Halli Casser-Jayne in El Salvador
AXS reporter Donna Nolan-Wilson had the opportunity to hang out with our talk show host Halli Casser-Jayne on a recent sunny Sunday afternoon on the Florida coast. Here’s what she wrote.
Halli Casser-Jayne is fun, frank, fearless, feisty and at times simply outrageous and AXS got granted an interview with this bigger than life character carried in a small framed body. Picture this, two ladies sitting in white hurricane chairs wearing floral print sundresses sporting big floppy hats while sipping Mint Juleps as the seagulls sang their ocean song.
Halli Casser-Jayne has a list of accolades and accomplishments Barbara Walters would be impressed by and this interview, a long time in the planning would prove to be informative, remarkable and even a little bit scandalous. Grab yourself a beverage of your choice as you read the interaction between this AXS journalist and Ms. Halli Casser-Jayne. The waves crashing in the background was the soundtrack provided by nature as the first question was asked.
AXS: Hi Halli, we know there is an art and technique to interviewing. You are notorious for being a straight shooter and really getting to the heart of the matter. You are also known for getting people to say things they have never told anybody before. How do you do that?
Halli Casser-Jayne: Well first of all you have to separate and eliminate barriers and get all of that out of there. There has to be nothing between you and the other person that you are speaking with. If it is there, you have to erase it if you will for the moment and get into their heart and their soul and their minds. You have to let them know that they are safe with you. That’s key and when does somebody feel safe with you? When you are their friend and you’re on their team. Everybody has a different way of interviewing. I don’t go out there to destroy anybody. That’s not the point. They will destroy themselves if that’s who they are in the first place in the interview. I go out there to help them sell their wares. That’s what my role is; my job is if they have got something to sell. If I don’t like a product when it’s given to me, I don’t take it on either. If I really hate something I’ve got too much of my own integrity to sell something that I think is really bad.
AXS: That is true, if you don’t believe in their product, how are you going to help them sell it?
HCJ: Well there are a lot of people who will. I pretty much find what is good in most anything anyway. I am pitched so much every day; I can’t take on everything that is pitched to me.
AXS: So let’s go back to your high school days. You graduated High School and what happened next? Do you have some juicy college stories?
HCJ: College was interesting because I went to college in Florida. It was insanity. It was the early 1970’s and people were crazy and there were a lot of drugs and here I was this girl out of Dwight School for Girls and I remember I went to college and I can tell you what I was wearing. A yellow dress with white patent leather shoes and my hair was pulled back. It was actually a double breasted coat dress and that was in September. I came home for Thanksgiving, I got off the plane and I must have lost 30 pounds, very thin like Twiggy and my hair was down to my waist, very blonde bleached out from the sun, full makeup and landlubber jeans and yellow lacy see through shirt with no bra. I thought my father was going to go crazy. He made me put his coat on at the airport. This metamorphosis has just occurred and my father didn’t know how to handle it. For me college was different as I hadn’t been exposed to boys. It was really interesting for me and I became boy crazy. The first time I interviewed somebody, and I have never thought about this before, when I got my first job out of college I was working in the garment center in New York.
I was working for the most horrible human being on the face of the earth. It was like working for Scrooge. I was lucky to get the job as it really was one of the best companies at the time in the garment district but the long and short of it is he was a nightmare. I modeled too and sometimes they would ask me to model the swimsuits and he was just an absolute animal and I realized that the garment center was a horrible place. They were using girls and treating us like slaves and objects. I thought I am going to do a story about this so I went and I bought a tape recorder and started interviewing other women who were working as sales people and models in the showrooms on Broadway. That was the first time I thought there is something here and I can do something about this. I don’t know what I ever did with that piece but that is what I do.
AXS: You mean you were going to make a change?
HCJ: I was going to do a story on it. I don’t know what I did with it but that was the first time that I started running around finding interesting women to talk about working in the garment center and being treated like idiots.
AXS: So you quit your job?
HCJ: Yes I quit and I went to another company and thought that is not what I want to do. There was a guy on the radio in New York and it was the first FM station ever in New York and Don Imus was on it. My cousin was friends with some guys at the radio station and they invited me to come into the studio one night when he was doing a live show. I came and I was sitting there and next thing I know, I became a regular on his show. It was the Friday night crew and there were a whole bunch of guys and me and I was the sexy voice. That is how I got into radio as weird as it was.
AXS: Yeah but that is how that stuff happens.
HCJ: Well I knew that I had wanted to be an actor. That is why I went to New York. I grew up in the suburbs and I couldn’t wait to move to Manhattan and I was going to be on Broadway and do this and that and the other thing. I did a lot of that but you are right, you don’t know what is going to lead to the other. I wound up taking acting classes and all that jazz with the man that discovered Dustin Hoffman and cast him in ‘The Graduate.’ Later on one of my friends Dad’s was a very well known television director in LA and she brought him to see one of my plays. He directed ‘Kojak,” and he said come to California and I will get you a job. I said get out of here. He said no really. I was in San Pedro Beach Bums and that was how all that got started and I did a few other things like Fantasy Island.
AXS: You were on Fantasy Island?
HCJ: I was on Fantasy Island, I played a hooker.
AXS: (Laughter) We have to find the footage.
HCJ: That didn’t turn out the way I thought it was going to be and it was boring sitting around waiting to be on TV. It wasn’t for me. I had a friend who was a very well known columnist, an award winner and his paper was in LA. He and I became friendly and he asked me one day to edit this piece he just wrote. He liked the way I edited his piece and he winds up writing about me in his column and I became pretty well known around the area. He used to write about my Christian Dior pantyhose and I became this character in Tony’s column. I got to know everybody over at the paper and the next thing I knew they were putting together a bunch of people to go to El Salvador and Nicaragua to cover the crazy wars that were going on there.
I got a call and they asked me if I wanted to come down and I went. I wound up working for ABC actually. I did a piece with the San Francisco Examiner. They had brought a whole bunch of people down to do different parts of the stories. I did that and ABC picked me up and then I worked for them and then for ITN. I had a crazy thing happen because they had shut down the University because there had been a lot of killings. The crazy President down there at the time said that they would allow a concert on the closed down campus for one day. I had been doing a story about the violence and all the records were vinyl and they were all made in Central America. They weren’t going to let any press in and they were really guarding this but because of my contacts with the record industry in El Salvador they said I could come and I could bring one camera man with me.
ABC went bonkers, ITN went bonkers, so there I was. There were like 35 thousand brown skinned kids, most of them pretty radical and weren’t too crazy about Americans. Those were tough times. The CIA was taking over the country and they called me up on the stage with the big superstar and my cameraman said, “You gotta go kiddo.” I did and that wound up on ABC on Good Morning America the next day or the day after that. In those days you had to put footage on a plane to get it back to civilization. That was the beginning of me getting serious in life. It was quite a learning experience about life and if you don’t have your head on straight when you go into a circumstance like that, you come out with it very straight.
AXS: Well yes, the things that you must have seen and heard.
HCJ: Pretty amazing. I wrote about it. A novel that is floating around somewhere, it’s called “MAMBO, A Conversation with the Gods,” available at Amazon.
AXS: Yes, you probably have stories you can’t ever tell.
HCJ: There are stories I can never tell.
AXS: So let’s get back to your method of interviewing and how you get these folks to open up like they do?
HCJ: I research the hell out of these people. I like to know as much as I can about them before I go in. I know what would push their buttons and what won’t. You are creating a piece; a podcast is an art form. When I was doing the piece on The Doors which was a nightmare because this was a time when they weren’t talking to anybody, they had really withdrawn. They were fighting amongst each other, and they had formed alliances, you know two were here and one was over there.
I remember when I was finally able to get to the last person and I had spoken to some amazing people who had surrounded them besides them, when I finally got to Densmore, he really was the most reluctant of all of them to talk. He also had the biggest secret to tell at the time and he was the most honest of them all. I will never forget the day we did the interview, the first interview because we became friends, I think he felt relieved when he finally admitted that maybe they should have called the doctors in on Jim a long time before they did. How angry, angry they were because he blew their own careers. You take on many roles when you do an interview, you know that? One of them is psychologist. You can help a lot of people through a lot of sh*t if you’re there for them and care about them. I never do an interview where I am out to get anybody. I am not out to score points. I am out to reveal people for who they are; the good, the bad and the indifferent and most people I find are pretty decent.
AXS: Your listeners think of you, different people think of you in different ways. The men think of you as really sexy and intelligent and women think of you as a role model because you are so intelligent, witty and spunky. When you talk about doing research on every guest you are going to interview, do you have any other means other than the internet in which you do your research because you come up with stuff we don’t know about them.
HCJ: I was a reporter for a long time so there’s that. There is nothing you can’t find out about anybody if you look hard enough. A lot of this stuff comes to me from publicists. The press sheets I always take with a grain of salt because that is what they want you to know. There is a product usually; a book that goes with it and you pretty much take a look at that and see what that is about. I tell you something about me that is kind of weird but it’s true.
I don’t know what it is but I have a mind that remembers things like nobody’s business. It is a little scary actually so that if somebody is coming on my show, chances are I know a lot about them before they even got there because I might have been interested in them which is why I have invited them as a guest. Somewhere in my brain a little bell goes off and I remember reading this about that person 20 years ago and there it is. It is like this, I interview these folks because they have something they want to sell whether it’s a book, music or whatever. I tell them this, if you give me a sanitized version of who you are, nobody gives a hoot and that will be the end of you. So that’s your choice.
AXS: You know what; people can see through the bull, they can see through the fake.
HCJ: Nobody wants to do an interview that isn’t interesting.
HCJ: Nobody wants to hear about how wonderful somebody is all of the time. La la la la la. I think that is also key. Most of the people that I interview are there because I have screened them and it is an interview that I have consented to do because I think somebody has something important to say. I always go in liking what they do or liking their music or this, that or the other. Rarely do I interview uninteresting people. Most people live up to my expectations. Most people do but I would also say this which is, I sometimes know I disarm people because I gain their trust very quickly. If I were out to screw them they would never come back but if I am out there and I give them a safe place to say the things that they need to say, then they are going to feel safe and they are not going to say oops.
AXS: A place where they can be themselves?
HCJ: I think that is what you have to create for them. You have to give them a safe haven where they feel they can talk about what needs to be said.
AXS: Let’s talk about your books and your writing.
HCJ: It is really interesting that we use different muscles and as an artist can sometimes get you crazy. Interviewing is one muscle, photography which is a passion of mine is a different muscle, painting now, I have taken on painting, that is another muscle and writing. Writing is such a different funny little thing. If I am writing the pieces that I put up under ‘Halli’s Muse,’ or ‘Inside the Hopper,’ where I am commenting on social issues and politics, that’s a voice. I have got this novel that is sitting here, “Scout Finch’s Diary,” that’s a different voice and muscle. You know talking and writing aren’t all that different for me when I think about it. Writing is painting with words. You know what, doing an interview is painting with words, same difference.
AXS: That’s beautiful.
HCJ: And it’s true. The way that I found out that I knew what I was doing was Michael Shurtleff who I was telling you about who was my acting coach who was the great casting director who had written one of the great books about acting with is applicable by the way to writing. He wrote a book that I tell writers to read, it is called “How to Audition.” Apply it to your writing and it will serve you the same way. Michael and I moved out to California at the same time and we were on the phone one day and I told you he was a real curmudgeon. He didn’t want to talk to anybody. I can see myself standing in my kitchen walking with my phone as I am having this conversation just yakking away and it was like for hours. I don’t know what the hell we were talking about and at the end of the conversation he said to me, “Halli, I’ve got it, I get it, you need to listen to me. You need to do interviews. That’s your calling. Forget the acting, forget the writing, you could talk your way out of a paper bag and you could talk anybody into getting into the paper bag.” I didn’t do that for a long time but he was the one that told me.
AXS: He was right.
HCJ: I’ll never forget that as long as I live. Michael was not an easy man to talk too. Nobody ever wanted to talk to him, people were terrified of him. He barked, he didn’t talk, not to me though. I had a completely different relationship with that guy. Talking to me is just another form of art if you will. It’s just another form of writing, it is writing with words.
AXS: That’s wonderful. What is your favorite art form?
HCJ: I don’t know if I could answer that. I never thought of myself as an artist. I just did the things that I liked. I liked to photograph, I liked to write. I think I am just a creative person and you never know which way that creativity is going to come out on any given day. If I catch a great photograph on a weird odd foggy day over the water which you don’t see a whole lot of around here, I love that photograph until the next one. I am into painting right now.
AXS: You are so many different moving parts.
HCJ: That’s good and that’s bad. If you are moving a whole lot people don’t know what to make of you. I come from a long line of creative women and stylish women. My mother had an amazing sense of style and art. My grandmother was the same way and so many of my family members are that way. I was also schooled in the arts with the amazing education that I had. I was really exposed to the great art and the great artists and the great sports people and all of that all my life. I grew up with Mickey Mantle in my house. I saw it all from a very early age so I was very fortunate to be exposed and I think exposure molds you into being able to see that kind of thing.
AXS: Tell us about your Clinton connection. Tell us about the day you met Bill Clinton?
HCJ: My roommate from college’s father had given Bill Clinton a clerk position in his law firm in New Haven at Yale. I was invited to this dinner in Washington D.C., for this dinner for Senator Robert Byrd and I had been told that Bill Clinton was going to be there and Senator Rockefeller who was also a friend and Teddy Kennedy was going to be there as well. The family told me to tell Bill Clinton that I was their Goddaughter so who knew that I was really going to meet him. He comes into the room, it was a Sunday night, cocktails and dinner and he actually wasn’t supposed to stay and he said he would stay and he would do a rope line and talk to us.
There weren’t that many people there and I was wearing this little black dress and I’ll never forget this. I go running up and I had been in Prep School so I certainly knew how to handle myself (laughter). I scream Mr. President, Mr. President and he saw me and I said I have regards for you. He said, “Ma’am, from whom,” and I said from Ben Moss and he went bonkers. He says, “Ben Moss, Ben Moss, how do you know Ben Moss?” I told him and he said what are you doing in West Virginia and I told him I had just moved there. He stopped everybody, he stopped Rockefeller and he stopped Kennedy and he stopped them all and he told them the story of Ben Moss who was this wonderful man who had given him this job and he was just a kid with a heavy southern accent in up north.
He just couldn’t have been nicer. I was dazzled by him. I mean it was a good 7 to 10 minutes that he was talking to me about Ben with all of the people in the room. He was delicious. First of all he was so handsome it scared me. I had seen a lot of actors obviously, I had lived with a few but this man was just so handsome in those days it was stupid and he couldn’t have been more real, more honest, and nicer and it was really quite a moment. What a terrific guy, just very real, but would he have noticed me if I didn’t have on my little black dress and had my “boobies” pushed up.
AXS: Oh, we are so going to print that because that is where the outrageous Halli Casser-Jayne pops her head in.
Halli Casser-Jayne would not spill on the actors that she had lived with, all right, yes she did but we can’t tell you. We finished our Mint Juleps and hugged goodbye as the sun was setting over the glistening ocean.
If you want to hear Halli Casser-Jayne in action interviewing politicians, actors, actresses, and music artists, check out her weekly talk show on the internet at Halli Casser-Jayne.com. Make sure to like her on Facebook.
Reprinted with permission of the author.