Hollywood's Rash of Interview Walkouts: PR Experts Offer Solutions
Robert De Niro becomes the latest (following Robert Downey Jr. and Cate Blanchett) to flee (or fuel) social media flames: "If you feel something going negative, you don't have to tie a noose for your own hanging."
A version of this story first appeared in the Oct. 9 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
Journalist provokes celebrity. Celebrity cuts interview short and walks out. News of the walkout goes viral. It's the latest escalation in the contentious relationship between the media and Hollywood that has publicists advising clients how to keep their cool.
Robert De Niro is the latest actor to cut an interview short. During a sit-down for Warner Bros.' The Intern, Emma Brockes of London's Radio Times asked De Niro how he kept from doing his job on autopilot and about the rebirth of Lower Manhattan — to which his Tribeca Film Festival has contributed — by noting, "It's all bankers now." He then accused Brockes of "negative inference" and said, "I'm not doing it, darling."
Robert Downey Jr.
That wasn't the end of it, though. Although the interview took place in New York in June, Radio Times posted it Sept. 22 — days before the movie's opening — under the headline, "The Robert De Niro Interview Everyone's Talking About," and Brockes herself was interviewed by The Guardian. News of the dust-up spread quickly through the web's echo chamber — in a Daily Mail column, Piers Morgan called Brockes a "victim" and accused De Niro of being "the rudest, most difficult and frankly obnoxious star to interview." Warners banned Radio Times and Brockes from future junkets.
L'affair De Niro comes in the wake of similar celebrity rebuffs. In April, Robert Downey Jr. walked out of an interview with Krishnan Guru-Murthy of Britain's Channel 4 News when the questioning turned more to Downey's past misadventures than Avengers: Age of Ultron. "I just wish I'd left sooner," he said later.
In March, while promoting Cinderella, Cate Blanchett appeared to lose it over an Australian interviewer's off-the-wall questions, though both parties later suggested she'd merely feigned outrage. And in 2013, Quentin Tarantino also ran out of patience with Guru-Murthy, saying, "I'm shutting your butt down!"
Social media, gleefully seizing on the breakdowns, magnifying each incident, which is why most publicists tell clients to remain in their seats. "It's never ideal to walk out," says PMK*BNC's Catherine Olim, "but actors are human beings, and sometimes emotions get the best of them. We try to talk through questions ahead of time that could be delicate or sensitive."
Another publicist advises clients to deflect with humor rather than confront the journalist. Not everyone agrees. Says PR veteran Howard Bragman, chairman and founder of 15 Minutes: "Under certain circumstances, if you feel uncomfortable, walk. If you feel something going negative, you don't have to tie a noose for your own hanging." Bragman concedes a young actor might pay a price for taking that tack, "but Robert De Niro is at that point in his life where he doesn't have to worry about his reputation."
Bragman also contends that, in a lot of cases, studios don't spend enough time prepping actors for potentially tricky encounters, even though on movies that have overtly political themes or raise controversial issues, some effort is often made to make sure all the filmmakers stay on message. Suggests another publicist, "The Intern is a benign romantic comedy. I doubt anyone seriously stepped up to offer De Niro talking points."
It's also not lost on Hollywood's public relations corps that navigating the British press, where most of the recent face-offs took place, is particularly problematic. "As a rule, and this is admittedly a generalization," says Olim, "a lot of the British press can be very personal in their line of questioning and occasionally provocative." Adds Bragman, "What we think is snarky here on Page Six or TMZ is run-of-the-mill in the U.K."