How to give good interview
November 11, 2011
One of the things I’ve enjoyed the most over the past year is getting involved in great, fresh theatre website The Public Reviews, especially interviewing for them. I started out pretty much winging it; my first actor interview was with Phantom & Les Mis actor Earl Carpenter and luckily he was a perfect subject – great fun, full of enthusiasm for his work and not taking himself too seriously. Over the months that followed, I learned good interview technique partly through my journalism postgraduate course, and partly just by doing. I made countless notes on what to do and what to avoid, honed my research and preparation pre-interview, tried to go for original questions and have a clear idea of what I wanted to get out of the time slot available. But only so much of what you control at your end of the dictaphone goes towards the final product – a great interviewee is what makes an interview sparkle. One of my most-viewed articles on this blog, to this day, is my Rebecca Caine interview; the star soprano was witty, frank and completely open to different subjects – everything you need for a great read.
Unless you’re a big Hollywood star, chances are you don’t get prepped on your interviews too much. But some people seem to have a natural rapport with the press; frankness with a little splash of personal revelation is often all it takes to make a killer interview. I’m always surprised by celebrity interviews that are run despite the star clearly despising the process and giving nothing away. We’ve all read one (look out for the writer commenting on the subject’s behaviour on the day rather than quoting them – usually means not enough useable quotes) – Keira Knightley is a repeat offender, as Mr & Ms Miserable Robert Pattinson and Kristen Stewart.
Until you’re Madonna or the Dalai Lama there’s no way all of the questions are going to be on your terms, so why not suck it up and just answer with as much or as little revelation as you can? The best interviews I’ve done have been with people who are relaxed, open and like to talk; now and again you get someone with a chip on their shoulder who comes across badly, but at least they’re coming across as something. People read interviews to learn something, not to have the same persona and quotes reiterated. One pet hate of mine is the American ‘I’m so blessed’ culture of gushing while saying, well, nothing.
Last month I got to interview a personal idol of mine, Idina Menzel. I was lucky enough to do this because she was about to do a phenomenal gig at the Royal Albert Hall, and I was nervous she would only want to talk on a very superficial level about the gig and the new season of Glee. The musical diva soon reassured me with her open, chatty nature, and despite sounding tired (she has a two-year-old and about three full-time jobs, so she’s forgiven) she happily mingled her personal life with her professional information from the beginning, saving me the awkward job of testing the waters with a tentative personal question. Idina got me thinking about what makes a great interviewee, and I think it comes down to a few basic things:
Americans are always better at this, but talking in the affirmative comes across far better on the page or screen than our apologetic British neuroses. If someone’s enjoying their job, you get great answers from them because they’re just bursting to share.
Actors generally have a bad record for intellect, but stage actors are very often knowledgable and analytical about their work and the industry in general. This is ideal, but you also want the balance between relatable chat about their personal perspective, and lofty talk about the state of modern theatre. Thoughtfulness is as important as academic intelligence when it comes to a good answer.
Most people will never be asked about themselves and have those words published. People who don’t do many interviews (especially directors and producers) are often great subjects because they’re insanely flattered to be asked. I remember always being nervous about interviewing people, until somebody pointed out to me that people love talking about themselves. Love it. So there’s hardly anything to lose in an interview situation. Of course there are the minority who buy into their own hype and get bored of ‘doing press’, but the savvy ones will learn to love promotion and use it to their advantage.
>> It’s good to (actually) talk
I often get asked about email interviews, and quite frankly, it’s not something I believe in. If you give someone the time and the blank page to talk about themselves, you’ll no doubt get a carefully manicured, PR-approved account of things – which may as well just be a copied-and-pasted press release. If someone who essentially could do with the exposure insists on email questions, I’ll usually say no – if you’re promoting something, it’s not hard to share a few thoughts via a 20-minute phone call (see again the Madonna/Dalai Lama exception).
Interviewers don’t want the interview to go badly. They pretty much have everything crossed for the opposite occuring. So if you go in there suspicious and guarded, the result will be an uncomfortable, stilted interview. Unless they work for a trashy rag (no names) or a brand that trades on sleazy gossip, they won’t be after the skeletons in your closet – just a nice, neat insight into your life and work.
>> Be aware (and beware)
If you are less than gracious, be prepared to see that in print. Maybe not explicitly, maybe not in expletives, but journalists are a crafty bunch. They can edit your words to ensure a certain overall tone – if you haven’t already set yourself up for that. An interview is a short blast of you; if you’re having a bad day you may want to be honest about it or simply reschedule because, especially in the age of the internet, that blast may be around for quite some time.