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.
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.
The gutters on the back of my house are ruined, torn off by a mighty wind five years ago. I got an extension ladder and, despite my fear of heights, I acted the homeowner, doing my best to nail the whole rig back into place on its hanger-clamps. That deal right there lasted about two years. One morning, when a part of one gutter fell under the weight of the water that pooled in it, I let it sit there like a broken bone, dipping down onto my lawn for two months. Then, one morning, for no good reason, I went outside and pulled the whole setup off of the back of the house. Three good jerks, and it popped off. I stood there like General Patton, chin out, hands on my hips, a bit outraged by the general treatment of the wind upon my life in Indiana. I really hoped my neighbor, who works second shift, would hear the racket and come out for a look. We’d talk about gutters, or him coaching soccer, or the progress of the weightlifting club in his garage. Come on, I thought. I wanted someone to see what I had done. It was early, 7:30, and I was alone. I folded up the gutter, stomped it flat, laid it against my house, and then got in the car, drove to the Indianapolis airport, and got on a plane to Los Angeles.
Generally, that’s what the job entails: leaving Greencastle; getting on a plane; flying to New York, London, or L.A.; and spending two or three days with a movie star or director while staying in a nice hotel in Beverly Hills, or Central London, or midtown Manhattan. Meals? Paid for. It’s utterly painless. It’s lonely. It can be a lark (as when Matthew McConaughey threw a party for me, and had me spend the night in an Airstream trailer in his driveway). Or it can feel dismal, as it did with Tom Brady, first trip and second. But it is work. Make no mistake. Every minute is taken up by where you have to be next, by what you must ask and what you failed to ask, by 4,000 words due, hanging low in front of you upon your return. And you have to go back home, to a world that might seem ordinary by comparison, which is no service at all to the people and places that you love. I return to Greencastle and sleep for two days before I sit down to stare—like any writer, anywhere—for days on end (but never more than 14, in truth) into the white, white guts of my computer, groping with leads, sussing out the transcript, figuring what is new copy and what’s shopworn, doping out a structure, one that hopefully provides an angle no one’s thought of yet, all in service to the peculiar charge I put upon myself: to craft a feature more like a literary short story than any piece of reliable reporting.
And Esquire lets me do it, because the editors there still believe that a magazine is a luxury, a vaguely weightless indulgence, a beautiful thing, and they ask me to write a story as if it were a creative construction, one that might puzzle a reader with observations of the sunlight, rather than teasers from the Season 3 DVD screener. So, in that regard, I know: I’m fortunate. I have the only job in the world that demands the kind of work I do.
When I interviewed Ryan Gosling two summers ago, he promised to mail me something—a diorama he’d pictured after a conversation we had about haunted houses. Whatever. They are sometimes inexplicably weird, these people. I gave him my address, which features a collegiate-sounding street name and, of course, the ambitious compound image of the word “Greencastle.” He drew his lip upward in mock indignation: “Seminary Street?” he said. “Green-castle? Indiana?”
“Where do you live?” Gosling asked. “Heaven?”
Greencastle is not heaven. Not enough trees to be heaven. It’s just a place I’ve called home since 1988, when I moved here from upstate New York, by way of Tuscaloosa, Alabama, to teach at DePauw University. My friends include a painter, a basketball coach, a blues singer, three-to-five actors, restaurant owners, the guy at the dry cleaner, the mayor, the barber I used to frequent, the lawyer who represented my ex-wife in our divorce, dozens of college professors, a guitar teacher, a former record-shop owner, two car mechanics, a mostly drunk guy, a former florist, the president of the college, my dentist and his wife, the manager of a hardware store where they still let me keep a house charge, a failed golf pro, a half-dozen baristas, former students, the guy who owns the McDonald’s, a welder, a man who runs a plant that manufactures seals for food containers, a hairstylist, my doctor, my other doctor, and a couple of librarians. Most of them know what I do. But I don’t think it charms them. In fact, I have good friends who’ve never read a single word of any profile I’ve written. That doesn’t seem so unimaginable to me.
The cultural obsession with celebrity is no point of pride. I don’t know that anyone else has a job where people he cares about seem to pleasure themselves by saying that they don’t give a shit about his work. This may be a peculiarity of life at a university. Some of them see me every day. They wonder what I’m doing next. Everyone else assumes that I’ve been traveling, that the only reason they haven’t seen me is because I’m jet-setting. A smaller group considers me largely absent altogether. A still-smaller group operates on the assumption that I moved, that I’m only back for a visit, that I have another apartment in New York, that I fly in to teach one day a week, that I can’t sell my house. None of this is true, save the house. Look what I did to my gutters, after all.
So I ask about people’s lives. I try to stretch conversations over days, weeks, venues. It’s similar, I think, to a celebrity profile: I try to reassure my Greencastle friends with engagement. I consider it my responsibility to the small town. I am there by choice, after all.
Still, Greencastle is lined with wretched fast-food places, half-empty strip malls, car dealerships, and gas stations. The duplex theater is also on my street, but it is goofy bad, run by a guy who in-sists he can do all the jobs—sell tickets, tear tickets, pop popcorn, sell popcorn, slap Jujubes on the counter, pour unbearably large Cokes, and still be the timely projectionist. It is a comedy. There’s also nowhere to buy good wine. No bagels. No sushi. By midsummer, with the heat and the burned-out lawns, even the Dairy Castle—you know, sucking on chili dogs and all that crap—starts to feel like a pretty good option. Which it is. Which is part of the problem of the place.
The night before, Gosling had told me—unequivocally— that he believed he’d grown up in a haunted house. The next day, he backed off.
But, to answer Gosling’s question specifically? At one end of my street, there’s a pretty good college baseball field set in a dell, so sitting on the left-field line with my dog is never out of the question unless it’s raining. The other end of that street? The university president’s home. Stately. Plenty of trees. On Saturdays, there’s a decent farmers market, where I often buy obscure cuts of lamb from an organic farmer. Sometimes, I really do think it is that place that Ryan Gosling suggested. My sons grew up here. And that sounds like heaven, right there.
The night before, Gosling had told me—unequivocally—that he believed he’d grown up in a haunted house. The next day, he backed off, hemming and hawing about stories his mother had told him. A week later, he called me, worried: “I don’t really believe in haunted houses,” he said. “That was really just stupid of me. It’s embarrassing that I said it the way I did. Like there was no doubt.”
This is another rule: People have a right to change their minds.
Gosling seemed happy that I was willing to listen. “I just like the idea of haunted houses, you know?”
I let it go. It didn’t seem like a major contradiction. In fact, I used both quotes. I let people see him changing his mind. Readers like a little ambiguity, a little progression of thought in their profiles. They want to see a conversation in full, which never means a straight Q-and-A for me. It requires a little texture. And that usually extends beyond the experience of a single meal. That’s why I always ask for three meetings and only settle for two.
There are myths, which I can dispel. People always ask me: How many minutes of your life have you spent waiting for celebrities to show up? The presumption is that athletes and movie stars are always late, that they are sloppy with their time or their attention. Not so. I even know the answer in minutes: 66. Tom Brady kept me lingering in the driveway of his house, in front of a locked fence, for 32 minutes before coming out to grant me a 45-minute interview on the way to a golf course. He’s the only celebrity who ever held me up in this way. Two weeks later he did it again in New York, when he was 34 minutes late for a follow-up interview, which he also confined to a limo. The whole thing was an afterthought to him. I have nothing nice to say about the guy. So: 66 minutes. Ryan Gosling? Spot on time. Same with Halle Berry, Charlize Theron, Ben Affleck. They arrived as the second hand swept past the 12 at our appointed hour. Well, I should note that Jon Hamm made me wait on his porch in L.A. before he opened the door. Five minutes. That was an endless expanse. Panic sprang up in my chest. I figured I was at the wrong house. I sat on the top step and called my editor, on a Saturday. But then the door pulled back, and there was Don Draper, hopping around on one foot, slipping on his golf shoes. He’d been fixing something in his basement. He apologized three times. Totally forgivable. So: 71 minutes total.
The real trick with celebrities is that they are often early. They show up 45 minutes before schedule in a restaurant, beside a pool, in a hotel lobby, and then call to say that the clock is ticking. Some of them have only promised to give me a mere two hours, and they eat up half of that allotment by showing up in advance of the meeting time. Guy Ritchie was 30 minutes early, for a 30-minute tea. Daniel Craig was an hour early. Bruce Willis, 1 hour and 15 minutes. Kate Beckinsale: 23 minutes. Though by then, I’d learned and was watching from across the street as she arrived, joyously slapping her hands against Notting Hill lamp poles as she passed them. I walked up and held the door for her, and pretended I had no idea who she was. She sure as hell had no idea who I was. She was gracious.
Another rule, then: Always be absurdly early. I will eat celery and read the L.A. Times for two hours in a hotel bar rather than try to meet a movie star on time. I never drink beforehand. I sometimes drink during. I never ask if they mind, either, not since Bruce Willis withered me with a glance when I asked if he cared if I ordered some gin. With that I broke my own rule about never asking what you already know: Bruce Willis? Tough guy? Former bartender? He couldn’t have cared less if I drank. I felt useless for minutes, a long time in the midst of a two-hour interview. The gin was no medicine.
Sometimes, people say “I want to be you.” And I know they can’t mean it. What they want is to meet and spend time with movie stars. They always grant me too much credit in that regard. When an interview is over, I always shake hands and know that I’ll never see this person again. That if there was a whiff of friendship, it will be forgotten when they shoulder out into the city.
But I’ve learned not to argue. It sounds like sour grapes if I complain and arrogant if I concede. I always say, “I have an interesting life.” It’s the thing my mother says about me. It implies both the fascination and the corruption, and it asserts what I already believe about every one of us. All lives are interesting. The grand life and the small. It would be petty and presumptuous to assume otherwise. And that too is a rule: All lives are interesting.
I was a fiction writer once. I wrote a collection of stories that appeared from a major publishing house, to pretty good reviews.There were some dark days after that; I failed on a novel and came to think of myself as being trapped in Indiana, a victim of where I lived rather than a citizen of it. How had I come to be here?
For a while, I just read and taught. I never considered myself a failure. DePauw is an excellent school, and teaching is honorable when done right. Eventually I came to see that no one can trace precisely the path that will lead them to the place they hold—not movie star, not mayor, not college professor nor captain of industry. That’s why people tell stories, why they write them; it’s the why of profiles, the description of a life. At some point in 1996, a New York editor threw me a bone: Write a story about your softball team. Easy! I knew everything about those guys, my friends and heroes. I turned in the story on deadline. Eventually, I got another. I tried to be reliable and inventive. I tried to make people laugh. I was being read again.
You can’t train to be a magazine writer. There’s no certificate. There’s no progression of degrees. I know dozens of men and women, better writers than me, who have tried the life, published a little, and then walked away. Too little money. It leaves a bad taste in their mouths to work for an editor 15 years younger than them. Nothing lasts. Magazines disappear; books do not. But like books, the work of magazine writing is intense and all-consuming. You twist your way into each story with your full energy and the certainty that this time might be your last. Whether people believe it or not, every sentence matters. The copy rarely has legs, unless it’s fully informed and beautifully told. This is hard.
Still, I know how that sounds. I’m a guy who has tooled around in a Corvette with Ryan Gosling, played golf with Jon Hamm, gone swimming with Halle Berry. I have an interesting life. I get paid to get in my car, drive out of Greencastle, and get on a plane. Three days later, I return. When I get home, to my gutterless house, they’ll think I’ve been gone for much longer. So I’ll write a story, to tell where I went and whom I met when I got there.
Chiarella photo by Tony Valainis; Gosling photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images
This article appeared in the July 2013 issue.