From The Vault is a new fortnightly series that takes readers behind the scenes of memorable interviews and assignments journalists have experienced. Check out the first story featuring Cindy Crawford here

Shark Tale is an animated film featuring the voices of Hollywood A-listers like Will Smith, Angelina Jolie, Renee Zellweger, Robert DeNiro, Martin Scorsese and Jack Black.

The film premiered at the 2004 Venice Film Festival, one month before its commercial and international release.

I was assigned to cover the premiere in Venice, Italy, and to interview the film’s stars, directors and executive producer Jeffrey Katzenberg.

That means getting to meet and interview Will Smith. And Angelina Jolie. And Robert DeNiro. And Martin Scorsese. (And the rest.) It was actually a very exciting assignment that I hardly ever talk about. And there’s a reason why.

When I received the press kit at my hotel in Venice, it had little information about the assignment. All I knew was that I had to take a vaporetto (water taxi) in the morning to where the film fest was being held – Lido island.

The atmosphere at the festival was great but I couldn’t enter the media venue because I did not have a press pass and had no idea who to contact.

Also, my Italian was limited to “Do’ve il bagno?” (where is the bathroom?), some common greetings and various names of food.

As I stood in front of the non-English speaking security guards, I showed them the only things I had with me – my work tag and the Shark Tale press kit. The guards looked at my stuff, then at each other, shrugged, and let me in.

Okay, that was a little too easy.

Come take my hand: The affable Will Smith at the Shark Tale press conference in Venice, Italy in 2004. Photo: Dreamworks

Inside the venue, the festival staff was everywhere although most of them did not speak English. Fortunately, mentioning the name of the movie loudly several times got me noticed by the right people. I finally got my media passes and was led to the press conference.

Hundreds of journalists were already there. When the actors walked in, the photographers immediately started taking pictures and everyone cheered. (Only Smith, Jolie and Michael Imperioli were available; DeNiro attended an earlier press conference with Italian reporters and only turned up at the movie’s world premiere at Piazza San Marco later that night.)

When it was time for the reporters to get to work, one man quickly stood up and asked Smith a random question. The actor replied even though he thought it was a joke; he was visibly not happy when the man proceeded to ask him to “say something funny” so he could record it and use it as his phone ringtone!

Time To Get Lost

After the press conference, a handful of us were lucky enough to get a group interview session with Smith, Jolie, Katzenberg and the directors.

It was at another venue and we again were not given much information. When I found the place, I asked the guards, “do’ve Shark Tale? Will Smith?” and he pointed at the lift. I walked over and stood next to a man wearing a fedora hat.

It was US director Spike Lee.

I went into the lift with him – he pressed all the buttons (there were only three floors) but we didn’t go out on the first floor. On the second, he walked out while I stopped on the third floor. As I walked around looking for the interview room, I bumped into Lee again. He was obviously lost, too.

Wet And Wild

In the room, I quickly sat myself in the front row. I might have annoyed some of the other reporters by doing so but I didn’t care.

A few minutes later, in walked Smith, gleefully and loudly greeting everyone. Then, he did something which made me panic – he started shaking hands with the people in the front row.

Because my hands were clammy I was nervous about the whole thing – I had no handkerchief or tissue with me. I thought about asking Smith whether I could hug him instead but that just made my hands even sweatier! While thinking about all this, I didn’t realise that Smith had already extended his hand out to me … and I had completely ignored it.

“Oh, I guess you’re just too busy to shake my hand?” he asked out loud.

By then there was really nothing I could do but smile, wipe my gross, sweaty hand on my jeans and pray that it was dry enough for this Hollywood A-lister. And also, apologise profusely.

“Don’t worry about it!” he said as he took my hand in his. He smiled politely and walked on … and then wiped his hand on his pants.

To this day I remember that image clearly and how embarrassed I was at that moment. But Smith was a professional – and a gentleman – as he didn’t look at me disgustingly. He seemed to not care about the incident, really.