"I am utterly bored by celebrity interviews. Most celebrities are devoid of interest." -- Roger Ebert
Back in the late 1990s I had the good fortune to interview a bunch of celebrities when I worked at Valley Media. Allow me to clarify that: the celebrities weren't exactly all A-list stars, although there were some. There was Isaac Hayes and Pam Grier and Alice Krige and Elaine Paige and Tia Carrere. But there was also Carrot Top. I was interviewing them for Street Date Magazine to promote their films, most of which were "straight-to-video."
When Master Critic Roger Ebert says that celebrity interviews are boring and that celebrities are uninteresting, he has a point. Many articles about famous people tend to be bland fluff pieces or contrived opportunities to spark some buzz by the star's Public Relations team.
But I had a blast talking with and writing about these people, some of whom were on the fringe of fame, others who were best known for projects from years gone by.
I posted most of these interviews online and was still getting the occasional email from cybersurfing fans who came across them, and even from some of the celebrities' PR flacks who wanted me to arrange a followup interview all these years later.
The interviews aren't online anymore, but I was skimming through my hardcopies, debating whether to post them again, when I started thinking about the interviews I never had the chance to write and share.
The first one was with Mario Van Peebles, who starred in a bunch of good films like New Jack City and Ali, and a lot of cult classics. I did a phone interview with him for a western he directed called Posse which I really enjoyed. I was a little nervous, because one of my colleagues had warned me that he was a tough interview with a short temper. But nothing could have been further from the truth. He was an interviewer's dream -- charming, cracking jokes, full of interesting anecdotes, passionate about his movie and his craft.
The problem was, I don't have a single word of that interview, except what's in my fading memory. My audio recorder, for some bizarre reason, although it was running at the time, taped nothing but silence. One of the best interviews I ever did and I had nothing to show for it.
Another lost celebrity conversation that comes to mind is my interview with Brad Renfro, years before his untimely death. The young star of such great motion pictures as The Client, Sleepers, and Apt Pupil, spoke with me about a little film he did called Telling Lies in America.
If my chat with Mario Van Peebles was one of the best, then my one-on-one with Brad Renfro was one of the worst. Maybe it was my fault and I just wasn't asking the right questions, but the actor seemed distracted, providing only short answers, often mumbling. When all was said and done, I had nothing really of substance that I could write about.
One example of the frustration I faced was when I tried to get him to talk about his co-star, Kevin Bacon. Renfro's answer was a short, "He's a great actor."
After a long pause, I prompted him for more and he responded with another brief but meaningless, "He's a great guy, a hell of a model American."
Cute answer, but I needed more than that to flesh out the article I was planning to write. So I rephrased the same question again, hoping he'd bite and give me a good quote, a good story, something, anything. Renfro replied, "Seriously, he's a great actor, a great husband and father."
I waited, expecting more, but there was no more. So I tried to prompt him again. But all he could give me was a modest joke referring to the Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon, "Now you can say I'm a direct link to him."
But I wouldn't let it die. I knew Renfro was a great talent, and surely he must have had some behind-the-scenes tale to tell that would grab readers' attention. Finally, I managed to get him to give up a little gem. The Bacon Brothers had released a CD around that time, so I asked Renfro if he'd listened to any of Kevin Bacon's music. He answered, "I play the harmonica too, so most of the time he would strum the guitar and I'd play the harmonica between sets."
Gold! That's a story, that's an angle, Kevin Bacon jamming on the set with Brad Renfro, playing guitar and harmonica. But I couldn't get the young actor to expound further. He dismissed his brief account by saying, "But I've never played on stage with him," refusing to say anything further about it.
So that's an interview I never transcribed or published. It was terrible. But whenever I see one of Renfro's movies and feel sorry that his life was cut so short so soon, that image pops to mind of a talented young man playing harmonica on the set between scenes with Kevin Bacon strumming his guitar nearby.
I definitely wouldn't call Brad Renfro boring or uninteresting. I just wish I'd had the skill as an interviewer to dig a little deeper and pull out more of those interesting nuggets of his personality to share with others.