There is an unspoken social contract between celebrities and the journalists who write about them that goes something like this: The all-powerful bearer of fame and fortune, tasked with hawking their latest project, deigns to lower themselves to Earth and speak with a dutiful reporter who will whip up a charming article that explores this new work and the star's passion for it, perhaps with a harmless-yet-illuminating personal anecdote thrown in as a cherry on top. But lately, the disruption of this unstated arrangement has become the news.
In the last six months alone, Robert De Niro, Tom Hardy and Robert Downey Jr. have all taken action against what they considered to be presumptuous or disrespectful journalists, effectively drawing even more attention to the questions that made them uncomfortable. It happened again just last week, when Nicki Minaj banished a reporter she deemed a "troublemaker" from her hotel room. Torpedoed conversations have made news often enough that The Hollywood Reporter recently published a story in which PR gurus offered advice for how to handle an instigating interviewer.
Here's what you don't often hear about celebrity interviews: An inherent tension is nearly always at play. The celebrity is there for contractual reasons -- to shill a product, be it a movie or album or series, and be done with it. The interviewer, however, doesn't want to be a shill -- he or she wants drama, or a life story, or something artists don't want to give up on a Wednesday morning before their coffee has kicked in.
In the case of Robert De Niro's walkout last month, the Academy Award-winner blamed "negative inference" in the questions of Emma Brockes, a Radio Times reporter who spoke to him during the promotional blitz for his new film, "The Intern." Midway through the conversation, Brockes writes, he insists she turn off her recorder, then cuts the interview short. "I'm not doing this, darling," De Niro tells her as he looks for a handler to take him away.
Brockes' story detailing the squabble went viral, generating headlines like this one from The Guardian: "'You talkin' to me?' Why Robert De Niro turned into a raging bull ."
“Moments of conflict give us a chance to really focus on the operation of fame production.”
Brockes told The Huffington Post she had no choice but to highlight her clash with De Niro in the story she wrote. "His overreaction to an innocuous line of questioning was the only revealing part of an interview he clearly had no interest in participating in," she said.
Perhaps the reason Brockes' story struck such a nerve with readers is that De Niro's exasperation with the interview reveals more than any answers he could have given. His frustration gives readers a rare window into De Niro's own thinking about his image and how he's perceived, said Lily Hope Chumley, an assistant professor of media and culture who teaches a course on fame at New York University.
"Fame is a form of power that people regard as mysterious, so those moments of conflict give us a chance to really focus on the operation of fame production -- how it gets made -- and focus on that power as mysterious," Chumley said. "It's only when you see [De Niro's] anger about it or the hubris involved ... that you get to really focus on that aspect of it, the meta level of fame production."
Despite the sensationalized reaction to it, De Niro's outburst isn't exactly surprising considering his reputation as a notoriously unwilling interview subject. "He's a monosyllabic person," said Stephen Whitty, a veteran journalist who's interviewed De Niro twice. Brockes herself told The Independent she "was expecting him to be a little quiet," but ultimately "the combination of hostility and condescension irritated me, and I ended up losing my cool."
Whitty, who has profiled celebrities for more than 30 years and twice chaired the New York Film Critics Circle, said an actor's reputation looms large over any interview, and writers must choose whether to accept it or push against it.
"Some people you just know are going to be difficult," Whitty said. "Tommy Lee Jones is a difficult person to talk to. We didn't have a good interview, and I blame myself for that, because after having drawn out a couple of equally difficult people, I think I got a little overconfident and said, 'Yeah, Tommy Lee Jones is terrible to talk to, but, you know, I had a great interview with Sean Penn, so ... '"
Whitty has conducted many other interviews that went swimmingly, including with Meryl Streep, Kate Winslet and a half-dozen conversations with Martin Scorsese. But he realizes -- and bemoans -- that "the outrageous stuff gets a lot more attention than the thoughtful stuff."
He saw that firsthand last year, when he wrote about an awkward interview with Mila Kunis in which he perceived her as cold and combative. Some of Kunis' harshest responses to Whitty included answers like, "I hate when people ask me this question," "It's the most mundane subject possible," and "That sort of destroys your assumption." Just like Brockes' story about De Niro, Whitty's piece traveled much further than it would have had Kunis simply answered the questions.
"I had seen interviews before where she seemed free-spirited and fun and lively, and that was sort of what I was expecting, and for whatever reason, the mood I got from her right from the start was uninterested at best, verging on hostility," Whitty told HuffPost. "When your second or third or fourth question is being met with boredom or insults or whatever, then it’s like, well, this is what the story’s going to be."
But during their discussion, ostensibly about the relationship drama "Third Person," Kunis hits on the inherent conflict at the core of uncomfortable interviews by challenging a question about her childhood in Ukraine and the politics there today. "It just seems weird to do an interview about 'Third Person' and then it becomes about Ukraine, and that's the headline," she said in the interview. "I do interviews and they seem like they're supposed to be one thing, and the writer has an idea, and then they become something else."
Whitty said he asks those kinds of questions because he writes celebrity profiles that dive deeper than the project an actress is promoting at any given time. But he, too, understands how frustration can be born when "two strangers with somewhat opposite aims try to construct a conversation."
While journalists aim to break through the chatter of the promotional cycle with a unique story, celebrities just want people to see their movie, buy their album or watch their show. Lori Jonas, a publicist whose former clients include Jerry Seinfeld and Ellen DeGeneres, coaches actors to keep things professional. Faced with a personal question, they should "turn it back to the project, or just not answer it," Jonas said. "Say, 'I'm not comfortable talking about that.'"
That Jonas feels this way is no surprise. Clients hire her to ensure they say the right things about what they want to discuss and don't have to talk about the things they don't. The publicist's job is to be an invisible guiding hand, serving the client's preferred narrative from behind the curtain. But journalists, who carry a byline and brand all their own, serve their personal interests as well as their subject's.
“I'm beginning to wonder if people just want to get that reaction because they know it'll go viral.”
"Unlike a promoter whose job it is to erase themselves, to eliminate themselves, there's a potential space for competition [between journalists and celebrities]," said Chumley, the NYU professor. "If a writer is not willing to take that role of sublimating themselves for the purpose of producing this narrative around the other, then their interactions become strategically interesting as moments of conflict."
(In yet-to-be-published research, Chumley is exploring the way that conflict extends to writers whose work is entirely consumed by a single subject, like biographers. "A lot of them use extremely violent metaphors about cracking somebody open or breaking into their inner selves or opening them up, tearing them apart," she said.)
This journalist-subject conflict is heightened in a culture where writers earn their keep on the reach of their work and the breadth of their Twitter presence. By writing about celebrities and the work they're promoting, the writers are, in effect, promoting themselves. But Whitty worries that the appetite for stories of stars behaving badly could create an atmosphere where awkward interviews are deliberately provoked.
"We're used to TMZ waving cameras in people's faces and saying outrageous things so they'll respond," Whitty said, "but I'm beginning to wonder if that's not in danger of spreading to the rest of the [journalism] world, where ... people just want to get that reaction because they know it'll go viral, and if they can get someone to be impatient or rude or lose their temper, it's going to give them those thousands of clicks they really want."
If a journalist did want to provoke such a reaction, a press junket would be the place. At the height of a promotional campaign, celebrities do interviews back-to-back-to-back, and they may be at their most irritable because of the punishing workload that comes with repeating oneself for days at a time.
"It's so exhausting," Laura Dern said in an interview for the podcast Off Camera. "You can't believe how a press junket would be more exhausting than any movie anyone could do. Every four minutes, someone else is coming in with the same exact three questions."
Promotion for a film can last months, and every interview takes actors farther from the work they care most about. "This part is not acting, what we're doing right now," Bruce Willis told a journalist in 2013. "We're just selling the film now. Sales. The fun part was making the movie."
Celebrities' exhaustion with the process is no secret to the journalists who interview them, said Kerensa Cadenas, a deputy editor at Complex. "It probably really sucks to have to go through all these interviews. I'm sure you're so cranky by the end of it," she said. So does that mean it's unfair to write in detail about stars losing their patience? "Sometimes it can feel sort of exploitative of the [writer]. Obviously it all just depends on how it's done."
But you don't need a celebrity to flip out to get an insightful story about the interview process. Cadenas did just that this summer, when she traveled from New York to Nashville, where she was promised five whole minutes of one-on-one time with today's high priestess of fame, Kim Kardashian.
"It was sold to us pretty much entirely differently than it actually was," Cadenas said. After she and 15 other journalists arrived on a private jet, they were ushered to an event where Kardashian was promoting an energy drink. Once the starlet arrived, all hell broke loose.
"It was literally the 'Hunger Games' of press lines," Cadenas remembered. "I was like, 'Oh, I'm about to have a panic attack right now. Maybe someone is going to throw an elbow in my face.' It was the most insane thing I think I've ever experienced."
Cadenas' account of the mayhem within Kim's orbit contains all the hallmarks of the impersonal press junket, including severely limited access, verbatim responses to different reporters and a handful of off-limits topics. "They had given us a list of things that we weren’t supposed to ask her about" -- including her pregnancy and relationships with Kanye West and Caitlyn Jenner -- "which was very quickly scrapped because everyone was still asking her those questions and she was answering them anyway," Cadenas said.
When her moment came, Cadenas instead inquired about the shoes designed by Kardashian's husband, Kanye West. The question was "on the lower level of what I had initially wanted to ask her," Cadenas said, but with so many outlets present (and even more anxiously awaiting to aggregate any quote), she had to make a play for any semblance of originality.
"There's going to be so much crossover at this point ... what can you do to differentiate yourself?" Cadenas said she asked herself. "Sometimes there's no option, or you go with something that isn't necessarily in your wheelhouse but maybe will get you noticed."
One reason it's so hard to get something new from a celebrity is that with the proliferation of entertainment news outlets in the era of digital media, access to stars has become both more attainable and less intimate for reporters. Publicists grant more interviews, but the time allotted and setting offered leave something to be desired.
“I don't like my clients going out to eat with journalists and have them watch how they eat and how they talk to waiters.”
Picking an interview setting is a form of strategy, and publicists like Jonas think about it carefully. "I don’t like my clients going out to eat with journalists and have them watch how they eat and how they talk to waiters," she said. A meal with a celebrity is typically reserved for top-level magazine writers, while most reporters receive a short appointment on the phone or in a hotel room. It wasn't always this way.
"Twenty years ago, it was very rare for me not to have at least 40 minutes with a celebrity, and now I'm fighting to get half an hour, often settling for 20 or 25 minutes," Whitty said. (In some cases, even that is a lot; remember that Cadenas barely got five minutes with Kim Kardashian.) Whitty also points out that he's been pushed to accept more phone interviews over the years, "and you really do lose something when you're doing a phoner, instead of actually sitting with someone and looking them in the eye."
Occasionally, that means he gets no material. "There have been interviews in the past where the interview was just so poor that I said, 'I’m just not going to write this up, it’s just not worth it,'" Whitty said. His chat with Mila Kunis was different. "I suppose I could have [not written it], except it was more than just not being responsive. There was a kind of crankiness to it that I thought, 'Well, this is the story.'"
Through Emma Brockes' story about Robert De Niro traveled far and wide, Brockes still considers writing about the interview experience itself a last resort. "It's too inside baseball to be of interest to the general reader and doesn't offer any insight beyond what is already known: that the publicity machine around movie releases is irksome and nobody likes it much," she said.
But sometimes that "inside baseball" is just too good to leave in a reporter's notebook. It peels back the glossy sheen of canned quotes and image control, and we get a visceral look at the publicity machine that fuels our obsession with celebrity. With the tension of fame exposed, readers weigh what they would do in the face of such immense cultural power. Would I just let Robert De Niro walk away? Would I give him a piece of my mind?
Consider Kim Kardashian's chaotic energy-drink event. There she was in the summer heat, newly pregnant, wearing a body-hugging latex dress, facing desperation for her attention at every turn. And there was Kerensa Cadenas, newly hired at Complex, pushing her way through a literal mass of competition for a harried exchange with one of the most famous women in America.
"With all these fellow journalists and everyone losing their collective shit about seeing Kim Kardashian," Cadenas said, "I was just like, 'Oh. This is exactly what I have to write about.'"
She titled her story, "Bigger Than Jesus? Fighting for Five Minutes With Kim Kardashian."
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