Interviewing Myself (The Art of the Interview)

GROBEL: When Dylan McDermott was five years old his mother was shot and killed by her boyfriend. It may have been an accident; it may have been a homicide. McDermott has never felt comfortable talking about it. Anjelica Huston was 17 when her mother drove with a friend through France and lost her life in a car crash. Her mother’s death has haunted Anjelica ever since. Elizabeth Shue has never looked deeply inward to open up about the loss of her older brother, who, during a family gathering, jumped out over a lake on a rope and lost his life. Ava Gardner once forgot to meet Howard Hughes at the airport because she wanted to see her ex-husband, Mickey Rooney. When Hughes returned to her apartment he blackened her eye. She picked up a brass bell and knocked out one of his teeth, then grabbed a chair and was going to crush his skull with it when her maid stopped her. Pierce Brosnan lost his first wife to ovarian cancer. James Earl Jones stuttered so badly as a boy that for long periods of time he went silent. Jim Carrey’s family lost their home and had to live in a tent. Nick Nolte was arrested for selling false draft cards. The comedian Rodney Dangerfield lived most of his life having to deal with undiagnosed depression until the age of 75. Former Senator John Edwards lost his16-year-old first son when the boy’s car overturned, a subject he has never wanted to discuss publicly. Edwards also cheated on his wife and had a child with another woman. James Garner’s stepmother constantly humiliated him to the point where Garner almost strangled her. Halle Berry’s father often beat his mother and sister and once nearly killed their dog. Jamie Lee Curtis never felt close to her father, Tony, whom she called a ghost. Sally Field went through most of her life without friends. Meryl Streep lost the love of her life, John Cazales, to illness. Sylvester Stallone’s father called his son stupid, and put a cage over his bed to keep him locked in his room. Truman Capote’s mother would lock him alone in hotel rooms when he was two years old.  Anthony Kiedis lost his best friend to a heroin overdose, and then had to battle drug addiction himself. Christian Slater had drug and alcohol problems that landed him in and out of rehab. Alex Haley won a Pulitzer Prize for Roots, and then had to face the humiliating charges of plagiarizing sections of his book. Norman Mailer wound up in a mental institution after stabbing his wife at a party. Roman Polanski had to flee America because he didn’t want to stand trial for having sex with a minor. Joyce Carol Oates had to deal with a stalker.  Bob Knight lost his job as Indiana basketball coach because he violated a zero tolerance proclamation that he felt ruined his reputation and his life. Harvey Keitel fought his ex-wife Lorraine Bracco for custody of their daughter because he feared that Bracco’s boyfriend was a child molester.

The examples could go on, but you can see how broaching these subjects would not be easy…and yet, if you ignore them, you’re not really doing your job. These are all tough subjects to bring up, and tough questions to ask. You’ve got to have a feel for the way the conversation is going. You have to figure out some way to ask the meaningful question. You have to listen to the nuances of each conversation, waiting for the right moment, looking for an opening that might come unexpectedly, as it did when Charlie Sheen in the middle of our interview asked me to turn off my tape recorders. He wanted to ask me how to approach the subject of what happened with his girlfriend (Kelly Preston) and a certain gun accident. I didn’t know what he was talking about; it was an incident that I had not uncovered in my research. But here was Sheen, bringing it up. So I said to him that the best way to handle it would be for me to ask him straight up what happened and to let him tell his version of the story. He agreed, I turned on the machines, and got golden material handed back to me.

Q: So what you’re saying is to look for their moments of weakness to gain an advantage?

GROBEL: When a person begins to show vulnerability, don’t back away, but go forward. If you miss that window of opportunity it might not come back once the person is more composed and defensive.

Q: Are questions about sex usually where they are at their most vulnerable?

GROBEL: Actually, the most problematic area you can bring up is not sex or past abuse or rejections but money. I learned this lesson when I was interviewing Warren Beatty. After a few hours at his hotel suite we agreed to continue the interview by phone. The next day I called him and asked about some hundreds of thousands of dollars in back taxes he once owed. I didn’t know anything more than what I had read in the paper, but just bringing it up brought the already cautious Beatty to a complete stammer. “Uh, you know, I think…can we do this later? I’ve got to go do something. I’ll call you.”

But he never did. And I never got through to him again.

So: NEVER start an interview talking about money and taxes. NEVER bring it up halfway through. Wait until you’ve asked all your other questions before bringing up a person’s financial affairs.

Q: It sure seems like interviewing takes a lot of patience. Where’d you learn to be so patient?

GROBEL: I learned patience when I first went to interview Elliott Gould back in 1974. Gould, at the time, was still a big star, having appeared in groundbreaking films like M*A*S*H and The Long Goodbye. Gould’s publicist asked me to meet him at Elliott’s rented house in Beverly Hills at 9 P.M. The publicist and I were there on time but Gould was not. His door was open and we waited inside, but after an hour the publicist said he had some place to go, leaving me alone in the house. Another hour went by before Gould arrived. He turned on the television as I took out my tape recorder and I said that I couldn’t record over the TV. “So let’s go in the other room and put on Marvin Gaye,” he said.

“We can listen to music or we can do this interview, but not both at the same time,” I said.

He didn’t say anything. I mentioned that, like him, I, too, was from Brooklyn. He chewed on some peanuts. I knew that he had once been a spokes-boy for a chocolate drink and brought it up. “Information,” he said. He hadn’t apologized for being two hours late and wasn’t responding to my attempts to break the ice. He may have been pissed off that I didn’t want to compete with the TV or listen to Marvin Gaye and I didn’t really know where to go with him. I asked him how long he lived in his house, whether he ever went back to Brooklyn, what he thought of the baseball Dodgers. He remained unresponsive. Finally I said that maybe it was the wrong time to do this interview, the hour was late, and we could try again another day.

“What do you mean?” he said as if snapping out of a dream. “We’re talking, aren’t we?”

“I wouldn’t exactly call it that.”

“You can’t just rush into things and expect answers. It takes time. I don’t know what you’re looking for, what you want to see, but I’m talking to ya and all you’ve got to do is stay at it. You want some stew?”

“It’s almost midnight,” I said. “I ate a few hours ago.”

“My mother made it. Eat again.”

“Does your mother live with you?”

“Does yours?”

“You lived in the same room with your parents until you were eleven, didn’t you?” I asked, trying to use the stew as a way into his childhood.

“That’s right. We behaved like savage fuckin’ animals, trying to act like something that we weren’t,” he said. “I was caught in the insecurity of thinking that maybe there was something wrong with me. I didn’t know enough to be what I was supposed to be. There was no harmony.”

“Wasn’t that around the time when your name changed from Goldstein to Gould?”

“Yeah, it happened on TV. It was this silly little show, singing and dancing with a group of kids. They said, ‘Your name is Gould not Goldstein.’ It wasn’t even changed legally but that doesn’t matter because you are what you’re known as, no matter who you are. Sometimes I am Elliott Goldstein. Elliott Goldstein is a lot younger than Elliott Gould, so sometimes I gotta be Elliott Goldstein. Then I say fuck Elliott Goldstein. But sometimes I like being Elliott Goldstein. There’s much more I discover about Elliott Goldstein than I do about Elliott Gould. Elliott Gould just works for him.”

Somewhere in there is an existential statement about identity and fame that I’ve yet to decipher, but I was beginning to get the hang to how Gould’s mind worked. When I tried to dig deeper into this matter of dual identities he changed direction and decided he didn’t really have a split personality. “Elliott Gould, Elliott Goldstein, Elliott Goldstein, Elliott Gould–it’s all the same person.”

Whoever that person was, I couldn’t seem to capture him in words. After our first two hour session I transcribed the tapes and saw that in cold print it made little sense. I went back a second and third time and listened to his offbeat answers to my straight questions.

My editors were expecting to read what Elliott Gould thought about once being married to Barbra Streisand, about working with Robert Altman, and being the first American actor to work for the director Ingmar Bergman. What I was getting was inner and outer space and I was actually encouraging him by attempting to follow his stream-of-conscious thinking.

When I showed my Newsday editor our interview he said, “We can’t run this, he sounds too stoned.” I had never failed with an interview before and I didn’t want all my time with Gould to go to waste, so I asked to go back one last time and see if I could make it more accessible. He agreed and I managed to get enough sensible material from Gould to make it work.  But what a learning experience that was!

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