Tuesday 27 January 2015

Even the stars are star-struck

Pause for thought: Harold Pinter with Ciaran Carty and, inset right, Carty’s new book Intimacy With Strangers: A Life of Brief Encounters
Being treated as a celebrity doesn't bother Jack Nicholson because he never behaves like a celebrity.
Natalie Portman: Although looking back she's proud of Léon, she was upset by how some of the media perceived it.

Ciaran Carty looks back at a life of interviewing the biggest names in showbiz

Being treated as a celebrity doesn't bother Jack Nicholson because he never behaves like a celebrity. "It's just part of life," he says. "I'm really good at sneaking around. If someone doesn't know me at a hotel, it suits me fine. And you can't get me when I'm at home."

Samuel L Jackson agrees. "The thing is not to court publicity," he says. "People don't chase or bother me when I walk down a street because I don't have 30 big guys around me knocking people out of the way."

It's much the same for an interviewer. You learn not to think of anyone as a celebrity. You realise you're just two people in a room having a conversation. It's been that way ever since getting up close and personal with famous writers, actors, directors, artists and musicians became my job.

Not that an interviewer isn't star-struck. It's just that you discover stars are star-struck, too. It's what attracted Nicholson to Hollywood in the first place.

"Sure I was star-struck," he says. "I'm star-struck now. I love the glamour. My idea of a great evening is to be nominated for an academy award and know you're not going to win. It's happened to me often enough, and I love it. You can then party through the night."

Stars are even star-struck with each other. "A lot of actors get intimidated by Denzel Washington," says Spike Lee, who directed him in several movies. "He's so charismatic and smart. You need to cast him with strong actors who are not going to get intimidated."

Washington seems taken aback when I tell him. "Did I really intimidate them, you mean?" he says. "I feel intimidated now" – and he breaks into a mock self-interrogation, demanding, "How do you feel about it?" before replying, pleadingly, "I don't know, I don't know."

So is there anything in life Washington finds intimidating? "I don't know about intimidating. What is your definition of intimidating?" he asks. He has a way of turning a question back to you.

But he concedes that growing up in Mount Vernon, New York, he found his mother sometimes intimidating. It's probably what kept him from running wild after his parents divorced.

His mother used to embarrass him by telling him off for hanging out with kids on the street. "'You gotta run home, man,' they'd jeer." He shrugs. "Now they're doing life."

You can talk with Washington, Nicholson or Jackson as you might with anyone else, perhaps because they are famous through their own brilliance as actors rather than celebrities famous just for being famous. The latter may be interesting as curiosities but wear off fast amid all the clutter of handlers and agents and product placing.

"I know what it's like to be poor," Paris Hilton is telling me in Cannes in 2005. She's in the Carlton Hotel sipping a Monte Scroppino through a black straw and wearing a white-flowered, low-cut Roberto Cavalli dress and Stuart White shoes.

Talking to her is like talking to a brand rather than an actual person. "There's only one Paris Hilton. I'm pleasant and I'm sexy. I have an exciting life. I think people are interested in that and like it."

"Jaysus," he says, "it's getting bleeding crazy. You wouldn't actually give it too much thought or your head would be destroyed."

Such was his dedication that in 2001 just when his career was taking off, despite a streaming cold, he went ahead with an interview at his cottage in Ringsend near Sandymount Strand, answering questions in between inhaling from bowls of remedial vapours. "I'm in no hurry to get anywhere. I don't have any plans. I don't have a map. If you did in this business, you'd destroy yourself."

Perhaps the most damaging form of celebrity is one that's inherited. The furore over the explicitness of Isabella Rossellini's performance as the kinky mysterious Dorothy in Blue Velvet and her close personal relationship with its director, David Lynch, echoed what her mother Ingrid Bergman went through in 1950 when her open affair with the Italian director Roberto Rossellini scandalised Hollywood.

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