In 2003 I interviewed James Van Der Beek. The world once had some kind of idea who James Van Der Beek was, or at least what Dawson's Creek was. Back then the actor was heading on a post-Dawson's Creek downward curve. I was heading on an early flight to London. We had 20 minutes to meet in the middle or, more accurately, in a room at the Dorchester hotel.
He was a nice guy: talkative, patient, putting in the minutes for his final interview of a couple of days of interview after interview. And he hardly made eye contact.
Instead he dutifully signed poster after poster while being asked my box-ticking questions about the mediocre movie he was promoting that we had to pretend was not mediocre. And then he answered some box-ticking questions about Dawson's Creek, because that's all anyone really cared about, even if they'd stopped caring very much.
Twenty minutes later our duties were done. Time to be ushered out of the hotel room. Just leave the article on the table.
That particular encounter wasn't unpleasant, and I've done worse interviews over the years, but it came to mind this week when reading of Michael Fassbender's apparent refusal to go on the Oscar campaign trail on behalf of his latest film, 12 Years a Slave.
"I won't put myself through that kind of situation again," he told GQ magazine. "It's just a grind. And I'm not a politician. I'm an actor."
As it turns out, the Killarney man will be conveniently unavailable in New Zealand anyway. And that grind is different from the one so diligently tolerated by actors doing their promotional work on behalf of movies that arrive in town trailing the noxious fumes of stinking reviews.
Doing a Noel King
But Fassbender's mini revolt comes after a few much-shared moments in which well-known actors, finally wilting under the need to answer the same questions, about the same film, in the same hotel room – just a different country that time around – finally cracked and did what this week should be known as "a Noel King".
Bruce Willis and Jesse Eisenberg have each humiliated pesky reporters, smashing to pieces the temporary bonhomie forced into the space between journalist, star and movie-poster backdrop.
Far more charming was Mila Kunis going off-script with a BBC interviewer, talking soccer and pubs before being prompted by her publicist to say something about her film.
“Let me just give you answers to the questions I know you’re going to ask,” she said, then spewed out the answers to every question she’d been asked a couple of dozen times already that day.
This, by and large, is how movie promotion works now. Journalists tell the publicist which stars they’d like, then they’re told who’ll they’ll get. Sometimes there’s a wrestle, and it culminates in 20 minutes or so in a hotel in London between writer and someone attached to the movie.
The slot might be far shorter, depending on your importance or the medium you work in. Those online interviews are maybe five minutes long. As media grows – there are now far more film sites than film magazines – the process is about as perfunctory as it can be made without putting name badges on everyone and making it resemble speed-dating.
Interviews are bread and butter for many journalists, and staples of print media, but the industrial process too often makes the result rather bland. In music coverage, a huge number of interviews with musicians are done over the phone, removing even the opportunity to see someone up close, to look them in the eye, to get a sense of their character, their presence. It requires a journalist to strike the right mood quickly and, more precariously, for the musician not to be in a bad mood.
Author interviews are an exception and remain rather more satisfying for the interviewer, the author and, if done properly, the reader. Unlike music and film coverage, literature has had to fight to hold its space in newspapers and magazines, and isn't as pressured by the needs of online media. Big-name authors travel to Ireland to do their media, and it means that an interview might take place face to face over the course of an hour or more.
Unlike actors or directors, they are not on such a concentrated publicity push, aimed at getting as much uncritical coverage as possible before the film opens and the public realises that – hold on a second – in all those interviews, across all those platforms, over the past week, not one of them admitted how terrible this movie was. Again.