Trent Dalton: First-person shooter

Nose picking, fingernail flicking, insults and grimaces – it all goes in when Trent Dalton writes a profile. He’s no celeb-struck pussy, he’s a fucking Beretta! He’s supercool and he’s gonna write it in first-person and they’re gonna believe every word. We loved revisiting this piece from the summer 2009 Walkley Magazine. Illustration by David Rowe.

This is foolish and embarrassing and I’ve rejigged this increasingly laboured introductory sentence some 36 times because I am deeply uncertain of mentioning it … but as this is a story about writing in first-person and stories behind the stories, and as I spend my days extracting and reporting the secrets of mostly decent and honest individuals, it is probably fair I share a secret of my own so I’m just going to go right ahead and say it.

Before really big interviews with really important people, or before all-or-nothing interviews where we have 30 minutes to gather enough quotes to sustain a cover story profile that will carry a reader through 3,000 insightful, emotive words, I often begin to feel queasy. When this happens I rush discreetly to a toilet, often in the foyer of a city hotel. At the basin I splash my face with water, wipe it with a paper towel, then recite the following mantra:

“Don’t pussy out on me now. They don’t know. They don’t know shit. You’re not gonna get hurt. You’re a fucking Beretta. They believe every fucking word because you’re supercool.”

It’s a line Tim Roth’s nervous undercover cop says in Reservoir Dogs before a meeting with volatile gangster Harvey Keitel. Roth actually says “You’re fucking Baretta”, a reference to the 1970s American cop show starring Robert Blake as unflappable Detective Anthony Vincenzo “Tony” Baretta. But I’ve always said the line as “You’re a fucking Beretta”, as in, “You’re a fucking gun”, not to be played with, likely to go bang and such.

I first said it to psych myself up. I soon realised that the mantra had a reverse effect and left me feeling worse than before because every time I said it I analysed why I said it and immediately felt deeply foolish for saying it aloud. But then it became a good luck charm, a pre-game ritual; to not say it would be to cast a dark and grim cloud over the coming interview, to inexplicably transform the thoroughly likable Matt Damon into a fire-breathing dragon spreading misery and grief (but enough about publicists). Now I say the mantra quick, colourlessly, the way priests recite the Lord’s Prayer.

The last time I said it was in Room 4 of the Blakehurst Motor Inn, in southern Sydney, prior to spending three extraordinary, surreal days in the company of boxer Anthony Mundine.
The first time I said it was in the men’s toilets of the Hotel Intercontinental, Sydney, prior to spending eight extraordinary, surreal minutes in the company of actor Anthony Hopkins.

I was 21, earning $26,000 a year and sitting on top of the world; resplendent in the $200 Roger David dinner suit I wore to my brother’s wedding, on my first real crack at a celebrity profile for free glossy colour inner-city magazine Brisbane News.

Hopkins was in Sydney promoting Red Dragon, prequel to The Silence of the Lambs, a film I greatly admired and knew many things about, like how Hopkins ad-libbed some of that stuff about Clarice Starling being a well-scrubbed rube with a little taste from West Virginia and how Jodie Foster was so disturbed by Hopkins’ performance that she was briefly concerned for her co-star’s sanity and that the fear she shows in those iconic Baltimore prison scenes was, to an extent, genuine.

The weeks I spent researching Hopkins culminated in 42 probing, illuminating questions typed out in bold 14-point font — for ease of reference — on several stapled sheets of paper which lay in front of me at my table in the Intercontinental’s foyer. I was studying the questions, committing them to memory — “When you starred alongside Kate Hepburn in The Lion in Winter…” — when a presence loomed over my shoulder.

These days if a minder asked to see my questions I’d come over all wrath-of-God-like, real Charlton Heston: “From my cold, dead hands!”

“What’s that ya got there?” said one of Hopkins’ female minders, a woman tasked with marshalling journalists to Hopkins’ room for their allotted 10 to 15 minutes (depending on how much time the TV journalists left the print journalists).

“Just some questions,” I said, nervous, covering the questions with my hands. “Mind if I take a look?” she said, smiling. There was permanent sunshine in the minder’s voice. She could bring optimism to the sentence: “I’m gonna lodge this here fountain pen into your jugular if you don’t let me see those questions.”

These days if a minder asked to see my questions I’d come over all wrath-of-God-like, real Charlton Heston: “From my cold, dead hands!” But I was green, weak and timorous; a well-scrubbed rube from Brisbane’s outer northern suburbs. I handed the questions over.

The minder raised her fountain pen and began slashing ink lines across my questions.
“Can’t ask that,” she grunted. Slash, slash. A question about Hopkins’ recent divorce.
“Can’t ask that,” she grunted. Slash. Cut. Parry left. Slice. Parry right. Stab! Blobs of ink spilled from the tip of her pen like blood on a bayonet. The pen seemed to salivate, thirsty and rabid.
A reference to Hopkins’ reported alcoholism. “I don’t think so,” she said, viciously.

The foyer was filled with experienced feature writers from across the country. I felt their knowing stares. I remember glancing across at the table adjacent to mine. The great Adelaide film critic Stan James gave me a kind, supportive nod, a tender smile. It was a look that suggested I didn’t have to take this, that I should stand up and call the minder out for what she was: a power tripper unnecessarily protecting an intelligent, strong-willed man who could more than capably handle himself in conversation with a 21-year-old journalist.

I remember the very moment I wanted to be a newspaper feature writer. I was 11 years old reading a Courier-Mail feature on Axl Rose, lead singer of Guns N’ Roses and one-time God to young rubes the world over. The journalist had described how Rose was sitting in a Los Angeles gutter with a bottle of Jack Daniels as young fans walked past, stunned to see their idol in the flesh. The writer described Rose’s Reebok shoes, his bandanna, his casual greetings to fans – his world. And I was transported; spirited away from a Bracken Ridge bunk bed to a gutter in Los Angeles, sitting beside Rose, perfectly invisible. What an extraordinary job, I thought, travelling the world writing about interesting conversations and situations.

I cowered before the minder because this was what I wanted to do in life: write long-form features about interesting people. I’d spent much of the year writing reviews on plush Brisbane homes that I could never afford for the Brisbane News real estate section. I feared the minder cancelling my interview altogether and my editor, in turn, assigning me the competitions page to which I’d already lost a year of my twenties.

The minder handed back my questions: 42 meticulously structured queries that would have troubled even the smartest cannibalistic psychiatrist sociopath, awash with black crosses and lines – Jackson Pollock at his most inspired.

The minder rushed off victorious. My head dropped in shame. But it rose again and what I saw, emerging from a set of opening elevator doors, is an image forever stored in the memory folder in my mind labelled “Faaaark!”

It was Morrissey. Quiffed lead singer of groundbreaking Manchester alternative music group The Smiths. Moz! The Pope of Mope. The Mozfather. I might have put this down to an unremarkable bit of celebrity spotting were it not for the fact that Morrissey briefly stared into my eyes and nodded warmly, and were it not for the fact that all I had been listening to that particular year of my life was a cassette tape of Morrissey’s fourth solo album, Vauxhall and I, and were it not for the fact that for much of that morning swirling around my head, as is often the case when I’m nervous, were the second verse lyrics to the album’s extraordinary sixth track, “Why Don’t You Find Out For Yourself”.

Some men here, they know the full extent of your distress. They kneel and pray and they say, ‘Long may it last’.
Why don’t you find out for yourself?
Then you’ll see the glass, hidden in the grass.
Bad scenes come and go, for which you must allow. Sick down to my heart, that’s just the way it goes.

The nod seemed so deliberate, so well timed. “Morrissey is gay,” my brother reminded me that night over several beers. “He was probably trying to pick you up.” But it wasn’t like that. It was a supportive nod that seemed to suggest we were in agreement on something, like we both felt the same way about hotel foyers and Welsh actors: “Who the f–k is Anthony Hopkins anyway? Sure, he can act and he was great in The Silence of the Lambs and The Remains of the Day. But, man, have you seen Freejack? Bad Company? What do you care? Bad scenes come and go. That’s just the way it goes.”

I took the elevator to Hopkins’ room with renewed confidence. The minder was in the elevator with me making small talk as she checked her mobile phone messages, responding “Mmmmm” to conversational entry points she wasn’t really hearing: “Nice weather, huh? Gee, that Opera House is really something? Your feet always smell this bad?”
“Mmmmm,” she said. “Oh, by the way, Mr Hopkins doesn’t want you to come in with prepared questions. He just wants to have a conversation with you. He hates it when people come in with prepared questions.”

I wondered if “How are you?” would be considered a prepared question. “And, sorry,” she said. “We’ve had to shave seven minutes off your interview. Do you think you can get what you need in eight minutes?”

“What about photographs?” I asked. Our photographer had flown down with me to capture Hopkins for the magazine’s cover.

“She’ll have two minutes after we’ve done the interviews,” she said.

I quietly pondered how Annie Leibovitz would respond to that sentence. Hopkins was aloof from the start. “Brisbane, hey?” he said. “Do you have funnel-web spiders in Brisbane?”

Hopkins spent three minutes contemplating the many poisonous dangers lurking in Australian backyards. A following minute was devoted to a rambling observation about box jellyfish. I dragged him kicking and screaming to the subject of film.

“It’s a job,” he said. Five minutes into an eight-minute conversation and I had one usable quote: “It’s a job.”

He slumped back in his chair, head down. He scraped gunk from his fingernails and flicked it on the carpet, not far from my right leg. “It’s boring,” he followed. He clammed up.
I felt a deep and primal urge to crash-tackle him: “Quid pro quo Hopkins! Quid pro quo!”

I pressed on, searching for insight into the man behind Hannibal Lecter. “There’s nothing magical,” he said. “You learn your lines, you show up, you do it. All the rest is bullshit.”
The minder burst through the door a little over seven minutes in. “OK, Trent,” she said, sweet as apple pie. “Let’s wrap it up.”

The next day I plodded through the story. I’d come up with an extremely clunky idea, in hindsight, to open with an imagined FBI profile of Hopkins: “When watching Snow White the subject found himself drawn to the wicked queen. During the American season of The Silence of the Lambs he would creep into theatres, tap people on the shoulder and ask them what they thought of his performance.”

Staring at that impatient pompous arsehole of a computer cursor flashing in a sea of white I felt a desperate need to smash through the formal dimensions of the celebrity profile. I wanted to spill the beans, sit the reader down and converse.

“So get this, Hopkins then drops his head and starts picking grime out of his fingernails and flicking it on the carpet of the hotel room and then he starts rambling something about jellyfish and, no word of a lie, there were times when he WAS Lecter, you know, something in the eyes, the way he gnashed his teeth, something unhinged. He wasn’t acting in that movie.

There was this one moment, I swear, when he gazed down at my liver. I swear I saw him lick his lips! Then our photographer, Justine Walpole, goes to take his photograph. She’s got two minutes to get a cover shot! Now, Justine is one of the sweetest, most gifted portrait photographers I’ve ever seen. So she politely asks Hopkins to rest his chin on his closed fist and smile for the camera. And Hopkins snaps! ‘DON’T CONTROL ME!’ he barks. ‘I will NOT be controlled’. What’s with this guy…?”

But, in the end, I did pussy out. The only real insight into the day that I wrote was that Hopkins picked gunk from his fingernails. Days after the story ran I was stopped in the office hallways by Greg Lewis, a veteran Queensland Newspapers pre-press image enhancer, father of the great Queensland swimmer Hayley Lewis and one of the nicest men walking this earth. “Loved that Hopkins yarn,” he said. “That bit about him scraping gunk from his fingernails… great stuff. What was he really like?”

Nobody should ever have to ask me what someone was really like because they should know by the time they’ve reached my final full stop.

And, like that, Hayley Lewis’s old man changed how I write. It was a 2,000-word story and Greg connected to that one sentence about Hopkins and his fingernails. I realised then that I should have given Greg more. My duty was to report it all. My allegiance should have been to Greg. Not to Hopkins or his minders or myself – to the reader. Nobody should ever have to ask me what someone was really like because they should know by the time they’ve reached my final full stop.

So when Kate Miller-Heidke frets about a photograph making her look “too Delta Goodrem”, it goes in. When hairdressing mogul Stefan dumps a handful of barramundi on my plate with his fingers, it goes in. When he runs his $370,000 Aston Martin into a black-and-yellow hazard pole, it goes in. When Morgan Freeman picks his nose, it goes in. When Queensland’s treasurer Andrew Fraser weeps over the memory of having to call his mother to tell her that her father, Fraser’s beloved grandfather, is dead, it goes in. When Miranda Kerr does an impression of Katie Holmes walking like a famished zombie searching for nourishing brains, it goes in. When Melissa McNeil, mother to supermodel Catherine McNeil, berates me for not wearing a tie to an interview with her daughter, it goes in. When the great Tony Mundine gives me a lesson on how to throw a right hook and lands one softly on my chin, it’s gotta go in! Or when Anthony Mundine grimaces when his mum asks him to go get her car from the mechanic, or when he swerves into oncoming traffic as if he were side-stepping a league front rower, or when his mate wraps his arms around my neck in a headlock and screams, “Get the f—k out of the car!”, it goes in.

If I have to write in first-person to tell that story then so be it. Tell the story. Spill the beans. And let the beans spill into the margins if they have to. Break it down. Break through. Entertain or die. Don’t pussy out on me now. They don’t know. They don’t know shit. You’re not gonna get hurt. You’re a fucking Beretta!

Trent Dalton is a Walkley Award-winning feature journalist for The Weekend Australian Magazine. David Rowe is a Walkley Award-winning artist with The Australian Financial Review.