Take Two for October 7, 2013

Odd Hollywood Jobs: Celebrity profiler

Benjamin Svetkey

Benjamin Svetkey

Writer Benjamin Svetkey.

To many people, getting paid to hang out with celebrities sound like a dream job.

Journalist Benjamin Svetkey was a celebrity profiler for 20 years, and he profiled the likes of Angelina Jolie, Julia Roberts, Jack Nicholson and Tom Hanks for Entertainment Weekly. But writing about movie stars isn't always all that it's cracked up to be, as Svetkey recently revealed in a piece for LA Magazine

He joins Take Two to talk about his career, his favorite moments and who he'd like to interview next.

Interview Highlights

On just starting out as an entertainment journalist: 
"I started making mistakes pretty early. I was on my first Hollywood sound stage and I saw the Enterprise's Bridge, the show that I had been fantasizing my whole life. I tried to sit down in the captain's chair and stage hands came running from out of everywhere, waving their arms, telling me 'don't sit in the captain's chair!' because Patrick Stewart hated it…It was a bit of a scandal that I sat down."

On the process of profiling a notable person: 
"It varies from situation to situation. If you're in a movie or TV set, there's a publicist you have to sort of trail. You can't just wander around and bump into stuff and ask people stuff without being escorted. If it's a profile in a restaurant or somebody's home, it's a little more casual. You sort of sit down and you start a conversation. It looks like from the outside, pretty normal, but before you sit down, there's a whole range of negotiations that go on to get to that point. It can take weeks to set up an interview."

On his approach to talking to famous people:
"Well, there's kind of a famous saying that you should talk to famous people like they're normal and normal people like they're famous. I don't even think stars like it when you suck up to them. You sort of try to be a normal human being. That's not always easy because stars aren't always normal human beings and it can get kind of complicated in that sense."

On some of his favorites over the years:
"My favorites aren't always the people you'd expect. For a while in the '90s, I was obsessed with the show called "Mystery Science Theatre 3000" and so I went out to Minnesota or some place and saw puppets they used for the show and was probably more starstruck by that than I was with Jack Nicholson and Tom Cruise. But Jack Nicholson was great. The more iconic and sort of legendary they are, the more fun it is, because you're sitting down with a legend, really, and you get to see them as a real person and they're kind of cool."

On getting asked 'What's Jack Nicholson like'?:
"I have no idea. I know what he's like in a very controlled, self-aware situation, but I don't know what he's like when he's yelling at his assistant and being his normal self. The smart stars, and there are a few, are very well aware that every word they say to a journalist is going to potentially end up in print. So they are pretty careful about what they say.

"There are stars who cannot control themselves and their sort of inner jerkiness comes through even when they are trying to be on their best behavior. That can be unpleasant, but kind of fun to write about."  

On one of his favorite moments ever in a celebrity interview:
"Sometimes find yourself getting into weird predicaments. I did an interview with Hugh Grant when he first sort of broke out as a movie star. He came out to Hollywood, and back then, the idea was you do stuff with stars. So I had the bright idea that we'd get a Hollywood map of the stars and I'd drive around with Hugh Grant and his white BMW convertible and we'd go visit the stars' houses. We had a great time, he was incredibly charming. 

"I wake up the next morning at 7 a.m. with a phone call from my editor. Hugh Grant's been arrested. He was busted in his white BMW convertible, and suddenly the story completely changed. I started remembering stuff that I didn't think about before. I happened to be in a hotel room next to his and he was very concerned I could hear things going on in his hotel room, and I remember driving around and he was checking out women. All of a sudden the entire experience completely changed because of the context. I became the Bob Woodward of elicit sexual activity among stars for a week there when that happened."

On how the celebrity journalism industry has changed:
"It's changed completely. When I was doing it at the height of the magazine world in the late '90s, I would go visit a movie star. I could pretty much put a pin in the map and wherever in the world there was a movie going, I'd convince some editor to send me there. It was a great gig and I'd do the interviews and I'd spend a couple of days there. I'd come back, put the tapes in the drawer and I'd wait six or eight months until the movie came out and I would settle in and write a 3,000 word story.

"Now, everybody's live blogging from the set. Anybody who wants to know about a particular project can get real-time updates about what's going on. The kind of production story that was the bread and butter of Entertainment Weekly, nobody really needs that anymore. They can get that in other places. It's more Internet-driven. It's what can you put online that people will be wanting to read and because it's on the internet, it's shorter, long-form journalism is sort of..i'm sure you know.. has seen better days. it's changed radically."

On how much his work as influenced his new novel, "Leading Man."
"A lot. They say write what you know, so for my first novel I stuck pretty close to what I knew. The character in the book is a magazine journalist who travels around the world and interviews movie stars. I used a lot of experiences I had as kind of a mash-up. I took little bits of different stars that I had interviewed and made new stars. It was fun, I'd come in the morning, crack my knuckles and say OK, what kind of star am I going to invent today?"

On which star he would love to interview:
"I would love to sit down with Woody Allen. I've talked to him very briefly on the phone, but I would love to do a long Q&A with Woody Allen just because I love his movies. If we were going back to sort of raising them for the dead, there's countless — Humphrey Bogart, Alfred Hitchcock — the list would go on."

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