by Terry Birdsall
photography by Amy Babin
What does Ross Mathews want to be when he grows up? A television talk show host. Ross’ dream began at age 8 after watching several talk shows with his mother during summer vacations in Mount Vernon, Wash. One of his favorite shows was “Regis and Kathy Lee.” “I was intrigued by what they did, talking to celebrities, being funny and putting something good out in the world,” explains Ross.
As he grew older the fascination grew with him. “I just knew this was something I wanted to do.” Ross, 22, a University of La Verne senior, received his first big break on the last day of his internship on the Tonight Show with Jay Leno. “One hour before they taped the show, I was sitting in the director’s booth when I got a call to go into the head writer’s office, now! I thought something was wrong.”
To his surprise, the head writer told him that arrangements had been made for him to meet George Clooney, star of the movie “Ocean’s 11,” on the Tonight Show. The head writer said, “We’re going to send you to the ‘Oceans 11’ premiere to interview celebrities and do a segment for us. Is that something you would like to do?” Ross was shocked beyond belief. “I knew that someone was giving me the biggest shot ever,” he exclaims. “Most people get the ‘Wake-up, Omaha’ for their first big shot; I got my first big shot on the ‘Tonight Show’ so I just knew I had to prove what I could do.” He is the first intern the Tonight Show has ever put on TV according to Carrie Simons, NBC entertainment senior press manager.
The preparation for the premiere was simple. “I get to ask the average questions the average Joe wants to ask,” he says excitedly. “In a way I was speaking on behalf of all the people in the world.”
Even though Ross has training as a journalist, his human nature is simply to interact with people. Obsessed with celebrities, he studies entertainment magazines to learn all the movies people have been in, awards they have won and their relationships. “My goal is to memorize every academy award given out,” he says with confidence.
Although Ross has the star struck gaze in his eyes, he is quickly able to come down to earth and speak with celebrities as if they were his peers, says René Mooshey, 28, Tonight Show receptionist. At the premiere, he asked questions that were fun and entertaining. “I think it’s nice for the celebrities to get a break,” says Ross. “It’s something fresh when they come to me because they are always asked the exact same questions in that environment.”
David Duchovony from the television show “X Files” was his first interview ever. Ross giggled and laughed as he told David he was his first. Shannen Doherty, from the television shows “Beverly Hills 90210″and “Charmed,” was delighted when Ross exclaimed, “I love you, I love you.” Matt Damon played along with Ross and posed with a picture of a girl who wanted it to be shown to someone hot. Brad Pitt responded with harmless threats to Jay Leno for getting Ross to tease him about his recent appearance on the show in bed with a “Fat Guy.”
George Clooney had told Ross he thought it would be funny if he dissed him at the premiere. “Listen, don’t follow me anymore,” said Clooney, with a stern look on his face.
After the premiere, Ross appeared on the Tonight Show with Jay Leno. Jay told him “nice job.” Ross responded, “Oh my God was it fun. I had the time of my life.”
He did such a great job that the Tonight Show producers sent him to do the premiere of the movie “Vanilla Sky.” It was a chilly night, but nothing could stop Ross. He was on a roll. Penelope Cruz spoke Spanish to Ross. He replied, “Hola.” “That’s very good,” said Penelope. Cameron Crowe, one of Ross’s favorite directors, enjoyed bantering back and forth with Ross. “This was one of my favorite interviews because I really got to prove to Crowe how much his work meant to me,” Ross says. He told Crowe that “Almost Famous” was one of his favorite movies. Cameron answered, “I have to go home.” Ross says, “He was testing me to see if I knew the next lines, when I moved my hand like “E.T.” in front of his face and said, ‘You are home.'” According to Ross, the interview lasted about 10 minutes, and as Cameron was going down the line, he would look back, and they would laugh at each other.
Two weeks after the premiere, Crowe was a guest on the “Tonight Show,” and he asked whether Ross would come in and hang out with him in his dressing room. So Ross drove from La Verne to Burbank to see him. “Now if I saw him on the street, my reaction wouldn’t be, ‘Oh my God that’s Cameron Crowe.’ It would be, ‘Hey, Cameron what’s up,’ and he would respond something like, ‘Hey, Ross what’s up.’ Think about that!”
Nancy Wilson, Crowe’s wife, wrote a song for Ross on the spot. To this day, the crew at NBC still sings him this song, “Ross, Ross, magnanimous.” Ross boldly asked Tom Cruise, “How excited are you to meet me right now?” Cruise responded with a broad smile, “I’m overwhelmed.” Ross closed the segment by commenting on the weather. “I thought it was so cold, it couldn’t get any colder until I met Courtney Love.”
“A star on the make,” announced Jay Leno, when Ross appeared on the Tonight Show proudly wearing his ULV sweatshirt. He attributes much of his success to the University. “So much of what I learned at ULV helped me not only to land the internship, but also prepared me for the pressure involved in getting a big break,” he says. He raves about the communication classes, and credits thinking cross-culturally and being investigative to anthropology class. His perspective about what is important came from peace studies.
The premieres were just the beginning of his rise to stardom. The producers of the show were so impressed with Ross they asked him to be their Olympic Correspondent in Salt Lake City Utah at the 2002 XIX Winter Olympic games. Even though he would have to miss three weeks of school, it was an opportunity of a lifetime for the senior.
Ross flew to Utah Feb. 6 with an editor, cameraman, sound person, stage manager, runner, writer, producer, research person and talent coordinator. All would accompany him during the games. The writer would brief him on what he was doing the next day; the stage manager would give him his call time.
Each person had his own apartment. A typical day would start at either 4 a.m. or 4 p.m., or both. The time depended on what type of segment was being done: a full segment, a partial segment, or a “showing segment” with a live shot to Jay. “I worked almost every day. I only had a couple of days off, and then I would go in and help them edit,” explains Ross.
“I said to myself, this is a once in a lifetime experience, so I’m not going to take a moment off,” he says. “I’m not going to sleep in, watch television or be lazy, I’m going to live it up.”
Ross did seven different segments while he was at the Olympic games. The segments gave him the chance to experience a variety of challenges and make connections with people in the industry. His friendly, enthusiastic style gave him access to contestants, visitors and news people from around the world. He started out doing simple interviews with people on the streets, learning how to juggle and move his mouth to speak French. He joked with a bobsledder named Masa Nore, whose shaved hair cut resembled the five Olympic rings.
Then the heat was turned on. The second segment was changed an hour before he was supposed to go live. The producer landed the two Canadian figure skaters, David Pelletier and Jamie Salé, both were in the middle of a controversy to win the pairs figure skating gold medal. “They were nervous, and I was nervous,” says Ross. “I prepared questions ahead of time to be sure the questions were not insulting and OK to ask.” He told the skaters before going live that the segment would not make fun of them; instead, it was just to have a good time. They relaxed. “I had to keep it light, still talk about it and still make it fun,” he says. “It was nerve wracking, because it was a fine line to walk.” Passing the first real test, Ross moved on to the Inter-national Broadcast Center where he prompted journalists from around the world to broadcast a game for him. Next, he toured the center with Bob Costas, Olympic commentator. Before he knew what was happening, Costas led him to the prime time studio for NBC and gave him his first shot at being a television host. Again, he passed the test.
Another segment included a day spent with Tara Lipinski, an Olympic figure skater who won a gold medal in 1998. Together, Ross and Tara shopped for clothes, did a soap opera scene in the mall, and had pedicures and facials.
The ultimate ending to a perfect day was Ross’ debut as a skater. He appeared on an outdoor ice rink to meet Tara in an extravagant custom-made “Liberace-like” outfit in the color purple designed by the Tonight Show.
On Ross’ last day at the Olympics, he appeared on the “Today Show” with Katie Couric and Matt Lauer. “He is brilliant,” said Katie after she interviewed Ross wearing her white fur vest.
He was invited to do the show after speaking with them on an earlier segment. Ross, being a huge fan, asked for their advice. “What can you tell me to make it to where you’re at?” he said. “I would say maintain your boyish enthusiasm,” said Katie. “Just be nice to people. You do have a great way about yourself, and you’re kind of a people person, and that always works. It makes a good first impression,” said Matt. “And, if you’re naturally curious and ask people a lot of questions and care more about them than yourself,” added Katie.
And now it’s “back to pumpkinville,” said Jay, as Ross appeared on stage to take the bows for his Olympic presentations.
“Feedback from the show was overwhelmingly positive,” says Ross proudly. “The staff feels like they’ve watched me grow up.” He started out just like any other intern delivering mail and making copies. He moved on to sitting in the director’s booth during rehearsal and tapings. Then he started doing what they call the joke run which is running the jokes from the writers to Jay and back to the writers to be put in the monologue. “I got to go ‘Jay Walking’ with Jay,” exclaims Ross. “It was really cool. I got to ride and hangout in the van with Jay.” His job was to have people sign releases and keep the fans at bay.
Remarkably, one of Ross’ favorite things was answering the telephones. “I called them the crazies,” he says. The receptionist, and Ross became good friends, she would give him the crazies when they called. According to René, a man calls once or twice a week and always asks them to run off all the names of guest stars on the show. “He tells you to tell him two letters at a time and not to start until he says, ‘START,’ ” she says. “I remember leaving Ross to talk with him after briefing him on the man. When I returned, I saw Ross pick up the phone again and say, ‘You have your pen now? OK’ and he repeated everything again.”
Even though Ross was only there two days a week, people remembered him. “It’s good for moral, when people like Ross come in with so much enthusiasm. It rubs off on them,” says René.
The Tonight and Today shows are No. 1 rated shows. “I get recognized wherever I go,” says Ross. “It’s so complimentary because who they remember is who I really am.”
Amanda Stutevoss, ULV junior, was invited by her friend Ross to attend the ADDYS (advertising) Awards Banquet in Utah sponsored by Clear Channel radio where Ross made a guest appearance. “It was amazing walking around in Utah. You couldn’t even take five steps without somebody asking Ross for his autograph or wanting to take a picture with him,” Amanda says. “It was cool to be a part of that for a day.”
Ross is well on his way to becoming a star. He now works eclectic segments for the Tonight Show, and his recent event was the Vanity Fair Oscar party following the Academy Awards. Dressed in a black tuxedo with a starched white shirt and a black bow tie, he was recognized by the stars. “Oh! You are so hilarious,” exclaimed Gwyneth Paltrow. “I do know who you are. I saw you at the Olympics.” Ross says, “Will you be my best friend?” She answers, “Yes,” and the next thing you know he gives Gwyneth his phone number and email address on the show. She hasn’t called him, but they are trading emails. Lauren Graham from the television show “Gilmore Girls” approached him next and exclaimed, “I totally know you, Ross the Intern. I love you.” When Suzanne Somers walked in, he started singing the theme song to the show “Three’s Company,” and she joined in. Then Ross danced with Juliette Lewis, actress from the movie “The Other Sister.” He met Paul McCartney and told him his performance was great. “Thank you very much; you can come again,” replied Paul. “Oh my god! Whose life is this?” exclaimed Ross as he turned back to the camera.
Renée Zellweger shouted at him when she saw him, “I know who you are Ross; I know who you are. You get all the good interviews. It’s true.” Ross asked, “How exciting was it to be nominated for an award?” “I screamed . . . 5:30 in the morning, I screamed out loud,” he said. “Was that you? I thought I heard,” said Renée. “I was looking in your window; of course you heard me,” said Ross mischievously. Renée laughed as she walked away. Ross’ next segments will be filmed in New York City. He will appear with the Yankees, make a cameo appearance on the TV show “All My Children” with Kelly Ripa, (from “Regis and Kelly”) and cover the 75th Anniversary with NBC. He is very close to signing with an agent.
Has all this notoriety changed his life? “My friends are just really proud of me and don’t treat me differently,” he says. He met Amanda her first weekend at school. “I think it couldn’t have happened to a better person. He’s just so deserving, and he works so hard,” she says. All the pegs just happened to fall in the right spot for him.”
Ross’ parents, Tom and Gaye, are overwhelmed with excitement for their son. “We knew what he wanted to do; it just happened much quicker than we thought,” Gaye says. “We are so grateful; we don’t know whom to thank.” She adds, “I kind of knew there was a spark early on.” When Ross was 12 years, old he was the lead in the play the “Hobbit” at the Lincoln Community Theatre in town. He also had the lead in the play “My Fair Lady,” in high school.
Ross was president of the debate team his senior year. He performed individual events for the team, was state champion for two events and was sent to the nationals. Gaye believes this is where her son got his ease in front of the camera. “It’s been very exciting,” Gaye says. “Everyone in this small town has been watching. I can’t go to Safeway without someone saying, ‘I saw Ross on TV.'” All the attention has been crazy, but as a mother she puts it all in to perspective. “I just want him to pass all his finals and graduate.” And, “Do what he wants to do.”
What has Ross learned through this experience? “The best thing that I’ve learned is that I still want to be a talk show host. To have this goal my entire life and then get to live it a little bit, and then find out that ‘yes, it’s exactly what I want,’ is a nice feeling.”
“I was right; this is what I’m meant to do.”