I’m not sure, but I suspect that most of us, when we saw our first movie and experienced the thrill of seeing someone so large on the screen, had a moment’s thought something like: I’d like to do that. I’d like to be in the movies. And if the movie our parents had taken us to see, as our first movie, had a young boy or girl in it, someone just like us, then that would be all the more reason to fantasize. What if that was me up there? What if I got to have that dog? Go on that trip? Have a dad who beat up bad guys? Had a mom who saved lives through her job as a doctor/lawyer/BabyBoomer advocate?
Of course, for most of us—say, 99.9% of us—that movie star fantasy is fleeting; it’s something we thought about for a moment or a month or maybe even a year or two, but then other fantasizes crept in and off we’d go on our wild imaginings, becoming a star athlete, a race car driver, a pop diva, a Nobel laureate. Because the movie dream is just too way out there. It’s a matter of genes (you should look good), talent (you should be able to handle yourself in front of a camera), connections (as with most things in life: it’s Who You Know), and luck (how many Lana Turners get discovered over an ice cream soda at Schwab’s drugstore?)
That’s why it came as a huge surprise when Al Pacino took me aside one day a few years ago and said, “I’m going to make a movie about Oscar Wilde’s play Salome and I want you in it.” And, that same year, another filmmaker, Shane Salerno, called me out of the blue and introduced himself to me this way: “I know you don’t know me, but I’m making a movie about J.D. Salinger and I’d like you in it.”
Oscar Wilde? J.D. Salinger? What did I, a kid from Brooklyn, living in L.A., know about either of them? And why would these filmmakers want me in their movies? It certainly wasn’t my genes, and luck really had nothing to do with it. With Pacino, yes, it had to be my connection to him, as I have been interviewing and writing about him for thirty years. With Salerno, I guess it had to do with his perception of my talent. But what could I bring to the table?
I had to say yes to find out. So, I said yes. To both.
“I want you to bother me,” Pacino said when I asked for some direction before the cameras started rolling at the Wadsworth Theater in Los Angeles. “Just, you know, be obnoxious. When I’m talking to someone, or giving some direction, whatever, come and talk to me, interrupt me. Be yourself. Let’s see how that works.”
Be my obnoxious self? This was what he wanted from me?
Shane Salerno had other ideas. “You’re considered one of America’s premiere interviewers,” he said when I asked him why me? “I’m going to put scholars, editors, famous writers on camera, but I wondered what would you have asked Salinger if you had the chance to interview him? That’s why I want you in this. For your insight.”
Interview J.D. Salinger? He was always the answer to the question I am most asked: Who would you most liked to have interviewed? But it was just a fantasy. Thomas Pynchon might be easier to land than Salinger, and Pynchon has never talked or shown his face, other than to be a voice on The Simpson’s for one episode. Salinger, the great, mysterious, reclusive writer, the inspiration for films like Field of Dreams (based on W.P. Kinsella’s novel Shoeless Joe) and Finding Forrester, was always the Holy Grail for interviewers. Like Greta Garbo, who really did vant to be alone. What would I have asked Salinger if he actually had agreed to sit down with me?
So, there it was: my new challenges. To be the obnoxious reporter opposite Al Pacino and the inquisitive interrogator to a phantom J.D. Salinger. I wasn’t being asked to play a character, just some public version of myself. Or versions, assuming Salinger wouldn’t have tolerated an obnoxious reporter.