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Thursday, April 5, 2012
Gen J Toolbox

Celebrity interviews: Get what you need

By Jennifer Nicole Sullivan

If you’re a reporter, interviewing a celebrity should be like interviewing an average Joe, right? Well, almost. Although you use the same J-school interviewing techniques, chatting with a famous person — even reality show personalities or D-listers — means dealing with a publicist, time or topic limitations, and possibly your own nerves.

As an entertainment writer, I’ve had the privilege to interview several actors, comedians and musicians. Over the years, I’ve had to figure out how to conduct successful, easy-flowing interviews with celebs, especially over-the-phone chats when you can’t rely on eye contact to establish a quick connection.

Whether you interview a notable figure face to face or over the phone, how do you create immediate chemistry? Draw out never-before-heard anecdotes? Or keep from sounding like an idiot? Consider these tips before your next high-profile interview:

Rely on the publicist: Always request the celeb’s bio and pepper the publicist with basic questions before the interview to verify basic facts and get the latest news.

• Research your subject: A no-brainer, right? Read a variety of sources. Don’t rely solely on Wikipedia. Find the celeb’s official Twitter handle and engage him or her to gather news tidbits. Always check out the celeb’s latest CD, TV show, film or book to avoid embarrassment. In January, a TV interview with actor Liam Neeson turned sour when he found out a local TV anchor hadn’t watched his latest film, “The Grey.” Neeson said, “It really makes life hard to talk to someone who hasn’t seen the film.” Ouch.

Check yourself: If you feel giddy before your chat, check it at the door. Say a quick compliment at the beginning (if you’re so compelled), but don’t gush or confess your undying love for the person.

“Where are you?”: If it’s over the phone, ask about the celeb’s location and plans for that day — it gives dimension to your story if you can’t see the person. When I interviewed Sharon Jones, of Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings, the soul singer was waiting for her clothes to dry at a Brooklyn Laundromat.

Find a commonality: Mention something you and the celeb have in common to quickly build rapport. When I interviewed Angela Kinsey (Angela from “The Office”), I pointed out our shared North Texas roots. Thereafter, we chatted easily like old friends.

Ask important questions up front: Because of time limits (you might only have 15 minutes), start with your must-ask questions first and build up to more difficult, personal questions.

Be unique: To pull out never-before-heard anecdotes and answers, toss in a few off-topic questions like, “What’s your morning routine?” or “What was your craziest moment on stage?”

Watch and learn: Take note of the person’s body language, habits, appearance and overall environment if it’s an in-person interview. These details will add important color to your story.

Make it a conversation: Instead of burying someone in questions, make it easy and fun, as if you’re talking to an old friend. But let the person talk — don’t ask wordy questions or talk too much about yourself. When you feel at ease, interviewees will, too.

Jennifer Nicole Sullivan is a copywriter at Real Simple Magazine. On Twitter: @TrendyJenny

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