Last week, an old friend and former coworker called me: he was working on a story, he said, about how reporters will do their jobs if they can’t leave the house. Specifically, he was interested in how people who write profiles—something I do often—were going to manage. I didn’t have a great answer for him then. I certainly don’t now. But I’ve been thinking about the question ever since.
Even at their most successful, profiles are a strange and ephemeral form of art. You spend a bunch of time with someone. You describe what they look like, what it’s like to be around them, what it sounds like when they talk. I often like to reprint sections of our conversations verbatim, so a reader can watch their mind work in real time. This is not the kind of thing I would normally allow myself to write down, but I tend to think of the work as empathy in action: you try to get as close to the way another person sees the world as you possibly can, then relay it. And in doing so, maybe we all become a little less mysterious to each other.
There have been a few times, over the years, when because of various circumstances I have tried to write about a person without ever being in the same room as them. Once, I was in Milan to profile a well-known and very mercurial fashion designer when he disappeared—I sheltered in place for three days, in case he resurfaced, then went home empty handed. He was later discovered in Rome, having fled the pressures of his job (and, I suppose, me). Would I like to still interview him via Skype? We’d already photographed the story—why not? I am trying to recall our conversation now, but I cannot. I remember watching him fidget through my laptop screen; I remember trying to figure out what else was in the room behind him. We were strangers when the conversation started, and strangers when the conversation ended. Another time, a newly in-demand actor was on set in Canada, too busy to even set an interview date. We eventually chatted via video on a Sunday morning. Some years later, she starred in a prestige cable series that I was watching—the performance was textured, a touch malevolent, fascinating. What kind of person is capable of this? I wondered. I googled her and found my own article. These were not very successful profiles.
But why not? More often than I would like, I have interviewed people in places that are nearly as abstract as a box on my computer screen: conference rooms, hotel restaurants, suites no one is sleeping in. Cars shuttling from one obligation to another. Cars driving around the block while a film set resets. And yet, it only takes a few minutes for a person to become a person. They make eye contact or they don’t, touch your shoulder or stare resolutely over it. They nod their head to the music on the stereo system. They order a second drink, or something gluten-free from a mystified waiter. They say: “Let’s walk.” I love it when they say “Let’s walk.” Let’s walk!
I’ve been picked up from airports by people I’m interviewing and been left to find Ubers back from places that definitely don’t have Uber. I’ve watched subjects shop for records and for clothes and for books, record songs, shoot movie scenes, get drunk, sob. One time, I was in the middle of a long conversation with someone when they abruptly stood up and walked out of the room, only to return with a bow and a quiver of arrows strapped to their back. Another time, a subject not so furtively began to text under the table; within minutes, a whole parade of other people began to “spontaneously” appear and join us at the table—interview over. The weird thing is, it doesn’t really matter what they’re doing, I’ve found. It’s just that they’re doing it. In motion, in the world, how you move through it, what you do and how you do it: that’s you.
And then there’s me. Writing something honest about someone requires accountability. You can say anything you want about someone, as far as I’m concerned, as long as it’s (a), verifiably true, and (b), you’d be willing to say it to their face. (Once, as a younger writer, I wrote a scathing review of someone’s book. Imagine my surprise when the phone rang and an actual, very upset person was on the other end of it. I wanted to say: “I didn’t know that you were real, though!” I thought they were just a name on a book or an image on a screen. But no one is just a name or an image on a screen.) But why would anyone trust me if they couldn’t see how I handled myself in a room? How I moved through space? Another profile writer and I have a joke about our peers who wait to the very end of an interview to ask their most dangerous or risky question, the one that’s most likely to offend. Actually it’s not really a joke. We just think it’s cowardly. You want to ask somebody something? Don’t mutter something and slink off and hide. Take responsibility and ask. And give them your cellphone number so they can call you later and yell at you, if that’s what they want to do. (And they do. Sometimes.) But how do you take responsibility when we’re all hiding? How do you say “Trust me” when you’re no more real or findable in space than anything else on their computer screen?
Like most writers, I have strong hermit tendencies. The notion that I’d grow up to talk to people for a living would probably seem laughable to the people I actually grew up with. But other humans are a funny thing. There is no movie or book that can surprise you like another person can. At a moment when we are all profoundly cut off from one another, I’m finding that’s what I miss the most: the sheer unpredictability of what someone else will do while they happen to be in front of you. There is, quite literally, nothing else like it. There is no replacement for how fucking weird and singular other people are.
I don’t believe it’s impossible to conduct an interesting interview over the phone, or Zoom or Skype or FaceTime or smoke signal. I’ve done it before, and will be doing a lot more of it, hopefully, in the future. We will find a way to talk to each other no matter what—if there is a silver-lining here, that’s the one I’m clinging to. One thing you learn through interviewing people is how fundamentally kind we tend to be to each other, and how drawn we are to the ritual. Our default mode is to seek agreement, to find common experience. Maybe we don’t communicate our thoughts well, but another person still nods like they understand. Our urge is to come together, to smooth out our differences, to find a way to be on the same side. (Young profilers: resist all of this when you’re doing your job. Everyone else: you’re kind and lovely; keep doing what you’re doing.) Being together almost always involves an actual effort to be together. It’s one of the most beautiful things people do for each other without even knowing they’re doing it.
Before interviews, I get very nervous: my heart rate goes up; there is some light palm sweat, some frantic breathing. This happens without fail. What will this person be like? The moment just before contact is like staring into the unknown. Anything can happen; I feel like I’m waiting less for a living being than for an amorphous blob of potential outcomes, a sentient black hole. And then they appear, and almost immediately, become human. Instantly, they are one of one: a ball of tics and traits and sentences that start and restart, knees that bounce, eyes that can look happy or sad or like nothing at all. And then the work begins. I really can’t wait to get back to it.
From touch ups to buzz cuts: GQ grooming columnist Phillip Picardi on how to stay shaped up while socially distancing.
Originally Appeared on GQ