by Chris Tobias
Ever since the age of twelve, I have been a huge fan of the Canadian rock trio Rush, who were finally inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame last month. The band’s drummer, Neil Peart, whom I admire not only for his unparalleled skill as a percussionist but also for his talent as a writer of both song lyrics and prose, is somewhat famous (or perhaps notorious) for his desire to separate his private life from his rock and roll persona. He has written at great length about this topic in his many books, describing several awkward and sometimes even frightening encounters with fans whose zeal exceeded their consideration for his privacy and personal space. If you haven’t read his books, you should. They are compelling reading and his prose is every bit as entertaining as his complex and imaginative lyrics. I will warn you, though, that his anecdotes will make you stop and reconsider what it means to be a fan.
Perhaps it is because of this that I have always been a bit cautious around celebrities whom I admire. I have never been an autograph seeker, preferring ten minutes of honest conversation with one of my “idols” to their name scrawled on a scrap of paper, photograph, or program book. I have also always tried to remember that there are two sides to the encounter, and that a moment that seems so unique and important to me is likely one of thousands like it that a performer will experience in the course of a year. None other than Humphrey Bogart once said that autographs are a waste of time, and that he didn’t owe the audience anything but a good performance. (Thank you, Mr. Peart, for making me aware of this.) Morgan Freeman has said that he prefers having his picture taken with fans, or even giving them a hug, to scribbling an autograph for them.
Nonetheless, even such a performer as Neil Peart recognizes that interacting with fans is an essential element of a life in show business, and that someone in the public eye must walk a fine line between making oneself available to those who have supported their work and helped them achieve fame and fortune and being consumed by the public’s unceasing demand for more and more access to their personal lives. He makes it clear in his books that he is never opposed to autographing albums, photos, etc. as part of an official meet-and-greet (though he admits he doesn’t do that many nowadays), but that he is much less enthused when asked to do so in public on the spur of the moment. In contrast, he has stated that he is always appreciative of the fan who offers a simple thank-you or discreetly expresses appreciation for his work, but refrains from overly exuberant praise or an exceptionally excited reaction to the meeting.
This has been on my mind a lot lately with con season once again in full swing. Unlike past years, I will be attending Wizard World Comic Con in Philadelphia from May 30-June 2 as part of Take Back the Sky’s outreach efforts, and this year, four members of the Firefly cast, Adam Baldwin, Summer Glau, Jewel Staite, and Gina Torres, will be in attendance. Not only is it possible that I might have the opportunity to interact with these “Big Damn Heroes” of mine, but it might even be likely. (Actually, in the case of one cast member, it’s almost definite, but I’ll get to that in my next post.) I want very much to come away from the experience with positive memories and make an equally positive impression on these actors, even if they’re not any more likely to remember me than the hundreds of other fans with whom they’ll interact at the con. If you feel the same way, then read on to see some of our tips for meeting your “Big Damn Heroes” without coming across as a “Big Damn Creep.”
- Be pushy with regards to getting their attention. If they acknowledge you, that’s really shiny. If they don’t, they might be legitimately busy or have other obligations or responsibilities that require their attention. Hopefully there will be another moment that provides a better opportunity.
- Try to monopolize their time. Every once in a while that rare opportunity comes along when the stars align in such a way that you get more than your fair share of time one-on-one with one of your Big Damn Heroes, but if you find yourself one of a group, don’t try to bully your way into the spotlight. Chances are no one, including your hero, will appreciate your not letting anyone else get a word in edgewise.
- Quote lines from their own body of work back to them. It’s nowhere near as funny or witty as you may think, and it may surprise you to learn that actors actually do not have a perfect, eidetic memory of every single line that they’ve said in every single role that they’ve played. You have no right to be surprised when he or she meets you with a blank stare or an “are you serious?” face.
- Talk about how you’re going to sell this newly autographed item on eBay. Seriously, do you tell the people who give you birthday gifts how you can’t wait to re-gift them? Even if you’ve paid for an autograph, it’s still something personal, and you should at least pretend to treat it as such for as long as you’re standing in front of the person who’s given it to you.
- Expect them to remember you from a previous event. In show business, you meet a lot of people over the course of your career—agents, fellow actors, technicians, directors, writers, studio execs—and that’s before you figure in the fans. Out of the hundreds, even thousands of people they meet at each convention, it’s highly unlikely that they remember your attempt to get cute with them in the autograph line two years ago, let alone look back on it with fondness.
- Treat them like you’re BFF’s that go way back. Stop and think about this for a moment: if a complete stranger immediately put an arm around your shoulder and started talking all buddy-buddy to you as if he’s known you your whole life, wouldn’t you feel really creeped-out? So will the celebrity guests of the cons whom you approach and talk to if you take that approach (and it might be worth remembering that some of them have had roles that have required intensive martial arts training)!
- Treat them like saints or gods walking among us. None other than Joss Whedon himself recently tweeted that he’ll never be comfortable being referred to as a “god,” and that’s understandable. Starring in (or even writing and directing) a blockbuster action movie is not the same thing as a Nobel Peace Prize. These people, while very good at their trade, are not in any way superior to the rest of us, and they don’t really want to be treated as if they are. Don’t be surprised if they’re a little weirded-out by being told “It’s an honor to meet you.”
- Try to exploit them for your own purposes. Nobody likes feeling like they’re being used. You may have your fantasies about, say, Nathan Fillion endorsing your fan project or Joss Whedon saying he’d love to develop the story you pitch to him, but this is neither the time nor the place for that. It’s really best for everyone if you set any such plans and schemes aside. (This is particularly relevant to those of us here at Take Back the Sky. I’m sure you can imagine how much we’d love to have Joss Whedon and/or the Firefly cast on board with our initiative, but, truth be told, it’s really not their crusade, and it would be very selfish of us to try to use an autograph session or photo-op at a con to try to solicit their help.)
- Try to impress them. How’s the saying go? “The harder you try, the dumber you look.” If it doesn’t work at parties in front of your friends and co-workers, why would it impress celebrities who have traveled the world and had all sorts of unique experiences in their careers? What’s more, why should you feel you need to be validated by the opinion of a famous person?
- Second-guess everything you’re thinking of doing or saying when you meet them before you actually say or do it. This doesn’t mean you want to come across as indecisive or insecure, but rather that you should make sure you’re staying away from the behavior on the “don’t” list. You may want to pause and ask yourself “Why am I saying/doing this? Am I trying to impress them? Am I putting myself and my con experience above the feelings and concerns of the person I’m here to meet and the others here at the con?”
- Ask permission before initiating physical contact. Now, obviously there is a limit to this. If they extend their hand, you certainly don’t have to ask permission to shake it, but if you’re fortunate enough to have your picture taken with your Big Damn Heroes, it’s probably the right thing to do to ask before you go wrapping your arm around their waist or shoulders, especially if they’re of the opposite sex. And I would venture a guess that it’s never appropriate as the fan to be the one to initiate a hug or (if you really sail under a lucky star) a kiss on the cheek.
- Remember that the actor is not the character. I don’t really expect anyone who’s living a life free of psychosis to have a problem with this one, but I reckon it’s still worth mentioning.
- Avoid building up expectations of the encounter. If you don’t have a pre-conceived notion of what the perfect meeting will be like, you’re far less likely to be disappointed in what actually takes place. (Remember, while you’ve been waiting a long time to meet them, they truly didn’t know who you are until this moment. How could they?)
- Be polite. This may seem like common sense, but in today’s society, one can never be sure. I am of the belief that addressing them as “Mr.” or “Miss” as opposed to using their first names is perhaps a sign that you understand that a love of what they do does not equal an ownership of part of who they are.
- Be humble. This probably sounds odd, seeing as how they are the famous actors and we’re just the fans, but how often does a fan insist on telling them how much he/she loves their show or their character or that he/she is “their biggest fan?” Isn’t it strange that when we meet our Big Damn Heroes, often the first thing we do is tell them about ourselves? As Jubal Early would say, does that seem right to you?
- Thank them… sincerely. Think about it. They travel far from their homes to sit for hours on end signing autograph after autograph and enduring camera flash after camera flash as they have their picture taken with total strangers. Sure they’re well compensated, but it’d still be exhausting, and that’s before they have to deal tactfully with fans who don’t heed the advice on our “don’t” list. Even though they’re being paid, they’re still going out on a limb and leaving themselves vulnerable to a certain extent. It’s not asking too much of us as fans to take a page from Neil Peart’s books and simply thank them for taking the time to come to the con and tell them we appreciate the work they’ve done to help create the characters we all love so much. No hyperbole required.
- Treat them as if they’re no different from you, me or anybody else. This is actually one way in which you can impress a celebrity. It’s basically an application of the Golden Rule. When you give them the same courtesy you’d give any other person you meet for the first time and strike up a conversation with (no less, no more), they may just reciprocate if the time and circumstances permit. They’ll see you’re secure and not a “Big Damn Creep,” and feel comfortable being more open and relaxed with you, and if you think about it, that makes for a truly memorable and positive experience for all involved.
One thing that changes the situation somewhat when it comes to interacting with one’s Big Damn Heroes at conventions is that it’s common practice at the major cons for fans to have to pay for autographs and photo-ops with celebrity guests. The Firefly cast will be charging between $40 and $55 for these opportunities at Wizard World, and for those who are not familiar with the going rate at major cons, these prices are actually pretty reasonable. As a fellow Browncoat once pointed out to me, this fee often pays for the actor’s air fare and hotel stay, and possibly any stipends or fees owed to their agent or publicist, and actors who are between jobs might actually use appearances at cons to help pay the bills. The good news is that a paid appointment pretty much eliminates many of the issues we’ve discussed that might otherwise arise, because the actors are technically working and are fully anticipating interaction with the public. Fans who pay for autographs and/or photo-ops are more likely to be encouraged to be bold enough to make requests of the celebrities, who are for the most part pretty willing to oblige within reason. (A quick online search will reveal some pretty hilariously staged photo-ops from cons past.) This is a perfectly healthy tradition that can be fun for all involved, as long as the fan doesn’t take the attitude that he’s “paying for a piece of their time” or that he “deserves to get what he paid for.” In situations like this, it’s probably best if one still makes it a priority to keep our “don’t” list in mind, even if the celebrities are far more likely to look at what they do at cons as part of their job and far less likely to see anything that happens there as an invasion of their privacy or personal space.
Of course, no plan ever survives first contact completely intact, and no set of rules or guidelines is going to apply perfectly in every situation, but with a little common courtesy and common sense, an encounter with your Big Damn Heroes can be a pleasant and memorable part of any con experience.
(Special thanks to Jeff for his contributions to this piece.)