[Guest post] The ultimate celebrity interview!

Mhairi McFarlane is a kirby-grip strewing angel of vengeance and you should follow her on Twitter if you’ve got any smarts at all.

I am so sick of reading this interview. You read it all the time, constantly, year in, year out, in every glossy magazine and Sunday supplement. It’s founded on the twin principles that A) people who act are the most fascinating beings on the planet, and B) that we, the readers are totally credulous, awed plebians. The dumbstruck interviewer acts only as a conduit to divinity, drinking in their shuddering magnificence and recording their sub-adolescent witterings as if it’s brainy gold. We’re now at the stage where an actor or actress would have to take a shit on the reporter’s notebook to get a less-than-howlingly-sycophantic write-up. (Or maybe not. HE’S WHERE IT’S SCAT!) I’m convinced by now there’s a template. It goes like this.

Beauty, brains and Braun

An Actress bounds into the East London photographic studio, slightly out-of-breath, fizzing with the energy of Silvio Berlusconi on Horny Goat Weed at an 18-year-old’s swim party. “I just gave a homeless man outside a 20 pound note, and now I’m worrying he’d have rather had it in two tens,” she says, huge eyes widening in a luminously fresh face, as she puts down her vintage handbag and leather-bound copy of Anna Karenina (“I’m obsessed with Tolstoy, it’s a weakness, I need to widen my contemporary reading”) in a flurry of activity that lights up the room and makes all heads turn. “Oh, no. I hope he’s OK,” she says, fretting extravagantly over this act of incredibly charming philanthropic spontaneity I’m choosing to include here for colour but that she obviously had no idea could end up in the article.

The issue of the Handily Timed Tramp is resolved when a menial is despatched to offer him change and to pick up her favourite snack, Minstrels. An actress who eats?! I ask, incredulous, as she unselfconsciously shovels in great handfuls while having her hair and make-up done. “Oh, I eat like a pig, I love cooking for my boyfriend,” she says, adjusting her navy wool crepe Jil Sander dress over her tiny size six frame, which she maintains by consuming shitloads of food and walking to appointments. “I’m really boring, I don’t like all those red carpet events, I love staying in and putting on pyjamas and making a massive casserole for my friends. I’m such a down-to-earth, homely, generous goof! This is so embarrassing to admit.”

So, I say, once she’s finished showing pictures of her dogs on her phone to everyone because she’s completely unstarry and prepared to talk about herself to unimportant people, was it a difficult decision to choose to play Eva Braun, as she’s a controversial figure? She suddenly looks serious. “Obviously people have their views on what she did but really I just approached her as a character, as a story. You know, before anything else she was just a woman, in love with a man, trying to make a life for herself in Nazi Germany.” Did she do much research? “I avoided reading anything about her because I didn’t want my performance to be affected by other peoples’ opinions. You know, I wanted to get to the emotional truth. That’s your job, as an actor.”

While I’m being admitted to her intellectual salon and everything I thought I knew is being turned on its head, I have to ask, because the answer will help all of us, would she consider herself a feminist? “Uhm,” she says, with the pause of someone who chooses their words very carefully, perfect brow creasing. “I’m not… part of a cause or a movement or anything. I’m just a person. So I’d say I’m definitely female. But I’m not a ‘feminist’ as such because I’m too independent-minded to be part of something. You know?”

She finishes all her ideas with “you know?” The phrase contains a note of yearning, to find and make connections, and it strikes me she’s desperate to be understood, but she has learned to wear the struggle lightly. Yet she effortlessly metamorphises from Thinker to Model once she’s dressed in a retro ironic bikini and ironic heels for the ’50s-themed photo-shoot that sends up the notion of a ‘pin-up’, pulling faces where she pretends to double-take at the sight of her own tits while talking on a Bakelite telephone. Yet even in vintage costume she’s absolutely modern, in control of her image, of how she wants to be seen – when she vetoes some iced bun props on the basis that “It’s a bit slutty Calendar Girls” everyone on-set who doesn’t want to be fired instantly agrees she is right.

As she stands patiently while wardrobe people fuss with the ironic see-through baby doll negligee for the next slyly subversive picture, she explains how she hopes her role as Braun will see her considered for more serious parts. “Casting agents, they do tend to think, she looks a certain way, that’s all she can do. But things are changing. Look at Judi Dench. I’d like a career like hers. Old women are so inspiring.”

Now Hollywood is calling, it says here in the publicity material I was given. Can she see herself in blockbusters? “God, that’d be so weird!” she laughs, revealing perfect teeth. “I’m not sure I’d want to be, you know, Meryl Streep famous because then your life’s not your own. I’m going back next week for the endless slog of auditions but I don’t want it that much. They judge you on how you look and how well you can act, it’s very pressuring. When you get rejected a lot you start to realise it’s a very fake existence. And I’d miss my dogs!”

And with that, she’s gone, in a gust of her signature scent. (“You like it?” her eyes light up. “It’s bespoke! They mix it for you at this amazing atelier in the Loire Valley. I’ll send you their details.” True to form her PA mails me a day later, and I discover it costs more than the Moon. Only someone unmaterialistic could assume a journalist’s salary could cover it. I get a glimpse of what it’s like to live like her, whimsically, in the moment, seeing so few limitations).

But what IS her life? It’s simple, crazy and complicated, veering from casseroles to film premieres and Tolstoy and a pair of Basset Hounds called Pearl and Dean, and yet she takes all the madness in her faux-python Stella McCartney slingback-shod stride. It’s only after she’s left, in a moment of aching symbolism that poignantly encapsulates this entire encounter, I notice she’s left me most of her bag of Minstrels. A gesture of such heartbreaking kindness that I might die wanking.

Text © Mhairi McFarlane, 2012

43 thoughts on “[Guest post] The ultimate celebrity interview!

  1. ‘…An actress who eats?! I ask, incredulous, as she unselfconsciously shovels in great handfuls while having her hair and make-up done. “Oh, I eat like a pig, I love cooking for my boyfriend,”’

    Love the whole thing – this is a particular favourite. Something I’ve effectively read in every interview for the past 10 years :)

  2. To quote Meg Ryan in When Harry Met Sally: “Yes yes yes yes yes!”

    I think this perfectly captures the salivating sycophancy of the modern celeb interview (“Only someone unmaterialistic could assume a journalist’s salary could cover it”), and the interviewer’s need to show that they are now, like, total bezzies with the interviewee. In reality they had 20 minutes with a disinterested film star, whose PR watched them like a hawk and batted away any remotely interesting questions.

    Mhairi, you are a genius.

  3. the only thing missing is the token question about nudity – either she’s naked in her latest film and so therefore that will dominate the interview and her (no doubt self-effacingly modest) opinion of it will provide the headline; or she’d never do it – but would make an exception if an ‘artist’ director asked her to (aka the Kirsten Dunst principle)

  4. ” … conduit to divinity”

    For this alone you must be worshipped and tithed to.

    Superbly done!

  5. A bit mean but v funny. The responsibility for this culture is with the people who buy these mags though and also maybe a little bit with the people employed to pastiche it.

  6. Might want to include a part where she asks for a beer, and as she takes her first sip adds: “I’m just one of the guys, really.” Perfect otherwise!

  7. …and the misty uplift, and the insistence that earlier edgy roles were a teenage aberration (“I was going through a Goth period!”) but everything is all right now.

  8. “It’s only after she’s left, in a moment of aching symbolism that poignantly encapsulates this entire encounter, I notice she’s left me most of her bag of Minstrels. A gesture of such heartbreaking kindness that I might die wanking.”

    HA! This whole interview was amazing, bravo!

    p.s consider applying for a job at Sunday Times Style Magazine!

  9. The omission I noticed is the first-paragraph smoking description. Vital to get across whether she does it thoughtfully, apologetically, nervily, elegantly, compulsively or just constantly. Get the brand in if you can. But make sure you get across it’s the first thing she does, and the first thing you mention. Double the bung if it’s in the photo too. Remember journalists, now that advertising is banned, it’s up to you to get across that all the cool people are doing it.

  10. Do the male version! Do the male version! ‘He is, of course, absolutely beautiful. When I mention this, he shifts uncomfortably and offers a wry smile. “Well,” he says, “of course the attention is nice. But it’s very weird.”‘

    (Also, you totally stole my name. Hm.)

  11. Someone above said:

    “Do the male version! Do the male version!”

    I will pay you myself. Please write it.

  12. it’s not just celeb mags though is it – it’s a regular part of weekend newspaper supplements and even weekday features, not least in Guardian and Observer

  13. I’m late to the party but I very much enjoyed this post, except for one small thing: the notion that the interviewer merely turns up and records the plentiful nonsense spewing forth from the star’s mouth. If only.

    “The dumbstruck interviewer acts only as a conduit to divinity, drinking in their shuddering magnificence and recording their sub-adolescent witterings as if it’s brainy gold.”

    I do a lot of celebrity interviews, though not as many as I used to. I genuinely don’t think people realise how much hard work they often are. The hardest ones are often with people who want to be more famous than they are. The really famous people are often genuinely nice. Johnny Depp was lovely, for example. I asked John Hurt how he decides what films to go for and he quite seriously told me it was like me deciding what magazine to write for – and I’m not some famous interviewer, I was a staff writer in my second job after university. The last celebrity I interviewed was not only genuinely lovely and interesting but she also sneakily paid my bill (from the time I spent working in the cafe before she arrived to meet me) while I was in the toilet and I only found out after she left.

    But sometimes, more often than not, it’s not so much a case of recording their sub-adolescent witterings as having to work really, really hard to get them to say anything quoteworthy. You don’t just record their witterings – you prise the witterings out of them, painful word by painful word.

    I’d love to see another version of this blogpost, therefore, which tells the interview as it actually really happened. Here’s a real example from my own experience:

    *

    Glossing over the fact his last however-many films tanked, I ask A Director what he liked to watch as a child. Judging by the look on his face, he has yet to actually grow up. “These questions!” he snarls in a tone that suggests his fury has reached projectile dummy territory.

    “These questions again!” he exclaims. “You just don’t give up!” He takes a sip of the expensive water he’s not bothering to share with the likes of me, despite the fact I sat in a hotel room that’s too hot for 45 minutes waiting for him to grace him with my presence.

    I look at his shoes, which cost at least 10 and quite possibly 1,110 times more than the amount of money I won’t receive if he doesn’t tell me about the films that inspired him for the piece I’m writing about the films that inspired him for a page where directors talk about the films that inspired them.

    The PR listened to me explaining that. He then listened to me asking questions about the films that inspired A Director, and A Director refusing to talk about the films that inspired him. Unfortunately, he’s too busy pissing about with his BlackBerry to be of any help.

    A Director seems perturbed. He thinks I’m being sneaky, continuing to ask him about the films that inspired him when he’s made it quite clear this topic of conversation doesn’t amuse him. I need to try another tactic. I would have 13 minutes in which to keep trying, or I won’t get paid, but A Director’s lateness means our time has been cut short, so I now have three minutes.

    *

    I’m sure there are people rolling their eyes and thinking: it can’t be that hard. But it isn’t always easy to extract anything remotely quoteworthy, and it does take skill, and – like real life journalism – it just isn’t as easy as it looks. Just as real life case studies don’t sit there and tell you the whole story, beginning to end, with all the information, so celebrities all too often don’t give you what you need unless you really work for it.

  14. Anne, I think you might have missed the point a little. Of course, in reality the interview often goes like that. So, why don’t journalists write that version? Because it breaks the golden rules of sycophantic brown nosing.

  15. Kelly, there are other reasons why journalists don’t write that version. One is that readers have little patience with “oh woe is me, X wouldn’t ansswer my carefully-crafted questions and just wanted to talk about her dogs and charity work”.
    The other, more practical reason is that the publicist may blackball you.
    So gets some bollocks – let them blackball you, you might cry. Don’t be someone else’s writing drone.
    I did. And now I hardly write any interviews with anyone because I’m blacklisted by two major publicists. And it hasn’t changed a fucking thing in the world of Grazia, Elle and the Guardian.

Comments are closed.