An Interview with Sheila Nevins

Kathleen Hale
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This issue features a “micro-interview” with Sheila Nevins, HBO’s “de Medici” of television.

–Kathleen Hale


THE BELIEVER: You’re very good at saying no to people. Is this a skill you had to hone, or were you born with it?

SHEILA NEVINS: I’m scared of a lot of things, so no is a protection. It’s easier than going out. I don’t like to go out; I don’t like to make talk, to be judged. No is easier. No means you can get home and read, or watch TV, do work—and if you say no, people don’t expect yes. For instance, they had a party for Larry Kramer, at the wrap-up for our Larry Kramer bio, and I love Larry. I probably visited him fifty times since we made this film. But the idea of this dear man—this dear, impossible man—going to a party at Cowgirl—or whatever it is, on West Tenth Street—with the crew was like… I would pay not to go to that party. So I didn’t go. Nobody expected me to go. As a matter of fact, the woman who invited me said, “I’m sorry, I know you don’t go to parties,” and I said, “No, I don’t”—but it was fine because nobody got insulted, because even Larry, who went, said, “Oh, yeah, Sheila doesn’t like parties.” I don’t like to talk to people. I want to go home. But I was happy that they did it for Larry, and if I’d thought it would have mattered to him, or that I hadn’t loved him enough, I would have gone. For myself, I would never go to one of those things. I’ll go to the HBO party this year, but only because I don’t want to be invisible in California, not because I like parties. I’m comfortable performing, but not with small talk.


BLVR: People often call you zany—you know this. You have a reputation for being kooky, which is annoying and sexist because you’re actually just smart and funny.

SN: I don’t think I’m kooky, per se. I have a very good sense of humor, which is off-putting, and I use it to disguise the ferocity of my intent. I can make people laugh, and it amuses people that I can do that. It’s calculated on my part. I grew up as a woman playing dodge football with men, so I had to come up with a form of dodge that wasn’t obvious. I can sit in a room full of men and tell a joke and rearrange the power structure. Once you make people laugh, they turn toward you.

BLVR: Is your appearance and how you dress calculated in any way to disarm people?

SN: I once saw an interview that we never used that Oliver Stone did with Castro. He said to Castro, “Why do you have a beard?” and Castro said something like [Nevins launches into full Castro voice] “I’m not going to spend forty minutes a day grooming my face! Add it up and I will live less!”

So I would say it’s sort of a ’60s calculated schlumpiness, never really revealing too many body parts. In the beginning it was calculated. I didn’t want to be a sexual creature. But it’s also a uniform, with the basic intention being to simplify my life. It’s become my style. Tomorrow will be the fifteenth day I’ve worn this. I get up, throw it in the wash, go to the gym, switch it to the dryer, and wear it. It’s worked so far. Nobody notices it, or at least they pretend not to, because I change my earrings.


BLVR: You have a background in theater and television production. But TV audiences aren’t captive like theater audiences—

SN: Oh yes, but that’s your job: to get them captive. You have to look at the television as if it’s theater. And if they’re not watching, it’s your fault.

BLVR: How do you do that?

SN: You fail a lot. You stay up at night a lot. You get bored easily. You use ADD to your advantage. ADD doesn’t help in school, but in television it’s an asset, because that deficit in grabbing your attention makes you have to grab attention. So you try to be interesting. It doesn’t always work.

BLVR: How important is it to get a viewer’s attention right away?

SN: Critical. It’s like looking good. At your age, you just walk into the room. That’s the problem with getting older, isn’t it? I have to work harder at looking good, but I do it because it’s crucial to make an impact. It’s the same with docus. You have to hook them in the first five minutes. I always assume that nobody’s interested in anything, whether it’s Gloria or the Iceman. I just assume people are going to be bored—and based on that assumption, you construct the magnet that sucks them in.

BLVR: Have you come up with any—

SN: No, there’s no magic formula. There’s no such thing as experience. It’s always different. Every story requires a different set of sleepless nights. I don’t believe in formulas; I believe in persistence, and the assumption that we die.


BLVR: Do you empathize with all your subjects? Have you ever hated a subject or fallen in love with one?

SN: I’ve never hated a subject, no matter how ruthless or insane or brutal they may be, because I’ve always been grateful that they are willing to be observed. I’m bewitched by their frankness and their willingness to go forward with their pain or their sorrow or their pathology. I find that to be very courageous. I’m not sure that I would be brave enough to do that, so I’ll be very careful now with you.

BLVR: What has been your experience interviewing serial killers?

SN: The Iceman?

BLVR: Specifically the Iceman. [Richard Kuklinski, a.k.a. the Iceman, was a hired hit man for the Mafia who was convicted of five murders but claimed to have killed more than one hundred people in the 1950s, ’60s, and ’70s.]

SN: I thought Richard Kuklinski was a nice guy. He sent me a birthday card on my forty-fifth birthday that he had hand-stenciled. This is what he did all day, because they couldn’t let him out of his cage, because he wanted to kill everyone— so they kept him in isolation, and he would stencil. I’ve never known a man who spent so much time wishing me happy birthday.

BLVR: What about Gloria Steinem?

SN: I was scared of her. She was perfect. At least [Richard Kuklinski] was imperfect. Gloria Steinem descended from heaven; she’s magic; she just floats down.


BLVR: You first started working for HBO in 1979. How has your experience being a woman at HBO changed over the course of your time there?

SN: Well, like you, I was very young, and very pretty, and very flirted-after. This was before all the rules about sex harassment. If someone said something dirty to you, or called you up on the phone and told you to meet them later, you couldn’t really tell anybody, because you didn’t want to lose your job. If you went out with someone for business and they put their hand on your upper thigh, you didn’t really take it off, because you wanted the job. It wasn’t just HBO; it was the environment. It was somewhere around the tenth year when I got my gumption. Then there was a women’s movement, which I was not active in, I was just infected by, and I think I started to push people away—and also I was married. It was hard—all the sex innuendo and the dirty jokes, the come-ons. It was very overt. Men were proud of it. But I didn’t know to feel sad and I didn’t know to feel outraged, and maybe that was for the best, because had I been, at that point—outraged rather than submissive—I don’t think that I would have succeeded.

Although who knows, maybe I would have been more successful. Looking back, I never really realized that I was a woman, per se, except in those moments.

BLVR: I’m wondering, how does insecurity factor into your success?

SN: I always see what’s missing. I always know it can be better. Everything can be better. You can look better, dress better, eat better, work better—you can be everything more. I think it’s an asset, because people who seem to know are bluffing. Always. There’s nothing worse than a confident person, because they just fall and trip all over themselves. But I would like to have that. I would like to earn that.

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