By Jennifer Sullivan | November 19th, 2010
By Jennifer Nicole Sullivan
Last Thursday, I chatted with “Saturday Night Live” cast member Bill Hader over the phone. You know, he’s the guy who plays the painfully shy, Ed Hardy wearing, club guru Stefon and hilariously imitates Eddie Vedder, Al Pacino and Vincent Price. On December 5, the comedian presents “An Evening with Bill Hader” at The University of Rhode Island, so I caught up with him for a preview of the event for the entertainment newsmagazine Newport Mercury.
In an e-mail, Hader’s manager said I’d have 15 minutes to chat with the comedian. I provided her my phone number so he could call me at 1 p.m. (It’s rare if you ever get a celebrity’s phone number, although I still have digits for Chaka Khan and Sharon Jones of Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings who chatted with me for 50 minutes while she stood outside of a laundry mat in Brooklyn waiting for her clothes to dry.)
Hader was a hoot! We had a fun, free-flowing conversation that moved easily, so I managed to stretch our interview to 30 minutes without him indicating a need to hang-up. We talked about his inspiration for Stefon, Eddie Vedder’s reaction about his impersonation and his biggest “SNL” mess-up. (For the full article, check out the Dec. 1 issue of Newport Mercury)
As an entertainment writer, I’ve had the privilege to interview several actors, comedians and musicians. But because of my distance from New York and Los Angeles, I’ve had to master conducting successful, easy flowing interviews with celebs over the phone. How do you create immediate chemistry? If you only have 15 or 20 minutes, what do you ask? And how can you engage your celebrity enough to remain on the phone to answer a few more questions?
Whether you interview a celeb, notable figure or any media savvy person over the phone, here are some tips to conduct a successful phoner:
- Research your subject: Well duh, right? But if you’re a huge fan, you might think you know everything about the celeb already and skip this crucial step. Your job is to uncover and explore those bits of info that readers don’t know. Plus, you don’t want to waste precious minutes asking about well-known, confirmed facts that you could have found out online. Become an expert on this celeb and certainly try to listen to their latest CD, watch their TV show or films or watch footage them on YouTube.
- Record, record, record: It’s no fun trying to type a thousand words a minute while trying to engage your celeb. You can buy a special cord from Radio Shack that hooks your digital voice recorder to your phone. I don’t have that, but luckily I can hold my digital voice recorder to the earpiece of my cordless landline phone and pick up a decent recording for future transcription. And, it creates a great souvenir of your celebrity chat.
- Find a commonality: It’s easy to create chemistry over the phone if you begin the interview with a commonality. Did you and the celeb grow up in the same state? Attend the same college? Recently spend time in Japan? When I interviewed Angela Kinsey, who plays Angela on “The Office,” I found out we both grew up in North Texas near Dallas. I began the interview by sharing our common home state and we had a long, comfortable conversation. Same with Bill Hader, I capitalized on our shared link to the south.
- Toss in a few compliments: Celebs are people too and still enjoy compliments. They will like the compliments, probably like you and will hopefully open up more. But don’t gush. You can’t waste important moments like when Chris Farley asked Paul McCartney in the old “SNL” sketch, “Um…remember when you were in The Beatles? That was awesome…”
- “Where are you at?”: Always ask the celeb where they are located during the phone call or even what they plan to do that day. After talking to me at his home in New York City, Bill Hader was headed to “SNL” to rewrite a sketch and then watch Sir Elton John perform at the American Museum of Natural History’s annual benefit that night.
- Ask important questions upfront: Think about questions in terms of past, present and future. (i.e. Past acclaim, present projects, future work) Of those, create a list of must-ask questions and ask them upfront just in case your time gets cut short. Have a list of extra questions in case you get more time.
- Be unique: Ask them the one interesting question that most people wouldn’t think to ask.
- Think short and concise: Save time by limiting your words. Ask clear, short, meaningful questions. Avoid awkward gaps or pauses by quickly jumping into your next question.
- Sound enthusiastic: No one wants to chat with a monotone, lifeless robot. Show your enthusiasm and personality through your voice.
- Know when to wrap it up: You could probably chat with these celebs all day, but know when to hang up. After close to 30 minutes chatting with Bill Hader, I knew I had enough info and said, “Well, is there anything else we haven’t talked about that you want people to know?” They will give their last bit and then you say your “thank yous,” “good lucks” and “can’t wait to see your next show/film/talk/etc…”
Jennifer Nicole Sullivan is a freelance journalist based in Newport, R.I., and a regular contributor to Newport Mercury, Newport Patch and Rhode Island Home & Design magazine. The Dallas native is a former features reporter at Corpus Christi Caller- Times. Follow her on Twitter @trendyjenny.