I have interviewed many actors - doing so has almost made me hate them

Ben Kingsley hated me and Mark Rylance just hummed – so I gave up celebrity profiles altogether.

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Benedict Cumberbatch has interviewed Tom Hiddleston for Interview magazine in the Q&A style; or rather, they interview each other (they are friends). I do not know if Cumberbatch wrote the introduction, which is in a style I would call Shakespearean fluff: “Hiddleston’s star has, of its own volition, and powered by his plentiful talents, been in perpetual rise since he was cast as the mythological baddie Loki [in Thor] . . .” He was, says Cumberbatch, or someone writing on behalf of Cumberbatch, “recently removed from a romance with megawatt dream girl Taylor Swift”. He doesn’t ask Hiddleston about that. The door, he says, is closed.

I enjoyed the interview. They were relaxed and praised each other and talked a lot of benign nonsense, and this was, in its way, revealing. I felt I could see Hiddleston looking in the mirror in his bedroom while his friend Cumberbatch watched him: what else is the celebrity profile for? For instance, the Australian winter “is preferable for my [Hiddleston’s] Celtic complexion to their summer”. We learn that, as the horned god Loki, Hiddleston “battled with the horns”. His breakthrough in Henry IV was realising that Jeremy Irons “should hit me”. He said this with a wonderful sincerity.

Cumberbatch explains, obliquely, why he advocates for refugees from the stage, for which he has been mocked; he cannot “be silent in the face of such extraordinary suffering”. Hiddleston confirms that he is still alive after the Taylor Swift romance.

They ponder their fears. For Cumberbatch, now a father, the fear is “passing time”. For Hiddleston it is “regret”. Then Cumberbatch says what every perceptive reader of the celebrity profile knows:

 

“I think the weirdness of our job [is] assuming these imaginary circumstances as someone else in a fictitious world, which you then have to talk about and narrativise in publicity. That is a form of projection that’s not all of you – it couldn’t be, because otherwise there’s just nothing left that you do come home to.”

 

I felt guilt then, and complicity. They obviously felt they had to be interviewed to acknowledge or explain the Taylor Swift romance and the refugee advocacy – which is ridiculous, for whose business is it but theirs? (I do not care when, or if, or how, Tom Hiddleston slept with Taylor Swift.) They felt they could only trust each other and they are right.

The celebrity profile is the worst genre in journalism and I hope that either Benedict Cumberbatch takes it over completely, possibly in the role of a Star Trek villain, or that it dies. (Which it won’t. It is profitable). Perhaps Hiddleston and Cumberbatch could form their own press agency, find their interviewees, write the copy: it wouldn’t be too different from the way the studio system operated in the 1930s. They could then, if they were meta, make a film about it.

The celebrity profile is not journalism. It is anti-journalism; you emerge more ignorant than when you when began. There is only limited space for news, and two weeks ago all of it was taken up by Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt, about whom I care nothing. This week it is Kim Kardashian and the ­robbery in Paris.

Entertainers are, by profession, an abyss, because they are storytellers. (The good ones are a spinning abyss.) To treat them as gods is to worship nothingness, to live in a dream world of cant, to loathe ourselves. Donald Trump is imaginable as US president to some, because of entertainer worship. We should be ashamed, or can we
no longer tell the difference between president and clown?

I have interviewed many actors. It has almost made me hate actors, because they make me hate myself. I didn’t realise Ben Kingsley hated me until I listened back to the tape and then I heard it, but he was ever a subtle actor. I didn’t blame him for it; I’m just sorry I met him, because the best of him – for me – is on the screen.

The journalist is a murderer, wrote Janet Malcolm; all journalism is betrayal. This is not always true – good journalism is knowing whom to betray and when – but it is true of the effective celebrity profile, where you are on your knees or at its throat.

It goes like this: trust me, I’m your friend. Here is a nugget of my own story, to soothe you, before the inevitable swerve of betrayal when I pick up my pen.

I usually fall, briefly, in love with interviewees. I fell in love with both Neil and Christine Hamilton, who are almost actors – Christine has done Cinderella and Neil Da Ali G Show. It was weird. I even fell in love with Jim Davidson. It was, I now know, to facilitate my seduction of him; and all to write a truth that does not matter, or may even be, as Cumberbatch, noted, a lie.

It is sadistic. Tell me, you must ask, like a doctor, does it hurt? Where does it hurt? What is the precise shape of the hurt? I have sat in front of Stanley Tucci, a delicate actor I admire, and politely asked him what impact the death of his first wife had on him. Basically I poked him in the psyche with a stick, hoping a lump would fall off and I could carry it home. (When they tell you nothing, it is terrible. When they tell you everything, it is worse). Politely, he answered: it was bad. You think?

Richard Armitage – the hot dwarf from the Hobbit movies – was more reticent and it was not, on the required terms, a good interview, but he told me this: “Acting is one thing,” he said. “Being an actor is another.”

That truth was subtle and it flew away. Mark Rylance hummed at me, so reluctant was he to speak; his hat – and his wife – spoke for him. Pamela Stephenson was so self-loathing when we met, I did not feel qualified to question her, but I did. So I gave it up. Cumberbatch can have it all. 

This article appears in the 06 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Trump's triumph