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JOEL STEIN

Just for the record

OK Hollywood, here are the dos and don'ts of the celebrity profile.

August 17, 2007|JOEL STEIN

I have this idea for a hugely successful business, but apparently it will so completely destroy my credibility that my print journalism career would end. And I can't quit a growth field like this.

My plan was to start a consulting agency to train celebrities how to be interviewed. I know media trainers already exist, but those people just tell you not to wear white on TV and to twist questions to make your own point. Which is irrelevant in Hollywood because celebrities don't wear white and they don't have points.

I've been writing celebrity profiles for 12 years, and after conferring with some fellow entertainment journalists, I think it's time to supply the enemy with our tricks. Because I'm sick of actors getting angry with me for their own mistakes. I'm also sick of them getting angry at me for my mistakes, but I'm not sure how to fix that.

Google me. My essential task is to determine whether you're a jerk. Feign interest in me, and I'll think you aren't. Try the David Letterman trick: Ask where I'm from and drop some fact about the area. Easier yet, Google me and read something I wrote -- which might have the added advantage of cluing you in to what you should and shouldn't say in front of me. Tom Cruise is so good at this that, if you interview him a second time even years later, he'll ask about your two kids. How do you think his freakiness stayed hidden so long?

Don't bring your publicist. Sure she might prevent you from saying something stupid. But she's more likely to interrupt you -- which is a big flag that says, "He's saying something stupid! Use it in your first paragraph!" Besides, having her there makes you look weak. Instead, pretend to hate your publicist as much as I do.

Bring a gift. (Call it a sample.) When I met director Spike Jonze for lunch, he handed me a bag with a bunch of super-cool clothes from his skater clothing line. After that, he could have told me about his Hitler memorabilia and I would have written, "Jonze has a keen interest in European history."

Pay. I'm on an expense account from a giant multinational corporation; it's insane for me not to pick up the check at a restaurant. Only one person has physically prevented me: "Jackass" star Johnny Knoxville. It made no difference to my bank account, but it did make me think he is the most thoughtful man in the world. And we were on the way to destroy a flea market.

All I want to know is what it's like being famous. That's what every celebrity interview is about. So don't use words like "craft," "choice" or "character." Instead, come prepared with one anecdote from the set that involves another famous person that makes you look silly but likable. The truthiness of this anecdote is up to you.

I'm an actor too. That smiling and laughing and nodding? That's not because I agree with you. That's because I can't believe you're telling me about your spiritual journey and I don't want you to stop. As much as writers are insecure nerds who only want to be liked, we'll gladly trade your approval for that of a million readers.

Take me somewhere cool. Jennifer Lopez, Anna Nicole Smith and Sheryl Swoopes all invited me to talk to them on their beds. That's three more people than have invited me to their beds in the last 10 years when I didn't have a notebook in my hands. I once spent two days with Leonardo DiCaprio for a cover story for Time magazine and led him to believe that I was going to focus the piece on his environmental concerns. My editor had other ideas. So I focused on our food-shopping trip at Ralphs. He's still mad. If he'd just thought to take me to a Prius factory.

It's not over until it's printed. Maybe I've turned the tape recorder off, put my notebook away, paid the check, said goodbye. What I have not said is, "I'm off-duty. Anything you say now is just between us." But we're not hanging out; I'm studying you. And what you do when you don't think you're being studied is exactly the stuff I want. Now is not the time to brag about who you had sex with last night.

Give me your cell number. Instead of having a publicist set up a phone conversation, George Clooney called me directly, and left me a message with his home number. Tina Fey dropped me her cell number, and Matthew Fox and Shaquille O'Neal gave me their e-mail addresses. This made them seem unpretentious. The fact that they never replied to my e-mail was irrelevant.

Be nice to the wait staff. Alec Baldwin yelled at the bartender to turn down the music, barked his order and left before his food came. Of course I'm going to write about that. Twice.

Convince me it's boring. Let's say, that, ha ha, I mention this weird rumor about you being born a hermaphrodite. The smartest thing you can do is laugh and say that you've talked about that a hundred times and isn't it funny? Then we both laugh, and it's over. Don't do this: freak out, call my editor and demand that the story get killed and I get fired. That's bad for everyone.

Don't go off the record. You're not smart enough for off the record. "Scooter" Libby wasn't smart enough for off the record. The only reason to go off the record is a last-ditch effort to stop me from running some story that isn't true, but you can't explain it away without getting someone else in trouble. If you don't want something known, the best tip is not to tell it to a reporter.

Don't do print interviews. Maybe you're just starting out. Maybe it's in your contract for the movie. But if you've got a choice, avoid me. You're far better off doing radio and television, where you get to control how you come off. But in print, I get to spend pages just giving my assessment of you, and you don't get to talk back. Adam Sandler doesn't do print. Neither does Eddie Murphy. Britney Spears does.

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jstein@latimescolumnists.com

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