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Q&A: Lawrence Grobel

A master celebrity interviewer writes a book on his art—and talks to us about his career.

By Angelina Sciolla - September 14, 2004

Larry Grobel doesn't so much drop famous names; he simply mentions them—big names, like Capote, Pacino, and Streisand—with encyclopedic efficiency and no pretense. For thirty years, the freelance journalist, author, and biographer has probed the minds and lives of some of the most famous names in show business, music, and the media for publications including Playboy (where he's a master of the famed Playboy Interview), Esquire, and GQ, and he's a go-to guy for E!'s True Hollywood Story series. Grobel has island-hopped with Brando, sparred with Bobby Knight, and jumped through publicists' nefarious hoops to get face time with the likes of Halle Berry, Jodie Foster, and Drew Barrymore. His new book, The Art of the Interview, is both a primer on the subject, which he teaches at UCLA, and a humorous in-depth look inside the exasperating and exciting world of celebrity journalism. mediabistro.com recently turned the tables on Larry Grobel and asked him all about his adventures in interviewing.

Despite your enviable career, you indicate in The Art of the Interview a fair share of rejection and disappointments in the beginning. What's your advice for writers starting out and struggling to keep the faith?
I mention in my book about crying after receiving rejections from both Esquire and Playboy on the same day. I used to save all my rejections, always thinking, "I'll show them." I always talk about how hard it is, but I also think it's glorious. If you have talent, persevere. Some give in. Writers are writers because they can't help but be writers; they have to get it out there. I feel more whole and reassured when I've written something. I try to discourage my students from a writing career most of the time. The ones who get beyond it are really meant to do it.

Your portfolio includes the A-lists of Hollywood, literature, and art. How do you handle the intimidation factor—those pre-interview jitters, if you still get them?
Being nervous is healthy because it means you're into it. Sometimes I'll just sit in the car before I go in and take a few deep breaths. You just remember they're no better than you. When I first started out I used to really sweat, going up against people like Lucille Ball and Jane Fonda. You're going in there to meet these iconic, legendary people, and you're about to ask them personal stuff. I would feel the heat on my brow, but when I saw they were willing to talk to me, I would relax a bit more. It never really changes. You don't know who they're going to be that day, and you're dealing with their anxiety and concerns as well. When you see people on edge when you come in, it actually calms you down. The scariest time is when you're not prepared. You can't wing it. No matter who you talk to, never go in unprepared.

Who were your favorite people to profile?
Well, it's hard to beat people like Capote, Huston, Henry Moore—he was a real thrill. Brando was one of the most challenging. Michener was such a mensch. He was willing to talk about a lot of things, and he had a lot of interests. Nicole Kidman is a good interview. So were Pavarotti, Miles Davis. I'm sorry I never did a book with Miles. So much anger and genius in him. There's something revealing there.

You mention in the book several friendships that have resulted from interviews. How does this affect your work as a journalist?
First of all, you have to separate acquaintances from friendships. I have lots of acquaintances that result from interviews. As far as friendships, Elliott Gould is a close friend, as is Al Pacino. First, I let the editors know, in case they're after an ambush piece. I do separate friendship from work, and I let the subject understand that I am going to have to mention certain things. But I know how to couch it, preface it. Premiere is going to run my interview with Pacino in February. I told them, "I have access to Al, I've seen Merchant of Venice, and I can give you a different kind of insight." I had to overcome their skepticism by having him say things he never said before.

The Playboy Interview—for which you've talked to everyone from Barbra Streisand to Jesse Ventura—has become the kind of interview that signifies someone has "arrived" in the popular culture. How did it earn that kind of editorial cache?
Barbra Streisand said of the Playboy Interview; "That's the Bible." It really happened from the start, with Alex Haley's interview with Miles Davis [in the September 1962 issue]. At that time there were no other Q&As, at least in that form, in general-interest magazines. Playboy let the format flourish and gave it the space it needed so you could change the subject a few times in an interview. They typically ran about 25 to 30,000 words. Now it's down to 6,000. The magazine is thinner, and there's less editorial space, which is tied into the belief that nobody wants to read that much anymore.

In your book, you mention some notable interviewers such as Orianna Fallaci, Connie Martinson, and Brian Lamb. Who else should we be watching/reading for a demonstration in good interview skills?
On television: Larry King, Bob Costas, Charlie Rose, Katie Couric. Letterman is the best of late night. You really have to pay attention to what's out there. I watch 60 Minutes, Dateline, John Stossel on 20/20. You have to ask, am I coming away from the interview feeling manipulated, satisfied, or, like after a Chinese dinner, wanting a little more? You want to see them take the next step, go a little deeper. Montel Williams doesn't have a script but is focused. Merv Griffin would listen to you. Are they listening or looking at their note cards to get through it? If they're having a conversation, that's better. The more unexpected the direction the better the interview. You want to come away understanding who that person is. As far as print, I remember great pieces like John Updike on Ted Williams, Gay Talese on Frank Sinatra, or Gore Vidal's profiles. You can still find some good stuff in Harper's, The Atlantic, and The New Yorker.

Where are your favorite places to do an interview? Least favorite?
It depends on the assignment. When I interviewed Brando I ended up at his island retreat, which was fascinating. Their house or my house usually works well. There are fewer distractions. A public place like a restaurant can be difficult, with people interrupting the interview for the star's autograph. There's also a lot of noise, that clanging of silverware, which I hate.

What kinds of interview exercises do you give your UCLA students?
For their first assignment, I have the students interview each other. Think about it. How many times have you taken a class and not gotten to know anyone? I have them pair up and meet for 1-3 hours. The person being interviewed gets to pick the place. The interviewer is allowed to ask anything, and the interviewee cannot get angry at the questions. Then they switch. It's a great assignment because it introduces them to what it's like to interview right away. Then I read the transcripts and get to know 16 students like I would never know them otherwise. At that point I can help them with what they want to do in life better than I could before.

One of the most difficult things about interviewing is actually getting people to talk. How do you do it? And for the people who talk too much, how do you find the relevant material and keep the interview on track?
I talk a lot about this in my book. Usually you'll get advance notice from the publicist as to what somebody will or won't talk about. But I'm prepared with questions that are conversation starters, or questions about people's individual interests. Sometimes it's hard, like with the Nicholson interview I talk about in my book. I recently interviewed James Franco, and he was talking in a stream of consciousness fashion yet he didn't have much to say. As for more effusive interview subjects, time does dictate, too. And you just have to go over and find the gems in the interview, the things that are most revealing about the person.

What are conversation starters?
It depends. I keep a list of prepared questions handy, one list for actors and one list for writers, in case I get an assignment I can't prepare for. There are about 215 questions, but I've never used them because I've always been able to research the person beforehand. Some of those boilerplate questions for writers are, "Do you ever get treated like a star?" or "Talk about your early writings," or "Do you have any secret rivals?" For actors, I have quotes from Olivier or Brando that I would ask them to respond to, or I would ask about the first time they fell in love. But, again, I've yet to use these questions.

What are some signs of an amateur or novice interviewer?
General or nonspecific questions like "What was your childhood like?" This tells me you didn't do much research. A more specific question tells your subject you've prepared and they respect that and will respond to you in a more intimate way.

As an interviewee, who would you like to go up against? Who would you avoid?
I'm not comfortable around people with an agenda, like Bill O'Reilly or Howard Stern. I'd rather talk to someone like Charlie Rose just because I know we'd have a conversation that is about something.

What names are still on your to-do list?
A while back I turned down Clint Eastwood and Stephen King for Playboy. I'd like to interview them now. I would have liked to interview Bill Clinton. I'd like to interview George Bush. Also: Bernard Henri-Levy, Gabriel Garcia-Marquez, and Tom Wolfe. Writers interest me because they're smart and observant. Tony Blair, Margaret Thatcher, Saddam Hussein, Kim Jong-Il. I tried to do Idi Amin, but Playboy wouldn't let me. It was too dangerous in Uganda at the time. I'll talk to anybody who'll talk to me.

Angelina Sciolla last wrote for mediabistro.com about the end of Sex and the City. You can buy The Art of the Interview at Amazon.com.



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