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The Celebrity Profiler and the Viral Tweetstorm

The fallout over Michael Schulman’s piece on Succession star Jeremy Strong has confounded other practitioners of the form

The New Yorker seemed to know they had something big on their hands. On Sunday, December 5, just after 5 p.m., the publicity team sent out an email alert that the magazine had posted Michael Schulman’s profile of Succession star Jeremy Strong, a day earlier than the rest of the stories in that week’s issue had gone online. Initially, it seemed like a huge success. In the profile, Strong comes off as intense, ridiculously committed to his craft, and, ironically, for someone starring in a show that makes so many media types laugh, humorless. The strangest details — Strong missing part of his wedding festivities for an acting role, asking to be sprayed with teargas to get him into a scene, hurting his tibia and femur by spontaneously taking a jump in hard Gucci shoes — began circulating online, and praise flooded Schulman’s mentions. That evening, shortly before the penultimate episode of the show’s third season aired on HBO, Taffy Brodesser-Akner, a staff writer for The New York Times Magazine who has written her fair share of viral celebrity profiles, tweeted her congratulations to Schulman: “I haven’t been riveted like this in a while and it’s very nice.”

The backlash arrived the following Tuesday, December 7, when actress Jessica Chastain tweeted, “Ive known Jeremy Strong for 20yrs & worked with him on 2 films. Hes a lovely person. Very inspiring & passionate about his work. The profile that came out on him was incredibly one sided. Don’t believe everything you read folks. Snark sells but maybe its time we move beyond it.” In a statement posted by Chastain last Friday, screenwriter and director Aaron Sorkin, who Schulman interviewed over email for the piece, jumped into the fight, writing, “I think I helped Mr. Schulman create what I believe is a distorted picture of Jeremy that asks us to roll our eyes at his acting process.” And soon, director and Succession executive producer Adam McKay had to have his say too, tweeting, “Jeremy is not only a lovely guy but a brilliant actor who was cast in Succession precisely because of his passion the New Yorker writer mocks.”

Strong has so far been personally silent on the profile, and the magazine is standing by Schulman’s work. “This is a nuanced, multi-sided portrait of an extremely dedicated actor,” a New Yorker spokesperson said in a statement. “It has inspired a range of reactions from people, including many who say that they are even more impressed by Jeremy Strong’s artistry after having read the article.”

For practitioners of the peculiar journalistic form that is the celebrity profile, the whole episode has provoked, if not indignation, a kind of confusion. Tom Junod, for example, has written some of the most beloved magazine profiles of all time, including one in Esquire about Mr. Rogers which was adapted into the 2019 film A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood (which in turn resulted in a popular profile of its star, Tom Hanks, by Brodesser-Akner). He’s also written some of the most controversial, among them a playfully half-fictional take on R.E.M. frontman Michael Stipe and one about Angelina Jolie that was dubbed “the worst celebrity profile ever written.” Still, he was blindsided by the reaction of the Strong camp. “I honestly don’t know why this particular profile has all of a sudden become notorious because I remember the day that it first came out, all these people who I admire a lot were singing its praises, like Taffy. That’s the first thing that called my attention to it,” he said. “Then, within days, there was this backlash, all of which took place without my having read a word of it.”

Having taken in the criticisms on Twitter, Junod sat down with a copy of the profile and a red pen to make up his mind. “I don’t usually read magazine profiles with a red pen,” he said, “but I expected to see more of even just plain old needling, and it’s just not there.” Instead, what he found was a model of the form that avoided the sorts of objections that have traditionally been leveled at celebrity profiles. “There’s not even the thing that really upsets most people, which is physical description,” Junod said. “Other than saying what color his hair is, I don’t think that there’s anything in there about that.” And the focus of the piece is what subjects have frequently insisted on. “[Schulman] doesn’t get into his private life. He doesn’t reveal the person behind the mask. He concentrates on the mask itself. I thought that on that level, it was really perceptive,” he said. “A lot of actors that you talk to, they want the story to be about the work, rather than the private life, and this is a story about the work.”

One guess as to what provoked the reaction that Junod threw out has to do with the perils of self-seriousness. “I think that what he did was simply not take him as seriously as he takes himself, and that can be wounding for people, especially people who take themselves really seriously. But I don’t think that’s offensive. You do that with friends all the time. A lot of people don’t take me as seriously as I take myself,” he said. “The idea of somebody being lightly — and I do mean lightly — mocked for his pretensions just doesn’t seem like any sort of cardinal journalistic sin to me.”

Another guess is that the sense of betrayal is greater because of Schulman’s long acquaintance with his subject. About halfway through the profile, Schulman discloses that he first became aware of Strong when they were both Yale undergraduates and that, after graduating, they both worked at the same film producer’s office. “Strong taught me how to use the copy machine,” Schulman writes. Junod said, “I just wonder if [Strong] kind of thought that they were friends and he went through the whole first paragraph of The Journalist and The Murderer thing.” (As Janet Malcolm opens her canonical 1990 book, “Every journalist who is not too stupid or too full of himself to notice what is going on knows that what he does is morally indefensible. He is a kind of confidence man, preying on people’s vanity, ignorance, or loneliness, gaining their trust and betraying them without remorse.”)

Junod marveled at the access Schulman got over his six months working on the piece. “Jeremy clearly gave Michael more time than people are used to getting these days,” he said. “I think that, probably, people looked at it and saw the generosity of that and maybe had second thoughts about giving journalists that kind of generosity. Maybe it’s not the profile itself, it’s just the fact that he got so deep, and people don’t like that anymore.”

Anna Peele, who’s written profiles for Esquire, GQ, Men’s Health, and elsewhere, first read the Strong profile after the wave of criticism crested because she was on a reporting trip when it was posted. “Adam McKay saying the story ‘mocks’ Strong got at the different standard people seem to have for profiles,” she told Off the Record. “Would McKay say his movies and T.V. shows, which I love, are always mocking characters when their behavior is humorous, even if the characters aren’t aware of that humor? Some people seem to think profiles should operate with an ‘if you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all’ mentality. But people — even good people who we love! — do things that are silly or complicated or annoying, often as they go about doing the things that make us love them.”

Stephen Rodrick, a contributing writer at The New York Times Magazine, Men’s Journal, and Rolling Stone, hasn’t seen anything that feels like a legitimate, substantive criticism of Schulman’s story. “I thought the Strong piece captured how this odd but incredibly talented man does his job,” he said. “I’m not sure if I quite understand all the angst about the piece, to be honest.” His only quibble is that he wishes Schulman had disclosed his prior acquaintance with Strong higher in the text, but he’s happy to see stories like Schulman’s published. “There are fewer places that will assign those kinds of pieces, so that’s why I enjoyed the Strong piece and the Joe Hagan piece on McKay,” he said of the recently published Vanity Fair profile. “You still see a lot of celebrity profiles, but you don’t see a lot of the person saying, ‘Spend some time with me and, for better or worse, see how I tick.’”

As much as anyone, Peele has staked out just how confrontational a celebrity profile can be. Her September 2015 Esquire cover story opens: “You’re sitting across from Miles Teller at the Luminary restaurant in Atlanta and trying to figure out if he’s a dick.” Later in the piece, she concludes, “yeah, he is kind of a dick.” Teller tweeted in response that the story was “very misrepresenting.” Looking back on that piece, she said, “I loved interviewing him and writing the piece. I consider that a person may have to permanently deal with something they fleetingly did, even if the story is accurate and fair, and even if their behavior is indicative of their character.”

After Rodrick published a piece on Johnny Depp in Rolling Stone in June 2018, which revealed that the actor had fallen into financial trouble and was getting his lines read to him through an earpiece, Depp called the article “a sham” in a subsequent profile in British GQ. “I was shafted,” the actor said, “the guy walked in with absolutely one intention.” That was far from the first time Rodrick’s come up against this sort of reaction. “I did a profile for the Times Magazine in 2003 on this musician Jon Brion, who does a lot of soundtracks, kind of a cultish semi-famous L.A. musician,” he said. “One of the musicians who he produced, Rufus Wainwright, called the story a blow job of a profile, but, on the flip side, Jon Brion himself hated it, because I pointed out that he had dozens and dozens of songs that he hadn’t finished and that not finishing the songs was part of his mystique.” The consequences went beyond mere grumbling. “Not only did he not like the piece, he plays at a club in L.A. called Largo, and I guess I would say I was semi-banned from it,” Rodrick said. “I’d go there to see another band, and the manager, who was also his manager, was like, ‘What are you doing here?’ I was never thrown out, but it was clear that I wasn’t really welcome. And that was a piece that nine readers out of ten thought kind of nailed him. I spent a ton of time with him over two or three months for a 3,500-word piece, which was kind of ridiculous.”

Still, Rodrick contends that duration is crucial for a great profile. “If you’re writing about interesting people, something interesting is going to happen, whether it’s incredibly creative, or violent, or absurd, something will happen if you spend enough time with them,” he said. “The key to doing a great profile is just spending as much time as you can with the subject.” And spending all that time tends to be a pleasure. “You’re getting paid to watch how somebody creates, and it helps me with my writing and me being a more creative person,” he said. “It’s one of those times where it’s like, I can’t believe I’m getting paid for this.” However, it’s not necessarily lucrative. “I love doing them. It’s just, I don’t know if there’s a living to be made in doing only those kinds of pieces,” he said. “The amount of time I put into them, I probably could have made more money as a barista at Starbucks. So there had to be other stories to fund them, whether it was a sports story, a political story, or whatever. Some of these stories, I would follow these people over the course of four, six, seven months as they’re doing a particular project, so if I only did those kinds of pieces, I’d have to learn how to live on $28,000 a year.”

Rodrick said he doesn’t think too much about the subject’s reaction while writing. “A celebrity profile is not reporting from Afghanistan, but it is still a form of journalism,” he said. “You compile the facts, and you write what you see.” There have been stories about non-famous people whose responses gave him pause. “The way they responded to it, it made me kind of reexamine the way I might have approached something,” he said, “but with somebody who’s in the public spotlight, I might agree with some of the criticism, but I’m not going to change my style or technique or go easier on someone because someone didn’t like it.” And he’s made his peace with the diversity of reactions. “You, the writer, get to take your shot. If someone doesn’t like it, that’s their prerogative, and you kind of just have to take your lumps with it,” he said. “I would speak up if someone is mischaracterizing the piece or quoting it inaccurately or something, but if people are just like, ‘I didn’t like that piece, you made this nice guy come off like an asshole,’ well, that’s somebody’s opinion. You’ve had your shot, and you have to kind of live with it.”

“Everybody knows that celebrity profiles are something of a compromised form,” Junod said. “They put the dream factory against the truth factory, so-called. Somebody’s not going to be happy. And so be it. That’s the way it’s always going to be.” But the competing priorities of subjects and readers can play on a writer’s mind. “It’s always a push and pull between imperatives of story and imperatives of subject,” he said. “It’s that dynamic that makes the great stories great, and it’s also the dynamic that makes the bad stories bad.”

“Profiling someone, especially in the definitive way Schulman did,” said Peele, “means encompassing all the facets of them, not just listing their attributes in praise.” But she acknowledged there’s something to Junod’s characterization of the celebrity profile as a “compromised form.” “I try to limit how much I compromise the story and myself by not writing anything I wouldn’t say to the subject and by telling them to the greatest extent that I can what I think about them,” she said. “That way, they know what’s coming and can tell me if they think I’m wrong.” Even when she’s tried to get away from human complexities in her stories, Peele has still bumped up against the hazards of the form. In 2019, she profiled the Kentucky Derby favorite Game Winner for ESPN. “That horse didn’t give a shit what I wrote but also turned out to be less personally compelling than I had anticipated, both due to the fact that he is a horse. I wound up including the humans around him in the story, so if I was compromised,” she said, “it was by them.”

Schulman seems to be living with it just fine. “Whenever anything comes out like this, you don’t know whether it’s a mark of success or failure, and I’m sure that he’s asking himself questions about it,” Junod said, “but I’m sure he feels pretty confident that he did the right things and made the right moves in that piece.”

The funny thing about the Strong profile — one of many funny things — is that not only did the reaction get people like Junod to read it, but it also convinced him to finally watch Strong’s HBO show. “The end effect for me with this particular story is that I’m going to watch Succession now, so it did its job as a publicity piece,” he said. “The thing that journalists don’t like to admit is that they are part of the machine, so they do everything they can to not be part of the machine, and sometimes they just wind up part of the machine.” He clarified, “I’m not saying it was only a publicity piece because I think it’s a lot more than that, but I’m sure that I’m not the only person who is going to watch the show or is interested in the show, because like, ‘Whoa, look at all this.’”

Schulman himself declined Off the Record’s interview request. This week, he’s on deadline for another profile, preparing, once more, to enter the maelstrom.