Cannes: How Stars Can Answer Trump Questions and Other Wacky Reporter Inquiries
The festival's media events are often forums for odd, tangential queries that can fluster even the most seasoned participant. Here's how stars like George Clooney and Angelina Jolie have handled them in the past.
“I’m here in the context of Kung Fu Panda; I’d rather not get into such a heavy issue,” was Angelina Jolie’s politely worded response to a question during a Cannes press conference in 2011. Given the subject the journalist had raised — one recently captured and killed Osama bin Laden — few could blame the actress for perhaps wanting to give it a wide berth.
While "Do you have a message for the people of [insert country here]?" may have been the classic international shout-out of yesteryear, festival press conferences increasingly are becoming fonts of nonsensical and contentious queries from reporters eager to grab a tweetable sound bite that could leave a publicist in tears.
Jolie may have gotten Bin Laden, but Cannes has also seen Woody Allen questioned on his thoughts about time travel (during the presser for Midnight in Paris), Chinese director Lou Ye asked, “What color is your film?” and Robert De Niro made to wonder if he enjoyed the “making of A Bronx Tale?" (some 17 years after directing it).
But at least these queries had something — loosely — to do with their movies, and were put to filmmakers with the experience to handle them. How do you go about preparing the less-rehearsed for the more left-field requests? Many publicists agree that it’s tricky to "coach" talent who might not have had to deal with anything far beyond, "What made you choose this role?"
"The best you can do is alert anyone who hasn't done a festival press conference that there might be some odd questions, and there will definitely be ones from people who a) make a long, rambling statement that doesn't require an answer; b) struggle to express themselves in English; or c) both," says British PR veteran Jonathan Rutter.
However, this year perhaps more than ever an array of potentially calamitous contemporary issues lie in wait — think Donald Trump, ISIS, the refugee crisis. "We always suggest that directors and talent who are new to Cannes go through media training — at least a day or half-day one-on-one session," says DDA's Dana Archer, adding that humor is a "tremendous tool" for left-field inquiries. "I imagine that will come into play with Trump questions," she says.
Without a doubt, the individual who attracts the oddest questions is the generally unflappable George Clooney (although he did recently snap at a journalist in Berlin who asked what his contribution had been to help ease the refugee crisis).
Clooney's longtime publicist Stan Rosenfield recalls a lesson Andrew Dice Clay received from communications coach Carole Hemingway ahead of the TCAs, during a dark period "a long time ago" when the media was "gunning" for the comedian. "What she did with Clay was teach him how to deal with these hostile questions," Rosenfield recalls. "And about 15 to 20 minutes into the press conference, they were eating out of his hands."
Press conference moderators, of course, are there to help too, although some are better than others at protecting the talent.
"If something weird happens then they can always jump in,” says publicist Charles McDonald, whose standout head-scratching moment was an event for the John Lennon biopic Nowhere Boy when a woman asked lead actor Aaron Taylor-Johnson if he was afraid of being shot and if he fancied Yoko Ono. "But if it clearly disrupts the real questions, then the other journalists will round on that person and tell them to sit down."
Thanks to the most colorful U.S. election campaign in years and ongoing major international crises, questions from the press at this year Cannes will undoubtedly stray well away from the films once more (unless they’re booed, in which case it’s a different story altogether).
But Rosenfield isn't too worried about the Cannes-bound Clooney, who has previous been on the receiving end of not one but two press conference marriage proposals: one from a woman in a wedding dress and another from a man who stripped down to his underpants. "I'm sure he'll be asked [odd] questions," says the PR veteran. "I remember George's response to one question one year was, 'Well, you can go back to your office and tell your editor that you asked the question.' "
A version of this story first appeared in the May 13 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.