March 31, 2016

Let’s Stop Asking Famous People Dumb Questions

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Perhaps I am late to the party, but recently I’ve been hooked on watching the Actors on Actors series produced by Variety on YouTube. It’s refreshingly real because there’s no chirpy interviewee waving a huge microphone asking inappropriate questions in order to run back to their desk with a SHOCKING headline. It’s two famous actors, sitting in a nice room, chatting about a topic they love, and asking each other interesting questions. I’m hooked.

One thing you should know about me is that I’m obsessed with watching two things on YouTube:

1. Oscar acceptance speeches through the ages 

2. Interviews with artists (authors, actors, musicians, etc).

As someone who is interested in the act of creating things I love hearing people talk about their work and DARE I SAY IT: their “processes”. (I know, sorry! I wouldn’t ever ASK someone about their ~creative processes~ but it doesn’t mean I don’t enjoy Googling it and consuming it on YouTube.)

Having watched an embarrassing amount of interviews online (countless film junkets, authors on a stage, actresses in hotel rooms, live-recordings in big fancy halls, any episode of Jonathan Ross or Jimmy Fallon, you name it, I’ve probably binge-watched it) you can start to understand (as a viewer) which questions are annoying and which questions people find a genuine pleasure to answer.

Artists are cornered into doing interviews they clearly hate all the time (aka “promo”) and it can often be uncomfortable to watch at times if the interviewer asks something seemingly irrelevant and unneccessary e.g. “so enough about the film, ARE YOU GETTING DIVORCED?” You can even tell in a transcribed Q&A in a magazine whether or not the interviewee was enjoying the interview or just finding it “ok”. You can easily picture a nightmare scenario: a journalist sat at their desk at 8pm while they phone an LA actress for a ten minute interview, asking questions like “so, what’s it like to be a woman in film?” Of course not all interviews are like this (there are a countless number of AMAZING journalists writing BRILLIANT and important profiles out there, all the time) but there are always a few in the mix that reflects badly on the industry as a whole.

We are living in a world where we crave authenticity. Our role models are changing, they are “real people” who have Internet fame or out-spoken feminists like Shonda Rhimes or Mindy Kaling who tell it how it is. The fake interview process of having a) the interviewer dig around for gossip and b) the interviewee give someone a canned response is kind of jarring, and pointless. The old “show biz” world of click-bait headlines is just not as interesting any more. We see past it. Most people would like to see something genuine. We can follow a celebrity’s Instagram feed instead of reading a gossip website for more “truth”.

In my experience of binge-watching interviews, I’ve rarely watched (or read) something where I truly believed the interviewee was enjoying it, if they don’t already know the interviewer. Sometimes you get some magic created when a magazine has a “guest editor” and therefore a Hollywood star is interviewing their famous friend who they know and love. The point remains the same: we are more open with people we trust. Of course we are.

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From having countless conversations about this, I know that some people think artists have a responsibility to sit politely and answer any question thrown at them because they didn’t get famous by accident and it’s part of their job. I spoke to my older sister recently who was saying some very interesting things about interview etiquette – about the importance of always remaining professional even if you’re not enjoying a certain aspect of your job. I agree with her, there’s never a reason to be rude, no matter how awful the interview set-up. It’s always best to be polite. But I can 100% understand the tension in the room and how upsetting an insensitive question could potentially be. Duh, Celebrities Are Human-Beings. 

Others have a more extreme outlook on how celebrities should be treated in interviews. A recent conversation with a friend went something like: “LOOK THEY PROBABLY GET PAID LOADS SO THEY SHOULD JUST SIP THEIR EXPENSIVE COFFEES AND ANSWER SOME QUESTIONS ABOUT THE MOVIE THEY JUST FILMED EVEN IF THE QUESTIONS MAKE THEM WANT TO DIE, OKAY.”

As someone who has worked at magazines AND having been occasionally interviewed myself (about my book etc), I empathise with any person being cornered and the worry over your words being taken out of context.

Film junkets are really not great (I’ve been the one hosting the interview before and I’m still purging my sins). You get two minutes, you have to ask fluffy questions which get checked by multiple publicists beforehand and there’s normally hardly any chemistry (like, zero). The actor often feels defensive because they can’t help but associate you with the last person who asked them an awful question, or they are nervous. You end up feeling like a bad person for asking such shit basic questions that you had to get “signed off” by ten different people. In your head you’re constantly thinking “I wish I could ask you something REAL down the pub!!!!!”

But this Actors On Actors interview series: it is one of the most inspiring things I’ve watched recently. You see a shift in the way artists speak with each other, they are more relaxed. They want to make a good impression on each other. There’s no hostility, only love. The actors answer so differently to the way they answer to the press. Other examples of this include how much we can tell celebs love going on James Corden’s Carpool Karaoke. Because it’s James Corden. That’s why Jerry Seinfield’s Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee works so well.

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People have better conversations with people who share similar passions as them. Who they like and trust. We are most honest with people we have more common ground with. We like talking to someone who just gets it. Thats why the best journalists really try and connect with their subject on a deeper level, like join them on tour for the week, or go round to their house, for example. But it’s not rocket science to understand that when someone is shining a blinding light on you and asking friendly questions but who could later go away and criticise you, they’re not necessarily going to wear their heart on their sleeve. It all boils down to this: the press outlets are not in the arena with the artists getting burned in public, they are merely watching in the crowd.

In one of the interviews Joseph Gordon-Levitt says: “I know those moments you’re talking about (Paul Dano references “spirituality”), in those moments you feel like you’re connected to something more than yourself, and for me personally, probably because it’s been the thing I’ve spent most of my life doing, acting is where I’ve had a lot of those moments. But you can’t fucking say that (laughs) in a normal interview.” These conversations are so interesting and they talk about so many things that people would be able to relate to. In this interview, we get a little glimpse into why so many artists feel they need to hold back.

This series, though. You can just feel their curiosity and enthusiasm through the screen. And I don’t blame artists who hold back in traditional interviews. They have every right to protect the art they create, and themselves.

If the media continue to try and turn art into clickbait then of course no one will want to talk to you.

Here are some of my favourites:

  1. Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Paul Dano

  2. Oscar Isaac and Gugu Mbatha-Raw

  3. Jack O’Connell and David Oyelowo

  4. Steve Carrell and Rooney Mara

  5. Reese Witherspoon and Michael Keaton

  6. Jennifer Aniston and Emily Blunt

  7. Amy Schumer and Lily Tomlin

  8. Brie Larson and Joel Edgerton

  9. Ethan Hawke and Keira Knightley

  • I completely agree with what you’re saying – there’s a reason Carpool Karaoke is so popular and goes viral every time – people are wanting to see celebrities just hanging out as real people and having fun. Thank you for sharing Actors on Actors – they are such interesting videos.

    Erin | beingerin.com

  • I’ve not watched any of these, though I have watched quite a few of the ‘THR Round Table’ interviews, which can be quite good, unless you get an actor who can’t shut up!

    I will have a watch.

  • The thing I most enjoy watching on YouTube is interviews with writers and creators. I swear I’ve watched every single one by Elizabeth Gilbert, Lena Dunham and Caitlin Moran. And like yourself I devoured these actor on actor interviews, savouring every minute. Also The Conversation series by Amanda de Cadenet is a must watch. I remember staying up way too late and just soaking those conversations in. Part of me wants to learn and absorb this wisdom as a fellow creator, but part of me just treasures the authenticity of it. Raw, organic, realness feels so rare these days.

    Apologies for the ramble, but I truly loved your article ^_^

  • Hi Emma! I think you would really love Off Camera with Sam Jones! It has the same idea as Actors on Actors expect it’s a broader range of artist! It’s a podcast but I think it’s a series on Netflix now.
    My favorite is episodes are his interviews with Dave Ghorl and Jessica Chastain

  • Emma

    oh my god, love it. thank you!

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