Arts & Culture

Conversations with the stars

More memorable interview subjects, from left, Lisa Lampanelli, The Blind Boys of Alabama and Henry Rollins.
More memorable interview subjects, from left, Lisa Lampanelli, The Blind Boys of Alabama and Henry Rollins. COURTESY PHOTOS

You hear it all the time: Celebrities are just people, like you and me. They put their pants on one leg at a time. They bleed when cut. They have ups and downs.

And it’s true — celebrities are people. (Except for famous animal actors.) But, you know what? They aren’t really like us. They go to places we’ll never go, they hang with people we’ll never meet, and they have big houses with fountains and pillars.

Which is why they make for interesting interviews. Because even celebrities we don’t particularly like have good stories to share.

During the past year, Ticket has featured several memorable celeb interviews. Here are some of the highlights from Ticket writers Sarah Linn and Pat Pemberton.

INTERVIEWS BY SARAH LINN

Alan Arkin

On the phone, Oscar winner Alan Arkin comes across a lot like one of his characters — smart, sarcastic, crusty and capable.

“I love playing curmudgeons,” admitted Arkin, who attended the San Luis Obispo International Film Festival in March. “I enjoy characters who are not very bright but are comfortable in spouting off philosophy to everybody who listens.”

Arkin, who received the King Vidor Career Achievement Award, has played a series of memorable misfits and misanthropes in “Catch 22,” “Edward Scissorhands,” “Glengarry Glen Ross” and other films. He took home an Oscar for his memorable turn as Abigail Breslin’s grumpy grandpa in “Little Miss Sunshine.”

“Abigail is one of the sweetest, most loving children I’ve ever met,” said Arkin, who also had high praise for co-star Greg Kinnear. “His performance in the film is really brilliant. He didn’t get the attention he deserved.”

He’ll team up with Kinnear once more in “The Convincer,” due out next year.

“My joy is an ensemble picture,” Arkin said. “To me, it’s important that things be more collaborative, that nobody’s on a mountaintop and unapproachable.”

Weezer

I’d wanted to see Weezer live since I was 16.

That was the age I discovered 1994’s “The Blue Album,” the seminal recording that took the energetic pop rockers from obscurity to superstardom. I got my chance last summer at the California Mid-State Fair.

Weezer — lead singer Rivers Cuomo, bass player Scott Shriner, drummer Josh Freese and guitarists Brian Bell and Patrick Wilson — played for a small but enthusiastic crowd July 29 at the Paso Robles Event Center. As Bell told me earlier, the band has grown in confidence as well as stature.

“Early on, we didn’t have that legacy yet. We didn’t know we were going to be around tomorrow,” said Bell, who’s been with the band since 1993. “(Now) we’re more secure. We’ve earned the respect that I think we’ve deserved to earn, and we have a strong fan base.

“It feels so natural now,” he added. “That’s huge for making things not heavy and fun.”

Judging from their energetic Paso Robles concert, Weezer has found the perfect formula to please nostalgic fans.

Black Francis

Most celebrity interviews require weeks of careful planning and dozens of e-mails and phone calls. But there’s always one that takes you by surprise.

Take Pixies frontman Black Francis, who performed July 1 at the Steynberg Gallery in San Luis Obispo. After discovering that he’d be playing a spur-of-the- moment solo show, I had just a few days to schedule an interview and write the story.

“The ever-unpredictable Black Francis knows that we here at Numbskull (Productions) are at his beck and call,” concert promoter Eddy Burgos explained. ” So whenever he needs a last-minute show, our phone rings.”

Thankfully, Black Francis proved to be a smart, insightful conversationalist. We chatted about his lifelong love of science fiction, his prolific solo career and his sensual new album, “NonStopErotik.”

“As far as I’m concerned, it’s all rock music. It’s as simple as that,” Francis said. “I just hope it’s good and I want it to be exciting. I want it to have a lot of that ‘goosebumps’ factor.”

David Sedaris

Humorist David Sedaris excels at storytelling.

An award-winning writer,

radio personality and public speaker, he’s known for sharing hilarious anecdotes about his family, his childhood and his hobbies.

So when I interviewed Sedaris prior to his Oct. 28 talk at the Performing Arts Center, I expected a nice, lengthy chat.

I had so much fun talking about bubble baths, dental surgery and the digital age, in fact, that I stopped taking notes. I figured I’d record the conversation and transcribe it later.

When I hung up about an hour later, still chuckling, I pushed the button to end recording. Nothing.

I tried again. Nothing. Elation turned to panic as I realized that my usually reliable digital doohickey had failed to record a single word.

I managed to turn my meager notes into a story, but I felt rotten about missing such a golden opportunity.

Days later, I received a postcard from Sedaris thanking me for our chat. That sweet, simple gesture made the whole ordeal worth it.

The Blind Boys of Alabama

To quote “The Blues Brothers,” the Blind Boys of Alabama are on “a mission from God.”

The Grammy Awardwinning gospel group has been spiritually centered since its formation. Seven decades later, the singers’ conviction remains just as strong.

“People ask me if gospel (is dead), and I tell them gospel will never die,” said founding member Jimmy Carter. “There will always be gospel because gospel is the good news of God.”

It’s rare for performers to speak about their faith so openly. Many fear they’ll alienate fans. Others feel that their personal beliefs should remain distinct from their public lives.

For the Blind Boys, who performed Dec. 16 at the Cohan Center, religion is reason to perform.

Carter said the Blind Boys are just following their Biblical duty to “go out into the highways and the hedges” — or, in their case, theaters, nightclubs and casinos — and spread the good word.

“Some of these people have never heard of Jesus,” he said.

INTERVIEWS BY PATRICK S. PEMBERTON

Keith Strickland

Keith Strickland of the B-52s had lots of interesting stories, which led to a nice preview of the band’s Chumash Casino show last February. This serendipitously led to a freelance assignment that had me following Strickland’s B-52 band mate Fred Schneider around slot machines before the show. Eventually, my wife and I shared a cinnamon roll with Schneider as we talked about the B-52s, “The Love Shack” and his side project, the Superions.

Strickland’s take on “Love Shack:” “It’s great when what you do brings joy and people are having a lot of fun with it.”

Cyndi Lauper

Celebrities are often asked the same questions. So occasionally I’ll tell them a personal story about a song, show, etc., hoping to approach it in a fresh way.

So I told Lauper about this time, as a teen, when I woke up in the middle of the night to see a TV preacher talking about the evils of rock music. One song he targeted was Lauper’s “She Bop.”

Ironically, were it not for that preacher, I told her, I wouldn’t have known that “She Bop” was actually about masturbation. This prompted her to talk about her somewhat subversive approach to the song.

“For children, I was very conscious to not be blatant,” said Lauper, who performed at the Chumash Casino in August. “Because I wanted to write a song that adults could listen to one way, and children could listen to another.”

Bill Cosby

It was 9:40 a.m., and I was writing out my questions for Bill Cosby, when the phone rang. I picked it up, and a voice said, in a fake French accent, “Is this Monsieur Pemberton?”

I thought it was my friend Eric, so I said, “Hey!” I was getting ready to add, “Dude, I gotta let you go — I’m supposed to call Bill Cosby at 10,” but then the voice quickly added, “How’s it going, man? It’s Bill Cosby. Are you ready to do this?”

In this interview, previewing Cosby’s September show at the Cohan Center, I had to mention that I had a Fat Albert lunchbox as a kid. Turns out, Cosby had recently seen one, conjuring memories of his own: “I was very, very tickled to see one of those,” he said. “Because I had really forgotten (about them).”

Billy Gibbons

Sometimes a little persistence pays off. When trying to hook up with ZZ Top for a preview of their Avila Beach Music Festival show in September, I was told that Billy Gibbons doesn’t really do phone interviews any more — but that he was really good at e-mail interviews. However, I answered, we really avoid e-mail interviews because 1.) We can’t know for sure if it’s the artist writing, 2.) it gives us no opportunity for follow-up questions, and 3.) they’re lame.

OK, so I didn’t mention the lame part. But, really — they are.

So then I was told I would probably be talking to drummer Frank Beard. Yet, as my deadline loomed, I was told that — thanks to promoter Bruce Howard’s persistence — Gibbons would actually talk to me.

While I couldn’t find anything that suggested he surfed, there were some clues. So after mentioning the song “Tube Snake Boogie,” I asked him if he had ever ridden waves, and he told me he started surfing as a kid in Texas. Months later, I was looking in a surf book I’d had for a while and there was a photo of Gibbons, hanging out with legendary board shaper Dale Velzy.

Lisa Lampanelli and Henry Rollins

Two interviews that had me a little concerned beforehand were punk icon Henry Rollins and comic Lisa Lampanelli. Rollins has a reputation for being angry, and Lampanelli’s nickname is “The Queen of Mean.”

If they were going to call me names, I hoped they would at least be quotable. But, as it turned out, both were cordial.

Rollins was very articulate — though I could definitely sense anger in his voice — and Lampanelli, who performed at the PAC in July, was actually quite nice. Of course, it helps that she was a former journalist herself and knows what both the interviewer and the interviewee need.

“I think a lot of comics think that just because they’re funny, they can give dull, boring interviews,” she said. “And to that I say: ‘That’s why you’re a loser.’ ”

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