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Maria Elena Fernandez and I became fast friends at The Atlanta Journal-Constitution in the mid-‘90s when we were both Metro reporters. She was on the police beat and I had the courts. She’d cover a murder and its investigation, and then I’d get the trial. It was a fun tag-team.
Fast-forward through the next decade or so, and Maria ended up in Los Angeles, spending a dozen years covering TV for The LA Times. That switch from the streets to the studios was followed by another, from print to digital. Maria joined The Daily Beast and then NBCNews.com. She lives in Venice with her fabulous husband and their two dogs. The last time I visited, she was prepping for the next day’s Emmy Awards. A far cry from, say, interviewing suspects, victims and cops here in Atlanta.
We covered crime together in Atlanta and then you took on showbiz in Hollywood. Which is scarier?
Good question! There’s probably nothing more nerve-wracking and challenging than knocking on the door of someone who just experienced a personal tragedy. You talk to parents whose missing child has been found dead, and anything can happen in terms of how they respond to you. It takes a special kind of strength and heart.
That said, Hollywood is a scary beast of a different kind, without public records or the public right-to-know on your side. All you have is your ability to connect and establish relationships. When you’re covering crime and you catch a cop doing something wrong, you might get a call from someone accusing you of being biased or not getting the whole story. But in Hollywood, you get angry, berating calls from people saying things like, “How could you? I thought you were a friend.”
It’s a very different perception of what a journalistic relationship is and entails. It’s a different kind of scary, in other words.
Which do you like better?
I like them both because they bring out different sides of my personality. I love news, I love to cover things that matter, and when I was covering crime, I very rarely felt I was writing something trivial. I enjoy covering entertainment the most when I’m writing about something in the zeitgeist. People take their pop culture interests seriously and it’s always really fun when you have the inside scoop on people’s favorite movies, TV shows, actors.
I never get tired of talking to the writers and producers behind shows and movies. They are the real geniuses to me. I love the way their minds work. But the way Hollywood operates can be really draining. On those days I miss running around communities and talking to people who don’t necessarily want to be famous.
Now, put it all together, like when life handed me the “Desperate Housewives” trial (when Nicollette Sheridan sued over losing her role) and I am in heaven. Big show, big stars, big drama unfolding in a courtroom. It was a rare, open, behind-the-scenes look at Hollywood. I always tell people who love stories: Hang out in a courtroom.
That’s for sure! People always ask me if I miss the old newspaper days. I don’t. Do you?
I miss the time I used to be able to spend reporting a story. It literally feels like a luxury to think back now to the days when a crime happened late at night, and I’d spend the next 12 hours figuring it out before I wrote a word. In today’s Digital Age, that’s a lifetime. Now you confirm something’s happened and a few sentences are up on a site in a flash.
Where did you get your passion for telling stories?
My grandmother was my best friend when I was a kid. We went on long walks every afternoon and she’d tell me all kinds of stories about her life in Cuba. When I couldn’t sleep at night, she’d tell me more. She never even finished elementary school, but she was gifted. She made me love words, the way they sound together. She was hilarious. Her favorite words were all curse words! My father, too, played a big part. He taught himself English reading the newspaper and made me fall in love with newspapers at an early age. He always used to tell me if you want to write, you must read. He was so right.
As a reader, do you like print or digital?
I still love to hold a book in my hands, but I can’t remember when the last time I actually touched a newspaper. And I can’t live without with my iPad.
A little Hollywood dish, please? Who are the most gorgeous stars you’ve met? I was so jealous when you met Alcide from “True Blood.” The smartest? Funniest? A behind-the-scenes moment, something like that?
There have been some grand moments, like riding horses with William Shatner. As a big fan of “24,” meeting Kiefer Sutherland and watching him go from aggro Jack Bauer to soft-spoken and grateful off-camera is a pretty cool way to spend a workday. Also: spending the day at James Spader’s favorite sculpture garden or getting make-up tips from the stunning RuPaul. Come on! When a short interview over coffee turns into a three-hour lunch just because you’re having a blast with a very funny person like Sofia Vergara, the job is a joy. Antonio Banderas re-enacted a scene from “Puss in Boots” for me during an interview, and my heart was won! Lunch with the entire cast of “Big Bang Theory” was also really memorable. It was early in the run of the show–before it was the big hit it was today. It’s great when you meet people under those circumstances and later see that success doesn’t change who they are essentially. That is rare. Chris Colfer, America Ferrera are people I’d count in that short list, too. And, of course, the almighty Bryan Cranston and Aaron Paul. And I would be crazy not to include one of the best days ever: a one-hour interview with Larry Hagman, Patrick Duffy and Linda Gray about a year before Hagman died. That one was for the ages.
We have so much film and TV production here in Atlanta. Any chance you’ll come back and cover something going on here?
Oh yeah! I would love to. Atlanta is home to the biggest show on TV. I need to get over there and interview some zombies!
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