Tonight, NBC’s latest edition of The Celebrity Apprentice comes to a close, with Oscar winner Marlee Matlin and country music star John Rich going head-to-head for the title and even more money for their respective charities. Before their showdown, both Marlee and John checked in with me to chat about their experiences on the show. They may be the two most gracious opponents I’ve ever interviewed.
(If you missed it earlier, you can also check out my earlier interview with fellow Celebrity Apprentice contestant Hope Dworaczyk.)
You’ve been tough competitors all season long. What do you think makes each other so formidable?
John Rich: Let’s start off with how smart Marlee is, because she’s wickedly smart. And she’s also very funny; she has a great sense of humor and is very charming. She’s able to really get a lot done. You know, when she’s project manager or when she’s even part of the team, she can really get a lot of things done.
But I think there’s other elements to Marlee that make her a very powerful person. One is she’s a mom. She’s a great mom; she has several kids. And I have all the respect in the world for moms. It’s the hardest job there is. She’s a great mom, she’s a dynamic personality. And of course she’s overcome her deafness. She has overcome a huge challenge and has gone on to accomplish great, great things and has not let that slow her down at all and is really one of the strongest people I’ve ever met. I would consider her like a superhero.
She’s just a great person. And from the very beginning of Celebrity Apprentice, there was definitely a mutual respect from across the room between the two of us. Just an unspoken thing, it was hard to describe. But it just was looks we would give each other every now and then that was just an understanding of, “We’re both here for our charities. We’re serious about this,” and that we were going to compete all the way as far we could. It was always there, you could feel it in the air between the two of us.
Marlee Matlin: Thank you, John, that’s very sweet. I’ll make sure that the check comes to you later for all those wonderful things that you said about me.
I would have to say when I first heard that John Rich was on the show, I have to admit that as a person who’s deaf, I didn’t know who he was as a musician. But I knew as soon as I had heard that he represented country music, and naturally Nashville and the hat that he wore when he came in, and the charity that he was playing for, I understood — as John mentioned — a very important position that he held here. There was an instant and an immediate sense of respect. It was just about eye contact. I’m good at reading people’s faces, and the moment I looked in his eyes I knew that he was a formidable competitor.
What was most impressive was that he was there for the same reason I was there for; it wasn’t about the drama, it was about the charity. His passion for Saint Jude’s is so incredible. We both shared a passion for our charities in a way that nobody else could. I knew he was there for a good reason. And I saw that every moment of the day that he worked. He was very, very proud as a dad with his baby boy and his wife, who were always there having his back. As a family person I understood what and where he came from, and his compassion for the kids and the charity.
In addition, he couldn’t have been a more polite and a more gentlemanly presence. He kept to himself as a good game player would. He was mature, [but had a] sense of humor as well. He got me, and I got him. And I didn’t at any time with him feel as if somehow just because I’m deaf I’m somehow different.
I really have the utmost respect for John Rich — not only as a country singer but also as a gentleman and person who has good intentions for people, and for those in situations where they have to struggle.
John Rich: That was very nice, Marlee. Thank you very much.
Marlee Matlin: You’re welcome.
John, you’ve spoken a few times of your close relationship with rapper Lil Jon, who competed alongside you this season. Can you speak more to that? Because that was a really unique partnership.
John Rich: It did feel like a very important relationship. Not only because Lil Jon and I are really great friends, but as an example to our two audiences that, you know, cowboys and rappers can get along and work hard for charities and break down some of those stereotypes. Lil Jon and I actually did record something together and it’s on a record coming out right now called Rich Rocks. Lil Jon appears on that record as a guest artist and it’s a really cool thing.
I’ve had a huge response from all the country fans that [they’re] really liking Lil Jon too. And from his side he tells me there’s a lot of his fans that are starting to look at my music. It’s just a great relationship all the way around.
Marlee Matlin: I was supposed to be a backup singer but my schedule wouldn’t accomodate it.
John Rich: That’s right. And tambourine and dancing, too, I thought.
Marlee Matlin: Actually, I was supposed to be in charge of the cowbell.
John Rich: I’m part of a duo called Big & Rich, and we’re known for being probably the most crazy, aggressive country music out there. We’re a party band. Lil Jon liked the Big & Rich stuff, we liked Lil Jon. I like his music, I like his production and some of just the crazy songs that he’s done. And I remember shaking hands with him at an awards show. It wasn’t like we became best friends or anything, because we live in different towns, but any time I was in Atlanta or L.A. — because he’s back and forth between those two towns –I’d always call him, and every now and then he would come through Nashville and he would always call me. We kept in touch.
When I decided I was going to go be on Celebrity Apprentice, I actually called Lil Jon to tell him I was going to be on a TV show and that I might need him to help me out at some point. He started laughing and said, “Too late, because I’m on the same show.” We just laughed our heads off when we realized that. It was at that point I said, “Oh, this is going to be fun because I don’t know how I’ll do on the show, but I know I’ll have a friend in there, somebody that I think a lot of, and somebody that’s a lot of fun.”
You’ve both had some difficulties with other people on your team – John working with Gary Busey, and then Marlee having to deal with the feud between Star Jones and NeNe Leakes. What have you learned from those situations?
John Rich: It is a management situation with Gary. I can tell you that Gary, as everybody saw, has these moments of complete clarity and genius thought. And then the rest of the time he’s kind of like a tornado; he tears up a lot. It was all about giving him a job that you knew he could do well at and excel with.
It was a big lesson being around him because it was a constant challenge to your focus. Gary’s really loud, and he’s really kind of going all directions, and you can’t let that throw you off your game. You can’t let that get your mind off of why you’re there, which is to win the task or to raise money, or whatever it is you’re doing that exact minute. You have to do it well to stay in the game and get to the point that we’re at now.
I like Gary Busey. I [have] nothing against Gary Busey at all. Matter of fact, I hope to spend time with him in the future. He’s hilarious and he’s intense, and I’m glad that I know him.
Marlee Matlin: I don’t know if it’s necessarily a lesson learned, but I knew myself that whatever surrounded the relationship that [Star and NeNe] had and whatever drama came, I didn’t choose to involve it, in terms of the way I played the game. It’s just not [what] I’m about. It’s not the kind of person that I am. I don’t find it entertaining to get involved in people’s arguments. It was about the two of them.
Both of them have different opinions. Both of them come from two different [mindsets]. They both have different backgrounds. Clearly they have different careers. And that’s to be respected. But whatever clash that occurred, I just decided to focus on the task. I really did. Sometimes it overshadowed the purpose and my aim for being there, which was to raise money for charity, but I would never let it get in the way.
You’ve also both had to work with Meat Loaf, and we’ve seen that he can go through a whole spectrum of emotions, which ultimately proved to be his undoing.
Marlee Matlin: All I can say is that he’s extremely passionate. As I said on the show, he’s like a tornado on crack. And in a good way.
When it was his turn and he took over the comedy routine task, I understood that he was very upset one morning. And he was there in the van waiting and he was sobbing. That threw me for a loop, because I just never knew that he was this kind of guy. But I learned that this is only out of his heart, this is only out of his compassion for the charity that he was playing for. And all I saw was a guy who was so compassionate about raising money and how concerned he was that the money would be taken away. It was all about the kids and not for him.
He is completely selfless. He is completely giving. And yet he can go off track, but at the same time, who doesn’t who’s that compassionate about charity? I’d love to do a movie with him. He’s really fantastic. I really, really am glad to have him as my friend, and to work with him for those two tasks.
John Rich: I would say that the Gary Busey/Meat Loaf – we call it the meltdown – that was the toughest thing that I believe I dealt with, because I was project manager [at the time]. I’m fans of both of them, and they’re quite a bit older than me. I mean they’re up around my dad’s age. I think Meatloaf is 62. And I’m not exactly sure of Gary’s age. But I definitely felt like the junior member, you know, I’m 37.
I’m looking at these guys going, “Okay, what can I say to these guys to make this stop?” Because Meat Loaf was not playing around. And I don’t think Gary was in touch enough with the situation to understand that Meat Loaf wasn’t playing around. It was about one second away from something really irreversible happening there, something bad, and I didn’t want to see that happen for anybody’s sake.
I took a breath. It seemed like everything kind of went in slow motion for a minute and the light bulb went off in my mind, “Remind these guys that we are here for charity, and our charities are going to be watching this episode and this is embarrassing.” As soon as I said that, it extinguished everything. Meat Loaf just relaxed and went, “Oh my God, what have I just done?” Gary Busey stepped back into his corner and went, “Wow, we got to stop this.” And to me that was a critical few seconds that happened in the show.
And you know what? I think I handled it the right way. And back to the point of you’re there for charity. I know we say that a lot. But if we were all there for just drama, I would have just let the thing go. I would have just stepped back to see what was going to happen. But that was not what was best.
With all the personalities that you two have worked with over this season, can you talk about how you picked your final teams?
Marlee Matlin: My choices were most appropriate for my task. I understood the icons in the 70’s. I knew John would probably be better with 80’s because he’s younger than I am. I wanted to play to my strength as opposed to [his] weakness, and I [thought] taking on a music task might take away from John’s passion. I don’t pretend. I don’t like to play games. I want to play something that I am strong with.
Meat Loaf, he’s an icon of the 70’s. Richard Hatch was older and he certainly understood the 70’s as well as I understood the 70’s. La Toya Jackson, in all honesty, was my last choice. It was a schoolyard pick. I probably would have taken someone other than La Toya. But she’s a Jackson, and she knows all about performing, all about the 70’s. All three members of my team certainly fit for the task I was given. These people all represented that decade as best as I could get it.
John Rich: The first thing that entered my mind when I saw that we were going to be marketing a beverage was the beverage. As I’m looking at the folks we have to pick from, there’s only one person in that group that I know for a fact has successfully marketed millions of dollars worth of beverages, and that’s Lil Jon. Everybody knows about Crunk Juice and the stuff that he’s done. The guy has made untold money marketing beverages, and not only that, he’s a great marketing mind in general. So I said, “You know what, he’s a no-brainer for the first pick for me.”
Mark McGrath I thought exited the show too early; it was his own fault because you can’t say, “If we lose it’s all my fault.” He set himself up and got knocked out of the show. But there’s a frenzy about him that I like. Lots of energy, lots of ideas. I knew that Lil Jon was a little out of gas because we had kept going this whole time [and] Mark was fresh. Plus Mark’s a rocker. He loves 80’s rock. He’s a huge fan of hair metal and all that.
I have obviously seen how Star Jones works when she’s working against you. And I just had to believe that if Star Jones was working for you and with you, she could be unbelievably effective. [She] could keep the team really focused, and really on our timeline, and really take out any of the guess work on what you’re supposed to do and when you’re supposed to do it – all the stuff that can get in the way of your creative thinking. And I think I wound up with a really strong team.
My thanks to Marlee Matlin & John Rich for this interview! Don’t forget to check out the finale of Celebrity Apprentice tonight at 9 PM ET/PT on NBC to see which of them prevails.
(c)2011 Brittany Frederick/Digital Airwaves. All rights reserved.