What I learned from interviewing a celebrity

Read time: 3 min.

Advice for journalists and writers I learned from interviewing actor Rudy Pankow.

This summer, I had the opportunity to work at a magazine called Local Life on Hilton Head Island, South Carolina (if you’re reading this, I miss you all).

Outer Banks, the Netflix hit show (click here for some background info if you have no idea what I’m talking about), came out a couple months before my internship. It was filmed in South Carolina, so I received an assignment to write a story about the tie between the show and where our magazine was located.

The editor said I could take it any direction I wanted, including interviewing an actor. As big as the show is, it seemed impossible to land an interview with one of them. Still, I decided to go on a quest to track them down.

Against all odds, Rudy Pankow (aka JJ) said yes. Needless to say, I learned a lot from the experience.

Here are 3 essentials for any interview:

© Provided by Netflix

1. Persistence

Getting the interview was a long shot. A very long shot. I felt like a crazy woman, sending an email to ask someone with over 3 million Instagram followers if they would take the time to talk to an intern at a magazine that goes to about 30,000 people.

Rudy’s publicist asked if he would be on the cover, and the answer was no. She asked if he was the first actor we reached out to. Again, no. Then, I accidentally advertised the fact that an intern was going to be doing the writing and interviewing. Three strikes, right?

But then, he said yes.

Never be afraid to ask. You might not get the answer you’re looking for. Then again, you just might get it. If you don’t ask, it’s guaranteed you won’t get a yes. I received a no from the publicists of several other actors, but that didn’t stop me from asking again. All it took was one yes.

Ask. Ask twice. Ask three times.

I’m pretty sure being annoying when it comes to getting interviews is part of the job description for journalists. You can be a little annoying, but be respectful. You’re not entitled to an interview with anyone, but you are always allowed to ask.

2. Preparation

When writing questions for interviews, don’t be skimpy. Write down every question you can think of. I don’t care if “What’s your favorite vegetable?” is the question that comes to mind — write it down. After you finish your master list of questions, refine it to 10 or 15 of the best ones.

List them in order of the most important ones to cover. I’ll explain how to figure out which questions those are in a bit.

Bring the master list with every dumb question you could think of into the interview, too.

My fellow intern (shoutout to Megan who was my copilot in the interview and also did an amazing job illustrating and designing the article) and I ended up getting more time in the interview than we planned for, so we almost ran out of questions. If you ever get extra interview time with a celebrity and run out of questions, grab onto every last second and just ask something. However, coming prepared with plenty of extra questions is always helpful.

On top of that, don’t make assumptions. Be very clear about the time and location of your interview.

In this case, I knew Rudy would be in a different time zone than us, so I asked about his time zone. As it turned out, when Rudy’s publicist told me the time of the interview, she told me the time in my time zone. I assumed she would realize that’s why I asked about the time zone and clarify, but I was wrong. We got on the phone a little later than planned due to this mix up. Thankfully, he was understanding and it turned out okay.

© Provided by Netflix

3. The golden question

The golden question is the question that unlocks the person you’re interviewing. Let me explain.

In the interview, my thinking was that we would take care of business first. So, first on my list were questions about the location where they filmed. This part of the interview felt a little stiff and didn’t flow.

Near the end, I got curious about what an actor must do to prepare for an audition after Rudy said something about auditioning. I went off the question list and asked him about it. He lit up and started explaining the ins and outs of acting — stuff I wouldn’t have even known to ask about. Acting is his expertise. He loved talking about it.

The questions following this one flowed naturally. I realized I should have started with this question, because it put him at ease. Rudy was comfortable and confident talking about acting.

Find whatever it is the person you’re interviewing loves to talk about, and ask them that first.

If they feel confident answering the first question, they’re going to feel more confident talking about things they don’t know as much about later on and the whole interview will run much more smoothly.

Try to figure out what the golden question might be beforehand. If you’re not sure, start the interview with some easier questions and look for rabbit trails. The rabbit trails will usually lead you to the golden question. After that, it’s all about asking follow up questions.

Illustration by Megan Goheen

To read the full Rudy Pankow article, click here.

Know any journalists or writers who need interview advice? Share these!