Celebs can be camera-shy too, but they have photo-coping secrets
Actor Robert Pattinson signs autographs on the red carpet at the TIFF Bell Lightbox Theatre in Toronto during the screening of his new film 'Cosmopolis' directed by David Cronenberg on Monday June 4, 2012. (Aaron Vincent Elkaim / The Canadian Press)
Published Monday, September 3, 2012 8:11AM EDT
TORONTO -- During a recent photo shoot, Alanis Morissette was perched perilously on the edge of a couch in yellow high heels while a photographer issued a simple instruction: just act natural.
Morissette, as charmingly obliging a celebrity as you're likely to find, could just offer a huge grin in response.
"None of this is natural," she said, laughing.
Well, so it goes. As hundreds of the world's brightest celebs descend upon the Toronto International Film Festival this week, they'll be greeted by a blaze of flashes sizable enough for a Michael Bay movie.
Given that actors make a living looking pretty in front of cameras, one might assume it's easy to generate those megawatt mug shots. But while many celebrities have grown adept at glittering under that glare, it's a not-so-secret fact of life in Hollywood that many famous people hate having their picture taken just as much as regular Joes grimacing through family portraits.
"I'm not good at being photographed, no," said '80s heart throb and "St. Elmo's Fire" star Andrew McCarthy in a recent interview. "I find it very self-conscious.
"I mean, I have my picture taken -- I sit there and grudgingly have my picture taken. Only because I feel self-conscious and I don't know how to perform in front of the camera and be relaxed like that."
As it turns out, a surprising number of oft-photographed celebs similarly shrink from the spotlight.
Toronto-raised photographer Chris Buck has shot the likes of Jay-Z, Michael Stipe, Ringo Starr, Jon Hamm, Russell Brand and Steve Martin while being published in such high-profile mags as GQ, Esquire and Newsweek.
He's just published a book called "Presence: The Invisible Portrait." The idea behind the project, essentially, is that Buck shoots big-name stars including William Shatner, Chevy Chase, Jay Leno and Amy Poehler -- but gets them to hide so they aren't actually visible in the frame.
Once they understood the project, some of his subjects were relieved to avoid the lens.
"Jonathan Franzen loved that," he said of the author of "The Corrections." "I'd say to him, 'You're aware you're not going to be visible?' He was like, 'Yes, that's the major selling point."'
Oscar-winning actor Robert De Niro was also among the subjects profiled in Buck's book -- and, unsurprisingly, the man who once threatened his own reflection in "Taxi Driver" doesn't exactly blossom in front of the camera.
"He doesn't like having his picture taken -- he really doesn't like it," Buck said. "He's perfectly pleasant, but it's well known he doesn't like having his picture taken. At a certain point, he's like: 'What do you need?"'
De Niro co-operated with the idea, eventually consenting to hide in a bathroom while Buck got his shot.
And usually, even camera-shy celebs are eventually agreeable because they too want the best possible shot.
"Some people are great -- they're just creative people, and they're engaged in the process, (so) you do good work. And other times, people are not into it, and they're jerks about it....
"(But) most people, they know how to engage with it and make it work ... they want a great photograph, and that's what you want."
He isn't shy about pointing out some of the more, ahem, challenging celebs he's worked with. Kathy Griffin, included in his book, was "very difficult," resisting the set-up the magazine had requested and trying to change the way Buck lit the shoot.
It's quite common for celebrities to object to the creative ideas devised by the photographer or magazine. Buck recalls asking Billy Bob Thornton to pose at a table covered in potatoes -- a reference to Thornton's lean years as an actor, when he survived on the nutrient-rich veggies -- and Thornton not only refused, but Buck says the actor asked him not to "mention it again."
Similarly, Buck says David Hasselhoff turned down two of the photographer's ideas -- one that would have depicted a bloodied Hasselhoff stumbling away from a car wreck, and another that would have outfitted the German actor in lederhosen.
Buck later pitched Paul Rudd and Vancouver actor Seth Rogen on the same lederhosen idea, and they enthusiastically accepted, eventually appearing in the leather breeches in the pages of GQ.
"I think they have their boundaries of what people want to do or not do," Buck said. "But it's a bit of a dance. Because I want a picture that feels different than how they've usually been photographed.
"Getting celebrities to do stuff is hard," he added. "Some people even said no to doing this (book), which is amazing to me -- something that's going to take two minutes, and you're not going to be visible."
So creating a comfortable environment is key. Since most celebrities are just terrified of embarrassing themselves in a photograph, trust is essential.
"If I can get really comfortable with the photographer then I can close the doors and enjoy the session, and they can bring the best out of me," Glass Tiger frontman Alan Frew said recently.
"But normally, I detest it."
And so, a camera-shy celeb has to develop coping mechanisms to make it through the press barrage that is part of the -- let's face it, still-quite-pleasant -- job.
Many celebrities do have go-to poses, possibly unnatural body and facial movements that have nonetheless become second nature. Buck pointed out, for instance, that Margaret Atwood is usually photographed wearing a wry grin. When he successfully coaxed her into a different expression, he realized her trademark smile worked better.
And while the usual assumption is that celebrities have a "good" side -- Eva Mendes is known to have a preferred profile for photographs, while Mariah Carey insisted on a ban on pictures from of her left side until 2009, for instance -- Buck says that's actually quite rare.
"I think in my entire 25 years shooting, maybe two people have said, 'Here's my good side. Please shoot this,"' he said.
In fact, celebs often worry over more subtle concerns.
In an interview last month, Jane Fonda said her photo fretting usually centres on bad lighting.
"I just avoid overhead lighting," she said in a telephone interview. "If I'm in an elevator and a cute guy gets on, I kind of put my hand over my eyes."
Indeed, actors seem most self-conscious about photos that reveal signs of aging or weight gain.
"Back in the day when I was younger, I never thought of anything like that -- it was like, I looked kind of good from any side," said Ralph Macchio, star of "The Karate Kid" and "My Cousin Vinny."
"Now, if the wind's blowing then I've gotta use a little hairspray, because it's not quite as thick as it used to be.... There are times if I smile and push my head back, I get like two or three little chins that never used to be there."
Ultimately, celebrities behave the way most people do when staring down the barrel of a camera -- strike a pose (or smile weakly) and hope for the best.
And on those dreaded occasions when the camera catches something unbecoming -- spinach stuck in the incisors, mouth hanging a little too wide, branches of lines growing from the eyes -- it's best just to grin, again, and bear it.
"You just take your best chances," multiple Emmy winner Betty White said in a recent phone interview.
"I try not to be too difficult to get along with. If they want to take the picture, that's fine. You get not many good pictures, but you can get through them.
"But the terrible ones," she added, "only your enemies are going to print anyways, so there's nothing you can do about it. So I just don't worry about it."