“I’m one of those guys where I’m always kind of assuming the social decorum is in play and that we’re promoting a superhero movie,” Downey said. “A lot of kids are going to see it and this has nothing to do with your creepy, dark agenda that I’m feeling like all of a sudden ashamed and obligated to accommodate your weirdo sh–.”
In a much friendlier interview, Downey told Stern and co-host Robin Quivers that he felt ambushed by Guru-Murthy’s serious questions.
“My heart is beating in my chest because this is the first interview of the day. I didn’t know what to expect,” Downey said before slamming the U.K.’s Channel 4 News anchor for “scrutinizing” him “like a kiddie fiddler who’s running for mayor.”
“What I have to do in the future is I just have to give myself permission to say, ‘That is more than likely a syphilitic parasite, and I need to distance myself from this clown,'” Downey said. “Otherwise, I’m probably going to put hands on somebody, and then there’s a real story.”
Stern and Quivers supported the actor.
“Everyone seems to be on your side for walking out,” Quivers said.
“You were really rubbed the wrong way,” Stern added.
“I don’t think he handled it badly,” Quivers said. “He just got up and left.”
But Downey’s departure was anything but angelic. In the video, he appears to pat Guru-Murthy rather hard on the way out. When the flabbergasted journalist tries to apologize to Downey, the actor replies that the interview was “getting a little Diane Sawyer and you’re kind of a schmuck.”
In hindsight, the interview began to unravel around half way in, when Guru-Murthy asked about the “obvious parallels” between Downey and his Avenger’s character, Tony Stark a.k.a. Iron Man. Downey gave a reasonable but short reply, to which Guru-Murthy added: “But [Stark] is becoming a much more likable character as well, isn’t he? A better man. In a way that you are as well, I suppose.”
The allusion to Downey’s turbulent past, including admitted addictions, didn’t sit well with the celebrity. He laughed uncomfortably and then started looking around the room. As the questions got more personal, Downey suddenly asked: “Are we promoting a movie?” As the interview broke down, Downey got snarky, telling Guru-Murthy that he “better get to your next question. Your foot is starting to get a little jumpy.”
When the anchor asked if Downey is “free” of his past problems, the actor said, “What are we doing?” and then waved goodbye and began to walk out.
In his appearance on “the Howard Stern Show,” Downey referenced another awkward Guru-Murthy movie interview: a feisty 2013 exchange with Quentin Tarantino about the relationship between on-screen and real-life violence.
“He pulled the same garbage on Tarantino, and Tarantino stayed in his chair and lit him up for five minutes,” Downey told Stern with an air of admiration for the director.
The two interviews make clear what Downey thinks of journalists. Serious questions about drugs or politics make them “schmucks” with “creepy, dark agendas.”
But Downey has misidentified the villain here. Like Iron Man battling War Machine, he’s lashed out in insecurity at the nearest target instead of thinking about who the real enemy is. The problem isn’t Guru-Murthy. The problem is the press junket.
Blame it on the rise of the PR industry. Today’s celebrities are practically inaccessible. Actors like Downey descend from their isolation-chamber-like mansions to talk to the press only when their agents have arranged strategically placed profiles in the glossy magazine of their choice. Or, when they are contractually obligated to push their newest film.
Enter: the press junket, an intentionally superficial interview vortex that is the journalistic version of speed dating. Press junkets present reporters with a nearly insurmountable problem: how to get something more than a movie trailer voice-over out of a five-minute hotel room interview?
There are two general strategies. One is the super casual approach. The idea is skip the boring bits and ask bizarre stuff in the hopes of teasing some humanity out of actors who have been drilled by their publicist to deliver programmed responses.
Sometimes, the casual approach pays off, as it did for producer/entertainment reporter Jonathan Hyla. His super casual interview with Cate Blanchett went viral last month after it was misleadingly edited. But the full version is amazing. Who knew that Cate Blanchett drank Black Cow potato vodka or made inappropriate hand gestures during interviews? Compare to this friendly but traditional press junket interview.
Sometimes the super casual strategy goes all wrong, however. Like when a Jesse Eisenberg interview descended into insults and cheap magic tricks.
And then, of course, there is Guru-Murthy’s approach: ask whatever serious questions you think are most important. Like the super casual approach, the serious path has its pitfalls. As Guru-Murthy pointed out in the Guardian, celebrities sometimes confuse press junket interviews with “commercials” for their movies.
“I do have sympathy for the actors,” he wrote. “These interviews are the contractual obligation of being a movie star, and it must be awful to be unable to escape the past. But my sympathy runs only up to a point. If I was going to ask any other interviewee about difficult topics I would probably have a chat beforehand to prepare them. Movie stars don’t do that.
“Maybe, like a bad relationship, this just isn’t working,” Guru-Murthy mused. “We want different things out of it. I want something serious and illuminating, they just want publicity. Maybe we and the movie stars should just go our separate ways, and find people more suited to our needs.”
Reflecting on some of the rare but great celebrity interviews he’s done, however, the anchor reconsidered.
“An interview with a movie star isn’t intended to be ‘news,'” Guru-Murthy wrote. “Some are happy to engage, and seem quite relieved to escape the junket monotony engineered by the PRs. Robert Redford, Michelle Pfeiffer, Samuel L Jackson and Carey Mulligan have all happily taken the chance to talk to me about things ranging from politics to sexism, from violence to Alzheimer’s disease. That’s what makes a movie star interview worth running on the news. We love to have talented people saying surprising and intelligent things about serious topics. Superheroes alone, no matter how Marvel-ous, don’t quite cut it.”
And there’s the real problem. Not the journalist, not the celebrity, but the commercial requirement to make celebrities talk when they don’t feel like it.