The Secrets of Interviewing Movie Stars and Actors
Actor Interviews Aren't That Hard if You Know What You're doing
Ever wanted to sit in front of a movie star and ask her questions? Ever wanted to get on the phone with a current film star and talk to him for thirty minutes like you were friends? Ever wanted to publish interviews with your favorite celebrities?
I worked as a film critic for many years and interviewed hundreds of film stars, from Kate Winslet long before anybody knew her name to Emma Thompson to Jamie Lee Curtis to Ben Affleck to Sandra Bullock to Wes Craven. The list is pretty long. Along the way, I learned a lot about how celebrities think and how they act during interviews. I know what kinds of questions need to be asked to get a good answer and what kind of questions they will never answer. In this article, I'll tell you all the pitfalls of doing a celebrity interview and what you can expect while doing one.
It's Easy to Ask Bad Questions
During my interviews, many of which were roundtables where one actor sat down and took questions from three to ten interviewers, the classic question often asked of film stars, particularly those who were just starting their careers, was this doozy: "What was it like working with (insert super-famous film star here)?" Often, this question was asked of the person with the super-famous film star sitting right next to them.
Next to starting a land war in Asia, this is one of the classic blunders. I used to roll my eyes and take a deep, cleansing breath every time this question was asked. It's a terrible question. First of all, stars like to be asked questions about themselves, not other stars. Second, no film star, particularly those who are promoting a movie, is going to spend that time saying anything other than positive things about a fellow star. Therefore, the question is boring because the answer is always going to be some variation of "it was really great." Also, it's a slight to the actor being asked the question and they're not likely to give much of an answer.
Movie stars will generally never answer a question that implies a negative answer.
Sure, it happens from time-to-time, but it's not going to happen during a promotional tour prior to a movie opening that the actor is promoting, which is when most movie star interviews occur. For instance, everyone knows that director David O. Russell is notoriously hard to work with, but if you asked Amy Adams prior to "The Fighter" how hard it was to work with Russell, all she's going to say is "I really found it to be a great experience. The whole cast really got along and David was great." Basically, movie stars, particularly those early in their career, are very careful about what they say lest it come back to them in some way and damage their reputation. Movie people don't like people who are difficult or aren't team players. If you're looking for dirt or for something controversial, you're going to have to probe and ask an open-ended question that the actor takes somewhere on their own.
Interviews are a form of acting for most movie stars. This is their work.
These are actors remember. Interviews are often just another performance. The worst kind of interviewers are the ones who are immediately glassy-eyed over the mere concept of sitting within spitting distance of a celebrity. I once sat so close to Dolly Parton's bosom, I could have reached out and touched it. It wasn't that exciting. Sycophants are like bait to a seasoned actor. If an interviewer is going to get a good interview from an actor, he or she needs to recognize immediately whether or not an actor is putting on a show and asked well-reasoned, researched questions that challenge but don't overwhelm the actor.
The bigger the star, the more likely he or she will say something interesting.
That being said, the bigger the star, the less they have to worry about. So if you're interviewing Steven Spielberg, for example, certain kinds of open-ended questions might prompt a particularly juicy piece of gossip. For example: "Some actors are notoriously difficult to work with. Could you talk about how you overcome these types of challenges?" You'll figure out right away what he's willing to say from a question like that and know whether or not your other prepared questions are going to work.
Ask a smart question, but not one that's too smart.
Most stars aren't that well educated nor are they intellectuals, but they know all about doing interviews. They are way better at answering questions than most people are at asking them, even professional film critics or interviewers.
I would say that there's a fine line between asking a smart question and asking a question that's too smart. If you're a film student, for example, and your question involves some lead-in that involves a demonstration about your knowledge of film history and genre history, you're likely to get a blank stare. An interview is never about the interviewer, it's always about the star. Make the questions about the star and ask them succinctly and you're likely to get a good answer. Also, since some actors are intellectuals (Ben Affleck, Steve Martin, Emma Thompson come to mind), you need to be smart enough to tell how to engage them.
Certain questions are often off-limits.
Most actors have handlers or professional executives monitoring or controlling elements of any interview. If an actor is promoting a movie and has recently had a break-up, or has been involved in some other form of major gossip, anything about that gossip will be declared off-limits before the interview, most likely at the actor's request. In fact, it is almost always a bad idea to ask them about their personal lives unless that's the declared topic of conversation. If an actor is doing an interview to promote a movie, they expect to be asked questions about the movie. Rarely will an actor talk about another movie unless the question is open-ended. A good question, for example: "Could you talk about the challenges of drastically changing your appearance throughout your career and what you did for this movie?"
Adoration in moderation is fine. Fawning is bad form.
During the many interviews I did, I got John Sayles to sign a Lone Star poster and Wes Anderson and Jason Schwartzman to sign a "Rushmore" poster. Otherwise, I didn't bother with pictures or autographs. Generally, it's unprofessional to ask. If you approach an interview as a professional exchange of information, you're likely to get more cooperation. That being said, if you're going to ask for something, do it at the very end. If you're just holding the drool back, don't show your cards until the very, very end.
Sometimes you can't squeeze blood from a rock.
Robert De Niro is a notoriously hard interview. In my experience, Steve Martin was about the worst. Martin just didn't want to be interviewed at the time, so he didn't answer questions with any enthusiasm. His behavior was more interesting than the answers he gave. Ben Affleck was also interesting. Affleck is a very intelligent man, so his shield was his intelligence. He used it to kind of guide the conversation in whatever direction he wanted and to pontificate at such length that fewer questions ultimately got asked.
I'm also not fond of interviewing child actors. It's kind of a signal of what promotions people think of film critics that they would even set up an interview with an actor who's less than ten-years-old. What they're hoping for is some easy press.
If you're going to say something negative about an actor, you better quote them word-for-word.
In my opinion, all published interviews are made up to some degree or another. First of all, I can tell you that very few actors talk the same way they are quoted. There are pauses, ums, and various other things that never make it into a published interview. If you interview an actor and are upset that they didn't answer your questions or seemed uninterested or rude, then you can look for spots to quote them verbatim—and I mean every pause, um, and nuance. People don't like to read that sort of stuff and it will make the actor look bad. For instance, an actor might have a quote published like: "My experience working with Martin Scorsese was amazing." But if you listen to the actual tape of the interview, it might read like this: "Well, um, of course working with Martin was amazing." Most of the time the point of these interviews is positive press, so almost any edit is acceptable as long as it maintains the spirit of the response. The verbatim quote is a subtle way to use the power of the printed word that won't get you in trouble with the press representative. Actually printing your opinion along the lines of "So and So was rude to me" could get you banned from any future interviews, so write any negative impressions with great caution.