Austria’s Grande Dame in Hollywood

An Interview with Elisabeth Sereda

by Anja Mayer

Austrian journalist and correspondent Elisabeth Sereda has been living and working in Los Angeles for over 20 years. Since 1994, she has been a member of the Hollywood Foreign Press Association and knows the ins and outs of Hollywood.

In 2007, she published her book “Jenseits von Glanz and Glamour: Hollywood Backstage (Beyond Gloss and Glamour: Hollywood Backstage)” for which her good friend George Clooney wrote the foreword. In this interview, she gives a glimpse of what life looks like in the midst of the buzzing entertainment industry and how the industry has changed over the years.

What motivated you to leave Austria for the United States? Why did you choose to settle in L.A.?
I was only 21 when I left Austria, and I had already worked in radio, TV and print. Furthermore, I have always loved film, my English was good and I happened to have friends in L.A.

When you first came to L.A. you took a break from journalism. Why was that? And what jobs did you take up in the meantime?
I was bored with journalism – that still happens on a regular basis even today – and I was young and thought it would be cool to try out other things. Of course, I started off with odd jobs like selling theater subscriptions over the phone to people who didn’t even know how to spell the word theater, let alone having ever been to one. I also waited tables at a friend’s restaurant, which was actually a lot of fun, and I made great tips. Then I managed a small equity waiver theater complex in Hollywood. There, I learned a lot about contracts and how to run a business. I also understudied different roles in various plays.

How difficult was your start in L.A.? How did you build up your network of contacts?
Every beginning is hard. You don’t move to another continent in your forties but in your twenties you still have the necessary blind courage, the ignorance and the drive. You’re also willing to live for a while in a way most people would not in order to get what most people can’t achieve later on.

You are an eminent member of the Hollywood Foreign Press Association. How did that come to be?
After a few years of working other jobs, I returned to journalism because the business had changed and revenue from international box office sales had become more important. Therefore, international press coverage had become more important and the access to the studios got better. To join the Hollywood Foreign Press Association (HFPA) was just the next logical step.

How does your schedule look like on the day of the Golden Globe awards?
Crazy! I book presenters, deal with their publicists, work with the seating team to make sure they have good seats. I run about 20 miles a day through the entire Beverly Hilton Hotel. Plus, I also have to focus on my day job and edit and mix segments for the SKIP movie magazine website.

Every year, some lucky winners are given the chance to attend the Golden Globes with you. Can you tell us some more about the contest? What can the winners expect?
Every year, SKIP magazine puts on a contest. The two winners get to fly to L.A. for a week. They stay at the Beverly Hilton, go shopping for outfits for the big day, attend pre-Golden Globe parties with me as well as the award show and numerous after parties.

You have met a lot of celebrities and attended a lot of award shows over the years. Are there any funny or interesting stories/anecdotes you would like to share with our readers?
I would never hire Puff Daddy or P. Diddy or whatever he calls himself these days to present at the Globes again. I’ve done it twice and every time it was a nightmare. Requests for 12 bodyguards, hair and make-up people behind the stage, and so on. Not worth it. As long as Meryl Streep walks the red carpet without a bodyguard, Puffy doesn’t get one, either.

I also have a funny story from this year’s show: Colin Farrell was booked to present the Best Foreign Film category together with Lupita Nyong’o and we were waiting for him to arrive. But his driver had taken him to the Airport Hilton instead of the Beverly Hilton! He made it by a few seconds.

Another great story was when we walked into an after party one year and Prince had decided to jam. He just took over the piano and performed for a few hundred guests for an hour - What a treat!

You have a really impressive career. Which would be some of your personal highlights so far?
My first highlight was when I became the first European journalist to interview Yoko Ono at her apartment at the Dakota Building in Manhattan a few years after John Lennon’s death. When I came to L.A., I enjoyed some great moments meeting and interviewing the heroes of my childhood including Bette Davis, John Huston or, Billy Wilder with whom I had dinner twice - amazing!

You are good friends with, among others, George Clooney. He even wrote a foreword for your book. How did that come to be?
George has been a friend of mine for more than 20 years. We first met when I was on the set of ER in 1993. Back then he was just another actor in a big ensemble show. But he was exceptionally nice and extremely funny and we just hit it off. He is also the most loyal person in the world. He once saved my job by standing up for me. He didn’t have to do that. But he did it anyway because that’s just who he is.

I get asked this question a lot: How come you are friends with some big stars when most of them hate or at least distrust journalists? I believe it’s a question of personality. First of all, there has to be trust. I know the meaning of off-the-record and I value it. Believe me, the greatest stories are the ones untold! I would never break my word and print them. And they know that. The other thing is that I meet them on equal footing and always have. For me, they are not people to look up to; they are human beings like you and me, some of them with a great deal of talent. You can admire that but I have never been a fan.

However, the most important question for me is, and that’s the same as with all friendships, are they good and decent people? Those kinds of people, you would invite to a dinner party at your house. I could probably fill a table of 12: Emma Thompson would be there, Salma Hayek, Nicole Kidman, George, Eddie Redmayne, Octavia Spencer, Zach Braff, Julianne Moore, Angelina Jolie…

You have been living in Hollywood for more than 20 years. In your opinion, how has the movie industry changed since you first arrived in L.A.?
That is the age-old question. It has certainly opened up more to the international market. The film studios realized that a flop at the U.S. box office does not necessarily have to be a flop overall since revenue could also be generated from the international box offices. Suddenly they realized how important international publicity was: They started hiring actors with accents and directors with different tastes, although I attribute this circumstance more to the rise of independent cinema. 20 years ago, Diane Kruger would not have been the star of an American TV-series. And Marion Cotillard wouldn’t be a household name, nor would Christoph Waltz.

However, there’s still a huge gender and race gap. I was really angry when the last Academy Award nominations were announced and they totally snubbed brilliant director Ava DuVernay: Her movie Selma received a nomination, she did not. She is a 42-year-old African American woman. Go figure. Looking at the Academy Awards voter pool, it’s mostly old white men - atrocious… We still have a long way to go.

In your opinion, what are the biggest differences between the movie industry in Europe and in the United States?
Hollywood is huge because from the earliest days on, there was enough money to build up this industry. You can’t really compare it to Europe because within Europe it differs from country to country: the UK, France, Italy, Germany…they are all better off than the rest. It’s obviously the smaller countries that are struggling the most.

Another thing is that in the U.S. there are no government subsidies: The film industry is a business. In Europe so many filmmakers depend on film commissions, funds and government money. That’s not good but I also don’t have any alternative solution to propose.

Do you go back to Austria often? Is there anything you are missing here? 
I go back three or four times a year. I miss the forest and I miss the bread although that has gotten so much better since I first moved here. Most of all, however, I miss my friends. Luckily, they all travel as much as I do so we see each other on a regular basis.

The Austrian film industry has attracted increasing interest over the last few years. How do you personally see the future of Austrian film? 
Like I said before, Austrian film depends largely on money from funds. Although I reckon that this is necessary in a small country like Austria, I wish it was different. I wish we had one or two studios that were run like real businesses as well as more private investors since there is amazing talent in Austria: They haven’t won that many Oscars and film festival prizes in the past few years for no reason.

But there is also something within the Austrian soul that prevents many extremely talented people to really go after their dreams. I see that in myself, too. I call it ‘the small country syndrome.’ We often think we’re not good enough, that nothing will ever come of our dreams, that there is a glass ceiling. Americans don’t suffer from that. They just go after what they want. The Austrian mentality is not the most entrepreneurial one, and that’s sad. I hope it will change with younger generations.

I read somewhere that you are also interested in writing screenplays or producing? How is that coming along?
Working on it! I won’t give up on my dreams; I have lived in the U.S. way too long to do that.

Looking back, what advice would you give your 21-year-old self today? Is there anything in your career that you would have done differently if given the chance?
Yes. Don’t be afraid. It goes back to what I just described as the Austrian soul: I wish I had been even more courageous. Because the only thing that stands between me and great success is not a lack of ideas or a lack of talent. It is only me.