On the Art of Conversation and John Cusack's Appearance at the Akron Civic Theater


  • High Fidelity still

The Akron Civic Theater hosted a screening of the film ‘High Fidelity’ this past Saturday evening. Following the film was a live conversation with the film’s star, John Cusack. The conversation was moderated by Rover’s Morning Glory co-host, Susan Catanese, better known as Duji.

The film itself played great to the audience, which more than likely were fans of the film prior to Saturday night. Big laughs were had and there was a nice sense of camaraderie sharing a movie like that together. The Civic Theater adds a nominal amount of reverberation to all sound, so it echoed a little more than a sound-treated movie theater, but not in any way that detracted from the experience.

Then there was the conversation with Cusack and Duji. What happened next highlighted the difficulties that ensue when holding a live conversation.

The art of a live interview is an extremely difficult task. The art of a pre-recorded interview is difficult. Art is difficult. Unfortunately, what I’m getting at is: No, I don’t think the conversation went well, but it doesn’t mean there wasn’t much to be learned from what happened.

At its root, interviewing is a medium for story-telling. In the interview, it is key to find the plot. It doesn't have to be some gigantic, grand tale of a bank heist or airplane crash. It can be a smaller, simpler story. Even the story laid out in the film ‘High Fidelity’ — a record store owner goes through a break up — isn’t big and exciting, but its execution is what keeps us engaged.

However, the conversation with Cusack failed to go more than surface deep. It was mostly a monologue, listing acting credits and cast lists, and not a further explanation of how those films came to be.

When it goes well, an interview just has to be interesting, and there are many ways to get there.

When Marc Maron interviews someone, he starts off with a preconceived notion that the person acts or behaves a certain way because of something he’s determined. His interviews enable the interviewee to either prove or disprove his theory through anecdotes. Someone like Ira Glass takes more of a big picture approach, where he knows the larger story, but leaves it to those he interviews to inform him of the minutia of the story.

It’s about asking questions and convincing the interviewee to expound on their answers. Asking the same question multiple times (in different ways), if you have to. You know something, or think you know something, about the person and want them to prove or disprove you.

Duji took a different approach, where she did a fair amount of research beforehand (Cusack noted that not all of it was correct and sounded like it was collected from Wikipedia). Where she faltered was that there weren’t particular questions or a bigger story she was getting at.

She informed Cusack that the movie helped launch Jack Black’s career, and that led to a little bit of a discussion of Black, but anything deeper was left out. Cusack as a proponent of up-and-coming artists, for instance, or his attachment to the then-underground L.A. arts scenes.

Since this was labeled as a “conversation” and not formally an “interview,” it’s good to focus on the question of “are we having good conversations in our day to day life?” Is this conversation indicative of the conversations I’m having every day? Am I being a good active listener?

Growing up, my father always told me that, above all, it is important to ask questions when talking to someone. People, largely, like talking about themselves. Cusack is on tour with his films doing this live conversation all over the U.S., so it’s safe to assume that he’s not shy about his career.

Beyond asking the questions, it is just as important (if not more) to be an active listener. To listen and respond to what the person is saying, not just thinking about what you’re going to say next.

Are we doing the best we can at this? It doesn’t seem to be an innate skill we all possess.

(I would like to interject that this is something I work on as well. I’m not perfect or looking down on anyone for not being able to do this. Truly, conversation is a difficult task we all endure and seldom work to improve upon in our own lives.)

The lack of “active listening” in Duji’s conversational style was apparent in the repeatedly broken up conversation. It appeared that Cusack was often forced to meet Duji in the conversation more than halfway on a number of instances. In a different approach, it would have been nice to see Duji show a bit more empathy and place herself in Cusack’s position. Trying to get into the same mindset as her subject might have led to more fluid conversation.

One of Terry Gross’ best questions she ever asked an interview subject was during her interview with the magician Ricky Jay. To roughly paraphrase, she asked, “Is there ever a point when the action going on backstage is actually more exciting than the magic trick itself?”

(Ricky Jay said “yes” but refused to elaborate on what that was because, you know, magic secrets.)

That question perfectly embodies the art of taking time to understand the person you’re talking to. She was able to transport herself into the magician's mind and try to understand the world that was happening around him while he was performing.

We should also try to take time to transport ourselves into those we are talking to. How do the gears of what another person does operate? “An actor prepares” - but how?

When Duji began talking about Joan Cusack’s role in ‘High Fidelity’ and ‘Sixteen Candles,’ she failed to put herself into John’s role. Like Gross to the magician, Duji could’ve stepped inside the mind of a young Cusack working alongside his sister. It was unfortunate that we were kept out of that narrative world.

It is my belief that Duji spent so much time researching Cusack’s career, that she neglected thinking about how to form a bond with a stranger. She relied on her notes instead of her ears.

I truly believe that it’s not important to know anything about a person in order to have a great conversation with them. In a great conversation, you can learn to love and truly care about the person you’re communicating with.

There’s a lot of love out there, and we just have to learn how to share it with each other.

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