The Art Of Storytelling: Celebrity Profiles

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Check out Tom Chiarella's essay in the Indianapolis Monthly about writing celebrity profiles:

There are myths which I can dispel. People always ask me: How many minutes of your life have you spent waiting for celebrities to show up? The presumption is that athletes and movie stars are always late, that they are sloppy with their time or their attention. Not so. I even know the answer in minutes: 66. Tom Brady kept me lingering in the driveway of his house, in front of a locked fence, for 32 minutes before coming out to grant me a 45-minute interview on the way to a golf course. He’s the only celebrity who ever held me up in this way. Two weeks later he did it again in New York, when he was 34 minutes late for a follow-up interview, which he also confined to a limo. The whole thing was an afterthought to him. I have nothing nice to say about the guy. So: 66 minutes. Ryan Gosling? Spot on time. Same with Halle Berry, Charlize Theron, Ben Affleck. They arrived as the second hand swept past the 12 at our appointed hour. Well, I should note that Jon Hamm made me wait on his porch in L.A. before he opened the door. Five minutes. That was an endless expanse. Panic sprang up in my chest. I figured I was at the wrong house. I sat on the top step and called my editor, on a Saturday. But then the door pulled back, and there was Don Draper, hopping around on one foot, slipping on his golf shoes. He’d been fixing something in his basement. He apologized three times. Totally forgivable. So: 71 minutes total.

The real trick with celebrities is that they are often early. They show up 45 minutes before schedule in a restaurant, beside a pool, in a hotel lobby, and then call to say that the clock is ticking. Some of them have only promised to give me a mere two hours, and they eat up half of that allotment by showing up in advance of the meeting time. Guy Ritchie was 30 minutes early, for a 30-minute tea. Daniel Craig was an hour early. Bruce Willis, 1 hour and 15 minutes. Kate Beckinsale: 23 minutes. Though by then, I’d learned and was watching from across the street as she arrived, joyously slapping her hands against Notting Hill lamp poles as she passed them. I walked up and held the door for her, and pretended I had no idea who she was. She sure as hell had no idea who I was. She was gracious.

Another rule, then: Always be absurdly early. I will eat celery and read the L.A. Times for two hours in a hotel bar rather than try to meet a movie star on time. I never drink beforehand. I sometimes drink during. I never ask if they mind, either, not since Bruce Willis withered me with a glance when I asked if he cared if I ordered some gin. With that I broke my own rule about never asking what you already know: Bruce Willis? Tough guy? Former bartender? He couldn’t have cared less if I drank. I felt useless for minutes, a long time in the midst of a two-hour interview. The gin was no medicine.


He also says never to write about what a subject is eating. We see it all the time in celebrity profiles, especially in Vanity Fair and the New York Times..."Chris Rock twirled his angel hair pasta on his fork and ignored his frisee salad." It's almost always a pointless detail.

I also like this insight from Chiarella:

The night before, [Ryan] Gosling had told me—unequivocally—that he believed he’d grown up in a haunted house. The next day, he backed off, hemming and hawing about stories his mother had told him. A week later, he called me, worried: “I don’t really believe in haunted houses,” he said. “That was really just stupid of me. It’s embarrassing that I said it the way I did. Like there was no doubt.”

This is another rule: People have a right to change their minds.

Gosling seemed happy that I was willing to listen. “I just like the idea of haunted houses, you know?”

I let it go. It didn’t seem like a major contradiction. In fact, I used both quotes. I let people see him changing his mind. Readers like a little ambiguity, a little progression of thought in their profiles. They want to see a conversation in full, which never means a straight Q-and-A for me. It requires a little texture. And that usually extends beyond the experience of a single meal. That’s why I always ask for three meetings and only settle for two.

[Illustration by Evgeny Parfenov]