depends on what you think.’ And I had the amazing privilege of having nothing left in my life but my thoughts. I had no home, I had no food, I had no family surrounding me — I just had my thoughts.”

Through this mindfulness, Jewel turned her life around “one thought at a time, and to do that, I had to figure out what I was thinking. I started developing exercises and tools that were basically mindfulness tools — but those words weren’t around then — to help me become aware of myself in real time. I really learned so much that year about fear and how fear is a thief that robs you of the only opportunity you have to change in your life, which is right now. So it takes that past and it projects it into the future, and that’s how anxiety works on a self-fulfilling prophecy. I had to learn how to interrupt those fear cycles and those anxiety cycles and the agoraphobia. I developed these little exercises that really helped me stop the panic attacks. I started strategically one by one looking at different emotional languages or patterns of my life and how to rewire my brain. I realized that my brain was addicted to negative thinking, and could I get it addicted to positive thinking?”

This positive thinking came to fruition for her when she started writing. “I turned to writing instead of feeling and replacing behaviors. And the more that I’ve learned about neuroscience, and Dr. Judson Brewer — who is the foremost scientific expert on mindfulness and the effects on the brain — became my scientific adviser on my website. There’s research on the addictive nature of the brain, and it’s amazing. This has been a really neat experience to share, and the next chapter of my life will be what I’ve always done, which is talking about this stuff.”

So with all this talk of her career in the music business and acting, Jewel knows that that’s not where true success and happiness lie. She explains: “I want my life to be my best work of art. I want me to be my best work of art, and that means I have to set a tone in every area of my limbs. I can’t just have a strong and buff career arm — that means the rest of me will have atrophied, and I won’t have emotional intimacy or good parenting or emotional fitness or physical fitness. A lot of times in life, we’re not taught how to do that. We’re taught to develop strength, usually in one limb, and I want to help people learn how to have tone in every area of their life because that’s how happiness is achieved. It’s a byproduct of having tone and harmony in each area.”

Friday, March 10, 2017

Ben Watkins Delivers on the Second and Final Season of Hand of God

Ben Watkins, creator and writer of Amazon's Hand of God
When Amazon entered the original-content streaming game, one of its first series was “Hand of God,” which stars Ron Perlman, Dana Delany and Garret Dillahunt. Ron plays Pernell Harris, a morally corrupt judge who suffers a breakdown and believes God is compelling him onto a path of vigilante justice for his son. The creator of this breathtaking and groundbreaking series is Ben Watkins, who also wrote every episode and even directed a few. And starting today, Amazon is now streaming the second and final season of this edge-of-your-seat drama, and I spoke with Ben recently about the series, his beginnings in Hollywood, and any scoop he could give me about season two.

Celebrity Extra: Tell me a bit about your background. I know you were homeless at one point and have had to adapt to circumstances that many of us haven’t even dreamed of.

Ben Watkins: I’ve encountered some really challenging circumstances growing up. Spent most of my life very poor with a single mom raising three kids mostly in the inner city. We moved a lot. I think with moving that much, it makes you come up with ways to fit in quickly. One of the ways to do that is to become an expert in mimicry and in observing people, and very quickly seeing what makes them tick. I think that turned into a really good way for me to be a storyteller. I also had a lot of hours spent with a brother and sister where most of our entertainment came from our imagination. When I look at where I am right now, I look back on how I got here, I think those early years were formative in that I started to acquire some of the skills as a storyteller. And part of that had to do with acting. That is the first way that it expressed itself.

CE: How did writing come into play?

BW: I always knew that I wanted to write at some point. I picked up a lot of different things that I felt like I wanted to express about my experience and how I saw our society. I love a good story, but my favorite stories are the ones that are really trying to make a statement about who we are as people and this world that we live in right now. I was someone who grew up really poor and saw society from that side, but there were times where we actually went back and lived with my mother’s family, who was raised upper middle class.

CE: That must have been a culture shock for you!

BW: I went from being this kid who was living in the hood in Oakland, California, and then the next year, I’m living in a gated community in a suburb of Chicago. I saw this amazing swing in lifestyles and status. It was a really tough upbringing, but it gave me a great insight into different aspects of society. I try to bring that to my storytelling. I feel like it is a unique perspective that a lot of people don’t really have or get a chance to live.

CE: Could you have thought in your wildest dreams while you were struggling as a kid that you’d have this acclaimed drama on Amazon starring all of these amazing actors who are bringing your story to life?

BW: This is something that is so fortunate, but when I was a kid, I didn’t even have any expectations that even bordered anything close to what has happened to me. I was just trying to make it day by day. In the toughest times, like you mentioned, we were actually homeless. I remember being in an apartment one time; we were basically squatting in the apartment, homeless.

I really didn’t have any expectations that any of this was going to happen. But I just kept chipping away, and there were a few key moments where people influenced me the right way. Even though we had tough times, my mother always made me feel like I was special. And so I always felt like even in the toughest times, there were brighter days somewhere down the line. I just didn’t know what it could be. I finally got around people who could influence me and would say, “Look, if you keep your focus, if you work hard, there will come a time where you have more control over what’s going to happen to you.” My feeling is, I’ve been through as hard as it gets. So being told “no” a hundred times in Hollywood does not even compare with sleeping in a car and not knowing where your next meal is going to come from. And so that really helped with my resiliency and perseverance.

CE: Tell me about how you started to find your voice in college.

BW: I went from being a student who was on the verge of being expelled from high school to being a guy who came full circle and ended up going to UC Berkeley for college. When I went there I was leaning toward being a journalist. I already had an affinity for writing; I just didn’t really know it was going to be on the creative, narrative side. But I jumped into a theater class and I fell in love with theater. That is what the first breakthrough was. I did it, actually, to just fill out units, just to have enough for the semester, and I ended up falling in love with it. I acted in some plays and that was my initial love. I had a couple of mentors, directors who were teaching at UC Berkeley. One was Margaret Wilkerson, who is sort of a legend in the African-American theater community. And the other was Gilbert McCauley, who is still directing today. They both encouraged me to pursue it. And so I really focused on acting to begin with, but I did have one project where it required me to write something. It became one of those things where you have a great experience, but it’s not part of your focus at the time, so you just sort of file it away. I filed it away and thought, “I’d like to get back to it someday.” I did some theater out of college, and I had a fluke experience where a casting director for a soap opera saw me. I went to New York for one of those general auditions for a soap opera casting director. We had a mutual friend, and she was seeing me as a favor.

CE: And that favor turned into your first television role.

BW: She ended up casting me in the soap. And that’s part of the acting career. I went down that road for a while. I had my ups and downs. When it got to a really, really low point, I was in Los Angeles and I had made an agreement with my wife that if I wasn’t a huge star in two years, we would move back to northern California and I’d go back to school. I hit a low point, so we started making plans to do that, but it was going to take six months to get everything in order. So she said: “You know what, you should do that short film that you’ve been talking about for a long time. Then you’ll have something to remember Los Angeles by.” So I did the short film and, ironically, the short film just sort of blew up. It went to all of these film festivals, including the American Black Film Festival, where it won the top award for short film. And it went to Sundance, and it actually got me some exposure for another job: I ended up getting a contract role on “The Young and the Restless.” But even more important, it was sort of a liquefier for me as a writer because that is something that I wrote, produced and co-directed. Even as my acting career was starting to pick up, I knew that my end goal was to be a writer, to create the content.

CE: How did that lead to “Hand of God”?

BW: It’s funny, because within Hollywood circles, when Amazon said it was going to start doing what it calls the Amazon pilot season, where they actually give the fans a chance to respond to the material and vote for the series they want to get made, there were a lot of people in the Hollywood circles who didn’t like that idea. But I actually thought it was a great idea, because I had gone down the road of developing great projects and no one ever saw them. Usually the decision on whether or not to make a pilot into a series is made by 10 people in a boardroom. Whereas when you do Amazon pilot season, you’ve got millions of people who get a chance to chime in. I think that’s cool in and of itself. The fact that Amazon was giving people a chance to actually see the pilot before they decided whether it would go to series, I felt was a great opportunity. And I think it was especially important for a show like mine, one I knew was going to be controversial and push a lot of buttons. Can you imagine if I had left that in the hands of 10 network executives who’d never seen anything like it? I think that the fact that the audience reacted to the pilot as well as they did was a huge reason we got our series order.

Hand of God, courtesy Amazon
CE: What was your inspiration to create “Hand of God”? Not to put it too lightly, but this is some deep, dark subject matter.

BW: First of all, my inspiration started with my being fascinated with fidelity and people in history who have been zealous. I would include John Brown and Nat Turner, obviously, in that category. But I would also even say in the modern day, you have people like David Koresh, and you even have these musicians like John Coltrane or Charlie Byrd, or you have scientists like Albert Einstein. I feel like they are all operating on another level. Because they are so committed, they have opened up their minds to something that most of us don’t have any grasp of. In some cases it really affects how they behave and whether they can really navigate regular life.

So I was fascinated not just by the people who become zealous, but also by how society reacts to them. And so I wanted to do a story about a modern-day zealot. Pernell Harris became this vehicle for me to show someone who believed in something so wholeheartedly that everything he does going forward is related to that. Then the other thing is I really want to explore the duality that I think exists in all of us. In movies and on TV, there’s a lot of storytelling where you have flawed characters, but they are usually going to end up in one category: good or bad. What I wanted to do was tell a story that had characters who were more reflective of who we really are as humans, which is that those good and bad characteristics are always there and they always exist simultaneously.

CE: And how exciting was it that your work attracted talent like Ron Perlman and Dana Delany?

BW: It was amazing. We’ve got world-class filmmaker Marc Forster, who said he wanted to make this his first TV show and was interested in directing the pilot — that was a great sign. And then the very next day we found out that Ron Perlman was interested. For two of the characters I thought, “In an ideal world, Dana Delany and Garret Dillahunt would play these characters.” Fast-forward, and we’re shooting the pilot, and Dana Delany is playing Crystal Harris and Garret Dillahunt is playing KD. Of course the rest of the cast is stellar as well.

CE: Originally Faye Dunaway was going to play Pernell’s aunt, but now it is Linda Gray.

BW: There were some scheduling conflicts and some other issues that came up, so she has been replaced with Linda Gray.

CE: Who is absolutely fabulous …

BW: You can’t go wrong with Linda Gray. When we realized it wasn’t going to work out with Faye, we started looking around elsewhere, and we came across Linda Gray. In season two, Pernell’s empire is in jeopardy, and part of that Harris family empire includes Linda Gray. With Pernell on shaky ground, she becomes a bigger part of the story because she wants to make sure that if he goes down, the Harris family doesn’t go down with him.

CE: What else can you tell me about season two?

BW: When there are things that we can’t explain, we feel compelled to find an answer for it. We say it’s science or religion or it’s crazy or it’s magic. We continue to ask that question in season two. Pernell continues to explore this question of whether he’s truly crazy or if he has touched into something supernatural. We also get to explore a little bit about what was going on with PJ and the software that he was working on. And there’s a connection there to Jocelyn Harris; there’s a connection there to Nathan Brooks, who is the founder of the company that came into town in season one. There’s a mystery related to that, and that mystery is driven by Crystal Harris, who in season one showed that Macbeth-type wife who was trying to maintain control and manage her husband and manage the lifestyle and the empire that she had built. In season two, she really steps into a leading role and drives the story forward because she is intent on finding out what happened to her son’s software and fulfilling his legacy. Initially there are two driving forces: Pernell is on trial for murder, and Crystal is trying to find out what happened to PJ’s software. And then, of course, they are always going to be surrounded by these amazing characters who are dealing with the same things that we deal with through the contradictions of human nature. What makes us tick? What do we really believe in? If we really do believe in something, or really want something, how do we change our lives to make that happen?

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Q and A: Week of Sept. 12

Q: Is it true that they are making a new version of “King Kong”? If so, do you know how or if this will be different from other iterations? — Dave G., via email

A: “Kong: Skull Island” will premiere March 10, 2017 on the big screen. This latest version of the action-adventure movie stars Tom Hiddleston (of “Thor” and “The Avengers” fame), Brie Larson (who won the Academy Award for Best Actress for “Room”), Samuel L. Jackson and Tom Wilkinson, and takes place in the 1970s, focusing on the origins of Kong. Hiddleston’s character, Capt. James Conrad, is the leader of an expedition venturing deep into an uncharted island in the Pacific Ocean, where you can bet they are going to run smack into everyone’s favorite giant gorilla.

But if you can’t wait until March to get up close and personal with the mythical beast, you can head over to Skull Island yourself — that is, the one at Universal Studios Orlando Islands of Adventure. Its new ride, “Skull Island: Reign of Kong,” opened over the summer, and let me tell you that it is exhilarating and actually quite scary. It really does get you primed to want to see the movie. Here’s an insider’s tip: Try to sit as far on the right-hand side of the car as you can.

Q: I haven’t seen Catherine Zeta-Jones in anything recently. I know she took time off while her husband, Michael Douglas, was recovering from cancer, but did she full-on retire? — Linda F., Baton Rouge, Louisiana

A: The gorgeous and talented Oscar winner recently signed on to star as Olivia de Havilland in FX’s eight-part miniseries “Feud,” which centers on the bitter rivalry between “Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?” stars Bette Davis (Susan Sarandon) and Joan Crawford (Jessica Lange). The miniseries will premiere sometime next year, and co-stars Stanley Tucci as studio chief Jack Warner, Judy Davis as gossip columnist Hedda Hopper and Alfred Molina as director/producer Robert Aldrich. With a powerhouse cast like this, I can’t wait to see the series.

Q: I remember hearing talk of a “Lost Boys” movie remake. Any word on that? — Larry T., via email

A: Rob Thomas — creator of “Veronica Mars” and “iZombie” — is bringing the vampire cult classic to television over at the CW network. According to “Deadline,” the new series is being envisioned for a seven-season run, “spanning 70 years, each season chronicling a decade.” With each season, “the humans, the setting, the antagonist and the story all change — only the vampires, our Lost Boys, who are like the ‘Peter Pan’ characters who never grow up, remain the same.” There is no word yet on whether the vampires will be all-new characters or a reimaging of the movie- version ones, but seeing how they all died in the end, they’d have to get pretty creative if they are planning to reintroduce them.

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

INTERVIEW: Taylor Hicks, "State Plate Is a Home Run!"

Taylor Hicks won the hearts of music fans countrywide — and then worldwide — when he won the fifth season of “American Idol.” He went on to tour the U.S., co-star as Teen Angel in the Broadway touring production of “Grease,” was a part of Jimmy Fallon’s Grammy-winning album “Blow Your Pants Off” … and the list goes on. Now members of the Soul Patrol (Taylor’s large and dedicated fan base) can catch Taylor this fall when he hosts “State Plate,” which debuts on the INSP network Oct. 21. I caught up with Taylor recently, and he filled me in on performing on the series finale of “Idol,” his hectic tour schedule and “State Plate.”

Celebrity Extra: Earlier this year, you came back to “American Idol” to mentor this last crop of singers. Why did you decide to do that, and what was the experience like?

Taylor Hicks: I love the educational process, instructing the singers and trying to cultivate their talent. That’s one of the things that I tried to do. Also, I have a saying, and someone told me this when I was going through my so-called break in the business. They said, “If you weren’t supposed to be here, then you wouldn’t be.” I have some friends who have caught a break, and I can see that they are nervous, and if you put that in perspective, that if God hadn’t intended for you to be there, then you wouldn’t be there. I think calming of the nerves is probably the most important thing to really be able to entertain and perform and move through the process of a show like that.

CE: Tell me about coming back to perform on the series finale.

TH: The finale was great, and I think I can speak for all of the idols and the winners and even the contestants who have been on the show that the way “American Idol” took its final bow was a true class act. The whole world celebrated, especially this country, they celebrated the last year. I think the way they celebrated the last season, and I think the way they celebrated the show in the finale, was a really wonderful way for all of America to have celebrated it.

CE: It’s so amazing when you think that the show was on for 15 years!

TH: “Idol” being on for 15 years, that’s just a testament to what the show has been able to do and how much talent has come from it.

CE: As a performer, you play big stadium gigs as well as more intimate club settings. Is it fun — and beneficial — for you to get to exercise those different kinds of performance muscles?

TH: I’ve always been a live performer, and I’ve been doing a lot of little intimate venues and acoustic shows. I think it’s not only important to do the full band, the big live shows, but I also think it’s important to do the smaller acoustic, intimate settings where you can really be up close and personal with the audience. And also you can be more of a storyteller. I think people enjoy that part of it just as much as they do kind of the live big-band atmosphere. I love both. I just love performing, so it’s the best of both worlds. You get the storyteller version where you get some stories about “Idol,” and also I get to explain my journey — people get to understand my past. And then the live big-band show is obviously more of a full production.

CE: So your fans get the best of both worlds, and you do, too, as the performer.

TH: Yes, very much so. I think it’s fun to exercise both. Luckily I grew up in both settings, so I’m familiar with both. I grew up on the panhandle of Florida playing at a place called the Flora-Bama, and that taught me a lot. Great musicians and songwriters like Sonny Throckmorton, Jimmy Buffett and Jimmy Louis were in that group. They’ve entertained people in that setting just as much as you would with a full band. I’ve been lucky to be privy to both of those.

CE: Tell me about “State Plate.” From what I’ve read about it, I really like the concept.

TH: In my opinion — and I might be a little bit biased because I’m hosting the show — the concept rivals any travel and food show on TV. And I’m speaking from a conceptual standpoint. Everybody from their respective states is very prideful of what comes out of their state, whether it be entertainment, whether it be sports, whether it be food. And this particular concept — being able to fill up a plate of food that’s an appetizer, entree, dessert that’s completely indigenous to each state — is a concept I think has got so much potential, and that’s the reason I’m so excited about it. Having traveled all my life and being from Alabama, you can’t not be a foodie. That’s just the way it goes, and we have so many different styles of food that have cross-pollinated our food culture. It’s got the potential to become a really popular show because people want to know what foods are indigenous to each state, and people want to see their state do well. I couldn’t be more excited for this show.

CE: How did you become involved with the show?

TH: I’ve been pitching shows since I had my Vegas show for two years. Obviously, you can tour the food of Las Vegas for years and still not eat everything. So, I’d been pitching food ideas to particular networks for years, and this concept from the folks at INSP network was brought to me, and it was just a great concept and fell in line conceptually with my Vegas idea. It broadened it to be able to hit every state in America. If you want to have something that is successful, you have to appeal to a broader audience. I just think this idea is a home run.

CE: Explain the concept of the show to me.

TH: There’s a farm-to-table element to it. I look at it like “Dirty Jobs by Mike Rowe,” but it’s only farm-to-table food. I definitely get my hands dirty — whether it’s dairy, whether it’s cattle — I just go into the particular food and really just dig in about where it comes from. What’s the origin of it? And sometimes that takes a little digging, no pun intended.

CE: I live in Orlando, Florida, so I have to know if you’ve come to Florida yet and if you’ll divulge any secrets from your trip.

TH: As a matter of fact, I’m in Florida right now. We’re wrapping up shooting here. I wish I could spill all of the info to you, but Florida is such a diverse state. We cover from the northwest to the southwest to the northeast — we try to cover all of the state. This one was tough, but I think we conquered it. And you can’t really cover the state in one plate in some of these states like Florida, Texas, California and some of the bigger states. So maybe we’ll come back for a second helping. Who knows?