Interviewing Myself (The Art of the Interview)

As for Mel Gibson: he’s got an incredible temper, he drinks too much, and he has a bad attitude towards women, Jews, and minorities. I must say that when I interviewed him after he made Braveheart in 1995 he was very entertaining and said some outrageous things which made for startling conversation. So it came as no surprise to me that he would continue to say startling things. But his anger at this woman who had his child, Oksana Grigorieva was way over the top and showed him to be a weak and miserable man. That’s disappointing. Some say his career as an actor is finished, but I suspect that we haven’t seen the last of Mel Gibson.

Q: Many celebrities get asked the same questions over and over—how do you make an interview seem unique?

GROBEL: Precisely because I’m aware of the repetition of questions. What I strive to do is go a little further, dig a bit deeper. And the only way to do that is to know what’s been asked before, so you have to do your research. The goal is always to present fresh material.

Q: Since your interviews cover such a wide range of topics, do you ever have to pretend you know more about something than you really do?

GROBEL: All the time. But when I’m with someone who might call me on it, as I felt Saul Bellow or Norman Mailer would do, I am careful not to fake it.

Q: What is the best technique to draw out a subject who is unwilling to speak about himself?

GROBEL: There is no best technique. Interviewing is the art of capturing and shaping smoke; it’s holding up a mirror and hoping you’ll get a true image and not discover you’re talking to a vampire who shows no reflection. Sometimes I find myself talking about other people, waiting for the subject to interject—you know, “Hey, what about me, pal?” Other times I just tell the truth: if the subject is being reluctant, I say that. It’s like being the clown with the electric prod, touching the rump of people passing, hoping to create a stir. In his interview with Marlon Brando that I mentioned earlier, Truman Capote brought a bottle of vodka. They shared the bottle, and Capote told him about his rotten childhood. Brando reciprocated with stories of his childhood. When Capote published his interview, none of his own stories were in there, just Brando’s.

Q: How would you rectify a slow, boring interview that is not going anywhere?

GROBEL: By cutting it short. Saying, “Thank you for your time, but I don’t think this is going anywhere.” Hopefully the person will say, “Well, where did you want it to go?” And then tell him.

Q: When you interview someone you don’t like, can you show it?

GROBEL: I wouldn’t, but then, I like my teeth.

Q: What happens when you cross the line and get your subject angry?

GROBEL: You have to be prepared to sit in silence for a while…and that can be agonizing. Brando thought the best interviews happened in silence. I wouldn’t know.

Q: How do you deal with someone who is bullshitting you?

GROBEL: If you recognize the bullshit, call the person on it.

Q: How does an interviewer go about establishing intimacy and trust?

GROBEL: By demonstrating that you can be trusted. Intimacy is established by the nature of your questions.

Q: How do you know when to draw the line? How far can you push?

GROBEL: You try not to draw lines, just go as deep as your subject will allow you to dig.

Q: Are there questions that you always open with, close with, ask in general?

GROBEL: No, that would get boring. You want to keep these things fresh; you want to challenge yourself each time out to do something different.

Q: Do you always have an angle before you write your stories?

GROBEL: I try not to, but a lot of people I talk to complain that many journalists come with an agenda. If that is the case, then the subject will often end up feeling cheated and even duped. Of course, if your subject has just gotten out of jail, as Christian Slater had when I saw him, then you have to talk about what happened to him that landed him there, but that’s not an angle. If you’re out to show that actors often fuck up and use him as an example and don’t give him a chance to present his side of things, that’s an angle.

Q: How do you adapt to all the different personalities, or is your approach the same every time?

GROBEL: No, my approach is never the same because people are different. An interviewer is a chameleon. If you can’t adapt, do something that brings interviewers to you.

Q: How do you get a reluctant subject to open up?

GROBEL:  By being aware that beneath the gloss of celebrity and fame, people are people, with the same faults, insecurities and foibles. Most of the people you are planning to interview have not been born with silver spoons in their mouths. They have gone through their share of suffering. They have lost a family member, have been the victim of abuse, have witnessed an alcoholic parent attack his spouse, have been on the short end of a pyramid scheme, have flunked out of school, have had to deal with depression…in other words, they’re human, and many have experienced those slings and arrows of outrageous fortune…and they often don’t want to talk about it. But if you know about it, then it’s probably something you should be asking about. Depending on how sympathetically and delicately you ask those personal questions will determine whether or not you’re going to get revealing or emotional responses.

Q: And this is the case with such celebrity icons like Henry Fonda and Lucille Ball, Luciano Pavarotti and Miles Davis?

GROBEL: Almost everyone I’ve ever interviewed had something uncomfortable in their past that I knew I had to ask about. And though I may prepare questions about the topic, I never know exactly how I will phrase the questions or at what point during the interview it will come up. But I know that more often than not, the interview will turn on those moments.

Q: Can you be more specific? Give some examples?

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