Archive for November, 2007

Film, General

Let battle commence

The Times – October 25, 2007
– Ginny Dougary

How should you interview a celebrity? Our correspondent has some advice for Steve Buscemi

Interview, the movie, boldly goes where no actual celebrity interview is likely to go or have gone before. It’s an intense two-hander starring Steve Buscemi (who also directed) as the duplicitious, alcoholic, pill-popping, manipulative, self-destructive, arrogant, lazy hack and Sienna Miller as the duplicitious, alcoholic, coke-snorting, etc, soap star.

During their extended encounter, bottles are drained, souls bared, dancing, flirting and kissing skills explored, there’s a physical fight and a great deal of psychological warfare. As Buscemi said after The Times BFI London Film Festival screening, Interview is more about the dynamic between two troubled individuals grappling with their personal demons than an excoriating examination of the role of the media in our celebrity-driven culture. The film, however, does offer some instructive lessons in how not to conduct an interview. It should be required viewing for all media students.

Drinking on the job

Most celebrities these days are too fearful of letting their guard down to have a drink with their interviewer. If you are lucky enough to get a good story or scoop out of an encounter, unsympathetic commentators may assume that the interviewer has plied his or her subject with alcohol to exploit the poor vulnerable creature into revealing all. This is irritating, but also nonsense.

Most revealing interviews, in my experience, come about because the interviewees find it a relief to unburden themselves. My advice would be to get the bulk of the interview over with before clinking glasses but, unless you can’t hold your drink, it’s a bit uptight to make alcohol-avoid-ance a hard and fast rule.

There are only three of my interviews that stand out as being conducted under the influence: Christopher Hitchens, who popped open a bottle of champagne, one of a case presented to him for appearing at the Hay Festival; Pete Townshend, who was generous to a fault with his expense account; and Marianne Faithfull, who insisted on getting the first of several rounds in.

Do your homework

This is essential from every point of view. It’s good manners, it’s clever and it’s the right thing to do. It doesn’t matter whether or not you admire your interviewee – it’s important to be prepared.

Buscemi’s character, Pierre Peders, starts his interview by telling Katya, his interviewee, that he hasn’t seen any of her films. He goes on to explain that “I don’t usually do this”. “Interview people?” she says, and follows up with “Do you know anything about me at all?” Peders’s ignorance is his downfall.

Top tip: if for some inexplicable reason you have not been able to read a single book, see a film or read any cuttings before showing up for an interview, do not think it is charming to draw attention to your shortcomings. Miller’s character is implausibly indulgent of her interviewer’s sloppiness.

Equally, however much work you put in, be prepared for the caustic or batty put-down. A very elderly Anthony Powell berated me for not having read the whole of A Dance to the Music of Time (12 volumes) – and indeed every book he had written. He then complained about my “quite horrible, horrible voice” and the interview was brought to a close. Bob Geldof expects his interviewers to be fully nuanced in the intricacies of governmental and nongovernmental aid. Gore Vidal took one arch look at my research notes and accused me of having Alzheimer’s. Swot up on the Kabba-lah before meeting Madonna or risk being lectured on the subject, as I was for a good 20 minutes.

Insulting the interviewee

This approach is popular with some interviewers and may, on occasion, result in a fiery exchange that can be fun to read or watch. You do run the risk, however, of being left without an interview when your subject walks out. Peders cuts a risible figure when he says that he’s used to interviewing important politicians, not two-bit actresses. Charm is usually a more effective weapon. The aim of the interview is, after all, to get some insight into the subject – however unworthy the interviewer may consider the interviewee to be.

Top tip: remember that however badly your subject behaves, the interviewer always has the last word. My trickiest interviewees have tended to be film directors who are clearly uncomfortable with the idea of being directed themselves – Mike Leigh, Stephen Frears, Peter Greenaway and Spike Lee were all prickly and defensive. (Greenaway almost came to blows with the photographer, Nigel Parry.)

Top bully was, not surprisingly, Bob Geldof, with Alan Clark (by turns creepily predatory – there was a worrying moment in his wine cellar – and snappy) and Jeffrey Archer coming in a close second.

Being insulted by your interviewee

I am thinking of compiling a small book of insults from my years of interviewing the famous. For some reason, they feel free to make the most astonishing comments about my weight – which I duly feel free to write about. Benazir Bhutto: “I admire you for letting yourself go.” Martina Navratilova: “You may be happy with the way you look but plenty of people wouldn’t.” Jeffrey Archer: “You should go on a diet.”

How to deal with a pass

This is rather more delicate. A certain amount of “chemistry” does go on in an interview, which is why editors send women to interrogate men and vice versa. But how much you use is a matter of judgment.

Readers tend to find insults more entertaining to read about than overblown compliments. It can also feel a bit mean or irrelevant to expose a subject’s clumsy attempts at seduction. For this reason, I did not include Pete Townshend’s rather slurred confession that he, er, thought, um, that he fancied me. Clive James’, on the other hand, was so preposterous (“I’m falling in love with your right now”) that I did.

The all-singing, all-dancing interview

Katya and Pierre take a spin around her ballroom-sized loft. Clive James chose to tango on his own. But singing is another matter. Some of my more memorable duets have included My Way with Imelda Marcos in Manila and Somethin’ Stupid with Nancy Sinatra in Bel Air (I was singing her dad’s part).

Other dramatic highlights include snorkelling with Kelsey Grammer in Maui in Hawaii and rehearsing an episode of Frasier on the beach (I was Daphne). Norman Lamont, the former Chancellor, reciting a poem in a wild Scottish dialect down the phone was a good moment.

The killer question

It is useful to have one or two of these – but don’t start with them or you might find that your interview is swiftly terminated. My favourite was asking, with some trepidation, Jeanette Winterson about her years when she sold her body to ladies from the Home Counties who paid her with Le Creuset saucepans – of which she had a large collection.

Peders’s killer questions are pathetic: “What makes a man attractive?” and “Are you good at seducing men?” Puh-lease.

Snogging the interviewee

Not generally advisable, particularly prepublication. You never know, he or she may be the one to kiss and tell.

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Interview is released on Nov 2

Actors, Celebrities

Robert Redford: An American idol

The Times – November 3, 2007
– Ginny Dougary

Robert Redford was the screen heart-throb of his generation, but he never quite played the Hollywood game. Back in the director’s chair, he talks about being an outsider, his looks and why he is in mourning for his country

It’s a measure of Robert Redford’s enduring appeal, even at the grand age of 70, that when he says, “I’m all yours”, just for a fraction of a second, a tiny bit of you wishes it were true. In truth, despite an occasional dimpled grin – when you catch a flicker of the old Redford screen charisma that made your 13-year-old heart pound in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid – and surprisingly gentle manners, he has neither the playfulness nor the hint of danger of the natural-born flirt.

This should be music to his ears, if Redford is to be believed, since the poor man has spent decades trying to be taken seriously, only to have his good looks stand in the way. When he appeared on the scene, journalists of both sexes drooled. A Newsweek profile by a male writer is a classic of the type, launching into his “gorgeousness” thus: “The head is classically shaped, the features chiseled to an all-American handsomeness, the body athletically muscled…” Not to be outdone by this homo-erotic rhapsody, the women writers swooned: “He gives you the feeling that even his sweat would smell good”, and raved about his “cool” and “sexual arrogance that is far more fetching than any amount of sweet talk”.

What is more interesting, apart from the quaint gush of these early pieces, is to see how consistent Redford has been from his earliest interviews in the Sixties and Seventies about the issues that he is known for now: anti-Hollywood, pro-environment, concerned about youth apathy, questioning of the government and sceptical about politicians in general, as well as the power of corporations. He has always been protective of his privacy and had periods of withdrawal from work – even at the height of his fame – to travel around Europe or do his own thing.

Way back in 1970, a year after he shot to fame as the Sundance Kid, Redford vented his frustration about Hollywood to a young Derek Malcolm: “You can’t run an art form like a business any more and they’re still trying to. Films to them are just like vacuum cleaners or refrigerators. The approach sickens me.”

Not content to bitch from the sidelines, Redford founded the non-profit-making Sundance Institute in 1981 – using his own land and property in Utah – to support emerging screenwriters, directors, composers and producers who work alongside established names to craft their skills and develop their projects. To this was added the now internationally famous Sundance Film Festival which, to its creator’s evident discomfort, has become so successful it has assumed the mantle of the Cannes of America, with all the trashy commercialism that entails.

This is anathema to Redford, whose rueful complaint to me is: “What happened was the success of it brought the media, and then the merchants came and the stars came… Look, when Paris Hilton comes to the festival, she’s coming to the parties. We’re doing the same that we always have, but then the brand names come to take advantage of the festival and they throw parties to promote their brands and they say, ‘Come and we’ll give you a free coat or a free perfume or we’ll take your photo.’ I can’t control it because it’s a free country – that’s the reality and it is ironic. But I don’t worry about our mission as long as we stay true, and the Lab is non-profit and that’s the purest thing about Sundance.”

Naturally, with Sundance’s success, come the knockers. A counter-festival, Slamdance, established itself in Utah in the Nineties to show the films the organisers believe Redford has turned his back on – but there’s no evidence that his vision has been diluted. He may be attracted to the likes of The Horse Whisperer, which appeals to his romanticism about the American landscape he fights to protect, his love of horses and his sadness about the dying ranch culture of the West, but the films that have come through his “Lab” or have been showcased at the festival are very different and include Pulp Fiction, Sex, Lies and Videotape (the director, Steven Soderbergh, and Redford have since fallen out), Boys Don’t Cry, Orlando, The Blair Witch Project, Memento and Little Miss Sunshine.

Redford has worked equally hard on environmental issues, both publically and behind the scenes, and has a slew of awards in recognition of his contribution. The Utah home he built himself almost three decades ago was fitted with solar panels – visitors have commented on its rather spartan decor – long before it was fashionable to be green. He successfully campaigned against a huge power station being built between five national parks and disgruntled locals – Utah is a Republican stronghold – responded by burning an effigy of the star. Most unglamorously, he took on the role of the local sewerage commissioner with a mission to transform the area into an independent municipality with its own produce and energy resources.

For his pains – and even his detractors could hardly accuse the man of not backing up his words with action – Redford is hammered for being earnest or worthy, impatient, arrogant, humourless, a control freak and so on. One of the biggest and legitimate complaints against him is that he is always late. He once kept a Sunday Times journalist waiting seven hours, after she had made the epic trek to Sundance. Paul Newman, his co-star on Butch… and The Sting, presented him with a needlepoint runner stitched by Joanne Woodward (Mrs Newman) that read: “Punctuality is the courtesy of kings.”

This was a revealing rebuke since it suggests – something one can glean from the early cuts when the actor was a bit more forthcoming – that Redford’s early chippiness about being born on the wrong side of the tracks has prompted grandstanding posturising to demonstrate that he’s as important, if not more so, than the Hollywood royalty he had joined. Newman, who is a friend, was gently trying to point out that such behaviour is not classy.

I would have liked to have asked Redford about his punctuality problem, but our interview, of course, was cut short by his late arrival. However, I should add here, it was the star himself who dared to defy the publicity martinets by insisting that he make up the extra 15 minutes in his own lunch hour. This was gracious of him and also provoked an unexpected conspiratorial mirth between the interviewer and interviewee. “I’m here to serve,” he kept saying plaintively, and moaned that, “They have me jammed to the gills.”

Redford describes himself as coming from “a lower-working-class family. My dad was a milkman and supported us with no money. We didn’t have anything. I grew up in a Mexican neighbourhood [Santa Monica, 12 miles from Hollywood, known as “the home of the homeless”] where you had to provide your own entertainment. I was blessed that I was athletic and so could do sports.”

In one of his earliest interviews, he confessed that, “Sometimes I’d break into those big houses in Bel-Air just to look around and I thought, ‘What have they done to deserve all this?’ I was always good at tennis and I took great pleasure in beating the rich kids.”

His education was not good, but one teacher discovered that her problem pupil had a surprisingly creative bent. “I started drawing because there was nothing else to do,” he says. “If my parents went somewhere on a visit, they would take me along because they couldn’t afford a babysitter. So I’d sit in the corner and pick up a pencil and draw things. And then in class, I would be distracted and looking out the window all the time, or I would draw instead of doing an assignment.”

When he was nine or ten, the teacher who had started out by punishing him – insisting that he draw a picture once a week and describe what it was about to the class – began to realise, “‘Wait a minute. He’s telling a story and he’s pretty good.’ I loved hearing and telling stories and that’s the way I learned – through stories.”

The rest of his school years Redford describes as “a disaster”. He was always in trouble, going off the rails and drinking too much. He believes there is a connection between the Celts – he is Scottish and Irish on both sides of the family – and boozing, and says that some members of his family, although not his parents, had problems with alcohol. He managed to win a baseball scholarship to Colorado University, but was kicked out because of his drunkeness.

Of all the different characters he has played – and critics complain that they tend to be a one-note samba, detached and unknowable, or perhaps played that way, much like his reputation off screen – the Sundance outlaw is the one who, Redford says, feels closest to his own skin. He was originally up for the part of Butch Cassidy but persuaded the director, George Roy Hill, that, “I can identify with that guy [the Kid] a lot more because of my earlier life, and he got interested in that because we’re both Irish and so on…” So the roles were swapped, leaving Newman in the lighter part and Redford as the brooding, more intense foil.

As a bleached-haired Californian surfie teenager, part of a gang of semi-delinquents, Redford grew up despising actors – referring to them as “sissy boys” – and the whole Hollywood scene. On one occasion, he and his older half-brother broke into one of the studio lots and trashed the place. Even at this long remove, when he has achieved so much, Redford still identifies himself with alluring ne’er-do-wells, particularly if they have a death wish – such as the beautiful but doomed alcoholic younger brother, Paul (played by Brad Pitt looking uncannily like the young Redford) in A River Runs Through It, which Redford directed in 2002.

Perhaps this connection with the wayward rebel – who enjoys a certain reckless freedom – also explains his ambivalence about the acting world and made him more determined to define himself in other ways. He tells journalists that he is not of a psychological disposition, though this seems a convenient way of sidestepping awkward territory and may be a legacy of his upbringing – “We never trusted words much in my household.” Yet, he did see a therapist in the Eighties (who promptly betrayed him by selling his story to the press) when his long marriage to Lola Van Wagenen, mother of their three children, finally came to an end.

His real education began, he says, when he came to Europe in the late Fifties. This flight from America, when Redford was 18, followed the death of his mother. “I wanted to get out in the world and experience other cultures and histories and people,” he says. “I wanted to be an artist, so I went to France and Italy and I was living a very low life, you know, in a bohemian area. But what got me was that all the students I engaged with – whether they were artists or medical students – were all extremely political. It was the de Gaulle era, you know, and the time of the Algerian crisis.

“They were asking me questions and I was humiliated because I didn’t know the answers. I was just absolutely ashamed. So I made it a point to begin to look at my country but from another country’s point of view – because in California you’re given a very comfortable view about things. And I realised that I had a high regard for this other point of view because it was very intelligent and very different. So I began to put all these together and when I came back, a year and a half later, I schooled myself on what my country was doing and how I felt about it.”

Were you able to find like-minded people when you returned to the States? “I was not. I was expecting engagement and all people asked me was how the girls were or the food, and that was so disappointing. So it was around that time that I started to put a critical eye on my own country but I also realised, having travelled around, how fortunate I was in the country that I was from and how that country was blessed in many ways, and how do you protect that?”

He landed in New York, enrolled in art school and, “through a series of serendipitous turns”, ended up at drama school at the same time, supported by his wife, and acting was the career that took hold. (It would seem ill-advised, particularly since the Redfords had separated for a good ten years before the press got hold of the story, to comment on his current status. But, with no evidence to the contrary, we must assume he is still with Sibylle Szaggars, a German painter, who has been his partner since 1996.)

Redford’s first roles were on Broadway, where he created something of a stir as the male lead in Neil Simon’s light comedy Barefoot in the Park in 1963, directed by Mike Nichols. It won a Tony Award (but not for Redford) and ran for 1,530 performances, which appears to have put the actor off a career in theatre for life. And then, in 1969, came his big breakthrough, as the Sundance Kid, at the un-Kid-like age of 32.

I have the impression that Redford has a low boredom threshold, as well as a short attention span, which may explain why he turned his back on theatre once his film career took off. He says that he loves going to see plays – of course, he saw David Hare’s Stuff Happens about the build-up to the Iraq war – but he agrees that he is unsuited to the daily routine of performing on the stage.

“You are partly very right. It’s not that I have a short attention span but I do have a low boredom threshold. For me, the joy of acting was in the spontaneity of expressing yourself – and being part of what makes a play ‘happen’ is pretty exciting – but after nine months of doing the same thing every night… you just want it to move to a new place,” he says.

Redford is sensitive to criticism about his acting and, as ever, believes that his appearance has prevented critics from an accurate appraisal of his performances. It’s difficult to know how to respond to his angst about his looks, particularly when one reads about his insistence on photographs being touched up. Even as far back as 1973, The Way We Were, in which he co-starred with Barbra Streisand, became known as “the Battle of the Close-Ups” because both actors reputedly competed to be shot from the most flattering angle. (Redford, who had apparently successfully negotiated to be paid more than La Streisand, allegedly won.)

One has to ask why Redford would be so concerned about protecting his image if he genuinely believed that it has been an obstacle to him being taken seriously. There has been a certain amount of speculation about whether he has had any “work” done on his face, particularly as he has lambasted those who have submitted to the knife. I found one reference to his eyes having been operated on “on medical grounds” – whatever the reason, for a septuagenrian he certainly does have a strikingly open, unlined gaze. But one can equally imagine that Redford would find it demeaning, “sissy” even, to stoop to any surgical enhancement.

He tells me that he still gets drooled over: “Even today. It happened last week when we were on tour. I keep thinking, and I mean this when I say it, when do we get past this? I can’t speak for Europe but certainly in my country, there’s an obsession with youth. People trying to stay young and facelifting and all that, which I haven’t done. I keep thinking that I’ll grow out of being labelled, you know. I just don’t understand it.”

Face to face, it is a shock to see quite how freckly and “ginger” Redford is. Redheads don’t suffer the same stigma in the States as they do in this country, and we have a funny moment when my interviewee attempts to get to grips with the point I’m endeavouring to make. “Bullet?” he asks. No, bullied. “Bullied? Oh, really? Are you being serious? Why?” Nevertheless, although Redford was never exactly tormented on account of his colouring, “When I was a little kid, I had red hair and freckles and I was certainly teased, yeah, yeah – ‘Hey, Red! Hey, Red!’” he taunts.

Surely it was quite pleasant to discover that you were so appealing to the opposite sex. “Absolutely it was,” he admits. “I wouldn’t say it was a shock but it was a surprise and it was something I could enjoy for a period of time. But then it got out of hand and I began to see the dark side of it. Particularly since I’d grown up in Los Angeles and was not enamoured of Hollywood.”

He no longer turns up in cowboy gear – partly because of his age but also, perhaps, because of the way that image has been tainted by Bush in his off-duty garb and on-message rhetoric (“We’re gonna get them bad guys!”). Still, Redford wears his shirt a little like medallion man, unbuttoned to his chest, revealing a sparse-ish crop of carroty hair. When I tell him that the elderly taxi driver who dropped me off said that he hated Robert Redford “because of the way he looks compared to the way I look”, the actor says: “I’ve gotten a lot of that but when you get it from the critics, it’s really rough. You know, they resent you because of your physical self and you say, ‘Would you not judge me for that, please? Would you please judge the performance?’”

Dick Cavett, America’s veteran chatshow host, once described Redford as having “a withheld quality that makes the viewer come to him”. It is this reticence, some might call it subtlety, that has laid the actor open to accusations that his range is limited, as though he were too buttoned down, too afraid of being unmanly, to show overt emotion. One of his directors said that he felt Redford was a natural character actor encased in the body of a matinée idol. He says that when he started out as an actor, “I played all kinds of parts. I played killers and rapists and deranged people and they were great fun as an actor because there was variety. But no one knows that except the people who watch old TV series like Naked City and The Twilight Zone.”

Whatever his reasoning, apart from an early role when he agreed to play the part of a bi-sexual reprobate at a time when plenty of Hollywood actors would have declined, Redford seems to have settled for roles which are safely within his comfort zone – restricting his risk-taking for the higher ground.

His new film, Lions for Lambs, about America’s role in Afghanistan, the first he has directed for seven years, is a case in point. It is worth pointing out here that it is as a director, rather than an actor, that Redford has been honoured with an Academy Award for his debut feature, Ordinary People, as well as nominations for Best Picture and Best Director for Quiz Show.

Although Redford talks at great length about his new project, like the politicians he dislikes, the actor-director (environmentalist, philanthropist, etc) has the same battering-ram tendencies to repeat himself, albeit in a variety of ways, in the hope of getting his point across. There appears to be a certain level of anxiety behind the scenes, judging from the number of times I was asked what I thought of the film by various personnel.

Well, it may have its flaws – as commentators have already noted – but I would say that it is essential viewing, particularly for American audiences. The story unfolds in real time, during the course of a single day, and explores many of the issues that are dear to Redford’s heart via three separate strands – the role of the media (how, in the present climate, can it step away from being the Government’s propaganda machine?), the politicians’ justification of the War on Terror, and the losing battle of educators (Redford plays the anguished professor) to prevent students retreating into a torpor of cynical lassitude because they feel helpless to effect change.

The power of the film is the juxtaposition of two injured soldiers – former students of the professor – waiting to be killed by the Taleban on the snowy mountains of Afghanistan, while in the safety of lecture rooms and living rooms and White House offices, politicians, professors and students, reporters and editors, argue about how to end this war. The scenes between Meryl Streep as the veteran journalist and Tom Cruise as the ambitious senator are as dazzling as they are daunting, with the senator saying: “You sold the war, now you have to help sell the solution.”

You just have to look at the level of debate – so ranting and knee-jerking and, frankly, moronic – in response to Lions for Lambs on the website of Variety, America’s newspaper for the entertainment industry, to see what Redford is up against and why he feels the need to make such a film.

There may be a sense in which Middle America could feel betrayed by Redford – how could the denim-clad cowboy and lover of the great open plains be such an unpatriotic turncoat? But despite his lack of polish and uneasy way with words, since that early “lowlife” European education, Redford has remained true to what he holds dear about America. It is only now, as he enters the last chapters of his life, that he feels his country has lost its way.

He is not at all optimistic about the future: “The bottom line has taken over everything, including journalism. It’s surprising, frankly, that the studios would take a chance on this film. There has been so much damage to our country that it’s going to take a long, long time to pull ourselves out of it.”

Can you see it happening in your lifetime? “Anything’s possible,” he says. “It’s just that there’s so much damage and there’s such a negative impression of America throughout the world and for these people to be talking about democracy while practising policies that are so undemocratic…”

Does he feel angry? “You know, what I can’t forget or forgive is that we were asked to give up our freedoms and let them do what they needed to [after 9/11] and we zipped our lips and gave up challenging the election because they had a difficult job. And it sure was good timing for them.

“And we gave up criticising the administration and our president, and we all saluted and marched in lock step in support, only to be lied to and cheated and send young people in harm’s way and unnecessarily risk losing their lives. That made me angry. And now I’m past anger and in a state of mourning.

“Freedom of opinion, freedom of debate and dissent, that’s what democracy means, but it’s all been shut down now and it’s ‘If you’re not with us, you’re against us,’ and we don’t even have to talk about how dangerous that is and where that leads if it’s not corrected. And I know that [with this film] I’m probably not going to change anybody’s opinion but at least as an artist I can try to dramatise what my feelings are about.”

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Lions for Lambs opens nationwide on November 9