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How to Interview Famous People

Updated on February 24, 2011

TMZ is "Scared to Do Real Interviews"

Among the celebs Catherine Rankovic has interviewed are William Shatner, Patrick Stewart, Mister Rogers, Warner Brothers animator Chuck Jones, and Hollywood actor and playwright Emlyn Williams. In the 1970s, she talked to First Lady Betty Ford, and to the all-girl rock group The Runaways. She’s also interviewed countless executives, lawyers, judges, artists, writers and musicians.

"Good interviewers have to have a bit of nerve, but also be professional and informed before they approach a person," she said. "TMZ is like table scraps. TMZ interviewers are scared to do real interviews. They wouldn't know how to sit down and draw someone out in conversation."

Rankovic was a full-time journalist for eight years. She has published a book of interviews with writers. “My most important tip: Don't ask questions that can be answered 'yes' or 'no'." Always write down the questions you want to ask, but you can ask others that come up in the course of your conversation.

"Practice by interviewing your family," she advises. "Everyone enjoys talking about himself."

Of course sometimes she has met up with show-business publicity hounds, but generally, "The hardest people to interview are rock musicians. It’s usually while they’re on tour, and they are already very stressed. I saw Jackson Browne say ‘Hello, Detroit’ to an audience in Milwaukee,” Rankovic said. “Well-known musicians get very tired of being interviewed. Stephen Bishop made fun of me. Dwight Twilley made me sit on his lap. Of course I was only 19 then. I don't recommend that."

Her tips and hints for better interviews:

  • Prepare open-ended questions. Not, “Will you run for president in 2012?" (the only answers are “yes” or “no”) but, rather, “Why are people saying you want to run for president in 2012?”
  • Use a tape recorder but also take notes on paper, and take notes about the person's clothing, movements, the decor in the room, and put that in your interview to give a fuller picture of the personality. Always bring two pens in case one runs dry.
  • No interview should last more than 45 minutes. "It runs out of juice," Rankovic said. Some super-celebs are shadowed by publicists or guards who enforce a limit of five or 15 minutes maximum; prepare.
  • An ethical interviewer does not secretly take photos or films of the interviewee. Ask first.
  • An ethical interviewer does not bait the interviewee. It makes you look stupid (like TMZ), not radical. Interviewees have stock answers for your kind and the dozens who have already tried the aggressive approach. (Example: Student asks possible presidential candidate Newt Gingrich about his marital and sexual history. Gingrich thanks student for asking and says, "I hope you feel better about yourself.")
  • Occasional silences are good, not bad. Silence may cause the interviewee to say something surprising.
  • You should stay polite, but sometimes to stay on point you must ask a rude question such as, "Why did you let him abuse you?" or "How much money do you make?" Try researching the answer before asking such personal questions.Then frame them by saying, "Such and such newspaper (or blog, or magazine) true is that?" (They will always answer "That's not true," and then you say, "Then what IS the truth?"
  • Get their names and titles exactly right.
  • Ask the subject if you may call with any further questions or to double-check the facts. This “leaves the door open” in case you think of an important question while writing up the interview.Talk to this person’s colleagues, friends and acquaintances, and use what they say to open or enrich the interview.

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