Interviewing False Deities

August 11, 2008
A thought by James Berardinelli

While watching bits and pieces of the Olympics coverage over the weekend, I couldn't help but wince every time a sycophantic NBC reporter (usually a blond woman) approached a victorious athlete following his/her win. The questions asked in those "interviews" were uniformly inane, and forced the athlete into a situation where he/she had to spout clichés. "How do you feel right now?" "Does this give you a sense of vindication?" "What were you thinking as you were approaching the finish line?" (These are all actual questions.) If you're going to interview someone, make sure that you have intelligent questions to ask that will promote interesting replies.

The reality is that interviewing someone should be hard work. It should not come easily. The interview itself isn't where the effort is concentrated; it's in the preparation. Years ago, when I did frequent interviews, I would often spend hours in preparation. If I was interviewing a director, I'd make sure I was familiar with his/her entire body of work. Ditto for an actor or actress. If you go into an interview with a limited understanding of your subject, you're going to end up with a bunch of canned responses and no real depth. Your interview will be a clone of that done by everyone else. What's the point?

Sadly, a lot of "critics" are in this business because of the perks: free movies and a chance to interview celebrities. The modern-day obsession with celebrity is a kind of insanity I have never been able to understand. Yes, it's an honor to be around great actors because they're very good at what they do. It's also an honor to be around great scientists, great writers, great doctors, and great engineers. (I neglect to mention "great lawyers" because I believe the term to be an oxymoron.) Being a celebrity does nothing to earn my respect. It's what a person has done to get to that point and what they do when they're there that's worthwhile.

Over the years, I have found that it's a rare actor or actress who has much to contribute to an interview. A lot of them are bored, and it's hard to blame them. Answering the same set of questions repeatedly in city after city becomes wearying. It's always interesting to watch them perk up when you throw them an oddball question or two. When it comes to gaining insight into a movie, the director is almost always more interesting to talk to, but the same rule applies. Surprise them. Ask them something they haven't been asked before. I have had interviews with directors Patricia Rozema and Hilary Brougher expand into lengthy sessions because I want far afield.

The preponderance of softball questions has led to most printed interviews seem like they were written by publicists, not journalists. I have stopped reading interviews in Entertainment Weekly for precisely that reason. No content. Nothing new. Boring questions. They're condescending little puff pieces written to keep the celebrities happy while offering a few lines of insubstantial gossip to their readers. I can't think of a time when I have felt satisfied after reading an EW interview. (This is not to dismiss EW out-of-hand. There is some entertaining content in the magazine, and it's one of my favorite bathroom reading materials.)

The best interviews are provided by Playboy. If you want meat and potatoes, there's no better place to go. The motto of a Playboy interview is to leave no stone unturned. If there's a downside, it's that they don't always have the most interesting of subjects. There were two phases in my life when I was a regular reader of Playboy. When I was thirteen, I don't know if I ever read an interview. (I probably did, but certainly not immediately.) When I was in my 30s, I largely ignored the eye candy and went straight for the interview. (It should be noted that airbrushing and cosmetic surgery don't do a lot for me.)

The more informal the interview, the better it usually turns out. My favorite experience with an actor happened ten years ago, in the spring of 1998. Stephen Fry was in Philadelphia to promote his latest book and I happened to be in the right place at the right time to snag a dinner invitation. There were five of us at the table in Bookbinder's: Mr. Fry, myself, Roger Ebert, Philadelphia Inquirer critic Carrie Rickey, and a local radio talk show host. The food was forgettable but the conversation was not. I was atypically subdued, but observing the interplay among the others proved the value of "ears open, mouth shut." Mr. Fry was a gentleman: witty, smart, and engaging. And there were no paparazzi following him.

As a society, we deserve our Britney Spears and Paris Hiltons. We deserve our pointless reality TV shows and airheaded news anchors. We deserve reporters who ask dumb questions and athletes who answer with perfect clichés. The Cult of Celebrity has killed the desire for substance. Our false gods are not the statues of Zeus and Thor but the photographs of Tom and Brad and Angelina plastered all over magazine covers in the supermarket.

Time to go back to the Olympics. I'll be sure to mute the TV as soon as the event is finished.