How to interview celebrities at a fandom convention

25 February 2013 | 11 comments

convention_interview

The first big name I ever got the chance to interview was Nobuo Uematsu. The resulting article, Final Fantasy Composer’s Chocobo Cosplay Wishes, Avatar Scoring Dreams, is probably the reason I got the opportunity to intern at Kotaku. Make no mistake: landing interviews with celebrities can hugely boost your journalism career.

However, the very attributes that make celebrity interviews appealing to editors are the same things that make them hard to pull off. You have to avoid getting starstruck in front of somebody you might find intimidating. You can’t get an interesting article by gushing either; you have to ask the tough questions like you would with anyone else.

As the former press liaison for Anime USA, I’ve supervised a lot of press conferences with big names in anime, games, and fandom. Based on my experiences both as an interviewer and a supervisor, here are some tips to make your first celebrity interview run smoothly:

  • Let the convention get you in touch. If the celebrity is attending a convention as a special guest, that means you’ll need to work with a press liaison or Guest Relations volunteer to organize your interview. Celebrity guests have busy schedules at conventions—autograph signings, panels, and more. If you try to write directly to Vic Mignogna’s agent about his Otakon schedule, he’ll be just as clueless about it as you are! Usually writing to press@[insertcon].com will get you in touch with the right person to arrange the interview.
  • If you can Google it, don’t ask it. I always cringe when I hear somebody ask an anime voice actor, “What was your first voice acting role?” This is a simple piece of knowledge that anyone could figure out with a quick Google search, or by scanning the celebrity’s IMDB page. Make sure to research your subject beforehand and only ask questions you can’t find out any other way. A good rule of thumb is to ask the celebrity about her opinions, favorites, and other subjective material instead of readily available facts.
  • Come prepared. It’s important to prep for any interview in advance, but perhaps even more important with a celebrity interview. If you’ve prepared questions ahead of time, you’re less likely to stumble and get nervous in front of somebody you really admire. Remember that 10 questions usually equals about one hour’s worth of talking time. It also helps to invest in a tape recorder to avoid misquoting somebody whose public image is especially important to their ability to get jobs.
  • Be ready to go off script. While it’s important to prepare questions in advance, you don’t want to be married to those questions if the conversation goes off in another direction entirely. There’s a joke I heard in journalism school about a flustered cub reporter carefully sticking to a prepared script of questions:

    Reporter: When did you become president of the company?

    Interviewee: A few months before I murdered my wife.

    Reporter: [sticking to script] And can you tell me about your newest product?

    Don’t miss the forest for the trees. If your subject is telling you a lot of interesting things about a topic you didn’t even prepare for, let her go on about that instead of cutting her off to ask your next question.

  • There’s a time to be a journalist and a time to be a fan. I wrote about this about a year ago, when I attended ROFLcon as a member of the press and got to hang out with the likes of Scumbag Steve and Chuck Testa. You may think it sounds like a compliment to tell the celebrity during an interview, “By the way, I’m a HUGE fan. Can I have your autograph after the interview?” but instead it might put the celebrity, who has to deal with gushing fans all the time, on her guard. A better option would be to conduct the interview normally, and then, once you are off duty, ask for an autograph or compliment her latest film.

Who is the most famous person you’ve ever interviewed? What was it like? Is there anything you wish you had done differently?

(photo via excalipoor on Flickr.)

  • http://beneaththetangles.wordpress.com TWWk

    I’m not journalist, but I did get to interview a voice actress once – Caitlin Glass, who does a lot of work with FUNImation. I had previously contacted her through her FB page and had conducted an email interview, but we did a more in-depth one at a convention. We had planned to meet for the interview for quite some time, and though the con staff was sometimes actually very off-putting (despite very early and humble requests to schedule a time), Caitlin recognized me and we were able to site down for a few minutes.

    • Lauren

      Charles, sorry you had such a negative experience with the convention staff when you tried to set up an interview! Maybe that convention didn’t have a designated press liaison and you kept getting passed around from person to person who didn’t think it was his job to deal with it. I still stand by my advice to do your best to go through the convention, but I think you handled it admirably when it didn’t work out.

  • http://www.mangatherapy.com Manga Therapy

    I’ve done a bunch, most recently, Yu Asakawa at NYCC 2012. It was fun.

    I’ve had pleasant experiences with interviews to date. Though you are right about asking questions that sound opinionated. :D

  • http://anime-gen.com Benu

    All these points are great points. This is the checklist I basically follow when I get ready for doing interviews.

    As for famous people I’ve interviewed. I’ve been extremely lucky and fortunate to interview quite a few famous people such as David Hayter, Shoko Nakagawa, Jyukai, Kari Wahlgren, Yosuke Kuroda, Seiji Mizushima, Yun Kouga, Hiroyuki Imaishi, Atsushi Nishigori, Danny Choo, Fred Gallagher and so many more. This is not mentioning the interviews I did at last years Anime Expo which were all pretty big names.

    I do tend to get nervous before interviews especially with Japanese musical guests and their management watching. That can be intimidating. Once I start asking questions though I relax. There is Japanese management that are really relaxed and cool and friendly. There are others that are intimidating.

    If I am a fan of the work of the person I’m interviewing I do let them know either before or after but I don’t “gush” or ever ask for autographs. An interview is more valuable than an autograph, for me at least.

    One Japanese guest I have interviewed was so amazed I was a fan of a show that he worked on that he said he was going to tell the original manga creator that there was a big fan of his work in the US when he went back to Japan. So I think it is a good thing to let guests know that you do appreciate their work.

    There are tons of things I would change with a lot of the interviews I’ve done. I wish I could ask some questions more clearly or ask them with less umms and ahhs. Or not stutter at times when doing interviews. I’ve had a speech impediment since I was small that still gives me trouble from time to time with stuttering. I wish my delivery would be more clear and professional. There are way to many thing to list. I tend to be a perfectionist.

    I do enjoy your posts and advice Lauren. I’ve been reading the blog for awhile and this is the first time I leave a comment. Keep up the good work!

    • Lauren

      @Benu, wow, that is quite a laundry list of big names! I think it’d be awesome if you wrote your own blog post on tips for interviewing fandom celebrities—for me to learn from! Let me know if you do.

  • http://www.ninehourfilms.com Mary R.

    These are all great tips, though I would say that the second one actually depends on what type of interview you’re doing and what your goal is.

    When I’m doing documentary work, I very often will be asking questions that not only do I know the answer but the answer is easy to find online as well. Because the film itself is meant to be a self contained story, I can’t say “Oh, everybody knows that” for most things so I need to hear it straight from the mouth of somebody in the actual movie, or I can’t include it.

    Which sometimes is uncomfortable or less fun for the subject, which is why frequently while the lights and camera are being set up I’ll prep them for the interview by reminding them that I might ask stupid questions or things I obviously know, including things we just talked about, but why I’m doing it.

    Also, I would add that if you’re doing any kind of video interview doing a “pre-interview” is a great idea if you’re able. Just a conversation beforehand about some of the topics you might cover will make a world of difference in a lot of ways, especially if you will actually be seen/heard as the interviewer. You’ll look more polished and prepared, and your subject will be more at ease with you because it’s not the first time you’ve ever talked. It’ll also help you go with the flow more easily because you’ll already have some idea of topics that the subject is likely to touch on, and ways that you can either go with that or steer back into what you wanted to discuss.

    I was once a subject in a podcast interview, and because we had to test the technology the day before I got to talk to the hosts for a bit beforehand. It was definitely the interview where I was the most relaxed and candid, but felt the most prepared and capable.

    With the esports personalities that I’ve interviewed, it usually wasn’t possible to do a real pre-interview, but because it takes a long time to set up the lights, I was able to chat with them for a while before the cameras rolled and it accomplished the same thing.

    • Lauren

      @Mary, I wasn’t thinking about documentary work when I wrote this, and you’re absolutely right. In J-school we learned that it’s important to get the facts straight from the person. Even “My name is Lauren and I’m a reporter,” can be much more impactful than if the documentarian says it for the subject.

      That’s such a good idea to do a pre-interview. People stiffen up when I take out my tape recorder, even though the whole purpose of it is to record them accurately and not misquote them as saying something they didn’t. I’ll need to try your solution!

  • http://geekerydo.blogspot.com Kristina

    Finally got around to commenting here.. sorry about the delay!

    I love this post, though. I especially love that you included a note about asking for autographs and being a fan in general. I’ve always been a little bit confused about whether it’s alright or not to do things like that, as long as it doesn’t eat into your professional time, since some folks might view it as abusing your “power” as press.

    The biggest person I’ve interviewed is Hiro Mashima, who is the mangaka behind RAVE MASTER and FAIRY TAIL. At the end of our interview, we actually still had about 5 minutes of my allotted time left (it was supposed to be a group interview, and I’m the only one who showed up out of the assigned outlets – so I finished slightly earlier than intended. But the bright side is, I got to ask all of my questions), so I asked if it was OK he signed one of his comics which I’d brought with me. He was cool enough to doodle in it for me as well as autograph it – I was so happy!

    But then after that, I freaked out because I started paying attention to people talking about how unprofessional it could be to ask for an autograph of your interview subject, even though we were (then) off the clock. I don’t really take any one person’s word for authority, but somehow it makes me feel much better to know that you, a press liaison and certified otaku journalist, feel that it’s fine once you’ve got business out of the way and aren’t getting in the way of other duties.

    The second biggest interview I’ve had, by contrast, is with Thomas Scott, a Disney design group artist/designer. That interview was conducted over the phone, and rather than transcribing it question – answer style, I wrote it sort of magazine style afterward, with a few quotations peppered throughout the article. I loved working it that way, since it makes more of a story out of the material you got from an interview than simply copying the conversation to text. In the future, I hope to apply this to most of my transcribed interviews, and maybe just highlight a few of the more interesting responses I got from the interviewee.

    In case you’re interested, here are my interviews (for reference):

    Hiro Mashima – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KAN-mbJ14WM

    Thomas Scott – http://www.tomopop.com/who-is-thomas-scott–21991.phtml

    Of course, your feedback and commentary are welcome here. :) Besides those two interviews, I’ve done tons on camera, but the only time I’ve actually had difficulty separating myself from being a fangirl (and instead, being a journalist), was when I interviewed Mr Mashima (as it is – I even snuck in a personal question there). I think the experience has helped me get ready for any future interviews, too. Well, I hope it has, anyway. When the time comes! Hehe.

  • ThePaper

    What are your thoughts on goofy/unusual questions?

    • Lauren

      Good question! Obviously I’ve asked them before, like when I asked Nobuo Uematsu what he’d like to cosplay as. (His response, “a chocobo,” was the centerpiece of my article!) I think you really have to go with your gut. You want to get a good interview, but you don’t want to say anything that will make the subject too uncomfortable. For example, it’s probably best to avoid sexual, political, or religious questions, but with the right subject taboo topics might be OK.

  • http://www.genjipress.com Serdar

    I’ve been doing interviews at cons for years now, and one of the things that comes to mind most is: Treat the other person like a human being, and not a dispenser of pop culture.

    I once read an interview with guitarist Edgar Winter, who has been hospitalized many times because of his porphyry, and he said something to the effect of “When I was in hospital, it was one of the few times in my life people didn’t treat me like an f-ing jukebox.”

    Don’t treat your interview subject like a jukebox. Or an on-demand artbook. Or a trick monkey that does that thing that makes everyone laugh.