This is a simple column by a complex
“questions” ... the A version
Add fear of interviewing celebrities to the growing roster, right up there next to public speaking, the dentist, snakes and the Glad Handywrap girl.
Thanks to the Internet’s insta-accessibility, any fan can find herself answering the call or scheduling the appointment to meet Mr. Superstar and wrangle a fitting feature story out of 30 minutes, taped and transcribed. It’s no longer a necessity to graduate from the Ass-Kissing Academy of Published Gossip Columnists from the New York Times, a who’s who in who you know and you better be Barbara Walters or Oprah Winfrey caliber yourself.
At least, it’s easier to finagle a con-fab with soap opera actors. (They’re not doing anything important, like saving the world from the U.S., right Janeane?) Most fans with the time, bandwidth and creativity to create a celeb worship site wind up on the lucky end of the rainbow in terms of one-on-one. The less-known, the better, but actors of all caliber want what the ‘Net provides: a bigger audience. No billboard or Variety ad could achieve what a little board buzz can.
Sarah Brown (ex-Carly, GH) contacted her #1 fan, after coming across a tribute site, and presto-voila!, official stamp of approval and occasional Q&A chats. Billy Warlock’s (A.J., GH) #1 fan regularly mailed him, setting up a fun site for fans to conglomerate and commiserate, until one day, Warlock’s girlfriend (and now, fiancee) Tolan reached out. Same with John J. York (Mac, GH) and Brad Maule (Tony, GH).
True stories of actors e-mailing self-published online webmasters, posters and soap columnists abound. It’s a whole new world out there, where anybody can rub shoulders and tushies with the bigwigs. Message boards alone are perfect places for TPTB to measure feedback for their shows, and it’s no secret that ABC Daytime execs, GH writers, actors and several major soap magazine editors regularly peruse heavily trafficked sites like Eye on Soaps, SoapZone and SoapTown USA. Chances are, you’re probably posting back and forth with GH co-head writer Bob Guza, or executive producer Jill Farren Phelps in undercover handles—or, at the very least, their people. And, it’s neat thinking that – while you’re browsing Amazon.com – your favorite superstar could be on the same page looking up reviews of Britney’s new CD. Well, it could happen!
With such a level playing field, naturally, phobia turns to anxiety attacks on the minutiae of who, what, when, where, and how in the hell am I gonna ask:
A) the right questions to garner the interesting quotes,
B) the appropriate questions to elicit interest and not disgust or dismissal,
C) the unique questions nobody else has already asked ad nauseum, and
D) any question without virtually throwing up all over myself.
Since I’ve done a few interviews the past five years, my experience has been to approach the process as if bullshitting the night away after a few drinks, no big deal. Prepare by all means, memorize the bio and the resume, intro with enough ass-kissing, but be individual. Don’t freeze at the prospect that HOLY SHIT, IT’S CHAD BRANNON!, just remember the guy stinks up a bathroom like everybody else, and is probably more nervous. He’s got to remember to avoid spilling spoilers and gossip, not to mention touchy opinions that may land him in trouble with his bosses if he’s too critical. He’s got to be a good interview, but admit jack. The person interviewing him has got the better end of the deal (even if the temptation to inquire about sexual orientation and backstage politics looms ever near).
All that said—how are you liking my attempt at linear essay-writing?—I crack myself up with some of the questions that flash through my head and with much of the questions these so-called professionals come up with.
Who could forget Barbara Walters’ infamous, “If you were a tree...” or her ferocious manipulation of emotions just to generate crybabies in he-men Burt Reynolds types? Or any nimrod anchor on Good Morning, America, attempting pithy current events with their serious faces, deep voices and dumb-ass probing? “How many to a battalion” indeed. Let’s not forget the Pulitzer-winning confrontation with the Dixie Chicks, “No, really, are you really, really sorry? What does sort of mean?” Cut to concerned Diane Sawyer. Her crown’s showing.
A classic example of how not to interview is SoapNet’s SoapTalk, with inane, inept, incompetent co-hosts (actors, don’t try this at home) Ty Treadway (Troy, OLTL) and Lisa Rinna (ex-Billie, DOOL). All these two Mensa geniuses do is rehash old shit that everybody knows, even non-soap fans living in Third World countries. Plus, they have the added challenge of doing the interviews live, on camera, before a studio audience, in only pleasant tones. Granted, that audience is already devoted and adoring. But nothing spells embarrassment than sitting around trying in vain to be witty and deep or just sitting around (Rebecca Herbst, where are you?) dead air as the talk show hosts try desperately to evoke something more than a monosyllabic equivalent of a nod and a shrug. Some of the worst interviews they’ve done were with some of the most charismatic soap stars on-screen, Leslie Charleson (Monica, GH)—so nervous, but so eager to please, Herbst (Elizabeth, GH)—smile pretty for the CIA, dollface... I could go on, but my memory banks have shut down on this Sunday night, and you know me, always good for a wise-assed remark but siphon me off for some details and I’m halfway to Alzheimer’s.
A common thread throughout all these interviews is the sweaty need to evoke a reaction, preferably, “Goddamned, but I’ve never been asked something this thought-provoking before! You’re a fucking genius, take off your clothes, and bend over.”
On the extreme end of the spectrum, married with that sweaty need is ... never let ‘em see you sweat, and the end result makes for some repetitious Bobby Trendy times guessing when the reporter will inevitably revert to type, panting all the way home. Between insulting inquiries into co-stars, What was it like working with the great DeNiro? Was Sharon Stone as demanding as her reputation?, and recapping the bio, past, present and future prospects, heavy on the typecast theory, What’s next, something completely different, Broadway, Shakespeare on the Park, a rap duet with Eminem, perhaps? ... pathetic fishing for anything related to the actor’s current project and perennial ego.
You play an alcoholic and firebug, ever have any real-life run-ins you could relate to? Did you attend any AA meetings for research, how about visiting fire stations? How are you different from your dysfunctional character? Do you even like the character you’re playing, and is it important to do so in order for you to play him effectively? Compare and contrast the Victorian and Edwardian attitudes that inevitably led to America’ s Prohibition Period in less than 500 words (I’d fail this one). Would A.J. make for a suitable Victorian, given his proclivity for angst? Do you look at casual drinking differently now that you’ve played an alcoholic? Do you lecture your friends and attend workshops to train as a moderator for those AA meetings as a guest celebrity? It must be satisfying to be a role model for all those drunken bums out there, giving them hope that one day, they, too, can be like Billy Warlock, mega-Baywatch superstud, sniffing around all the babes and successfully drunk too.
The guy’s paid to act. It’s fun, it’s consuming, but it ain’t Armageddon.
You had to be in the dream.
For me, it’s easier doing interviews if there’s a point, a main lead, a current newsworthy reason to take 30-60 minutes out of this person’s life, he won the Nobel Peace Prize, she was fired mid-contract and replaced by a two-ft. transvestite midget. I can’t do bios, they require length. Features, on the other hand, require a portrait with the momentous occasioning the Q&A, traditionally an all-day affair of following the source around. Fuck it, I can’t even do those.
I’m so bored with the Once upon a time, the greatest thing since sliced bread came upon the earth, saw a Leggo’s commercial and whined to mother, “I want an agent!,” became a model instead, lost an entire childhood, but gained travel experience, beaucoup bucks and a lesson in bulimia, stumbled upon a movie agent while ordering a double-latte from Starburned, and the rest is history, which we’ll detail in the next few paragraphs with excruciating detail only a publicist would love.
I’ve read these feature-bios ad nauseum in magazines and tribute sites, seen them on entertainment/talk shows. Enough already. Who doesn’t know that Jackie Zeman (Bobbie, GH) used to be a bunny server for Playboy clubs and hails from Jersey? But does anyone have the tostadas to ask about her 500 facelifts?! My kingdom for an original approach, one perhaps more in keeping with the stunning blank slate of ‘Net ingenuity and entrepreneurship. Nobody does trite features there anymore. They chat, they post, they journalize, they leave snippets of themselves as the mood hits, English 313 be damned, welcome non-sequitur, the aim of the game is capturing mood, an honest, genuine, true off-the cuff—something unrehearsed for once.
Why do you think I ask stupid shit like, How’s the weather? Dildo or vibrator? Where the hell is Saddam? of these so-called celebrities used to the fodder of self-gratification and the sell? To sell my own self-gratification away from utter boredom (get a reaction, get remembered, get a phone number scribbled on the back of ...), of course.
I think people are tired of the same ole shit too, especially on the ‘Net where Been there, done that takes on a split-second transformation. Anything goes online, no request is too bizarre, so why not interviews with famous people? Take it left, Stuttering John meets Mara Levinsky, it’s not just about you Mr. Fabulous.
I’m doing the interviewing around here.
So, Damian, wanna fuck?
“questions” ... the B side
One of the toughest assignments as a journalist is a feature. Anybody can do straight news, just source out the most pertinent information you, as a regular citizen rubber-necking off the street, can think of to glean the bare bones of what happened.
But features are another story.
A subtle, artful blend of bio and Intimate Portrait, a feature writer worth her byline will always take the time to watch her subject go about her day in the life, proverbial fly on the wall, query a few colleagues, family members and maybe two critics, before taking on the task of presentation—with the most interesting facet first, leading up to the inevitable reason(s) for tape-to-transcript.
Usually an all-day affair, the object of the reporter’s assignment will have done something momentous—perhaps achieved 50 years of continuous movie and TV credits capped off with a Hollywood Walk of Fame long overdue—recently. Otherwise, how the reporter leads up to the momentous is up to her.
Soap Opera Digest’s Mara Levinsky is my role model for doing the impossible, a trend in covering this genre, especially with the Internet’s popularity amongst a growing number of fans hungry for minute-by-minute soap star updates: She can do features about any actor for no reason whatsoever. A few weeks ago, I thumbed through the magazine’s pages to uncover a gem of an interview with daytime veteran actor, Vincent Irizarry (David, AMC). Now, he hadn’t won an Emmy, hadn’t even been chosen as a nominee by the final panel of judges, nor had he done outrageous work in a major controversial frontburner storyline, that honor went to the ladies of Fusion who’ve been commanding the stage almost the second ABC Daytime prez Brian Frons took over. The only newsworthy event attached to this Long Island native was an upcoming fan event. Hardly Pulitzer material.
And yet, Levinsky’s interview was pithy, compelling, interestingly told, catching up with a family man almost a year or so into the raising of his third child, only son, snippets and anecdotes revealing his tireless hard-working devotion to spiritual and philanthropic causes, toiling on the computer in a major writing task while remembering to click SAVE every two minutes because the littlest one likes turning the PC off now and again... Best of all, in a sidebar, the SOD features writer inserted herself as a long-time fan who’d written her first and only letter to Mr. Irizarry long ago, and now, look at her, face to face with the gracious actor himself, as a reporter doing a story on him. His published reaction was priceless, a mix of shock, recognition and very touched paternal appreciation for her abilities.
As resumes get exchanged, recycled and rehashed from SoapZone’s message boards and fan base tribute sites, to paraphrased soap magazines on- and off-line and SoapNet’s SoapTalk—all in a rehearsed effort to promote without criticism—it would do us all a world of good to recognize the outstanding but rare success stories, with unique approaches.
On the Internet, fast growing as the means to galvanize an audience in the shortest amount of time and with the least amount of effort, where a nobody can consort with a somebody in show biz (since we all need an Amazon.com CD, eBay towel set and The Knot wedding registry at some point in our lives), it’s even more important to set different approaches from the traditional single focus lens on the celebratory.
Soap fans have become savvy campaign lobbyists in the post-90s. No longer are they content to sit back and watch whatever pass across their TV screens. They want spoilers a week to the next Sweeps, in advance. They want backstage dish with their personal profiles, the dirtier, grittier, tabloid, the better. And more horrifying in many extreme cases, they want in on the interviewing process by which to manufacture intimacy, star fucking gone haywire.
That’s why you have so many fan-based celeb sites popping up, purporting to offer a haven for like-mindeds, a virtual fan club without the stamp and transport hassles. To their credit, most are exactly as advertised, havens for people to share, commiserate, support and in the meantime, get to know one another as more than fans.
A few sites are so well-done, the actors themselves have taken notice, reached out, and given their signature stamp of approval, visiting often, leaving love notes and transforming tribute into official: Billy Warlock, John J. York, Sarah Brown, Brad Maule, Roscoe Born... And some other actors have taken it upon themselves to open up their own sites as homepages, usually with a web master handling the design and upkeep: Kassie DePaiva, Catherine Hickland, Brian Gaskill, Carly Schroeder, Amber Tamblyn, Leslie Charleson, Greg Vaughan, Cynthia Preston...
Inevitably, the opportunity arises to chat, engage in a Q&A posting with or even interview a soap star. That’s where the ole ingenuity comes in handy. Or, well it should.
By now you’ve probably, like me, gotten used to beyond tired of the same formula in feature-writing. Actor is kicking ass in current role, drawing crowds, gathering a fan base in campaign efforts using lounge chairs and Ban roll-on, remembers his humble roots as a geeky teenager in a nowhere town pinch-hitting for a Class A ball team until an agent noticed her in a crowd at Home Depot and sent her off to Europe to model underwear apparel before she tired of the constant travel and the constant bickering with the competition, turning to a few acting classes before lucking out in Beverly Hills, 90210 and 7th Heaven guest spots until a chance meeting – in a drug store looking for cold cream – with GH’s casting director Mark Teschner netted the ingénue a lead role in a replacement theory...
If you’re a ‘Net freak, like me, that shit won’t stick.
Interviews in the feature-writing vein must veer from old school formula. Visitors don’t have the time or the inclination to read through a Grimm’s fairy tale publicist wet dream, not when they can watch a 72-year-old former Swedish gangster eat his own shit, then gang up on the S&C/CFF fan base on a message board over what GH actor Maurice Benard (Sonny) may or may not have said out of line at a weekend public appearance, while jerking off to rotating jpegs of PC’s Kelly Monaco (Livvie) in various stages of Playboy undress.
Nope. A regular feature story just won’t do with this crowd.
So go a little crazy out there. Don’t follow the rules. Forget decorum. Remember who put these stars in their place. Feel free to include yourself as part of the interviewing process. After all, without you, they’re nothing, right?
And by all means, be inspired by ‘Net communicato. Shortcuts, lexicons, non-sequitur chat slang ... the object of the Q&A being, to capture a genuine mood between fan and star by whatever guerrilla means necessary.
Anybody can copycat the traditional magazine or newspaper feature story.
It takes a real Stuttering John, with a touch of Mara Levinsky, to pull off a feature story worthy of the world wide web.
Maybe, just maybe, you’ll wind up with a fan of your own. The actor himself.
If he’s Damian Lewis, more’s the better.
I know my first question – and it doesn’t involve the nobility of purpose in Shakespeare.
Coggie on SARS
What It's Worth"
Soap Town USA
"The Carol Banks Weber Show"
"General Hospital News and Gossip"