Before I begin, shout out to my former Newhouse classmate Meera Jagannathan for inspiring this piece (she shared the interview on Facebook). Appropriate that it comes from one of the most impressive interviewers I know. True story: I once covered the 2012 presidential election night at the Syracuse Democratic Committee party with Meera and a few other students, and I nearly flubbed my own interview because I got so distracted watching her interview prowess out of the corner of my eye.
Anyway, Kevin Spacey. You know him from films like American Beauty and Seven, and more recently as the affectionally maniacal Frank Underwood on House of Cards—his best work yet, if you ask me. But if you’re a journalist, as I’ve come to realize very recently, then you know him as a pain-in-the-ass interviewee. The thing about Kevin Spacey is he’s profoundly brilliant, obnoxiously so. He makes you feel wrong even when you’re not. He makes you feel stupid even when you’re not. He makes you feel inept at your profession even when you’re not. I only just found this out whilst reading his interview with Rachel Dodes for the Wall Street Journal. Rachel Dodes has been reporting for over a decade, she’s interviewed countless big names and, in her role as the WSJ film features writer, has spoken with dozens of actors. But none like Kevin Spacey.
I’ve also interviewed many, many people. And probably about 60 percent of those interviews taught me that even the most basic things can go ridiculously wrong. Your interviewee might forget to call/email to reschedule and leave you waiting awkwardly in a company’s lobby for over 15 minutes. Your recorder you swore had full battery when you checked 30 times before leaving your apartment dies a minute into the interview—and you don’t even realize ’till you go to transcribe. Then there’s my absolute favorite: your interviewee could be one of those men- or women-of-so-few-words type. Or the kind that spends two minutes in uncomfortable silence pondering the answer to a question only to give you a 10-word response. Interview fail. And, really, there’s nothing J-school or anyone can teach you to prepare for any of it. Not even degrees from the London School of Economics or Cornell saved Dodes from her painful interview with Spacey. But Spacey himself; he could’ve. Here’s how.
Lesson No. 1: Use insipid questions wisely. There’s an agonizing moment in this interview where Dodes attempts to draw some sort of connection between the recurring theme of dead dogs in Spacey’s work and tries to persuade Spacey to run with it. He, of course, doesn’t. Instead, he says:
It’s completely random. Really f—ing random. I have nothing to do with it. It was in the scripts. It’s sort of like saying, “Oh, you drank coffee in that movie! And you drank coffee in that movie and that movie—so, are you obsessed with coffee?” It’s juvenile, really.
In other words, her question is juvenile. What Dodes does here is attempt to illicit a thoughtful response by picking at an overly-specific detail. I do it all the time in pre-interview research when I collect random tidbits from tweets, Instagram pictures, basically anything uniquely substantial that I think no other journalist has asked my subject/source before. A lot of times, it goes absolutely nowhere. And when it didn’t for Dodes, she could’ve (and maybe should’ve) left it alone. She decides, however, to defend herself and press Spacey again which, lucky for her, actually does result in an interesting take on the matter.
Lesson No. 2: Understand when to mind your business. Sometimes I think journalists approach interviews with an entitlement to answers. That if you ask a question, it must absolutely be answered truthfully and in detail. And worded in a way that’ll make a good quote, of course. But realistically if it’s not public record, there’s no obligation to answer. And even when it is, they’re still not obligated. There are obvious times, however, when I think a journalist can justify feeling entitled to an answer. If I’m covering rape and sexual violence against Syrian women and you’re a doctor at a Damascus hospital with information regarding the number of rape victims you’ve treated, you’re damn right I want an answer. Because it’s my business to know. But sometimes it’s just really not. So when Dodes asks Spacey a particularly invasive question about how much he profited from Margin Call—which I think was probably a case of her hoping for a particular answer that would transition to her larger point—he completely owns her with: Why would I discuss my deal with you? A response that clearly caught her off guard as she stumbles through her recovery.
Lesson No. 3: Work WITH not against your subject’s attitude. I think what made parts of this interview go horribly wrong for Dodes is she fails to assess Spacey’s character. He begins the interview by answering her first question with “I don’t give two shits about what other people think.” That’s a big indicator that either Spacey was in a particularly averse mood when she spoke with him or that’s just his nature. Part of being a great interviewer, I think, is knowing how to control the conversation while letting the interviewee think they’re in control so they feel comfortable opening up to you. You need to read the subject, diagnose them. I can read from his first few responses that perhaps elements of playing a politician have seeped into Spacey’s way of thinking. And so if I’m the journalist in this situation, I need to change my language. At one point, she tries to link his previous comments about appointment TV being over to an assertion that House of Cards is responsible for FOX abandoning pilot season. But that’s a line of questioning, especially considering Spacey’s attitude during this interview, that leads to a dead end and a hostile response: “Christ. I am not in a battle with anybody.”
Despite its faults, though, I love this interview. Actually, the faults make me love it . Seeing Kevin Spacey relentlessly challenge Dodes is genuinely seeing Kevin Spacey for the kind of person he is. And I personally wouldn’t have wanted this interview to be generically smooth and according to plan. That’s not how journalism works 99 percent of the time, and I appreciate that Dodes has an editor at the WSJ who isn’t too stifled by pride to publish an interview so revealing of the trials and errors of journalism. Dodes introduces her interview as “edited excerpts from a recent conversation.” Can you only imagine what didn’t make it to print?
P.S. Watch House of Cards. Like now. Seriously, you have seven days to catch up.