Even the stars are star-struck
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."
So how does being poor apply to an heiress of one of America's richest family fortunes celebrating her 21st birthday with parties in New York, Las Vegas, Hollywood, London and Tokyo? "I worked in a fast-food restaurant while I was at college," she claims. "So I know what it is to be working class. It's not that hard. Everyone is the same, really."
Happily not everyone is a Paris Hilton, certainly not Colin Farrell. He's had his share of sensational headlines but got where he is as an actor through sheer talent and hard work.
"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.
"She had an image of being so pure," recalls Isabella. "But she broke that and fell in love with my father. The important thing to remember is that morals change. What seemed shocking then isn't shocking today. People wanted her to be Joan of Arc for the rest of her life. But life isn't like that."
Child actors are particularly vulnerable to the pitfalls of celebrity. Nathalie Portman was lucky to have parents to protect her when she made her debut as the waif-like orphan who moves in with hit-man Jean Reno in Luc Besson's disturbingly erotic thriller Leon.
Although looking back she's proud of Léon, she was upset by how some of the media perceived it. "They were talking about the development of my breasts under my T-shirt. That was upsetting to me as a 12-year-old to read those men writing about me in that way. I realised people could take something they see and make it their own thing."
It scared her parents so much that her childhood after that was excessively sheltered. "Until I got away to college, I was really a baby. I was never allowed walk down the street on my own. I didn't even have my own set of keys."
Because of the celebrity brouhaha, interviews with stars invariably take place in hotel rooms, or sometimes bedrooms as with Oliver Reed, naked amid the pillows peeing into empty Moét bottles from the night before, or Mickey Rourke in his penthouse in the Noga Hilton when a girl he'd been with the previous evening, but whose name he'd forgotten, was shown in by a bellhop, complete with her wheelie bag.
My first encounter with Mia Farrow was in a secret rented mansion in Carrickmines where she was hiding out with her children after the break-up of her relationship with Woody Allen over his affair with Soon-Yi, her 21-year-old adopted daughter.
While we were talking she had a call from her lawyer saying that Allen was on his way to Dublin to exercise his visiting rights with her other children. "I have this powerless feeling at the moment, like watching television and I can't change the channel," she said.
Writers are more inclined than stars to open their homes to an interviewer. Harold Pinter met me in the mews adjoining his home in Holland Park, west London, which he used as a den.
He led me up a narrow staircase to a large book-lined study and poured me a glass of chilled Chablis. Peel away Harold Pinter the writer and you find Harold Pinter the citizen.
"Yes," he said. "The citizen. Which I strongly feel myself to be. The citizen has responsibilities to scrutinise the society in which we live quite vigorously. I still haven't stopped doing that. And I don't intend to stop either."
And he never did.
Ciaran Carty, who edits the New Irish Writing Page in the 'Irish Independent', has interviewed hundreds of the world's leading writers, artists, actors and directors, some of whom are featured in his new book 'Intimacy With Strangers: A Life of Brief Encounters' which is published by Lilliput Press at €16.99.