The awards season spells Q&A time in Hollywood or, as publicists call it, “softball season.” Award-hungry stars and filmmakers faithfully show up at screenings or video shoots to field respectful, if not worshipful, questions about their (hopefully) contending projects. The media is thrilled to get face time with normally inaccessible celebrities. Publicists are happy to get their films some attention under conditions of maximum safety.
The casual reader might well ask: Does anyone tell the truth at these sessions? The answer: yes — but a sanitized version. The questions are pre-screened, the answers pre-rehearsed.
While the business of filmmaking is steeped in intrigue, and war stories abound, you wouldn’t know it from softball season. Even the process of inducing a star to read a script, for example, can provoke an epic battle involving agent-manager quarrels and demands for salary guarantees. But ask Matt Damon how “The Martian” came together and it was simple: The script turned up on his doorstep, he told an interviewer; he loved it and, coincidentally, director Ridley Scott happened to phone him about it two weeks later. Wham: It’s Oscar time!
While waiting for a Q&A session to start the other evening, I found myself putting together a list of questions that I knew wouldn’t be a good fit for softball season. At least, I would not be asked to pose them.
For instance, to Michael Fassbender: At any point during the production of “Steve Jobs,” did you beg Danny Boyle to allot you at least one exterior scene (say a ride on your Harley) where you could be a regular guy and deliver a line that didn’t sound like Aaron Sorkin lecturing?
To Tom Hanks: Your character, James Donovan, in “Bridge of Spies,” is an all-American good guy who is doggedly flawless despite being a lawyer (quite a stretch). Weren’t you and Steven Spielberg tempted to humanize him a bit by giving him some random flaws? When you played Walt Disney two years ago, at least you were chain smoking (and coughing a lot).
To Kristen Wiig: Playing the mother in “The Diary of a Teenage Girl,” you seemed almost cheerful about sending off your 15-year-old daughter to have sex with a 35-year-old guy. Weren’t you ever tempted to scream, “I don’t approve of kiddie porn?”
To Johnny Depp: Do you think “Black Mass” would have found a wider audience had you played the character to look more like Johnny Depp rather than the balding, glassy-eyed Whitey Bulger?
To be sure, questions of this sort will not be asked during softball season. In full disclosure mode, however, I admit that I, too, used to participate in televised Q&A sessions with stars under occasionally semi-sanitized circumstances.
Over the years, I found Clint Eastwood to be by far the most candid and forthcoming of guests, and Joaquin Phoenix to be the most opaque, with the other random stars and filmmakers falling somewhere in between. But most of my conversations happily did not take place during awards season, so the atmosphere was more relaxed and the responses less rehearsed. And sometimes the unthinkable happened: They spun their war stories with candor and even humor. Stars, too, can occasionally be good company when they’re not chasing awards.