The Word Miser, the Ageing Action Hero, the Monosyllabic Athlete, the Reticent Rock Star … Charles Purcell has interviewed them all during 20 years in journalism. Yet sometimes it’s hard to get them to talk. Here he shares his selection of techniques and questions guaranteed to deliver interview gold. Cartoon republished with permission from Fiona Katauskas.
Before you start, break the ice
Wearing a pirate’s eye patch to an interview lends an unmistakable air of mystery and is bound to be a conversation starter. If it’s a phoner, simply tell them to imagine you’re wearing a pirate’s eye patch.
“What are you up to right now? Where are you?”
Some stars will state the obvious: “I’m sitting in my lounge, talking to you, a journalist from Owl Fancier’s Monthly.” Or they might, in the case of when I interviewed David Duchovny, tell you that they’re on the phone at the intersection of Montana and 11th Street at Santa Monica in Los Angeles: “I’ve just given you these co-ordinates in case you want to send a missile.”
“If you weren’t a director/actor/iconic children’s mime, what would you be?”
Even the famous dream of the path not taken. I made Woody Allen laugh – a career highlight — with this question. He thought he’d make a good messenger.
“Why are you a director/actor/iconic children’s mime?”
Most of the greats are driven by a singular obsession: painters who have to paint, dancers who have to dance, singers who have to sing, children’s mimes who have to make balloon animals for ungrateful brats for $20 a hour.
“What do you love about Australia?”
Most overseas stars are briefed by their PR flunkies about what a massive inferiority complex Australians have – just look at our obsession with the phrase “world-class” and our fear that our treasured institutions are somehow not “world-class”.
“Do you do your own stunts?”
Good for action stars. Most don’t — for “insurance purposes” (actually, that is true — or “true”). Still, they may launch into a long monologue defending their ageing masculinity and their right to appear in movies where they beat up 20-year-olds.
“I read that it was a gruelling shoot.”
It is a badge of honour for actors to describe their shoots as gruelling. Most aren’t squatting in the jungle waiting for the Vietcong to take a pot shot at them or having heart attacks on set like Martin Sheen in Apocalypse Now. They just have some long days. Still, this approach occasionally delivers a good anecdote.
“Why are you lying to me?”
Got the balls of a brass monkey and the hide of a rhino? Maybe you should go to the doctor and get that checked out. But if you do have the balls of a brass monkey and the hide of a rhino, this approach is a reliable ice-breaker.
“I reject your hypothesis.”
Some miserly stars refuse to use 100 words when five will do. They’re not necessarily rude — just economical with their language. Loosen them up by suddenly pronouncing “I reject your hypothesis”. Keep repeating it, like John Malkovich saying “It’s beyond my control” in Dangerous Liaisons.
Always follow up
Former ’80s star Marilyn admitted to spending the last 20 years sitting in a room, taking crack and watching the Alien films in a fantastic recent interview. There is always an opportunity in any interview to steer its course towards a great line of questioning. The trick is to recognise it when it comes. In this case, the interviewer failed the ask the obvious question: what was Marilyn’s favourite Alien film? Because anything other than the first and second one would be sheer madness.
“How many times a day do you contemplate your own mortality?”
Simple, yes. Obvious, yes. But it occasionally delivers gold – and can lead to deeper discussions about life, the universe and everything. Here’s Woody Allen again when I spoke to him, discussing the role of “distractions” to ward off thinking about death.
“It’s like what Auden said about death being the distant sound of thunder at a picnic: that’s what [life] is, you’re at a picnic but there’s a distant sound of thunder. You know someday you’re going to die. Your loved ones will die. It’s not a nice thought. If you can get lost in the distractions, it’s great, but if you’re one of the people who can’t … you’ve got to find some way of coping with reality without denial.”
Other great philosophical questions to ask during interviews are head-scratchers like “Does the cut worm really forgive the plow?” … which is perfect for cerebral types such as rugby props.
The “tortoise” hypothetical from Blade Runner
Pose this question when you are unsure whether your subject is a real person or a replicant incapable of empathy. It’s amazing how many Hollywood types fail this question. (And yes, if you don’t understand this, you are the only person who hasn’t seen Blade Runner. I also doubt whether you’ve seen all the Alien films, with or without crack as an hors d’oeuvres.)
Charles Purcell is a former writer and sub-editor at the Sydney Morning Herald. He is the author of The Spartan, available on Amazon (Pan Macmillan, $5.99).