Spending time with famous people
This essay is not about heroin, but I need to talk about heroin first.
The only time I did heroin was by accident. (I’ve told this story, forgive me if you’ve heard it.) In college, I studied contemporary art and politics at the University of Cape Town, South Africa, through the School for International Training. I was there for a semester. I lived with a family for a month, I traveled around for several weeks, and for another month, two friends and I rented rooms in Observatory, a student neighborhood, in a falling-down house where the tenants were a furniture salesman, a music producer, and a surfer who did construction and sold weed to pay the rent. They liked to party. One night, they threw a rave with a big sound system, mattresses in the windows, different Star Wars movies playing on mute on different televisions. Around two, a guy I didn’t know asked if I wanted to smoke. Five minutes later, my arms were sheathed in electric lace. I asked what had been in the joint we shared, and he said it was the only way he could still do heroin. I went to my room, got into my sleeping bag, and listened to Radiohead until I fell asleep.
Which is a story I once told Roger Federer while he drove us to lunch, and he found it hilarious.
A strange aspect of the ways I make money is that occasionally I’m asked – lucky enough to be asked – to become very close with very famous people in an extremely small amount of time, in order to write several thousand words about them. Recently, I’m doing this with a movie person who’s more famous than Federer. The stakes are strange. We’re both incentivized to play along: I’m being paid by the magazine, and I want to do it – a celebrity profile at length is a strange, difficult exercise, especially when you’re trying to capture something new about someone who’s been profiled a thousand times. Plus it’s fun, frothy/nervy. And the subject is there for pretty clear reasons, too. To promote their new thing, keep their face on newsstands, connect with the audience off-screen in a way that’s hopefully flattering and humbling both.
But those are the obvious parts. What’s less apparent is how it works. I don’t mean the hundreds of emails (truly, hundreds), the dozens of publicists. What I find interesting, when I take some distance, is what it means for the writer and the subject’s self-interests to meet and be relatively satisfied at around the same time. Because it doesn’t always happen. It rarely happens. The writer, or at least this writer, usually only has an hour or two, sometimes more – maybe a long lunch, or a bunch of texts afterward – to coax something from the subject more interesting than a press release. Then you do the secondaries, the additional interviews, those figures quoted in the profile saying nice things, or not, about the subject, which is a whole other field of work. (The subject usually gets to approve secondaries, though frequently you don’t broach it them, it’s left to talent wranglers and publicists who play chess through a weird matrix of favors and alliances – realpolitik, basically – that the writer often doesn’t have the security clearance to grasp.) And what you’re left with, in the end, is never enough, and you start to panic.
Then there’s the subject. If famous/old enough, they know how this goes and have their own way about it. The usual way is a mix of gracious and unguarded, just enough, to impress upon the writer that this is me, the real deal. Though some folks just don’t give a crap and phone it in, or go mute. In which case, sometimes the writer will say very little, to compel the other person to fill the silence (Joan Didion). Sometimes the writer doesn’t shut up, to make their subject want to interject and share (Truman Capote). I try for connection – I knew Federer’s mother was from South Africa – and subtle mirroring, usually a little humor, ideally, to imply we both know how this all works and hey, let’s cut to the chase. But sometimes nothing works. Or the person retells stories they’ve told a hundred times. (I’m grappling with that currently.) Or they burn the clock on subjects unrelated. (Dealing with that, too.)
My editor said recently, and I agree, that the best moments are when the writer doesn’t interview them at all, and the subject is doing something else, with other people, and the writer can just hang around and observe. Dream scenario, and some subjects understand this, if they’re willing to grant access. They’re used to feeling observed, even stalked. In a profile by Zach Baron, Brad Pitt, who’s often asked about what it’s like being mega-famous, put it this way:
He describes [his fame] “as being that lone gazelle out on the plain. And the tigers, you know, they're in there. They're in the grass. And you've lost the herd. You're not connected to the herd anymore. And it's that. It is that loss of privacy. And being hunted.”
Ultimately, it’s all pretty flimsy, but still interesting. I think it’s Susan Orlean who said somewhere that she always falls in love with her subjects. (Maybe it was Elizabeth Gilbert?) But then once you sit at your desk, you need to break the connection. You need to see them from a distance, a little frigidly. All of that’s right. The journey is a couple weeks where you go from head-over-heels to jilted lover – though you’re telling yourself you’re the lover who did the jilting. It’s all about temperature, hot and cold, and finding a way through the middle that suggests both states.
Alas, no fancy ceremony for me in San Francisco, everything’s still Zoom, but it’s an honor and a treat, especially considering the company and the award’s history.
Part literary event, part comedy show, part game show, Literary Death Match brings together four of today’s finest writers to compete in an edge-of-your-seat read-off critiqued by three celebrity judges, and concluded by a slapstick showdown to decide the ultimate champion.
I think it’s going to be filmed for TV? Who knows? Tickets are $20 now, $25 at the door.
In tomorrow’s Sunday supplement for supporters, we’re going very specific: Another software recommendation for good computer health; a sunscreen (finally) that doesn’t melt when you sweat; the laziest hors d’oeuvres yet.
If you’re not on the supporter train yet, hit the blue button. There’s a free trial so you can dip into the archive and see if it’s for you.
Meditations in an Emergency is a micro-essay published Saturdays by novelist Rosecrans Baldwin about things he finds beautiful, with a longer essay once a month for subscribers, sent from the woods.
Also for subscribers: a Sunday supplement, three weeks a month, with three-plus ideas of things to love, no paid placements lol 💀
Rosecrans is the bestselling author of Everything Now: Lessons From the City-State of Los Angeles, available from Bookshop, Amazon, or (preferably) your local store. Other books include The Last Kid Left and Paris, I Love You but You’re Bringing Me Down. His debut novel, You Lost Me There, was a New York Times Book Review Editors’ Choice.
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