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Ronan Farrow on Questions About His Paternity: 'Don't You Feel Like a Quality Journalist?'

Issue 40 FEA Ronan Farrow - P 2013
Matt Furman
Ronan Farrow

In his first interview since his MSNBC show was announced, the 25-year-old government insider and author tells THR about his plans to "shake things up" at the progressive network, his "Hammer pants" phase and his family's celebrity: "Being under the microscope means I was never given any slack."

This story first appeared in the Nov. 15 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

Not everyone can respond to public speculation about one's inconclusive paternity with grace. After Farrow's mother, Mia, in a recent Vanity Fair interview revived an old rumor that he "possibly" could be her ex-husband Frank Sinatra's biological child rather than Woody Allen's, Ronan punctured the speculation with a well-timed tweet -- "look, we're all *possibly* Frank Sinatra's son" -- since retweeted more than 10,000 times. Thirteen days later, his first book, Pandora's Box: How American Military Aid Creates America's Enemies, was optioned by Penguin Press. The following day, on Oct. 16, MSNBC announced that Farrow would join the network as host of his own weekday program. When this reporter asks whether the headlines are a distraction, he laughs and says conspiratorially, "Don't you feel like a quality journalist right now?"

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With more than 144,000 Twitter followers, famous friends (Aziz Ansari, Kate Upton and former Obama speechwriter Jon Lovett, who created the short-lived NBC sitcom 1600 Penn) and a résumé impressive for someone twice his age, Farrow, 25, just might be the overachieving prototype for a new generation of TV news personalities. He's at once an insider (a former government operative with boots-on-the-ground experience) and an outsider (a millennial in a graying milieu) who is as comfortable offering wry Twitter commentary on Miley Cyrus' apparent affinity for power tools as he is engaging with geopolitical issues.

When Farrow's show bows in mid-January, he will be the progressive network's youngest personality. He fielded interest from CNN and ABC News (Diane Sawyer is a family friend) before accepting the offer for the MSNBC program (not called That's So Ronan, despite Twittersphere suggestions). Farrow believes his mandate is firm, as much a call to activism as an examination of the issues of the day. "It can be an asset to come into a world like TV with a fresh take," he says. "There was an opening to shake things up here in a way that I had to grab." MSNBC president Phil Griffin recognized an "It" factor: "He has it. He is an original thinker. That's what we want to bring to the channel."

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The show and his book deal lend the Renaissance pundit a platform unparalleled among TV peers, who may possess good looks but not elite educations and an abundance of real-world experience. Farrow's bona fides are more reminiscent of a future national politician than a newsman: In 2004, he graduated from Bard College -- at 15, the school's youngest graduate -- with double majors in philosophy and biology. In 2009, at 21, he earned a Yale Law degree (he's a member of the New York Bar) while working at the House Committee on Foreign Affairs. In 2007, as a special adviser to the chief counsel there, Farrow was hobbled by a leg injury that led to an unwieldy cast which necessitated wearing oversize pajama bottoms, aka his "Hammer pants phase." Recalls former colleague Melissa Carstens: "Here is this young man with crutches, cast, a blue sports coat and pajamas, holding his own on Capitol Hill with the best and brightest minds in D.C. He did not let this slow him down for a minute."

After he left Yale, he joined the Obama administration as a special adviser for humanitarian and NGO affairs in Pakistan and Afghanistan, working closely with the late Richard Holbrooke. It was a post he earned via an unorthodox interview with Holbrooke: "He was in the shower; I shouted answers on Afghanistan policy from the next room. Which explains a lot about American military strategy, when you think about it." In 2011, he was appointed Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's special adviser on Global Youth Issues; that same year, he embarked on a Rhodes Scholarship, studying international relations at Oxford University.

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Farrow attributes his drive to a surprising source: his family's celebrity. "Being under the microscope meant I was never given any slack," he says. "I still managed to screw up plenty in life, mind you, but in the things I really cared about -- the legal work, or the stories I was telling as a writer, or the office I built in government -- I wasn't left a lot of margin for error. It's kept me driven." Mary Marcy, the former president of Bard, asked Farrow to deliver the 2012 commencement address at her current post at Dominican University in San Rafael, Calif., where he received an honorary Doctorate of Humanities degree. "Somehow early on, he figured out how to have perspective on himself," says Marcy. "He is brilliant but also personally mature and compassionate beyond his years: that was his reputation from the time he set foot on [the Bard] campus at the ripe old age of 11. He's a sign that age is not necessarily an indicator of wisdom."