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Who Do You Think You Are? Interviewby Pattye Grippo    

This is a transcript of an interview with Lisa Kudrow, Executive Producer of Who Do You Think You Are?, and the star of the first episode of this season, Vanessa Williams, on January 24, 2011 about the show Who Do You Think You Are?.

Vanessa Williams

Question:
Lisa how has finding that out about your ancestors changed the way that you went about producing the show?

Lisa Kudrow:
Oh, no, it didn't - it actually didn't change how, you know, we produced the show because I was, you know, already onboard as a producer. I was the first one to shoot, so, you know, we were learning a lot of technical things, you know, and it was best to learn it on my shoot. So - and it was really valuable. It was really valuable and that's a whole other part of what that trip was for me as a producer and then actually being there, you know -- going through the journey.

Question:
Did any of your experiences in the first season change how you went about the second season?

Lisa Kudrow:
Yes a couple things, but again that's just - that's technical, you know.

Question:
Vanessa, what were you hoping to find out about your family or what were you possibly scared to find out about your family even by doing the show?

Vanessa Williams:
I was scared of nothing because I am fascinated about history and any information is - you know, is telling, so I couldn't wait to find out whether there was anything, whether there was a scandal or a scoundrel or thieves or anything, which they always ask you before you start your journey.

And what was - why I was so anxious to do it was, you know, as a African-American and growing up here in the states, there are a lot of records that we don't have going back for years because - you know, because of slavery, because of economics. And I was really fascinated to see how far back we could go on both sides. And the journey that I went on was extraordinary and very surprising but also really gratifying and I felt so honored.

Question:
Lisa, you said the first year that the British people told you that maybe 30% of the time you'd have to abandon the search because that person didn't have anything interesting in their background. But you said you didn't find that here. Now you've done this year and last year 15 stories so far. How many have you had to abandon just because there wasn't that much there?

Lisa Kudrow:
Not a lot -- less than they have to do in the U.K. And not even fully abandon. It's just the time it takes to get records from other countries. They don't make the deadline for shooting.

Question:
Vanessa, there was a point where you seemed really fascinated particularly by the great-great-grandfather who had been in the legislature in Tennessee and then after that it was the 70 years of Jim Crow where there were no black legislators at all. Was that part of history new to you?

Vanessa Williams:
No I heard a lot of black history through my parents. Just because I lived in a predominantly white area didn't mean that I wasn't aware of black history.

But in terms of Southern roots, that was a mystery. You know, the only clue was at Memphis, Tennessee from my grandfather and the fact that there were 14 black legislators within -- after the Emancipation in the 1800s. I had no idea. That was the fascinating part. You know, I thought, obviously, in my lifetime with the Civil Rights Movement in the '60s that's when all the change came, but I was fascinated that it came, you know, 100 years before then.

Question:
It's got to be something to stand in front of that sculpture and see your great-great-grandfather's name inscribed there in stone. What was that experience like?

Vanessa Williams:
You know, for both my great-grandfathers, to see their names in monuments was phenomenal. You know, William A. Fields was one of those stories that I had no idea about. And to turn that corner, see the bust, and then to see his name was - just filled me with so much pride. And on the - my David Carl side, you know, to go to the African-America Civil War Memorial in D.C. and to see his name there too, it was two-fold. And I never thought that I would have, you know, such a tremendous double, you know, story to be proud of.

Question:
How long does it take to go through the research project to get all the information and what did you learn from doing the research. Is there like a technique or something that works the best for getting the information?

Lisa Kudrow:
Well, our researchers -- it takes them - it can take, like, six weeks to many months to get all the research. And, you know, I don't know if - you know, it depends on what country you have to get records from and what time of year it is and they're on vacation and they're from closed from us, you know. That's the kind of thing that holds up the records.

And then, you know, with the African-American stories, there's just trying to find - you know, I think we got really lucky with Vanessa's because it is extraordinary -- the documentation of - you know, on both of her paternal great-grandfathers, so that was fantastic. But usually there's that wall of slavery where it's almost impossible. There are no surnames and, you know, slaves aren't listed by name. So it came be almost impossible to get records.

Vanessa Williams:
And on my part, I just had to give them as much information that I could possibly. When I first started out, I was approached, like, late-Spring/Summer.

And we made a lot of progress. I had them talk to my mom, my uncles on both sides, just to get as much facts as they can and that's kind of where the researchers went and ran with it. So you have no idea where they're going to find the story or what side of the family they're going to find a story and that's also really exciting about being a part of this whole show. You have no idea what you're going to expect.

Lisa Kudrow:
Yes. I mean, the other thing I'm leaving out is once you get names and dates, when you start looking at the dates and where these people where -- what was happening historically or, you know, socially -- what events were going on -- then you can start going into some academic, you know, books and you to experts, so you can try to...

Question:
What was the most surprising discovery that you found in your ancestry that kind of maybe took you by surprise?

Vanessa Williams:
Well, mine -- the biggest was on my - on the - my great-great-grandfather who was from Tennessee. That whole storyline was a mystery and to find out that not only was he in the same profession that my father was, which was a schoolteacher, but that he ended up being elected to the state legislature in Tennessee, that was - I had no idea. And then the fact that he was one of only 14 and had really, you know, been a trailblazer and created history. That was really extraordinary for me.

Lisa Kudrow:
And it's really too bad the stuff that has to be cut out because we only have 42 minutes. But there was more, Vanessa, in your episode that I was so sorry to lose. Like where William A. Fields was from what plantation and possibly that he may have learned to read. And they were breaking the law by teaching him. And I don't know. There were so many other things that I think are so interesting, but at least you get to have that information.

Question:
How has the outcome changed your outlook or perspective in your own personal life now that you have found these new discoveries?

Vanessa Williams:
First, I wanted to be able to take my kids along the entire journey after I finished because it was fascinating and it was a great history lesson, especially for African-American history. We went back all the way to 1972, which was amazing that they - we could actually trace back that far.

And not only on the William A. Fields side but also on the David Carl side with the whole Civil War experience and starting from the lynchings in New York state because they were protesting for black men to be able to serve. That was another whole angle which was extraordinary too. So it was a great history lesson. I didn't want it to stop. I love learning and especially when it's about your own family, it just - it even seems more important.

Lisa Kudrow:
Yes, I had wished we had had more time to really investigate the Carl side because there weren't records, but, you know, you can keep digging and keep looking just to see if we can fill out lineage. Because it's a whole other experience...

Question:
Vanessa, you had spoken about your kids - bringing them along. What did your kids about the findings of their heritage? What do you think they found the most interesting?

Vanessa Williams:
The most interesting was that I was able to bring back two pictures of both of their great-great-great-grandfathers. That was a real surprise -- knowing that we had images of both. I really didn't think that we'd actually find images and that was truly lucky. And, you know, to be at the National Archives in D.C. and to be talking to my researcher, Vani, and to say in her 28 years of doing research she had never come across a Tintype which is where we got the image of my great-great-grandfather, David Carl

Question:
YLisa, have you approached any of the Friends' cast about participating?

Lisa Kudrow:
Oh, yes, we have. We're figuring out schedules.

Question:
Anyone in particular?

Lisa Kudrow:
I'm not going to say.

Question:
Vanessa, you said in piece that you wanted to search your late father's ancestry so you could redefine your idea of what it means to be free. Before this journey that you took on Who Do You Think You Are, how often did you personally stop and think about your African-American heritage and the sacrifices that your great-great-grandfathers made on what was ultimately the long-overdue freedoms you enjoy now as an African-American woman?

Vanessa Williams:
Wow, that's a question. Before the journey, I had really no defined idea of where my lineage went. I knew that in terms of my David Carl side, I knew that the hill, Carl's Hill, where David Carl purchased the property after he got his bounty to serve in the Civil War - we knew that that was there for a long time.

My dad was born there. My grandmother was born there. So we knew that that was our home base. So Oyster Bay was kind of ground zero for what we knew and basically, you know through legend, through family stories. The Memphis side was a complete mystery. We really had no idea. Since my grandfather's mother died so young, there are a lot of unanswered questions. So that was truly a mystery.

But the fact when we started to research and discover their heroic deeds, I had no idea that not only what they accomplished was very honorable but the fact that they both could've easily been killed for doing what they did. I mean we highlight in the show that as a colored union soldier, if David Carl was captured in the South, he could be enslaved and - not only besides being killed but - in battle, but to be enslaved, which was a tremendous sacrifice.

And we talked a bit about William Fields's Journey to the state capital as a colored representative and the fact that, you know, this is a land - this is a time where after the Emancipation, you know, it was still dangerous to travel as a freed black man. And not only was he a freed black man, but he was a legislature so - a legislator. So it - the risk that they both took to do what they ended up doing was really highlighted and really gave me a huge sense of discovery but also pride.

Question:
You said, "It's my responsibility to teach my own children the value of their roles in history just as my father taught me." What's the most important lesson as it relates to their heritage have you taught them?

Vanessa Williams:
Well, I mean, my father was the epitome of a teacher. It was all about education and the fact that we saw it, you know, three generations back was really eerie and extraordinary. And it was such a tribute to see some of the qualities that were described in the court records about William A. Fields and a lot of them reflected my father's attitude towards living and towards education and it's all about education and that was phenomenal.

Question:
Lisa, you have so many celebrities that would do this. Tell me why you picked Vanessa Williams for this show this season?

Lisa Kudrow:
Well, I mean, there are a lot of reasons why we're lucky to have Vanessa Williams do the show. You know, for me it's always - you know, Vanessa's intellectually curious. Like she said, she's a fan of history. And, you know, when someone's invested in learning and finding out what's the - the information is what's important here -- not what kind of information necessarily. If they're scoundrels, they're scoundrels. You know, that's what important and I completely agree with that. You know, and everybody knows Vanessa and, you know, it is a TV show and we do want people to want it, so, you know, a lot of people are going to want to tune in to see what Vanessa finds.

Question:
Vanessa, do you believe in nature versus nurture - that where you came from affects who you become?

Vanessa Williams:
That's an interesting question, because it was really highlighted when I was reading the minutes of the courts when William A. Fields passed away who was my great-great-grandfather. And the description of how devoted a man he was to his wife, to his children, to education, to making a difference in the community, to being a solid man, and that one sentence that says, "He left a spotless name," that was eerily reflective of my father and who he was as a man and the legacy that he left as a teacher and how many lives that he had touched.

So that's particularly one opportunity where you can see where it's almost like, is this a DNA thing? Have we pass this same quality down generation after generation because I come from wonderful, warm, gentle men who love their wives, love their children, and provide and are strong, valiant men. And it was wonderful to see it actually illustrated on paper during our research.

Question:
Lisa, could you answer the same question please?

Lisa Kudrow:
Sure, yes, you know, I don't believe that it's either nature or nurture. It's always a combination. Your nature determines how you respond to your environment and, you know, so I think they're both really important. I think you do see some things that look like that's not just a coincidence, you know. That's somewhere in your hardwiring, you know, when you look at a lot of these episodes just like Vanessa was just talking about.

But I think it's also important to see the conditions the people were raised in, how they were parented, if you can, you know, draw any conclusions from that and then to see how that gets passed along -- what a person's response to their environment, how that gets passed along to the next generation. I think that's very real.

Question:
Can you give me a little bit more detail as to what was left out? You said you only had 42 minutes to tell Vanessa's story. What didn't you include in what we will see?

Vanessa Williams:
Well, when we finished, our last day was at the Fields's - Mount Airy, which was the Fields's plantation. And it was kind of illustrated when I was at the state capital when the researcher said, "Well, this is William A. Fields's handwriting. This is the handwriting of a man who's clearly educated. How could that be?"

So discovering that most likely he was born in that - at Mount Airy and most - the things that were cut out were that the Fields family that owned the Fields slaves were originally from Virginia -- settled in Virginia, came out to - after tobacco farming had waned and came out to raise cotton in the Memphis area. And their children all went to Princeton. The men of the family went to Princeton. But one of - what we surmise is that the Fields or William A. Fields was probably part of a group of slaves that were educated and that was insistent upon by Mr. Fields who was the head of the - you know, of the family.

And what we kind of could trace is that a lot of the Fields's descendants after the war did extremely well pretty quickly because they were all master carpenters and also well-educated and they were allowed to set up their own business and fared very well after they were freed and that was extraordinary too. And just a side note that my dad's passion was to be a teacher, but also he loved woodworking, and he built a lot of things in my house and that was his passion too. So when I heard that they were master carpenters, that also kind of blew me away.

Question:
Would you have pursued genealogy to this extent had you not been lucky enough to be featured on the show?

Vanessa Williams:
Well, yes, I mean, I personally had started my own Ancestry.com family tree probably a year and a half before any of this so I was always interested but I didn't have the luxury of having a team of researchers do the lion's share of the work, which is that was truly lucky for me.

Lisa Kudrow:
Yes, and my father, actually, had spent years going to the - you know, the Mormon temple here in LA and getting a lot of documents and made an extensive family tree. But again, that's mostly names and dates, which is great.

But to me what's fascinating and what true me to this show when I first saw it was that it's not just names and dates. You can actually understand a little - a lot about what your family was going through and what was happening in their world that made them make some important decisions that changed the course of your lineage.

Question:
Will there be more of the research specifics on this show this year or if the Web site could be used to show things like close-ups of records and what archives the research team uses and so forth.

Lisa Kudrow:
Yes, yes I think the Web site could do that. And for the show, yes, we do want to let people know how this was done just so they - you know, they know that it was done with some academic integrity. But there's just not enough time. We're cutting an episode right now where, you know, we don't need to see loading in the microfiche and, we got to get to it to tell our stories.

Question:
Lisa, as the executive producer of the series, why were you so interested in tracing the ancestral roots on each guest and who do you think you were before tracing your roots?

Lisa Kudrow:
Well, look, honestly, before tracing or discovering this - that Holocaust story, I knew there was something there and I was too afraid to explore it because I thought it would be too overwhelming. And - you know, and also you don't want to - there was no survival story out of that except - I didn't think. And, you know, I think sometimes you don't want to look at that because you don't want to start thinking of yourself or your family as just victims, you know.

So - but it was good to see that it's not - that's not what it's about. It's about people having information and knowing what a tough planet this is and what people are, you know, capable of doing to each other in, you know, the worst of ways. And then finding, you know, a relative that we thought for sure was dead. I learned that, you know, there was a lot of anti-Semitism and, you know, people could survive the Holocaust, survive even a concentration camp, go back to their home, and then get killed. And we thought that's what happened to my relative and he was alive and well. And that was really inspiring to me. That was - it gave me great hope that sometimes things do work out. That's great.

Question:
As a successful actress, how do you compare your work as a producer and to be an actress and will you be doing more behind-the-scenes work?

Lisa Kudrow:
I'm definitely doing behind-the-scenes stuff for Who Do You Think You Are. You know, this has been really fulfilling. To be able to bring a show like this to, you know, a network like NBC who was brave enough, I think, to show it. But, no, this is really - this is the big honor that I can be involved in a show like this, which I think is - it's entertaining and informative.

Question:
Vanessa, prior to this, how much do you really or truly know about your ancestors? And what have you found out thus far that you're truly impressed by and are proud of?

Vanessa Williams:
Well, I'm proud of both the stories that were discovered in this episode. And before I went on the journey, I knew a bit about the name, David Carl, because he was buried in the same family plot cemetery that my father was. So I had seen the American flag next to his headstone and I assumed that that was part of a Civil War service, but I had really never delved into the actual story and history.

And then the William Fields story was a complete surprise because we really had no information because my grandfather's mother had died so young he didn't even know her last name. So the fact that I had the luxury of researchers, of being able to flesh out both of these stories were phenomenal and they made me extremely proud because these are men that were heroes. They took risks and had an extraordinary legacy that we can still talk about and be very happy for.

And the other great thing is that, you know, as - being an African-American, you never know what you're going to find because of both the lack of information that we have due to no records. And that was wonderful being able to put on those white gloves and see the actual documents and handle them and read the names and look at the censuses and try to put pieces of the puzzle together.

Question:
What was your family's reaction to the discovery?

Vanessa Williams:
Oh, they were fascinated and I wish that I could've taken them along. I might actually do the same trip with my kids so they can kind of discover and experience what I did, but they were fascinated and especially because it was about my father who passed away five years ago. He was a huge history buff, so he would've been so excited to find out more information about his family. And it was nice to kind of do that in tribute to him.

Question:
Oprah revealed this morning that she has located her half-sister. Are we going to see any living relative reunions or any surprises this season?

Lisa Kudrow:
Well, you know, we're still putting them together. Possibly.

Question:
AVanessa, what influence did the mini-series Roots have on you? You know, it's coming up 34 years ago and that's what influenced a lot of people in my generation to get involved with genealogy. Do you remember the mini-series Roots?

Vanessa Williams:
Oh sure, it was a family event in my household. We watched it together as a family, so absolutely. And my parents were always interested in their genealogy, but there weren't a lot of records. There were a lot of - not a lot of facts to go on. And so this has really been a luxury for my entire family to be able to find out more information.

Question:
Lisa, there's been a divisive personality that a lot of people say, "You know, I'm not going to watch this episode because of so and so and their views and their politics." What would you say to a viewer to get them to set that aside and just say, "You know, just watch it. You'll learn more." What would you say to a potential viewer that didn't want to watch one certain celebrity?

Lisa Kudrow:
Well, I mean, look, if you've seen the show, then you would know that it has very little to do with who this person is here and now because they're almost immediately stepping back in time and focusing on the lives of their ancestor who, you know, long since passed. And you get to learn a lot about just the circumstances of their lives -- what historical events or sociological events shaped that family tree, you know, and may have had the same effect on yours.

Question:
Vanessa, as a successful African-American female, can you talk about how your journey into the past gave you a new perspective on your own inner strength?

Vanessa Williams:
Well, you know, my family, I cherish and I've always, you know, thought that the lessoned that I'd learned from two parents that were teachers made me who I am as a woman and as a mother myself. So to be able to step back in time and go to my - both my great-great-grandfathers and see the contributions that they'd made historically filled me with pride and it reaffirms that I come from strong stock. And it was a tremendous journey and I would love to investigate more.

Question:
Given what you discovered about your past, how do you look at the opportunities that you received in life as compared to your ancestors in the South?

Vanessa Williams:
Well, it's amazing to compare what they had to deal with to what me and my kids have to live with and the luxuries that we've been afforded because of the trailblazing that my ancestors had done. And I think it was really illustrated that, you know, within my two great-great-grandfathers' lives, their deeds and their efforts were - could've easily resulted in death. And, you know, those are the stakes that we don't really have in my lifetime. So that was an extraordinary comparison that was really highlighted when I took my journey.

Question:
Do you have favorite moments from other episodes from other people finding stuff out?

Lisa Kudrow:
Well, yes, I mean, every episode has a moment -- at least two moments or more -- that I think are fascinating. It's very hard for me to just pick one. You know, one I love. When Spike Lee found out that his ancestor was made to work in a munitions factory to make guns for the Confederates to kill the people who were coming to enforce Emancipation. Yes, that was a good one too.

Question:
What do you want the viewers to take away from the show?

Vanessa Williams:
For my episode, I'd love them to get a quick history lesson on black history in terms of black service in the Civil War and the consequences and the dangers and also black legislation within the 1800s and that they were men of color that were trying to make things better for other former slaves in their lifetime.

Lisa Kudrow:
Yes, that's good. Well and also, when you personalize history with these stories then it has so much more impact. Yes, because it wasn't something that happened to - you think it's just some - things that happened to strangers a long time ago and it has nothing to do with you. And you can see Vanessa finding out all of this information, all these things, and considering what life must've been life if these were the circumstances and yes.

Vanessa Williams:
I think it's really a great way to learn history.

Question:
Now that you've learned about your ancestors and confirmed for us the importance of this knowledge, how do you ensure that your family story gets passed on to future generations?

Vanessa Williams:
How do I? Well, I've passed it down. I mean, I'm one of the lucky ones that actually have images. That was one of the amazing things that I got a chance to see in my journey, is to have two pictures of both of my great-great-grandfathers. So I have copies of those that I can make for all my cousins and, you know, my surviving aunts and uncles to talk about our family tree and to really put faces.

And also, we've got tremendous amount of research that the researchers have done that we've got a huge dossier, so there're literally letters and documents that I have copies of that we certainly didn't have before. So I'm really lucky. I think I have a wealth of knowledge right now.

Lisa Kudrow:
Yes, same here. I mean, I know there a lot of older families who - you know, it's part of their heritage that they already have a genealogy book on their family. And now we can all make one for all our families and - you know, thanks to Ancestry.com and a lot of other sites, we can collect documents.

Question:
Lisa, I know a lot of actors want to become directors. What possessed you to want to become a producer?

Lisa Kudrow:
Well, this show really motivated me to become a producer because I wanted to see if we can't do it over here in the U.S.

Question:
Vanessa, were there TV shows, sitcoms, dramas, that you enjoyed growing up?

Vanessa Williams:
Oh sure, I mean pretty much all the half hours when I was young between the Brady Bunch and I Dream of Genie and Bewitched and, you know, My Three Sons and I Love Lucy -- all that great stuff, variety shows. I love watching old Technicolor movies, in particular musical movies -- you know, Kiss Me Kate and My Fair Lady -- all those wonderful things that we got a chance to see on television, so. And then, you know, I'm a big TV fan, so I'm so happy that I can actually be passionate and love what I'm working on.

Question:
Lisa, how do you go about selecting celebrities for the show and is there is a selection process which determines factors you're looking for?

Lisa Kudrow:
Well, you know, one thing is willingness, because it is a commitment. And then I think I said before, you know, it works out best when someone like Vanessa who is intellectually curious and, you know, just genuinely interested in what the information is going to be, not, you know, whether someone - not judging the information but just taking it in, you know. because that is what's really important.

Question:
Vanessa, now that you've experienced this journey, how important is it for you to express to others why they should search for their ancestors?

Vanessa Williams:
Well, I was - I'm a history buff anyway, so - and I loved finding out information that was a treat, because, you know, being an African-American, there's a lot of stuff that we don't have the luxury of records due to slavery and also, you know, socioeconomic issues. So I hope that this is a slice of what could be discovered particularly for black people living in the United States and - you know, and also creating history.

Finding out whether one of your ancestors got the chance to serve in the military, you know, in particularly the Civil War aspect was phenomenal that, you know, black men were not allowed to serve. And it was truly a gift once, in 1863, when they were allowed to serve. And the fact that my great-great-grandfather signed up as soon as he could possibly do it to help ensure freedom for people in the South. And he was born a free man. And the fact that he took that risk himself to be killed in battle but also to be enslaved if he got caught in the South was extraordinary.

So I hope it's a history lesson for people. I hope that it inspires them to ask questions and to kind of start their own research. And if they don't, you know, have the tools, there is plenty of avenues that can help them find out what the mysteries are for their own families.

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