Talent is God-given, and demands humility; fame is Man-given, and demands gratitude — especially to a publicist. For 40 years, Susan Patricola has seen Hollywood fame both flow and ebb. As press agent to current stars like Joaquin Phoenix and Jeremy Renner, she is especially qualified to assess what puts (and keeps) you on the right lists — like our roundup of the 100 Most Valuable Stars, for example. Vulture recently caught up with Patricola at the Beverly Hills Four Seasons, where she offered up a few insights from her decades in the red-carpeted trenches. She may not pick her clients’ roles, but her advice on how they should act when off the set is just as important to figuring out how to make it to the A-list — and not fall off.
1. Train them to keep an eye on their mouths.
The first step for up and comers is media training. Without it, they should not be allowed anywhere near a reporter, because, as Patricola insists, today, “nothing is off the record.” If a publicist has done their job well, there will come a point when everyone is hanging onto every word that the client says. And that’s when you really have to be careful. “For Jeremy Renner, when The Hurt Locker came out, we were at every award show,” says Patricola. “And at one, he was having a private conversation, but someone overheard it and printed it. You have to be aware.”
2. Know the TV talk show landscape.
Generally speaking, which morning talk show you see a star on has less to do with the star and more to do with the movie they are plugging. For example, ABC’s Good Morning America “gets the lighter movies, and the comedies,” while NBC’s Today “has some weight behind it” and goes for more serious, dramatic films. Late-night talk shows, of course, have distinct demographics: Kimmel is more popular with young men 18 to 34 (which is likely why you see Ben Stiller hyping his bawdy comedy The Watch there); Leno does better in the middle parts of the country; Letterman is more popular on the coasts, etc. But which ones her clients appear on, Patricola says, has as much to do with personal chemistry between guest and host as the targeted audience. If you have a client new to the circuit, take stock of their conversational strengths and weaknesses and try to match them with a host who might best play off of them, or vice versa. This ineffable quality matters so much, Patricola says, because the late-night couches “often insist on exclusivities” — that is, doing Late Show With David Letterman means your client likely won’t be doing The Tonight Show With Jay Leno, and also won’t get a second chance elsewhere if they tank their first appearance.
3. Strike surgically, don’t carpet-bomb.
The mistake many publicists make with new movie stars, Patricola says, is trying to get as wide a reach as possible, mistaking breadth for depth. Take a gorgeous, waifish actress in her early twenties with just a few movies under her belt: “We could put you on the cover of Shape magazine in a bathing suit, but that would be a terrible idea, because while it would get more impressions, they would be the wrong impressions. There’s a big difference between being photographed on the beach in Santa Monica for Self, and getting Mario Testino to shoot you on the French Riviera for Vogue.”
4. Don’t always be afraid of tough questions.
The knee-jerk rule of publicity is that you should never let a journalist ask a client too many probing questions. But even though the reflexive approach for some publicists is to steer toward puff pieces, you should not be afraid of in-depth coverage. With big enough stars, “Their joy lies in the work; they don’t want to talk about making their last movie,” Patricola explains. “So that leaves their personal life, which they don’t want to talk about either, and the ideas that the movies are about, which they do.” Say yes less frequently, and reserve those yeses for places that will also devote column inches to exploring the ideas the celebrity wants to address — The New Yorker, The New York Times Magazine, Vanity Fair. There, the star can muse on the things they want to while gaining the imprimatur that comes with the publication.
If your star is a little quirkier, this approach can also work well … with the right person. Know your star. If they can handle an in-depth piece, let them go for it. In 2005, Patricola agreed to let Phoenix be interviewed by the notoriously probing Lynn Hirschberg for the New York Times leading up to Walk the Line. Addiction, recovery, and deeply held personal religious beliefs are all commonly avoided in polite conversation and celebrity profiles — which is why they made for a riveting read in the penetrating (and glowing) interview that resulted. “After I put Joaquin with Lynn Hirschberg for that New York Times profile, [his William Morris Endeavor agent] Patrick Whitesell said to me, ‘You’re either a genius, or insane.’ But I knew Lynn, and I knew Joaquin, and I knew they’d get along great.”
5. When an actor can’t follow the rules, adjust the rules.
Some actors, no matter how much media training they receive, are simply intractably bad interviews. In that case, Patricola pairs them with publications with which they can’t fail, often because the interview isn’t really about them. “You put them with someone who’s not going to skewer them, like InStyle magazine,” she says, adding, with mock enthusiasm, “‘Show us what’s in your closet!’”
And what about an actor who can’t stay out of the clubs and is constantly popping up in unseemly paparazzi photos? “I never say, ‘You can’t party anymore,’ but I have told clients that there are certain places and events where they just can’t go. You have to find your space within fame,” she says.
6. Tell your star to be a star.
“Clients sometimes don’t want to look the part of a movie star, but if you want to be a movie star, you have to care about appearances. You can look good, or not. That’s truly your choice. But do we want an actor who looks like he hasn’t taken a bath? Why should people care about you if you don’t care? Look like you care.”
Even more important? Don’t speak ill about the downsides of fame. Yes, celebrity comes with its downsides — being unable to go out for groceries or dinner without being hounded by paparazzi — but dedicated fans can’t relate to that, and never will. All they see is someone glamorous and wealthy, and there’s a form of aspirational adulation there that you shouldn’t try to quash, no matter how well-intentioned you may be in trying to show people we’re all the same. “People want to revere their stars,” says Patricola. “I tell clients, ‘They don’t want your money, but they do want to revere you for a certain amount of time; let them. They can’t do it if you’re whining all the time.’”