Rowland: Confessions of a professional celebrity conversationalist

06/19/2014 12:00 AM

06/19/2014 9:12 AM

A not-small portion of my job involves talking with famous people on the telephone.

As a function of what I do as an entertainment reporter, I write advances of shows coming through town. To do that, since The Bee does not have a private jet and/or the ability to teleport me to meet said famous people wherever they are in the world to interview them in person, I have to call them on the phone. We in the business call it a “phoner.” You can drop that into your next cocktail party conversation for free on me.

Talking to celebrities is like talking with anyone else. Sometimes you talk about the weather. Hopefully not.

First, you exchange pleasantries. “How is it going?” “So nice to talk with you.” “Modesto – we’re a town in California.” Then you break the ice. Something simple, something easy. I usually ask where I’m catching them that day. Answers range from New York to Los Angeles to Milwaukee. The question is also a good gauge of chattiness. Does he just say “Nashville,” or does he elaborate and say, “On the back porch of my Nashville home looking at the trees”? Spoiler alert: They’re usually not chatty.

This is typically where talking with celebrities and talking with normal people diverges. You see, with a normal person, you would probably ask next, “So, what do you do?” With a celebrity, you already know what they do. Heck, people pay to see them do what they do for a living. Since we can skip those formalities, the conversation then goes back to normal, where you chitchat about what makes what that person does interesting.

Normal person: “Oh, accounting. So you never leave the office in April?”

Celebrity: “Oh, singing. So how do you know you have a hit song?”

The advantage the professional celebrity conversationalist has over your random conversationalist is recon. I do a good amount of research before each conversation. I read their official bios, I read their online bios. I read recent press clippings. I find out what they’re working on. I find out what they’ve worked on in the past. I see if they are in any Twitter beefs. From that, I formulate a list of questions. And then I dial their number.

For someone who has been doing this for a long time (for six years in the aughts before I returned to the beat again last September), the hardest part is to not ask the same questions over and over again. “What do you like about music?” is a fine question, but I think most musicians are probably done with answering it.

So then the challenge – as with any conversation ever – becomes how to make it interesting. Do I go for zany, as was in vogue for a while, and ask a list of 10 random questions? “Tell me how you feel about eggplant!” Probably not, because it wouldn’t be all that illuminating for you, the reading audience. But it might be funny to ask a comedian, though I have my doubts on whether the answers would be suitable to print in a family newspaper.

Or, do you go for serious? “How did you first get interested in (area of celebrity)?” “What inspired you to (name of thing they did)?” “Tell me about your relationship with your mother.” And so on, and so forth.

Most of all, what you want is to just get them talking. Because as much as you want to make it a normal conversation, it isn’t one. It’s a lopsided conversation at best. Besides the questions, my contribution largely consists of “uh-huhs” and “right, rights” and “OK, yeahs” – the encouraging motifs one utters while trying to take notes. So the more they speak, the better for you.

In the end, some of my most satisfying interviews have been with those comfortable enough to let their guard down or clever enough to seem like they were letting their guard down. Which isn’t all that different from talking to anyone else. Hopefully, you learned something you didn’t already know about the other person, and you leave thinking, “I’d totally talk to that person again at a cocktail party.”

Though sometimes not. I said they were celebrities, not scintillating conversationalists.

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