The Channel 4 News anchor speaks when Robert Downey Jr came to walk out of his interview.
“Are we promoting a movie?” asked Robert Downey Jr, clearly puzzled by how the interview was going. “You are, but I’m not,” is what I perhaps should have said to clear up the confusion.
Therein lies the problem. The same one I’d faced with Quentin Tarantino who’d told me that our encounter was “a commercial for my movie” when I wanted to also ask about violence in cinema because US politicians were debating it that day following the Sandy Hook massacre.
We don’t do promotional interviews on Channel 4 News. We agree with PR people that as well as talking about a new movie for a while we want to ask wider ranging questions on relatively serious topics, and we don’t guarantee to run any answers in particular. When Robert Downey Jr’s PR man rang up asking what we wanted to talk about, we said we had no particular agenda but would ask about the new Avengers superhero movie and his recovery from jail and drug abuse to Hollywood stardom. I’m a fan, from Iron Man to Tropic Thunder and Chaplin, of his huge talent, and I was excited to be doing the interview. We were given what they called a “double slot” of 10 minutes and our own room in the junket hotel.
An interview with a movie star isn’t intended to be “news”. We do it to add texture to the normal diet of politics, foreign affairs and investigations in a Channel 4 News running order. Some are happy to engage, and seem quite relieved to escape the junket monotony engineered by the PRs. Robert Redford, Michelle Pfeiffer, Samuel L Jackson and Carey Mulligan have all happily taken the chance to talk to me about things ranging from politics to sexism, from violence to Alzheimer’s disease. That’s what makes a movie star interview worth running on the news. We love to have talented people saying surprising and intelligent things about serious topics. Superheroes alone, no matter how Marvel-ous, don’t quite cut it.
I prepare for Hollywood actor interviews the same way as any other, by reading and watching what people have said before. There were two things from past interviews that seemed interesting for a Channel 4 News audience: Downey had told the New York Times he couldn’t go from a $2,000-a-night hotel suite to prison and come out a liberal, and he’d suggested to Vanity Fair that drug abuse had an inherited element. None of it should have come as a surprise, but I nonetheless offered him two opportunities to say “I’d rather not talk about this stuff”. He could have engaged more with the earlier questions and I’d have never had time for the ones he didn’t like. He could have played a dead bat with the serious stuff and the whole thing might have been dropped from the running order as too dull. He could have said he didn’t want to talk about himself and I’d have tried another serious topic.
I do have sympathy for the actors. These interviews are the contractual obligation of being a movie star, and it must be awful to be unable to escape the past. But my sympathy runs only up to a point. If I was going to ask any other interviewee about difficult topics I would probably have a chat beforehand to prepare them. Movie stars don’t do that. As anyone else in the public eye knows, the best way to eclipse an uncomfortable topic is to volunteer one that is more interesting. But when I’ve asked movie stars what they would like to talk about, to see if they have a nugget they would like to drop on Channel 4 News, the response is usually along the lines of “not really, I hate all this”.
Maybe, like a bad relationship, this just isn’t working. We want different things out of it. I want something serious and illuminating, they just want publicity. Maybe we and the movie stars should just go our separate ways, and find people more suited to our needs. But I think that would be a shame. There’s an easy marriage to be worked out here with a bit of give and take. And some intelligent casting by the PR companies. If a movie star has no interest in engaging, maybe don’t offer them up to the news. Find one of the cast who does.
The perfect promotional interview was probably invented by Richard Ayoade. His hilarious performance on Channel 4 News wasn’t quite as spontaneous as some thought. Nor was it a falling-out. We spoke before. I knew he didn’t want to talk about himself. The book wasn’t really about him. So we discussed a way of making it an engaging piece of television instead. He even ended the encounter with the most intelligent analysis of the Tarantino interview yet, speaking of “the essential lie of the interview situation”.
Before Robert Downey Jr arrived one of the PR assistants warned us it could all end in a meltdown, though for very different reasons. For the hour while we set up cameras and lights an extra air-conditioning unit was blasting fridge-temperature air into the room. “He’ll just walk straight out if it isn’t cold enough in here when he arrives,” said the nice lady.
When he did arrive, and I told him about loving the movie and having a very excited seven-year-old at home who’d love an Iron Man autograph, the minders told me to get going with the interview. Perhaps the truth is that in that kind of bizarre atmosphere, where nobody is acting like a normal human being, warming him up was never going to be easy. But I remain a fan of Iron Man.
Source Credits: Krishnan Guru-Murthy in The Guardian