I pondered these earth-shaking questions as I read recent examples of that dubious literary genre, the "celebrity interview," wherein journalists, having been accorded a snippet of face time, try to capture their subjects in a few hundred words.
So with everyone on their best behavior, how are the actors doing so far this year?
Redford, for one, is working diligently to support his survivalist film, challengingly titled "All Is Lost." A distant individual who takes himself very seriously, Redford is uniformly an hour or so late for interviews. But, the New York Times dispatched renowned political columnist Maureen Dowd to visit him, and while there was no mention of his arrival time, the newspaper got a three-hour conversation. "The thing that's easy to forget about Redford is that he can really be fun," Dowd assures readers. She adds: "He even laughed the great Redford laugh" while describing the story of a man alone in his sailboat.
Redford seemed less convivial in his Los Angeles Times interview with John Horn. The star complained he'd kept asking director J.C. Chandor to describe the background details of his character, but "he never really answered, and I realized that if that's where he's going, that's fine by me, so I stopped asking." And perhaps stopped laughing.
Anthony Breznican of Entertainment Weekly had the task of writing a celebrity interview about Joseph Gordon-Levitt, an intense and ambitious young actor who had just finished his first directing effort, "Don Jon," while simultaneously producing a new TV variety show for Participant Media's Pivot network.
With all that on the line, was Gordon-Levitt tense? No, he projected a "mellow vibe" reflecting the "light fun" mood of his film (an idiosyncratic movie about a porn obsession that is underperforming at the box office.)
To be sure, actors should not be criticized for trying to project themselves and their movies in a favorable light. James Franco, by contrast, deliberately goes about projecting contradictory images of himself, as though courting derision (which he generously receives). Besides giving baffling interviews on his latest art film, "As I Lay Dying," (based on the William Faulkner novel), Franco also has published a new novel of his own, titled "Actors Anonymous." In the novel, Franco writes, "I hate when it's just about me, me, me, but then again, I am pretty much about me." Now that, at least, reflects true self-knowledge.
While Franco has no talent for self-protection, he is not alone in that area. Over the years, stars have often told me things I wish they hadn't. I once asked Sylvester Stallone why, over the course of four years, he had fired four different talent agents, and he replied, "Because my agents refuse to return my phone calls."
I asked Marlon Brando why he agreed to play a ridiculous role (Jor-El) in "Superman," and he replied, "They offered me 12Â¼ percent of the gross and I'd always wanted someone to offer me a quarter of something."
Jack Nicholson disdains interviews because he has long had a bad habit of being candid. In stumping for "Chinatown," he confided to me that the person he had thought was his sister was actually his mother while the person he thought was his mother was in fact his grandmother.
So are celebrities ever telling the truth? That's not really their strength, is it? Their job is to move the goods. And pretend they're really "fun" guys. But now and then their interviewers should let us in on the joke.
2013 Variety Media, LLC, a subsidiary of Penske Business Media; Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC