SHOWBIZ 7s: The delicate art of the celebrity interview

SHOWBIZ 7s: The delicate art of the celebrity interview
Tony Potts interviews Joan Collins at the 58th annual Primetime Emmy Awards. (Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)
It's a precarious tightrope that the celebrity interviewer walks. The star wants to talk about the new movie/television show/ album, whereas the viewers want to hear about the divorce/ custody troubles/addiction. Go too far one way and you lose your audience; go too far the other way and you lose the star.

Tony Potts, weekend co-anchor and correspondent for "Access Hollywood," has been performing this balancing act since he joined the celebrity news show in 1999, and over time he's developed methods for dealing with potentially tricky situations.

"Sometimes I take [the celebrity] aside before the interview and say, 'I need to ask you this,' " he said in a phone interview. "Sometimes they say, 'Please don't ask me that,' and I say, 'OK. But next time you don't get a pass.' "

Potts recalls seven potentially uncomfortable interviews and how he handled them (mostly) with sensitivity.

1. Interviewing Uma Thurman the day photos were published of her boyfriend with another woman. "She came in the room, I think it was the Four Seasons, and before we even started she grabbed me and said, 'I would appreciate if you don't ask about what is going on.' She is so strong, but she was obviously shaken. I said, 'Don't worry. I'm not going to do that. You are safe.' It just happened a couple hours before. She was still strong enough to do the interview, but she said, 'I'm asking you very nicely, please do not ask about this.' "

2. Talking to Nicole Richie after rehab. "A couple of years ago, I was invited to Nicole Richie's house after she had been out of rehab for a while. She was healthy and happy and she was very open about it, but when you are in someone's home you want to be delicate how you bring up the rehab. If we are in a hotel room, it is a little more hard-core one on one, but when you are invited to someone's home, you have to respect where they live and act in a respectful and caring way."

3. Getting Mel Gibson to admit helping Robert Downey Jr. "When Robert Downey Jr. was in Corcoran State Prison, I found out that Mel Gibson had worked behind the scenes to get Robert some help. I know that Mel doesn't ever want to talk about any good works he does. I've been on sets with him, and I know if he sees a need he cuts a check. But he won't talk about it on camera. So I got him to talk about it. I said, 'A lot of people don't know you do work behind the scenes. Tell me why you helped Robert Downey Jr.' And he did talk about it a bit. You just have to handle it delicately."

4. Deciding whether or not to ask about a baby bump. "Pregnancy is a tough one. My wife and I had some rough dealings with pregnancy in the past, and I know celebrities go through a lot to get pregnant. They may be in vitro, may have lost a child, so unless they are really showing and it is announced, I pretty much will not ask them. I'm really sensitive to that. When I first heard Julia Roberts was pregnant, I saw her somewhere and I purposely didn't ask her. I just thought, 'I love Julia, but we are all getting older, and when you are no spring chicken it's harder to have a kid.' "

5. Talking to Charlie Sheen about his divorce. "I spoke with Charlie Sheen about a year ago when the divorce became public. He has such a wild past that he regularly admits to, so with him it's easy. He wants to talk. When you can start off a conversation with someone and say, 'You've been with hookers, you've admitted that, you've done drugs, you've admitted that' -- that's a unique situation."

6. Discussing weight loss with Kirstie Alley and Keira Knightley. "Getting to talk about when people lost weight is always fantastic. I talked to Kirstie Alley, who had only lost 15 pounds, but she was a blast and I'd see her every couple of weeks and it was another 10 or 15 pounds. Keira Knightley was also fine with it. She said, 'This is how I am. Nobody said I was too skinny five years ago when nobody knew who I was.' With someone like Keira Knightley, you know you can be honest with her and ask her up front. The people you have to worry about are the publicists."

7. Interviewing Tom Sizemore after his release from jail. "I just said to him, 'How does it feel to be free?' and he said, 'It feels great!' He's the kind of guy you can just ask that question. I remember he was sweating. I don't know if he had just run out of jail, but he was very happy."

This month, Potts begins a new show on MyNetwork TV called "Celebrity Expose." The 90-minute show is different from similar fare in that it is mostly made up of old interviews with the celebrity in question. This week, the show debuted with a look at Lindsay Lohan. Next week, "Celebrity Expose" delves into the life of Britney Spears.