- Carole Zimmer has been a journalist for 30 years and is the host of an award-winning podcast called Now What? which features curated conversations with well-known people, from Jane Fonda and Katie Hill.
- During the pandemic, those conversations have moved online, leading to intimate chats from famous living rooms all around the country and lessons about how to handle adversity during challenging times.
- Here, she shares parts of her discussions with Jane Fonda, Julie Taymor, Ken Burns, Ann Patchett, Katie Hill, and Oliver Stone.
- Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.
The pandemic has turned our lives upside down, bringing many unwanted consequences along with it. It’s limited our travel plans, eliminated our dinner parties, and left us missing a warm hug and a friendly kiss. But there is one positive aspect: Many of us now have more time. This has turned out to be a boon for my award-winning “Now What?” podcast. With less to do, many people I’ve always wanted to talk to now agree to a conversation, especially if all they have to do to connect is walk into their living room and click on a Zoom link .
The downside of that ease is that you always lose something special when you’re not in the same room as the person you’re speaking to. I’m so glad that I got the chance to talk to Norman Lear in 2017 in his spacious Beverly Hills office which is filled with photos from the legendary television shows he created over the last half century. I would also have missed the chance to sit in a comfortable chair in Carl Reiner’s living room, the same chair where Reiner’s best friend Mel Brooks used to sink into when he came over for his nightly dinners. Those experiences unfortunately could never be replicated in cyberspace.
But whatever form it takes, getting the chance to talk with Jane Fonda, Ken Burns, Oliver Stone, and others was a treat I treasure. They have stories to tell about what happens when you follow your dreams, overcome failures, and manage to navigate all the bumps in the road during challenging times. Even though we may not meet back up in person, their advice rings even more true during this uncertain year.
1. Actress and activist Jane Fonda on feeling bad and finding meaning
During her long career, Jane Fonda has emerged as the kind of person who not only talks about the problems we face on the planet, but tries to do something about them too.
Jane’s father Henry was Hollywood royalty, one of the country’s most successful and well-known actors. At 23, Jane made her acting debut on Broadway, and has since appeared in more than 45 movies and won two Academy Awards. Jane was in her 30s when she began protesting the Vietnam War and made a trip to the war-torn Asian country that earned her the name of Hanoi Jane.
Now at 82, Fonda has been leading a movement against the ravages of climate change that have resulted in five arrests for civil disobedience. Her book “What Can I Do?: My Path from Climate Despair to Action” tells the story about her involvement in the social causes that changed the course of her life.
“I spent the first 30 years of my life totally uninvolved, unaware, hedonistic, and miserable. I didn’t know why I was put on earth. My life had no meaning, and I was not very happy,” Fonda said in our October 2020 interview when I asked her why she chooses to speak out publicly about controversial political issues. “Because of the Vietnam War, because of what US soldiers told me about what was really happening in Vietnam, I decided to leave that life of mine and become an activist, and when that happened the depression lifted and I felt that my life had meaning and I’ve been trying to get better at it for 60 years. I’m a work in progress.”
2. “The Glorias” director Julie Taymor on the benefits of failure
Julie Taymor’s breakout hit was the Broadway production of The Lion King which received raves and resulted in years of sold out performances. Taymor became the first woman to win a Tony Award for Best Direction of a Musical. The Lion King has earned more money than any entertainment title in box office history.
Taymor has also found success on the big screen with films like “Frida” about the life of Mexican artist Frida Kahlo and her tempestuous relationship with Diego Rivera. Taymor’s current film, “The Two Glorias,” explores the life of feminist icon Gloria Steinem.
But looming large in Taymor’s career is a controversial Broadway production of “Spiderman: Turn off The Dark. The blockbuster musical has the distinction of being the most expensive show ever mounted on Broadway. In 2011, Taymor was fired from Spiderman after a preview period marked by technical mishaps and negative reviews. Taymor says it was her experience with Spiderman that helped her to come to terms with failure.
“I went to India right after the ‘Spiderman’ debacle, if you want to call it that,” she said, adding the incident caused her to reevaluate where she wanted to go with her career. “It is true that going into dark places makes you see light in a different way… people get proud of scars for a reason; it shows you’ve lived.”
3. Documentary filmmaker Ken Burns on the lessons of history in hard times
When I spoke with Ken Burns he was in his New Hampshire home in May 2020, he was thinking about how the pandemic has changed his life. Burns, who is probably the best-known documentary filmmaker in this country, says the global health crisis has made him appreciate every moment he gets to spend with his four daughters. And he’s cooking more, having become a master of the grill with his special recipe for chicken with maple syrup.
Burns is working on multiple projects at one time juggling subject matter that ranges from Ernest Hemingway to the Revolutionary War. One of his best-known documentaries is about the Vietnam War; he also created the documentary series “The Civil War” and traces his own lineage back to Colonial Americans who were Loyalists during the American Revolution.
Burns says he’s always been drawn to history rather than fiction and spent a lot of time reading the encyclopedia when he was growing up.
“It is the ultimate cliché to say that history repeats itself. It has never, ever repeated itself. There has never been an event that was exactly an event from before. Nor are we condemned to repeat what we don’t remember,” he said. “We understand the hopeful impulse of that, but it’s just not true. almost everything is rhyming in the present. I remain kind of optimistic because history gives you a little bit of perspective and perspective in the end is all you really need. Each event provides itself with certain antecedents that provide you with some kind of perspective.”
4. Writer Ann Patchett on getting stuck and powering through
Ann Patchett is the best-selling author of eight novels including “Bel Canto” and “Commonwealth.” Her latest book, “The Dutch House” was a finalist for the 2020 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.
Patchett’s love of writing is rivaled by her love of reading and her support of independent bookstores. She co-owns the famous Parnassus bookstore in Nashville, Tennessee, and says the store continues to do a brisk online business during the pandemic and is “part of our community as never before.”
Throughout the pandemic, Patchett has appeared on the Parnassus Books Instagram account where she offers recommendations about what to read. She often wears a ball gown or a cocktail dress for the occasion because “the alternative was staying in yoga pants for the rest of my life.” Patchett points out that since many us now have more uncluttered time, it’s a great opportunity to take a deep dive into books like “War and Peace” and “David Copperfield.”
Patchett hasn’t decided what her next writing project will be but she knows she’ll have to jump through hoops to see it through. “I spend a long time thinking about a book before I sit down and start to write it,” she said when she spoke to me in April 2020 from a closet in her Nashville home.
“And then when I finally do sit down, which is the most miserable part, so I get the book all worked out in my head and then I sit down. I’ll maybe sit down for 15 minutes a day. It’s like sitting on a hot stove. It’s just miserable. By the time I’m writing the end of the book, I can sit at my desk for 12 or 14 hours a day, so there’s no rhyme or reason… I actually don’t believe in writer’s block. I believe that there are problems that are very hard and maybe some problems that are not solvable, but if you sit down and you can’t write and you say, ‘Well, I’m blocked’ that means that there is something external that’s happening to you. My husband is a doctor and he doesn’t get doctor’s block… he doesn’t ever get to say, ‘Oh, I can’t solve that problem because I’m blocked,’ so I just don’t ever say that.”
5. Former Congresswoman Katie Hill on overcoming scandal and the everlasting exposure of nude photos
Katie Hill was 31 when she was elected to Congress from a district in California that had been Republican for many years. It was the 2018 midterm elections that brought Hill to Washington along with other young women like Lauren Anderson and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.
Hill was thrilled to be in the company of a revitalized House of Representatives. Hill’s freshman class chose her to represent it at regular meetings with the Democratic leadership and Speaker Nancy Pelosi became a kind of mentor to Hill.
But after just nine months in office, Hill’s Congressional career ended abruptly when nude photos of her began circulating online. They showed Hill and a young woman who had worked on Hill’s campaign in intimate moments together.
Pelosi and Hill’s other friends in Congress urged her to fight on but in November 2019, Hill announced she was stepping down. Faced with the title “disgraced Congresswoman,” Hill said she was a victim of revenge porn from her estranged husband. She wrote a book about the perils of public shaming called “She Will Rise: Becoming a Warrior in the Battle for True Equality.”
I asked Katie Hill in August 2020 what it was like to live her life in the middle of a scandal that left her exposed in so many ways before the world.
“The physical exposure is something that a lot of people have nightmares about. It’s one of the most recurring nightmares that you’re trapped in the nude, and you’re trying to escape, but for me that was every single day. I felt like such a failure. I felt so much guilt around the situation. I felt like it would be better for me to just go away entirely for so many people,” Hill said. “But then, I was getting closer and closer to that moment of truth, I guess. I thought, ‘You know what? Maybe the worst thing that I could do would be to disappear entirely,’ and I felt like I couldn’t do it to my family. And that I needed to show other people that you can recover from something like this.”
6. Director Oliver Stone on feeling like a failure when he made the film “The Hand”
Oliver Stone gained a reputation as the baddest of Hollywood bad boys, the ultimate risk taker. In his younger years, Stone spent a lot of time in a drug-induced haze. He spouted conspiracy theories and sometimes acted crazy.
Stone also gained a reputation as one of the great directors of his generation who has made films like “Midnight Express” and “Platoon,” a gritty film about the Vietnam War that earned him Academy awards for Best Director and Best Writer. And he went on to make other acclaimed features like “Salvador,” “Born on the Fourth of July” and “Wall Street. ”
Stone’ book “Chasing the Light” recounts the most tumultuous years of his life including the pain he felt when one of his early films called “The Hand” was torn apart by critics.
Stone told me, “I was a first-time director in Hollywood terms. My failure felt like I was in a magnifying glass and that everybody was seeing it in a fishbowl business. I took it hard. I took it very hard. I was ashamed of myself, and I was shamed by others and I allowed myself to be shamed. You understand that? And it’s easy for a person who had very low self-esteem to begin with. I was just a G.I. and a cab driver; I didn’t have any claims to celebrity.”
“I guess you have to be optimistic. It’s a setback. You lose two years of your life. A project you work on doesn’t happen. I’ve gotten used to it. Plus, on top of it, my sensibilities are divorced from very much of the Hollywood scene as I see things in a world sense. I’ve met many of the leaders and I see things in a different way than the American way. There is an American optics on everything. We see the world from our point of view. Our values dominate.”
Carole Zimmer is the host of the award-winning podcast “Now What?” Curated conversations with people you want to know. Subscribe for free here.