What Kevin Spacey Can Teach Journalists About Interviewing

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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.

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