Sarah Lyall grew up in New York City and is now London correspondent for the New York Times. She lives there with her husband, the writer Robert McCrum, and their two daughters. Her first book was entitled The Anglo Files: A Field Guide to the British.
Question: Do the British obsess more about celebrities than Americans?
Lyall: I think Americans obsess a lot over celebrity, but, I think, the thing about Britain, you have to remember, it’s a small country. It, you know, there’s an expression that they use, saying that you punch above your weight, which means you kind of play with the big boys when you’re not such a big boy? So, Britain, you know, tries to be more of a kind of world figure than it maybe is, and so, it kind of want to do what America does, but it doesn’t have as many celebrities. It doesn’t have as many serious things to fill its paper with, papers with, as America does. So, it has this weird celebrity culture filled with not that important celebrities, actually. A lot of newspapers that it has to sell and a lot of tabloids that are completely, Hollywoodized. I mean, they’re all about kind of crap, really. And so, so you do, it’s in the culture much more. I mean, there is a kind of lack of seriousness in discourse there because of all that, I think. It’s really brought down the tone of a lot of the papers, all the celebrity stuff.
Question: What was your experience interviewing Heath Ledger?
Sarah: Sure. I interviewed him right before the Dark Knight was wrapping. I think he was in his last couple of months of filming, and he was… you know, first of all, he’s really good looking. A lot of movie actors aren’t good looking at all when you meet them, you know? They’re much smaller than you would hope they were, which is fine. I have nothing against short people, but that… But, you know, but you’re disappointed ‘cause they don’t look the same as you want them to look. And he was like a big, strapping, you know, Australian guy. He clearly was really bright, really creative, and very restless. And, you know, but charming, and charming and intelligent, and clearly having a tough time with the filming. And one of the things we’ve talked about was insomnia, because I suffer from insomnia as well, so we were sort of trading tips. So, I mean, what kind of drugs to take and what kind of, you know, techniques we used. And he, kind of hauntingly, he said, you know, “I’ve been taking Ambien, and I took one last night and it didn’t work, so I took another one, and then I only slept for an hour.” And he said, you know, “My mind is fizzing with this role. I cannot get my mind to shut up.” And he didn’t seem like he was, you know, on anything. He just seemed like he was clearly somebody who was, one of those people who gets so into his work that he couldn’t calm it down, those voices that were, you know, all excited and fizzy. And so I felt just so sad at the way he died because, clearly, he was talking about that and it clearly was a mistake, I think, because he just couldn’t get any sleep, and I know what that feels like. It’s awful. And so, it was just shocking, ‘cause he seemed… He was so full of life and so lovely, and we talked about his daughter. He was, you know, a little baby daughter. He just loved her. And it was just such a waste. It was so sad. The interview was in November… Did he die in February, was it that? I think it was pretty… So, I think, the last big interview that he did. And again, you know, I just would have had no idea, and he certainly wasn’t suicidal. He was really full of life, but it was so poignant. He was living in a beautiful rented house in London. It had, I think, 3 or 4 bedrooms. They took me on a tour. Beautiful place. And he showed me every single bed he had been. It was all [mussy], you know, all the sheets were everywhere. And he said, “‘Cause last night, I just couldn’t sleep, so I went from bed to bed, hoping I could fall asleep somewhere.” It’s just so sad. Just so sad. And, you know, you wonder if someone had really kind of taken him in hand and said, you know, “This movie is hurting your health. Let’s try to work on this,” if he could have been helped. Who knows? You know, creative people are, you can’t really… you don’t really have answers do you? You can’t really know what makes them tick. But it was just… It was a tragedy. A real tragedy.