Get Real with Carla Stockton
Interview with Interviewer Thelma Adams
There’s a movement in entertainment lately. More and more of the shows and films earning critical acclaim and audience loyalty are written, produced, and run by women. So it is fitting that many of the most respected writers reporting about entertainment and the people driving it are women as well. Women like Thelma Adams, Contributing Editor at Yahoo Movies, a critic, novelist (see here), and Oscarologist.
“This is a positive trend.” Thelma tells me confidently, speaking to me from her Hyde Park home. “Change is inevitable, but how long will it take?” Women seek her out to interview them, and industry insiders respect her talents.
Thelma sees her gender as an advantage. “As a female journalist,” she explains, “I let the women I interview be as intelligent as they actually are. There’s no need to hide that light under a basket, to pretend. I also understand that life intrudes and I’m curious to discover how their roles as wife, mother, divorcee and daughter bring insight into their work—and vice versa. And as a writer and artist and movie-lover, I stop American subjects, like Ethan Hawke, who pause and say ‘I don’t want to sound pretentious,’ and say ‘no, tell me what you really think. Let’s explore this idea.’ Trust me, I will not make you sound stupid to make me sound smarter.”
The interview with Hawke, recently featured on the front page of the NY Observer, is a prime example of why Thelma’s’ interviews are so delicious.
She understands that interviewing is an art unto itself.
“It helps that I’m empathetic and a good listener. The more so, the better the interview. And that tends to be a female trait. Look at Oprah. When I listen to my transcripts, I always marvel at how if I’d just stopped asking questions and listened, I would have gotten more juicy material.”
Thelma’s interviews read like well-wrought mini-screenplays, fading in on characters in media res, following their subjects through scenarios that wrap before the action loses its luster, providing entertainment and illumination. “I never put my words, my thoughts, in my subject’s mouth,” Thelma muses. “Like any good fiction writer, I try to give each subject their unique voice back to them.”
Then, too, Thelma Adams perceives interviewing as performance art as well.
Like an actor, the interviewer must listen, and she must surrender herself entirely to the subject, live in the moment. “It’s the first lesson you learn,” Thelma asserts. “Whether you’re interviewing someone who will become a great friend like Melissa Leo or someone whom you admire as a generous and insightful subject like Wes Anderson, you must set aside your own ego, understand you are interacting with people… people who are having good days and bad.”
Thelma admits that “If there is a trick it’s to offer some simple flattery. ‘I just saw your work, and I loved the way you did this or that,’ or ‘you really captured the essence of something in that script you wrote.’ The subject must be willing to let you in, and sometimes you need to open up and reveal something—even something very small—about yourself.”
But the technique has been known to backfire.
It almost did when Thelma Adams interviewed Joaquin Phoenix and director James Gray about The Immigrant, a film Thelma refers to as under-seen. According to Thelma, she turned to Phoenix and effused over his performance. “Really,” the actor fairly sneered back at her. “I hated myself in that role. I like you less for saying that…” “It made for an awkward moment, she avers. “Until he laughed.”
“Joaquin’s a great actor, whom I love. But the day I interviewed him for The Immigrant, he was like that toddler who doesn’t want you to look at him but then acts out, like the little kid who can’t sit still and will do anything for attention. The only way to get the interview is to ride with that, to use the energy, to get the actor relaxed enough so he’ll talk and let the director talk, too. I did. It worked.”
Getting a good interview is not an easy process. “You have to find a way to be fresh. I have an advantage in that I am mature. I have the benefit of experience in life, as a person, as a writer. I’m a wife and a mother (of a college freshman and a high school sophomore), and I’ve been interviewing talent for over twenty years. So my subjects know I’ve seen all their own work, all the work of their mentors and role models, of all the directors and actors they love most. I’m good at this because I put the time in, I do my homework. It matters.”
“They’re not all perfect. We all have interviews that go south.” When Thelma interviewed Mike Leigh in a public forum, the director was openly confrontational and went out of his way to subvert the interview. He has that reputation for being unpredictable—even nasty. But next time around, he directed Happy Go Lucky and Thelma immediately added the film to her list of all-time favorites. “Any displeasure I felt melted in my enjoyment of the film. There is the man and then there is the artist. Call it the Woody Allen dilemma.”
Treat yourself to a visit to Thelma’s website.
NB: Watch for Thelma’s surprise Interview in Issue 53 of Columbia: A Journal of Literature and Art. It’ll be the highlight of the nonfiction section!
Here’s Thelma being interviewed at the Toronto Film Festival. And a video interview with Scott Hicks about The Boys are Back:
Carla Stockton, Nonfiction Editor of Issue #53, is a lifelong on-and-off New Yorker, who, after living for 13 years in exile in the southwest desert, brings a returnee’s perspective to the city. As a fully licensed sightseeing guide, she has a particular intimacy with the area and is never reluctant to share it with others. Carla’s semi-weekly column will discuss people, places and events in and around Manhattan. Follow her here.