Adventures in Entertainment Journalism: The Curious Case of the Celebrity Roundtable
[*Also published on Medium]
Back in 2011, I made the wise decision to quit my comfy full-time job at a reputable production company to pursue more freelance opportunities as a writer. I have italicized the word "wise" to clearly emphasize my sarcasm because, in hindsight, it was a poorly informed decision that led to inevitable worry and depression brought on by unemployment. 2012 was not a very good year for me, emotionally and financially, but ironically, it was a great year for brushing shoulders with a crap-ton of celebrities.
My idea to live off gigs writing TV commercial pitches and treatments for directors while paying rent that would require me to book at least two assignments a week was, to the dismay of my 31-year-old ass, naive at best. To occupy my time in between lulls, I managed and wrote the now-defunct blog Hotter in Hollywood (see: its VERY dated trailer) while turning to other small, independent entertainment websites and publications to write movie reviews and other pop cultural musings (or "thinkpieces" as every pundit calls them). Now, while you read this, you're probably assuming that I did this to earn supplemental income, but au contraire, my friends. The words "small" and "independent" should be clear giveaways that my contributions to these media outlets were unpaid. (Those italics do not imply sarcasm.)
There was one fashion and lifestyle magazine that assigned me to interview up-and-coming actors during photo shoots in glamorous locales like the Hollywood Hills, art studios, or the alleyway behind the nearest 7-Eleven. Another publication, which was more popular among local college students, gave me free rein to write about anything I wanted, while one movie website became my gateway to free screenings. And as a result, my reports, reviews, and blogging earned me a place within the L.A. press junket circuit (more on this later).
For the fashion and lifestyle mag, I had to come up with relatively safe yet interesting questions for young actors I usually refer to as "winners of the genetic lottery." These were your gorgeous, run-of-the-mill twentysomethings who may have been fourth billing on the latest CW drama or up-and-comers on short-lived MTV series but still had a shitload of followers on Twitter and weren't afraid to flaunt their bare skin and low body fat percentage. Chatting poolside in the hills with a young Evan Peters after he finished the first of many seasons of American Horror Story was pleasant enough of an experience (the title of my article: "On the Edge of Gory"). Other highlights included meeting with former Grimm star David Giuntoli, who covered the 2013 Spring Fashion issue and is as distractingly dashing in person as you would expect, playing dress-up with the former Mrs. Channing Tatum, Jenna Dewan, and conducting phoners with How to Get Away With Murder's Charlie Weber (see: "Mr. Murder" above) and the beautiful Olivia Munn, who was promoting HBO's The Newsroom at the time. She and I bonded over our mutual German-Irish-Asian heritage. And by "bonded," I mean "casually brought up our shared background and then quickly proceeded to move on to the pop cultural items that make her geek out."
– he had come a long way from Singled Out – and had started listening to his popular podcast. After receiving the press release for his book from his publicist, I took matters into my own hands and replied to her with a pitch, identifying myself as the entertainment editor at the mag. Within a month's time, we had a photo shoot set up at the home of our managing editor, a fabulous woman named Leslie who was married to a hunky TV actor who sometimes made a cameo. Chris himself was a relatively harmless interviewee, answering questions in between wardrobe changes. With some help from our handsome British stylist, Warren, Chris was able to pull off his intended "hipster archaeology professor" look. I was admittedly a little nervous as I wanted to make the interview feel like a casual conversation, but it was a challenge to maintain a steady exchange while he was constantly being beautified. However, when I brought up the topic of his impending fortieth birthday, he was unexpectedly evasive.
"Um, we're not going to talk about that, are we?" he said while looking at a selection of ties to match the shirt and vest for his next ensemble.
I found it slightly off-putting yet continued to talk about his experiences at Comic-Con and his relationship with his two partners in crime, Jonah Ray and Matt Mira. Oddly enough, he would freely talk about his age on his podcast months later.
Campus Circle ("your source for college entertainment"), I accepted assignments from a woman named Yuri, an editor I never met in person. She always sounded bubbly and fun over email, but I never matched her name with a face, and this was during the heyday of Facebook. I started out by writing movie reviews and contributing some op-ed pieces for the paper (see: "DVR Killed The Watercooler") while my very own Hotter in Hollywood was taking on a life of its own and earning a tiny ounce of recognition in press circles.
My first-ever press junket took place at the swanky SLS Hotel in Beverly Hills. You never forget your first time; it was for the indie film Happythankyoumoreplease, written and directed by Josh Radnor from How I Met Your Mother. I had no idea what to expect, but I was pleasantly surprised to receive a free lunch and two cups of coffee in the press suite before being handed some promotional swag and ushered into a repurposed guest room where five other journalists and I sat around a table and waited for various cast members (hi, Kate Mara) to sit down and answer contrived questions about what it was like to work on set and "what inspired you to take on the role." SPOILER: 95% of the time they'll tell you it's the script. And since this was my first time at the rodeo, I came prepared with a notepad full of questions and a fully charged Flip camera – remember, this was the early 2010s. Little did I know I would only get time to ask two of my eight questions and that I would be the only one recording video of the session, which is generally frowned upon in these set-ups. (Check out my embarrassing novice skills here.) I might as well have walked into that room with the word NEWBIE written in Sharpie across my forehead.
In the end, the experience turned out relatively fine. I ended up becoming friends with one of the writers who sat at the roundtable with me, a young woman named Ariel who moonlighted as an entertainment journalist in between booking gigs as a hand model...and I now realize how L.A. this sentence sounds.
The more press invites I received, the more I was able to manage my expectations. I quickly learned that I could use these junkets as opportunities to get free shit, especially delicious catered meals, which was music to my unemployed ears. You mean, I can take as much as I want from this charcuterie platter and dessert tray full of mini cheesecakes? This ice bucket of sugar-free Red Bulls is for me? You're serving chicken piccata up in here???
Later that summer, I found myself at Shutters on the Beach, a luxury hotel in Santa Monica where, I imagined, rich white families with kids named Skyler and Taylor frequently stayed. It's known for its gorgeous bar lounge and pretty views of the Pacific, albeit when it's not interrupted by homeless people urinating underneath the pier. This was where I sat across from Justin Timberlake and Mila Kunis while they talked about their "raunchy" rom-com Friends With Benefits. Justin seemed uninterested in the proceedings at first, and this was another lesson I learned: Some actors find the whole promotional dog-and-pony show exhausting and annoying. I can't blame them. Answering the same question over and over again can be a celebrity's own personal hell. Mr. SexyBack eventually warmed up to us, mostly because of Mila's own interaction with the press; she seemed a little more like a seasoned junket pro at the time, back when he was starting to take on more acting roles (see: Southland Tales, In Time, Runner Runner, The Love Guru, and any other films no one saw). Or maybe JT was just having a rough morning, you never know. As a matter of fact, US Weekly tells me that this movie was released shortly after he and Jessica Biel were on a break, so perhaps he was up late the night before, pining for his future wife or enjoying a rendezvous with a rebound.
None of that awkwardness was felt at The Beverly Wilshire (f.k.a. The Regent Beverly from Pretty Woman) where, in the spring of 2012, I interviewed Emily Blunt and my birthday twin, Ewan McGregor, for their film Salmon Fishing in the Yemen. After casually pointing out that our birthdays were two weeks away, I asked Ewan what his plans were for the big day. Within the two seconds it took him to give me an answer, my mind flashed to clinking pint glasses in a bar with the Scottish actor after inviting me to celebrate with him, because that's how you become friends with a celebrity, right? You find something you have in common, form an immediate bond, and voila -- you're besties for life, going on ski excursions to Aspen and vacations in Santorini, turning your Instagram feed into a giant display of jealousy-inducing starfuckery. Sorry, Emily Blunt. I loved you in The Devil Wears Prada, and your accent is charming as hell, but you don't have perfect five o'clock shadow and Caribbean-blue eyes that could mesmerize a blind man.
More press events followed – attending the premiere of Take Me Home Tonight (starring Topher Grace, Anna Faris, and a pre-Marvelized Chris Pratt) and gorging on grilled cheese sliders at the 80s-themed afterparty in a club downtown; driving out to a soundstage at Universal Studios to sit in on a press conference with Morgan Freeman for Oblivion (Tom Cruise was a no-show); having the honor to sit with veteran journalist David Carr to discuss his gripping documentary Page One: Inside the New York Times; dropping my jaw when a foreign reporter had the gall to ask the cast of Scream 4 a question spoiling the film's ending; interviewing the toned stars of Shark Night 3D at the W Hotel in Westwood, a mere five blocks from my apartment; cozying up next to Joseph Gordon-Levitt and fixating on his dimples while he was pimping out his indie film, Hesher; sitting next to legends Billy Crystal and Bette Midler inside a ballroom at The Ritz-Carlton, asking them benign questions about their family comedy Parental Guidance while wondering what made them stoop so low; and having a one-on-one chat with the creators of Orphan Black in a room at The Omni during San Diego Comic-Con (this was the year after I interrupted a conversation between Jerry O'Connell and a writer from Entertainment Weekly at a rooftop pool party promoting Piranha 3D).
Film festivals also became annual events added to my calendar. There wasn't a free cocktail or a tuna tartare appetizer that didn't have my name on it while I took advantage of every red carpet and VIP lounge at the Los Angeles Film Festival, Outfest, and Screamfest – basically any local entertainment-based gathering that had the suffix "fest" added to its name. For an unemployed schlub, I was certainly enjoying some posh perks at many posh venues throughout the city. I definitely felt traces of Impostor Syndrome while being frequently granted access to these highly exclusive spaces. Standing next to Halle Berry in the green room at the Spike TV Scream Awards – a mere hour after paying for a tank of gas in pennies – seemed insanely odd. And going back to an empty fridge in my apartment after interviewing Neil Patrick Harris and one of my writer-producer idols, Joss Whedon, after a private screening of Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog was one emotional dichotomy I'll never forget.
However, during my "career" as an unpaid entertainment journalist, The Four Seasons in Beverly Hills became my main stomping grounds. The world-renown hotel on South Doheny Drive was where I attended most of the junkets in which I was fortunate enough to participate. Going there was always a treat. I knew I could always rely on a delicious (again, free) meal and one of the best cups of coffee on the West Coast (courtesy of Culina). I would also use the couches in the luxe lobby as an office where I would transcribe my interviews, use the free wi-fi, and write for a few hours.
The Four Seasons was where I quickly learned that a publicist's job is nothing to be envied. If there's one adverb I would use to describe how they operate, it would be frantically. They are the cogs in the Hollywood machine with the sole function of keeping up appearances for their clients, and it is a constant hustle I could not fathom doing, especially if you're pimping out a product you don't really believe in. I mean, imagine the bullshit publicists had to push out for something like The Emoji Movie...or anything featuring a post-Mean Girls Lindsay Lohan. Which brings me to...
Things you typically hear come out of a publicist's mouth during a press junket:
1. "Hi guys, [insert former Disney Channel starlet] is running a little late. Thanks for waiting. Would anyone like a Voss water?"
2. "Hi guys, we'd appreciate it if you don't ask any questions about [Male Lead] and [Female Lead]'s romantic relationship. K, thanks!"
3. "Hi guys, does anyone need their parking validated?"
4. "Hi guys, please refrain from any questions about [former Nickelodeon starlet]'s recently leaked nudes."
5. "Hi guys, please don't ask anything about what it was like to work with [film director who's going through a public divorce and allegations of sexual misconduct]."
6. "Hi guys, you have five minutes with [controversial actor] to ask your dozen questions. K, thanks! Oh, and before I forget: does anyone need their parking validated?"
The Four Seasons was also where I had my fair share of sit-downs with various celebs in every room and suite throughout the hotel. I once sat next to Rachel McAdams and asked her about working with Woody Allen on Midnight in Paris; fixed my gaze on Jessica Alba during a press conference for Sin City: A Dame to Kill For; pretended to care about Will Ferrell's dramedy, Everything Must Go, in the enormous Ballroom; shared an elevator with Mickey Rourke after chatting with him and Henry "Man of Steel" Cavill about their sword-and-sandals epic Immortals; and sat across from Judd Apatow and Leslie Mann to discuss the themes of This is 40 after inhaling a Caprese salad and several gourmet chocolate truffles in the press room.
Moral of the story: Even though my income was suffering at the time, I loved getting free shit in exchange for briefly staring into the eyes of beautiful movie stars and asking them what it was like to act alongside other beautiful movie stars. This was a period of my life that I look back on with some pain and slight awe. Having just turned 30, I was going through a major transition, standing at that proverbial crossroads and wondering if I had made a mistake quitting a comfy full-time job. But then I repeat the word "comfy" in my head. Comfy isn't exciting. Comfy isn't challenging. Comfy doesn't push you forward. It's only in hindsight that I can appreciate what I had and what I didn't have back then. Do miss it? The catered deliciousness and swag – yes. The crippling worry about where my next paycheck is coming from – hell no.
To my entertainment journalism brothers and sisters who continue to do their thing and publish great content, I salute you.