Wednesday 16 October 2019

Sarah Caden: 'Neeson breaches the big-name code of silence for interviews'

In a system where movie stars often see the press as predators, Liam Neeson's comments are even more remarkable, writes Sarah Caden

Kylie Minogue
Kylie Minogue
Ralph Fiennes
Anne Hathaway
Michael Caine
Cameron Diaz

Some years ago, at a Kylie Minogue press day, I was escorted from an interview with the very small pop star by two very big bouncers. I'm fairly small myself, so it was intimidating, but also unexpected.

The other journalists, with whom I had been seated for the session, looked on with their jaws on the floor.

They wouldn't be making the same mistake I had.

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In advance of the Kylie junket, we had all been asked to submit questions for pre-approval. This was to ensure that we asked only about the product she was promoting - and nothing personal.

You find ways of making these questions more general, of course, in order that you have more to write than that Kylie (or whoever) really loved the creative process behind the product, or that the team was like a family, or that they are really excited about the whole thing.

Readers, no matter how much they buy into the idea that journalists are going around trying to trap people into saying awful things, don't want to read most of what is spun out at publicity junkets.

And it is, in general, up to the journalist to try to extract something more. Not to ensnare - simply to get something, anything, of interest.

My blunder with Kylie was that when one of her team said we could start, but we weren't to ask anything that wasn't about the product, I said: "Are we using the pre-submitted questions?"

That was it.

I was trouble.

And I was out.

Publicity junkets of the type that Liam Neeson attended for his latest film, Cold Pursuit, are never as exciting as they seem.

And one of the only things I can say in his defence is that he seems to have been making an effort to say something a bit meaningful, instead of just delivering the same old lines about "amazing co-stars" and "the creative process".

It's of relevance that Cold Pursuit is a film about an ordinary bloke who seeks revenge against the drug dealers he believes are responsible for his son's death.

It's a film about revenge. What Neeson seems to have decided to talk about was his own experience of the red-mist motivation to get revenge.

Not that desire for revenge accounts for him apparently immediately asking his allegedly raped friend the colour of her assailant. Nor does it excuse his "black bas***d" comment, but the fact that he was promoting a film about revenge does explain why he thought to tell this story.

My reading of it, having sat for years in front of film stars in similar situations, was that Neeson thought he was making an effort and being expansive and a bit vulnerable and even flawed.

Not to the extent that has been pointed up since, but Neeson seemed to think he was making a point about the dark side of human nature.

And that it was going to be interesting to the journalist and possibly even headline-making for him and his film - albeit not in the way it became.

He won't be doing that again.

And the journalist in question, Clemence Michallon, probably won't get into a film junket again. Despite the fact that the tapes released by her paper, the London Independent, show that she did not lead Neeson by the nose in to his comments - contrary to the common belief that this is what journalists, do, wickedly cackling all the way - she won't get away with it.

On paper, for the journalist and reader, these interviews sound so rich with opportunity and possibility.

You're going to meet this big star, in the flesh, for real, and they are going to talk to you.

Except, of course, they're not really, and there might be a publicist in the room to butt in if you dare to go off point into anything not strictly about the film.

They're often jaded by the process, tired, talked-out, cranky, peeved at having to stoop to talk to journalists about the product.

Often, they'll happily tell you how much they hate it. They love the work, but they hate this bit. Which is fine, but it's no help to the journalist, or the blank page they have to fill, or the readers who expect to read something interesting.

I sat many times in movie interviews with my blood pressure rising and an internal voice screaming that the minutes were ticking away and the interviewee in question had said absolutely nothing of note.

Over the years that I did the movie-junket circuit, I remember that Cameron Diaz was warm and generous, giving the impression of being an open book, while carefully revealing just enough and not too much. A young Anne Hathaway sticks out in my memory as having spent an age fiddling with the air conditioning, insisting that she was doing it for our benefit, when all we in the group interview wanted was for her to sit down and talk to us.

There was a very short one-on-one with Ralph Fiennes, where he languorously got up and strolled over to a sideboard of drinks, mused over still or sparkling water, offered me a glass, poured himself one, while I went into a cold sweat over the time that he was wasting. And wondered, of course, if this was deliberate.

Given Fiennes's open aversion to interviews, this wasn't beyond the realms of possibility, but I hadn't made him submit to the process.

We were both there to do a job and it's a transaction: You do your bit and I'll do mine.

That sounds clinical. It doesn't have to be, but it often is, and it's only made worse by a narrative that the journalist is perpetually ready to pounce and make something out of nothing.

Neeson, perhaps, was trying to move it beyond that.

The best interviewees aren't necessarily those who go as far as Neeson. The best and the smartest are those who give as much as they choose, while seeming to give so much more.

Warmth goes a long way. Humour helps.

Michael Caine was one of the smartest big names I ever met for how he charmed everyone in the room.

He didn't say anything that would earn him death threats online or get him into trouble with the police or his wife, but he was relatively open.

He talked about getting older, about how it felt to go from being a young heartthrob to the guy playing the granddad.

He talked about ups and downs and joys and disappointment and really he didn't give up anything too intimate, but it felt like a warm and welcome conversation.

Michael Caine was, of course, acting. It's the very thing he's built his life on and he's good at it.

He probably didn't want to be there, but he acted like there was nowhere else he'd rather be and I left his company feeling like something had been shared.

And there was plenty to write, which is what he, the movie, and I, needed.

Job done, and nobody hurt in the process.

Last week's interview with Liam Neeson has hurt his career and has hurt the launch of Cold Pursuit, the red-carpet premiere of which was cancelled as result of his comments.

And whether it was blatant racism, unconscious racism or some noble effort to probe the dark side of the human soul, it caused a lot of offence.

He went too far.

Liam Neeson will never decide to go rogue again, and no doubt his peers will be even more purse-lipped as result in future interviews.

Sunday Independent

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