EMILY CARR ON CELEBRITY INTERVIEWS
REPORTER: ‘‘ You live in Connecticut?’’ Brendan Fraser: ‘‘ Off the record, yes.’’ Reporter: ‘‘ It’s actually in your notes.’’ As a medium, print is woefully compromised in its ability to convey the comedy, folly and ultimately sheer pathos that is your typical Hollywood celebrity interview.
It’s for this reason that when it comes to meting out celebrity access for the promotion of their blockbuster movies, Hollywood studios favour newspaper and celebrity magazine correspondents over their television, radio and internet peers.
As an interview subject, Hollywood actor Fraser is an unutterable bore. I know this not because I’ve met him but because I spent several hours recently transcribing an interview he did with someone else, one of the several LA- based correspondents who regularly email me audio files of their taped press junkets.
Worse than a bore, Fraser is a mumbler, a transcriber’s worst nightmare. I replay certain phrases on the digital audio file over and over, squinting into the middle distance with my ear pressed first to my laptop, then to my stereo speaker, wondering whether the star of Universal’s Mummy franchise could really be saying that when he worked with Phillip Noyce in Vietnam on The Quiet American , the Australian director wore a T- shirt that said ‘‘ Fear No Fart’’. The charge- up in audio equipment, from my laptop to the stereo speakers, results in a negligible improvement in comprehension.
After a half- dozen rewinds and replays, I conclude that Noyce’s shirt likely carried the slogan ‘‘ Fear No Art’’.
Not that it matters. The anecdote Fraser recounts about Noyce and his shirt on set in Vietnam almost a decade ago is not just rambling and confused in the telling but a little too subtle in its themes to make it into the cobbled together copy of a harried journalist on deadline for their newspaper’s weekend arts section. Like the Noyce anecdote, the above exchange between the reporter and actor has about as much chance of making it into the official newspaper piece on Fraser as this writer has of seeing Tomb of the Dragon Empire .
Which is a shame because it is these exchanges — the awkward, halting moments, the moments of unintended comedy — that afford the purest insights into the human being at the other end of the microphone. It’s why you will almost never hear actors of any bankable box- office status interviewed on radio. For it is the pauses, the evasions, the changes of subject matter that are most revealing.
Conversely, in your standard celebrity puff piece masquerading as journalism in magazines and newspapers, it is the perfectly formed sentences that make it into a story as direct quotes because these are easiest to cherry pick for a hastily put together 1000- word feature. I know this because I’ve done it myself so many times, pushing against so many deadlines.
The neat quotes are, of course, the ones that tell the best lies. These are the quotes likeliest to have been carefully rehearsed and repeated by the interview subject.
In an audio post that popped up in the blogosphere earlier this month, a radio DJ attained his own few moments of celebrity during a media gathering at the Four Seasons Hotel in Beverly Hills. Quickly eschewing press junket etiquette, the self- confessed ex- con asked actor Robert Downey Jr a series of rapid- fire questions, beginning with ‘‘ Who would you rather have a brew with and smoke a blunt with: Ben Stiller or Jack Black?’’
Downey: ‘‘ I think it would be regrettable if I were to drink or smoke weed with either of them.’’ Nothing too far off the studio PR menu there. But the actor then takes things further, admitting frankly that he would be unwise to go down this road because ‘‘ I would be off to the races and in jail within three days.’’
And he’s just getting warmed up. Radio DJ: ‘‘ If you had to do a love scene in your next movie . . .’’
Downey: ‘‘ Which I do.’’
Radio DJ: ‘‘. . . with Britney Spears, Hilton or Lindsay Lohan?’’
Downey: ‘‘ Britney Spears. easy question.’’
It’s not just what Downey says, it’s how he says it. Reading his answers brings a smile, but listening to what he said gives you an insight into the real fearlessness of this actor.
Instead of being thrown off balance by the offbeat line of questioning, Downey picks up what for most actors would have been a huge curve ball and runs with it, gleefully.
Far from embarrassing himself, the actor’s lack of hesitation makes him powerful. Without any visual cues, you can hear just how convincingly Downey commands the room.
Another delight is listening to the reaction of the radio DJ, who expected to catch the actor off guard but instead is left stammering like a stumped game- show contestant.
Actors far less talented than Downey change the energy of a room just by walking in, something you witness in Hollywood regularly, whether it’s on the red carpet or an aisle in your local supermarket. Actors not only have beauty on their side, for the most part; they are also trained charm machines.
As an interviewer, you can easily prepare for all of this. What is harder to prepare for is the utter banality that is your average press junket.
Hollywood celebrity interviews are a dreary cattle call of universally resentful and poorly paid correspondents who, notebooks and digital recorders in hand, take a lift up to the seventh or eighth floor of junket central, otherwise known as the Four Seasons Hotel in Beverly Hills, a suburb of Los Angeles so uniformly dull it makes Sydney’s Double Bay feel edgy.
When the polite ‘‘ ping’’ of the elevator door announces your arrival, the correspondent is handed a plastic bottle of water by a blue- toothed assistant’s assistant and herded into a sterile, airless conference room to take a seat around a table with a half dozen or more other celebrity correspondents. The celeb enters. If she’s a she, she will first be asked what she is wearing. She’ll say ‘‘ Chloe’’ probably, then look at her feet, not even having to wait for the question: ‘‘ Prada.’’
If the movie in question is an action film, the actor will then be asked about the training schedule. They will dutifully answer questions about how much weight they gained or lost for the role, whether they did their own stunts and whether they injured themselves.
There’s no escape for Fraser, who in the closing moments of our interview is asked about his fight scenes with Jet Li: Reporter: ‘‘ Any injuries?’’ Fraser: ‘‘ Just my feelings.’’