by Tim Stafford
When you interview a celebrity, special factors come into play. The first factor is that it's difficult to go back if you mess up -- you have to get it right the first time. The second factor is intimidation and awe. When you walk into a star's presence it's easy to feel scared or intimidated, and to temper your questioning and not do as thorough a job as you might. The third factor is the special treatment that sometimes surrounds celebrities. They or their organization may want to impose special rules on the interview, so you need to have the grounds rules straight ahead of time.
Make Your Expectations Clear: The first thing I try to do is to write a letter to the person. Even if we've reached an agreement that I'm going to do the piece, I think it's helpful to write a letter and specify exactly how much time you want and what you're trying to get out of the experience. Follow that up with a telephone call and, if at all possible, talk with the person involved.
Schedule Enough Time: If you want to write a profile, it's usually a good idea to allow at least a couple days with that person. You won't spend the whole time talking to them, but if you've only planned a two-hour window to interview someone you may just get a half an hour. An emergency may come up. If you have more than enough time scheduled there are a lot of useful things you can do. If they have an organization, you can wander around, or you can ask to meet some of their co-workers.
Read Up on the Subject: I like to spend as much time as I can reading and finding out everything I can about the person. It is very important to read the material the person has written. This gives you an overview of the things they've had to say over the years. That takes a lot of time, and you may already have read those books. But you read them differently when you have to interview the author and are looking for information.
Talk to the Veterans: Another way I typically prepare for a major profile is get on the phone to the person's friends and employees and to other journalists who have had experiences with that person. Most journalists are very happy to talk to another journalist and share their bellyaches and the issues that they didn't have time to follow up on.
List Your Questions: I work up a list of questions before an interview, and group them by subject. As I carry on the interview, I cross those areas off as they're answered. I want to make sure I don't leave something out, because it's hard to go back.
Recording: If I spend three days with Donald Wilmon, I'll probably spend half my time talking to other people in the organization. I don't always record those, because the most I'll usually use is two or three quotes. But if I'm in any doubt, I record. You'll want to record most celebrities, they tend to be articulate people who'll say a lot of quotable things. I do take extensive notes when I record, the main reason being that if the tape recorder doesn't work I have notes. I always carry a minirecorder with a plug-in transformer, because about 75 percent of the problems I've had with tape recorders relate to batteries. Don't use voice-activated recorders.
Other Equipment: I always take several extra pens. I write down what the person looks like and I take notes on the environment we are in. I also take a camera. For example, when I did a piece at Stanford where the guy described a mural on the wall, I shot a picture of the mural, so I didn't have to spend 10 minutes describing the mural in my notes.
Be As Dumb As You Are: Here's a general piece of advice - be as dumb as you are. I find that I want to be liked and admired in an interview. Most celebrities are very articulate and speak very authoritatively, and I tend to want to match them, to respond quickly to what they say. I have to tell myself to be quiet and think about what they've said, to allow silence to invade to interview. I have to remind myself to ask them to go over things, and to paraphrase what I've just heard. You need to understand what the person is saying, so ask penetrating questions. Most celebrities have answered questions many times -- to get beyond their stock answers it sometimes helps to slow things down by probing and challenging what the person has just said. This is also a disarming technique -- a celebrity who has a dumb interviewer is a lot more likely to say what's on his mind. So I try not to seem just as smart as he is.
Quotes: Unless I think someone is really naive, I don't bring up the subject of quotes, I just follow standard newspaper rules. You can use anything they say unless they tell you beforehand that it's off the record.
Writing the Story
There are three major types of stories that result from an interview, each with their own purpose.
Telling the story: The first purpose might be to help the celebrity tell their story and bring their point of view to bring to the readers. My obligation as a journalist is to be responsible. So if I'm dealing with a Tammy Faye and I find some stuff that's questionable, I have to record it or deal with it in some way. I can't avoid the material, but I don't feel obligated to spend a lot of my time looking for the dark side. That's not what I'm there for.
Introducing a Ministry: The second purpose might be to inform about a movement only vaguely known. This uses the personality as a means of introducing readers to a larger subject. In that kind of an interview, I have to really know the subject so that I can ask tough questions and get at issues beneath the surface as well as personality. So it's really helpful to talk to critics.
The Person Behind the Image: The third purpose might be to inform about a person who commands authority. James Dobson is a prime example. These are people whose ministry impact has been vastly multiplied by the media. But unlike with the local pastor, whose ministry is tempered and bracketed by our knowledge of him, our knowledge of them has not multiplied correspondingly. Our job is to put the person who comands authority into a context in which our readers know who he is. Sometimes that involves being willing to tackle the dark side. We want to bring a balanced perspective to our view of the person who commands so much authority in the lives of our readers, so that their reputation is in tune with their authority. But that has to be done with care for the person involved.
Tim Stafford is a senior writer for Christianity Today. He has written many books, including Knowing the Face of God, That's Not What I Meant, Love, Sex and the Whole Person, and the novels The Stamp of Glory and A Thorn in the Heart. He has served on the staff of Campus Life magazine, and helped found in Nairobi, Kenya and Accra, Ghana.