“I’m not a movie star. People know me, but they don’t necessarily know what they know me for. I get recognised, but it’s not like Justin Bieber. It’s a nice thing, people are cool.”
And he’s absolutely right. Harry Connick Jnr is just one of those names that’s been around forever, but doesn’t attach itself to any one project. He was the smooth vocal chords on the sountrack of When Harry Met Sally, but he wasn’t in it. He appeared in Independence Day but he’s not Will Smith. Is it because he’s a singer as well, that he defies a category?
“I would say I’m right in the middle,” he decides, when asked to position himself on the singer/actor spectrum. “Because when I’m acting, I’m in a different place, singing is the last thing on my mind, and when I’m on stage, there’s no acting at all involved, not even presentation, it’s just who I am.”
If it’s bugged him that his natural ease in both fields has made him perceived as a jack of all trades, master of none, there’s no sign of it.
“When Chicago came out, I was talking to Harvey Weinstein, and I asked him, “Richard Gere’s a good friend of mine. Why would you call him and not me? That’s what I do!” He started laughing, and he didn’t answer, which is probably that Richard’s a big movie star.
“Perhaps I’ve not been offered movies that I would have been if I didn’t play the piano. I don’t see it, they just don’t call me! I totally get it though. We’ve all been to the movies where we’ve seen a singer on screen, and thought, ‘Great, career move’ and the same with an actor on stage, so I get it, I’m sure there’s some pigeon-holing going on, but I swear on my life it doesn’t affect me, it probably affects those people not hiring me, not me.”
“I just do the things I love to do,” he exclaims, and right now that includes the film Dolphin Tale. Not many people could make a film about children tending to an injured dolphin bearable, but if there are a few people in the world, Harry Connick Jnr is among them, and he is full of enthusiasm for this latest project (co-starring Morgan Freeman, Ashley Judd, Kris Kristofferson), which has enjoyed rapturous reception at the US cinema:
“I didn’t know the story,” Connick relates. “I read the script of what looked like a fun family movie, called up the director, asked him, ‘How did you think of this?’ Turns out it’s a real story, I was kind of embarrassed that I didn’t know about it. When I found out it was true, I thought I had to be part of it.
Dolphin Tale relates how Winter lost her tail but was given another one by the tireless efforts of animal surgeons in Florida, and inspired lots of helpful technology and morale-boosting along the way. The dolphin in the film is played by the very Winter of the true story, and she impressed her cast mates:
“She turned up on time, she knew her lines, she was better than me,” reports Connick. “It was only when I got down to Florida and started working with her, I noticed there was something about her. I think dolphins have their own type of intelligence, which once in a while, crosses with human intelligence, but I don’t claim to know enough about it.”
Connick is also bright enough to avoid the cliché that he’s now any type of reconstructed animal activist after working on such a film.
“No, I think it’s important to choose what you want to fight for very carefully. As a figure of any public recognition, you can water down your effectiveness very easily. Although I feel for the animals there, there are people more knowledgeable and suited to working for that – I choose to spend my time in New Orleans with the musicians there, that’s what I’m an activist for. I wouldn’t be a good representative for other stuff.”
Ahh, New Orleans, the bed of Connick’s Deep Southern easy manners, charm, musical influence and where he spent years perfecting his craft before taking himself off to New York as a young man. He remembers it fondly:
“The whole American Idol way of looking at things is the antithesis of what I grew up with. There are a whole lot of kids wanting to be famous now, whereas if I’d even mentioned that word to one of my teachers, I would have got into a whole load of trouble. We practised and practised, and if opportunity came around, we would have had the skills to be prepared for it. These days, they see the result a lot quicker than they see the process, and that can be a little scary. I think when you’re a kid and you see all of the glory, it may affect your work ethic. Not the kids on this latest film, though, I should stress, they’re hard workers.”
Connick appears to have it all – good looks, talent, pots of money and awards, one of those statistic-defying happy Hollywood marriages and full family life. How does he stay so normal and avoid any diva business?
“My manager told me a long time ago, you can be as famous as you want to be, it’s about the choices you make. I guess I could have been a lot more famous, but I don’t want that. I love my wife, she loves me, so I got really, really lucky in finding a girl that I was compatible with.
“As for any diva business, I’ve got a lot of cousins, a lot of family with my last name and if I came across like that, and none of us were raised like that. My dad was always saying, ‘be on time, be nice to people.’ When I was 18, I was angry all the time, now it’s about getting my kids through school, and helping them. It’s made me a better artist, because it’s allowed me to be in a more peaceful place. I have a big ego, and I’m a confident person, but when it comes down to being a jerk, that doesn’t work for me, I tried it... for about ten years.”
One time Connick was moved to speak out was in Australia, two years ago, when the US star found himself on the judging panel of a variety show, where one of the acts was Jackson Jive – a ‘tribute’ band choosing to glorify their act by blacking up their faces. Connick spoke out against this on the show, and faced a torrent of criticism in the Australian press at the time. Here in London, his ‘people’ are frustrated that he’s asked again about this, but, two years later, it seems the American star still has plenty to say...
“I didn’t say I was offended, I just said I couldn’t be a part of this. Certain markets think they live under a rock, but this is 2011 and when you’re on TV, it goes all around the world, so if there’s a blackface sketch and I’m whooping it up down in Australia, people are at home are going to be ‘are you kidding?’ That’s offensive to America. That was a very specific occurrence. I’m not a civil rights activist, but if something’s going on... They have no idea about American history, but you can’t blame people for not knowing what America went through...”
The publicist in the room is getting anxious now, and Connick apologies for going off on a tangent. No one’s really cross, though, as he grins at everyone with a megawatt smile, and asks, “My bad. Now, who wants to talk about dolphins?”
Dolphin Tale is now showing in UK cinemas.