The time I interviewed Robert Downey jnr … aka the Faustian pact between journalist and subject

As a journalist who once interviewed Robert Downey jr, I am following the controversy regarding his “difficult” interview with British journalist Krishnan Guru-Murthy – where Downey jr walked out after the journalist alluded to his drug past – with keen interest.
Personally I found Downey jr to be a witty, erudite, charming interview subject when I spoke to him in 2008 about his role in Iron Man. I got the feeling he was more than happy to have an expansive conversation ranging on a number of topics. Anyway, have a read here.
Yet the Guru-Murthy saga brings up an interesting topic: the Faustian bargain between journalist and subject.
Stars and journalists come at interviews with completely different agendas. Hollywood stars such as Downey jr approach interviews with the understanding that they are primarily there to talk about their latest film/movie/play/happening. Hence Downey jr’s interjection – “Are we promoting a movie?” – when his interview with Guru-Murthy began to go south.
The stars don’t want to be there – indeed, few enjoy the interview process, despite the implicit ego-stroking – but they endure it for the good of “the project”.  Interview junkets may involve hundreds of interviews all around the world, where the stars face versions of the same questions (“What was it like to work with your co-star?”) again and again. Trying to stay good-humoured in the face of predictable, cringeworthy or even asinine questions must be an ordeal: one, admittedly, for which they are well paid.
Yet hidden in the whole process is the expectation that some journalists will stray from the official script. Journalists don’t just want to talk about the movie and deliver a “puff piece”: they want to learn something about the star themselves. They want to sell newspapers, get ratings, create a story worth reading.
The best way to achieve that is to report something people never knew about the stars, something that might make their article stand out. Perhaps even a precious “exclusive”.
In short, they want a sliver, a kernel, a piece of the subject’s soul. Because, no, we’re not just promoting a movie. That’s what full-page ads and press releases are for. We’re promoting the star and the audience’s interest in said star.
Stars realise this and typically play along. They usually come equipped with a favourite anecdote from the set or snippets of trivia (“I hit my co-star in the head with a rubber axe – just a glancing wound, mind”) to keep the jackals of the press at bay. They dole out slivers of their soul sparingly. It is part of the interviewer’s art to skilfully elicit those slivers and kernels, to woo their subject with tact and charm so they are comfortable enough to share those slivers. A good interviewer can get the famous to share those slivers without the stars realising they’re doing so until the interview is over.
Yet most stars are also experienced enough to know that “difficult” questions might arise during the second half of the interview. They know you’re going to ask them. You know you’re going to ask them. But both of you pretend it’s not going to happen.
(In that sense, Guru-Murthy’s timing was right, getting into the harder stuff at the five-minute mark of his seven-minute allotted time: if you go in harder too early, you risk a walkabout … and nothing to show your editor.)
Most stars of stage and screen realise that sometime during the current press junket, someone will bring up something fraught and random such as (pick one or more) their secret conjoined twin, their underground passion for scrimshaw, their “difficult” second album, their “drug hell” (stories so beloved by the British press), that $200-million-dollar flop or the time they abused the sound man and the footage ended up on YouTube. At least, they’ve factored in the possibility and prepared for it the best they could.
So, as a reporter, you roll the dice and take your chances. Sometimes you get gold. Other times you might get the cold shoulder, monosyllabic answers … or even a walkout.
Each interview becomes a balancing act between competing expectations. Obviously Downey jr and Guru-Murthy had different expectations about what that outcome might be.
But that’s always the risk for reporters when you turn on the tape recorder: you never really know what you’re going to get.

My ebook military thriller, The Spartan, is out now on Amazon.

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