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Picking Top 10 best interviews of 2014: Not easy!

During a year I was fortunate enough to talk to literally hundreds of people, most of them extremely accomplished and utilizing their talents in many creative ways. Here are 10 of them whose conversations revealed insights into their lives and careers that, I feel, gave Sun-Times readers added value as this column reported on our contemporary popular culture.

1. CLIVE DAVIS: When I sat down with the legendary music mogul in his Manhattan office earlier this fall, I had no idea I was about to be given two hours with the man responsible for crafting and fine-tuning the careers of such stars as Barry Manilow, Janis Joplin, Alicia Keys, Rod Stewart and Carlos Santana. The purpose on this particular September afternoon was to witness Davis sharing his mixes of Aretha Franklin’s new “Diva” album and Chicago’s Jennifer Hudson’s “J-Hud” disc — and to hear his rationale for picking the performances he did for his beloved Whitney Houston’s “Greatest Live Performances” on DVD and CD.

That day, Davis left me with an important message about why he continues to be such a joyous champion of modern music: He still is as enthusiastic about his job, as he was a half-century ago.

As he pointed out how Franklin so effortlessly — yet artfully — transitioned “Rolling in the Deep” into “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough,” and then back to “Rolling in the Deep,” Davis’ face beamed like a kid getting his first bicycle: “Isn’t that sensational!” the music master exclaimed. “These are the moments in music that I find so thrilling.”

2. JOAN RIVERS: When I spoke to my longtime friend Joan back in February, naturally I had no idea she would be gone within six months. Rivers was at the top of game, and her career was going as well as it ever had. I had called to chat about a Chicago appearance at Columbia College, but our conversation touched on everything from Jay Leno’s retirement to her red carpet appearances and often harsh (though usually hilarious) fashion critiques of the stars.

Rivers was never one to shy away from sharing her honest opinions, even if those thoughts could sting. As for “The Tonight Show,” where Johnny Carson had banned her after she launched a competing show on Fox, Rivers was blunt about the departure of Leno, who never lifted that ban (though new host Jimmy Fallon did over the summer).

“The whole [Jay] Leno thing. Ah, the great goodbye. Everyone gushing about what a great man he is,” said Rivers. “Meanwhile, we know how he screwed Conan O’Brien. Come on, give me a break!

“When I talk to the kids at Columbia College, I’m going to tell them how to tell the difference between truth and fantasy — and there’s a lot of fantasy out there, being peddled as truth.”

3. KEVIN COSTNER: After not having spoken to the Oscar winner in a couple of years, I had the chance to catch up with Costner twice in 2014 — first to first talk about his “Draft Day” football film, and then right before he returned to Iowa for the 25th anniversary of the release of his iconic baseball saga, “Field of Dreams.” In both interviews — three months apart — the actor and director explained why the best films with sports themes are the ones that are about much more than just playing a game.

Great sports films, he said, “need to be a little less about sports and a little more about people and relationships,” noting his “Field of Dreams,” “Bull Durham” and “Tin Cup” movies were that way. “Those sports [in the films] were merely the backdrop.”

As for “Field of Dreams” and its silver anniversary, Costner stressed that film’s ability to move beyond the baseball theme at its foundation: “It’s like our generation’s ‘It’s a Wonderful Life.’ It’s like something you can share. And when you watch it with someone who may not have seen it before, out of the corner of your eye, you can watch to see if tears come to the other person’s eyes. And they always do!”

4. DICK CAVETT: Just having the opportunity to talk to the former longtime TV talk show host — prior to his coming to Chicago to be honored by the Museum of Broadcast Communications — was an enormous treat. Cavett effortlessly shared stories about the stars he had interviewed over the years. A favorite memory was from when Cavett interviewed comedian Mort Sahl, who shared his feelings about a coming trend “way back in the ’70s, if not the ’60s. He predicted that some 20 years or so from now, everyone in America would have his own talk show, and it’s almost come to that.” With that famous chuckle of his, Cavett added, “It’s hardly an honor anymore. … Just think of it. Think of how much of a seer Sahl was — saying that way before we even dreamed of anything like the Internet or social media or YouTube.”

5. ANSEL ELGORT: One of the most thoughtful young stars I’ve interviewed in recent years is “Divergent” star Ansel Elgort. As we discussed his preparation to play cancer patient Gus (opposite his “Divergent” co-star Shailene Woodley) in “The Fault in Our Stars,” the 20-year-old actor talked about spending time with critically ill kids battling all kinds of cancers.

“The main thing you learn is they are just kids. Yes, they are dealing with very hard health issues, but first and foremost, they are kids first — with being artists or writers or athletes or students next. Being a cancer patient is pretty far down the chain for them.

“I found out it wasn’t what defined them — or they were going to allow to define them. But more than anything, I learned a lot of lessons about courage and resilience. It’s something I’ll never forget.”

That’s the kind of insight this young man exhibits so effortlessly — making me know his will be a career we, too, will long notice and remember.

“The Fault in Our Stars” was a big hit, grossing more than $125 million at the U.S. box office through this fall.

6. SCARLETT JOHANSSON: While this versatile actress plays a lot of dramatic roles, it’s always fun to remember — when talking to her away from a movie set — is how funny she is in real life. When we talked back in July about “Lucy,” Johansson was about to give birth to her baby daughter, Rose. Considering that in “Lucy” her title character has the CPH4 chemical growing inside her — something that forms naturally in pregnant women — the actress readily saw the irony of then being pregnant herself.

When she was filming “Lucy,” Johansson said she kept asking the producers and director Luc Besson, “‘What is this CPH4? This hormonal thing is so hard for me to get my head around!’

“It is funny, indeed, how in the film there’s this life form I’m ingesting — and then it happens to me naturally in real life!”

Making a comment about her earlier film “Her,” where only her voice is heard as she plays the computer operating system Joaquin Phoenix falls in love with, Johansson said that film has had a direct personal impact upon her.

“I’m acutely aware that when I talk on the phone now, that’s what most people are thinking about. They will drift in the conversation, and I know they are listening more to the tone of my voice than what I’m actually telling them! I now often feel like a character in my own life!”

7. CHADWICK BOSEMAN: Another very intelligent — as well as gracious — young actor is Chadwick Boseman, who rated raves for his portrayal of James Brown in “Get On Up.” Yet, when we talked at the legendary Apollo Theatre in New York’s Harlem, back in late July, the actor talked about his hesitation to play the “Godfather of Soul.”

“Having just played Jackie Robinson [in ’42’] was part of it, but I knew that James Brown was so complicated. Obviously it was capturing the real person that I knew was going to be a tremendous challenge.

“But then, there was much that was projected in the public eye. There were the parodies and all the imitators. So I didn’t know how we could walk the line and negotiate all those things.”

Boseman achieved his Brown performance by largely staying in character on the film’s set, even when he wasn’t shooting a scene. But it became clear that — unlike other actors who remain in character 24/7 — he couldn’t do that. “It would be weird to spend time with the people in your real life — the people you know and love — in character. That would be dangerous and just not cool,” added Boseman.

8. RORY KENNEDY: As one of the daughters of the late Robert F. Kennedy and an active member of one of America’s premiere political dynasties, Rory Kennedy has found a way to carve out her own niche to participate in a life of public service. That way has been to become an award-winning, well-respected documentary filmmaker. When we talked about her latest effort, “Last Days in Vietnam” — which likely could earn Kennedy an Oscar nomination this year — she exhibited her family’s well-known penchant for being articulate. The filmmaker made it clear that she had no intention of making a film that was blatantly political. Instead it was important to her to document the personal cost of war, especially on the people left behind in Vietnam, who had been allies, employees and associates of the Americans during our long engagement in Southeast Asia.

“I’ve always been fascinated by Vietnam,” said Kennedy. “I consider it to be a seminal event in our nation’s history.” Yet, at first, she was reluctant to tackle the project because “so much had been done on Vietnam. I wondered if I could add anything new to it.”

The convincing factor came as she researched the project and realized, “there was so much I didn’t know. I was kind of blown away by how dramatic the story was, how incredible it was, and how little I actually did know.”

I had the exact same reaction watching Kennedy’s powerful documentary. Even as someone who lived through the Vietnam era as a high school and college student, I was amazed at the treasure trove of new material Kennedy uncovered in “Last Days in Vietnam.”

9. REESE WITHERSPOON: Having interviewed this Oscar-winning actress since one of her very early successes with “Election,” back in 1999, it’s been fun to watch her mature and grow and diversify her career portfolio.

However, when I sat down with Witherspoon in a sunny canyon in Southern California a couple of months ago, I discovered I was talking to a woman who had definitely been changed by the experience of filming “Wild.” Based on Cheryl Strayed’s harrowing journey, trekking the Pacific Crest Trail from Mexico to Canada, “Wild” not only starred Witherspoon but was a film she also produced. It’s been a big year for the Academy Award winner, since she also produced the blockbuster “Gone Girl.”

There was a different kind of glint in Witherspoon’s always radiant eyes as we talked about “Wild.” We use the term “life-changing” perhaps a bit too frequently, but in the actress’ gaze I saw the confidence born of having gone through a real life-affirming experience making this movie.

(It reminded me of the look in Angelina Jolie’s eyes while interviewing her in 2003 for “Beyond Borders,” that film about Africa that inspired Jolie’s own involvement in humanitarian causes.)

For Witherspoon, making “Wild” was “probably one of of the most important if not the most important thing I’ve done in my career so far. There were no tricks or mirrors here. This was actually out in the wilderness. It was incredibly physically challenging. … It was more importantly a real emotional journey for me,” as by playing Strayed and getting to know the woman herself, “I learned one of the most important things in life is finding your best self,” which Witherspoon now says she will dedicate herself to doing the rest of her own life.

10. TONY GOLDWYN: When I spoke to the actor back in June about his performance as Warren Jeffs in the Lifetime film about the infamous polygamist religious cult leader, we quickly got to Goldwyn’s more popular role as President Fitzgerald Grant on “Scandal.”

Goldwyn, who said he has always followed politics pretty closely, admitted he now is even more aware of and in tune with our political scene. “But I consider myself an honorary insider,” said Goldwyn with a laugh. “I’m definitely NOT an insider for real. I already was a political junkie and now even more so. … Of course, I can never possibly imagine what it’s like to deal with the pressures of being the president of the United States. It’s hard to try to imagine that every second of every day the pressure and the stakes are so high.”

Along those lines, when Goldwyn actually met President Obama at the White House Correspondents Dinner earlier this year, the Commander-in-Chief quipped, “Where’s your grey hair? You look so relaxed!” That led Goldwyn to wisely retort, “My job’s not nearly as hard as yours, sir!”

Well said indeed.