When Famous People Just Say No

In this excerpt from Lawrence Grobel's new book The Art of the Interview: Lessons From A Master of the Craft, the author focuses on the daunting challenge of getting the goods from celebrities too insecure, private, boring or smart to open up.


PISSED OFF: Simple things set Robert De Niro off. His personal life was off-limits; the only thing he would talk about was his career.

De Niro is an interviewer's nightmare. He is a very private man who doesn't like to talk to the press and when he does talk, he doesn't have very much to say.

Anyone who has read even one interview by Lawrence Grobel knows that he is in a position to apply the word "art" to the process of getting a person of some renown or other to reveal his or herself in a new and interesting way. Grobel has the skills, the breadth of personal experience, the innate curiosity and--this is rarer than you think--the commitment to preparation that indeed transform the mere asking of questions into an art. So as Grobel claims in his new book The Art of the Interview, "When a subject has made up his or her mind not to talk, you have to accept that you may not get anywhere trying to get them to change their minds," you have to realize this doesn't mean he won't knock himself out trying. His chapter titled "I Don't Want to Talk About That!" is a tutorial in fencing with defensive celebrities. Subjects from Harrison Ford to Norman Mailer wiggle instructively, and Grobel shows the various degrees of difficulty in pinning the slippery devils down. In his interview with Jodie Foster, who refuses as a matter of policy to discuss her sexuality or John Hinckley Jr., the wannabe assassin who fixated on her, Grobel also shows what the wall looks like when you hit it. After implacably failing to fall for Grobel's indirect lures into her two taboo personal spaces, Foster rewards his efforts by adding a third:

GROBEL: Your mother has said that your strength maybe came from being raised without a father. Would you agree?

FOSTER: I don't know. For a lot of people that's been a disaster in their lives. I don't talk about him. It's something that doesn't exist in my life, so I choose not to talk about it.

GROBEL: I'll drop the subject...

FOSTER: No, no, that's your job to ask. And it's my job not to answer.

As that exchange and the following excerpts show, there's entertainment and revelation to be had even when celebrities just say no.

How do you get someone to open up? Obviously, it's not going to happen in a controlled situation where the clock is running and you have a lot of territory you want to cover. Because intimate questions take time to ask, and more time to go back to, and even more time to get answered.

Family problems are often subjects that people would rather avoid talking about. I once asked Harrison Ford about his grandfather, who had been a blackface comedian in vaudeville. He told me: "It was a rough life, and my father is very unwilling to talk about it. He had a rough time when he was growing up. My grandfather was an alcoholic. When he died, he left my father a virtual orphan. His mother was unable to care for them, so he and his brother were raised by nuns in an orphanage."

It was an area worth exploring, but not for Ford, who said all he wanted to [in those few words].

When I did a cable TV interview with Norman Mailer and brought up a subject that was never very comfortable for him, he may not have answered in depth, but his responses were such that you can feel the tension in our exchange, and that's what makes it work.

GROBEL: You're getting angry with me now...

MAILER: No. Edgy.

GROBEL: OK. You blamed early success as the reason for the breakup of your first marriage...

MAILER: I'm not getting angry, I'm getting offended. You want to discuss my life. I'm not going to give you my life. My life is my material. I would give you my life no more than I would give you my mate. That belongs to me, not to an interviewer.

[The novelist] Saul Bellow [once] came back at me, "Why do interviewers ask questions that they wouldn't ask their neighbor for fear of being punched in the nose?"

One method in an interviewer's bag of tricks is to bring up something someone said to get a rise out of the person being interviewed. It's not necessarily to get "you and him" fighting, though it can often lead to memorable, and quotable, remarks. When I once asked Al Pacino about some negative remark critic Pauline Kael made about him (in her review of Serpico, she wrote that as he grew his beard, she couldn't distinguish him from Dustin Hoffman), he responded, "Is that after she had the shot glass removed from her throat?" That one line has had a life of its own over the years.

With Oliver Stone in 1997, I brought up a remark actor Joe Pesci made about him, that he was a terrific director but a "piece of shit" as a person. Pesci had given a memorable performance as the bewigged David Ferrie in Stone's controversial JFK and I asked the director if Pesci ever called him to deny what he had said.

STONE: No, he wrote me a note of apology for saying it publicly. He's known to have a temper. Joe's a strange guy. In his own way, he probably felt threatened, but I didn't pick up on it. How many actors get called a "piece of shit"? You know who else did that to me recently, out of the blue? Gore Vidal was all over the goddamn newspapers saying he hated my work and that he had blown me off when I tried to get him to do Alexander the Great for me. Which was bullshit. I've very rarely seen that degree of hostility. I've known Gore Vidal for years, off and on. In fact, when he offered to write Alexander the Great for me in 1990 at his villa in Ravello, Italy, I turned his ultra-homoerotic suggestions down. He's bitten by a temper. It's festered for years. People react to me without my knowing it. Artists are very jealous, angry people. They're the most envious people in the world.

Stone's remarks and Pacino's response to Kael are answers to Bellow's question about why interviewers ask people questions that they wouldn't ask their neighbor for fear of being punched in the nose. Still, Mailer's remark about his life being his own and his not wanting to give it up to an interviewer is something every journalist has to contend with. Mailer's sentiment echoed something Marlon Brando said to me back when I interviewed him on his island in Tahiti for Playboy in 1978. This interview would prove to be one of the most laborious but fascinating of my career. "I'm not going to lay myself at the feet of the American public and invite them into my soul," he told me.

In a phone call prior to our meeting, Brando had said that he only wanted to talk about the Indians. I said that we could cover the subject extensively, but not exclusively. He then asked to see my questions, which I refused to show him. Without my realizing it, we were in a negotiation. He made certain demands; I didn't want to give in to any of them. But I also knew that if I didn't come up with a solution that would pacify him he would tell me that he wouldn't meet with me and that would be that. So I suggested that instead of sending him my questions, could I send the topics that I hoped to explore with him? He agreed. And I sent him a very short list: The Indians. Civil Rights. Social Injustice. Politics. Men. Women. Entertainment. The Arts. The World. I was testing his sense of humor. Either he would shake his head, laugh, and say come to Tahiti, or he would say I'm nuts and tell me to forget it. He told me to come.

We taped three long days about the Indians. Once in a while I'd change the subject. For instance, I brought up a comedy he did with David Niven, Bedtime Story. Brando said that he couldn't do comedy, and I used that negative to transition to a question about how he worked as an actor, thus moving away from our previous topic, Indians.

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