JOHN VON SOTHEN sits down with celebrity recluse God to discuss election predictions, plagues, fashion, and idiots who keep pocket dialing him.
It’s not every day you get to meet God. But for a journalist, meeting famous people from time to time is one of the perks. It makes writing boring articles about a new farm to table restaurant opening or how “brown is the new black” tolerable, even if it’s not that often.
I was lucky enough to have a contact with one of God’s publicists. I’d been in touch with her over the past months, occasionally shooting her an email to see if God was interested in being featured on our cover for one of the winter months to tie in with the Christmas season. Or if that wasn’t enough, Man of the Year was still a possibility.
“All of us at Vanity Fair think God’s great. We heart God,” I told her.
She didn’t seem very impressed. “That’s nice, but you know he doesn’t do many interviews nowadays,” she reminded me, “and if so, it’s usually a tie-in to one of his movies or events.”
“Ah, is there an upcoming event we should know about?” I asked a bit nervously. “Please hold,” she replied, and elevator music came over the line.
When she came back, I reassured her I was quite aware of God’s limited time and was fully up to date with all his stuff on IMDB. Plus I rattled off a couple recent covers: Brad Pitt, Barack Obama, even the Pope. God, I said, just seem the next logical choice.
She made no promises, only to get back to me regardless. And as we hung up, I must admit I had mixed feelings. Sure a God interview was a big career move, but there was this sort unspoken curse hanging over it as well. Most of the journalists who’d met God, never really followed up their success with anything of note afterward. Or, worse, they were summarily known as “the guy who spoke with God” which pretty much defined them the rest of their careers.
Plus I was told God was a notorious bad interview – a bit distant, never really showing an inner side, always giving you the idea you needed him more than he needed you; which hurt only because it was true.
Like many, I’d loved God’s older stuff, but in recent years, or maybe as I got older, his mystique had worn thin. He’d done a lot of crap recently, almost to the point where the bad stuff was starting to outweigh the good. And a lot of times, it seemed to me at least, he was sort of doing the same bit over and over again, using the same God shtick, almost as if he were “just playing God” and not the character he was cast for. It had gotten to the point where, barring anything new (resurrection or apocalypse), God’s legacy was ultimately going to be cast as “some legendary stuff in the beginning, but for the most part – kind of mediocre.”
I was telling myself this of course, as a way to temper expectations, so I wouldn’t be too disappointed when he’d say no. And when the publicist did call back, I’d already moved on to another article, drafting a piece about Paul Rudd.
“I have good news. God’s said yes and is happy to meet with you this week.” the publicist Kim said, “but you’ll have to work out with him the where and when.”
She gave me his cell phone and when I added it to my contacts, I chuckled, simply because adding God to one’s contacts under G looks a bit pretentions. George Bernard, God, Godfrey Alain, it kind of stuck out. I was hesitant to put the number in my phone anyway because I didn’t want to pocket-dial God by accident. Imagine you sit down to dinner with friends, only to get up and realize you’ve accidently called God three times, which I’m sure he’d find incredibly annoying.
I was told I’d have two hours max with God and when I asked if he preferred a hotel lobby or more a restaurant or café, she quickly told me it should be discreet, because “God doesn’t want to be seen in public. You can understand.” I told her I did, wondering of course, what God had had done to not want to be seen. Plastic surgery?
When I did call, of course, I got God’s voice mail. It was one of those standardized computer messages “You’ve reached the voicemail of”…. (followed by a pause and then a deep voice saying…”God”) which I took was his.
“Hi God, what’s up.” I cleared my throat trying to sound casual. “This is John at Vanity Fair. Kim gave me your number. I was hoping we could meet sometime this week. I can be reached at…” and I gave my number.
I didn’t know where God was at the time – if he was on the East Coast or Greenwich meantime. He might even be in Asia for all I know. So when I went to bed that night, I put my phone next to my bed in the off chance he’d call back. Sure it would be cool to have a voice mail from God, which you could always save and share with your friends, but with my deadline approaching, I didn’t have time for phone tag.
I was also told the magazine needed my article by a certain date and I was to write around God without the actual exclusive interview if need be. It wouldn’t be the first time. Tons of stuff had been written about God without his permission. We also had stock photos, if he wasn’t free for a shoot. Granted God wearing Prada and D&G would be a big coup for our advertisers, but we were proceeding on the assumption it likely wouldn’t happen.
My biggest issue at this point was the angle I was going to take for the God piece. Like any good journalist, I’d done my research and read a lot about God, and most of the stuff I’d digested had the same story line. How he’d reinvented the craft. How he’d somehow take a scene out of nothing and make it into something bigger, how nobody before him had such range, how he’d inspired generations of different actors and seduced generations of fans.
I’d also heard God had a meticulous work ethic and was very guarded with his private life, which was rare for a celebrity. He wasn’t a big partier. There were no messy divorces or him on covers of US in a speedo or overweight. And then of course, there was the classic God habit of never showing up to awards ceremonies or film openings.
Because he was such a recluse, some in the press had reported he’d actually died a couple of years ago. “God is Dead,” wrote a writer, which stirred up a lot of controversies but didn’t really lend insight into the man himself. And none of these pieces, I felt, succeeded in describing what it really must truly be like to be God. How does one stay God and yet have one’s own life? How does the fact you’re God cut you off from the rest of us? When you’re God, who tells you when to shut up or when you’re overacting or when you’re being an asshole?
Instead, I read more of the same celebrity interviews you’d expect. And all the answers were usually cryptic and kind of mechanically answered.
On the beginning of the world: “Well at the time I don’t think any of us could have imagined it would be as big as it turned out to be.”
On Moses: “Moses was a pleasure to work with. He had a vision and he saw it through to the end. Big beard. Big cane.”
On Santa Claus: “He’s good at what he does. A bit over the top, but the town’s big enough for the both of us.”
There was no two-hour teary-eyed exclusives or the Tom Cruise with Oprah jumping on the couch or the Sean Penn punching the cameraman freak outs.
What fascinated me was, like Brando, God had disappeared without explanation for a while as well, at least, it seemed that way for parts of the 20th century. He’d just sort of retired, at the summit of his profession. Why would God walk away, and then decide, all of sudden, to come back?
The more the story came together, though, the more of a mystery God seemed. I’d heard he’d moved into other arenas. Internet, biotech, some said he was even set on starting a church or sect kind of thing, but NOT Scientology.
Just when I was about to write the article using stuff from Wikipedia and comments from those who’d worked with God in the past, the call came my way.
Well God texted me actually – in that emoji way. He started with a lightning bolt (I guess for him) than a beer glass image then a question mark, finished by a smiley face and wink. I must admit, I was so excited by the text; I’d forgotten I hated smiley face texts. The fact God was up for a drink surprised me. I’d heard he’d stopped drinking years before, because of a few incidents where he’d forsaken people. I proposed we meet at Harry’s Bar. That way he’d be less noticeable because the Americans there assume God is in the US, working solely for the Americans.
I arrived at Harry’s early because I knew the bartender would give me a good table where we could be private. God came in soon afterward, and it was obvious it was him. He was so, how do I say it?….God-ish. Beard, flowing robe, parting the bar like he’d done the Red Sea. I motioned over to my table, and when God approached a curious thing happened. He introduced himself.
“Hi I’m God,” he said extending his hand as if I didn’t know who it was or if I’d mistaken him for the waiter.
We shook and I laughed, nervously kidding.
“Are you sure?” I said nervously, “Can I see your ID?”
He laughed back and slung his shroud over his chair, and I asked if he had trouble finding the place.
“No. I just couldn’t find a parking spot.”
I must admit I was a bit shocked to hear God drove. I’d expected him to have a driver outside waiting for him at the end of the street with a running car, but I said I sympathized and joked that he should have taken a Velib.
“That’s worse,” God said, “there’s a never a stand nearby and if so, they’re always full.”He ordered a scotch and soda and me another beer.
I complemented God on his beard. “Are you going for the Joaquin Phoenix thing for a while, or is this for an upcoming role?”
God said he wanted to try something different and the fact it had taken so long to grow out, he didn’t want to cut it just yet. “It was a bitch growing in some of the parts around the sideburns.” I told him I had the same problem.
Our drinks came and I asked God to take me back to the early times, back to those famous days before light.
“It was a long time ago,” God sighed as he sipped his whiskey. “We didn’t really know what we were doing at that point and nobody could have thought it would have turned out the way it did.”
I told him I’d heard that response before. He looked at me silently, a bit annoyed I think by my candor. Silence ensued and to break the ice, I asked him if there were other projects going on at the same time and did he ever think like “Wow, what if I hadn’t decided to start the world. What if I’d become a doctor instead?”
“There really wasn’t much going on before then,” God admitted. “When I grew up it was pretty dull, I mean there was just this big dark void.”
I told God he was being modest, that his part in the formation of the universe serves as the basis for much of cinema today. That his role as creator not only serves as the benchmark for modern romantic comedy but modern thought as well.”
God shrugged. “I was in the right place at the right time. That’s all.”
I asked him about his upbringing, who his parents were, family life in general.
“Everything on that has already been written over and over again,” God shot back, “It makes me sick.” He motioned for another scotch, seemingly not interested in discussing it any further.
“But it’s just that,” I dug in, “There’s isn’t much on your family life, beyond what’s already been written, which isn’t that much all. It’s like you appeared out of thin air.”
God paused and looked down at my Dictaphone on the table.
“Your thing isn’t working.”
He was right. My dictaphone was on pause. I’d just bought it and hadn’t figured out how it worked and hadn’t had the time to practice a test before the interview. I pulled out my iPhone from my jacket and pressed record on the audio application and put it next to the Dictaphone.
“You know,” God said, “you can replace your cracked screen for pretty cheap. “ He’d noticed I’d cracked my iPhone screen.
I said I knew, but that I’d been kind of busy lately preparing the interview and didn’t have the time.
“I have a friend who did it himself even.” God said. “Just watched the process on YouTube and voila.”
He then showed me his protective case, one made out of rock with five commandments on the back.
“My wife has the other five on her iPhone. I got the good five.” He winked.
Since we were on the subject of technology, I asked God if he used iCloud. He said he didn’t really need iCloud since he was God, and anyway, he already had dropbox, which did the job fine.
I brought up the subject of regrets (a classic question I like to use with celebrities to kind of bring them down to earth a bit).
“Did you ever regret passing on a role that turned out to be a hit, like Richard Gere saying no to Die Hard, or Richard Gere saying no to Wall Street?”
“No,” God laughed. “My only regret was not having passed on Richard Gere.”
We both laughed. He was funny God. You could tell he had a sense of humor, a bit dark, but funny.
I asked him if young directors were intimidated to work with such an icon.
“I think it’s mixed,” he said. “Yes I’m sure there’s a fear factor, but at the same time, they know I’m bankable. I’m God. So, me saying yes to their project, means their film’s going to get made. So they know they have to deal with me one way or another.”
As our talk went on, we touched on his popularity taking a trajectory similar to that of Michael Jackson big in the third world and Asia and less popular in Europe nowadays, which he admitted, but didn’t think was a long term deal.
He said of the up and coming actors, Jake Gyllenhaal was his favorite and the recent movie he liked the best was surprisingly Inside Out.
Whether he was still for François Hollande? God made like he didn’t want to go there, but I reminded him he had tweeted congrats to Hollande after election night.
“I always tweet on election night,” God said. “And did you the see the way I called Ohio in 2012 for Obama, even before the networks?”
As our second hour wound down, God glanced at his phone. He’d finished his second scotch and I could tell he wasn’t sure if he should order a third or go, which made me panic. My editor, I knew, would want me to get something juicy, something they could put on the cover in quotes that would seem very cool or anti-God, and here I was with God asking stupid shit about politics!
The bar began to fill up with people for happy hour, yet nobody seemed to notice the bearded man with me in the corner.
I turned my iPhone off and looked at him.
“OK God before you go. Off the record. JFK, 9/11, Adam and Eve. The plague. Give me some fodder. Something to gnaw on. Some kind of scoop.”
“You got me there,” God laughed. “Let’s just say I hope I’m remembered more for the good than the bad.”
At the point, he got up from his chair and offered to pay the bill, but I insisted and told him I could expense it. As we left, I shook God’s hand and told him I’d send him the piece before we ran it, just so there’s no surprises.
“Not necessary. I kind of already know how’s it’s going to read.”
We shook hands, and I watched as he sauntered off down Rue Daunou with a tipsy gate, heading left and right more than forward. Nobody seemed to turn and stop him for a photo, assuming he was just another patron of Harry’s, shuffling home full of scotch. And like that, he was gone, and so was my meeting with God.
We never ended up getting him for the photo shoot and instead used some old stuff Michelangelo had done for Italian Vanity Fair a couple of years before. The piece ran with God on the cover. “Hangin’ with God, the Messiah weighs in on fashion, politics and iCloud.” ran the headline.
I was happy with it. The issue I knew would sell fairly well, and I still have his number somewhere in my contacts under G, which I might call one day, but hopefully not by accident.