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I Don’t Know Jack
Why going face-to-face with Hollywood celebrities is like staring into the great unknown
I once spent an entire afternoon with Jack Nicholson. The two of us sat in overstuffed armchairs in his Picasso-filled mansion on Mulholland Drive, puffing on big, stinky cigars and chatting about films, art, love, sex, and many other sweet mysteries of life. It was three solid hours of one-on-one face time with a man the vast majority of people get to meet only on a movie screen. When the interview was over and I went home, everybody asked me the same question: What was Jack Nicholson really like? I told them the truth: I don’t have a clue.
For 20 years I was a writer for Entertainment Weekly. My job was to hang out with the most famous people on the planet and render their personalities in print. Drop just about any bold-faced name—Nicole Kidman, Anthony Hopkins, Angelina Jolie, Michelle Pfeiffer, Julia Roberts, Tom Hanks—and chances are I’ve written a sentence about him or her forking into an organic green salad at some fancy restaurant in a five-star hotel. I’ve spent a thousand hours talking to hundreds of celebrities. And yet, whenever people ask me what they’re like—really like—I find myself giving the same answer: Beats me. As near as I’ve gotten to the stars—so close I could see a little leafy piece of endive stuck between Tom Cruise’s teeth—I don’t know them any better than you do.
It’s a strange dynamic, the celebrity interview. You are given a window of time with a complete stranger to ask things that would never come up in casual conversation: “Why do people think you’re gay?” “How come your last three films bombed?” “Were you born with a penis?” (Yes, I actually did ask that of an actress who was rumored to have been born with male genitalia; it was the only time a star ever walked out on me.) The celebrities, meanwhile, do their best to charm and disarm, keeping their private sides private. When the dance is over, both parties leave with what they need. I’d get a tape recorder full of quotes; the star would get publicity. But rarely was anything meaningful divulged. Despite what you may have read in the press, souls hardly get bared in the pages of magazines. Most times, interviewing celebrities is totally soulless work.
Not that I’m complaining. I’m not one of those self-loathing entertainment journalists who think writing about celebrities is beneath them. I took hobnobbing with the stars seriously. After all, profiles serve a vital function in the ecosystem of pop culture. They connect fans to stars in ways movies can’t, bridging the gap between the shadows on the screen and the flesh-and-blood people who create them. Without profiles (and Barbara Walters specials), actors would be trapped inside their roles, never allowed to unfurl their personae and bloom as larger-than-life figures in the public’s imagination. “You’re not a star until magazines start putting you on their covers,” Chevy Chase told me in the early days of my career (in 1993, backstage at The Chevy Chase Show, the disaster that nearly destroyed his career). “Being on magazine covers codifies fame. It makes it real.”
Still, interviewing celebrities is a weird way to make a living. For one thing, while profiles can be great PR for a star, they’re ultimately frustrating exercises for a journalist. Two or three hours of conversation—the most writers can hope to get these days—simply isn’t enough to plumb the depths of anyone’s soul, or even to catch a moment of unguarded honesty. “The erosion of a subject’s self-control is the sine qua non of celebrity reporting,” wrote Jennifer Egan, brilliantly deconstructing the celebrity interview in her Pulitzer Prize-winning 2010 novel, A Visit from the Goon Squad. But in reality that sine qua non is maddeningly elusive. Celebrities are surrounded by teams of supercontrolling personal handlers who make sure that the only thing that ever erodes is the journalist’s will to live.
It may appear like an ordinary conversation, but the celebrity interview is a highly choreographed, carefully staged mini media event. Just setting one up takes hours of negotiation with a Gordian knot of publicists and managers and studio marketers, and it can all be undone in an instant by the passing whim of a star. One time, a few minutes before I was scheduled to sit down with Demi Moore on a movie set in Seattle, I got a call from my editor in New York, who was on his other line talking to Moore’s publicist in Los Angeles, who was on her other line talking to Moore, who had last-minute concerns about questions I might ask during the interview. The actress was standing right in front of me the whole time, no more than 20 feet away. We could see each other talking on our cell phones.
I got used to it.
The harder thing to abide, though, was how dehumanizing a celebrity interview could be—and not just for the actress being asked about her alleged penis. To do the job properly I would have to study my subjects, dive into their histories, fall in love a little bit, so that when it came time to meet for the interviews I’d be conversant with their life stories. The celebrities, by contrast, didn’t have to learn a thing about me. All they had to do was show up and turn on the charm. They did their best to make me feel like their new BFF, but to the stars journalists are anonymous cogs in the publicity machine. Once I left the room I was as easy to forget as the back of a limo driver’s head.
An example: In late 2001, I spent a long, intense afternoon in a bungalow at the Beverly Hills Hotel with Russell Crowe. This was right after his scandalous affair with Meg Ryan, and Crowe was still feeling tender and protective toward his ex-lover. At one point he leaned forward and whispered in a menacing Aussie growl that he’d hunt me down if I ever wrote a negative word about Ryan. “I’m not joking, mate,” he added with an icy glare. Flash-forward a few months to an Oscar party at Spago, where I spotted Crowe at a VIP table and nervously approached to say hello, glad that I had not written a negative word about Meg Ryan. “Remember me?” I asked, reaching out my hand for a shake. Crowe looked up as if I were a busboy delivering fresh rolls. “No, mate,” he said. “I don’t.”
Nicholson, back at his mansion, explained why journalists are so forgettable to stars. He told me that he was introduced to something like 10,000 new people every year, an impossible number of faces and names to recall. Stars are constantly thrust against hordes of reporters, producers, agents, publicists, managers, and other hangers-on. No matter how many hours I spent kibitzing with Jack, there just wasn’t room in his cranium for one more journalist.
There are exceptions: Jessica Alba remembered me well enough to corner me at a Comic--Con party in San Diego and loudly call me an a—hole. Repeatedly. While poking me in the chest with her finger. I was shocked. I thought I’d written a mostly flattering story about her. I don’t think I ever got Tom Cruise that angry, but I’m certain he’d remember my face if I happened to run into him at his favorite In-N-Out Burger. Who knows? He might jump over the counter and personally grill me a Double-Double.
Cruise, in fact, is the perfect example of the pointlessness of the celebrity profile. In the late 1990s, at the pinnacle of his career (before he started doing acrobatics on Oprah’s furniture), he was the ultimate challenge for the entertainment journalist, the Everest of movie stars. Many reporters attempted to penetrate beyond his blinding smile and stupefying charisma. None succeeded. To this day Cruise’s inner life remains an enigma inside a riddle surrounded by mystery packed in Bubble Wrap and locked in a temperature-controlled storage vault. I met with Cruise five times during the last few decades. Each time the same thing happened: While we were talking, I was sure I was in the midst of the most fascinating, hilarious, mind-blowing interview I’d ever done. Then I’d get home and transcribe the tapes, and my heart would sink. Cruise never failed to give me nothing.
I’ve spent more time with Tom Cruise than I have with some of my own blood relatives, and yet the only thing I can tell you about him is that he’s a fun guy to hang around with for a couple of hours. That’s pretty much all I’ve ever learned about anybody I’ve interviewed, except for the ones who weren’t so much fun (don’t have sushi with Tommy Lee Jones). Celebrity profiles promise readers a peek into the inner worlds of famous people, but take it from somebody who has written hundreds of them: They almost never deliver. At best, all they give you is a blurry snapshot of a star at a particularly self-aware moment.
You want to know what Jack Nicholson is really like? You want to peer into his soul? Try Netflix. You’ll learn a lot more by watching one of his movies than by reading any magazine article.
Benjamin Svetkey’s first novel, Leading Man, was published by Vintage in September. This is his first piece for Los Angeles.