The art of artistic conversation


It's possible that, when the Welsh actor Rhys Ifans gave "the interview from hell" to a journalist from The Times recently, he was having an off day. It's possible, as his people subsequently claimed, that a combination of medication and some unspecified bad news had made him behave out of character.

It's also possible that, as the kind of man who tells an interviewer to "fuck off", that he's "bored with you. Bored. Bored", and then exits in a rage, that Ifans is a rude, self-regarding pain in the backside who joins that exclusive club of stars (members include Tommy Lee Jones, Lou Reed, Philip Seymour Hoffman) that all but the most masochistic journalists would swim through molten lava to avoid.

Celebrity interviews can, of course, be tricky. A common perception is that they are power struggles: on one side the famous person and their publicist, looking to impart the least revealing information for the maximum number of column inches, and on the other the journalist and editor, looking to get beyond the flannel to deep-held neurosis and indiscretion.

Certainly, gone are the days of journalists invited into the inner sanctum of the Rolling Stones à la Lester Bangs. The power has shifted. The journalist may have the last word but rarely calls the shots.

So is the celebrity interview now a "sham", as claimed by the media commentator Roy Greenslade in the wake of the Ifans debacle? Well that would depend who is doing it and what prior agreements have been made.

In the past week alone I've read three insightful and superbly written newspaper interviews – the Ifans one included – which have shown famous individuals in a new light. On the other hand, press junkets, in which movie stars sit with a bottle of water and a rictus grin in a swanky hotel as journalists rattle by on a conveyer belt serve no one, least of all the reader. I did a couple of these in my early years as a journalist, and what I found was that a 20-minute interview isn't worth the bus fare, since it takes that long to break the ice. I've learnt that instructions from publicists about what not to talk about are to be ignored. Copy approval is, of course, a no-no. And I've discovered that it pays to get your interviewee out of their hotel. Fresh air is a rare luxury for a person on the promotional trail.

There have, of course, been interviews where my subject has been less than enthusiastic. "I could be at home waiting for the plumber" was Amy Winehouse's huffy opening gambit. But there have been plenty more – Patrick Stewart, Marianne Faithfull, Lady Gaga, Johnny Vegas – where the celebrity knows that a stilted 20 minutes is never going to represent them accurately. Thus they have welcomed me into their domain and have treated the interview like a real conversation.

It's easy to bang on about the iniquities of PR, but it's up to journalists and editors not to be dazzled by big names and to resist any ludicrous demands. If it means losing the interview then so be it. The world is full of more interesting people, many of them more than willing to share their stories.

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