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I once had dinner with Halle Berry at a clamshell table, a setting spread open to the room like a huge embrace, in a big glassy Italian restaurant on Beverly Boulevard in Los Angeles. Everyone there could see her. It wasn’t a date, or even a business meeting. It was an interview, for a cover story for Esquire magazine. Me, sitting with Halle Berry. Unimaginable. I kept thinking two words, kept wanting to say those words out loud, or spell them so a kind spider might knit them into its web so everyone could read them when the morning light splintered in. These were the words: Some teeth.
See, Halle Berry really does have some great teeth. That’s the kind of thing you see when you’re up close to a celebrity. Not breasts, or chins, or haircuts. Get close enough, and you see something you never noticed before. I’m telling you. That woman has some teeth.
Beyond that, she looked prettier than I expected, seemed more engaged, happier, talkative than I’d been led to believe she would be. These are not great observations, I know, but I’m not writing an article about Halle Berry here. This story is about me. The profiler. As for me, I looked like a giant sausage pushed into the casing of an expensive sports coat. It hurts me to think how out-of-scale I looked next to her, but, as I have learned to do on these occasions, I ignored myself. That is Rule One of celebrity-profile writing: Ignore yourself. I think she had gnocchi, grilled vegetables, and some tiny dessert. She ate most of it. I bring this up only to mention Rule Two of my job: Don’t talk about what they eat. Never talk about how much. I don’t remember what I ate. I rarely do.Just last night, I ate chicken wings while standing in the kitchen of my house in Greencastle, Indiana. I grew up in upstate New York, where what you know as Buffalo sauce was invented. Only it happened in my hometown of Rochester, 87 miles to the west. When I picked up the food, at a little place that I alone call Rochester Wild Wings, the big girl at the take-out counter—who wore a sparkling headband and a pin that said Just say Mo’—brought out the bag and kindly removed everything from it, inventorying my order, explaining what she seemed to consider the mystery of chicken wings. The bleu cheese, the celery. These are the napkins ... I put one fork in there, do you want two? Most people don’t use forks. Wet naps. And these are the medium wings. And these are your Buffalo wings. As she put it all back in the bag, she said: “Now, these just came right up out of the grease.” You have to cringe at that, the unselfconscious mention of grease, as if it were a tool used in aiding the emergence of nascent, bodiless pullet wings from some vat of boiling oil. She made it sound like they were born there. “So, you are lucky,” she said, “because they’re going to stay good and hot.” Still, on the way home, I reached into the stiff tower of the bag, grabbed a wing at random, and bit it savagely.
It was too hot. Too, too hot. Like My God too hot. I had to spit the bite onto the windshield in front of me. So it turned out that the big girl with the sparkling headband was right. They were going to stay plenty hot. Two years ago, you couldn’t buy a decent chicken wing anywhere within a 30-mile radius of Greencastle. She was also right to say I was lucky. Tongue burnt, but still. I’d be home in 4½ minutes. Lucky. The night was cold. My house, cozy.
Lucky. People tell me that all the time, that I’m lucky. I have a contract with Esquire, with the title “writer-at-large.” And I don’t care what your impressions are; Esquire is an inventive, well-edited magazine that prides itself on being a smart vehicle of the moment. It’s less austere than some, less pretentious than others, less concerned with the history of Hollywood than most, but the fact remains: The magazine often features celebrities on its cover.
In most people’s minds, this is where my luck resides.
I often get to write these cover stories, these celebrity profiles. I’ve written about Charlize Theron, Liam Neeson, Morgan Freeman, James Franco, Clive Owen, Kate Beckinsale, Ryan Gosling, Tom Brady, Guy Ritchie, Halle Berry, Ben Affleck, Billy Crudup, Ashton Kutcher, Brooklyn Decker, and Bill Clinton. I’m leaving people out.
Do I get excited to fly off to meet Daniel Craig for lunch in London? Sure. I like traveling, enjoy hotel rooms, don’t mind eating room service. I feel like I can get myself anywhere, on any dime, without any worry to my bosses. But the moments before meeting the subject are like a low-grade migraine, like sleeping on a nervous mattress. I feel out of place, disjointed and forgetful. I want to turn and go home. To Indiana. I figure most of the celebrities would have no idea where to find me, and not one of them would look. But, in those moments, I keep myself moving forward. I step into the restaurant, climb into the car, ring the bell. This is Rule Three: Keep moving forward. Toward the subject and through the conversation.
Another rule: Don’t ask what you already know. A celebrity profile must feature some discovery. So when I think someone’s been asked a question before, I simply refuse to ask it again. I take it as a given that they’re excited about their current project. The trick is to come into the meeting with opinions—sharp ones—that the actor hasn’t heard before. Not critical per se, just surprising. I told Halle Berry that I love her comedy B.A.P.S (short for “Black American Princesses”), which is true. It’s a lowbrow favorite. This made her laugh and cover her wonderful teeth with her hand. She told me that I may be the only one who claims knowledge of B.A.P.S. She admitted the movie makes her laugh still. With Daniel Craig, I never once mentioned James Bond, although he clearly expected me to. Instead, I asked him about his art-house movie Enduring Love, which has one of the best opening five minutes I have ever seen. He responded with a Bond reference: “What about the foot chase at the opening of Casino Royale? All that parkour? That’s a pretty good opening.” I agreed. Craig, a serious actor, generally gives only the most begrudging praise to the spy vehicle.
“You can’t argue against yourself, though,” I told him.
“Of course you can,” he said. “It’s your responsibility, isn’t it?” And with that we got going.
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