Flip your swagger switch. Puff out your chest. Drawl it out with machismo to burn: “Kick the tires and light the fires, Big Daddy!”
At 0:01 of our strictly timed, 10-minute interview, I remind Harry Connick Jr. — who performs Friday and Saturday (plus Dec. 1 and 2) at Wynn Las Vegas — of a favorite movie line he uttered as cocky fighter pilot Jimmy Wilder in “Independence Day.” Do fans ever remind him of that ode to testosterone before aliens turned his character into sky-high roadkill?
“Ah yes!” he says, clearly tickled. “I do hear that from time to time. I like hearing that.”
We’re galloping against the clock — and he’s a multi-hyphenate performer from New Orleans with a resume that spills over like a ladle full of gumbo on a paper plate — so we get cookin’. Goal: one question/answer per minute.
Jazzman Ellis Marsalis was your childhood mentor. Did he say to you once you should give up music? “He did, but I’ve known Ellis and that family for over 40 years. He drove us very hard. He would say things that would get in your head, and one was, ‘Maybe you should consider another vocation’ — trying to get somebody to practice.”
We’re lucky you didn’t take that suggestion. “Thanks, Man!”
Do you remember when you first performed publicly? “I was 5. My dad, who was opening his campaign for district attorney of New Orleans, had a crowd around him. And my mom wanted me to play ‘The Star-Spangled Banner.’ They had this upright piano in the back of this flatbed truck and I went and played it, and I remember looking over at the people after I finished, and they were clapping. For somebody with my personality type, that was a catalyst, to see when I could get that feeling again.”
You initially made your name as a jazzman. Was it your goal to bring jazz more into the mainstream? “Popularizing jazz, if I did that at all, was a byproduct of my desire to perform and be known as a musician. But what I always took the greatest pride in is that sometimes on stage we play songs that are very accessible to people and other times we would stretch and play all kinds of stuff, and it became a really interesting challenge to keep the audience interested no matter what I did.”
Was your “When Harry Met Sally” soundtrack, which won you a Grammy, the career turning point? “It was huge. Prior to that I had only done a couple records that sold maybe 15,000 for each, which was a huge deal to me. But when that album came out, it sold a million records very quickly. I went from pretty much complete obscurity to, ‘Hey, aren’t you that guy?’ ”
You’re a musician/actor/talk-show host/Broadway performer. Did you envision branching out in so many directions? “I knew I was a piano player and a singer, and I knew I wanted to be an actor because I had done plays in high school and really liked it. But I never thought about hosting my own show or writing scores for Broadway. Those were opportunities that came about on my path. I’m so blessed. I’ve done things I’ve really wanted to do. And all the things I’ve done, whether it’s ‘Will & Grace’ or movies or Broadway, I really get into 100 percent.”
It was nice to see you on the ‘Will & Grace’ reboot. Will you be back, or is your character’s relationship with Grace finished? “If you find out, let me know! They are so secretive out there. If I am coming back, they haven’t told me about it yet. Oh man, I love doing that show.”
When you did that stint on ‘Law & Order: SVU,’ I thought, OK, now Olivia (Mariska Hargitay) has found somebody. Are you disappointed it didn’t lead to anything permanent? “Spending time with Mariska in any capacity is always fun. The unfortunate part is I have a day job so I couldn’t stick around too long.”
What’s it like hosting a daytime talk show? “I love it. There is not one show where I say, ‘Aw, we gotta go do this again.’ I’m in love with the whole process. I wrote all the music for the band. I do all the research for the guests, I see all the movies, read all the books, study them. We do have celebrities, but we never intended for it to be a celebrity-driven show. It’s always been about everyday folks and people who’ve done extraordinary things. It’s exactly what I had hoped it would be.”
What’s still out there to tackle? “The thing about my career is that things have kind of presented themselves organically so it’s not like I have a big checklist. I’m sure that 10 years from now, I’ll be doing something I didn’t expect to be doing. I like the spontaneity of it all.”
Phew! I just hit my 10-minute mark, Gotta go. Or actually, you do. Thanks, Harry. “My pleasure, man.” Time to kick the tires and light the fires, Big Daddy.