There’s a fascinating piece of video floating around the Internet today, shot during the recent RED 2 promotional tour, of Bruce Willis being kind of a dick to a British radio interviewer. It’s a perfect storm of awkwardness: the grinning journo in question, Jamie Edwards, isn’t exactly Charlie Rose, while Willis (not renowned for his warmth and affability) starts off grouchy and descends quickly to this: “Has any actor ever told you this, Jamie? This part is not acting. The fun part is over. We’re just selling the film now. Sales.” Brusque as it may be, it’s true. But it was always thus. So why does it seem like we’re seeing more of this stuff now?
The Willis clip comes on the heels of two similarly fascinating departures from the polite norms of the “celebrity interview.” Back in June, a clip of Jesse Eisenberg losing his patience with a rather dopey interviewer made the rounds, prompting some discussion about dopey gimmick interviews and a rich celebrity’s obligation to play along. Earlier in the spring, a BBC radio correspondent found himself awkwardly flustered by the ever-appealing Mila Kunis, and she took the opportunity to charmingly torpedo the interview and go entirely off-topic.
The most telling moment of that Kunis interview comes a couple of minutes in, as interviewer Chris Stark tries to bring the movie back after a sidebar concerning his pub and drinking buddies. She begs him not to (“this is way more interesting for me”), and when he makes another effort later — with the prodding of a publicist — she replies, “Let me just give you answers for what you’re gonna ask: So I play Phoebe…” and proceeds to rattle off all of the canned answers for all of the questions she’s been getting all day.
A bit of background is helpful in understanding all of these clips. When it comes time to promote a movie, only the big guns — your New York Times, your Vanity Fairs, your Entertainment Weeklys — get to do the kind of in-depth, sit-down, at-length interviews that most journalists desire. Everyone else is shuffled off to the press junket, and it usually works like this: a ballroom and several guest rooms are rented at a swanky hotel. The throng is assembled for a press conference with all of the actors and filmmakers who have availed themselves. Before and after that event, each interviewee is placed in his or her own room or suite, and a steady stream of interviewers is brought forth to talk to them. The maximum time is 20 minutes. Sometimes you only get ten. Sometimes you barely get five.
It is, as Stark notes in the Kunis interview, “a bit of an unnatural environment.” It’s also a byproduct of the Internet age; press junkets existed before there were thousands on online film and entertainment sites, but they were a hell of a lot less populated (there aren’t nearly as many newspapers here in NYC as there are websites). But now it’s an entire process: publicists inform us of who they’ve got available, we let them know whom we’d like to interview (I usually ask for everyone), they let us know who we’re important enough to interview (I usually get one), and then we get our ten minutes. We’re expected to spend most, if not all, of that ten minutes talking about the film they’re promoting, which means that everyone only has time to ask the same basic questions. And actors give the same basic answers.
No wonder they’re bored stiff; as Willis says, “I can hardly keep my mind on this interview.” The only ones who win are the publicity folks; the actors don’t want to be there and the journalists aren’t getting anything worth a damn, and most of them get off the beat as soon as they can. (Those who stick around, the professional junketeers, are — in this reporter’s experience — primarily a source of of insipid questions and jaw-dropping entitlement.)
But the web has changed the movie-promotion experience in another way, as we’ve seen from the wide exposure to these clips: when you only get five minutes, you’re gonna use it all, and if it makes a celebrity look like a brat, so be it. Before YouTube (and web video in general) made these kind of uncut videos the norm, a lengthier junket interview was more likely to get chopped up into a local news or Entertainment Tonight package, with only the good sound (along with copious clips) making the cut. Now, the full interview is the attraction, and since every five-minute interview consists of the same questions and the same canned answers, it amounts to celebrity gawking: OOOH LOOK, FAMOUS PEOPLE TALKING TO ME. So they leave it all in — and if they catch a celeb being a prickly pear, that’s all the better (traffic wise).
Do the publicity people mind? Probably not, because don’t forget, the entire time Bruce is being brash, they’re still talking about RED 2. And frankly, there’s a decent chance more people will see this video today than will see the movie they’re talking about. The downfall, in all of these cases, is that the story becomes the celebrity rather than the movie. But film publicity stopped being about movies a long time ago.