Celebrities? They’re all a bit weird … Hadley Freeman on 22 years interviewing stars | Movies

I started working at the Guardian in the summer of 2000 – not to write, but to look after a key. The key to the fashion cupboard, to be precise, ensuring no clothes for the fashion shoots were stolen. This was my primary role as the fashion assistant. Or, as I preferred to call myself – and say it with me as one, fellow Ghostbusters fans – the keymaster. And I will never have a job with more responsibility or power.

Nonetheless, soon after I started, section editors asked which celebrities I’d like to interview. I was too young and dumb to appreciate how completely incredible it was for editors to even know the name of the fashion assistant, let alone give a damn who she wanted to interview. But that’s what the Guardian was like, and, my God, how lucky was I to be here. But my point in this, my last feature for the Guardian, is among all the various job titles I’ve had on this paper, ranging from the improbable (northern news reporter) to the frankly unbelievable (World Cup features writer), one thing that has never changed is that I always interviewed celebrities.

With Michael J Fox.
With Michael J Fox.

On some level, this is as surprising to me as being sent out to follow Wayne Rooney around Brazil in 2014, because I was never actually that interested in famous people. I never hung out at gigs as a teenager, never wrote to fanclubs asking for autographs. I’m an enthusiast, meaning I really like the niche little things I like (80s movies), but it never occurred to me as a kid to write, say, to John Hughes and ask him questions about his films. Why would he talk to me?

Well, the one lesson I learned at university that has stuck with me is that famous people love to talk about themselves. I wrote for my university newspaper and occasionally a famous person would come and speak to students and I was dispatched to interview them. I learned that some famous people were surprisingly delightful (Ben Affleck), some were surprisingly not (Stephen Fry, possibly having a bad day), but all were completely fine with me, a random 18-year-old, asking them really quite personal questions, because I was interviewing them.

This was a genuine epiphany. Because as well as being an enthusiast, I am nosy, and this has occasionally got me into trouble in Britain. In New York City, where I’m from, it’s pretty much standard for two strangers on the subway to chat about what prescription meds they’re on; in London, there are people I’ve known for more than 20 years and I wouldn’t dare to ask them if they dye their hair. Interviews, I quickly realised, are a context in which obnoxious nosiness is not just accepted but expected. It’s where personal information is traded like a commodity for publicity, and while it still amazes me that so many celebrities will answer the bluntest of questions about their unhappy childhood/deepest trauma/ugly divorce in exchange for a mention of their movie in a newspaper, it’s a transaction I am continually thrilled to exploit. It has been the rare week in the past 22 years when I haven’t thought: I can’t believe I get paid to do this.

With Rosamund Pike in 2015.
With Rosamund Pike in 2015. Photograph: Hadley Freeman

It was thanks to two celebrity interviews that I got my job at the Guardian. My mother spotted a writing competition in the Daily Telegraph and told me to enter it. So I obediently sent in two interviews I had done for the university paper, one with Richard Whiteley, the hilarious and now sadly late presenter of Countdown, and the other with Ian Hislop, the editor of Private Eye. I won, and on the back of that, I became the Guardian’s keymaster. So the moral to that story, aspiring journalists, is always enter writing competitions. And listen to your mother.

But initially I had some concerns about interviewing famous people for the Guardian. As I’ve said, I’m an enthusiast, and while I felt fine with writing about my full-throated love of Countdown in my university paper, I wasn’t sure if my tastes would really gel with Guardian readers, people who bought the paper to read Polly Toynbee on social housing and Jonathan Steele on foreign affairs. A bigger problem was that I had absolutely no idea what I was doing, as a glance at the transcript of my first interview for the paper proves. It was with Simon Amstell and Miquita Oliver, hosts of the Channel 4 show Popworld, which I adored, and fortunately for me, as well as being my first interview, it was theirs, too, so the three of us were equally clueless.

Me: Why did you want to be a TV presenter?
Simon: Because it seemed fun. Is that a good answer? What should I say?
Me: I don’t know. Was that a dumb question?
Miquita: Yeah. But it’s OK.

Others have been less understanding. When I made the rookie error of turning up to interview the shoe designer Christian Louboutin in a pair of very grubby ballet pumps, he sniffily informed me that if I were a shoe, I’d be “a DM boot”. Robert Downey Jr was similarly unimpressed and took one look at my less-than-polished twentysomething face and expressed amazement that the Guardian had sent “the work experience girl” to interview him (it seemed unlikely that telling him that, actually, I was the fashion assistant would mollify him). As a hardwired people pleaser, these kinds of interactions initially unnerved me. But I soon learned that they made good copy, and this helped me to slough off my childish people-pleasing ways. Often the best interviews have a bit of grit in them.

With Pete Doherty and members of the group Babyshambles in 2005.
With Pete Doherty and members of the group Babyshambles in 2005. Photograph: Sarah Lee/The Guardian

Aside from wanting to know what Marina Hyde is like (terrifying), the most common question I get from readers is what the celebrities I’ve interviewed are like. That’s easy: they’re weird. All celebrities are a bit weird, because wanting to be famous is a weird thing and living your life as the object instead of a subject is a genuinely maddening way to exist. Some celebrities are very good at being celebrities, such as George Clooney and Tom Hanks, who maintain such a commitment to their brand images (respectively, old smoothie and modern day Jimmy Stewart) that they maintain the facade even during interviews. It must be exhausting to be them – always on – but at least they make being famous look more fun than most. Not long after I started my job, TV shows such as Popstars, Pop Idol, Big Brother and so on began their TV domination, with fame rather than money offered as the true prize. I had already learned what a con that was from interviewing famous people: there was the time I went to LA to interview Nicole Richie, who was then so frail she could hardly walk, and I watched her frantically gulp down an enormous cooked breakfast; or the time I was granted a five-minute interview in New York with Justin Timberlake, who looked so miserable I wondered if he was being held hostage. It was all great fun to write about, but it did make me think living in a cave as a hermit was perhaps an underrated lifestyle choice.

It took me a while to let readers know how weird I am. It happened inadvertently, when the then editor of G2 sent me to the US to interview Michael J Fox about his new sitcom. Reader, I adored him. I was so overwhelmed by my lifelong fandom of Marty McFly and my now deep love for Fox himself that I let my full enthusiastic nature show in the article. I was a little trepidatious the night before the article out – would I be laughed out of the paper? Would CP Scott come back to haunt me in disgust?

With Mel Brooks and Carl Reiner.
With Mel Brooks and Carl Reiner.

To my amazement, readers seemed to like the piece, and it was at this point that I learned one of the most useful lessons of my life: I am not unique. If I like someone, chances are, others do, too. I’m pretty basic that way. From then on, I went full tilt with my enthusiasms: I interviewed pretty much all of my childhood idols – Mel Brooks, Rob Reiner, Ivan Reitman, Frank Oz – and I was delighted by how a) lovely they were and b) how many Guardian readers shared my love for them. When I was overcome by Keanu Reeves’s handsomeness to the point I was barely able to ask him a question, Guardian readers gave me sympathy rather than the snark I expected. And when I giddily ran around the Academy Awards every year, begging Eddie Murphy in vain for quotes (although Kevin Hart always obliged in his mate’s stead – thank you, Kevin), Guardian readers didn’t roll their eyes too much. It turned out they can be interested in social issues and the Oscars, too.

As well as writing interviews, I also wrote columns, and as a columnist, the temptation is to be definitive about an issue, focus on the ringing black and white and not the more complicated greys. But people are rarely black and white, which is why they’re so interesting. Charlie Sheen was a fascinatingly grey interviewee, someone who had done terrible things, but was smart and surprisingly self-aware and trying to figure out how to live with HIV. Woody Allen is now widely painted as A Bad Man, generally by people who have only the most skating knowledge of the 30-year-old accusations against him. I will always be grateful for the chance to interview him and later his son, Moses, and for giving me the space to re-examine the allegations. Journalism is about asking questions and refusing to accept whatever the currently accepted narrative is, whether it’s about politics or celebrities. It is not about getting likes on Twitter.

With Kevin Hart.
With Kevin Hart.

There is now a mentality – popular in some progressive circles – that to give someone “a platform” (ie, interview them) means you endorse them. But this is only true if you write puff piece interviews, whereas I like to have what Mrs Merton used to call “a heated debate”, or what I call a conversation. So I argued with Jeff Koons in New York about politics and art, and I argued with Margaret Atwood in Toronto about gender. PRs, of course, hate this, because they think a journalist’s job is to transcribe unquestioningly whatever the celebrity said, but I know that’s not what readers want. It is definitely not what I want when I read an interview.

There have been other changes in the world of celebrity interviews in the 22 years since I started at the Guardian. Back then, people largely laughed at celebrities when they made political statements; now they yell at them if they don’t, and so they nervily plaster their Instagram pages with their thoughts about social justice. And of course, social media didn’t exist back then, so journalists were the only way celebrities could talk to the public; now celebrities like Beyoncé and Harry Styles see us as irrelevant middlemen and generally bypass us entirely, which is a relief to me because people that famous rarely say anything interesting. Give me Steve Guttenberg reminiscing about Police Academy over Justin Bieber talking about his journey any day. Harvey Weinstein was once so powerful that he was able to write a column in the paper complaining about me when I wrote (accurately) that his Baftas party was boring; now, well, we all know how that story ended.

God, it’s been fun. I know some journalists hate dealing with celebrities, hate covering celebrity events, and I’ve never understood that. If you go into journalism because you want to tell interesting, weird and very human stories, well, what’s not to love about spending a day with Pete Doherty on a beach in Normandy? Or pondering the power of the vagina with Aerosmith in LA? Or chatting with Helena Bonham Carter about divorce over mugs of tea? To everyone I’ve interviewed, thank you for putting up with my nosiness.

But most of all, I want to thank Guardian readers for putting up with me. You tolerated my excesses, patiently corrected my errors, frequently made me laugh, and I shall miss you enormously. To use a quote from a film I’ve referenced on average once a week in this paper, I’ve had the time of my life. It’s the truth. And I owe it all to you.