Interview (15)

This rumination on celebrity has a scoop: Sienna Miller can act
Click to follow

The showbiz interview is a peculiar phenomenon. It might involve a journalist hanging closely on the subject's coat-tails for weeks at a time: the Vanity Fair model of special access that writers dream of, but rarely experience. More commonly, though, it means an hour (if you're lucky: as little as 12 minutes if you're not) talking in a hotel room, with a publicist clockwatching in the corridor. Either way, though, the printed account will usually contrive to suggest that the artist has entered into a precious relationship of trustful intimacy with the writer, volunteering hitherto-guarded secrets, or inadvertently revealing, in some unconscious tic, the very key to his or her inner self.

What never happens is the kind of encounter seen in Steve Buscemi's film Interview. Here the journalist meets the star in a restaurant, instantly alienates her by admitting he's never seen any of her films, then finds himself invited back to the star's apartment, where she dances with him, offers him cocaine and a snog, and engages him in much mutual soul-baring. The film is interesting enough, but how fascinating it would have been to actually read the write-up of that tête-à-tête, especially if the scribe had had to fit it all into a neat 2,000 words.

Co-written by David Schechter and Buscemi himself, who plays Pierre the journalist, Interview is a remake of a film by the controversial Dutch director Theo van Gogh, who was murdered by an Islamic extremist in 2004. While I haven't seen the original, I suspect Van Gogh's film might have had a slightly more provocative thrust, given that its female star Katja Schuurman – who by all accounts enjoys a somewhat racy reputation in Holland – played a version of herself. In Buscemi's version, the interviewee is Katya, a fictitious American actress notorious for her affairs and breast ops. She is played by Sienna Miller, who has certainly had at least one celebrity liaison and is, or was, some sort of style arbiter, but who hardly embodies the spirit of scandal. If there's any current speculation about Miller, it's more a question of whether she's just a fashion face or can really act. Interview's one true revelation is that she can: Miller is at least as good, and as knowing, a performer as her character.

Miller and Buscemi presumably took a shine to Van Gogh's theme because they've had their share of lousy interviews and concluded that hacks are a uniformly malevolent, corrupt, badly-dressed bunch. Buscemi's Pierre is a prize specimen: a political reporter demoted to star profiles, he incessantly gripes that he should really be in Washington, professes contemptuous indifference towards Katya, and then, before the night is out, conceives a parasitic fascination for her, hissing, "I want to know what's haunting you. Because I feel haunted too." (Must try this line the next interview I do.)

We initially read Katya as a glossy, air-headed narcissist, with a horrid yapping-dog ring on her mobile. But she reveals a compassionate side, tending to Pierre's head wound after a taxi accident, and then she seems to crave his interest, wanting to prove that she's not dumb and mocking his perception of her as such. Before long, she's flouting interview etiquette in a way that even Tom Cruise might baulk at: leaping on the table, curling up with her head in Pierre's lap, at one point flopping violently to the ground with a suddenness that actually seems to take Buscemi by surprise. This seemingly ad hoc sparkiness may be partly the fruit of Buscemi's filming technique: he uses Van Gogh's method of shooting long takes on three digital cameras simultaneously, allowing the actors to think on their feet. The result is a nervy vividness that this claustrophobic two-hander requires.

Buscemi himself manages to be slyly likeable even when Pierre is most abject. Yet you almost wish he had cast someone else in the role. Waxy-faced, pallid, wearing his trademark ratty smirk, Buscemi immediately marks Pierre out as spiritually bankrupt; the part might have benefited from making him less obviously scuzzy from the get-go.

Meanwhile, Miller not only proves her acting skills, but also mounts an artful demystification of them: at one point, Katya gives a dazzling, cynical demonstration of different crying styles, standard tricks of the trade. Miller herself can switch in barely a blink from seemingly spontaneous laughter to a glare of icy contempt. But she also displays a warmly forceful presence, presenting herself as hard-boiled and energetically trashy, with impressive reserves of rage. In a decade or so, she'll be perfect – if anyone's writing those roles then – in the kind of blowzy, bitter parts that were Elizabeth Taylor's speciality in the late 1950s and 1960s.

The action never quite feels psychologically coherent, the characters veering unpredictably between tense flirtation and fits of pique. And while Interview is carried off with brittle confidence, it offers little insight into the dynamics of the interview process. But it certainly makes excessive intimacy in journalism look like something best avoided. In future I'll probably stick to, "What's your favourite colour?"

Further viewing Steve Buscemi's first feature as director, 1996's 'Trees Lounge' (BMG DVD)