Inside the New York Times: How Reporters Interview Celebrities

From an Inside the Times column by Sarah Bahr headlined “How Reporters Interview Celebrities”:

The movies make it seem so glamorous: An interviewer walks into a restaurant to share salad and conversation with a celebrity for an upcoming profile. The writer leaves two hours later with plans to hang out again and a notebook full of juicy tidbits.

But in reality, it might take 40 emails and weeks of back-and-forth correspondence with half a dozen people, including publicists, managers and representatives, to set up an hourlong interview — whether over lunch or video — with a celebrity. And sometimes, the conversation isn’t quite so relaxed.

Despite the wrangling, interviewing a celebrity is a chance to peel back the layers of a talented performer — and to show readers how that person became that way, says Taffy Brodesser-Akner, a staff writer for The New York Times Magazine who has profiled the likes of Gwyneth Paltrow and Tom Hanks.

Three writers for The New York Times — Ms. Brodesser-Akner; the pop music reporter Joe Coscarelli; and the magazine’s Talk columnist, David Marchese — recently shared how they tackle the celebrity interview and how they handle tricky moments during the conversation.

Preparing for the Interview

It’s important to become an expert on the person and be aware of what he or she has said in previous interviews, Ms. Brodesser-Akner said.

Preparing, she said, might make a celebrity more likely to open up and give new information to share with readers. “I’ll watch everything, listen to everything, read 1,000 pages of interviews,” she said. “If they’ve talked about a book more than once, I’ll read that book. And they’re impressed with that. If they see I cared, they will care slightly more.”

The goal is to be informed enough about their life and work, Mr. Marchese said, to have an organic conversation with natural transitions between the introductions of new topics, without reading from a list of questions.

“You want to have the most natural possible conversation with someone in a totally unnatural environment,” Mr. Coscarelli said.

Asking the Hard Questions

All three reporters agreed: Never ask the tough questions first.

Ms. Brodesser-Akner said a reporter had to earn the right to ask a tough question by showing they’re a good listener. She likes to lay out a road map for the person she’s interviewing, so they aren’t caught off guard when she raises a sensitive subject.

“In every single interview I’ve done, there’s a horrible question, and we’re both waiting for it at the end,” Ms. Brodesser-Akner said. “As we get toward the middle of the interview, I’ll say, ‘We’re getting into rougher territory now, are you ready to do some breathing exercises?’ I’m being funny, but it helps. Whatever you’re losing in getting them off their guard, I do believe in an ethical interview and I don’t believe that all those precious minutes you spent warming them up actually took them off their guard’”

The key is finding a natural time to ask the question. “I’m looking for an organic point in the conversation to raise a difficult subject so it doesn’t feel like a ‘Gotcha!’ thing,” Mr. Marchese said.

Navigating Testy Terrain

Despite a reporter’s best efforts, exchanges occasionally take a turn toward the prickly.

Sometimes, an interviewee doesn’t like an interviewer’s question — the actor Jason Momoa recently objected to Mr. Marchese’s question about whether he regretted doing sexual assault scenes in “Game of Thrones,” saying the question made him feel “icky.”

Mr. Marchese said that while he doesn’t seek out tough conversations, he feels they are worthwhile. In the case of the Jason Momoa interview, once he picked up on the fact that the actor was uncomfortable, he tried to figure out why.

And though pressing on might be uncomfortable, Mr. Marchese knows it “almost always makes for a more interesting conversation to read.”

Sometimes, a celebrity is confrontational by nature, as in Mr. Coscarelli’s sit-down with 6ix9ine last year, the rapper’s first interview since he was released from prison for crimes he committed as a member of a Brooklyn gang.

“You want to figure out a way to ask the question without making the person shut down,” said Mr. Coscarelli, who asked 6ix9ine how it would feel when his daughter grows up and sees the allegations that he had physically abused her mother. He framed the question in a way that would pierce what he called the rapper’s “carnival barker” facade and encourage him to focus on those affected by his actions instead of on himself.

Getting a Response

Mr. Marchese said rephrasing the tricky question can help defuse a tense situation — and encourage an answer.

“The cheapest possible thing you can do — and I try to almost never do it — is to use straw man examples,” he said. “If someone doesn’t like the way you’ve asked a question, and you want to get back to it later, you can reframe it, like, ‘You know, other people have said this,’ so it’s like the question is coming from someone else, not you.”

Ultimately, it’s important to remember that your subjects are human, too, Ms. Brodesser-Akner said. And, she added, sometimes the best move a reporter can make is simply to listen.

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