In my 20-plus years as a journalist, I have collected a selection of questions and techniques that more often than not deliver gold for the interviewer.
Here I share them with you.
“If you weren’t a director/actor/iconic children’s mime, what would you be?”
This hypothetical always brings a smile to an interviewee’s face (unless it’s a phoner, in which case you’ll have to imagine the smile).
Even the famous dream of the path not taken. I made Woody Allen laugh – a career highlight – with this question. FYI: he thought he’d make a good messenger.
“Why are you a director/actor/iconic children’s mime?”
A good journalist friend gave me this one. It’s amazing how many interviewers fail to ask this basic and obvious question.
Most of the greats are driven by a singular obsession: painters who have to paint, dancers who have to dance, singers who have to sing, children’s mimes who have to make balloon animals for ungrateful brats for $20 a hour.
“What are you up to right now? Where are you?”
Some stars will state the obvious: “I’m sitting in my lounge, talking to you, a journalist from Owl Fancier’s Monthly.”
Or they might, in the case of when I interviewed David Duchovny, tell you that they’re on the phone at the intersection of Montana and 11th Street at Santa Monica in Los Angeles: “I’ve just given you these co-ordinates in case you want to send a missile.”
“Why are you lying to me?”
Got the balls of a brass monkey and the hide of a rhino? Maybe you should go to the doctor and get that checked out.
But if you do have the balls of a brass monkey and the hide of a rhino, this approach could work for you.
”I reject your hypothesis.”
One of the 10 interview subjects you will meet in Heaven (or maybe Hell, considering that you are a hack) is the word miser. The word miser never uses 100 words when five will do.
They’re not necessarily rude – just economical with their language.
You can loosen them up by suddenly pronouncing “I reject your hypothesis”. Keep repeating it like John Malkovich saying “it’s beyond my control” in Dangerous Liaisons and soon you won’t be able to shut them up, desperate as they will be to discover which hypotheses you are rejecting.
“I read that it was a gruelling shoot.”
It is a badge of honour for actors to describe their shoots as gruelling. Most weren’t exactly gruelling as they are long, the stars spending 12-hour days on set before shuffling back to their luxury caravans. They aren’t squatting in the jungle waiting for the Vietcong to take a pot shot at them or having heart attacks on set like Martin Sheen in Apocalypse Now.
Still, this approach occasionally delivers a good anecdote.
Wearing a pirate’s eye patch to an interview lends an unmistakable air of mystery and is bound to be a conversation starter.
If it’s a phoner, simply tell them to imagine you’re wearing a pirate’s eye patch
“What makes you happy?”
Simple, yes. Obvious, yes. But it occasionally delivers gold – and can lead to deeper discussions about life, the universe and everything.
Here’s Woody Allen again when I spoke to him, discussing the role of “distractions” to ward off thinking about death.
“It’s like what Auden said about death being the distant sound of thunder at a picnic: that’s what [life] is, you’re at a picnic but there’s a distant sound of thunder. You know some day you’re going to die. Your loved ones will die. It’s not a nice thought. If you can get lost in the distractions, it’s great, but if you’re one of the people who can’t . . . you’ve got to find some way of coping with reality without denial.”
The gold-delivering segue: i.e. “You said you spent the last 20 years sitting in a room, taking crack and watching the Alien films: which was your favourite film?”
Former ’80s star Marilyn admitted as much in a fantastic recent interview.
There is always an opportunity in any interview to steer its course towards a great line of questioning. The trick is to recognise it when it comes.
In this case, the interviewer failed the ask the obvious question: what was Marilyn’s favourite Alien film?
Because anything other than the first and second one would be sheer madness.
The “tortoise” hypothetical from Blade Runner
Basically, this is used to discover whether the person sitting opposite is a real person or a replicant incapable of empathy.
It’s amazing how many Hollywood types fail this question.
My ebook military thriller The Spartan is out now on Amazon.