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Audiences love him and networks want him, and that’s why Anderson Cooper easily earns a spot on the 2013 edition of The Hollywood Reporter‘s 35 Most Powerful People in Media. The dashing host of Anderson Cooper 360, 45, is not only CNN’s biggest star, he’s also an ongoing contributor to CBS News ratings juggernaut 60 Minutes. Only Anderson Live — currently taping its second and final season — seemed out of reach of his Midas touch. But with his CNN contract set to expire in the fall, Cooper, who came out as gay last July (earning him a special GLAAD merit badge from Madonna), finds his name on top of everyone’s wish list.
THR caught up with Cooper for a freewheeling conversation about facing his fears, his new CNN boss Jeff Zucker and his helpless addiction to The Walking Dead.
The Hollywood Reporter: You’re saying goodbye to your talk show at the end of this season. Looking back, would you say it was a worthwhile endeavor?
Anderson Cooper: It was absolutely worthwhile. I like learning new things and I like developing new skill sets and I like challenging myself in different ways, and I think the daytime show has done that, you know? I certainly enjoy it. I wish we had the show the first year that we ended up with the second year. It took us awhile to kind of figure out what we wanted to do. I’m very pleased with the show this year and how audiences have responded to it, and I’ve had a lot of fun doing it every day. It’s been kind of a jolt of energy in my day and it’s working in front of an audience and doing a show that has a variety of topics and a variety of serious-to-light stuff.
THR: It seems like it was really starting to hit its stride following a format closer to Live! than The Oprah Winfrey Show.
Cooper: That was the other thing. I really wanted a sidekick from the get-go. And I think we really were limited by the room the first year. I mean it was a beautiful room, a beautiful backdrop and stuff, but it wasn’t available to use when we wanted it — because it’s not a television venue, it’s a performance space that does concerts and things. We could only kind of shoot around their schedule and that was really a limiting factor. Every day was sort of Groundhog’s Day, and you couldn’t develop a life within the show. We were shooting shows two or three weeks in advance and it didn’t allow you say on the show, “Wow, did you see what happened yesterday on the show? Well, today we re-contacted that person and this is what happened.” That was something I really regret and we kind of realized early on, but you know, we weren’t able to make the change until the second year.
THR: Maybe it will come together the next time around.
Cooper: You never know.
THR: You did some extraordinary work this year reporting on the Syrian civil war and Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings. How do you approach covering stories of such unthinkable tragedy?
Cooper: Syria we’ve been covering intensively since the first demonstrations in Daraa, two years ago now. One of the extraordinary things is that it started not as a revolution, it started as people protesting the arrest of teenagers and kids who had written on a wall in Daraa. But because of the response to the regime, it became something else. We’ve actually been able to witness it because of the courage of people to not only stand up, but to turn on their cell phones and cameras and videotape the atrocities. I just think it’s important to continue to bear witness to what’s happening.
Certainly in Newtown, to be there in the wake of what occurred, it’s obviously a difficult thing for a reporter. You don’t want to do anything that makes things worse for the community, and so we tried to cover it in a way that was sensitive to the families. I know what it’s like to have a camera pointed at me at a time of grief in my life as a kid, and so I’m particularly sensitive to that, being around others who are suffering and not intruding on their grief. We were covering it in a way that was respectful and not focusing on the killer, whose name I think I mentioned once or twice in our coverage. I want people to remember the names of the kids and the adults who were killed.
THR: Your work has taken you to some of the most dangerous places on the planet, including a recent 60 Minutes story in which you swam near hungry crocodiles in the Nile. What is the internal dialogue that tells you, “I need to be there,” or, “That’s stupidly dangerous and I pass.”
Cooper: I don’t want to do anything that puts my team members, my camera people or producers, in danger, so it’s an ongoing dialogue on all the stories that we do. Something like diving with crocodiles, I was basically shooting it myself with a GoPro and the two people who pioneered this kind of diving. So you try to minimize the number of people exposed as much as possible. Certainly when it’s a risky place, it’s an ongoing discussion all the time. It’s a question of who you’re working with, what local people you have with you, how well do you know the area, how well do you know the forces on the ground. There’s a number of places I’ve wanted to go but it’s been determined too risky or that I’m relatively well-known, and therefore it might not be wise for me to pop up in this place.
THR: Would you have called yourself a fearless kid growing up? Or is that something that has developed as your career has flourished?
Cooper: I don’t think I’m fearless at all. I think anybody who says they’re fearless doesn’t last very long. I think I’m pretty cautious actually. I don’t believe in letting fear dictate what you do, but that doesn’t mean you don’t feel afraid or frightened. I think it’s normal and healthy to be afraid in situations. That’s something I’ve frankly worked on my entire adult life — continuing to plunge headfirst to things that scare me most. For whatever reason, I’ve been able to continue working in even situations which induce a fair amount of fear.
THR: There’s been a recent changing of the guard at CNN. Were you friendly with Jeff Zucker before he took over at the network? When he took over, what did he say to you regarding how he sees your role at CNN?
Cooper: I had met Jeff a number of times over the years, but didn’t have any discussions with him and I didn’t really know him personally. I certainly spoke to him once it was clear he was going to be taking over, and I’m incredibly excited. I think they have somebody in Jeff who not only has experience as an executive and a manager, but as somebody whose sleeves are rolled up and [who is] standing in the control room and who has experience producing news programs. It’s fantastic. I’m in constant discussions with Jeff, emails going back and forth, and it’s really dynamic and really exciting to be here at this time, with somebody who has fresh ideas and a fresh pair of eyes. I think it’s great.
THR: Did he get specific at all as far as what he sees as the mission is for the “new” CNN?
Cooper: I would leave it up to him to define what he sees as the mission. I haven’t asked him specifically, but I certainly think he has talked publicly about the importance of news and broadening the definition of what we cover, expanding the story selection. As somebody who has a program which covers a lot of variety, that’s something that I’m a big believer in. I certainly think he wants to have more variety throughout the day and night on CNN.
THR: Do you expect Anderson Cooper 360 will continue in its current 8 p.m. slot?
Cooper: I do. I’ve never really cared too much about what particular hour of the day I’m broadcasting from. That’s never been a focus of mine. When the network asked me to have my show repeated at 10 p.m., that was fine with me. Jeff talked about not having it repeated at 10 and repeat it later, and that’s fine with me, as well. It really doesn’t matter to me what hour of the day the show is on.
THR: Then there’s your work on 60 Minutes. There are rumors of new reporters there being subjected to hazing rituals and sharp elbows from some of the more senior correspondents. Did anything like that happen to you when you started there?
Cooper: I’m used to hazing rituals — I did not hear about any! But look, it’s an incredible place to work and I just don’t want to sound like I’m kind of painting a rosy picture, but it really is an extraordinary place to work. I mean the talent of the correspondents there and also the producing team there are extraordinary. From the moment I started there, which was on 60 Minutes II, I was working with a producer name Bob Anderson who had been Mike Wallace’s producer for much of Mike’s career. And working with Michael Gavshon, who’s a producer who works with Bob Simon. Bob Simon is one of my idols in the news business and so to be able to learn, or travel with and learn from these people is extraordinary and it’s a whole different skill set, a whole different way of doing interviews. It’s a different way of shooting pieces and editing pieces and writing pieces and I love it. I’m not there enough to kind of see the inner workings, but when I am there, I found it to be brimming with a kind of intelligence and energy. Jeff Fager and Bill Owens, who run it, are extraordinary producers, and this process of screening pieces with them is kind of legendary. It’s incredibly exciting and it’s an amazing process to be a part of.
THR: How does doing a piece for 60 Minutes differ from, say, something you would do for CNN? Are you working a much bigger budget?
Cooper: We’ve done big-budget stuff at CNN in terms of hourlong documentaries and long investigations, like the Planet in Peril series. We traveled the world for CNN, but the amount of time you have to tell stories — in terms of the amount of time you have to make calls to research, or figure out who the best people are to talk to, or where the best places to go are — is incredibly high. Also, having a 12- or 13-minute piece is a long time to tell a good story.
THR: There was a rumor circulating recently that you were approached to take over from Alex Trebek as host of Jeopardy!. True or false?
Cooper: You know, I love Jeopardy!. I’m not sure where this got started. I just see everybody’s name mentioned as a possibility. I’m a Jeopardy! fan. I’ve been on Jeopardy! three times — maybe that’s where my name got thrown into this. But I hope Alex Trebek stays in that position for a long, long time to come because as a Jeopardy! fan, there’s nobody like Alex Trebek. I watch it every day. It’s on my DVR. And I hope to continue to compete on Jeopardy!, because I’ve won twice and I’ve lost once. When I lost, I lost to Cheech Marin, and that was pretty devastating. So I hope I have the opportunity to challenge Cheech again. I love the show, and I hope Alex stays on for a long time.
THR: What was your proudest moment of the past year?
Cooper: I was proud of our coverage of Newtown, and I’m proud of the tone and the effort we made to not focus on the killer and to focus on the victims and the lives they lived. That’s something I was proud of.
THR: Who is your mentor or someone you greatly admire?
Copper: At CNN, there’s a ton of people. You know, Wolf Blitzer is probably the hardest-working guy in the news business and I greatly admire him. Outside of CNN, I’d say Bob Simon at 60 Minutes is somebody that I admire hugely.
THR: What’s a story you’d love to get?
Cooper: I would still like to go to Syria. I’ve reported from just outside the border, but I’ve wanted to be inside for the longest time.
THR: What news competitors do you find yourself watching?
Cooper: I watch a wide variety of stuff. You know, I watch Bill O’ Reilly. I watch Rock Center. That’s not really a competitor, but you know, I like news so I watch a lot of stuff that’s out there. I don’t know. I think I’m ducking the question. I get so much of my news now from Twitter and I’m so involved with it. I’m at the office from 7 in the morning ’til 9, sometimes at 11, at night. So when I go home, I tend to watch, you know, The Walking Dead or something that completely takes my mind off the news.
THR: Do you watch any other TV show?
Cooper: I’m doing a lot of drama. I’ve seen of course Mad Men, but Walking Dead has been a favorite. I’ve also been watching a lot good stuff on DVR. I re-watched the entire five seasons of The Wire. I like The Killing. I used to watch a lot of reality. I don’t anymore. I really watch now a lot of hour dramas. I’ve re-watched Brideshead Revisited. Oh, sorry: Breaking Bad! I’m obsessed with Breaking Bad. Breaking Bad is my favorite.
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