Willie Geist absorbed his interest in television almost by “osmosis.” While growing up, his father, Bill Geist, the legendary CBS correspondent, would often take him to the set, where he got a glimpse of the behind-the-scenes action. “It was by watching his example that I got into the business,” Geist says. After graduating from Vanderbilt University in 1997, he started out as an editor and producer for CNN Sports Illustrated, and eventually made the leap into working in front of the camera. Now Geist co-hosts MSNBC’s Morning Joe and contributes to a number of NBC News programs, such as TODAY, NBC Nightly News with Lester Holt and Meet the Press. This April, the perpetually busy television pro launched NBC’s Sunday TODAY with Willie Geist, which has featured guests from actor John Krasinski to Buzzfeed’s political reporter. Here, the Lewisboro, NY, resident paused to chat about his toughest interviews, life in Westchester and his family’s Thanksgiving traditions.
What do you consider your big break?
Working for [producer] Susan Zirinsky basically as her runner and assistant. She famously was the subject of Broadcast News, as Holly Hunter’s character—this incredibly energetic, brilliant producer. So, I think she probably inspired me first and got me excited about what TV could be.
What interview blew you away?
I got to interview LeBron [James] last summer at a charity event. He’s this huge star and you think about all the trappings that come with LeBron. But he just came with his sons, and we did [the interview] on a basketball court. He was shooting baskets with his son, playing one-on-one. It was like ‘Here we go. Let’s talk about whatever we’re going to talk about.’ LeBron was great.
And what was your toughest interview?
I think a lot of political interviews are tough—the stuff I do on Morning Joe more than anything else. I think we’ve all run up against that during this presidential campaign, where you have people supporting one candidate or another who are out there to spin, you know? But that’s your job—to poke and prod and dig and get answers out of people.
What are some other challenges of covering politics during an election year?
For this campaign, I think we probably haven’t gotten to issues as much as we should. [Instead, it’s] “Here’s the next outrageous thing Donald Trump said or the hypocritical thing Hillary Clinton said,” and so you spend your time keeping track of their positions without having a deep, substantive conversation. So I think I would say just getting to the issues will be crucial.
You recently stepped away from doing the third hour of the TODAY show. What prompted that decision?
I think the reality with me is I’ve always said “yes” to everything. Once the Sunday show came up, I literally was working seven days a week. I was finding that I didn’t have just one day a week to decompress and not wake up at 4 a.m., and have quality time with my kids.
What’s your vision for Sunday TODAY?
I want depth—that’s the word I keep going for. We get to cover a lot of things during the week, but we don’t get to go deep enough just by virtue of time, you know? On Sunday, I’ve got the time to breathe and do seven and a half or eight minutes [for a segment], which is great because you can show different layers of celebrities or politicians or movie stars or CEOs. To me, I love hearing about the journey. You know, ‘How close did you get to not making it? Did you ever think ‘I shouldn’t be doing this for a living’ before you became a huge star?’ I love hearing how people got where they are, the challenges that were in their way, how much they’re grateful and appreciative for what they have, and I don’t think you get a chance to hear that as often.
What are your weekend rituals?
The Sunday show, which I love, certainly cuts into your Saturday night social life, that’s for sure! I’m never in bed as early as I should be, but I try. And then I just come home almost immediately after the show and spend time with my kids. We’ll ride bikes, we’ll go out to eat, we’ll hang out together.
Where do you like to go with your family when you are in Lewisboro?
We go into Ridgefield, CT, a lot. It’s the closest town. Deborah Ann’s Sweet Shop—they’ve got ice cream on one side, and they’ve got the fudge and the jelly beans on the other. It’s an amazing spot. The Hideaway [also in Ridgefield] is one of our favorite lunch joints. They have these little mac and cheese bites, which are basically like deep-fried clusters of mac and cheese that you dip in this sauce. My kids are crazy about those!
What’s Thanksgiving like at your house?
Well, it’s nice because we have a place to host it now in Westchester. We have a big family. A lot of them live in Connecticut, New Jersey, New York City, so they’re all pretty close by. We throw the doors open, invite as many people as we can—we have a lot of pent-up hosting we haven’t been able to do, and we’re letting it all out now!
Do you have a Geist special dish you always serve?
My dad’s mashed potatoes, which he calls “heart attack mashed potatoes” because they’re so good, but you don’t want to think about what’s in them. We actually made them on the TODAY show a couple years ago around Thanksgiving, and everyone said, “Oh my god, can I get a recipe?” It’s one day a year. Have the heavy cream, have the four sticks of butter, and enjoy it.
Tune in on Sundays to see more of Willie!
Click here to see our cover story with Willie from 2014.