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OPINION | The challenges of the celebrity interview – but let’s face it, it could be worse

During a week where Liam Neeson & Christoph Waltz hit the headlines, we look into awkward nature of the press junket

Screenshot from my interview with Waltz, courtesy of HeyUGuys

There can be no denying what was the most awkward, controversial celebrity interview this past week. It almost goes without saying, but of course it was Liam Neeson for his new movie Cold Pursuit, with a confounding, shocking confession about a time in his past when he roamed the streets with a weapon, intending on a violent, racial attack. But after that, we can safely say I was involved in the second most awkward junket interview, when I sat down with Austrian two-time Oscar winner Christoph Waltz, in London to promote the release of Alita: Battle Angel.

In a clip which has gone sort-of-viral, Waltz’s challenging interview technique, whereby he effectively set out to disagree with the majority of what I had to say, was branded ‘excruciating’ and ‘painful’ by large media outlets such as The Independent and The Mirror. Now for the record, I don’t think for one moment he was being nasty, or needlessly cruel. He was just being somewhat, and needlessly obtuse, evidently lethargic from a hefty press tour, where he is tasked with answering the same questions over, and over again. It wasn’t my easiest junket experience, and maintaining a happy demeanour was tricky at times, but ultimately the finished product was actually rather interesting and unique. I harbour no ill feelings towards the actor, and in a strange way, I sort of enjoyed the back and forth, and when he leant over at the end to shake my hand, the mischievous glint in his eye suggested he may have too.

Waltz plays a paternal, kind figure in new blockbuster Alita: Battle Angel

What you, the audience, see, is the finished product. But the junket culture, though coming with so many benefits and quite incredible life experiences where you have to pinch yourself as you sit opposite one of your greatest inspirations (I’m always taken aback by how much they look like themselves, if that makes any sense at all), is still by its very nature an awkward endeavour. It’s conveyor belt journalism, akin to speed dating. In and out within five minutes, hoping to leave some sort of impression and strike up a bond in such a limited amount of time. And this past week, with the Waltz clip doing the rounds, not to mention another of my celebrity encounters resurfacing in the form of a Liam Neeson interview I did for Martin Scorsese’s Silence, where he did an impression of an Asian lady – honestly – it’s got me thinking about the whole thing, and how gloriously cringeworthy it can be. For both the interviewer and interviewee.

So it begins with a check-in. Let them know you’re there before heading into a room full of other journalists, waiting to be called in for their slot, like a doctor’s surgery waiting room, except with free croissants. The crowd are generally good-natured, presenters, people clutching on to their gimmicks with a sense of fear smacked across their face. Nobody wants to play a game with an unsuspecting actor, and yet editors behind desks demand it. Then it’s your turn, you get called up, and off you go. You say hello to the person you’re interviewing and make mindless small talk. ‘In London long?’ you ask. Or ‘I loved the movie’ you say, whether you mean it or not. Often you almost smack your head on the equipment and bring it all crashing down. ‘I do that every time’ you nervously whimper.

Tom Bateman confronting Neeson about making their paired interview super awkward

Then it begins. What do you ask? The problem is, often you want to try something different and unique, a question that will really make them think, and dig deep to come up with a interesting response – but it can catch them off guard. The talent may long for a question they’ve not heard before and yet that means giving an answer they’ve not yet prepared. So sometimes you play it safe. Which, with Waltz, twas my very downfall. He didn’t much like my ‘So tell me about your character?’ question. To be fair, can you blame him?

But he is still on hand to promote his new movie, that’s the ultimate aim for this entire endeavour, so we may as well let them. Ask questions like ‘what attracted you to this role?’ to kickstart it, let them give their spiel before moving into more deep and thoughtful questions. And God forbid at the end when you have to ask about a future project. ‘So I hear you’re in a new Marvel film’ you pose, with an enthusiasm to give off the air that you’re the only person to have dared to think of this very topic that day, when in reality, every single goddam person has asked that exact same question. You see them slowly regress into their seat, hating every second. They don’t really want to be there. Once I interviewed Kristen Wiig with her luggage still in the room as she came straight from the airport. Who wants to answer questions then? When I’m jet-lagged I can barely muster up my name at the hotel check-in. Once I walked into an interview with Jason Statham who I heard saying before I entered, ‘how many of these have I got to do?’. Sorry mate, quite a few – and I’m one of them.

The time we interviewed Denzel: Now this one went very well

But it’s all part of the game, and it’s part of their job, and their pay package, I should add. Some of them enjoy every moment, and why not? Make the most of it I say, have fun. Dwayne Johnson and Hugh Jackman are perfect examples of those who live by this notion, and what great content comes out of it. I once had a sing-a-long with Johnson. Can you imagine bursting into song with Waltz?Then you return, back to the press room. ‘How was Dwayne?’ other journalists ask. First name terms, obviously, we may as well pretend we’re their friends, even if they’ll have forgotten us in moments (seriously, I’ve interviewed Mark Wahlberg seven times and every single time he’s said ‘nice to meet you’ as I’ve walked through the door).

So yes, it can be an ‘excruciating’ or ‘painful’ experience. A challenging one where you’re willingly going into a situation where you’re having a conversation with someone you know they’ve already had many times already. Not just that day, but around the world, for months. But it’s great. Yes it has its own set of difficulties, as has been proven this past week, but who would swap it for anything? To watch a film and be moved and compelled and then have the pleasure to actually sit down with those who triggered that emotional response within you. What a rare honour. To have the pleasure of actually telling someone whose film you loved that you enjoyed it, to their face. What a treat, and it’s when you leave the hotel where the junket is taking place, and you see the crowds of fans outside, where you realise what a privilege it was to meet the person they’re so desperate to get a mere glimpse of – and it’s not ever to be taken for granted.

I’m incredibly fortunate to be in this position, and I still look forward to every chat (even when I don’t like the film, and I have to say I merely found it ‘interesting’ which is a very safe word to get you our of trouble). But sometimes they don’t go so well, sometimes, you encounter a devilishly playful, if antagonistic Christoph Waltz. But you know what? I still got to chat to Christop Waltz. It could be a helluva lot worse.

Alita: Battle Angel is out in cinemas now

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