News Column

When celebrity interviews go bad

June 19, 2013

YellowBrix

CHICAGO _ Let us consider for a moment the Hollywood performance that never gets nominated for awards but can be just as indelible as any Oscar-winning role. I'm referring to the celebrity interview that goes viral.

Typically interviews that are done during a movie's press tour have an ephemeral quality. But every once in a while you get a performance, as if the actor decided to give the world a bonus sideshow.

Earlier this year while promoting "Oz the Great and Powerful," Mila Kunis charmed the pants off anyone with a pulse when she playfully went off-message with a blundering BBC radio reporter. The interview has logged 11.5 million views on YouTube. But was it instrumental in helping the movie gross $500 million worldwide? Probably not.

What about the interview from hell? Recently, within a span of a few days, the celebrity-industrial complex gave us three contentious showdowns between a movie star and a reporter.

Exhibit A: Jesse Eisenberg was maybe kind of terrible to an equally terrible Univision reporter during a junket for "Now You See Me."

Exhibit B: Jonah Hill was crabby in a Rolling Stone piece pegged to his new comedy "This Is the End."

Exhibit C: Rhys Ifans, the British actor best known as Hugh Grant's lanky roommate in "Notting Hill," went scorched-earth on Times of London reporter Janice Turner while promoting a TV drama airing in the U.K.

Each is a performance of epic proportions, and just the latest in a long tradition of combative interviews. It's hard to know exactly why these things go off the rails. Celebrities and journalists are both guilty of unprofessional and less-than-polite behavior. Publicity interviews are strange even under the best circumstances. An artificial but collegial relationship has to spontaneously occur between two people who have often never met. That becomes complicated if one side of the equation is having a bad day. Or if both parties dislike each other on sight. (See: Eisenberg and Univision's Romina Puga.)

If you do this job long enough _ be it actor or journalist _ you will encounter your share of uncomfortable interviews. The end product can be shocking and notorious and, of course, entertaining for all its schadenfreude.

"Nina, this is so boring, you have to move it along," Ethel Kennedy told me minutes into our conversation last fall about the HBO bio doc "Ethel." That interview was a master class in "Have I done something wrong or does this person really just not want to talk?"

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My colleague Luis Gomez had his own run-in this spring with a movie star who came through Chicago in service of the Jackie Robinson baseball film "42": "If getting reamed by the notoriously grumpy Harrison Ford is a rite of passage for entertainment reporters, you could say I was finally initiated into the club."

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Interviews in service of a movie are blatantly transactional relationships. At their worst they can leave everyone involved feeling dirty: "Because (actors) hate the game too," Turner writes in her Ifans piece, "and particularly since it is mainly conducted in hotel suites, you feel as if you're engaged in an odd form of prostitution, one where it remains unclear who is the hooker and who the john."

You have to assume most aspects of an actor's celebrity are calculated. Lainey Lui is a reporter for "etalk" (a version of "Access Hollywood" that airs in Canada) and she also runs Laineygossip.com, an addictive website that analyzes the ways in which celebrity images are shaped and manipulated.

"Tommy Lee Jones is notorious for not being the best at an interview," Lui said by way of example. Entertainment Weekly interviewed him for "Lincoln" with a headline that said it all: "Who's Afraid of Tommy Lee Jones? Just about everybody!" "But that fits into the Tommy Lee Jones brand," said Lui. "So is it going to hurt him to be truculent with journalists? No."

But does this performance of marketing the movie itself _ and whether or not an actor wants to play ball _ even matter in terms of a movie's prospects?

I asked Paul Dergarabedian, who heads the box-office division of Hollywood.com. "I don't think it matters," he said, "not in a negative way. It's the old adage: There's no such thing as bad press. For a contentious interview to go viral is money in the bank for these movies. It's at least getting the name of the movie out there. That's what raises awareness.

"Now, there's a difference between awareness of a movie and wanting to see a movie. You can have huge awareness but have no one show up."

Let's look at "Now You See Me," which has grossed $65 million since opening in theaters last month. The budget was $75 million. Those numbers don't look good. "Actually," Dergarabedian said, "the movie opened much bigger than expected and held really well (its second) weekend. And I think the Jesse Eisenberg interview may have actually helped the movie because everyone was talking about it." Close to 1 million people have clicked on that interview, which features Eisenberg sitting next to a poster for the movie. He is droll and casually insulting, as if in homage to his performance as Mark Zuckerberg in "The Social Network."

But what if an actor goes way off-brand, like Hill, who became indignant over Rolling Stone reporter Erik Hedegaard's query about flatulence: "I'm not answering that dumb question! I'm not that kind of person! Being in a funny movie doesn't make me have to answer dumb questions. It has nothing to do with who I am."

"The movie trumps all, unless he did something so egregious and so beyond-the-pale," said Dergarabedian. "If you really want to see a movie, none of this behavior will stop you from seeing it."

Here's Lui's perspective: "Jonah Hill, in this specific case, was asked to be goofy. This is someone famous for being in these comic, silly situations _ look at '21 Jump Street,' look at 'Superbad.' So he probably can't get away with it the way Tommy Lee Jones can. In the long run, will he lose acting jobs? No, of course not. And that's the way celebrity is set up: They're indulged."

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Social media has also blurred a few lines. If you follow a celebrity on Twitter or Instagram, there is an illusion of intimacy and access. This might be quietly messing with the minds of those of us in the media, even if we don't realize it. Pamela Rutledge, of the Media Psychology Research Center, talked about the "parasocial relationship," which is what happens "when you see someone a lot on television or any kind of media like Twitter, and you feel like you know them."

There's a sense of immersion, she said, which makes everything seem more real. "And that means that your brain thinks you're already friends." Even if, intellectually, you know otherwise. "So what I see with these interviews is a disconnect between the expectations of these reporters and the expectations of the actors."

And yet: "There are actresses who will post sonogram pictures on Twitter," said Lui. "So how then are we _ the fan, the consumer, the media _ supposed to take all these cues that are contradictory and act accordingly?"

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If an actor happens to take the opposite tactic _ Channing Tatum has been consistently funny and charming in interviews _ can it make a difference in their career? Per Lui: "I love Channing Tatum, but we would all agree that he is not a master thespian. He's gotten ahead, and he's managed his career so brilliantly, and he's one of the top players in the game because he's made smart decisions. But also because he's nice. Nobody wants to see him fail." And according to Dergarabedian: "Channing Tatum's movies have consistently opened well across the board."

Then again, we've all become such jaded media consumers, we're likely to tune out anything we suspect is a recycled sound bite. Eisenberg, Hill and Ifans took a damn-the-torpedoes approach. They weren't pretending to be nice. They didn't fake a polite response to questions they clearly felt were idiotic. They were being authentic to whoever they are _ or whatever mood they were in at that precise moment.

"They're all put through this junket situation," Lui said, "and some of them are better at it, and others fail spectacularly."

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Here's an example of the former: Longtime Chicago actor Michael Shannon was on "David Letterman" promoting the Superman reboot "Man of Steel."

Based solely on the characters he plays, Shannon might be one of the scariest men working in Hollywood today. (His performance as General Zod offers a thrilling "interstellar glare of doom," as my colleague Michael Phillips put it. Like I said, scary.) There is a lot of respect out there for Shannon's talents. That 2009 Oscar nomination for "Revolutionary Road" was no accident. If anything, he has every right to be just as disdainful of the song-and-dance of a press tour as Jonah Hill.

Except there he was on "Letterman," wry and amiable, sharing one self-deprecating story after another, including a withering put-down from Sidney Poitier, who told him: "I don't know what your technique is, but you're weird."

I'm pretty sure he's heard that before. He is weird, a little. That's part of his appeal. He's also a smart, decent, witty guy who doesn't take himself too seriously.

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Nina Metz: nmetz@tribune.com

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(c)2013 Chicago Tribune

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PREMIUM PHOTOS for separate purchase can be viewed at http://www.mctdirect.com/photos/preview/abaca_live.htm (from MCT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): Jesse Eisenberg

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