Television presenter and Irish descendant Dermot O’Leary jetted into Dublin yesterday (May 16) to present a workshop for the Coca Cola Cinemagic International Film and Television Festival for Young People. O’Leary held a three-hour workshop for 16-25 year-olds, telling them everything from how to get their foot in the door of the industry, and how to retain a position in television.
Having transformed one of the first television format reality shows since taking the helm from Kate Thornton in 2007, O’Leary has carved himself a successful career in the television world, being the go-to presenter for live formats such as the National Television Awards.
IFTN caught up with the ‘X Factor’ host to talk all things American ‘X Factor’, his top tips to succeeding in television, and why he still feels he has to prove himself after more than 10 years in the business.
You are patron of the Coca Cola Cinemagic International Film Festival for Young People, how did you get involved with the festival?
I got involved with them about 11 years ago, and I wanted to get involved with a few charities when I first started out and they got in touch with me. I went over to Belfast and they picked me up in old van, it had paint in the back, and they said ‘I’m really sorry but my car’s broken down so I’ve only got this decorator’s van’. So I got in the back of this van, and there’s literally paint sloshing around the back of it, and I just thought, the sheer romanticism of it, I have to sign up for these. So I’ve been involved with them ever since and the idea is they originated in Belfast but now they’re international, so it’s LA, New York and Dublin.
You hosted a workshop for aspiring television presenters for Cinemagic, how did that go?
They run masterclasses, screenings for 12-25 year-olds. It went really well, I try to focus on people who are either on the cusp of graduation or are in university, or really don’t know how to get into television or radio or film.
How did you get into television presenting?
I started out in television, I did work experience on radio, but then my first job was television. You just put the CV out there and you just bombard people with it. You get your first runner job off the back of that. It’s the same principles that have always been in television, it’s hard work, luck, talent, making yourself indispensible.
Do you think it’s worth sending out show reels, do producers even look at them?
That’s a good question, I think some people do. I think if you just get bombarded with them all the time probably not. In the workshop today, a lovely girl called Leanne, who is really very focused, seemed very hard-working, she is doing design at university, and wants to work in the field of landscape gardening but on television, which is such a sensible smart way of looking at it. I said you look at the executive producer of that show that you really like and you make sure they get the showreel, and I think if it lands on the right desk at the right time and if it’s channelled properly it can work.
How does working in TV compare to working in radio?
It’s obviously a lot more immediate, there’s nowhere to hide on radio. You find out who you are very quickly on radio. In television you can mask it quite well, and not deliberately, just subconsciously, you can use physicality on television you just can’t do it on radio. I mean, that sentence was three seconds yeah? On radio that seems like an eternity, on television that’s a pause.
It’s funny, when I first stared on Radio 2, Terry Wogan, whose always been a bit of a hero to me, said ‘Dermot, one thing I’ll say, never be afraid of the silence’. And it’s so true, I talk too fast anyway, I know I do, but it’s all about stripping that back and trying not to be afraid of the silence because before you know it if you speak fast you end up speaking faster. I don’t really listen to myself back much because for the simple reason I worry about how I sound, I always worry that I hear myself and go ‘Oh not that idiot, get him off’.
Obviously you’ve had a very successful career to date, how did you prove yourself in the world of presenting?
I think I’ve still got to prove myself, I’m still petrified about being out of work, still worried where the next gig is coming from, all those things. And it’s weird, someone asked me that today, about being afraid of the spare time, and it never goes away, ever. And I think that’s quite healthy.
It’s to do with upbringing. Because for the most part, people are from working class stock and if their parents aren’t working class they’re lower middle class, and their parents were working class, so really those values are permeated through. Those values are hard work, and it doesn’t matter how successful you are. People always talk about class, and class for me is all about values, it’s not about how well you do.
Do you find there are many working class people in the television industry?
I don’t think there are many working class people to be honest, period. But I think most people that work in telly have a strong work ethic.
In between shooting the ‘X Factor’, before you’ve been given the green light, is there ever a fear that you’re not coming back, as has happened to so many of Simon Cowell’s employees?
No, that doesn’t mean it’s not going to happen, it will one day, and it might happen soon, but I don’t. You can’t be driven by fear, otherwise you try and be someone you’re not, if you try and second-guess what someone else wants I actually think that kind of lines the way of ruin. The minute you start hosting because it’s what you think someone wants in style, rather than how you’d naturally do it, you’re screwed.
How does ‘X Factor’ in 2012 compare to when you took over from Kate Thornton in 2007?
I feel a lot more comfortable, I feel like I’ve got my personality stamped on it now, I feel like it’s home. And Simon said that to me half-way through, I think after one or two years he said ‘Look, you’ve got the gig under your belt now, now have fun with it, play around with it, push me more’ and I really needed that little green light.
Are you glad you didn’t get the US ‘X Factor’ job and suffer the same fate as Steve Jones?
You never know what would have happened. I’ll always think I would love to have given that gig a go, because I think I could have done some good stuff with it.
Do you think you could have done better than Steve?
I think I could have done some good stuff with it! But you’d be remissive if you didn’t ask me that, but, at the same time, I think the last year doing ‘X Factor’ in Britain, was probably my favourite year, so it’s kind of two sides of a coin really. I really really enjoyed it.
People read into that the wrong way, they go ‘oh you want to go to America and leave us behind’. I wanted to do both, I didn’t want to leave England or Britain at all, I wanted to commute between the two, but I knew the people behind, myself, some members of the production team, had a point to prove. And we beat American ‘X Factor’ in the ratings, so we proved it last year, and we’re very proud that we put together a good show and now we’re getting new challenges, like ‘The Voice’ comes along, we’ve got a new challenge there.
Why have audiences stayed with the ‘X Factor’ when new formats such as ‘The Voice’ come along at the same time?
I think they trust it to deliver the entertainment, and I think people know what it is on the tin. I think the format is incredibly robust, it will survive without me in a heartbeat. You can get rid of me tomorrow and within a month someone else will come in and do that show. There’s no false modesty there, if it can survive without Simon, which it can, because it has, then it can survive without me.
So it’s a hugely robust format, not that I want to leave or anything! It’s one of those beautiful shows that takes itself seriously and not seriously at all and can poke fun at itself. It’s a warm show in terms of the fact it’s real, it’s lovely to work on a show that’s totally cross generational. Your granny’s over there, your nipper’s over there, and everyone’s got an opinion about it.
Working on live television, how important is it to have a great crew behind the scenes?
Working on live television is the best. It’s hugely important to have a good crew, absolutely huge, and that’s a lovely thing. The stage hands at the ‘X Factor’ for example, are totally top of their game. We talk about obviously cameramen, directors all of that, and they have always got to be great, but you’ve no idea on a live show like that that’s two hours long, the intricacy of getting the staging, of getting people off, getting another stage in, all the bricks have got to be on, everything’s got to bolstered, everything’s got to work at exactly the right time, and that crew never miss a beat, they’re marines, they’re unbelievable.
Do you prefer live television to other formats?
I only like to do live telly really, but the good thing about a long pre-recorded interview is that you can get into something, you can delve a bit deeper, but live television and radio is truly exciting.
How long would you say it took you to perfect live television, without making mistakes?
I don’t think you can ever perfect it. I think there’s always room for improvement and I’ll always look back and go ‘I should have done that differently’. You learn pretty quickly whether you sink or swim on live.
Who has been your favourite person to interview to date?
I had a situation recently, if you ask me this question in five minutes times I might give you a different answer, it’s one of those things, but, me and the lads that do the radio show got a call saying Paul McCartney will give you a half hour tomorrow, and we were like (makes vomit noise). So we went to his office, and we got on so well with him. He gave us 40 minutes, he was so giving and magnanimous, then I mentioned I loved ‘Pipes of Peace’, and he sent me some ‘Pipes of Peace’ artwork which was such a really sweet thing to do.
Then we ended up interviewing him again, down in the studio near Hastings, and we had this wonderful moment where he took us upstairs and he was showing us his office and he had loads of music memorabilia, and he said ‘See that over there, it’s Elvis’ bass’. So he goes and gets it, and we were like ‘Did you meet Elvis’ and he was like ‘Yeah, can you imagine what it was like, there’s Elvis there where you are, and his bass player’s here, and I’m over there, and Elvis starts playing ‘Well since my baby left me…’ so he starts playing ‘Heartbreak Hotel. And he goes to us ‘can you imagine what that was like?’ And we’re going ‘Well yeah, because this is incredibly cool, you’re playing ‘Heartbreak Hotel on Elvis’ bass and you’re Paul McCartney!’
What was your worst interview?
I had an early interview with Mick Hucknall that didn’t go down very well, and I accidentally called Ian Brown a ‘scally’ and that didn’t go down very well either!
What are your tips for people trying to make it in the media industry?
The most important thing is to start behind the camera. Learn the trade, make yourself indispensible, be prepared to work long hours, be prepared to work harder than your friends, and be prepared to fall out with your friends and family because you’ll miss quite a lot of stuff. But it’s worth it.
‘X Factor’ will air on TV3 in early September 2012. The Coca Cola Cinemagic International Film and Television Festival for Young People will return to Dublin in June to continue master classes and public screenings