Friday High Five: Interviews: The good, the bad and the ugly
In this week’s themed Friday High-Five, we look at five memorable interviews … some good, some so bad they’re good - but each of them fascinating in their own way.
Jon Hamm: Dark eyes like ‘an obscure snake-hunting eagle’
We all know the ladies go gaga for Don Draper. But it seems like the men fall even harder for his real-life counterpart Jon Hamm, if his recent profiles are to be believed. ‘What’s it like to be too handsome?’ asked Guardian interviewer Stuart Jeffries, in an article published in yesterday’s Age. (‘That’s a ridiculous thing to say,’ replied Hamm.)
But Jeffries' comparisons to Pitt and Clooney were positively negative compared to Hamm’s Esquire interviewer last month, who dissolved into a so-bad-it’s-good puddle of cringeworthy prose in his presence:
When Jon Hamm talks about the St. Louis Cardinals, his face happily divides into the components of angular male handsomeness — chin, chin dimples, ruddy jaw, cheekbones, dark black eyes like a falcon’s or, better yet, an obscure snake-hunting eagle’s. Oh, why describe? Why winnow toward the accurate? He’s impossible, because he looks good and he looks like he is good, too. He dangles victory from his fingers, as if he had a key fob for every circumstance, as if his whole world started with an on button that works only when he is proximate. He treats good-looking the way you treat your favorite sweater: He leaves it on without thinking about it. He throws it on the chair next to his bed at night and knows where it’ll be in the morning.
Chris Evans: Like a date
Women can spectacularly collapse at the feet of fame, too. Take the example of this GQ interview with Avengers star Chris Evans, in which the journalist takes a ‘say yes to everything, try to be cool approach’. Which translates into something akin to Bridget Jones interviewing Colin Firth and repeatedly asking what it was like to do the scene where he climbed out of the lake with a wet shirt in Pride and Prejudice.
‘Since we’re both single and roughly the same age, it was hard for me not to treat our interview as a sort of date. Surprisingly, Chris did the same … [he] kept up frequent hand holding and lower-back touching, palm kissing and knee squeezing.’ She details forgetting to ask him all kinds of questions, getting so drunk she had to sleep it off in his guest bedroom, unwittingly telling a passing gossip reporter that her interview subject is ‘flirty’ and she has a crush on him, and recounts excruciating exchanges like this:
‘Is it going well?’ he asked.
‘It’s going really well,’ I said.
‘You’re nailing it.’
‘You’re nailing it also,’ he said. ‘I’m going to write an article about you.’
Bret Easton Ellis: ‘You have a lot of gall, don’t you?’
Robert Coleman’s interview with Bret Easton Ellis on the eve of his Wheeler Centre event has become, like the author himself, a cult classic. The self-aware Coleman confesses to his Three Thousand readers that he’d never finished any of Easton Ellis’s books and that he ‘substitut[ed] lack of research by watching American Psycho for the first time after nine beers only the night before’. In the weeks after the resulting interview was published, the phrase ‘doing a Robert Coleman’ was used as shorthand for ‘plunging in with no research and hoping for the best’.
After confessing his situation, the interview got interesting, in a car crash kind of way, but it was also surprisingly revealing. ‘This, this right now, happens very rarely, and this is the only time it has happened in Australia,’ Easton Ellis told him. ‘You get the more real me than anyone has gotten so far.’
B - With a straight face. Ask me the next question.
R – You’re going to piss your pants. Here goes: ‘re-reading recently…’
B – Haha, fuck!
R – Okay, going to cross that one out.
B - How do you feel about yourself now?
R – I’m sweating profusely. I’m slightly embarrassed. You have a piece of paper that I’d sincerely like to take back. I haven’t read your books … Also, I kind of think we’re better in conversation than with these questions.
B – I think we are.
R - Best interviews are not from a piece of paper, right?
B - Ohhhh, very good. Oh my, you have a lot of gall, don’t you? A lot of gall! Continue.
R – Was it difficult re-hashing and progressing the characters from Less Than Zero?
B – (laughing) … As if you give a shit!
Jon Ronson: Pretend-guileless
It’s not always a bad idea to put yourself in the story. Nor to be slightly guileless: it can result in interview subjects relaxing and being surprisingly revealing. But you have to be very, very good to make it work. And it helps to be pretend-guileless: do your research, observe everything, but wear your intelligence lightly. Jon Ronson, who appeared at the Wheeler Centre last year to talk about his most recent book, The Psychopath Test, is a master at turning unassuming into a deadly effective art form.
Some of his journalism is archived online at the Guardian, including a version of his year-long series of interviews with Omar Bakri, the Islamic fundamentalist who asked Jon to taxi him to Officeworks to photocopy jihadist leaflets, and used Coca Cola money boxes to collect funds to defeat capitalism. There’s also an intriguing and disturbing interview with right-to-die activist Reverend George Exoo (whose clients were not terminally ill, just depressed) and a recent article about home chemists, including one Asperger’s man who was arrested for trying to split the atom in his kitchen.
Lynn Barber: Never boring
Lynn Barber’s profiles, published in the Guardian, are never boring. They’re sharp, observant, brilliantly written - and absolutely fearless. (Incidentally, Lynn herself is far from boring: she wrote An Education, a memoir that was filmed with a screenplay by Nick Hornby, and launched the career of Carey Mulligan.)
For instance, interviewing Alain De Botton in 2009, she observed, ‘On the one hand he is friendly, charming and polite; on the other, there is something almost repellent about his politeness.’
Here’s a fascinating titbit, on his relationship with his ‘cruel tyrant’ father, from the interview:
‘I wrote four books in his lifetime and with each one he would manage to say something absolutely vile - I remember him in earshot saying: “I don’t think he’s succeeded with this one” - and it was tough to hear. But then I learnt that he’d sent copies of my books to his friends, so … it was a strange and schizophrenic, very troubled, relationship.’