I was hanging with Mick Jagger the other night (translation: he dropped by a party I was attending). In any case, I was suddenly confronted with one of those “celeb moments” that are at once memorable and unsettling. Jagger had turned toward me, hand outstretched, a grin on his craggy face, and I heard the woman standing behind me issue a slight gasp. “How the hell do you start a conversation with Mick Jagger?” she piped.
I related to her panic. In my line of work it is not uncommon to run into random celebrities, wannabe celebs and occasionally a semi-legend — encounters that often trigger the “celeb moment syndrome.” What exactly is the appropriate opener with someone who lives in a bubble surrounded by acolytes –someone who probably doesn’t know whose house he’s in or even what city.
Over the years, I’ve made a point of listening to the conversation-starters employed by agents, producers and others of their ilk and have charted their approaches. They can be broken down as follows:
- The super-cool approach: Many young agent types sidle up to the stars with a “What’s happening, dude?” opener. It makes the agents feel “in,” but it usually elicits a frosty dismissal from a celeb.
- The gushy approach: Well-meaning folks will blurt lines like “I’ve always been a fan” or “I loved your last picture,” but these are usually non-starters because the star can’t even remember his last picture and has heard all this before anyway. Again, the room temperature seems to sink a little.
- The effusive “we know each other” approach: Grasping for some straw of familiarity, I heard one producer say, “We ran into each other at Heathrow just a few months ago.” Again, this opener rarely succeeds because, even if the star was at Heathrow, he wants to forget the experience and resents being reminded.
So what exactly constitutes an appropriate conversation starter if you happen upon a celebrity? The best answer: It depends on the star. With some, it’s safest to avoid the encounter completely; with others it’s prudent to adjust your level of conviviality to the mood of the individual in question. Admittedly, this can be a chancy exercise.
One rule of thumb: If the star famously plays villains and homicidal maniacs, he’ll likely turn out to be gracious and welcoming. Conversely, stars who play heroes tend to be difficult in person; as for comics, most are hostile by nature.
Richard Widmark, who died last week, will always be remembered as the giggling killer in “Kiss of Death,” but he was truly a kind and gentle man. So was stony-faced Charles Bronson.
By contrast, many celebrated “good guys,” going back to Henry Fonda, would bite your head off if you approached them, and seemingly cerebral elder statesman like George C. Scott would simply turn their backs. Try talking to a comedian like Garry Shandling and you can see why people paid Pellicano to come up with some dirt.
To be sure, there are exceptions to every rule. Among comics, Bill Maher is as convivial as David Letterman is famously testy. In the superstar category, George Clooney works as hard as anyone to be an ambassador for his films and for his industry, and is as convivial on a movie set as Marlon Brando was abrupt. Tom Cruise, too, is as doggedly diplomatic as Tommy Lee Jones is distanced.
The bottom line: If you want to strike up a dialogue with a superstar, be prepared to be either rewarded or rebuked. It’s surely worth the risk. After all, it’s always fun to tell your kids, “I had a great conversation with Mick Jagger.”
So, how did my encounter with the rock icon go? Frankly, I was flummoxed at the time, so I tried the following: “Mick, I think we have one thing in common. We both went to the London School of Economics.”
Suddenly flummoxed as well, Mick smiled and said, “Well, at least I didn’t learn anything there. At least, that’s what people want me to say. No one pays to see an entertainer who went to the friggin’ London School of Economics.”
With that he pushed on and I took a breath. The lady behind me did too, then blurted, “I don’t believe that either of you went to the bloody London School of Economics. You’re putting me on!”
I decided to let her decide that one for herself.