Silent but deadly. That’s one of Andrew Denton’s not-so-secret weapons in interviews.
The 58-year-old Sydneysider can extract more information with a pregnant pause or arched eyebrow than a bent copper brandishing a phone book.
“Don’t be afraid to be quiet,” says the expert interviewer during an interview about interviewing for the second season of his interview show ... Interview. Sounds a bit like Inception.
Denton begins the chat by asking about kids, sleep and breakfast.
“I need to know about your blood sugar level,” he says, as his interrogator attempts to wrestle the chat back.
“I always prefer to be asking the questions because it’s more interesting to me. I know myself so I can find myself fairly dull, but other people are a constant surprise.”
Since hitting our screens in 1988 as the host of the ABC’s anti-chat show Blah Blah Blah, Denton has made a career of probing other people, from his commercial TV debut Denton for Seven through six seasons of Enough Rope and two of Elders with Andrew Denton.
Last year, after a six-year hiatus, the star resumed the inquisition as host and producer of Seven’s Interview.
Guests on the first series ranged from world-famous musicians Robert Plant, Gene Simmons, Cher, Lily Allen, Keith Urban and Perth’s Troye Sivan to newsmakers such as domestic violence campaigner Rosie Batty, shark-punching surfer Mick Fanning, jockey Michelle Payne and “energy healer” Charlie Goldsmith.
The highest rating show featured comedian and marriage equality activist Magda Szubanski, who engaged in an equally hilarious and emotional chat.
Poised to launch into a second series of Interview with “an Australian who has been very much in the news ... it’s going to be very powerful and quite wrenching” and “two American comedy legends” — he inscrutably refuses to reveal more — Denton says he’s looking for “first and foremost, an extraordinary story”.
His style has become far less confrontational than the first few seasons of Enough Rope, when he took on “one of Western Australia’s finest citizens” Alan Bond and One Nation founder Pauline Hanson in episodes that polarised his audience.
Times have changed. Denton says that he won’t be providing a platform for Hanson’s former party colleague Fraser Anning.
“Someone who is in the news now like Fraser Anning certainly would undeniably attract a lot of attention, make a lot of noise,” he says.
“But because we’re in such a divisive, fractured and fragile time, I don’t want to interview somebody that’s going to add more pain and division. We’re not looking to make a dark time darker.”
Interview is pitched as a conversation, rather than an interrogation, according to Denton.
“In our social media age, a lot of our communication is very short and a lot of it these days seem to be quite angry,” he says. “So we’re looking to do something more human, gentler. More uplifting, I guess, without it being a spiritual revival.
“The world is pretty troubling, so we’re trying to do a show that makes you feel a bit differently about the planet and your place on it.”
A frustrated wannabe musician (“sadly, I don’t have an ounce of talent”), Denton says that one of his all-time favourite interviews was with Daniel Johns on Interview last year. The former Silverchair frontman opened up on his demons, including battles with anxiety and substance abuse.
“The interview with Daniel Johns is one of the rarest moments of my career where it was so fragile and so unexpected,” he says. “It felt like everything in that studio — the audience, the cameras, the lights — just disappeared.
“He was describing what it’s like inside his remarkable creative brain in a way that I’ve not heard before. I was completely absorbed and the line of questioning I had in mind, most of that went out the window.”
While Denton is a meticulous researcher, a perfectionist who prepares fastidiously for each interview, he’s also prepared to go off script.
“The late Rene Rivkin, the flamboyant stockbroker, every bit of research we prepared went out the window because he went off like a firecracker,” he recalls. “It was like ‘This is the best fun ever, let’s just follow the firecracker’.
“The actor Richard E. Grant, who was (recently) nominated for an Oscar, he came on and just completely blindsided me by turning the interview around and asking me very personal questions. And it made for enormous fun.
“What made it even weirder was that someone in the audience had a coughing fit, so we both went up into the audience to help her.” Denton laughs. “The whole thing went off the rails in a brilliant way.”
Then there are the disasters, such as an interview with Queen Mary of Denmark. “I did really badly and got appropriately s... canned for (it) because I just wasn’t interested,” he admitted last year.
And then there’s the “absolute, stand-out candidate” for his worst interview ever, a satellite hook-up with US actor Goldie Hawn that was supposed to screen on Interview last year.
“Maybe she was having a terrible day,” Denton recalls. “She was so unpleasant, so unprofessionally unpleasant, in fact, that I just cut the interview short and we didn’t put it to air.”
Despite talking to so many remarkable people, the master interviewer says there’s one person at the top of his wish list.
“I’d love to talk to Rupert Murdoch,” Denton reveals. “There’s no more powerful unelected person in the world.
“He’s had an extraordinary career and I’d love to understand more about how he thinks and what’s made him what he is.”
(He spoke to the media mogul’s mother, Dame Elizabeth Murdoch, on Elders in 2008.)
Denton says that while Interview can pounce on newsworthy interviews, there’s too much danger that daily shows such as The 7.30 Report and The Project will beat them to the punch.
“We don’t see ourselves as a news program,” he adds. “The type of conversation we have is deeper and more reflective. Often if people are in the moment they’re not ready to have that conversation.”
Denton, who has a son with wife, journalist and TV presenter Jennifer Byrne, spearheads a hardworking team of four producers, aged 25-56, which includes people he’s worked with for two decades.
“We have a lot of fun,” he says. “We have a very black sense of humour.
“We fire people constantly for saying inappropriate things. I think I’ve fired four people this week, then they get re-hired again a moment later. I fired myself at least twice.
“I’ve got such a black sense of humour, if some of the things I’ve said in meetings went public, I’d be put in stocks and stoned to death.”