“I wanted to say, before we get started, that you’re my favourite person to interview with.” The viral video of Tom Holland cutely praising Ali Plumb’s interview skills, as well as his years of experience of journalism and the entertainment industry, meant when the opportunity to talk to Ali Plumb came about, we were incredibly excited to gain insight into his process. Plumb has been working for the BBC since 2016, serving as Radio One’s film critic, and has conversed with the likes of Tom Cruise and Natalie Portman.
Plumb was Deputy Editor for The Boar and wrote articles investigating campus security by attempting to steal a microwave from every accommodation
As Warwick alumni himself, we were keen to ask about his university days and what he remembers most of his time on campus. Plumb describes the memories he has of working with RAW. “I did something called, incredibly, ‘Compact Disco’, which was a singles review show. And so much of that is achingly old, reviewing singles – hilarious!” Plumb was Deputy Editor for the Boar and wrote articles investigating campus security by attempting to steal a microwave from every accommodation, which proved far too easy. “You could pick what your by-line photo was, and of course I just looked like such a total tool. We all sort of look back on when you’re young and think, ‘what was I going on about’.”
Whilst Ali looks back on his time at Warwick with fondness, you get the sense that he has certainly grown since his university journalism days. He says “We put a lot of pressure on ourselves to get the issue out and I used to write these incredibly tired columns which if I had to reread them now would be disastrous. Just absolutely, awfully, hackneyed, dreadful drivel. Way too many subclauses and just overwritten in the extreme. Every single phrase I would hammer out for days as if it really mattered. Whereas in reality, when you become a professional writer, you just get it done!”
But an enviable career as ‘that interviewer guy’ for the BBC didn’t happen overnight. After graduating from Warwick, Plumb did an MA at City University in magazine journalism. Plumb spent six years doing work experience, at places such as the Radio Times, Esquire and FHM. However, it was at Empire Magazine, where he helped found their podcast, that gave him experience interviewing the likes of Al Pacino for interview junkets since “nobody in the office wanted to do them.”
“The reason I was able to do any of this was because my brother, who is about four years older than me, had gone to London and was training to be an accountant. So I would kind of sleep on his floor.” Even with the help of family for a place to stay in the Big Smoke, the unpaid work experience at Empire was still challenging. “I was doing three jobs throughout that time to sort of pay my way to keep that seat… I worked at a pub. I worked freelance for the Huffington Post.”
Eventually, Plumb became Deputy Movies Editor for Digital Spy, but after a lucky encounter with some old colleagues from Empire, the opportunity to work for Radio One came about. After three rounds of interviews, and a chemistry test with Nick Grimshaw, he managed to get the job by reviewing Joy. “‘I’m going to review a movie that’s bad.’ I thought to myself ‘I need to make this entertaining’ rather than ‘I need to make this a fluid and interesting and well written review’. It needs to be funny.’”
But when asked about the challenges of his role, Plumb was quick to recognise the privileged position he holds, whilst still revealing that there are moments where the pressure can build. “I think that what you are encouraged to do when you’re in the “public eye” (I use that very loosely with heavy inverted commas), is give the impression that everything you’re doing is sort of falling out of your mind, like you just woke up and it came out of your head. In reality, anyone who is very good at what they do, is very good at what they do because they’ve done a ton of work, and they’ve prepped and they’ve planned… but I’m not mining coal, I’m not a nurse, I’m not saving lives. I’m not doing a ‘real job’. All of this is an incredible honour and privilege and thrill – but it’s a lot. There are a lot of moving parts.”
In the sea of monotonous interviews with actors and directors, the real question is how do you ask questions that feel fresh and original? Ali mentions how he has split up his Radio One segment into separate sections to cater to a variety of audiences. ‘Movies that Made Me’ is described by him as the “emperor brand.” From Scorsese to Spielberg to Tarantino, the show has featured a pick of highly reputed auteurs, and he admits, “any old white man”. And for the more artistically inclined audience, there’s ‘Becoming’, where Ali converses with actors about their approach to tackling intensive roles.
To make sure old ground isn’t tread, Ali scours the internet for any previous podcasts and interviews featuring the guest. This is not only to avoid repetition, but to uncover fascinating anecdotes and use them as a jumping-off point for further questioning. He even divulges his little cheat code, that he likes to peruse the trivia section on IMDB to uncover lesser-known tidbits that he can ask about. He did find humour in acknowledging that it’s like “cramming for an exam.” Despite his inner nerd longing to geek out on film trivia, Ali is aware that he has to strike a balance as millions of viewers tune into watch some of his interviews. “It’s about knowing the talent, and it’s about appealing to the fan”, he explains. He recognises that he doesn’t want to be contextualising all the time, because the conversation’s flow is paramount. Like every other perfectionist, he doesn’t assume perfection, and prepares contingencies. “It’s about remembering anything can happen after all this research, they could be tired, they could have a personal issue” he remarked. He also added “You don’t become good at anything without a good chance of being bad, because you will make a mistake, but it’s perseverance that will make you better”.
Ali was faced with the daunting challenge of conducting a face-to-face interview with Leonardo DiCaprio, Brad Pitt and Margot Robbie
As a self-professed people pleaser, Ali understands the nuanced art of navigating different guest’s energy levels and styles. Whether he’s engaging with the frantic energy of Tom Holland or the more reserved Leonardo DiCaprio, he is keenly attuned with their mannerism and adjusts his approach like a chameleon to put them at ease. The atmosphere Plumb attempts to recreate is one as if the interviewee is telling their “favourite anecdotes at the pub.”
During the press junket for Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, Ali was faced with the daunting challenge of conducting a face-to-face interview with Leonardo DiCaprio, Brad Pitt, and Margot Robbie. Though he admits “the nerves never really go away”, he makes it evident that you should never let them show, as it will also make the interviewees nervous as well. Rather, his advice is to remember that they too are mere mortals.
Marrying the duties of a film critic with a people pleasing interviewer can be a difficult clash, as you might be more cautious in writing a critical review when you may later come face-to-face with the director or cast. Plumb makes it clear that there are a variety of channels across social media who offer unfiltered thoughts on movies, and that he works for the BBC, where there is always the atmosphere of neutrality. Even so, he isn’t overly interested in watering down his words. ‘They know how it works; they know every movie they’re in isn’t great”. And despite our personal admiration for him, he acknowledges the reality that “no-one knows who I am”, and in Hollywood’s ecosystem, “you are just one in a sea of thousands who speak to them.” Throughout the interview, he is keen to point out how despite our preconceptions, he has no relationship with the actors and directors outside of the press junket.
Having spent the interview’s duration delving into his past experiences, we looked to the future to round off the interview. When discussing his most anticipated films of the year, Dune: Part Two topped his list, owing to his admiration of Denis Villeneuve’s bold approach of shooting Dune as ‘half of a film’, betting that he’d get enough of an audience to execute a sequel. He sarcastically quips, “Fast X is a film that exists.” To end the interview, we ask him to chime in on the internet’s biggest debate. Oppenheimer or Barbie? Nolan’s biopic about the dawn of the atomic bomb is set to open on the same day as Greta Gerwig’s exuberant exploration of the iconic doll. For Plumb, it was evident that Oppenheimer was his first priority. He remarked “you have to eat your vegetables before your dessert”, which aptly summarises his years of hard work before getting to interview the industry’s biggest names.