Archive for November, 2011

Interviewing Celebrities

November 3, 2011

There comes a time in every journalist’s life where he has to interview someone rich, famous, successful, talented etc. and generally – apart from the “guess who I got to meet?” factor – it’s a pretty unenviable task.

(There is actually some practical advice at the bottom of this rambling article by the way, if that’s what you came looking for!).

My number came up earlier this year when, on the back of the Barcelona cocktails article – which I nailed – the editor of Easyjet Magazine called me and said he wanted me to go and interview Ferran Adria and sample the cuisine at El Bulli, arguably the world’s best restaurant of all time. Hahaha, I actually told the Editor I was pretty busy and I’d have to think about it… but of course I couldn’t resist the opportunity in the end… even if the food I was to eat was not the avant garde stuff that made Adria and El Bulli famous, but rather the staff or ‘family’ meal.

So up I go to Roses, hitching a ride with the photographer, her assistant (how much can a freelance photographer earn that they can afford an assistant for f@ck’s sake? One thing that pisses me off about travel writing is that the photographers always seem to get paid much more money than the writers, whose work takes far longer. And with the amount of photographers kicking around I really can’t believe there’s a skill shortage of snappers vs. talented writers), plus an interpreter. The interpreter spent most of the journey noisily filing her nails, and making sure we all understand how much better she knew Ferran than all of us (having worked with him before) and I half fancied she thought she should be writing the piece.  She also emphasised, as the photographer’s assistant proceeded to get us lost, how much he hated people being late. So I was more than a bit pissed off when she then insisted – with 5 mins before the interview was due to start – that we take a 25 minute break for a sandwich.

She was right. Adria was pissed off that we were late. When the photographer didn’t seem to know what the assignment was (we’d been invited to talk specifically about the Family Meal and she was supposed to be photographing the process) he got a whole lot more pissed off. And so it was that I finally sat down with an irritable Adria and the interpreter to start the piece. Adria turned out to be a complete nightmare to interview. He is a nice enough and respectful enough guy, but he clearly has no idea what a journalist wants from him… or doesn’t want to offer it… and getting anything vaguely quotable seemed almost impossible. We weren’t helped by the fact that I was terrified he would end the interview prematurely, on account of his bad mood, and I so I rushed through some of the most important questions on my list.  Things settled down after a while and we managed to get a bit of rapport going… but overall the exercise was a bit of nightmare trying to balance what a) Ferran and the publishers of his new cook book, the Family Meal, wanted to talk about and b) the Easyjet Editor wanted me to write about, all through the medium of a translator and with an irate subject with an aversion to concrete answers and a love of vague abstractisms.

Anyway the article got published this November, but it kind of sucks. Some ugly editing didn’t really help… I hate being edited! (But not quite as much as this guy;). Even if an article is flawed, adding new stuff in or changing things around always throws out the rhythm of the piece and 90% of times makes it worse.  Anyhow if you can be bothered you can go to the fancy online reader thingy at the EJ magazine site to read the piece…

So there you go. Celebrity interviews. Don’t do them! Ok do them, but just be prepared… here’s some advice for interviewing not just celebrities, but ordinary mortals as well:

a) Do your research! I scored some brownie points with Adria by at least having read all about him and going through the El Bulli website in detail (clearly most journalists he’d spoken to hadn’t!)

b) Know your assignment! Editors can be vague bastards at times, so pin them down about what they want. Obviously you should have a question list before you go. It helps to have the questions in a logical order and to memorise them, to minimize panicked flicking through notebooks.

c) Check your equipment at least two days before the interview. This means you have some time to repair/replace anything that doesn’t work, or buy batteries or whatever for your voice recorder (you should carry some spare anyhow! Once mine ran out mid-interview and I had to go back and do it all again… embarrassing and a complete waste of everyone’s time!).

d) Don’t be nervous. Who cares if they’re famous? They’re not saving the planet and you’re probably smarter than them anyway. Just look them in the eye and ask them the questions!

e) Let them talk about what they want. Never interrupt them if they’re on a roll, even if it feels irrelevant at the time. So many times I’ve been typing up a transcript only to hear myself stop someone talking at just the moment things start getting interesting, to steer them back on course. Let them go off course and bring them back when they run out of steam.

f) Turn up on time;)

Ok if you yourself have any more sagely pearls of wisdom on the art of interviewing then allow me to refer you to the comments section below…