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