My favourite publicity circuit interviews so far this year have been given by Michael Douglas, veteran star of Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania.
On Mark Kermode and Simon Mayo’s podcast, shortly after suggesting the production design of the micro-dimension known as the Quantum Realm would be better appreciated if you consumed “a particular kind of mushroom”, he cheerfully admitted to not having seen all 31 Marvel films.
“I have not, Simon, I have not. Nor 29, nor 27.”
On BBC One’s The Graham Norton Show, he explained to Judi Dench how Michelle Pfeiffer, his wife in the Marvel series, had previously been missing in the Quantum Realm for 30 years.
“No!” said Dench, all whispered stage-shock as she fed off his line.
“Thirty years,” intoned Douglas, a model of deadpan gravity as Dench collapsed in stitches on the couch. He then turned to costar Paul Rudd to ask him, “What is the Quantum Realm?”
Throughout this festival of comic timing, there was never a feeling that he wasn’t selling the film. Because Douglas was enjoying himself, he was enjoyable. His was authentic levity, not the sort of soulless reaching for laughs that reminds viewers that the interviewee is a hostage to their contractual obligations.
But that these contributions even stand out reflects the extent to which, for many stars, caution beats candour every time. Douglas is old enough – and secure enough in his status – not to care what people, including his paymasters, think of him. Most famous people aren’t as funny, nor as free.
At RTÉ, the search for a new host of The Late Late Show is taking place against the backdrop of a longer-term quandary, not unique to either the show or RTÉ: what to do about the quality of the guests.
Two things are simultaneously true. The “golden age” Late Late line-ups are remembered with more kindness than they deserve – the forgettable ones being, well, forgotten – and the ability of any single programme to draw huge names and proceed to milk them for insights and revelations has diminished.
It is not 1962 any more, it is not even 1999. The Late Late Show will never command the attention of Irish households the way it did when we had more buttons on our remote controls than we had channels. And just as the audience has splintered in seemingly infinite directions, so too has the availability of top-notch guests.
The “straight from the RTÉ canteen” gags – a complaint now more than a decade old – are often less about how the guests would struggle to be recognised beyond Montrose and more about the sense that we have seen them before, repeatedly, and they had nothing to say on those occasions either.
On a Friday night, shallow entertainment is fine, even desirable. The bland leading the bland is not
Anybody plugging a film, TV series, book or tour is now under pressure to spread themselves thinly to hit the audience metrics once reached through a single Late Late appearance. The sheer volume of competing avenues, however, only hastens their journey from fresh, exciting novelty to over-familiar filler guest.
Oh no, not these guys again. What a hustle.
Media outlets might still aim for exclusivity – none want to be last in a long line of interviews – yet few are in a position to demand it with anyone of real renown. The result is that even the biggest media arenas in Ireland are subject to the same carousel of faces and voices deploying the same patter, the same anecdotes, with all of it accessible to a wearying audience, baffled by the blitz.
Dublin is not London. Hollywood actors might be physically based in Ireland for a decent stretch while making a film, but the allotted publicity period will arrive months after they’ve returned the keys to their Dalkey rental.
Matt Damon doing a phoner with Spin 1038′s breakfast show during the shooting of The Last Duel in 2020 was a glorious exception to the rule that stars won’t normally break cover mid-project. Alas, by the time a film is on the cusp of release, the size of the Irish market makes it a mere speck – small even by Quantum Realm standards – in publicists’ inbox of priorities.
At first, the pandemic helped ease the location hurdles, then it didn’t. The sudden upsurge in videocalls boosted the celebrity quotient of Irish television programmes such as Virgin Media Television’s The Six O’Clock Show and democratised access to stars. But this needs-must era is now over. For flagship chatshows that hark back to the days when television was glamorous by default, “videocall or nothing” is not a satisfactory offer.
Other difficulties in getting high-profile people to talk – properly talk – are the same the world over. Control is the keyword for A-listers. Beyond the confines of a closely supervised promo schedule, they have so much more to lose than to gain by shooting the breeze with some random chatshow host, so they don’t.
The closest they will get to the quasi-therapeutic, long-form conversations of TV past will be an appearance on their equally famous mate’s podcast. And if their equally famous mate inexplicably doesn’t have a podcast, they can always start one themselves. Their fame, once it reaches a certain level, is possible to stoke through their own platforms alone.
On a Friday night, shallow entertainment is fine, even desirable. The bland leading the bland is not.
Sadly, over the course of their fame, too many guests wind up on an inverted bell curve of interestingness. In their early careers, they are game for anything, generous with their time, unscarred by disproportionate blowbacks to their every tiny gaffe. Deep into them, like Douglas, they can appear sage, reflective, happy that they no longer have anything of note to lose.
But in the middle, they are all too often the stone from which no interviewer, no matter how skilled, can draw blood. Before they have even settled into their seat, they trigger suspicions that it is better to remain silent and thought dull, than go on a chatshow and remove all doubt.
And so, the relationship between the media and celebrities trundles awkwardly on, but with the power dynamics firmly shifted in favour of the star. The problem for The Late Late Show, and all media, is that they might never shift back.