Friday, September 29, 2017

Famous Speech Friday: HBO's Sheila Nevins's interview with Alec Baldwin

If you've watched any of HBO's award-winning documentaries, you've seen the work of Sheila Nevins. She's won more prime time Emmy Awards than anyone else for her work. But a recent interview with actor Alec Baldwin took an inappropriate and way-too-personal and sexual tone for what was to be a professional interview on his podcast, Here's the Thing, produced by public radio station WNYC. It is difficult if not impossible to imagine a similar line of questioning with a male interviewee.

What's a media interview doing on Famous Speech Friday? Close readers of the blog know that I consider your answers to questions--whether in a media interview or a Q&A session--to be short speeches in and of themselves. Each one represents a choice to express yourself. In a media interview, there's the added pressure of formulating that little speech on the spot, with little to no clue about the question coming up. So it's extra challenging for any speaker.

Nevins was doing the interview to promote her new book, co-authored with Lena Dunham, You Don't Look Your Age...and Other Fairy Tales. The inappropriate question came at the end of the 34-minute interview. Here's the transcript. Before you read, let's note that Nevins is 78 years old and married:
Baldwin: There’s something about you, there’s this woman thing about you, you go and make this effort, and the beautification and kind of corrections and all this other stuff—you look phenomenal, by the way. There’s this thing about you: You bathe in this world of the stark and the real, but there is a part of me that [thinks] you want to be in love again. I see you in a bathrobe on a terrace in Paris, and you’re just having the longest kiss in the world. Is that what you want?  
Nevins: I think that’s what you want.
Baldwin: I already have that, actually.
Nevins: I don’t really wanna be in a bathrobe on a terrace. It’s a good thing you’re not my psychiatrist. 
Baldwin:  You don’t want to be in love again? Passion? Romance? 
Nevins:  No. I wanna make the best documentary in the world. 
Baldwin: That’s it? 
Nevins: That’s it! That’s all I want! I want people to buy my book! 
Baldwin: I just offered you love, romance, bath robe, Paris, and you’d rather... 
Nevins: I don’t want it. I don’t believe it. I want to make a documentary that wins a prize.
Baldwin: That’s why you’re the greatest.
They manage to turn it around that, amazingly, her focus on her work is laudatory, but why did this interview even have to make that detour? If you listen to the entire interview, this portion sticks out like a sore thumb--and otherwise, Nevins gets to eloquently describe the mastermind thinking that goes into her approach to documentaries. This section of the interview? Not so much.

Media attention was swift, and not complimentary. With no shame, the producers labeled this interview "Sheila Nevins Makes Docs Hot," Full disclosure: I donate money to another WNYC podcast, but that stops now, and I am no longer listening to this podcast. I can't support this kind of misogyny.

Nevins actually handled this well, and it's ironic that, in including the inappropriate passage, the producers managed to out their own bad behavior. What can you learn from this?

  • Stay on your message: If an interview, as here, is trying to push you to express his viewpoint, not yours, just keep repeating yours. In many ways, this is not unlike Taylor Swift's courtroom testimony on harassment, when she needed to refute, refute, refute assertions, over and over again. She is laying down a boundary verbally, one that says, "Don't go there."
  • Use some psychology: Nevins does what a good psychologist would advise you to do in any situation like this: She puts the anxiety back where it belongs, on the questioner asking the inappropriate question. "I think that's what you want" indicates to the listener that Baldwin is projecting his own fantasy on her, but she wants no part of it. And in a public interview or a speech, extending that insight out loud, so the audience can hear it, is a game-changer. Nevins here is enlisting the audience to understand that this exchange, from the start, is out of bounds.
  • If it's not about you, and it makes you uncomfortable, it's usually a narcissist: That's another good rule of thumb I've learned from therapist friends. This clearly isn't about Nevins or what she wants, and she knows it and acknowledges that. It's obviously uncomfortable: Why are we talking about kissing and bathrobes in a book tour interview that is about neither? So that makes it all about Baldwin, a talented actor and comic who apparently also has a massive ego to match. Realizing that this isn't about you is a powerful moment you should come to as soon as you can in this type of situation. It gives you room to refute, deny, and argue back without feeling shame or embarrassment. Nevins has given us a great model for handling this type of exchange by maintaining excellent verbal boundaries, whether in an interview, a conversation, or a workplace meeting.
No video of this, but audio is at the link above.

(Wikimedia Commons photo)

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