The New York Times Arts & Leisure Weekend

Before the Gray Lady hosts its 9th annual weekend-featuring 16 conversations with actors, musicians and cultural curators-three Times reporters let us in on their interview prep.

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  • Frank Bruni, former restaurant critic

  • Padma Lakshmi

  • Gail Simmons

  • Eric Ripert

  • Jon Pareles

  • Paul Shaffer

  • Rosanne Cash

  • Patrick Healy

  • Alan Cumming

Frank Bruni, former restaurant critic

The talk:

Top Chef with Padma Lakshmi, Gail Simmons and Eric Ripert

The interviewer:

Frank Bruni, former restaurant critic
Okay, we need to discuss the Top Chef finale! What was your take?
Bruni: I actually haven’t watched it yet, because I’ve been in L.A. for work. It’ll be on my DVR when I get home. I think I already know who won. But I like to watch my TV shows in multisegment clumps—it’s like eating a whole roasted chicken rather than just a thigh.
Are you going to talk about the most recent season at the panel?
By the time it comes along, this season will have been over for a month. The news cycle is so fast that I think we’ll be talking less about this season than the show itself.
So no Kevin-versus-the-Voltaggio-brothers gossip?
I think it’d be interesting to try to elicit some stories about the judges interacting with the contestants, and stuff that doesn’t end up on camera. People are really curious about how the show is put together, and eager for backstage stories.
What do you plan on asking Padma?
It’d be interesting to ask the judges if they ever saw this [popularity] coming and if they get a sense of it having become an institution in food lovers’ lives. I’d like to get their thoughts on how Top Chef affects the foodie universe: whether it makes for more sophisticated restaurant and food consumers, or whether it exacerbates the cult of celebrity in the food world.
How would you answer that question?
You know, the show has become an institution. It was a real trailblazer. It has some detractors, which I understand, but for anyone to say that Top Chef has done anything other than enhance the public’s interest in serious cooking and in restaurants would be a hard position to defend.

The talk:

Paul Shaffer, Rosanne Cash

The interviewer:

Jon Pareles, pop music critic
How do you approach these Q&A sessions?
Pareles:
I like to make them conversations. I soak up as much as I can find about them first, but I also like to follow where it goes. I’m not a talk-show host with a clipboard full of questions. [Laughs] Hopefully, it turns into a conversation between two people who love music.
Shaffer and Cash are very different artists. What do you want to know about each of them?
Shaffer is the man with all the connections—he’s played with everyone, living and dead. I want to ask him who’s the philosopher king and who’s the prima donna, since he’s worked with them all, and about “It’s Raining Men,” the Weather Girls song, which he cowrote. He’s a music nerd and I’m a music nerd. With Rosanne, I’m sure we’re going to start by talking about her latest album, The List, which is an album of songs her father said she had to know. I’d like to ask what she’s learned from that album, and what she learned from her father about songwriting. I also want to go into the strangeness of being a country songwriter who lives in New York, and how it inspires her, and maybe makes her think of home as expatriates do.
How do these interviews differ from your usual reporting?
When I first did them I was quite nervous, because I’m a print guy, and when I do an interview I can edit it and take out my stupid questions. But I’ve found that if you’re an interested listener and let things flow, it’s a good experience.
Have you ever come away from these panels a bigger fan of the artist than you were before?
Actually, yes. I don’t do the interviews where I hate their music—and I won’t tell you who I vetoed! But it’s more like you get an idea of the person who made the art. One of the beauties of art is that it’s mysterious; you don’t know the impulse behind it, you project yourself in it, and there’s that whole interaction between listener and performer, where the listener brings their part of it. It’s fascinating to hear the process behind the making of the music.

The talk:

Alan Cumming

The interviewer:

Patrick Healy, theater critic and former political reporter
Alan Cumming is playing the Green Goblin in the forthcoming Spider-Man Braodway musical. Are you a fan of the comics?
Healy: A little bit. I kind of grew up on them, but I haven’t become an adult junkie. But I have childhood memories of them, and I also saw the movies.
How do you think he’ll compare with Willem Dafoe’s Goblin?
It’s a creepy performance to live up to. He’s playful and inventive and he has this spectacle-oriented personality. That’s what [director] Julie Taymor’s kind of going for, this larger-than-life Spider-Man.
Have you always been a fan of Cumming?
It’s impressive to me when someone is a triple threat: They can perform, can write and they can direct. He’s had both feet fully in film and in theater. He’s so memorable, and he makes imprints on our imagination in really provocative ways—his work in Cabaret and Threepenny Opera was tremendous. I haven’t seen his cabaret show, which is called I Bought a Blue Car Today, but I’ve heard very good things.
What topics do you plan to pump him about?
It’ll be a little bit biographical, like how he came up through the ranks as an actor and trained when he started writing. Then we’ll talk abut the transition from Scotland and the United Kingdom to America, just in terms of the different commercial sensibilities of Hollywood and independent film. And maybe discuss some of his movies and stage work. We’ll definitely touch on Spider-Man, but it’s really in the producers’ hands right now, so it’s not for him to say when it’s going to happen.
What’s the live interview experience like for you?
You can’t swear, first of all. [Laughs] Sometimes you get fresh on the phone because you’re talking loosely. I make sure to structure the interview and the questions in a way that creates a narrative arc.
Do you find that talking to politicos is harder than entertainers, or vice versa?
They’re very different. Politics is so deadline-driven; you’re kind of scrambling the entire time. The way I approach theater is from a news and cultural point of view, as opposed to writing celebrity stories. The stakes are different in politics than they are in theater, but Broadway shows can be pretty affected by the economy, so there’s a lot at stake. Even if it might not be winning the White House.

ON THE RECORD! The New York Times Arts & Leisure Weekend: All talks take place at the Times Center, 242 W 41st St between Seventh and Eighth Aves (800-697-1870, artsandleisureweekend.com). Visit the website for a full schedule of events.

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