Harry Connick Jnr - What a Nice Young Man

by Kate Thornton
High Life, November 1998

When Sandra Bullock auditioned singer and actor Harry Connick Jnr for the lead in her new film she gave him more than he bargained for.

As one of Hollywood's leading lights Bullock decided to extend her role in the project to that of producer, as well as leading lady, in the movie Hope Floats. With half of Hollywood's men to flip through, she was initially reluctant to consider Harry as her lover in the film. She wasn't convinced that the singer could cut it in a leading role -- and told him so -- but he was so persistent in his pursuit of the part that Bullock eventually agreed to fly him down to Texas where she was scoping locations. There he would have to audition alongside two of Hollywood's heaviest hitters (whom neither Bullock nor Connick Jnr will identify).

"I knew Sandy had auditioned more than 200 actors for the part of her boyfriend," says Connick Jnr. "When I got down to the final three I was delighted because I was up against some of the biggest names in Hollywood."

Thirty-three-year-old Connick is admired by critics and worshipped by millions of fans as a jazz singer and pianist. He has sold more than 15 million albums and won Oscar nominations and countless awards for his work. But as an actor he is more of a bit-player on the world stage, though he has featured in six movies, including Memphis Belle and Independence Day. The movie that really made his name, however, was When Harry Met Sally. But his contribution to that jazzy romance was confined to the soundtrack.

"I know I had everyone convinced I was right for the part except Sandy, she was very honest about that, but I knew I could cut it and I really wanted the part.

"The film was being shot in Texas so I flew down there for the final audition. I was the last of the final three to read and when I discovered Sandy was flying back to LA on a private jet with her father I asked her if I could hitch a ride. It was my last chance to convince her I was the man for the job and I knew I'd have her as a captive audience once we were in the air.

"So we're sat on the plane and as soon as I start asking how the others got on in the audition she starts smiling at me, but she really wasn't giving anything away. I was dying on my feet trying to squeeze information out of her and then suddenly she lifts her sweater up and with this naughty smile on her face starts to take it off. I didn't know where to look and then I saw what she had done -- written in marker pen on her stomach was 'YOU'VE GOT THE PART!'.

"I couldn't believe it. I kissed her and I started crying. I mean this is Sandra Bullock! She's one of the best people I've ever met. I've never had a boss like her and we've since become really close. She comes over to the house a lot on weekends and she and my wife are really good friends."

Harry, who has two daughters, three-year-old Georgia and 18-month-old Kate with his wife, model Jill Goodacre, then faced the task of getting into shape for the role. Sandra, her sweater firmly back in place, told him he was too heavy for the part. "I lost two stone living on a diet of steak and chicken breasts combined with aerobic exercises. I had to run up miltistorey car parks with weights on my legs and eat pure protein meals six times a day -- some days I ate 20 chicken breasts and nothing else, I was clucking by the end of it. I had feathers, not hairs, growing on my chest." The treatment worked; from a sturdy 15 stone, he dropped to a svelte 13 stone.

During filming, carbohydrates weren't the only thing off the menu -- Harry established up front that there would be no nudity or sex scenes if he was to be offered the role.

"I've never done a sex scene and I never would. I just don't think it's necessary if the script is good and the sexual tension is right. I had to kiss Sandy in Hope Floats and that was my first screen kiss. Sex scenes are better left to the imagination."

One can imagine some concerted sighs from more than a few women (and maybe a few actresses, too -- women seldom get a choice in the matter when it comes to getting their kit off in the interests of art and commerce). But Harry has the luxury of being charmingly old-fashioned. "I mean, I think a woman looks more sexy wearing a nice trouser suit than she does walking around in a mini skirt. I don't subscribe to less is more and I think Hollywood could learn a lot from that way of thinking. Some of the best romantic comedies of the '90s have managed to break box office records without graphic nudity. Look at Sleepless in Seattle."

At the age of 18, Connick Jnr became a household name overnight when he was picked to croon the soundtrack to When Harry Met Sally. He has been singing jazz since he was 11 years old and living in Connecticut. He still lives there, but won't mention the name of his hometown; he is fiercely protective of it, and of his family's privacy.

Throughout his career the comparisons drawn between Connick Jnr and Frank Sinatra have been endless (even if his mellifluous vocal style may have more of the Mel Tormé about it). His move into major league Hollywood at this stage in his career will do nothing to diminish his 'son of Frank' aura. Certainly, when Sinatra passed away in May this year, Connick Jnr felt the loss with an intensity that bordered on the filial. Sinatra, for his part, took an almost paternal pride in the younger singer's work.

"Frank was someone I could enjoy as well as study and I was both encouraged and frightened by his music. It's so hard to believe he's gone," he says. They met on many occasions.

"I am still deeply saddened and will be for a long time to come. Few can be credited with great contribution to art and Frank more than contributed, he deeply affected the course of American music. His ability to combine rhythm, harmony and lyric was unparalleled. He was unique and I am still learning from him."

Unlike many of his contemporaries Connick Jnr prefers to work from Sinatra's blueprint in the studio, and laughs out loud when he hears about bands taking up to two years to record an album. "I take about a month to write and arrange songs, then I'll spend five days in the studio recording an album. It really doesn't take that long if you know what you're doing. That applies to any kind of music."

"Every song I record is pretty much done in one take. I can't understand how people can take so long recording -- you're supposed to do your practising before you get into the studio. Two weeks is the longest I've spent recording an album."

Earlier this year Connick Jnr released his eighth album To See You, a collection of love songs addressed to his wife.

"Marriage is a serious thing to me, it's for life," he says. "Jill and I dated for four years before we got married and I maintain that it is the single biggest decision you will make in your life.

"I never talked about marriage with Jill before I proposed because I wanted it to be magical -- and it was. In fact, it was so magical I'm not even going to tell you about it, but needless to say it was something we will always remember. Jill brings out the romantic in me, I love her so much I just want to see her smiling all the time. I always put her happiness before my own."

Three years ago, the couple became parents for the first time, and 18 months ago celebrated the arrival of their second daughter. When Connick Jnr has to travel with his work he always endeavours to ensure that he doesn't miss out on the joys of parenting.

"The kids are definitely the best thing that ever happened to me. I can't imagine what my life was like before they came along. I want to have more -- maybe enough to fill an orchestra.

"They just make everything seem so right. There's plenty of beautiful girls out there and lots of money to be earned, but I'm just not interested. I'm lucky because I want for nothing but without Jill and the kids my success wouldn't mean much."

Even dining with royalty and heads of state doesn't impress Connick Jnr as much as taking his girls out for the day. In the past he has played for the Queen and Prince Philip at Windsor Castle and entertained Bill Clinton at the White House -- but he doesn't think he'll ever be invited back to either abode.

"I don't think I grasped the etiquette," he laughs. "At Windsor Castle I kept calling Prince Edward 'Eddie', which didn't go down very well. I was sat on the same table as him during dinner and every time I said 'Eddie, can you pass me the butter,' or 'How's work going, Eddie?' everyone gave me real funny looks.

"Then when I played at the White House they wouldn't let me sit next to Jill, which I thought was rude seeing as she was my date for the night. It bugged me so much I was cursing about it in my dressing room saying 'Who the hell does Bill Clinton think he is not letting me sit with my girl' and I didn't realise the room was bugged by the secret service. I was almost thrown out -- it was only after my manager apologised over and over that they let me stay. But to be honest, I'd much rather be home with my wife and kids -- at least I can be myself with the people who matter most. And I get to sit next to whoever I want."

Sidebar: The Best of Harry's World

Bar: I'm not a big drinker which means I don't really appreciate a good bar. Because I've toured a lot I've been drinking in some great and not so great places, but I'm more of a restaurant man. I was taken to The Ivy when I was in London recently, which has to be one of the nicest places to eat -- the food and the service were excellent. But my favourite place of all to eat and drink is at home with my wife and my family. My wife is a fine cook.

Beach: For family reasons, any beach that's clean and safe for my kids to play on. But if we're talking about somewhere for grown-ups to have fun, then the beach at Cannes is my choice. I've done the Cannes film festival a couple of times now and we've had some good fun on the beach there. I love hiring out a boat for the day and cruising around. You get some real characters at the festival.

Walk: The streets of Paris at night. I love walking around the city with my wife. It's such a beautiful place and when the traffic and noise have gone at the end of the day it takes on a personality of its own.

Drive: Believe it or not, I sometimes like driving in New York. When I studied there as a teenager I was broke and a ride on the subway was often something I couldn't afford -- let alone running my own car.

Food: Fried chicken. It's very fattening so it's not something I eat often but there's nothing like fried chicken with mashed potatoes and all the trimmings. It's a very traditional Southern dish and I love it, especially when there's lots of it. I've never understood why these expensive restaurants insist on serving the smallest portions they can get away with. When someone's hungry they need feeding -- not teasing.

Swim: I have a pool at home and I love splashing around in there with the kids on a weekend. I love the responsibility of having children, they're the most fulfilling things in my life. We live with lots of open space in Connecticut and when I have time off sometimes I don't leave the house for two weeks. There's nothing better than being locked away with my girls.

Monument: The Houses of Parliament in London may not pass as a monument but that is one of the most impressive sites I have ever seen. Outside of Europe you are lucky to see buildings quite as beautiful as that.

City: New York. It's so good they named it twice.

Country: America. Not only is it my home, there's no other place like it in this world -- it's so vast and varied. You only get to really appreciate that when you visit so many other countries.

Foreign Word: I only know the naughty ones.

World Leader: I have great admiration for Nelson Mandela. He's been through a lot and he's still working hard. But I admire him more for his personal achievements than I do his political standing. I try to keep out of politics.

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