Gould let me in in a way that was different from other celebrities I was meeting at the time. He wasn’t interested in “information,” in talking about things that were already in print, in repeating himself. He had—and still has—an eclectic, iconoclastic, and original mind, and this caused problems for those who didn’t want to try and follow what he was thinking. What Gould taught me was to listen carefully. He challenged me the way reading James Joyce challenged me when I read Ulysses. Gould was the incarnation of stream-of-consciousness. As he would tell me later, he was taking me to another level, and seeing if I was willing to go there with him.
Q: The 1970s seemed to be the golden age of interviewing—subjects took interviews seriously, they got more coverage. Jimmy Carter said in an interview that he lusted in his heart and may have won over enough young voters to get elected president. Barbra Streisand called her Playboy interview “the bible.” Al Pacino read and reread your interview with Brando and agreed to talk to you because of it. What happened to that time?
GROBEL: The interview became mainstream, other magazines began doing them, and then the publicists came along and began making demands to protect their clients. If a dozen publications wanted their clients, then the publicists could pick and choose. They could insist that the interviews be shorter, that certain tough questions not be asked. And then along came these style magazines, which promised cover puff pieces; and new young men’s magazines which reduced stories to boxes and irreverence, and often irrelevance. And when these magazines succeeded, others took notice. So those wonderful, long, in-depth interviews that appeared in Playboy in the seventies and eighties were cut by half in the nineties, and cut again for the new millennium. Add to that the Internet, and search engines, where you can type in any celebrity’s name and get a website, or a quickie interview, and you begin to see that there’s just too much out there, and it’s broad, not deep.
Q: So is your so-called Art of the Interview a Dying Art of the Interview?
GROBEL: I can’t answer that question. I believe there’s a pendulum effect—it swings one way, where it went deep and insightful, and then it’s gone the other way, where it’s often shallow and insignificant. But pendulums go both ways. Eventually people are going to tire of the insipid blather that appears in so many magazines today. It’s really an advertising question. The magazines that published the in-depth interviews have gotten thinner because their ads are down; if their ads pick up, there will be more editorial pages to print longer interviews, and that’s when the pendulum will swing back. On the other hand, we may experience an era of special-interest magazines, Internet “chats,” and TV “magazines” in which the total number of words spoken in any particular interview would barely fill four typed pages.
Q: What about the interviews one sees on television, like Larry King’s talk show on CNN? Are they in-depth enough?
Q: Why not?
GROBEL: Because they are, for the most part, shows that have given in to the demands of the people they are interviewing. Many of them are shows about a person and so they are interviewing people who aren’t about to bad-mouth the person whom the show is about. I know, I’ve appeared on some of them. I wasn’t going to say what I actually knew about the person being profiled. Not on TV. And those talk shows that bring on celebrities, they aren’t going to hit a nerve with the person who has willingly come to their studio to be praised and applauded. They can be entertaining, sure. I watch them. But they aren’t truly revealing. They can’t be. It’s television. There’s a camera crew there, there are lights, microphones, time-outs for tapes that have to be changed: it’s a show. It’s not like going off to an island to spend two weeks talking to someone one-on-one. It’s just not.
Q: Larry King Live is broadcast on CNN around the world. Why do you think he doesn’t get his guests to reveal themselves?
GROBEL: He does, at times. But Larry King prides himself on never being prepared. It’s such a strange thing to be proud of. He’s lasted a long time and keeps getting big-name guests because he doesn’t go for the jugular. He’d rather be kissed by Marlon Brando and go out singing a song then press the actor on his girth, his cynicism, or his failures as a father. King doesn’t come across as someone who graduated with honors from any class, but rather a guy who won’t put his job in jeopardy by taking risks or asking troubling questions. Listen to the people who call in to his show; most of them say hello to “Larry” before they ask a question of his guest. Viewers are familiar with King; they’re comfortable with him. And to be a really good interviewer, there should be an edge to the person asking the questions. He was completely flummoxed when he tried to interview Lady Gaga. But King has announced his retirement, so we’ll have to wait and see who replaces him.
Q: Have you ever been on his show?
GROBEL: No—when my Huston book came out I thought I had a shot, but was told that he doesn’t like to talk to biographers of people who are still alive. John Huston was dead by then, but his children weren’t. If Anjelica Huston wanted to come on, he’d take her.
Q: So, sour grapes then?
GROBEL: You can call it that. I see it differently.
Q: With all the interviews you’ve done over the years, which ones were the most important for your career?
GROBEL: When I first started interviewing people for the newspaper Newsday and wanted to figure out a way to do longer, more in-depth interviews, I had to figure out a way to get into Playboy, and I did that by interviewing Hugh Hefner. Once he agreed to talk to me, I did a lot of research and really prepared myself. That interview gave me my entrée to Playboy, and when the editor found out that I was trying to get to Barbra Streisand, he said if I got to her, they’d be interested. So Streisand became a very important stepping stone for me. Because that interview took nine months, the editors were impressed with my patience, and when Marlon Brando agreed to talk, they gave me the assignment. It was that interview with Brando, which took place on his island in Tahiti, that really got noticed. Everyone was curious about what Brando had to say since he hadn’t given an in-depth interview since he talked to Truman Capote 25 years before I saw him. Afterwards actors agreed to my requests to interview them because I had interviewed Brando. Al Pacino even said he would only agree to be interviewed with “the guy who did Brando.” So that was very important for me. Then when Patty Hearst got released from prison, every journalist wanted her story. Hearst, who was the 19 year-old heiress to the Hearst media fortune, had been kidnapped by a radical group in 1974 and wound up joining the group. For a few years she was the most famous fugitive in America. She appeared on the covers of magazines, she was the subject of psychological articles. But what really happened to her? Did she willingly become a radical terrorist or was she brainwashed? When she agreed to do one interview, I got the assignment. I knew it was the kind of piece that would be judged by journalists all over the world, so I really wanted to get it right, to ask all the right questions. So that one was important. In 1984 I went down to Mexico where the director John Huston was living and did an interview with him that eventually got me a book offer, and I wound up spending three years writing a very big book about his family. Since books are important to me, all the subjects of my books—Brando, Truman Capote, Huston, James A. Michener, Al Pacino—are memorable. But for sheer publicity, the two interviews that got me on the most television and radio shows were the ones I did with Jesse Ventura, who was then the governor of Minnesota and had some outrageous things to say about women and organized religion, and with basketball coach Bob Knight, who was fired from his position at Indiana University and was so angry with me when I asked him about it that he threatened to throw me out of his car, and then he physically attacked me.
Q: What are some of your favorite moments during interviews you’ve done?
GROBEL: I probably have a favorite moment with each interview I’ve done. But just off the top of my head, I remember when Barbra Streisand kept looking at the cloth napkin I placed by my bag after we had been served tea in her Malibu house. I realized that she thought I was going to take it as a souvenir. I had no such intention, I just placed it there, and I said to her, “Do you think I’m going to steal your napkin?” She just smiled. So I crumpled it up and threw it at her. That broke the ice! With Brando, it was just going for long walks around his island in Tahiti, walking and talking. With Al Pacino, it was discovering the half-eaten cookies in his kitchen and asking him about it. He denied they had all been bitten into until we went to check. With Luciano Pavarotti, we took a taxi to hear a day concert at the TransAmerica building in San Francisco and when we got there all these lawyers were coming out of the elevators and Pavarotti asked one of them, “Where is the place…you know….were does one go to sing?” And the lawyer, who obviously recognized him, answered, “Anywhere you want to.” With Dolly Parton it was in a motel room in West Virginia trading ghost stories at 3 A.M. With John Huston, it was when he came to my house tethered to his oxygen tank because he had severe emphysema. It took him a long time to climb the steps to our door and my children went to help him. It was very touching. With Kiefer Sutherland it was when I challenged him about his roping abilities and he got a lasso out of his car and told me to walk down the street—then he lassoed my leg from behind on the first try. With female boxer Lucia Rijker it was getting in the ring and sparring with her. With Jean Claude Van Damme it was getting into the swimming pool with him and starting our tape recorded interview while floating on our backs. I’ve kissed Halle Berry, shared sushi with Nicole Kidman, taken walks around my neighborhood with Kim Basinger and Cameron Diaz. There’s a lot of favorite moments!