Five Tips for a Revealing Celebrity Interview

Talking to Ellen Kushner novelist and performer

Below is a list of some of the ‘names’ I’ve interviewed. It’s a fun list to think about in lieu of counting sheep when I can’t nod off. Beyond that, it’s a useful way to remember some of the topics of my audio productions and it’s one of many framing devices that are helpful to log my work and put it into categories. 

I’ve made many science documentaries but sadly these experts aren’t names except to their professional communities. My father who was a family doctor often lamented that people in the arts got all the public attention. He’s right but it depends on the ‘art’. I had a fascinating interview with a food stylist who based her work on Dutch still life paintings and she should be well known, but I suppose the public doesn’t consider that creative.

Publicity generates publicity and there’s general hunger for tell-all revelations from stars in front of the camera, or creators of best-sellers. 

Celebrities don’t expect you to have done any research, or to approach them with a question that makes them think hard. You can’t blame them. It’s usually a duty they undertake rather than a passion. Unless it’s a very controversial subject, you don’t want to unduly ruffle them. What you do want is a conversation where they sound engaged and are not operating on autopilot.

So here are 5 tips:

  1. Discover an interest or hobby. Ask them about it at the top of the conversation. I asked a concert pianist about his love of poetry, and he launched into reciting Byron and was so pleased with himself for remembering the poem, that his poker face transformed into a mischievous grin. Or you might learn of a nickname. I handed a performer who seemed to be known in his community as ‘Monster’… a comic called Monster. He was tickled by this. It could have been counter-productive but from my research, I felt confident that he had a healthy sense of humor.Meet in a setting that’s relaxed/beautiful/unusual.
  2. I like to ask the publicist where the interviewee goes to relax. This could be in the countryside around their home, beside their pool or in the bar of their hotel outside Happy Hour. If it’s an audio interview you don’t want a busy place of course, but even if it isn’t, you don’t want distractions and it’s better that they aren’t recognized. If you scramble up a hill to join them…(I realized I’d have to take off my shoes) you are going the extra few yards or a mile…and they are surprised and appreciative.
  3. Try to agree to requests that members of an entourage, or loved ones be present. Anyone is fine if there’s a strong request for them to be there, anyone other than other journalists who want to piggy back on your interview. If it puts the subject at ease to have familiar people around, that’s fine. And even ask questions of the other folk and accept their questions. Just be sure that your talent is comfortable.
  4. A workplace interview can be a very good thing. However ask yourself first if the subject is likely to be able to focus on your interview. The advantages of being in a studio, office, dressing room etc. is that it can provide many clues. Sometimes even the smallest details – what’s the significance of that fridge magnet? Who’s in that photograph? What shade of blue is it on the walls? It doesn’t seem nosey if your tone is respectfully curious. If there is any hesitancy, of course drop it.
  5. Bring yourself into the interview. Judiciously. For example: When I watched your performance it made me think…I started my career as a teacher and it seems to me you enjoy teaching? As someone who hates public speaking, I’m curious how you always seem to deliver your talks without scripts? And if this seems to be yielding results, then take it a little further. You don’t need to be liked, you certainly don’t want to be admired or remembered, instead, it’s a device for establishing a conversation. A conversation is the best kind of interview.

Some JK interviews/collaboration

Peter Brook, Rosamund Pike, Nick Hytner – as head of National Theatre UK, Alan Arkin
Kelly Leonard – Second City Chicago, Tina Fey, Rachel Dratch, Kwame Kwei Armah
Amy Morton, Michael Sheen, Damian Lewis, Helen McCrory, Roger Moore, Simon Russell Beale
Diana Muldaur – Star Trek, Peter Sellars, George C Wolfe, Gretchen Mol, Mike Daisey

Talib Kweli, Randy Newman,

John Cage,

Elvis Costello, John Lurie, Richard Goode, Michiko Uchida
Margaret Leng Tan, Nigel Kennedy, Renee Fleming, Van Cliburn
John Kander and Fred Ebb, Billy Joel ,Jeanine Tesori, Lorin Maazel ,Placido Domingo
Gavin Bryars, Suzanne Vega

Ray Bradbury, Stan Lee,

George Pelecanos, Ntozake Shange, Meg Wolitzer
Tracy Letts, Tony Kushner, Adam Gopnik, NSangou Njikam
Spalding Gray, Susan Orlean, Ellen Kushner, Bob Holman, Nathan Englander, TC Boyle
Simon Van Booy, Audrey Niffenegger, Michael Cunningham, Alice Sebold, Joyce Maynard
Chang Rae Lee, Louis Nowra, Teolinda Gersao, Anne McCaffrey, David Amram
Kenneth T Jackson, Lawrence Wechsler, Simon Winchester

Merce Cunningham, Wendy Whelan, Mark Morris, Katherine Dunham

Visual Art
Eduardo Paolozzi, Anish Kapoor, David Hockney, Gilbert and George
Paul Davis, Glenn Lowry, Rachel Whiteread, Franklin Sirmans

Baz Luhrmann,

Lois Greenfield, Annie Leibowitz
Owen Gleiberman, Mohsen Makhmalbaf

John Glenn,

Harrison Schmitt

 Media Personalities
Brooke Gladstone, Brian Lehrer, John Schaefer, Jad Abumrad, Margaret Juntwait
Ira Glass, Kurt Andersen, Robert Krulwich, The Kitchen Sisters

Richard M Daley, Ed Koch, John Liu

Harry Caray, Hakeem Olajuwon, Tony Kukoc
Phil Jackson, Reggie Miller

Religious Leaders
Bishop Tutu