09/25/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

How Not to Interview a Famous Person

As a magazine editor, I am often tasked with the seemingly enviable job of interviewing celebrities. Interviewing famous people sounds really exciting, but I think to do it well you have to have the right personality type, which I have narrowed down to some combination of the following: unrepentant ass-kisser and/or shameless invader of privacy. I fall a teensy bit into the former category, but mostly I am just uncomfortable. Talking to a celebrity is only exciting if they are not being forced to do so by their publicist(s), and every single accidental run-in I have had with celebrities has ended in humiliation (I once tripped over Larry Flynt's wheelchair and spilled red wine on a starlet wearing something extremely expensive... and white, although not, thankfully, both on the same night). Sure, there is the fantasy that they will totally spark with you and you will become BFFs and/or lovers, and the interview will just fly by because you are having so much goddamned fun.


They will be polite, but the more famous they are, the more reticent they will be. They will repeat the same sound bites over and over. If you ask a question you think is funny, they will sometimes look confused. Also, the written question is much different than the spoken question. You will find yourself tripping over the words that sounded so eloquent and thoughtful on paper, sounding inadvertently like a robotic stutterer who cannot use contractions. For some inexplicable reason you will feel the need to read them their own biography by way of introduction: "So, you grew up in Stamford milking cows before moving to Guadalajara to become a performance artist ..." They nod, blankly, waiting for the question, but you did your Wikipedia research too well and have a good paragraph before there is any punctuation.

Plus, 99% of the time the publicist will be on the phone with them (One fabulous exception to this rule was when I received a call directly from Ludacris. "What's up, Una, it's Ludacris," he said. I think I may have giggled.) But most often you pick up the phone expecting to talk to, say, Martin Freeman, then hear the tell-tale echo of speaker phone, followed by "Hi, it's Jenny! I'm here with Martin. I'll just be listening in, you guys go ahead." Talking to anyone in this scenario would be awkward, but engaging in what is essentially an imitation of a conversation under these circumstances is much worse. Every awkward pause, every failed joke is magnified by the number of ears listening in.

I think everyone has a word or phrase that they use far too much. For me, with authority figures, this word is "absolutely." If I am asked if something can be done, I say "absolutely." If I am told an opinion that I agree with even half-assedly, I offer a hearty "absolutely" as a show of my support. And in interviews, any halfway intelligent thing said by the subject is agreed with in this manner. The problem is, it's my only fall-back word. "Yeah" and "Mmmmm hmmmmm" seem too informal, so I might say "absolutely" -- with varying degrees of inflection, to spice it up -- 25 times in the span of 10 minutes. It's out of my control. At least my version of Tourette's is only expressed in pleasantries.

So, in summation, an interview with a famous (or even semi-famous, or even not famous at all) person, for me, is not an awesome and enlightening conversation with a fellow human. It is an embarrassing and humbling exercise in social skills (or lack thereof) under the duress of forced merriment and familiarity. This is why I stick to self-posessed essays. Just for the record.