It was the interview cringed at around the world: Cara Delevingne vs. the hosts of “Good Day Sacramento.” Delevingne, the supermodel and Taylor Swift squad member who plays the central figure in “Paper Towns,” responded to a opening question about whether she’d read John Green’s source novel with dry sarcasm — “I never read the book or the script; I just winged it” — rather than the high-energy glibness common to morning TV shows, and things went downhill from there.
The reaction I saw on social media seemed evenly split between those who held Good Day Sacramento’s hosts at fault for asking ill-researched softballs and those who saw Delevingne as a spoiled movie star who could at least pretend to be interested for the space of a four-minute interview. Green himself jumped into the fray with his own response today, and it’s a genuine must-read for anyone who doesn’t understand the process behind these kinds of interviews.
I am friends with Cara, and the author of the book in question. I spent more than a month with her on tour in Europe and the U.S., and I watched as again and again, she was asked this question. Cara has read the book (multiple times), but the question is annoying — not least because her male costar, Nat Wolff, was almost always asked when he’d read the book, while Cara was almost always asked if she’d read it.
In the past two months, I’ve done something like 300 on-camera interviews. As you get asked the same questions again and again, you develop rote responses as a way of protecting yourself. The rote responses are true — the cast really was like a family; we really are all still friends — but in the repetition, the answers start to feel less and less honest.
For example, I was asked in most interviews how involved I was in the film, and I told the truth, which is that I did basically nothing and sat around all day eating Cheetos and telling everyone they were doing a good job. And then Nat would jump in and say, “John’s being modest. His understanding of the story and characters were vital to us.” But because we were reciting lines more than answering questions, the answer started to feel dishonest to me. At one point between interviews, I said to Nat, “I can’t remember if I even like Cheetos.” And he said, “That’s okay, man. I can’t remember if your understanding of the story was vital to us.”
You can fault Delevingne for looking bored, but it’s hard to imagine anything more boring than spending hours rolling through five-minute interviews with peppy talking heads who haven’t seen your movie. Sure, an actor ought to be able to act interested for a few minutes, but it’s strange, to say the least, to fault Delevingne for not faking it well enough. The most excruciating moment in the video for me comes at about two minutes in, when a third interviewer joins the fray. He’s not in the initial shot, and based on the way the volume on his mic jumps as he starts talking, it doesn’t seem like he was supposed to be part of the interviewer; based on his loud suit and hectoring tone, I’d peg him as the show’s sportscaster. “I saw you in London talking a couple weeks ago on TV, and you seemed a lot more excited about it than you do right now,” he complains, which is awfully close to coming right out and saying, “Why won’t you dance, little monkey?”
As Green points out, we don’t hold male and female celebrities to the same standards: Men are passionate and temperamental; women are “difficult.” Compare Delevingne’s mild disengagement with the outright hostility of the star of “Meet Marlon Brando,” the classic Albert and David Maylses documentary excerpted in the new “Listen to Me Marlon.” (You can watch it in full at Fandor, or below.) At a gala luncheon arranged to promoted his 1965 movie, “Morituri,” Brando spars with TV interviewers who try to feed him lightweight questions, effectively subverting the entire process, and, like Delevingne, providing a spectacle that’s infinitely more interesting (if a lot less comfortable) than the intended recitation of talking points.
When the journalists, none of whom are identified by name, try to steer Brando onto the subject of his own movie, he resists, steering the conversation into uncharted waters. “I think we ought to say we’re here as hucksters,” he tells one interviewer who suggests that the studio might be displeased if their substantial cash outlay didn’t lead to useable publicity. “We mustn’t believe propaganda,” he tells another.
Among other things, “Meet Marlon Brando” reads as a not-especially-sly jab by the Maysles at the journalistic establishment, from which their brand of documentary was, at the time, struggling to distinguish itself. (You can hear Albert cracking up off screen at one reporter’s silly question, to which Brando quips, “What are you chuckling about? You’re in the sound department.”) But it’s also a superb encapsulation of Brando’s gifts, his facility for being alive to the moment. As he did an an actor, Brando shifts gears and languages — he conducts one interview in French, slips into German in another — without warning, continuously fascinating but never sticking to the script. It may not exactly be acting, but it’s still one of his best performances.