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Festival News
A date with star-making machinery
At last, your moment with the Great Stellar One has arrived, RICK GROEN writes. In your need to distinguish yourself from the pack, you pop a deep question that leads nowhere, fast. Time's up! What's a scribe to do?

By RICK GROEN, The Globe and Mail
September 14, 2002

'The star interview is dead, as a form. The great postmodern celebrities are a part of their publicity machine, and that is all you are ever going to write about: their publicity machines.'
Martin Amis, in Visiting Mrs. Nabokov

But what does that poncy Amis know anyway? The publicity machine and its loyal handmaid, the media, believe that the celebrity interview is alive and thriving. And so will you, after this behind-the-veil peek into the biz at its most glam and rewarding.

Just imagine: You have been granted the rare privilege of a "personal interview" with the hottest star at the film fest -- the actor with the wattage of Julia, the exoticism of Salma, the sensuality of Uma. Yes, a "one-on-one" conversation with none other than J-Su herself.

How has this miracle been wrought? Not, you may be assured, because of the scintillating merits of your prose or your keen critical insights. Rather, a bunch of Canadian publicists has talked to a larger bunch of American publicists, who have had a word with J-Su's personal publicist, who has confabbed with an assortment of studio officials, who have decided that the august publication that you write for, and which few of the aforementioned have ever heard of, has a big enough circulation in sufficiently key cities to merit your inclusion on The List.

And being on The List, in the company of a few dozen other lucky scribes, entitles you to a Slot. Your particular Slot is 10:25 to 10:35 a.m., Tuesday. "Be at the Hotel Transcontinental, the Jackman Suite," says the friendly yet brisk voice at the other end of the phone line, "And be there early."

You arrive at 10, having spent the previous night screening J-Su's latest movie. And not liking it much. And then going home to draft a set of questions for J-Su, all of them artfully designed to disguise the fact that you think her film sucks. The Jackman Suite is a hive of publicists, 20 at least, one of whom -- middle-aged, black dress, very red nails, the lingering trace of a Southern accent -- appears to be in charge of The List. She asks your name, confirms your Slot, and then announces, "We're running late." How late? "About 25 minutes." Apparently, the machine has acquired some morning sludge, and the Slots are backing up.

Around you, several of your esteemed colleagues, hailing from the likes of Cleveland and Orlando, are further cluttering up the Jackman Suite, making periodic raids on a table piled high with Chupa-Chups suckers (the Official Treat of the festival). Declining to join the feast, you retreat to a neutral corner, clutching your notebook and tape recorder. It's now 10:05.

At 10:25, another publicist -- blond, twentysomething, relentlessly cheerful -- emerges from the hive and leads you out of the Jackman Suite, down the hotel corridor, and into Room 2012. This is a mini-suite, with a small living area plus a separate bedroom. The energetic blonde invites you to sit in an armchair positioned beside a sofa. She chirps, "It won't be long," and then leaves you alone. You sit, you get up, you part the gauze curtains to peek through the window at the world 20 floors below. It's 10:45.

Five minutes later, the door swings open and three publicists enter, trailed by a fourth person. Among them you recognize only the energetic blonde. Then it clicks. Good God, that trailing person is J-Su herself -- stars never look off-camera quite as they do on. Clearly, the other two women are VIPs -- Very Important Publicists. One of them has her manicured finger on The List, but apparently not on the right Slot. She introduces you as "Herman." You are about to correct her when J-Su extends her lovely hand and says with consummate warmth, "Very nice to meet you, Herman." Oh, hell, Herman it is.

J-Su sits on the sofa, you on the chair, fumbling with the tape recorder. Everyone else leaves except for the energetic blonde, who stands poised at the door looking down at her watch. "Sorry, just eight minutes," she says as cheerfully as ever, "We're really running late." J-Su smiles apologetically. You prepare to launch quickly into question No. 1, when the star, struck with a sudden thirst, calls out to the sentinel at the door, "I'm a little dry, Francine. Could you get me some bottled water?" "Of course, what kind?", asks Francine, and proceeds to list various designer brands -- my trusty recorder catching every precious word. J-Su makes her selection and, playing the role of the gracious host, inquires, "Would you like some too?" You demur. Francine opens the door to instruct yet another minion lurking outside, then shuts the door and pointedly checks her watch again.

By your panicked estimate, this whole water-colloquy has consumed about two of your eight dwindling minutes. But ever the pro, you have been putting the delay to good advantage -- noting a faint blemish low on J-Su's otherwise flawless cheek. You can use that blemish, maybe even inflate it to a flaming zit. And you've been itemizing her attire, drawing on your thorough knowledge of women's fashion. Pants: Black. Top: Some brown turtle-necky thingy without sleeves. Shoes: Wearing them.

J-Su finally settles back to await questioning. With time waning, you decide to ignore your soft-ball first query ("This role is quite a departure from your previous work"), to skip past the ever-popular follow-up ("Can you comment on the different challenges of acting in the movies and on a TV sitcom?"), and head straight to your A-material, the question that will establish you in J-Su's blue eyes as a thoughtful, sensitive and non-Chupa-Chups-devouring interviewer.

You're thinking all this and, in a microsecond, become faintly aware of a battle being fought somewhere in the reaches of your mind -- a battle between self-loathing and self-repect. And, for reasons that are too pathetic to ponder, the outcome of that battle appears to hinge on J-Su validating your individuality, your uniqueness within the machine. So you begin: "I noticed that blue is a recurring colour in the film's palette, and was wondering if you agree that the symbolic . . ."

A rap at the door, and the minion enters with the bottled water and two crystal glasses on a silver platter. Minion hands off to Francine, who pours and hands off to J-Su, who sips and says, "Sure you won't have some?" and then starts in: "Blue, yes, absolutely. You know, I mentioned this story to the director our first day on set. Back when I was studying theatre in junior college, I had the good fortune to attend a Picasso exhibit drawn from his blue period. And I can't begin to tell you what that meant to me." Unfortunately, she does just that, launching into a long and irrelevant account that's eating into your Slot like a tapeworm through a tummy.

Picasso, his damn blue period, it's got absolutely nothing to do with this movie, or with J-Su in the context of the movie. But the star is wound up, and unstoppable. After all, J-Su is an actor and, right now, she's assuming the part of an intelligent actor offering an artistic answer to a serious question. It's not your question, but it is her script. Worse, Francine has just gestured at her watch, and is waving her forefinger in wrap-it-up circles.

J-Su notices the gesture and shrugs, acting as if she'd prefer to continue this delightful conversation all day long. Flummoxed, you scan your notebook, head to the bottom of the page, and mumble, "Future projects?" Suddenly succinct, J-Su offers this stop-the-presses revelation: "We're always reading scripts, but nothing definite yet," whereupon Francine signals that it's over, that your midnight chime has struck.

The star promptly rises, the gang of four immediately reassembles, and they all march out the door and down the corridor toward Room 2014. But not before J-Su, whispered to by her chief VIP, glances quickly back and says with evident sincerity, "Thank you, Herman."

Back in the office, as editors gather and the deadline looms, you fire up your computer and begin typing: "J-Su is in love and his name is Pablo. In an animated chat over drinks in a downtown hotel, the celebrated beauty (but was that a pimple on her otherwise flawless cheek?) confessed her passion for the Spanish painter who. . . ."

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