Exclusive Interview With Harry Connick Jr.
Unparalleled: Harry Connick Jr.
Written by Kelli Gillespie
He’s a three-time Grammy winner, a two-time Emmy winner, and has two Tony nominations. He’s been inducted into the Hollywood Bowl Hall of Fame and has had more #1 albums than any other jazz artist in the country. Harry Connick Jr. is not only one of the most accomplished artists, he also happens to be one of the nicest and most thoughtful in the business; he’s just an all-around class act.
Born and raised in New Orleans, Connick was performing as a pianist and vocalist at the age of five. His talent continued to develop through mentorship and schooling and quickly launched him into a decorated career. In 1989 he was asked to put together the soundtrack for the romantic comedy, When Harry Met Sally (starring Billy Crystal and Meg Ryan). The soundtrack achieved double-platinum status in the United States and Connick won his first Grammy Award for Best Jazz Male Vocal Performance for his work on the soundtrack.
Connick went on to make many more albums while adding acting to his career. His film work ranges from Independence Day with Will Smith, to Hope Floats with Sandra Bullock, to his current film Dolphin Tale 2 re-teaming for the sequel with Morgan Freeman and Ashley Judd. He’s been seen in a number of roles on television including playing Debra Messing’s husband on Will & Grace, and of course his returning role as a judge on American Idol.
Off screen he’s a devoted husband and family man, recently celebrating 20 years of marriage to his former Victoria’s Secret model wife Jill Goodacre, and spending time investing in their three daughters. Risen sat down with the successful multi-talented star in Clearwater, Florida, to talk about the staples – faith, hope and love.
Interviewed exclusively for Risen Magazine in Clearwater, Florida
Risen Magazine Instilling values and creating trust with kids as they mature is a definite skill. In your film, Dolphin Tale 2, we see this played out with your onscreen daughter, but in real life you have three daughters at ages where communication is key. What have you found to be the best ways to connect with teens?
Harry Connick Jr.: You’re in the driver’s seat as a parent and as unwilling at times as they may be, or I may be to communicate, I think communication is key. I think you need to pick and choose your times, and this goes for me as much as them. Sometimes people are more available than other times, but ultimately I think the goal is to have an open line of communication, even when you may not use it, but to know that it’s always there; and that has to start from day one.
Risen Magazine When it comes to wisdom or advice within your own life, who do you generally turn to?
Harry Connick Jr.: I go to my dad. I am so lucky to have him, he’s 88 years old and he’s as much a part of my life as he’s ever been. He’s still the guy that has all the answers, even if it’s a situation that is unique to me; he always seems to be able to help me navigate it. So I feel really lucky to have him and trust him.
Risen Magazine Does he offer advice unsolicited, or only once you come and ask?
Harry Connick Jr.: Sometimes, but you know, I listen. He’s been down the road before and that is something that I think is important. I try to explain that to my kids too. Even when my dad talks to them, I tell them, “Be quiet and listen to what he’s saying. Just listen. No matter what you think, just listen.” Not only is it a respect thing, but you actually learn things when you are not firing back. Not that you can’t have a dialogue – my dad and I have healthy disagreements about things all the time – but ultimately, I think I come away learning more than he does.
Risen Magazine Your character has such integrity in the film, a trait I think you share with him. Talk to me about how you make tough decisions – ones where you know what’s true, or right, despite whether the mainstream agrees with you?
Harry Connick Jr.: I think it goes back to your value system and how you were raised. I know what is right. Some decisions are difficult to make, sometimes there are gray areas that make certain things harder to do, but you have to do what is right, and that is hard to do sometimes, it just is. There are some situations where you think, “It sure would be easy to skim over it and take another route.” I think it takes a lot of discipline and strength to constantly adhere to your values. We all know the right thing to do. There are ways to do it, like if you need to confront someone about something that is bothering you; there are infinite ways to do that. I think what comes with age is your ability to know tone, but the message is always the same and I think you need to stick to what you believe.
Risen Magazine Speaking of what you believe, some people have parents that are Christians, or they went to Catholic school, or they go to church on holidays. What does faith look like in your life?
Harry Connick Jr.: Faith is important to me. I was brought up with a Catholic father, and a mother who was raised Jewish, but non-denominational when I knew her, so I saw things from a lot of different perspectives. Faith is an interesting thing because it has ebbs and flows. I wasn’t given the traditional Christian upbringing – we went to church every Sunday – but I didn’t get baptized until I was 14 years old. For me, it seems like faith is what God wants it to be for me, which is different than anybody else, and everyone has their own ways of doing things. For whatever reason, I was dealt this hand of cards and my definition of faith is not necessarily as cut and dry as some people. In simple terms it means; sometimes my faith is stronger at times than other times. But it’s in those times of question that sometimes you can discover new things.
I think it takes a lot of discipline and strength to constantly adhere to your values. We all know the right thing to do.
Risen Magazine As a celebrity, people are always watching your behavior, the decisions you make personally and artistically. How has your faith influenced your values and overall character?
Harry Connick Jr.: A lot of the decisions I make are driven by people that have influence in my life – my father, my mother, my aunts and my uncles, my wife, my children. When you make a decision you have to realize that, especially in the public eye, your decisions affect other people. If I make decisions that at the time seem like they are great, I may have to answer for some of those things later in life. Not only for personal reasons, and for faith-based reasons, but for other people. Simply put, I try not to do anything that would embarrass people that love me and I try to do things that are appropriate. I think I can be artistic and challenge myself to do things that are really interesting within the realm of respect for others and myself.
Risen Magazine Talk to me about the power of hope and how transforming it can be when present in someone’s life.
Harry Connick Jr.: Whether you call it hope, or faith, or prayer – whatever it is – it’s something I think everybody comes to need at some point in their life. Every day is a mystery and you never really know what the day is going to bring. Sometimes the day throws things at you that are very difficult to handle and even when you go to somebody like your dad and you say, “Dad how do I get through this?” And he says, “Man, I don’t know. I don’t know what to do.” That is when hope comes in to play. It gives us the opportunity to get through another day.
Risen Magazine So many times we hear the saying, “When one door closes, another one opens…” how have you seen that play out most in your life?
Harry Connick Jr.: I see it everyday. I don’t know if opportunity is directly related to adversity, but you could rationalize it and say, “Because of that tragedy, I was able to achieve this.” Every winter when the snow starts melting the leaves start coming back on the trees. It’s just the way it is. So no matter how bad things get, God-willing you have the ability to process it. You know I think about poor Robin Williams and he didn’t have that ability and it got the best of him and it’s a terrible thing – but for those of us who have been lucky enough to live through adversity, invariably new doors will open. There is reason to go on.
Risen Magazine I read that you and your wife both thought each other could be “the one” when you first met, but still took a couple years of dating and then engagement just to be sure. This year, celebrating 20 years of marriage, what do you attribute the strength of your commitment to, when so many marriages, Hollywood or not, end in divorce?
Harry Connick Jr.: I think you said it when you said commitment. It’s a commitment; you are making a commitment. This isn’t something I’m doing for 10 years, or 20 years, it’s a long haul, for the rest of my life. I’ve got one wedding ring and that’s the only one I want. Relationships are complex. She happens to be my best friend, I happen to like being with her more than anybody else. Now things are complicated because we have three children. So this isn’t some kind of game. This is about giving meaning to your life, and now we are shaping and forming three other little beings, it’s serious. Fortunately, it’s awesome and fun. But it’s about commitment and you have to commit.
Risen Magazine You knew your passion at an early age and even started playing and performing publically at just five years old. Was it just a God-given gift or what can you attribute your love for music and performing to?
Harry Connick Jr.: I think the talent part is definitely God-given. I didn’t ask for that and I don’t think anybody had anything to do with the fact that when I was three years old I was running up to pianos and playing them. It’s my desire to do that and it comes from somewhere else I think. But any kind of accomplishment is based on things I learned from my parents like work ethic, realistically understanding your goals, and doing what you have to do to attain it – practice, focus, drive, and more practice.
Risen Magazine Excited that you are returning to American Idol for another season as a judge with Jennifer Lopez and Keith Urban…when it comes to discovering and cultivating talent, you are excellent!
Harry Connick Jr.: I like the show. I’ve always been a huge fan of the show and it was just a great opportunity. Basically the job is sitting there listening to music and telling people what you think about it. What’s not to like? I love it. And I think no matter what genre of music you play, when you rack up a few years of experience and you have your own point of view, then whoever is coming in front of you – a pop artist, jazz, or country – it’s not difficult to critique and help shape the young performers.
Risen Magazine As part of American Idol you’ve gotten to explore both the mentor role and the judge role. What brings you the most joy when it comes to teaching others?
Harry Connick Jr.: I had been a mentor a couple of times and that’s what I really like to do because that is the environment in which I was brought up. I was constantly being mentored, critiqued, and shaped. When I mentored, I was with each of those kids for 45 minutes to an hour and really got down into what needed to be worked on and what was going well. But as a judge you have 30 seconds to critique.
I like people that are serious about wanting to learn. There is a different kind of relationship I have with people that are genuinely interested, than the ones that don’t really care and do their own thing. I like the ones that are interested because there is a respect there. And if they are serious about becoming an artist, the ones that are smart are going to be quiet and listen, and learn everything that they can. They may not use it, but they are going to listen. That is what you have to do if you want to make it in this business. When you find someone that has been there before you and has a little more experience, you ask questions and you listen very closely to what they say.
Risen Magazine And as a judge, I think constructive criticism can be such a useful tool. How do you deliver feedback as a point of growth, without being mean?
Harry Connick Jr.: On American Idol, they [contestants] signed up for it. They are asking to be judged in front of America. We all get that. But we also get the fact that they are all talented. I have about thirty seconds to tell you specifically what you need to work on. Not saying, “I don’t know. It didn’t really do it for me.” But rather, “This is what you need to do to get better.” If they are serious about improving they don’t care. It’s not about being mean, it has nothing to do with that and sometimes people don’t understand that. If I could take all those kids home and work with them, I would. I love them, but that is not why we are here. I’m here to give them a succinct, poignant, piece of advice, or two, and they don’t have to listen to it – but they do need to realize that they are willingly signing a piece of paper that says, “I’m going to stand up on a stage in front of 10 million people and I’m going to be given critiques.” So I can’t feel bad about that.
When you find someone that has been there before you and has a little more experience, you ask questions and you listen very closely to what they say.
Risen Magazine And they are not going to get more quality, professional, or better advice elsewhere.
Harry Connick Jr.: Well, I mean Jennifer Lopez has done pretty well in show business and so has Keith Urban, and I’ve been around the block too so it would behoove them to take our advice. And they do, they’re great, they listen!
Risen Magazine From movies to television, music and Broadway, you do it all. What are you working on now, and how do you find time to keep it all synergistic?
Harry Connick Jr.: I’m working on a new album. We haven’t even gone into the studio yet, but just recently started putting the ideas together. Things kind of leap frog, like when I am on a movie set, there is a lot of down time so I can get a lot of stuff done in the trailer or the hotel. I’ve written entire records during a film shoot and then when the movie was done I’d go into the studio to record, and then when that’s done, it’s time to promote the movie, and then it’s time to tour – so it all kind of works together.
Risen Magazine When in your life have you left the familiar and taken a risk that has turned into an adventure even better than you had thought?
Harry Connick Jr.: It happens all the time. My whole nature is that of taking risks, whether it’s taking the lead in a Broadway show, or writing for the Symphony orchestra, or taking a film role that is a challenge. I like living within risk and taking risks. I’m used to that and I was brought up in an environment where we were encouraged to fail, and not be judged for that. We were encouraged to try things and it’s a good environment in which to grow up because all through life you can take that and use it to try new things that you maybe wouldn’t have done.
Exclusive Interview originally published in Risen Magazine, Fall 2014