Robert Downey Jnr and the Faustian bargain between journalist and subject

Charles Purcell explores the boundaries between journalist and subject and whether those boundaries change if the interviewee is a celebrity.

As a journalist who once interviewed Robert Downey Jr, I am following the controversy regarding his “difficult” interview with British journalist Krishnan Guru-Murthy – where Downey Jr walked out after the journalist alluded to his drug past –  with keen interest.

Personally I found Downey Jr to be a witty, erudite, charming interview subject when I spoke to him in 2008 about his role in Iron Man. Have a read here.

Yet the Guru-Murthy saga brings up an interesting topic: the Faustian bargain between journalist and subject.

Stars and journalists come at interviews with completely different agendas. Hollywood stars such as Downey Jr walk into interviews with the understanding that they are primarily there to talk about their latest film/movie/play/happening. Hence Downey Jr’s interjection – “Are we promoting a movie?” – when his interview with Guru-Murthy began to go south.

The stars don’t want to be there – indeed, few stars enjoy the interview process, despite the implicit ego-stroking – but they endure it for the good of “the project”.  Interview junkets may involve hundreds of interviews all around the world, where the stars face versions of the same questions (“What was it like to work with your co-star?”) again and again. Trying to stay good-humoured in the face of predictable, cringeworthy or even asinine questions must be an ordeal: one, admittedly, for which they are well paid.

Strip Club Exposure, Andrew Weldon

Strip Club Exposure, Andrew Weldon

Yet hidden in the whole process is the expectation that some journalists will stray from the official script. Journalists don’t just want to talk about the movie and deliver a “puff piece”: they want to learn something about the star themselves. They want to sell newspapers, get ratings, create a story worth reading. The best way to achieve that is to report something people never knew about the stars, something that might make their article stand out.

In short, they want a sliver, a kernel, a piece of the subject’s soul. Because, no, we’re not just promoting a movie. That’s what full-page ads and press releases are for. We’re promoting the star and the audience’s interest in said star.

Stars realise this and typically play along. They usually come equipped with favourite anecdote from the set or snippets of trivia (“I hit my co-star in the head with a rubber axe – just a glancing wound, mind”) to keep the jackals of the press at bay. They dole out slivers of their soul sparingly. It is part of the interviewer’s art to skilfully elicit those slivers and kernels, to woo their subject with tact and charm so they are comfortable enough to share those slivers. A good interviewer can get the famous to share those slivers without the stars realising they’re doing so until the interview is over.

Yet most stars are also experienced enough to know that “difficult” questions might arise during the second half of the interview. They know you’re going to ask them. You know you’re going to ask them. But both of you pretend it’s not going to happen.

(In that sense, Guru-Murthy’s timing was right, getting into the harder stuff at the five-minute mark of his seven-minute allotted time: if you go in harder too early, you risk a walkabout … and nothing to show your editor.)

Most stars of stage and screen realise that sometime during the current press junket, someone will bring up something fraught and random such as (pick one or more) their secret conjoined twin, their underground passion for scrimshaw, their “difficult” second album, that $200-million-dollar flop or the time they abused the sound man and the footage ended up on YouTube. At least, they’ve factored in the possibility and prepared for it the best they could.

So, as a reporter, you roll the dice and take your chances. Sometimes you get gold. Other times you might get the cold shoulder, monosyllabic answers … or even a walkout.

The “my drug hell” story is one of the clichés of the British tabloids and musical press. It’s almost a rite-of-passage for young rising Brit bands to spruik some derivation of the “my drug hell” experience to give them cachet and cred.

But that’s musicians. Young musicians. Not older American actors fronting billion-dollar franchises. Particularly ones that might have addressed the subject ad nauseam and are “over it”. (Incidentally, the Brits don’t have a reputation for genuflecting toward Hollywood royalty. Which is undoubtedly a good thing: makes for more interesting copy.)

Each interview becomes a balancing act between competing expectations. Obviously Downey Jr and Guru-Murthy had different expectations about what that outcome might be.

But that’s always the risk for reporters when you turn on the tape recorder: you never really know what you’re going to get.

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). He is also the author of the unpublished book The Last Newspaper on Earth, which he’s considering rewriting as a zombie thriller entitled Zombies Ate My Newspaper.

Andrew Weldon is a cartoonist.  His cartoons appear regularly in The Age and The Sunday Age newspapers, and The Big Issue Australia and over the years his work has appeared in many places including The New Yorker, The Spectator, Private Eye, The Chaser books and website, The Australian, The Bulletin and The Sydney Morning Herald.  He is also an author.