Confessions of a Celebrity Interviewer (It’s Just Another Job)
By Anthony Morris
Film writer Anthony Morris has interviewed your average wish-list of Hollywood celebrities, from Matt Damon to Sarah Jessica Parker. But, he warns, it’s not as fun as you might think. While most celebrities are pleasant, it’s just another job - and they will never be your friends.
It was never my intention to end up in a hotel room with a well known Hollywood director showing me his underwear. When I started out writing film reviews, reviewing films was all I did. But doing interviews often paid better and I was interested in film – so when the chance came along, why wouldn’t I want to interview famous movie types? Here’s why: because one day years later I will be in a hotel room interviewing a director literally rolling around on a couch wearing tracksuit pants that slowly slide down to reveal his underpants and they will be an off-white colour that in no way recalls the golden age of Hollywood. Still, it’ll be more entertaining than the film he was promoting.
Over a fifteen-year period, I’ve spoken to face-to-face to a fair number of mid-level Hollywood talent. To name a just few: Harrison Ford, Matt Damon (three times), Judd Apatow, Heath Ledger, Carey Mulligan, Emily Blunt and Reese Witherspoon. Steve Carrell was wearing a suit and tie when I interviewed him. Ryan Reynolds was wearing a suit and no tie. I did an interview where all Owen Wilson and Kate Hudson did was flirt with each other while they were supposedly going out with other people (they announced their relationship a few months later). The guy who had sex with the pie in American Pie? I interviewed him when he was out here for the first American Pie film in 1999 and when he was out here for the last American Pie film in 2012. He was a nice guy both times.
That’s the thing about interviewing movie stars in Australia, especially if they’re from overseas: they’re all very charming and pleasant. Partly that’s because they’re professional performers – and doing an interview is basically putting on a performance; if you can act in a multi-million dollar blockbuster, chances are you can act in a hotel room with a writer from a small local publication. And partly that’s because movie studios are run by professionals, and professionals aren’t going to send someone halfway around the world to talk to the media if they’re not going to do a good job of it. Apart from the time one studio sent out someone who vanished during his lunch break, leaving the publicist to tell the waiting media after an hours searching ‘I’m sorry, we don’t know where he is’ (they must have found him eventually; he was in the sequel).
That’s not to say things don’t often go a little awry. A publicity tour for a Hollywood blockbuster is often a worldwide thing, and Australia is usually either the first stop or the last stop. If it’s the first stop, everyone’s super happy and excited; if it’s the last stop everyone is usually exhausted, especially if the movie hasn’t done all that well elsewhere. I interviewed Joss Whedon when he was here promoting his movie Serenity. He was wonderful and charming; he was also clearly so completely worn out I expected him to start calling me ‘Carol’ before passing out in a heap.
Fortunately, even when exhausted, movie stars and directors almost always give you the answers you need. That’s because everyone needs basically the same thing out of an interview and they’ve already done a couple hundred of them just for this film alone. This is nobody’s fault: there are often only so many entry-level questions you can ask about a film when you’re writing a general interest story, and they often involve asking about what attracted them to the project, what it’s like working with other famous people, how well they know the source material (novel, comic book, previous movies in the series), what preparation they did going into the movie, what it was like filming wherever it is they filmed the movie, and so on.
If this sounds a little boring and safe, you’re right. You don’t have time to ask wild and wacky questions, let alone ones that will leave your subject stumped, when you only have fifteen minutes with a celebrity as part of a press junket. Sometimes you don’t even have that long; I had eight minutes with Sarah Jessica Parker when she was out here promoting a film and I did the interview with another journalist who had been ordered to make sure the first question he asked was ‘so, who are you wearing’. There goes a third of the interview talking about a pair of shoes.
Being grouped together with one or more other journalists for an interview is pretty common when you, like me, don’t work for a major outlet. Sometimes this doesn’t really work: on more than one occasion there were so many of us or the subject took so long with each answer (one group interview with someone involved in the Bridget Jones movies was eaten up entirely by one massively extended answer to a weight-loss query) that I didn’t even get to ask a question. At other (more successful) times, all the journalists would discuss what we wanted to ask in the corridor beforehand to make sure everyone got the information they needed. Or we’d draw straws to see who had to ask ‘when did you realise this movie was going to suck?’
(That, by the way, never happens: why ask rude questions when you know you’ll only get the subject’s guard up? The point is to get them to open up, not storm out.)
Then there are the group interviews where a journalist we’d never seen before (or usually, never see again) would have a whole bunch of questions ready that had nothing to do with anything anyone else was interested in. The first time I interviewed Jason Biggs (the aforementioned pie fornicator from American Pie) there was a journalist there who only wanted to ask about Biggs’ unknown-in-Australia serious stage work, thus taking up valuable ‘what was it like to have sex with a pie?’ question time. During one interview with Matt Damon, someone actually asked him ‘who would win in a fight, James Bond or Jason Bourne’. Damon’s reply was along the lines of ‘neither, they’re not real’.
The important thing to remember if you ever interview a celebrity is that you will in no way make any kind of personal connection with them. At all. Perhaps if you had longer with them, or were talking to them outside of the media conveyer belt, or didn’t have a publicist waiting outside the door you could impress them with your wit and charm. Maybe they’d say ‘hey, you’re really a great guy’. Perhaps they’d even say ‘hey, why not come back to Hollywood with me to hang out and work on my movies and just generally live the life you’ve always dreamed of’.
But getting an invite to stay in Rob Schneider’s guest house is not your job: your job is to get the celebrity to talk interestingly and entertainingly about whatever it is they are here to talk about. Sure, the first time they say ‘that’s a good question’, it’s hard not to feel a warm glow inside. But then you talk with other interviewers and realise the celebrity said ‘good question’ to everyone. Then you go home and listen to the recording and realise they didn’t really say anything much but you were too blinded by their charm and charisma to notice it. Then you read a bunch of interviews they did out here and see they gave roughly the same answer to your ‘good question’ as they did to everyone else. Then you develop a drinking habit.