Fennell, who for years was “that movie guy” on Triple J and is now co-host of The Feed on SBS Viceland, opened up to news.com.au about the interview that’s affected him the most over his 15-year media career.
“Children’s author Paul Jennings, who wrote Round the Twist, we actually spent a day with him in Victoria and filmed all around his house,” Fennell told news.com.au.
“His life in many ways is the story of Round the Twist — he was a single dad, he did live down the coast next to a lighthouse, he had a son named Bronson … but what tumbled out of that conversation is that he had a really damaged relationship with his dad.
“He casually mentioned in the interview that his dad didn’t love him.”
As Jennings explained about his dad in the interview: “I don’t think he wanted any competition for my mother. I think he particularly didn’t want a little boy.
“He once told me that I’d never be fit for anything except the workshop. It was sort of the lowest of the low, to him.
“When he came to my graduation he said, ‘Yeah, but you didn’t get honours.’ You know, I think I was a disappointment to him.”
Speaking about Jennings’ words, Fennell said: “It was a really raw moment for everyone involved. I still look back at that interview and it moves me tears, because it is so sad that this person that was so instrumental in the childhoods of so many Australian kids — millions of us were raised with Paul Jennings’ books and the TV show — to know that deep underneath that was a really unhappy childhood broke my heart.”
The children’s author isn’t the only celebrity who has been willing to open up to Fennell about something deeply personal.
Mark Ruffalo, who plays the Incredible Hulk in the Avengers films, was taken aback when Fennell brought up a painful memory from the movie star’s past.
“One of the interesting things I found out about him was he very nearly went deaf,” The Feed co-host told news.com.au.
“He had an illness … and sometimes when you find stuff out about people in research you go, ‘This was a long time ago, are they ready to talk about it? Have they moved past it? Do they not want to talk about it?’”
Fennell said he “sussed” Ruffalo out and decided to ask about the touchy subject.
“I brought it up and it’s always a scary moment when you bring up something from way, way back and you could see him go, ‘Oh wow!’” Fennell recalled.
“Not only did he powerfully talk about coming to terms with his own mortality because it was life threatening, but also coming to terms with the depression that came off the back of that.”
It’s a tribute to Fennell’s skill as an interviewer that he creates an environment in which stars feel safe enough to open up. But not every celeb wants to play ball.
“When I used to work for Channel 10 on The Circle, which was a job I loved, they sent me on a lot of junkets,” he said.
“I remember doing junkets with a few comedians. Kevin James was one of them and he wasn’t rude or mean but he just talked through me. Sometimes I find that it’s quite common with comedians where they’re so reliant on a bit that they don’t engage with you, they just talk through you. There are a few comedians who have been like that but he stands out.”
Of all the celebrities he’s interviewed over the years, it’s his 2017 chat with Hollywood megastar Tom Cruise that Fennell gets asked about the most.
“Even when they (the movie studio) offered the interview I just knew that (questions about) Scientology were not going to work,” he told news.com.au.
“The movie company … said, ‘Do you think you can do it (the interview) without talking that?’
“That was a real question mark for me. I was like, well, he’s one of the biggest movie stars on the planet, he’s been famous since he was a teenager, can you have an interesting conversation with Tom Cruise without talking about his faith? I did a big calculation and went, yes, you can.”
So what was Cruise like?
“He’s totally friendly but he just carries this intensity that I’ve never felt before,” Fennell told news.com.au. “My experience with most movie stars is that they all end up being very normal once you get into a conversation with them. Tom Cruise has a totally different energy.”
In tonight’s episode of The Feed, Fennell chats to Ryan Reynolds about his role in the Detective Pikachu movie. It’s another very “real” chat as the pair discuss Reynolds’ dad’s battle with Parkinsons.
“It ends up being quite emotional and enlightening in the end,” Fennell said.
Catch Marc Fennell on The Feed on SBS VICELAND, 8.30pm on Thursdays
What’s next for Marvel? Every film after Endgame1:51
Every confirmed and rumoured Marvel movie coming soon.