By Madeline BodinProfiles are the bread and butter of nearly every feature writer at nearly every type of publication, from trade magazines, to national newspapers, to the glossiest of newsstand magazines. In the rush of deadlines, it’s tempting to see a profile as a one-source story or as a place to dazzle readers with your writing, even if your access to your subject wasn’t broad.
However, Geoff Edgers, a national arts reporter for The Washington Post, had another take on the genre in a talk at the 2023 Power of Narrative conference at Boston University: The way to write the best profile is to do the best reporting.
Edgers’s profile of the actor and comedian Adam Sandler, which ran in the Post in mid-March, was a culmination of years of work. The week it published, it was selected as one of the recommended stories in Sunday Long Reads.
Of course, while Edgers is known for profiling some of the most famous people in America, most of us are profiling people known only in our cities or industries. Still, everyone from CEOs to dog trainers may see themselves as a celebrity, so Edgers’s techniques can apply no matter who you are profiling.
Because securing a celebrity interview can take years, Edgers always has many profiles going, each at a different stage. “I just have all these strings out all the time,” Edgers said.
It took him seven years to convince Adam Sandler to speak to him. He used the time well. For the artists Edgers writes about, research means being familiar with all their work, and in this case that meant he and his family watched all of Sandler’s movies. “You can’t fake knowing a body of work,” Edgers said.
That background research also meant interviewing co-stars, business partners and other people in Sandler’s life even before he had Sandler’s agreement to talk. “I did all the secondaries first and hoped I wouldn’t waste them,” he said.
When it comes to the secondary interviews that give a well-rounded view of the profile subject, Edgers talks to the people the subject suggests and comes up with his own list. Some of his favorite people to talk with are people who are close to the subject but who are out of the spotlight themselves. That meant talking with Sandler’s buddies from New York University, some of whom he still works with, and the director of one of Sandler’s first movies, who had dropped out of the public eye. “I found her phone number listed online,” Edgers said.
This early reporting is important, because Edgers has already decided on an angle by the time he pitches the idea of the profile to the subject, although that angle may change during the reporting. Very often his angle is that the person is under-appreciated, he said, or that they are known for one aspect of their career when he thinks they should be better known for something else.
Edgers prefers to observe and interact with his subjects doing the things they are famous for, not a leisure activity. Some writers believe that seeing the subject out of their element adds depth to the portrayal, but Edgers disagrees. “I always get asked if I play golf,” he said, but he hasn’t done any golfing interviews. “I want to see people at work, doing what they do, but I don’t want to fake it,” he said.
When he profiled Ava DuVernay, he took the half-hour press tour interview slot for the release of her Netflix documentary “The 13th,” but he didn’t stop there. He attended a talk she gave at a prestigious arts institut, and went to the studio to see her directing the movie “A Wrinkle in Time.” The profile’s publication was timed to the release of that movie, Edgers said, but it was based on a year of reporting.
Trusting your curiosity
Edgar said that his best profiles happen not when they are an obligatory event when the subject has a book or movie coming out, “but when I have to do this story before I die.”* **
It’s a good reminder that our best profile subjects live where our own fascinations meet our readers’ interests. It’s also a reminder that when we are excited about what we are writing, and treat all our profile subjects as celebrities, it’s easier to create an exciting experience for the reader as well.
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Madeline Bodin is a freelance environmental and science journalist who is based in Vermont,