When I’ve had the opportunity to interview actors from shows that warrant fan booths at conventions, I’ve tried to get into the spirit of things. I decide, This will be the year I put on a Thor costume or dress up as Bane from Batman (The Animated Series version, not the Dark Knight). But every year, I either forget to pre-plan, forget to go to the gym so I don’t look like The Blob, or lose interest in trying so I simply throw on my baseball hat with a Batman logo on the front.
Comic Cons are now so commercial; the novelty of the hyper-passionate super-fans meeting up to fan-out together has long faded into the background. What began as a safe haven for people with a shared interest has become a marketing tool for the masses and the exorbitant price tag for entry doesn’t even guarantee you’ll get into the session to hear The Walking Dead or Once Upon A Time casts talk about their shows. Still, I enjoy walking the halls to take in all the costumes people worked so hard to create. I’ll take a convention center full of Wolverines, Batmans and Supermans over a subway full of preteens on a choir trip any day.
At one such Comic Con, I was presented with the opportunity to talk to Rebecca Romijn, the woman at the center of so many geek’s wet dreams. Not only had she played Mystique, the always naked, blue-skinned mutant in the X-Men films, but she was also the host of my current TV obsession, Skin Wars, a competition show about body painting. With all the swill that’s on television–the rednecks catching fish with their hands or the dozens of shows that pit women against women–if you look closely, there’s a crop of truly artistic and relatively drama-free competition shows. Skin Wars was among them and who wouldn’t want to watch fit, naked people airbrushed into looking like a tiger or a dragon? That’s a solid way to spend an hour.
The press junkets at these conventions are a fairly straight forward affair. Someone from the network with too much power informs you the “talent” will come to your table and you have X amount of minutes to talk to them, after which they will move on to the next table where they’ll assuredly be asked the exact same questions. As a rule, I set out to ask a question that probably won’t be asked that day. Besides being an interviewer, I’m a naturally inquisitive person and there’s nothing that invigorates me more than being told “That’s a great question.” It’s like Viagra for my brain. It’s not that I set out to stump people, but I do want to elicit a response that’s fresh and perhaps even quotable.
Sitting at my table were other “journalists,” which is a polite way to say super-fans, from mostly comic book fan sites. I sat quietly and drank my free coffee while listening to them ramble on and on about their love of The Librarians, the show Ms. Romijn was there to promote. I’ve still, to this day, never seen an episode of The Librarians. Since the daily volume of television I ingest might need to be studied and chronicled for a textbook, adding another hour of TV into my life is a chore that requires planning, DVR management and prayer. So I sat at the round table knowing nothing about the show that brought us together, but I had my Mystique and Skin Wars questions and was ready to slip them into the conversation should I get the chance.
When supermodel and naked actress Rebecca Romijn came over to speak with us, I found myself sitting directly next to her, her arm touching mine as she fielded the rapid-fire questions from the super-fans. I, like a buffoon, stared at her the entire time–her perfect red lipstick, the way her blue eyes focused like a tiger on whoever was speaking, her skin that looked Photoshopped–I took her in. She was gorgeous in a way that could’ve caused the Trojan War. She spoke with confidence, something that’s always sexy, and she never fell into the trope of the Hollywood blonde bimbo. That was important to me because so many models I’ve encountered or interviewed are who Derek Zoolander portrayed them to be – extremely good looking but vapid and unlearned about the world around them. Rebecca Romijn was not one of them.
As I stared, the super-fans asked her mundane questions about the plot twist on Season Two, Episode Eight. As much as I could stare at her all day, I was becoming bored. During one of Kathy Griffin’s stand-up specials, she poked fun at Barbara Walters for not asking Angelina Jolie tough questions during an interview. Kathy said, “I’ve got a lot of questions for Angelina Jolie,” because let’s face it, interviewers sometimes ask only what will keep them in the good graces of their subjects and not what readers really want to know. That’s how I felt as the super-fans rattled off question after question about this TV show I’d never seen. But among those questions, there was a slight lull, which was my window. I knew I only had time for one, so I moved my list of questions around in the sky similar to the way I used my air pencil in second grade and mentally mashed them into a single query.
“How important is it to be such a strong female lead on television?” I asked.
She perked up. This is something interviewees do when they hear a question they haven’t heard in a minute.
“Very,” she said, “especially having daughters. It’s sort of become part of the criteria on the projects I pick. I spend so much time away from my daughters, I want to work on projects they actually want to see. They love The Librarians and they love Skin Wars too. They’re both painters as well. I feel like if I’m going to be away from them for an amount of time, they can at least see what I was doing and we can all enjoy it together. It’s a great time in television for female characters and to get to play this very strong female character, and I consider Mystique one of them as well, it’s important.”
Boom. Skin Wars and Mystique in the same answer. More than that, I got in the last question, which left slightly perturbed looks on the faces of the super-fans. From the looks of it, they had more to ask about their favorite show but she’d taken up the rest of the airtime to answer me. I would argue my question was absolutely in line with the event we were covering and was a hell of a lot more interesting than talking about her costume in Episode 8, but I digress. She thanked us for our time and we reciprocated.
The next actor who came to the table was John Larroquette, the man who made a name for himself on Night Court and had recently won a Tony Award for How To Succeed in Business Without Really Trying. Clearly, that’s what I wanted to ask him about. He made his Broadway debut after so many years in the business and wound up on stage holding that little spinning trophy. I think that’s something worth asking about. He, also seated directly next to me, fielded the questions from the super-fans about the show I’ve never seen, and again I sat patiently, waiting for a lull to sneak in my theatre question.
The super-fans and I did share one thing in common: we each had specific questions we were determined to ask. At these round-table style press junkets, time is not on your side so the moment the interviewee sits down, the interview becomes a game of speed akin to hitting your Jeopardy buzzer first. The first person to get their question in wins and sometimes they’re able to control the narrative for those eight minutes at the table.
Once, I was interviewing some of the legacy cast of the Nickelodeon variety show All That, a show I revere as a formative part of my childhood. I’d gotten all my questions in at the beginning of the session so for the rest of our allotted time, I simply listened. Across the table, a reporter from a Mexican media company repeatedly tried to ask Lori Beth Denberg a question but the man next to me kept talking over him. The aggressive reporter looked far too old to have any connection with All That and he only asked tawdry questions about the cast hooking up with each other, the current state of Amanda Bynes, and if the girls flirted with the Backstreet Boys when they sang on the show. I was irritated by the reporter’s pervert vibe but mostly I felt bad for my Mexican peer across the table who just wanted to ask one question.
Lori Beth finished talking about the show’s comparisons to SNL and as the pervert started talking again, I put my hand out in the middle of the table as if I was shushing the room. I’ll admit this was a bold choice and the surprised expression on Lori Beth’s face confirmed that, but I said with a smile, “My friend across the table has been trying to ask a question since we started.” Lori Beth smiled back and turned to face him.
As it turns out, he was a different kind of super-fan. Bashfully, he told his story of being an overweight kid plagued with insecurities and how seeing her on TV allowed him to feel comfortable and empowered in his own skin. He said he knew it wasn’t a journalism question but he had to thank her for what she’d done for him while he had the chance. “You’re gonna make me cry!” she hollered as she got up from the table to give him a bear hug. It was a really cool moment to witness. All he wanted to do was tell her she meant something to him, that her being on that show wasn’t just frivolous entertainment but something much more substantive and lasting in his life. They took pictures together and that ate up the rest of our interview time, something that pissed off the pervert but none of us cared.
At the table with Mr. Larroquette, the millisecond-long lull I hoped for happened after the second question. If you want the last cupcake, you better grab it, so I asked, “You’re mostly known for your work on television but you’ve recently conquered the Broadway stage as well. How has it enriched you as an artist to diversify your craft?”
I could feel the anger rising in the super-fans like in a cartoon when someone gets so angry that steam and fire come out of their ears and the tops of their heads. He repositioned his body to face me.
“Acting is acting. There are only three places I can do what I do: TV, movies or the stage. I guess I could stand on the corner and recite Samuel Beckett characters but I don’t know how well I’ll do. They all inform each other because it’s basically the same job. But there are different disciplines in your stamina. For TV, you can be full throttle 100 percent of the time because nothing lasts longer than two minutes before you’re going to stop filming, take a break and start over again. Same with movies although movies are more of a mini-marathon. Stage is a real marathon because once the curtain goes up, it’s yours for two and half hours and you don’t stop once you start.
“I did a lot of stage as a young man in LA. Once I got successful, I had no time for stage. I had been asked to come do Broadway, but I never had enough time off. I had to avoid it until the end of the series I did with James Spader, Boston Legal, and I decided to come to New York and see if anyone would care that I showed up. I did an Off-Broadway play which was perfect entry to New York theatre…
“Then, How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying came across my desk. I thought, I get to work with who for a year? I jumped at the chance. My first Broadway play, I got to be with Daniel Radcliffe every night, it was a spectacular experience and by the graces of God, I won a Tony. Where do you go from there? Well, from there I got to be on stage for eight months with James Earl Jones, Angela Lansbury and Candice Bergen – so it’s been a cornucopia of blessings for me on stage. I’d love to be back at some point when I have the time.”
With that, the session was over. He shook my hand, thanked me personally for asking about his stage work and left the table. My question had opened a Pandora’s Box of sorts, except everything inside was full of insight and not at all about the show I hadn’t seen. I’d inadvertently bogarted the entire session and he couldn’t have looked happier about it. Not only did my little question get answered but I was given actual human insight into an artist trying to challenge himself this deep into his career. This wasn’t a canned response about a science fiction TV show; this was the real process of a real artist. I was elated. Still, the angry looks on the faces of the super-fans could not be overlooked. I kept my head down and texted my father to tell him what I asked Mr. Larroquette. He was thrilled for me.
I didn’t ask any more questions that day to the other actors who came to the table. I let the super-fans have the rest of the time as a sort of apology for hijacking their one-on-one time with two of their geek idols. Yes, I got my story for the magazine, but I got so much more out of it than that. I learned people want to talk about what lights them up, the things that drive them, the fire in their gut. That’s the real story, not what happened on “The Camping Episode” of whatever show they’re promoting. I realize I came to this understanding at the expense of the super-fans, but I’m just selfish enough not to care. There was some real life tucked into those interviews, something far more lasting than a show I hadn’t seen.