How to interview celebrities… and politicians

Volume 33, Number 2, June 2022

Worried about your interview with the big star? Learn these simple tips from a man who has met them all and nothing can go wrong. Or a politician? If you thought show business was tricky, wait until you are dealing with cabinet ministers.

Interviewing the famous has its pitfalls – and its etiquette. Keep off their private life – they can get very touchy – and never do something that shows them up. I made a hideous mistake with Simon Callow, who opted for tea at The Savoy as the place to chat about a book he had written on Charles Laughton. Why he had opted for tea there I do not know because he proceeded to order grapes and hot water, to which the tea room said they could only provide the hot water. We chatted happily enough about the book until I told him he had missed out one of Laughton’s Hollywood movies – The Blue Veil, a 1951 Jane Wyman weepie that was a hit at the time. Things went downhill from there on.

The worst thing is when you get landed with a minder sitting in, although if you keep it harmless to start with, the chances are they will slope off and leave you to get on with it. Then ask what you think you can get away with. When it is early on in their career and they are not experienced at being interviewed, your star will be quite nervous so be nice, lull them into a sense of security. It is always interesting to see when yesterday’s breakthrough role actor turns into a star, how they change. Meg Ryan, when she first came to London, was charming and happy to chat about her movie at length in one of those semi-smart cocktail bars off Wardour Street. But Meg the star, confronted with Michael Parkinson some years later, was another matter altogether. By that time, she had decided she really did not like being interviewed. He raised the fact that she had once trained to be a journalist, a chat line which was not particularly productive, and when he noted how wary she was of journalists and asked what she would do now if she were one, she replied: “Wrap it up.”

The Hollywood golden age stars were trained in how to do it. Those casual wisecracks for which they are celebrated were all part of the script. Kirk Douglas, promoting Tough Guys, the last film he made with frequent co-star Burt Lancaster, delivered a masterclass in chat which somehow ignored that it was a truly dreadful movie in which the two old gents were way past their best. Douglas even took his shirt off in it. The copy was terrific – or so one thought. However, the interview took place on a Thursday afternoon for publication Friday morning and on Thursday evening Kirk went on the Russell Harty show to deliver the same spiel, right down to the pauses for sympathetic laughter so that my Our Man Talks To piece read like Our Man Watched the Russell Harty Show. Bear that in mind. Today they will almost certainly be on The One Show or breakfast television before anyone gets round to reading you.

The other thing is: do as you are told. Confronted with Mel Gibson – it was one of those group affairs since regional newspapers like the one I worked for do not share circulation areas – we were firmly told not to stand up while Mel was in the room. However, nature calls even superstars and later I discovered why: we would have been looking down on the great man. Mel, unlike William Wallace, is a wee man. His Braveheart was, to say the least, a triumph of mind over matter – or camera angles.

Always make sure you know who you are talking to. Confronted with Imelda Staunton and having memories of a rather good Sunday paper interview with Imogen Stubbs the day before, I got confused with their respective careers. It has to be said Ms Staunton laughed happily, said she had never been to university and all went well until I raised seeing her in a musical years back, whereupon a slight chill descended. It was clearly not part of her career she wished to recall, being now a dramatic actress in Vera Drake. Except what goes round comes round and today she is a bigger leading lady in West End musicals than she is on screen.

One of the hazards of the group interview at film festivals is that you do them with journalists from other countries who are always devoted cineastes and would regard even Sight and Sound as the equivalent of Comic Cuts. This means that you have to make sure you lead the talk. The star will prattle about whatever it is they remember about making the movie, which could be very little. They are there for the per diem, the posh hotel suite and the free food and have almost certainly forgotten pretty well everything about a movie made at least a year before and followed by others. There is also the hazard of their drug habit. When he made Chaplin, Robert Downie Jr was hard to handle – his days as a Hollywood bad boy are now over – and clearly had no idea where he was when he eventually turned up. The coffee table in his room where the interview was taking place was smeared with honey on which he had been indulging and when one of the group asked to use the loo, it was refused since that was allegedly rather messed up with white powder.

As for the currently beleaguered Johnny Depp, whose glory days were yet to come, he gave every sign of needing a good wash and that he wished to be anywhere but there when first interviewed. One Cannes year when he was at the Hotel du Cap, he and Kate Moss kept the press with interview slots waiting for 36 hours while somehow or other the hotel suite was trashed. As for the handlers landed with troublesome stars, all they want is to get them to turn out, and your job is to put up with how they are behaving because that is the only way you will get anything. Flattery helps, but never let the Middle European cineastes set the agenda or you will end up with next to no copy.

Keeping it confidential about Spacey

Sometimes awful things happen. I got Rod Steiger all to myself once at Cannes, but I was in a queue and had been seated two or three tables away from him in a smart beach bar. I could hear every word of the two previous interviews, which meant by the time I got to him it was hard to think of anything that had not been asked – and he was in the same condition when it came to answers. It was a state of affairs not helped by the arrival of the Mrs Steiger of the day, who was desperate to go and have lunch.

On one occasion, confronted with Kevin Spacey, who was being charming, I changed the subject just as the man next to me was about to ask the million dollar question of the day. It would probably have ended the chat, but you never know. This was well before the Old Vic era when he became the toast of the town in which he is now toast. Anyway, my colleague had opened his mouth to ask: “Are you gay?” Just what might have happened one dreads to think but the chances are we would have rapidly left – or he would.

Remember, almost all of the stars will not know who you are the minute it is over unless you are female and gorgeous, when they just might make a play. I had one predatory female colleague from whose advances the PR guardians regularly had to protect their property. But mostly the eyes go dead almost before they have left the room, and should you bump into them in the corridor half an hour later, they will not see you. Do not be offended. Know your place in the pecking order. You have not made a new friend, no matter how well the interview went.

To be fair, there are a few, like Brad Pitt, who remember you from last time at the same festival. George Clooney is another who uses the line about how nice to see you again. He may remember the face as he does have political nous, but equally the people who do these interviews tend to be the same people, so at least one in the group will have met him before. If necessary, always drop your name into the conversation so that avoids the interviewee’s ignorance being exposed and leaves them looking good.

Do not make a joke. Interviewing Anthony Perkins once, somebody asked him who his favourite leading lady was. He paused and I interrupted with: “Yourself ?” It was not the right thing to say to the sexually ambivalent Mr Perkins, whose “if looks could kill” expression only lifted a bit when I added “in Psycho?”.

I belong to the dead days of shorthand but it is a great interview help. When the star gets boring, you just stop taking notes, whereupon they get worried and start to talk. The constantly running tape recorder has a major drawback – you are, in effect, stealing their voice. Shorthand is not seen as doing that, although the note is just as good a record of what was said as the tape. Sometimes. Of course, they just misbehave for the sake of it. Russell Crowe, always a tricky subject, in his romper stomper breakthrough days stormed out after one journalist asked something he did not want to reply to.

Later, for another film, he sat down, announced there was going to be one question and he would tell us what it was going to be, followed by another when he asked the assembled hacks five questions, one of which was what was the capital of Brazil? When told what it was, he left. There is nothing you can do about it and the publicist will shrug if complained to – at least they got him to turn out, which is what they are most concerned about. Always remember, stars’ careers have their ups and downs.

And do not think sharing a surname is any help. Kurt Russell proved totally uninterested in the film he had to promote or our shared surname, and Willy Russell failed to see anything in being interviewed by someone of the same name, although it was the excuse for the umpteenth time he must have had to talk about Blood Brothers. The best moment about sharing the same surname occurred when he was not there. Introduced as Willie Russell by a fellow critic to the late Dan Crawford, who ran the King’s Head theatre, my jaw dropped when he said how much he admired my writing. Journalists do not believe people read what they write. Then the penny dropped. Wrong Willie. There was nothing to do but smile modestly and move on – rapidly.

The other thing is that most of these interviews take place in really smart places, like the Dorchester, the Savoy, Soho House or the Groucho Club, so remember the first rule of journalism and turn up well enough dressed to go anywhere. Provided you are neat, smart hotel lobbies are your oyster, somewhere to read the paper, shelter from the rain and use the facilities.

Not that your interviewee will worry about dress. Actors rarely look smart, let alone tidy, when off the red carpet. On the occasions they do dress up, it is perhaps better not to make too much of it. I realise it was a mistake to say to Colin Firth, who had appeared in designer Tom Ford’s movie A Single Man – in which he was outstandingly well-dressed – “Nice suit. Did they give you the clothes?”


… and Julia Langdon’s lessons in political diplomacy

I learned first about the tricky behaviour of politicians from a master. During a brief and unsuccessful career as a gossip columnist, I wrote a disobliging paragraph about a young upstart and then-aspiring MP called Jeffrey Archer, who was a member of the Greater London Council at the time. He rang me up and thanked me personally. Of course, as intended, I was taken aback, failed to protest that the item was actually intended to annoy and Jeffrey won our first encounter hands down. Not only that but, being Jeffrey, he probably was grateful for a mention in Town Talk, the page 2 gossip column in the dear old Sunday Express.

It was already clear that I was not cut out for this particular line of the business. I was the ingénue, sent by John London’s Diary in the London Evening News to cover the party for the premiere of The Graduate, who asked her boyfriend the identity of the small black guy with one eye who was obviously “someone”. How was I to recognise Sammy Davis Junior? I was the reporter detailed to find out if Julie Christie was having an affair with Warren Beatty, who took a cup of tea and discussed the state of the film industry with the nice bearded man who answered the door at her house and never considered the possibility that the legendary lothario might have grown a beard since Bonnie and Clyde. It was only three weeks later, when I saw a picture of the same bearded man in Another Newspaper, that I realised my error (which, naturally, I kept to myself). I turned down dinner with an exciting new talent I interviewed at The Savoy because I already had a date with the BF – and, anyway, who had ever heard of Donald Sutherland?

And, yes, it was me who was sent to doorstep Bill Simpson – or “TV’s Heartthrob Dr Finlay” as he was known – and who allowed my target to escape by going for cigarettes. For the Daily Sketch in New York in 1971, I reported on “Frank Sinatra’s Last Concert” – possibly the first of his last concerts as they continued for a further 24 years – while my report of the first boxing match between Joe Frazier and Muhammad Ali at Madison Square Garden appeared under the headline “Joe Frazier Will Never Fight Again”. Yes, well, look it up. Is it any wonder all of these newspapers went out of business?

So I moved on to politics. I am not sure if the requirement to observe “lobby terms” still holds if the MP in question is now dead, but I shall presume that it does not. Thus it was that I was first told to “eff off” by an MP, when Denis Healey used those words to me in the Members’ Lobby of the House of Commons (except he didn’t bowdlerise). It was the spring of 1976 and he was standing for the leadership of the Labour Party after Harold Wilson’s surprise resignation. I elicited this infelicity when I politely asked the passing chancellor what he thought would be his greatest problem if he was to win. “Eff off!” he said, and then he barked over his shoulder: “And that was on lobby terms!” I imagine now that his irritation was sparked by the knowledge that he had already lost the contest – he came fifth out of the six candidates in the first round but, anyway, at the time, I obeyed the rules.

I went to work at Westminster in 1971, on returning from the US, and the first MP I interviewed was the late Alf Morris. He repeated everything he said, sometimes more than once, and I couldn’t work out if he thought I was dim, or he didn’t trust my shorthand. It was a confusing initiation but things improved. I grew in confidence but I still went on making mistakes.

Pathetic pedant that I am, I told David Owen he would never get anywhere in politics if he continued to split the infinitive in his public speeches. That was, of course, before he became foreign secretary, left the Labour Party, founded the Social Democratic Party and eventually became its leader.

I was foolish enough to tangle with Enoch Powell. Hearing a rumour that he was standing down as an MP in Northern Ireland, I rang him at home and said that I understood that this was being suggested. He slammed down the phone. Trembling just a little, I rang again and he told me to stay away. Later in the same day, seeing him by then in the Commons chamber, I wrote him a letter in the internal mail in which I pointed out that, as a lobby correspondent, I was entitled to ask such a question and expect a civil reply, even if it was that he did not wish to comment. A few hours later, I received the response. It was written by hand, in ink and might even have been by quill pen. It was over two pages long and it was an essay on the use of the verb “to understand”.

Tangling with Clark – without joining the coven

I tangled with Alan Clark, too, often – but not like that. We used to have lunch often and he was very entertaining company. There were lots of laughs but never anything remotely improper, until the occasion when we were lunching at his suggestion and invitation in an Italian restaurant we favoured in a basement under New Scotland Yard. He booked and ordered the food, told me what I would eat and then, when the bill came, he pushed it across the table and said: “Maxwell will take care of this, won’t he.” It was not a question. I was political editor of the Daily Mirror at the time and took the bill and paid it. But I also wrote a weekly column in those days for the great Punch magazine and reported my exchange with Clark therein. “You shit!” he said, when I saw him next, but he bore me no animus.

He lacked vanity, unlike Robin Cook. I learned this after covering the Scottish Conservative conference one weekend where Cook was derogatively described from the rostrum as “yon wee Labour health pixie”, a description which was accurate, if unkind, but which I had also found more than a little amusing. Arriving at the Commons on the ensuing Monday morning, I found myself beside Labour’s then health spokesman. “Did you hear what someone called you in Perth?” I asked, chortling. He hadn’t. I told him. This proved a mistake, although illustrating an important aspect of the man’s character which, I suppose, was something the world needed to know.

I have made innumerable such errors in half a century at Westminster; too many by far to detail here. But there was one mistake I did not make: to follow the instruction of one of my editors in one particular instance. I had told her about the occasion I had been lunching with the former education secretary, Mark Carlisle. The minister was talking a lot – he was an excellent source – which had impeded him eating his food. I attempted to put him at his ease: “Don’t worry,” I said. “It is always said that men who eat slowly make better lovers.” I related this incident later to the editor, joking about how the poor man had purpled in embarrassment. She had quite other ideas. “I want you to take every man in the Cabinet out for a meal and time how long they take to eat it,” she said. “We will publish a league table.” I looked her in the eye and said of course, hoping – correctly, as it proved – that at least one of us would forget the conversation.

William Russell spent 45 years with the Glasgow Herald, the last 20 as London editor, film critic and diplomatic correspondent.

Julia Langdon has written about politics for more than 50 years. She was political editor of The Mirror and The Sunday Telegraph and is chairwoman of the BJR.

From the same issue

The fog of war

The journalists who went off to Ukraine as Vladimir Putin sent in his army expected at worst to...

read more