There are times in our lives when we feel can very small. Whether it be in size or stature. When we feel small, we are usually overwhelmed by, or in awe of the greatness around us. And in those moments, we are reminded that we are vulnerable beings.
One of my favorite activities to do during my personal time is to talk long walks through the Metroparks near my hometown. There’s something very peaceful and refreshing about breathing in clean air; walking through the woods where no one knows your name; and on a lucky day, crossing paths with a herd of deer who seem just as curious about you as your are about them. This is one of the places where I practice the art of living my playlist. It’s just me. My thoughts. And my tunes. If my legs hold up long enough to make it deep into the forest groves, I come upon a spot called, “The Valley of Giants.” The trees in this area are tall and strong; they dwarf above any person or creature standing on the ground below. These giants have stood here for centuries, through harsh and changing seasons. Some have been uprooted. Others are decaying and will eventually feed the soil that once gave their roots a home. While most still reach to the heavens and remind those of us below how small in size we really are. Nature can be wondrous that way.
But what about those moments when you walk into a room, surrounded by people of great stature? You’ve been there before. You know you have. It’s that moment when you say to yourself, “How did I end up with this crowd? And when are they going to figure out that I don’t belong here?” You inflict self-doubt upon yourself. And it usually happens in a professional or social environment.
The first time I walked into a room surrounded by a valley of giants was on a work assignment that took me from Cleveland to Los Angeles. I write in detail about this story in my first book, Live Your Playlist. I was 22-years-old with hopes and dreams of becoming a television journalist. My rookie assignment in LA was to interview Russell Crowe, Christopher Plummer, and a handful of other Hollywood actors for an upcoming movie. Up until this point, the closest I ever got to interviewing someone was when I used to ask my high school boyfriend 20 questions about what our future would be like together. (Of course that included a nice home in the suburbs, three kids, a convertible, and yearly vacations to the beach. So predictable for two 17-year-old dreamers). And now, only five years after my “pretend future” with an old boyfriend, I was feeling the pressure of asking smart questions of very important people (at least that’s how I viewed them). On the day of my interviews, I was scheduled to arrive at nine o’clock in the morning. The designated waiting area for all reporters was a hospitality suite inside the hotel where the interviews were scheduled to take place. The hotel rooms on that floor were converted into mini-studios. I remember walking into the hospitality suite and immediately feeling like I didn’t belong. Imagine transferring to a new school halfway through senior year. At that point, everyone knows each other and all close friendships have been formed. As the new kid, you’re not sure that you’ll fit in. That’s how I felt when I walked into this room - except the popular kids in school came in the form of network hosts and well-known entertainment reporters from top markets around the country. I remember seeing Jules Anser walk into the room. Jules was the host of E! News at the time (and later married the famed Hollywood director Steven Soderbergh). I watched Jules every week on television (and I dreamed of following her career path). And now, we were sitting in the same room and getting ready to interview the same people! As I sat 10 feet away from my entertainment news idol, I started to doubt my rookie abilities. I immediately thought to myself, “Her interviews are going to be so much better than mine.” I intermittently stared at the host of E! News and admired the designer outfit she was wearing, all while hoping to have a brief conversation with her so that I could tell all of my friends back home. The room was filled with laughter and loud conversations. Everyone seemed to know each other. There were reporters from all of the big cities like New York, Chicago, Philadelphia, Boston, and San Francisco. The whole environment was intimidating and I felt like I was the one person who didn’t belong. (Many of these one-time strangers eventually became my friends. But that’s another story for another blog). I made it through my celebrity interviews that day with a sense of pride and accomplishment (which acted as a coverup for my nerves). But I also knew that I had a lot of work to do before I would be considered talented in my field of work.
Years passed and I had the opportunity to add many famous names to the list of people I interviewed - Jennifer Aniston, Matt Damon, Denzel Washington, Halle Berry, Tom, Hanks, Julia Roberts, Reese Witherspoon, George Clooney, the list goes on and on. And with every interview, I became more comfortable with my skills and my surroundings of glitz, fame, success, and glamour. Many of the giants in my profession eventually became my peers. And I stopped feeling out of place when I walked into a room of influential people. In fact, there were even times when I felt pretty damn important!
But every now and then, we need to be reminded of our size. I was reminded by an actor who is not large in size, but whose greatness on film makes him one of the best actors of all time. The moment I received my assignment to fly to New York to interview Robert De Niro was the moment when I suddenly felt like a rookie again.
De Niro had a reputation for being a difficult person to interview. Not because he isn’t a nice person, but more so because he’s quiet and maybe even shy in interviews. I don’t personally know him, so I can’t speak to his perspective on being interviewed. But he strikes me as the type of man who isn’t always comfortable talking about himself. However, when I received this assignment, I didn’t care if he said two words! The only thing that went through my mind was, "I’m interviewing THE Robert De Niro! Vito Corleone! Oscar Winner for “Raging Bull!” It doesn’t get any bigger than this!" I told anyone who would listen that I was headed to NYC to interview Robert De Niro for an upcoming film that he directed starring Matt Damon and Angelina Jolie. At this stage, I was well into my career of hosting a talk show and traveling the world to interview film actors. I was well beyond nerves and self-doubt going into my interviews. But the closer I got to “De Niro Day,” the more I started asking myself, “How did YOU get on this assignment?” I started to feel small again in the valley of giants.
I remember the minutes before I interviewed Mr. De Niro very clearly. I was sitting in a chair outside of the interview suite, listening to other reporters talk about the great interviews they had with Matt and Angelina that day. Every now and then someone would say, “Has anyone heard if he’s any good today?” The translation of that question was: “Is De Niro giving good interviews?” I’m not sure if it was because I was nervous, or because I didn’t want to be influenced by someone else’s opinion, but I tried to shut out the conversations going on around me. Instead, I opted for some motivational text exchanges with my brother Paul. The text-versation went something like this:
Me: “I’m about to interview Robert De Niro! I’m dying inside!”
Paul: “So cool! Ask him about The Godfather.”
Me: “I heard he can be quiet in interviews. I’m getting nervous.”
Paul: “Breathe and imagine him in his underwear.”
Me: “That might be a bad idea. What if I bomb?”
Paul: “You’ve got this! Own it!”
And with that final phrase, “own it,” I was called into the interview suite to begin my interview with the famous Academy Award winner.
I walked into the room where Mr. De Niro was sitting. I’m referring to his as Mr. De Niro at this point because I didn’t know what to call him - Robert? Bobby? Bobby D? Acting God? So I decided to start with the most respectful title I could think of - Mr. De Niro. He stayed in his seat, but I could tell that he wasn’t a very large man. I introduced myself and told him that I was from Cleveland. His response was, “I like Cleveland. It’s like a small New York. You know I shot a movie there once? Deer Hunter. Did you ever see it?” Not to sound silly, but honestly, I was thinking, “Robert De Niro just asked ME a question! This is so cool!” He could have said, “boo,” and I would’ve been excited. I was in a room with one of the giants in the acting world. Suddenly, I felt like a little kid in awe of something extraordinary in front of her eyes. I settled into my chair and began my interview. I sounded professional and in control of my questions. And unlike the rumors that followed him, I found Mr. De Niro to be very conversational. It was a five minute interview that moved along quickly. I shook his hand and took snapshots of the moment in my mind. I knew there was a good chance that I would never experience that exchange again.
After years of living in my element, the days leading up to my interview with Robert De Niro reminded me that some times we need to be taken out of our comfort zone. There are times when it’s not a bad thing to feel small again. Often we move so quickly through life that we fail to recognize the greatness in a moment. We become comfortable. Maybe even complacent. And we forget to be in awe of the things that once made us excited, nervous, passionate, or even vulnerable. This is a lesson I need to remind myself. It’s a lesson we all need to remind ourselves. And so I say to you, the reader, get out there and embrace an occasional walk among the valley of giants!