Hollywood Stars: Observations about Ben Affleck, Sandra Bullock, Emma Thompson and more
Our society is obsessed with movie actors and Hollywood celebrities. They fill the pages of our newspapers. They're involved in politics. They're frequently the subject of pointless news stories. The obsession with movie stars seems to know no ends. However, it's one thing to observe movie stars and another to come into regular contact with them. I was lucky enough to have such contact with many movie stars and these are some of my observations about those experiences.
This is going to be something of a rambling recounting of the various stars I've met over the course of a twenty year career in film criticism and the things I've observed. Those who read about celebrities and find them interesting may find certain revelations here because when the exceptional becomes mundane, the observer sees different things.
When I first began interviewing actors and directors, I was as wide-eyed as anyone, but when I realized that not all of these people were as smart or as slick or as interesting or as beautiful as they seemed on the movie screen, I started to see them more as people, even though that can be hard.
One thing to realize about movie stars is that they're almost always "on", much like a salesman. They're always selling something. They're either selling their movie or they're selling themselves, so it makes it hard to distinguish genuine moments from prepared ones. Furthermore, because they're actors, they can often seem natural when they're just acting. Even though I'm going to offer up what I think are original observations, the keen reader should always keep in mind that most actors are far better at creating an illusion than I am at seeing through it.
Here are some general things though: movie stars are almost always smaller and thinner than they appear in the movies. They're almost always fake looking in some way, usually because they're wearing a lot of make-up. Most movie stars don't seem particularly healthy, which is probably because most of them seem to smoke. Also, not that many of them are that smart. They know how to act smart. There's a difference.
The following recounting is in no particular order.
One of the Greatest Independent Directors of Our Time
I interviewed the great independent filmmaker and screenwriter John Sayles twice, once surrounding publicity for the film "Lonestar" and the other for "City of Hope". I regard both interviews as among the most interesting I've ever done and Sayles as one of my favorite interviewees.
Sayles is a larger-than-life figure, a former construction worker who stands about 6'5" and has hands like baseball mits. He's also incredibly intelligent and obviously loves his craft because, among all the directors I ever talked to, he was the most forthcoming about how directing worked and what it takes to construct a shot. With "City of Hope", he went to great lengths to give away his secrets, which is pretty amazing considering his body of work.
Not surprisingly, this was fairly common. Independent filmmakers and actors were always more forthcoming about their craft than mainstream actors. Another of my favorite directors, Guillermo Del Toro, was also incredibly generous with his information, going so far as to show me the notebook where he keeps all his ideas. It was like looking at something from Da Vinci.
There haven't been that many actors and directors I haven't liked, but there have definitely been some that were disappointing. I interviewed Rebecca DeMornay for "The Hand That Rocks the Cradle" and I asked her a question about nudity. Her response was less than stellar, like she couldn't comprehend what I was asking or just didn't want to engage the question. I interviewed producer Nancy Meyers for "Father of the Bride" and found her to be as obnoxious as I found most of her movies. She's directed a number of successful movies and her general success is undeniable, but I've hated most of her work, so that was probably just a personality conflict of some kind. Cuba Gooding Jr. stood me up for an interview for "Men of Honor" where I had to drive forty-five minutes to meet him. The reason I was given was the flu, but when I went to the lobby to leave, he was there waiting to do another interview, so my general impression was that he just didn't feel like doing it, which is his prerogative certainly. He shook my hand, but didn't say anything more, and was completely professional, but I was pretty pissed off. I had a day job that I left to go interview him.
Director John Boorman's "Point Blank" is one of my all-time favorite movies, so when I interviewed him for "The General" along with Brendan Gleeson, I asked him to sign my laserdisc copy of "Point Blank" and he was generous in doing so. I met director Wes Anderson and actor Jason Schwartzman in a trailer on a college campus. I think they were driving around in it for their tour. The film they were promoting was "Rushmore". Both were lots of fun, though Anderson was quirky just like his films. I've interviewed Jeffrey Katzenberg, one of the most powerful men in Hollywood a couple of times, but it was standing against a palm tree in Orlando while watching fireworks that I remember most. I turned and there was Katzenberg. He is a very short man, but he carries himself in a very macho way. I don't want to comment on the psychology there, but it was interesting.
I met Sandra Bullock and Ben Affleck at the same time. I was one of a table of reporters interviewing them for "Forces of Nature", a pretty bad film they did together. Both were on their way up at the time. Affleck had just done "Armageddon". Bullock had just done "Practical Magic". The interview was pretty well controlled as we were warned not to ask certain kinds of questions, particularly about their relationships. I can't remember what was swirling at the time, but I think Affleck was seeing Jennifer Lopez.
Anyway, Bullock was full-on movie star by then and seemed extremely plastic. It's not that she wasn't pleasant and intelligent, but she seemed plastic. Affleck was disengaged. He obviously found the process somewhat boring, but when somebody asked him a question he found interesting, he demonstrated how intelligent he was, going on about every imaginable tangential subject he could think of. I knew Affleck was a smart guy, but he displayed just how smart that day. He kept everyone at arms' length, but he was interesting about it. That being said, Affleck's technique at the interview wasn't uncommon. The stars who didn't want to blather on about the same thing over and over again just redirected the conversation.
I've interviewed a number of movie stars before they were famous. Among them: Rose McGowan for "Scream" (an energetic fireplug and very pretty and small), Skeet Ulrich for "Scream" (very smart, looked like Johnny Depp's brother, and very nice), Julianne Moore for "The Hand That Rocked the Cradle" (unbelievably thin), Kate Winslet for "Heavenly Creatures" (She was 19 at the time and so full of energy she seemed on something. Spoke using lots of profanity). Finally, I interviewed director Kevin Smith outside a theater right after a screening of "Clerks". Smith is exactly as he appears in many of his college tours: very accessible, smart, funny.
Along with Jamie Lee Curtis, I interviewed Kathryn Bigelow for "Blue Steel". Both women were very forthcoming and very smart, but Bigelow, who would go on to win Best Director for "The Hurt Locker" was a presence. She was dressed in long black leather and is very tall. At the time, she was best known for a vampire movie called "Near Dark" and she played the part. Jamie Lee Curtis was at a pivotal point in her career and seemed to know that, as she aged, things were going to change for her. She was very frank about that and her candor was appreciated. If you trace her choices from that moment, you can see her attitude. She has not been afraid to age and she's done it very gracefully.
Dead Again: Kenneth Branagh and Emma Thompson
Emma Thompson was one of my all-time favorite interviews. I interviewed her before she was known well in the United States. She was promoting the film "Dead Again" along with her then husband Kenneth Branagh. She was incredibly warm and nice and demanded that I take cookies home with me. She was so lovely it was hard not to fall for her.
Likewise, I interviewed Kenneth Branagh too. "Dead Again" was the second time I interviewed Branagh. The first time was for a tour promoting "Henry V". I definitely noticed a difference between the first and second interview. It seemed obvious that fame had done something to him, which I think is normal. Branagh was charming and engaging and forthcoming during the "Henry V" interview, but during the "Dead Again" interview, he was more guarded and more tired. There was less energy there. It was disappointing, but understandable.
The saddest interview I ever did was with James O'Barr, the creator of "The Crow". The studio did a tour for the film despite the death of actor Brandon Lee. O'Barr was just such a sad figure. He was obviously affected by Lee's death, but he also had a lot of personal tragedy in his life, which was the inspiration for "The Crow". It was a great interview because he wasn't a Hollywood guy, but you could sense sadness all around him.
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