Maggie Gyllenhaal Didn’t Want to Be Interviewed by Me — at First

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Sep 18, 2020

These past two years, I’ve worked on the side as a writer and interviewer for the film and TV website Awards Daily. In that time, I’ve interviewed more than 75 people in the entertainment industry — some talent in front of the camera and some behind it. 

I can remember quite literally shaking in my boots before interviewing my high school hero, Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails. Before talking to the cinematographer of Ozark, I prepped like crazy up until the very last moment before I got the call. Before talking to Bob Odenkirk (Saul, of Better Call Saul), I made sure all my questions were sharp and to the point, as I knew Bob was giving me 20 minutes of his time and not one second more.

What does this have to do with sourcing or hiring? How does interviewing celebrities apply to the world of interviewing non-famous people for jobs? Let’s bring this back to a certain word from my last paragraph: prepping.

Candidates Aren’t the Only Ones Who Should Be Prepared

It’s easy to think that when we are looking to source or hire someone for a potential position that we have nothing to prove. After all, it’s the candidate who wants the job. But does this attitude actually serve us in hiring the best candidates? 

I don’t think it does. While of course it’s true that job candidates have something to prove, they shouldn’t be the only ones. We should also be showing them something. We need to prove that we did our homework. Or else, the really great candidates — the ones who have other choices, other interviews, and other places to be — may just slip from our grasp.

Probably the most essential part of preparation is knowing someone’s resume inside out. The candidate will think, “OK, this person knows what they’re talking about” or “Wow, they took the time to get to know my background.” It makes you look good, and it puts you in a better place as a recruiter. You’ll also get the benefit of automatically asking smarter questions.

Often, the people I talk to for Awards Daily are running a veritable gauntlet of interviews, some with interviewers who have barely skimmed their CVs enough to ask a single decent, interesting question. Trust me, it makes a difference to them.

Showing that you have taken your time to get to know the candidate and their work may also give you the edge over a recruiter who hasn’t done their homework, and doesn’t know what the candidate is looking for in a job. 

“Who Is This F@#ing Guy?” 

I have a few stories to relate on this note, because not all of these interviewees get on the phone as delighted to talk to you as Game of Thrones star Gwendoline Christie (who for all I know is made up of 6 ft. and 3 in. of actual sunshine). Many of my interview subjects pick up the line and you’d swear they were thinking, “Who is this f@#ing guy?” 

It takes me only a second to recall the terse “Hi” that followed my effusive, “Hi Maggie!” (As in Maggie Gyllenhaal.) Or the exhausted vibe of the famed composer of every Spike Lee joint over the last 30 years, Terrence Blanchard.

When my call with Maggie Gyllenhaal got off to a chilly start (we were meeting to chat about her HBO show, The Deuce), I went into overdrive to correct course. I spoke of her work on the show in-depth and with confidence, and I also talked about other work she had done prior to that series. Likewise, when Terrence Blanchard got on the phone sounding like he’d rather be doing anything else besides talking to me, I asked about his career as a jazz trumpeter before he began scoring films and TV. 

In both cases, the subjects learned that I wasn’t just engaged and enthusiastic, I was informed. I knew their background and their work. I was an ally. And because of this, they relaxed, they opened up, and they gave me some really, really great answers. Gyllenhaal gave me 10 minutes beyond what her PR rep had scheduled, and gave it with good cheer. Blanchard gave me an entire hour when we were supposed to go for 20 minutes.

Don’t Be That Recruiter

What I’ve learned from all this is that coming to every interview researched, ready, and engaged pays huge dividends whether you are talking to Willem Dafoe about learning how to drive a dog sled for Disney’s film Togo, or a prospective MCAT teacher for your team in Bloomington, Ind.

While you may not know if you want a particular candidate yet, don’t we want that candidate to want us? Even if we eventually pass on candidates, don’t we want what we have to offer to be appealing? If we can’t present ourselves as a preferred landing spot, why did we even show up? It’s a mistake to think that the interview has nothing to do with us as recruiters, and that only the “they” on the other side of the table need to bring it when the red light comes on.

I’m willing to bet you’ve been on the wrong side of an interview where you thought to yourself, Did this person even look at my resume? I know I have. Remember how that felt? Now that you’re in the hiring chair, don’t be that person. Not only because nobody likes that person, but because your results will be subpar.

Also, don’t just thumbnail sketch your subject before you speak to them. That’s not what real preparation looks like. Draw a complete outline of the candidate. Have their resume in front of you. Write out your important questions, and, if possible, try to anticipate what your follow-up queries might be if they were to say A, B, or C. 

If there’s a moral to this story, it’s simply this: Know your subject as well as you can before you speak to them. Know what you want to ask. Know what you want to hear, but be open to hearing more. Be ready. It’s only when you know that person’s background and their work that you’ll know the best questions to ask them. And it’s only when you’re asking the best questions that you find the best people.

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