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Ways of Making Them Talk 

Interviewing "the Mozart of interviewers," Lawrence Grobel

In a world where people like Larry King, Barbara Walters, Diane Sawyer, Charlie Rose and Ted Koppel are the ones most associated with interviewing the rich, powerful and famous, Lawrence Grobel's name doesn't loom quite so large.

Yet through his work for Playboy and Movieline magazines -- as well as his interview books with Marlon Brando, James A. Michener, Truman Capote, and biography of John Huston and his family -- Grobel has built a reputation that inspired writer and former subject Joyce Carol Oates to dub him the "Mozart of interviewers." Playboy dubbed him "the interviewer's interviewer." Grobel's career took flight when he finagled an interview with Playboy publisher Hugh Hefner for Newsday to get freelance assignments for the men's magazine. His first assignment, the difficult-to-get Barbra Streisand, helped lead to the coup of his career: the previously impossible-to-get Marlon Brando, which he later expanded to the book Conversations With Brando. Other books includes Above the Line: Conversations About the Movies and Endangered Species: Writers Talk About Their Craft, Their Visions, Their Lives.

Grobel is in town this week for the Tennessee Williams/New Orleans Literary Festival to deliver a master class on interviewing ­ which should serve as a primer for his upcoming book, The Art of the Interview ­ and join George Plimpton and Dick Cavette for a panel discussion on Capote.

He took time beforehand to discuss his interview techniques by phone from his home in Los Angeles, where he works as a freelance journalist and teaches a class on interviewing at UCLA. For a man who does a brilliant job of staying out of the way of his interviews and getting subjects to speak freely -- "I'm there to get you to tell me what you think," he says -- Grobel is himself a chatty subject. Here's an expanded version of the interview published in this week's print version of Gambit Weekly.


You began interviewing for Playboy
in 1977. What was the breakthrough interview or experience that made you realize, "Hey, I could make a living at this"? Or was it a pretty gradual evolution over time?

It was gradual. I'd been working for Newsday and I was doing something along the lines of that. I wanted to take the form to another level and I started to think, what would it be like to spend one day or two days with these people? That's when I decided if I could do this for Playboy Š it's the only place I could take this to an extreme depth. I'd been very impressed with two interviews in particular, Albert Speer and Tennessee Williams. I always remember Tennessee Williams being extraordinarily honest with his life. Tennessee Williams never had time to hem and haw, so to speak. If you asked him about his sexuality, he told you about it. Issues that were important to all of us, he would answer all of them. There's something I love about that kind of honesty.

But how do you get into Playboy? I asked Newsday, how about if I interview Hugh Hefner? They said yes, but Hefner was not easy to get to. When I did I was really, really prepared for it. I wasn't going to do a puff piece. I wanted to do a tough interview that was fair.

When I went to see him, he said he'd give me an hour. He saw I was prepared, and I ended up talking to him for seven hours. He took me upstairs, I saw the rotating bed, and he showed me his Monopoly money with his face on it. He saw that I was interested in everything.

We were talking about stuff, and I asked him about the subliminal part of Playboy. If you open the centerfold and look in the light you will see the centerfold model, but you can also see the joke page on the other side with the Vargas girls. I had read somewhere that the artists made sure the girls were always in strategic places on the other side, on the playmate's body. A girl would be feeding off the centerfold's nipple, the Playboy airplane was flying right between the thighs. I found a number of issues that actually did this. So I ask Hefner about it, like, "How do you do these things?" and he's like, "I don't know what you're talking about." I just happened to have a couple of issues with me, so he held them up to the light, and he said, "My God, the art directors are doing a better job than I thought!"

That's the kind of interview I was going after, where I showed him something about his own magazine. He invited me back to finish the interview. I talked to him another couple hours, did this piece, and as it turned out Hefner really liked it. I got a call from his publicist Don Rogers after it came out (inviting me to) the annual advertisers luncheon, in front of 1,000 people. Arthur Kretchmer, the editorial director at the time, said they were going to hand out the interview as (Hefner's) statement to the advertisers.

My plan was working much better than I thought. I took my portfolio, which included interviews with Carol Burnett, Ray Bradbury, Merv Griffin, people like that. When Kretchmer's speech was over, Don Rogers brought him over to my table Š and said, "Larry did the interview with Hef," and I remember Kretchmer saying, "Very nice, great piece."

I saw my opportunity: "Mr. Kretchmer, this is what I do." I showed him personality after personality, and I said, "I think I can do this for Playboy, and I want to take advantage of this opportunity to see if I can." He mentioned Barry Golson, who was the editor in charge of interviewing. He said, "You should call Barry Golson and say I told you to call." Soon as I got home I called Barry Golson and told him. Of course he had to take the call. "Look, I just spoke with Arthur, I just need a break." He said, "Who are you working on right now?" I had half a dozen I was working on at the time.

One of them was Barbra Streisand, and he said, "We've been working on her for years. You get to her, you get the assignment." I know she doesn't like talking to people. So I wrote her publicist a letter, saying, "Look, if Barbra will talk to me, Newsday reaches 350 papers around the country, and Playboy reaches 7 million. And they say three people see it for everyone that gets picked up." I figured that over 100 million people had the potential to see the interview I did. The interview I would do with Newsday would be different from the one I did with Playboy.

I didn't hear back for half a year. Then what happened was, Frank Pierson, who wrote the script for A Star Is Born, wrote an article in New York magazine, "My Battles with Jon and Barbra." (Jon Peters, then Streisand's boyfriend, produced the film while Streisand served as executive producer.) In that article, (Pierson) told what a pain-in-the-ass of an experience it was to make this movie with her. He also mentioned Jason, her son, and that just blew her top, she was just angry with all the things he said about her. Her reaction was she was going to talk, and I became the vehicle for her.

I got a call from her people, and they said, "Barbra Streisand would like to see you at the studios on Wednesday." I said, "Is this business or pleasure?" They just said, "Just be there," and hung up. So I took my tape recorder with me, but I wasn't prepared. So I went to Todd AO Studios, where she was editing A Star Is Born. I waited outside 20 minutes, maybe a half hour, in the waiting room, and then all of a sudden the door opens, and in comes Barbra, leading about five other people, her entourage. She came right up to me, didn't introduce herself, face-to-face, nose-to-nose, and said, "Why does the press hate me???"

I took a step back and looked at her. It's one of those moments you choke or you don't. And I was thinking, she reminded me of my sister. So I said, "I'll tell you why. Because you keep people waitingŠ," and I listed about five things about her. Behind her, all five people gasped at the same time. It was like, whoa! Nobody talks to the queen like that, not at that time. She just looked at me, and said, "All right, come with me." So we went into the studio room, with a big theater, and I'm thinking, "Oh God, she's going to show me the movie." There were two plush chairs, and we sat down in them, and she ran A Star Is Born. I said to myself, "Please, God, please let me love this movie." See, I have this face that doesn't lie. I knew if I didn't love this movie, I'm not going to get the interview. We watch it. I wasn't crazy about the movie. She turned to me when it was over, and said, "Well???" I said the exact right thing. I said, "Barbra, you're gonna make a LOT of money."


How diplomatic.

I was so happy. I could've said, "Great movie." But I knew it was gonna make a lot of money. So then Jon Peters shows up. He didn't know who I was, and he didn't know she agreed to see me. And he came in, saw me talking to her, and he started to make a fuss, like, "Who's this guy?" Isn't it amazing how these people act? SO rude. She tells him, "He's Larry, he's from Playboy." So he backs off. He doesn't want to look bad if I write about him. So I said to her, "Are going to do this or not?" She says, "Call Lee Solters (Streisand's publicist) and we'll make arrangements."

It was my moment of decision. I said, "I don't want to call Lee Solters, I've been calling him for months. You want to do this, give me your number and I'll call you directly. So she went over to a yellow pad, and in the corner of the pad, in a one-inch strip, she cuts off this piece of paper, writes the letter B, and a phone number. I mean, it was the size of a thumbnail. Later on, as I got to know her -- we spent nine months together -- I learned that Barbra believes that everything she touches would be auctioned or sold. She didn't want to do anything that could get sold. So I got it. It was her number, and I was to call and we would set up a time.

When I went to her house, she had a whole legal document ready, a letter from me addressed to her starting, "Dear Barbra." It had my name on it. Basically, I was giving up all the rights of the interview, that she would own the tapes, the transcripts. It said stuff like, "If at any time you decide not to do this, I will not give this interview to Playboy."

It gave her complete control. She said, "OK, just sign this and we'll start." I looked at it and I couldn't even read it, it had so much legalese writing in it. I said, "I can't sign this." "What do you mean? Everybody signs this." I said, "Look, I've been waiting 17 months for you to see me, and you're trying to castrate me before we start. I'm not your secretary or your publicist. I'm a journalist here to do an interview. I'm not gonna give you control of the interview or the tapes. This is ridiculous. Barbra, you consider yourself an artist. Well, I consider myself an artist, and you if can't see that, there's no sense in doing this." These are very famous people that are icons in this country, and you don't know if you're gonna choke or submit or stand firm.

So she finally agrees. She says, "OK, we can do it. Five minutes into the talk, the phone rings. It's her lawyer. "Did he sign it?" "No." Phone rings again. It's her boyfriend, Jon Peters. "Did he sign it?" "No." Phone rings again. Marty Ehrlichman, her manager. "Did he sign it?" "No." She hands me the phone. I didn't know who it was. And before I put the phone to my ear, the guy on the other line says, "I don't wanna f--king talk to him!" Barbra's like, "Marty, just leave me alone."

We started talking, doing the interview, and we spent nine months together, off and on. The agreement I made with Barbra was, "Every time I meet you I have to regain your trust. I will not give the interview to Playboy until we're done." Barbra was the exception here, because most other stars would've been done with it in an hour to get it over with. It ended up, I had 52 hours of tape with her. And she became the first celebrity that was on the cover of Playboy. She was on the cover with a Superman T-shirt. So there you have it.

I didn't get paid a dime for this interview until it was published, so for all those months I was essentially working on spec. But I had a great deal of drive to get into the magazine and prove myself. After that came out I interviewed Dolly Parton, Henry Winkler; then Marlon Brando agreed to do talk. He hadn't done one in 25 years, which was the one he did with Truman Capote. Playboy called me, and said, "Brando has agreed to do an interview. Want to do it?" I couldn't believe it. I had only done three interviews for them, and Marlon Brando really was the coup. He was just someone you could never get to.

I'm thinking, they knew it was gonna take a long time from the time of him agreeing to do the interview to actually sitting down with him. And I had already proved my persistence with Streisand. That assignment was a seminal piece in my life. I flew to Tahiti for it. After that interview came out, I was doing Steve Martin for Playboy. That's when I got the call from Playboy and they said, "How would you like to do Al Pacino?" "When?" "Thursday." It was Tuesday. And Wednesday was the day the Academy's library is closed, and that's where I go to research my material. I said, "I can't do it on a day's notice." And my editor said, "You don't understand. Pacino said he'll only do it with the guy who did Brando."

And that's the moment that changed my life. I became The Guy Who Did Brando. Barbra was big because it also led to getting Brando, but after that anybody who had anything to do with the industry read that one. For years, people wanted to meet with me and talk about Brando.

That is a long answer to your question. At that point I knew my life had changed. I knew I was somewhat of an established interviewer.

And then along came Movieline, they started asking me to do pieces for them. I've done something like 70 interviews for them since 1989. The cover that's out now, with Drew Barrymore, that's mine, and then next month is Lisa Kudrow, and then Angelina Jolie, so that's three in a row for them. (Though the magazine is changing its name to Hollywood Life.) The last Playboy interview I did was with Halle Berry in January. I'm trying to do Sen. John Edwards. I'm waiting to hear back from him. It would be great to interview a presidential candidate.


When and how do you know when to get personal in an interview?

Sometimes you don't want to get as personal with some people because they're there for an issue. If you talk to the president, how much of his person do you want to know when there are issues of war and peace?

But it's insightful when you know about how someone does things. For instance, nobody's asking President Bush about the nature of revenge, or that Saddam Hussein tried to have his dad killed. Well, he's being protected, of course. In that press conference the other day with the prime ministers of England, Spain, and Portugal, what did they allow, four questions? And no one's asking the right questions. When Oriana Fallaci interviewed Henry Kissinger, he told her he sees himself as the lone gunslinger out there in the world. That was insightful.

Of course, the personal question is what gives you that. Everybody has a personal nature that is fascinating or interesting. If you can get to that you can extrapolate and see who this person really is. You're trying to strip the façade. With Billy Graham, you're gonna talk about things he wants to talk about, like God and religion, but also, how did he come to that belief? Did he ever disbelieve, did he ever have a revelation? I think I got very personal with Mel Gibson, and it was fascinating to me. He was talking about his father, and about evolution, and he ended up saying he doesn't believe in evolution; he's a creationist. I said what about women's rights, abortion, celibacy? And he said those aren't even issues. They were a given. There's no such thing as abortion. Those answers are what reveal something about this guy.


How do you do it?

I don't know. I think in every interview the moment comes at some point, whether it's at the beginning, the middle or the end Š with Drew Barrymore, I remember starting the interview, and someone had heard her talking about hearing the Beatles on the radio, and she loved them. So I said, "I heard you like the Beatles." She said, "You know, I knew this interview was going to be different. Right from there, we established a good rapport. I asked her, "Who are the Beatles of today?" She said, "Beck." In this interview, I liked her responses. If she says it's gonna be different, that's a good sign.

I try to look at each interview as a challenge. I never ask the same questions, I don't ask generic questions, and I prepare a lot; I spend weeks and weeks getting ready. If it's a writer, like Saul Bellow, or Elmore Leonard, I read all their works and essays, and that takes a long time.


Have you ever enraged a subject to the point of them not cooperating?

Robert De Niro got enraged. One time he started screaming at me at the Drake Hotel. I'd heard sirens outside, and I said, "The sounds of New York are different from the sounds of Los Angeles. So what was it like growing up in New York?" And he blew up and started yelling at me. I said, "Sit down, Bob, you don't want to talk about it, just say you don't want to talk about it." Betty Friedan, we were all miked up for a TV interview, and I asked her about Phyllis Schlafly, and the minute I mentioned her name, she's like, "I don't want to talk about her! I don't want to do this interview!" I said, "Betty, you don't want to talk about it, don't talk about it." Three different times I had to talk her back into her seat.

Robert Mitchum wouldn't even do the interview. He was one of the most cantankerous people. He was really anti-Semitic. I mean, nothing helped, no name-dropping helped, nothing. So I said, "Mr. Mitchum, I don't know what else to say, but I'll make you this deal: Why don't we do an hour of this conversation, and after the hour, if you don't want to do it, I'll give you the tape." And he said, "That's the problem, isn't it? That first hour." He was doing That Championship Season at the time. And I said, "Look, Mr. Mitchum, I'm just doing my job." And he replied, "That's what Adolph Eichmann said." "Excuse me? "It's the same thing? Adolph Eichmann allowing the extermination of the Jews is the same thing as what I'm trying to do?" Previously, Esquire had written something about him, that he was anti-Semitic. I said, Mr. Mitchum, your publicist knows how to get a hold of me." And I felt bad about that. When I was writing about the Hustons, (Mitchum) had done Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison, and The List of Adrian Messenger. I knew John Huston liked him a lot, and Mitchum agreed to see me about that, and I don't think he remembered me at all.


What's the difference between being probing and being invasive?

I don't know if one can articulate where a line is drawn. Every interview is an individual thing. It just depends. I just did Angelina Jolie, and the line was drawn before I even met her. Her people said she doesn't want to talk about her father and she doesn't want to talk about Billy Bob. They also wanted me to fly to London to see her. I said, "Look, the flight takes 10 hours, and the interview is already going to be half-assed." What do people want her to know about? Her father and Billy Bob! And it's her own fault because that's all she ever talked about before.

Instead of flying there, I did it as a video conference. She had been at my house for five hours before that. But my last 10 or 15 questions had to do with Billy Bob and her father. I said, "Angelina, in all fairness, I agreed not to ask you about Billy Bob or your father. However, is there anything I can ask you about this, because any interview without this is a strange piece. We're avoiding the elephant in the middle of the room." And she said, "I don't want talk about this because it's part of my past." She talked about the scarring from the tattoo removal, but I don't think I crossed the line or broke my word, so to speak.

I don't like things that are off limits. I rarely agree to anything, but I will give you a specific example when I did make my own compromise. When I did The Hustons, it was the most in-depth work I'd done. I had access to (John) Huston, to all his papers. He wrote a letter to everyone telling them to cooperate with me. In the course of all this research, I came across something that would've hurt Angelica very much, something that would hurt Tony very much, and John's other son Danny -- there was something I knew about each of them. And I weighed this very strongly. I had people telling me all these stories, and I'm writing a book of over 800 pages, and if I included this, when the book would be reviewed, these would be the pieces that would be discussed and highlighted.

I knew it would give a certain buzz to the book and it would help sell it, but I also knew it was something the family didn't need to know about. It might have hurt the sale of the book by not including it, but they had just given me all their time, they'd opened up and let me into their lives. I just felt I couldn't do that. I've always been proud of myself for not doing that. I didn't hold anything back about John. That was different. The children, I felt, weren't as much in the limelight. I think it's your own sensibility. There are people who are cutthroat. That's one attitude.

I want to make sure there's something new in an interview that you didn't know. I'll tell a subject, there's nothing here that's new. I've read a lot about the subject so hopefully the interview is going in a different direction from the beginning.


What interviewers do you most enjoy watching on TV and reading in print?

I like Ted Koppel. I always had respect for him because he always gets to the point. He's erudite and he's calm. I keep thinking, is that his real hair or a wig? (Laughs.) I've always enjoyed him since the beginning. I was on Charlie Rose once when The Hustons came out. He had read it, or at least he read enough of it.

I think Charlie Rose has a tough job. Sometimes he talks too much; he asks six, eight, nine questions in a row; he interrupts subjects sometimes, so that's a little irritating. But not many people are doing what he does.

I've been a fan of Diane Sawyer's. Barbara Walters can irritate me. At times she is good. One time I interviewed her for TV Guide. I don't think she's that good with celebrities. There's something about trying to dance with Al Pacino that doesn't seem quite right. I just wasn't impressed, she wasn't getting much out of these people. But she does do decent work with political figures.

One of my favorite interviewers was (ESPN's) Roy Firestone. He was one of the best TV interviewers. Roy got to their hearts, and nobody's doing that anymore in sports. He was let go, and that was disappointing. Up Close, they moved him away from that, and then there were the Up Close and Personal, one-hour specials. He's done 5,000 sports figures, and it's a shame he's not doing it anymore.


But isn't there a dearth of quality interviewers on TV anyway?

What you have is a lot of pretty faces. How could you think Maria Shriver is a great interviewer? With TV interviewers you get to know them on screen. Print is different. Nobody knows what I look like. I had a neighbor walking down the street, and she said about this month's Movieline, "You're not even in this one." "Which one." "Drew Barrymore." And I did that one. It's more of an anonymous form. But on TV, you look at Stone Phillips, Jane Pauley, Connie Chung, whoever's doing it. You see them.

Larry King is an interesting case because he's so proud he doesn't prepare. Why do people go back on his show? Because he really doesn't ask tough questions. It's not like Larry King is going for the jugular. There's something easy about him. Then there are the Fox people, who are very conservative and will cut you off if you say something liberal.

Unfortunately, we have a real dumbing down of America going on. It's happening on TV, and it's happening in print. My interview with Pacino ran 30 pages, Brando ran 25. We're talking maybe a 20,000-word interview. Now, we go to 15 and to 10. Halle Berry was 10,000 words and they printed 6,000. And that's the longest interview out there. One third the size it was in the '80s. A lot of magazines like Maxim, or MTV, it's all these quick takes. We have all this info, the Internet, we feed on things by clicking on things, we don't absorb the long form. And that's tough. It's changing things.

The kind of interviews I've done all my life are eventually going to be done in book form. In Above the Line, the interviews with Robert Evans and Oliver Stone, they were two-parters in Movieline. Those were long interviews. Anthony Hopkins, Siskel and Ebert, you don't see long interviews like that much anymore. You don't know where you're gonna see them.


James Lipton's mannerisms on Inside the Actors Studio are so idiosyncratic that Will Farrell became popular for his otherworldly impersonation of him. Is Lipton a freak or a genius as an interviewer, or somewhere in between?

I've seen a number of his shows, I know some actors who say they won't go on the show. He gets the people because it's in the context of the classroom. I teach a class at UCLA, and I've had Al Pacino, Diane Keaton, Steve Martin in the class. With Hugh Hefner, we all went out to his mansion. We had Djimon Hounsou from Amistad and Gladiator, and Lisa Kudrow is next. I have my students interview them. And they prepare.

I understand the power of a classroom. If you're doing a class at a major university, the people will come. Lipton says, "Here's a class of student actors, directors, writers, come be a guest and give something back." But it's also a celebration. You're not going to get the people to answer the kind of questions I'm going to ask in a print interview. You're going to get entertainment. You get Robin Williams and Marty Short, they're ON, and Lipton feeds them the line. It's a puff-type interview that allows the actor to shine, and get the applause.


It sounds intellectual, but it's not.

It's acting, and he's acting as well. I don't put it down, because he's bringing in people you don't get to see, and with no commercials. I enjoys those things because by their very nature they have an audience.

I'm pretty serious about my interviews. I try to show who these people really are, not who they think they are and not who the audience thinks they are. When you think of Al Pacino, you think of Michael Corleone and Tony Montana. I mean, I wrestled with the guy, I played cards with him. He's a completely different guy than what you see in the movies. I don't know if you always want to know this. I learned very early on the people who I was meeting were not who I thought they were. I thought Lucille Ball was very different, Warren Beatty, too. I try to have a Tabula Rosa mentality, I want to have a completely clean slate, so when I go into it, I'm broad minded.


Your 1985 book, Conversations With Capote, was a revelation. You interviewed him at the very end of his life. Were you concerned going in about how sharp he'd be?

He was extremely sharp. Everybody says Capote often lied. I've read the big biographies of him, and they all talk about how he fabricated these things. I look at what he said to me and I don't see a lot of lying in the book. Š I thought his comments were always hysterically funny and very right on or sharp.


But did you worry about his health?

I didn't, because I didn't know his condition until after we started. But I was intimidated by him before I met him. I wanted to feel up for it, I wanted to be prepared for it. I had the same feeling when I met Norman Mailer or Saul Bellow. I had these guys in a pretty high place.

I wasn't worried about his health, but as I spoke to him sometimes on the phone, he would tell me he wasn't well. His death came as a big surprise to me. He was only 59 when he died. The book was only the beginning of what I thought I was into. My plan was to keep talking to him for the next 10 to 15 years and write a magnum opus. What is lacking in the book on him you'll find in the Talking With Michener book. That conversation continued for 17 years, until he died.

Capote was outrageous, gossipy, sometimes extremely funny. I wanted to get more into the craft of writing, the depth, his thoughts about Baudelaire, about Proust. I would've wanted to dig deeper and deeper. It was only cut off because he died. That was my first book, and it became a No. 1 bestseller.


Was Capote's arrogance off-putting?

Capote was not at all off-putting. Capote was so refreshingly honest. He was like Tennessee Williams in that regard. The lawyers wouldn't let a lot of what he said about Gore Vidal into the book. Vidal's lawyer said, "Whatever he says about Vidal we're going to sue you." Gore Vidal lived in fear of what Capote was going to say. I said, "This is what Capote said, let Gore Vidal have his say." That is why I appreciated Capote. He'd talk of (mimicking Capote) "that perennial princess Lee Radziwill." I mean, who talks like that? I never considered him arrogant. I just considered this man a wonderful writer who wrote some of the great sentences in the English language.


Yes, but a lot of things he said about himself were very arrogant.

Show me a great writer who didn't have a great opinion of himself. I asked (artist) Henry Moore, "Do you compare yourself to Picasso, to Matisse?" He said, "I look at myself more along the lines of Rembrandt and Michelangelo." Artists are just in general full of themselves.


Who's more difficult to interview, a Robert Evans, who talks too much, or a Harrison Ford, who is too reticent?

Harrison Ford by far is a more difficult interview to do because he just doesn't feel like he wants to give a good interview. He's too big a star so he doesn't give a shit worrying about what he has to say. Š The difficulty with Robert Evans is getting some kind of fresh material. You read our interview and his book, and there's whole passages of the same material. He says the same thing.


In Above the Line, which featured the interviews with Evans and Ford, I thought the most surprisingly revealing interview was with Jean-Claude Van Damme, because it really provided context to his career.

Yeah, people questioned that choice -- "Why did you put Van Damme in there?" The whole idea of Above the Line was to show how talent works, and how you get to where you are. And that's the real example of the struggle -- for a guy who was putting flyers of himself on the windshields of Bentleys and Rolls-Royces, in front of restaurants, waiting in the offices of (producer) Menachem Golan. It was really a remarkable push and drive that he had. And then the guy disappeared and screwed up. When we were in Pittsburgh during one of the interview sessions, he showed me how he could kick, and he kicked right before my eyelid. I mean, my eyelash could've felt it. I just couldn't believe how fast it was, how steady he felt about doing something like that. There was something very interesting about that particular interview. I'd love to talk to him again, and see what's happened to him.


How do you know when to change the subject to get back to your question, or keep riding a subject's wave at a given moment? Till it runs its course?

That all depends on timing. If you have a two-hour time limit, or an hour and a half like with Angelina Jolie, I'm limited there. I can't let her go on and on about a certain subject. or talk too long about land mines and Cambodia. I have to move on to another subject.

You try to make sure you do an interview that covers a lot of material. Don't forget, I'm very, very prepared. I'll ask questions about childhood, questions about movies, questions about what they've seen and said. I'll look at my watch every now and then and if I've only got 10 questions done, I'd better start moving things. See, right now, you're letting me talk, and when I'm taking a pause, you ask another question. If you keep pausing I assume you want more.


You rarely seem to insert your own opinion during an interview, and when you do, it seems to either keep a subject on point or to politely challenge them. Is that a Journalism 101 decision or are there other motives?

I'm there to get you to tell me what you think. I do insert my opinion in the introduction. I can manipulate the interview as any of us can. Like now, you can turn me into a jerk or an intelligent person, into a bore or someone interesting. I'm giving you raw conversation, you're going to take it, mold it, make certain decisions along the way. If you're thinking, "This guy is a jerk," and you can take something I say that's stupid, and start the interview that way. What is the reader going to say? "That guy is a jerk." How I come off is in your hands. And you know this, when you're putting this together. If you're going to have an opinion about Harrison Ford vs. Robert Evans vs. Oliver Stone, I've given you the words that I think are important enough. In the end, hopefully, I've drawn a portrait for you but I've left enough for you to color in the rest. I allow that reader to form an opinion.


What dead movie figure would you most have wanted to interview? What would be the first question you'd ask?

Garbo would be the one. Because she never talked. "Why? Why haven't you talked? Do you have such insecurities that you would rather maintain your mystery?"

Jackie Onassis would've been another one I would've loved to interview. I wish I could've interview Picasso and Matisse. The interview of the 20th century would have been Adolph Hitler. To try to get into that evil mind would've been so incredibly interesting. And scary. Churchill would've been fascinating. And the great writers, Proust, Dostoyevsky, Joyce, Joseph Conrad.


Talk about your upcoming book, The Art of the Interview. The timing sure seems right. Did the Interview class at UCLA help coalesce the ideas for the book?

Yeah. I was asked to do the book in 1985. N.A.L. said, "Why don't you do a book on the craft of the interview?" Well, they didn't offer me much money, No. 1, less than an interview for a big magazine. I said it's going to take me a long time to write a book.

Years go by, and Three Rivers Press comes along. I decided, I'm still thinking about the subject, so I thought maybe it's time to do it.

I've got so many anecdotes, and stories, like Bobby Knight when he attacked me, or the Jesse Ventura interview. Maybe it's time to do it. So I put together a proposal, I have this agent in New York. I've written 100,000 words already. I'm still working on it.

And now I'm thinking, how do I do this master class in New Orleans? I got only 75 minutes. My UCLA class is 30 hours and I talk for 25. I do a lot of talking. How do I condense this for 75 minutes so that it's gonna be worth their while? I'm taking the book, and dividing it up into chapters, how the interview begins, how I get to them, I'll tell the Barbra Streisand story, the Bobby Knight one, try to break it down into segments. I'll try to break it into 5-minute segments, then open it up to the audience. I can do celebrity anecdotes or I can do it as, how do you really do this thing?

There's a lot of work involved that most people don't think about. How do you do research and prepare? I will try to gear the time to fit the needs of the people. That's why I do hope that if people come, they do so for a reason. And I will try to accommodate them.


One last question. If you had done this interview, how would you have done it differently?

(Laughs.) I would have sent you a hundred-dollar bill in the mail to soften you up, and the first thing I would've said is, "When you come to New Orleans, I'm going to take you and your wife out to some of the best restaurants and see some of the best jazz in the city, and my paper's going to pick up the tab." That's how I would've done it.

But that's me.

Instead of flying there, I did it as a video conference. She had been at my house for five hours before that. But my last 10 or 15 questions had to do with Billy Bob and her father. I said, "Angelina, in all fairness, I agreed not to ask you about Billy Bob or your father. However, is there anything I can ask you about this, because any interview without this is a strange piece. We're avoiding the elephant in the middle of the room." And she said, "I don't want talk about this because it's part of my past." She talked about the scarring from the tattoo removal, but I don't think I crossed the line or broke my word, so to speak.

I don't like things that are off limits. I rarely agree to anything, but I will give you a specific example when I did make my own compromise. When I did The Hustons, it was the most in-depth work I'd done. I had access to (John) Huston, to all his papers. He wrote a letter to everyone telling them to cooperate with me. In the course of all this research, I came across something that would've hurt Angelica very much, something that would hurt Tony very much, and John's other son Danny -- there was something I knew about each of them. And I weighed this very strongly. I had people telling me all these stories, and I'm writing a book of over 800 pages, and if I included this, when the book would be reviewed, these would be the pieces that would be discussed and highlighted.

I knew it would give a certain buzz to the book and it would help sell it, but I also knew it was something the family didn't need to know about. It might have hurt the sale of the book by not including it, but they had just given me all their time, they'd opened up and let me into their lives. I just felt I couldn't do that. I've always been proud of myself for not doing that. I didn't hold anything back about John. That was different. The children, I felt, weren't as much in the limelight. I think it's your own sensibility. There are people who are cutthroat. That's one attitude.

I want to make sure there's something new in an interview that you didn't know. I'll tell a subject, there's nothing here that's new. I've read a lot about the subject so hopefully the interview is going in a different direction from the beginning.


What interviewers do you most enjoy watching on TV and reading in print?

I like Ted Koppel. I always had respect for him because he always gets to the point. He's erudite and he's calm. I keep thinking, is that his real hair or a wig? (Laughs.) I've always enjoyed him since the beginning. I was on Charlie Rose once when The Hustons came out. He had read it, or at least he read enough of it.

I think Charlie Rose has a tough job. Sometimes he talks too much; he asks six, eight, nine questions in a row; he interrupts subjects sometimes, so that's a little irritating. But not many people are doing what he does.

I've been a fan of Diane Sawyer's. Barbara Walters can irritate me. At times she is good. One time I interviewed her for TV Guide. I don't think she's that good with celebrities. There's something about trying to dance with Al Pacino that doesn't seem quite right. I just wasn't impressed, she wasn't getting much out of these people. But she does do decent work with political figures.

One of my favorite interviewers was (ESPN's) Roy Firestone. He was one of the best TV interviewers. Roy got to their hearts, and nobody's doing that anymore in sports. He was let go, and that was disappointing. Up Close, they moved him away from that, and then there were the Up Close and Personal, one-hour specials. He's done 5,000 sports figures, and it's a shame he's not doing it anymore.


But isn't there a dearth of quality interviewers on TV anyway?

What you have is a lot of pretty faces. How could you think Maria Shriver is a great interviewer? With TV interviewers you get to know them on screen. Print is different. Nobody knows what I look like. I had a neighbor walking down the street, and she said about this month's Movieline, "You're not even in this one." "Which one." "Drew Barrymore." And I did that one. It's more of an anonymous form. But on TV, you look at Stone Phillips, Jane Pauley, Connie Chung, whoever's doing it. You see them.

Larry King is an interesting case because he's so proud he doesn't prepare. Why do people go back on his show? Because he really doesn't ask tough questions. It's not like Larry King is going for the jugular. There's something easy about him. Then there are the Fox people, who are very conservative and will cut you off if you say something liberal.

Unfortunately, we have a real dumbing down of America going on. It's happening on TV, and it's happening in print. My interview with Pacino ran 30 pages, Brando ran 25. We're talking maybe a 20,000-word interview. Now, we go to 15 and to 10. Halle Berry was 10,000 words and they printed 6,000. And that's the longest interview out there. One third the size it was in the '80s. A lot of magazines like Maxim, or MTV, it's all these quick takes. We have all this info, the Internet, we feed on things by clicking on things, we don't absorb the long form. And that's tough. It's changing things.

The kind of interviews I've done all my life are eventually going to be done in book form. In Above the Line, the interviews with Robert Evans and Oliver Stone, they were two-parters in Movieline. Those were long interviews. Anthony Hopkins, Siskel and Ebert, you don't see long interviews like that much anymore. You don't know where you're gonna see them.


James Lipton's mannerisms on Inside the Actors Studio are so idiosyncratic that Will Farrell became popular for his otherworldly impersonation of him. Is Lipton a freak or a genius as an interviewer, or somewhere in between?

I've seen a number of his shows, I know some actors who say they won't go on the show. He gets the people because it's in the context of the classroom. I teach a class at UCLA, and I've had Al Pacino, Diane Keaton, Steve Martin in the class. With Hugh Hefner, we all went out to his mansion. We had Djimon Hounsou from Amistad and Gladiator, and Lisa Kudrow is next. I have my students interview them. And they prepare.

I understand the power of a classroom. If you're doing a class at a major university, the people will come. Lipton says, "Here's a class of student actors, directors, writers, come be a guest and give something back." But it's also a celebration. You're not going to get the people to answer the kind of questions I'm going to ask in a print interview. You're going to get entertainment. You get Robin Williams and Marty Short, they're ON, and Lipton feeds them the line. It's a puff-type interview that allows the actor to shine, and get the applause.


It sounds intellectual, but it's not.

It's acting, and he's acting as well. I don't put it down, because he's bringing in people you don't get to see, and with no commercials. I enjoys those things because by their very nature they have an audience.

I'm pretty serious about my interviews. I try to show who these people really are, not who they think they are and not who the audience thinks they are. When you think of Al Pacino, you think of Michael Corleone and Tony Montana. I mean, I wrestled with the guy, I played cards with him. He's a completely different guy than what you see in the movies. I don't know if you always want to know this. I learned very early on the people who I was meeting were not who I thought they were. I thought Lucille Ball was very different, Warren Beatty, too. I try to have a Tabula Rosa mentality, I want to have a completely clean slate, so when I go into it, I'm broad minded.


Your 1985 book, Conversations With Capote, was a revelation. You interviewed him at the very end of his life. Were you concerned going in about how sharp he'd be?

He was extremely sharp. Everybody says Capote often lied. I've read the big biographies of him, and they all talk about how he fabricated these things. I look at what he said to me and I don't see a lot of lying in the book. Š I thought his comments were always hysterically funny and very right on or sharp.


But did you worry about his health?

I didn't, because I didn't know his condition until after we started. But I was intimidated by him before I met him. I wanted to feel up for it, I wanted to be prepared for it. I had the same feeling when I met Norman Mailer or Saul Bellow. I had these guys in a pretty high place.

I wasn't worried about his health, but as I spoke to him sometimes on the phone, he would tell me he wasn't well. His death came as a big surprise to me. He was only 59 when he died. The book was only the beginning of what I thought I was into. My plan was to keep talking to him for the next 10 to 15 years and write a magnum opus. What is lacking in the book on him you'll find in the Talking With Michener book. That conversation continued for 17 years, until he died.

Capote was outrageous, gossipy, sometimes extremely funny. I wanted to get more into the craft of writing, the depth, his thoughts about Baudelaire, about Proust. I would've wanted to dig deeper and deeper. It was only cut off because he died. That was my first book, and it became a No. 1 bestseller.


Was Capote's arrogance off-putting?

Capote was not at all off-putting. Capote was so refreshingly honest. He was like Tennessee Williams in that regard. The lawyers wouldn't let a lot of what he said about Gore Vidal into the book. Vidal's lawyer said, "Whatever he says about Vidal we're going to sue you." Gore Vidal lived in fear of what Capote was going to say. I said, "This is what Capote said, let Gore Vidal have his say." That is why I appreciated Capote. He'd talk of (mimicking Capote) "that perennial princess Lee Radziwill." I mean, who talks like that? I never considered him arrogant. I just considered this man a wonderful writer who wrote some of the great sentences in the English language.


Yes, but a lot of things he said about himself were very arrogant.

Show me a great writer who didn't have a great opinion of himself. I asked (artist) Henry Moore, "Do you compare yourself to Picasso, to Matisse?" He said, "I look at myself more along the lines of Rembrandt and Michelangelo." Artists are just in general full of themselves.


Who's more difficult to interview, a Robert Evans, who talks too much, or a Harrison Ford, who is too reticent?

Harrison Ford by far is a more difficult interview to do because he just doesn't feel like he wants to give a good interview. He's too big a star so he doesn't give a shit worrying about what he has to say. Š The difficulty with Robert Evans is getting some kind of fresh material. You read our interview and his book, and there's whole passages of the same material. He says the same thing.


In Above the Line, which featured the interviews with Evans and Ford, I thought the most surprisingly revealing interview was with Jean-Claude Van Damme, because it really provided context to his career.

Yeah, people questioned that choice -- "Why did you put Van Damme in there?" The whole idea of Above the Line was to show how talent works, and how you get to where you are. And that's the real example of the struggle -- for a guy who was putting flyers of himself on the windshields of Bentleys and Rolls-Royces, in front of restaurants, waiting in the offices of (producer) Menachem Golan. It was really a remarkable push and drive that he had. And then the guy disappeared and screwed up. When we were in Pittsburgh during one of the interview sessions, he showed me how he could kick, and he kicked right before my eyelid. I mean, my eyelash could've felt it. I just couldn't believe how fast it was, how steady he felt about doing something like that. There was something very interesting about that particular interview. I'd love to talk to him again, and see what's happened to him.


How do you know when to change the subject to get back to your question, or keep riding a subject's wave at a given moment? Till it runs its course?

That all depends on timing. If you have a two-hour time limit, or an hour and a half like with Angelina Jolie, I'm limited there. I can't let her go on and on about a certain subject. or talk too long about land mines and Cambodia. I have to move on to another subject.

You try to make sure you do an interview that covers a lot of material. Don't forget, I'm very, very prepared. I'll ask questions about childhood, questions about movies, questions about what they've seen and said. I'll look at my watch every now and then and if I've only got 10 questions done, I'd better start moving things. See, right now, you're letting me talk, and when I'm taking a pause, you ask another question. If you keep pausing I assume you want more.


You rarely seem to insert your own opinion during an interview, and when you do, it seems to either keep a subject on point or to politely challenge them. Is that a Journalism 101 decision or are there other motives?

I'm there to get you to tell me what you think. I do insert my opinion in the introduction. I can manipulate the interview as any of us can. Like now, you can turn me into a jerk or an intelligent person, into a bore or someone interesting. I'm giving you raw conversation, you're going to take it, mold it, make certain decisions along the way. If you're thinking, "This guy is a jerk," and you can take something I say that's stupid, and start the interview that way. What is the reader going to say? "That guy is a jerk." How I come off is in your hands. And you know this, when you're putting this together. If you're going to have an opinion about Harrison Ford vs. Robert Evans vs. Oliver Stone, I've given you the words that I think are important enough. In the end, hopefully, I've drawn a portrait for you but I've left enough for you to color in the rest. I allow that reader to form an opinion.


What dead movie figure would you most have wanted to interview? What would be the first question you'd ask?

Garbo would be the one. Because she never talked. "Why? Why haven't you talked? Do you have such insecurities that you would rather maintain your mystery?"

Jackie Onassis would've been another one I would've loved to interview. I wish I could've interview Picasso and Matisse. The interview of the 20th century would have been Adolph Hitler. To try to get into that evil mind would've been so incredibly interesting. And scary. Churchill would've been fascinating. And the great writers, Proust, Dostoyevsky, Joyce, Joseph Conrad.


Talk about your upcoming book, The Art of the Interview. The timing sure seems right. Did the Interview class at UCLA help coalesce the ideas for the book?

Yeah. I was asked to do the book in 1985. N.A.L. said, "Why don't you do a book on the craft of the interview?" Well, they didn't offer me much money, No. 1, less than an interview for a big magazine. I said it's going to take me a long time to write a book.

Years go by, and Three Rivers Press comes along. I decided, I'm still thinking about the subject, so I thought maybe it's time to do it.

I've got so many anecdotes, and stories, like Bobby Knight when he attacked me, or the Jesse Ventura interview. Maybe it's time to do it. So I put together a proposal, I have this agent in New York. I've written 100,000 words already. I'm still working on it.

And now I'm thinking, how do I do this master class in New Orleans? I got only 75 minutes. My UCLA class is 30 hours and I talk for 25. I do a lot of talking. How do I condense this for 75 minutes so that it's gonna be worth their while? I'm taking the book, and dividing it up into chapters, how the interview begins, how I get to them, I'll tell the Barbra Streisand story, the Bobby Knight one, try to break it down into segments. I'll try to break it into 5-minute segments, then open it up to the audience. I can do celebrity anecdotes or I can do it as, how do you really do this thing?

There's a lot of work involved that most people don't think about. How do you do research and prepare? I will try to gear the time to fit the needs of the people. That's why I do hope that if people come, they do so for a reason. And I will try to accommodate them.


One last question. If you had done this interview, how would you have done it differently?

(Laughs.) I would have sent you a hundred-dollar bill in the mail to soften you up, and the first thing I would've said is, "When you come to New Orleans, I'm going to take you and your wife out to some of the best restaurants and see some of the best jazz in the city, and my paper's going to pick up the tab." That's how I would've done it.

But that's me.

Lawrence Grobel will conduct the master class "The Art of the Interview" at 11 a.m. Friday at The Cabildo in Jackson Square, and then will appear with George Plimpton and Dick Cavett for the discussion, "Other Voices, Other Ruminations: A Capote Casebook," at 1 p.m. Sunday at Le Petit Theatre du Vieux Carré. Call 581-1144 or email info@tennesseewilliams.net.

Instead of flying there, I did it as a video conference. She had been at my house for five hours before that. But my last 10 or 15 questions had to do with Billy Bob and her father. I said, "Angelina, in all fairness, I agreed not to ask you about Billy Bob or your father. However, is there anything I can ask you about this, because any interview without this is a strange piece. We're avoiding the elephant in the middle of the room." And she said, "I don't want talk about this because it's part of my past." She talked about the scarring from the tattoo removal, but I don't think I crossed the line or broke my word, so to speak.

I don't like things that are off limits. I rarely agree to anything, but I will give you a specific example when I did make my own compromise. When I did The Hustons, it was the most in-depth work I'd done. I had access to (John) Huston, to all his papers. He wrote a letter to everyone telling them to cooperate with me. In the course of all this research, I came across something that would've hurt Angelica very much, something that would hurt Tony very much, and John's other son Danny -- there was something I knew about each of them. And I weighed this very strongly. I had people telling me all these stories, and I'm writing a book of over 800 pages, and if I included this, when the book would be reviewed, these would be the pieces that would be discussed and highlighted.

I knew it would give a certain buzz to the book and it would help sell it, but I also knew it was something the family didn't need to know about. It might have hurt the sale of the book by not including it, but they had just given me all their time, they'd opened up and let me into their lives. I just felt I couldn't do that. I've always been proud of myself for not doing that. I didn't hold anything back about John. That was different. The children, I felt, weren't as much in the limelight. I think it's your own sensibility. There are people who are cutthroat. That's one attitude.

I want to make sure there's something new in an interview that you didn't know. I'll tell a subject, there's nothing here that's new. I've read a lot about the subject so hopefully the interview is going in a different direction from the beginning.


What interviewers do you most enjoy watching on TV and reading in print?

I like Ted Koppel. I always had respect for him because he always gets to the point. He's erudite and he's calm. I keep thinking, is that his real hair or a wig? (Laughs.) I've always enjoyed him since the beginning. I was on Charlie Rose once when The Hustons came out. He had read it, or at least he read enough of it.

I think Charlie Rose has a tough job. Sometimes he talks too much; he asks six, eight, nine questions in a row; he interrupts subjects sometimes, so that's a little irritating. But not many people are doing what he does.

I've been a fan of Diane Sawyer's. Barbara Walters can irritate me. At times she is good. One time I interviewed her for TV Guide. I don't think she's that good with celebrities. There's something about trying to dance with Al Pacino that doesn't seem quite right. I just wasn't impressed, she wasn't getting much out of these people. But she does do decent work with political figures.

One of my favorite interviewers was (ESPN's) Roy Firestone. He was one of the best TV interviewers. Roy got to their hearts, and nobody's doing that anymore in sports. He was let go, and that was disappointing. Up Close, they moved him away from that, and then there were the Up Close and Personal, one-hour specials. He's done 5,000 sports figures, and it's a shame he's not doing it anymore.


But isn't there a dearth of quality interviewers on TV anyway?

What you have is a lot of pretty faces. How could you think Maria Shriver is a great interviewer? With TV interviewers you get to know them on screen. Print is different. Nobody knows what I look like. I had a neighbor walking down the street, and she said about this month's Movieline, "You're not even in this one." "Which one." "Drew Barrymore." And I did that one. It's more of an anonymous form. But on TV, you look at Stone Phillips, Jane Pauley, Connie Chung, whoever's doing it. You see them.

Larry King is an interesting case because he's so proud he doesn't prepare. Why do people go back on his show? Because he really doesn't ask tough questions. It's not like Larry King is going for the jugular. There's something easy about him. Then there are the Fox people, who are very conservative and will cut you off if you say something liberal.

Unfortunately, we have a real dumbing down of America going on. It's happening on TV, and it's happening in print. My interview with Pacino ran 30 pages, Brando ran 25. We're talking maybe a 20,000-word interview. Now, we go to 15 and to 10. Halle Berry was 10,000 words and they printed 6,000. And that's the longest interview out there. One third the size it was in the '80s. A lot of magazines like Maxim, or MTV, it's all these quick takes. We have all this info, the Internet, we feed on things by clicking on things, we don't absorb the long form. And that's tough. It's changing things.

The kind of interviews I've done all my life are eventually going to be done in book form. In Above the Line, the interviews with Robert Evans and Oliver Stone, they were two-parters in Movieline. Those were long interviews. Anthony Hopkins, Siskel and Ebert, you don't see long interviews like that much anymore. You don't know where you're gonna see them.


James Lipton's mannerisms on Inside the Actors Studio are so idiosyncratic that Will Farrell became popular for his otherworldly impersonation of him. Is Lipton a freak or a genius as an interviewer, or somewhere in between?

I've seen a number of his shows, I know some actors who say they won't go on the show. He gets the people because it's in the context of the classroom. I teach a class at UCLA, and I've had Al Pacino, Diane Keaton, Steve Martin in the class. With Hugh Hefner, we all went out to his mansion. We had Djimon Hounsou from Amistad and Gladiator, and Lisa Kudrow is next. I have my students interview them. And they prepare.

I understand the power of a classroom. If you're doing a class at a major university, the people will come. Lipton says, "Here's a class of student actors, directors, writers, come be a guest and give something back." But it's also a celebration. You're not going to get the people to answer the kind of questions I'm going to ask in a print interview. You're going to get entertainment. You get Robin Williams and Marty Short, they're ON, and Lipton feeds them the line. It's a puff-type interview that allows the actor to shine, and get the applause.


It sounds intellectual, but it's not.

It's acting, and he's acting as well. I don't put it down, because he's bringing in people you don't get to see, and with no commercials. I enjoys those things because by their very nature they have an audience.

I'm pretty serious about my interviews. I try to show who these people really are, not who they think they are and not who the audience thinks they are. When you think of Al Pacino, you think of Michael Corleone and Tony Montana. I mean, I wrestled with the guy, I played cards with him. He's a completely different guy than what you see in the movies. I don't know if you always want to know this. I learned very early on the people who I was meeting were not who I thought they were. I thought Lucille Ball was very different, Warren Beatty, too. I try to have a Tabula Rosa mentality, I want to have a completely clean slate, so when I go into it, I'm broad minded.


Your 1985 book, Conversations With Capote, was a revelation. You interviewed him at the very end of his life. Were you concerned going in about how sharp he'd be?

He was extremely sharp. Everybody says Capote often lied. I've read the big biographies of him, and they all talk about how he fabricated these things. I look at what he said to me and I don't see a lot of lying in the book. Š I thought his comments were always hysterically funny and very right on or sharp.


But did you worry about his health?

I didn't, because I didn't know his condition until after we started. But I was intimidated by him before I met him. I wanted to feel up for it, I wanted to be prepared for it. I had the same feeling when I met Norman Mailer or Saul Bellow. I had these guys in a pretty high place.

I wasn't worried about his health, but as I spoke to him sometimes on the phone, he would tell me he wasn't well. His death came as a big surprise to me. He was only 59 when he died. The book was only the beginning of what I thought I was into. My plan was to keep talking to him for the next 10 to 15 years and write a magnum opus. What is lacking in the book on him you'll find in the Talking With Michener book. That conversation continued for 17 years, until he died.

Capote was outrageous, gossipy, sometimes extremely funny. I wanted to get more into the craft of writing, the depth, his thoughts about Baudelaire, about Proust. I would've wanted to dig deeper and deeper. It was only cut off because he died. That was my first book, and it became a No. 1 bestseller.


Was Capote's arrogance off-putting?

Capote was not at all off-putting. Capote was so refreshingly honest. He was like Tennessee Williams in that regard. The lawyers wouldn't let a lot of what he said about Gore Vidal into the book. Vidal's lawyer said, "Whatever he says about Vidal we're going to sue you." Gore Vidal lived in fear of what Capote was going to say. I said, "This is what Capote said, let Gore Vidal have his say." That is why I appreciated Capote. He'd talk of (mimicking Capote) "that perennial princess Lee Radziwill." I mean, who talks like that? I never considered him arrogant. I just considered this man a wonderful writer who wrote some of the great sentences in the English language.


Yes, but a lot of things he said about himself were very arrogant.

Show me a great writer who didn't have a great opinion of himself. I asked (artist) Henry Moore, "Do you compare yourself to Picasso, to Matisse?" He said, "I look at myself more along the lines of Rembrandt and Michelangelo." Artists are just in general full of themselves.


Who's more difficult to interview, a Robert Evans, who talks too much, or a Harrison Ford, who is too reticent?

Harrison Ford by far is a more difficult interview to do because he just doesn't feel like he wants to give a good interview. He's too big a star so he doesn't give a shit worrying about what he has to say. Š The difficulty with Robert Evans is getting some kind of fresh material. You read our interview and his book, and there's whole passages of the same material. He says the same thing.


In Above the Line, which featured the interviews with Evans and Ford, I thought the most surprisingly revealing interview was with Jean-Claude Van Damme, because it really provided context to his career.

Yeah, people questioned that choice -- "Why did you put Van Damme in there?" The whole idea of Above the Line was to show how talent works, and how you get to where you are. And that's the real example of the struggle -- for a guy who was putting flyers of himself on the windshields of Bentleys and Rolls-Royces, in front of restaurants, waiting in the offices of (producer) Menachem Golan. It was really a remarkable push and drive that he had. And then the guy disappeared and screwed up. When we were in Pittsburgh during one of the interview sessions, he showed me how he could kick, and he kicked right before my eyelid. I mean, my eyelash could've felt it. I just couldn't believe how fast it was, how steady he felt about doing something like that. There was something very interesting about that particular interview. I'd love to talk to him again, and see what's happened to him.


How do you know when to change the subject to get back to your question, or keep riding a subject's wave at a given moment? Till it runs its course?

That all depends on timing. If you have a two-hour time limit, or an hour and a half like with Angelina Jolie, I'm limited there. I can't let her go on and on about a certain subject. or talk too long about land mines and Cambodia. I have to move on to another subject.

You try to make sure you do an interview that covers a lot of material. Don't forget, I'm very, very prepared. I'll ask questions about childhood, questions about movies, questions about what they've seen and said. I'll look at my watch every now and then and if I've only got 10 questions done, I'd better start moving things. See, right now, you're letting me talk, and when I'm taking a pause, you ask another question. If you keep pausing I assume you want more.


You rarely seem to insert your own opinion during an interview, and when you do, it seems to either keep a subject on point or to politely challenge them. Is that a Journalism 101 decision or are there other motives?

I'm there to get you to tell me what you think. I do insert my opinion in the introduction. I can manipulate the interview as any of us can. Like now, you can turn me into a jerk or an intelligent person, into a bore or someone interesting. I'm giving you raw conversation, you're going to take it, mold it, make certain decisions along the way. If you're thinking, "This guy is a jerk," and you can take something I say that's stupid, and start the interview that way. What is the reader going to say? "That guy is a jerk." How I come off is in your hands. And you know this, when you're putting this together. If you're going to have an opinion about Harrison Ford vs. Robert Evans vs. Oliver Stone, I've given you the words that I think are important enough. In the end, hopefully, I've drawn a portrait for you but I've left enough for you to color in the rest. I allow that reader to form an opinion.


What dead movie figure would you most have wanted to interview? What would be the first question you'd ask?

Garbo would be the one. Because she never talked. "Why? Why haven't you talked? Do you have such insecurities that you would rather maintain your mystery?"

Jackie Onassis would've been another one I would've loved to interview. I wish I could've interview Picasso and Matisse. The interview of the 20th century would have been Adolph Hitler. To try to get into that evil mind would've been so incredibly interesting. And scary. Churchill would've been fascinating. And the great writers, Proust, Dostoyevsky, Joyce, Joseph Conrad.


Talk about your upcoming book, The Art of the Interview. The timing sure seems right. Did the Interview class at UCLA help coalesce the ideas for the book?

Yeah. I was asked to do the book in 1985. N.A.L. said, "Why don't you do a book on the craft of the interview?" Well, they didn't offer me much money, No. 1, less than an interview for a big magazine. I said it's going to take me a long time to write a book.

Years go by, and Three Rivers Press comes along. I decided, I'm still thinking about the subject, so I thought maybe it's time to do it.

I've got so many anecdotes, and stories, like Bobby Knight when he attacked me, or the Jesse Ventura interview. Maybe it's time to do it. So I put together a proposal, I have this agent in New York. I've written 100,000 words already. I'm still working on it.

And now I'm thinking, how do I do this master class in New Orleans? I got only 75 minutes. My UCLA class is 30 hours and I talk for 25. I do a lot of talking. How do I condense this for 75 minutes so that it's gonna be worth their while? I'm taking the book, and dividing it up into chapters, how the interview begins, how I get to them, I'll tell the Barbra Streisand story, the Bobby Knight one, try to break it down into segments. I'll try to break it into 5-minute segments, then open it up to the audience. I can do celebrity anecdotes or I can do it as, how do you really do this thing?

There's a lot of work involved that most people don't think about. How do you do research and prepare? I will try to gear the time to fit the needs of the people. That's why I do hope that if people come, they do so for a reason. And I will try to accommodate them.


One last question. If you had done this interview, how would you have done it differently?

(Laughs.) I would have sent you a hundred-dollar bill in the mail to soften you up, and the first thing I would've said is, "When you come to New Orleans, I'm going to take you and your wife out to some of the best restaurants and see some of the best jazz in the city, and my paper's going to pick up the tab." That's how I would've done it.

But that's me.

click to enlarge "Capote was so refreshingly honest. He was like Tennessee Williams in that regard," says Lawrence Grobel, pictured at right with Capote during the interviews for Grobel's 1985 book Conversations With Capote. Truman Capote died in 1984 at age 59. - HARVEY WANG
  • Harvey Wang
  • "Capote was so refreshingly honest. He was like Tennessee Williams in that regard," says Lawrence Grobel, pictured at right with Capote during the interviews for Grobel's 1985 book Conversations With Capote. Truman Capote died in 1984 at age 59.
click to enlarge Grobel's first book, 1985's Conversations With Capote, became a No. 1 bestseller.
  • Grobel's first book, 1985's Conversations With Capote, became a No. 1 bestseller.
click to enlarge Above the Line: Conversations About the Movies, published in 2000, is a collection of Grobel's interviews with Hollywood figures including Robert Evans, Oliver Stone, Harrison Ford, Anthony Hopkins and critics Roger Ebert and the late Gene Siskel.
  • Above the Line: Conversations About the Movies, published in 2000, is a collection of Grobel's interviews with Hollywood figures including Robert Evans, Oliver Stone, Harrison Ford, Anthony Hopkins and critics Roger Ebert and the late Gene Siskel.
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