Monday 23 October 2017

So tell me, Angelina . . . why do I bother?

The film industry protects its stars so tightly, the celebrity interview has become a farce. Victoria Smith rages against the PR machine

It's a PR Jolie:
for millions of
and writers,
interviews with
superstars like
Angelina Jolie
have become a
bit of a
It's a PR Jolie: for millions of journalists and writers, interviews with superstars like Angelina Jolie have become a bit of a meaningless joke

'Christ, it's all such a farce." That's the knockout moment, midway through Jennifer Egan's summer must-read, A Visit From the Goon Squad, when increasingly deranged journalist Jules Jones takes his phenomenally bland interview with 19-year-old Hollywood starlet Kitty Jackson and drives it straight into the ground.

Exhausted with Kitty's studied "niceness", with the strict 40-minute limit on their lunchtime encounter, and with the painfully controlled public relations exercise that it has become, Jones cracks. He decries the process and rails against the phoney cat'n'mouse game interviews have become. Were it not that he then takes Jackson into Central Park and attempts, idiotically, to rape her, he would be the book's unacknowledged hero.

To an entire stratum of working journalists, Jones is an instant icon. For the urge to smash your tape recorder to pieces, crying "Christ, it's all such a farce!" is the defining sentiment in every contemporary "star interview".

In a world of boundless PR power, where small, screechy women decide exactly what will be written about their clients in UK newspapers, the star interview is, as Egan observes, a meaningless joke.

At a time when sensitivities about any published material are running high, we toilers at the coalface must acknowledge that the Hollywood celebrity interview -- frequently a paper's prestige feature -- is a fabricated lie built around wink-wink deals, unspoken agreements and a tacit understanding between journalist and publicist about what will not be said.

Egan got some details wrong. In fact 40 minutes is far too long for the average star interview. You can be -- and I have been -- offered 20 minutes with Eva Mendes, 15 minutes with Sylvester Stallone or 10 minutes with Robert Pattinson.

My personal record is a seven-minute interview with the rising starlet Jessica Biel, who once made it big with the action flick Blade: Trinity and was the Kitty Jackson of the mid-Noughties. The interview wasn't so much a farce as a parody of a farce.

The interview location in Goon Squad is also a bit unlikely. The restaurant encounter is mostly a thing of the past, confined to a time more than a decade ago when you might -- as I did -- spend an entire afternoon in New York with a young actor called Joaquin Phoenix, running the gamut of conversation and trying to understand how the death of his brother River had affected his life, his acting and the movies he made.

Today it's strictly sausage-factory stuff. A hotel in London. A hotel in New York. Journalists in holding pens. In and out in 15 minutes, then rush back to turn lifeless protocol into a breathless panegyric implying intimacy between journo and star. Which, of course, is creative licence. Or lying.

If you've seen Notting Hill or America's Sweethearts you'll be aware of the lowly vagaries of the process. Yet by turning it into comedy, these movies deny its corrosive effect.

They don't mention that personal publicists, direct from LA, often sit in on interviews, just behind your shoulder and in their client's eye-line, waiting to pounce on any inappropriate question (ie, one that doesn't begin with "So tell me Angelina, what was it like working with...").

Equally, they don't include a scene in which the journalist signs, as I have, a legal document agreeing not to mention "drugs" and "Kurt Cobain" before interviewing Courtney Love.

Worse, they wouldn't even know how to convey how self-censoring the whole charade has become -- how the journalist knows that she, or he, will never eat lunch in this town again unless she/he begins their feature with "Johnny Depp is such a great guy!".

This PR-controlled climate has poisoned the interview, pushing all self-respecting journalists into the irate Goon Squad zone.

You really don't want to find yourself, 15 minutes into a 20-minute interview, listening to Jake Gyllenhaal describe how he likes to "serve the story" (Oh, you're just a storyteller, are you Jake? That's fascinating). Or maybe it's Daniel Craig talking about how he improvised some of his lines on the day (Genius, Daniel. Utter genius). Or a whole swath of A-list nincompoops blithering about how they take their characters home with them at night, what they listen to on their iPods to get into "the zone" or how starring opposite X (insert senior actor here, usually Robert De Niro or Anthony Hopkins) was like playing a game of tennis in which a superior opponent raises your game (Thank you, Hollywood, for that exclusive).

And after all this, if you have the temerity to say, "So, Javier Bardem, I hear you're going out with Penelope Cruz," you will be cut down completely by his phalanx of PR fembots.

At which point you want to go Goon Squad crazy and scream, "What? I have neglected my husband and three children for four days. I have watched your entire back catalogue of DVDs, including the rubbish ones. I've read more than 140 pages of past interview transcripts. And this is what I get? Well, screw you, Javier Bardem! You were hideous in Eat Pray Love. You were overrated in Vicky Cristina Barcelona. And you're not even sexy up close!"

The annoying thing about this seemingly inconsequential nitpicking is that it actually matters. Journalism matters. Movies matter. They both interpenetrate the culture in which we live, and often define it through their expression of contemporary attitudes and anxieties.

With movies, the interpenetration is often painfully obvious. From movies about Iraq and Afghanistan (The Hurt Locker, Restrepo) to those about economic decline (Wall Street 2, The Company Men) to cries of populist empowerment (Bridesmaids), the cinema remains a site of urgent dialogue with our times.

It deserves an honest journalism, free of PR pressure, to dissect it -- which includes allowing journalists to engage with interviewees openly and not to isolate, in the words of Yeats, the dancer from the dance.

The greatest irony in all this is that the PR martinets are not the bad guys here. They are simply doing their jobs. The stars may also be taking advantage of the newfound control that PR muscle brings them -- but they, too, are just playing the game within the rules. No, the real villain is us, the journalists. For we are the great compromisers.

And we slowly bleed the process to death every time we nod, sign and agree, saying, "Yes, of course I won't ask Keira about her weight. I won't mention rehab to Colin. Nor will I ask Mark Wahlberg about what it was like to blind a convenience store owner during one of his zany childhood robberies."

The reality, unfortunately, is that, unlike our megastar subjects, we mostly have mortgages to pay. And we know that a wrong word here, an ill-chosen phrase there, and we will be removed from the list of friendly witnesses.

For there is always someone else behind you who's willing to compromise for less. Back in the 1990s, some brave journalists in California tried to boycott the publicity machine by refusing to accept PR-sanctioned interviews. They were quickly undone by a wave of younger star-struck writers happy to trade all principles for a one-on-one with Tom Cruise.

But perhaps the time is ripe now for a united shift away from PR fluff. It would mean far fewer interviews in your Saturday papers. But really, how often do you want to read about Robert Pattinson's struggle to stay true to himself despite his growing fame?

In the meantime, I'll keep doing interviews (I have a mortgage, too. And my name isn't Smith). And I'll try, if possible, to stay calm, stay focused and avoid a Goon Squad meltdown.

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