He played chess and had long dinners with Marlon Brando. He spent nine months talking to Barbra Streisand. He watched Meryl Streep putting on her make-up, while the actress was on set, preparing to film. He artfully portrayed celebrities like Angelina Jolie, Nicole Kidman, Anthony Hopkins, Robert de Niro or Jack Nicholson. He wrote Al Pacino’s speech, when the actor won the Oscar for Scent Of A Woman. Actually, he is one of the legendary artist’s closest friends. Lawrence Grobel is a legend himself in the writing world. He has interviewed fascinating personalities during his 35 years career. His wonderful conversations with Marlon Brando, Al Pacino, Truman Capote or James Michener were turned into books that are still passionately read worldwide. For the first time in the Romanian media and exclusively for our magazine, Lawrence Grobel accepted to sit on the other side of the tape-recorder and appease our curiosities about the art of the interview, about his life as a freelance writer and, of course, about stars.
What’s the beauty of celebrity journalism?
To me it’s not just the celebrities, it’s the interviewing itself. I enjoy talking to writers more than I do talking to movie stars. I enjoy talking to scientists. I like the idea of being able to go very deeply with somebody. If you meet me at a party, then we’ll talk casually, it wouldn’t get too personal. If you ask me a question about my sex life, or about how much money I made, or about taxes, I would look at you and maybe say: How dare you ask me that? It’s not polite conversation. But if you’re coming to interview me, then you have permission to ask me absolutely anything. I don’t have to answer, but you don’t have to feel funny about asking it. What you’re going to do is try to get into a deeper conversation. How many times in your life do you really get the chance to go very deeply when talking to people? It’s very rare, and that’s the joy of doing what I do. It’s not about the money and it’s not about getting famous, because I don’t think I am famous in the outside world, I’m only known to a handful of people. The truth is I’ve always said that I’d hope to do one or two in-depth interviews a year, no matter what else I was doing in my life. If I won the lottery and I had millions of dollars, I’d still want to do this, because it allows me to talk to people in a way I normally can’t do it. And that, for me, is fun.
If you weren’t a writer and a journalist, what other profession would you have chosen?
I think I would have liked to have been a brain surgeon. But my daughter is a doctor and I see how hard it is, I don’t have that patience and energy to study so much. I try to help her study sometimes and I can’t even pronounce what she has to understand! But I could have been a psychiatrist—that’s kind of related to what I do as an interviewer.
On the other hand, I feel I’m a pretty good teacher and I enjoy doing that. I taught at UCLA for 10 years and I really enjoyed helping students. I think teaching is a very noble profession. What else? If I had the physical qualities, I would have liked to have been an athlete. If I had a mind that worked scientifically, I would have been a scientist. But, as it turns out, this is what I do and I can’t complain about it. I think I was very lucky that I did it at a time when you could do the things I’ve done: you could talk to people for nine months, like I did with Barbra Streisand, or spend two weeks with Marlon Brando on his island in Tahiti. People don’t do that anymore, because the stars have their own websites, they have television interviews on every channel, stars will talk to you for 20 minutes, they won’t talk to you for days or months. Unless you’re doing a book with that person, it’s very rare.
I remember you writing about a 20 minute interview with Jake Gyllenhaal. How was that?
I hated it! When I went there, I didn’t know we were only going to talk for 20 minutes. I saw two other writers waiting to see him. And I said to his publicist: “What’s going on here?” And she explained: “He’s going to talk to you, and then he’s going to talk to that woman and then the other one.” “I can’t do an interview in 20 minutes!” I said. And she replied: “Well, that’s all you’ve got.” I ended up getting a half hour and writing a poem about it, that I’ve put in my book which I’ve just published, Celebrity Salad. I did the best I could, but it’s very frustrating when you have a very short period of time, it’s hard to get a good interview.
Did this also happen to you on other occasions?
It happened with Meryl Streep. I was with her when she was doing the movie Death Becomes Her. She was being made up in a make-up chair and I was sitting there with my tape recorder trying to talk to her about John Cazale, who was her lover who died young. That’s a hard thing to do, when somebody is making-up your eyes and lips, it’s not really a great context for personal questions. Then she said I could come back and continue the interview, but she never responded when I wanted to go back. I only had what I got with her that first hour, it wasn’t what I’d hoped for, but still, they made a cover story of it.
Why do you think there is a need for celebrity journalism? Why do people read it?
It’s easy to say there is no need for it, because it’s a kind of fluff in the end. When you look at the world and you read about suicide bombing, poor countries where people are dying of hunger, the massacres in Syria… Why do we need to know about Jennifer Lopez or Beyonce? And I feel the same about that, in a certain way. On the other hand, I do understand it, because people see celebrity journalism as a way of escape, as a fantasy. People who are living unhappy lives, they read something about a star and say: “Oh, look, she’s wearing such a beautiful dress, I could also wear a dress like that.” Or they say: “Look at that, he’s going out with these beautiful women, if I lived there, I could do this too.” It fuels a fantasy life and it takes people out of their misery for the moment. It’s almost the same like when you read a novel or see a movie: it takes you into another world. For the time there, you’re imagining what these characters’ lives are and it takes you away from your daily routines.
And you think that the audience will always consume it?
One thing I’ve noticed is that no matter what the economy is like, the world of entertainment continues. There are still movies that people will go see, there are still television shows people will watch and magazines they will read. And people will still have a certain fascination about the stars they’re watching. As I get older my interests in these people are less and less, because I have other preoccupations. But my interest in writing a poem or even a novel about them hasn’t faded, I still have a fascination myself about who these people are and how they got to be who they are.
I remember going to Charlie Sheen’s house. Charlie Sheen is a character – well, he’s like half crazy (smiles). I remember I was driving my small car, I get to his driveway and I see his Mercedes, and I feel poor, I see all these women and I say to myself: I don’t have that car, I don’t live in this area, I don’t have what he has. I’m smarter than this guy, so how did he get here? There is always that fascination about how did these people pull off to live this kind of life, and why are they wasting it the way they seem to be wasting it?
Maybe not all of them are wasting it, or are they?
No, not all of them. I appreciate celebrities who make good use of their celebrity. I appreciate a person who’s concerned about what’s happening in the world. I think George Clooney and Sean Penn, for example, do good things. I’m not happy that Al Pacino does not use his celebrity very often to help other people around the world. I often tell him that and he says he just doesn’t feel comfortable doing it. But at least I know I did my job, talking to the people I know, trying to get them to do things for the good of people. If I want to help the people in Syria, who’s going to listen to me? But if you are Al Pacino, maybe they’ll listen. I think my contribution here was talking some celebrities into saying things that I would have said if I was famous.
Why do you think Mr. Pacino doesn’t feel comfortable doing this?
I don’t think he thinks he’s smart enough. He never finished high school; he never went to college. He understands certain things very well, he understands the way the world works. People get nervous around him: anybody who would meet Al, especially after The Godfather, would get very nervous, because they thought they were meeting the Godfather, Michael Corleone. The heads of studios and other people would always get nervous around him. That’s why he kept quiet, because he knew that as soon as he started to talk, he wouldn’t have that mystery around him. He reads, but not much. He often gets scripts and he would give them to his friend Charlie to read, he’s given me a lot of stuff to read. If we like it, then he would read it. A lot of times he’d say: “Read this to me,” and I’d read it to him! (laughing) It’s funny, but that’s the way it is.
Do you remember anything in particular from the first time you met Mr. Pacino?
I wrote about that, about my very first meeting with him, in his apartment in New York. It was very funny to me, because there was a yogurt cup on his couch; I looked at it and it was half eaten. And then I went into his kitchen and I wanted to take a cookie from the top of the refrigerator, and every single cookie was half eaten, every one of them! So I would ask him about that and he would say: No, that’s not true! He saw them and he laughed. Then he went to make me a cup of coffee, he turned on the gas light, the fire came on, he was standing next to it, and there was a dish towel that caught fire, and he was shaking it up and down, trying to put the fire out! I was laughing and I thought: This is not the behavior of a movie star! There was no woman there to help him, he was alone, on his own. And that’s what made him appear very human to me, because he wasn’t living the life I had imagined, and I thought that sometimes I was living even better than he was. That was funny.
I have a very good wife. I got married a long time ago, with a Japanese woman who is an artist. And he was always amazed by her, he always told me: “The one thing that you have and I don’t is a good woman, I envy that.” At the beginning I found that strange, but after some time I came to understand it. The saddest part in the celebrities’ lives is that, after the shows end, they’re lonely. And they don’t know how to deal with people. If they do something wrong, they don’t know how to apologize, others always come to them, so they get away with behavior that’s not always acceptable. But that’s the nature of the star.
How would you describe Mr. Pacino as a friend?
Well, it’s a tricky question. He doesn’t give things, for instance, on birthdays, on Christmas or other occasions. He never gives people gifts, and people give him gifts. I asked him about it – not that I ever wanted a gift from him – but I asked him why he doesn’t do it. He said he just doesn’t feel comfortable. Sometimes, I would talk to him on the phone for an hour or two, and it’s always about him and his problems. About how he wasn’t getting along with this woman, or about how the children were not behaving, or legal stuff – he was fighting with Beverly D’Angelo over the custody of their children. He could only see the children on a certain schedule until the kids were 18 years old. Then, when his dog died, he called me, I went over there and he cried in my arms.
I know there were a lot of moments you stood by him.
Yes, there were. When he was going to the Oscars for Scent of a Woman, I asked him if he had a speech prepared. He said: “Oh, I’ll just wing it!” “No,” I said, “you can’t wing it, you’re the worst person in the world when it comes to public speaking spontaneously.” So I went over to his hotel with a typewriter, and I wrote a speech for him, he read it, made some corrections, and when he won the Oscar, he pulled out that speech and he read it. That’s what a friend can do for you. I also did that for him at the Golden Globes and other events. Sometimes he would forget the speech, and he would be terrible! (smiles) I’d ask him: “Why on Earth didn’t you take the speech with you?” And he would say: “I left it in my other jacket!” He’d say that people always liked it when he’s natural and spontaneous. I’d say: “No, people don’t like it, they only tell you they like it, because they’re afraid to tell you the truth, that’s why they’re not your friends.”
I can now see the difference between a normal friendship and a celebrity friendship.
A celebrity friendship is a very demanding kind of friendship. There are times when I could get to know somebody better, I could pursue it, I could make a few more phone calls to them, invite them for dinner. But my experience with a few celebrities has shown me not to get too involved with other celebrities, because it takes too much time, in the end. You have to think about your own life and about what you want to do. If you start catering to other people, you lose the sense of your own self. It’s easy for the celebrity, but it’s hard on your own life. My children would ask me: “How come you’re always going over to Al, why doesn’t Al come over here?” He came here a few times, but mostly I would go over to him. It’s a tricky relationship.
It’s difficult because you always have to give so much, and you don’t always receive a lot in exchange.
It is difficult, but on the other hand, I’ve written three books about Al Pacino. One is the Conversations with Pacino, for which he also wrote an introduction. Then I wrote a book that I’ve just put out on Amazon, called I Want You In My Movie! You know, he put me in his movie! (smiles) So I wrote about it and I got a book out of it. Then I wrote a novel called Begin Again Finnegan. Basically, I had an idea: what if a movie star killed somebody, by mistake or not my mistake, and he needed an alibi, and he would ask a journalist to be his alibi. Of course, since I knew Al so well, I used him building the character in my mind. I developed that situation and I ended up taking the characters to Europe, to Italy and Switzerland. Then they get back, the movie star goes on trial, the journalist lies to defend him, and the movie star doesn’t get convicted. But everything that goes bad goes bad for the journalist in the end. So, I got a novel and two books based on my relationship with Pacino. I can’t complain about that, I think it’s a very even exchange.
Oh… There are many things we did together. There’s one thing – I don’t know if it’s the craziest, but it’s the moment I most enjoy. Diane Keaton was renting a house, it was somewhere in the Hollywood Hills. Diane wasn’t there. I went to see Al and since there was an indoor swimming-pool, he said: “Let’s go swimming!”And then we decided to play water polo, so we made two nets on each side. It was really funny, because we were laughing, throwing the ball around each other; it was one of those special moments that I remember very fondly. We had a lot of fun, not as a movie star and a journalist, but as just two guys playing. We played a lot of paddle tennis, sometimes two young girls would come by and challenge us to play in this club, and they would end up beating us, although we were good! (smiles) That was fun. One time when an earthquake happened, he called me right away and told me: “We have to get outta here!” So I took my wife and kids and we all went to Palm Springs to spend a few days with him. Then the trip I took with him to Europe, for Wild Salome, was memorable. We rented private jets, we went to Dublin, London and Paris. It was very quick, but because he was Pacino, we had the best service, we stayed in the best hotels, people would cook the best food, it was fascinating.
Have you ever felt that people you were interviewing were afraid of you, because of your tough professional reputation?
A couple of times. Robert de Niro seemed to be very nervous around me, that’s true. Certain times people are nervous at the beginning. Al Pacino was also very nervous when we met, especially about the tape recorder. I was supposed to interview Alfred Hitchcock once. Then, I prepared to interview Leonard Bernstein, he was in Germany and I bought my ticket to go see him, but he cancelled, and so did Alfred Hitchcock. After some time, I met with someone who said to me that Hitchcock was told that I was a very thorough interviewer and maybe he shouldn’t do it. But I didn’t know that at the time. I don’t know Bernstein’s reasons for cancelling, but I wrote him a very long, nasty letter for doing that.
I don’t think I’m a nasty interviewer. I may be tough at times, but I only ask tough questions after I’ve been with you for a few days. If you don’t want to answer them, that’s fine, I’m not that kind of person who goes back and starts asking the same thing over and over again. I don’t feel that I’m threatening at all, so I’m always surprised when my reputation precedes me. That’s not who I am, really.
What about you, are you still nervous before you interview someone?
Really? After 35 years in the business?
Yes! I’m not nervous talking to you, because you’re interviewing me, but if I was going to fly to Romania to interview you, I’d still be nervous.
Me? But I’m not a movie star or someone famous!
I know, but I would worry over a lot of things. I may not know how well you speak the language, or how sharp you are… I want to be prepared, I don’t like going in there and be surprised. Being surprised with someone can be very fortunate or very unfortunate. When I met Robert Kennedy, years ago, he was the attorney general of the United States and I had won an American history writing contest. We were told to prepare ourselves, because Robert Kennedy liked smart questions. It always stayed with me: be prepared to answer someone’s questions, or if you have an interview, be prepared to ask the best questions, so you can impress that person! That’s so important in an interview. Every time I went to interview somebody – especially writers, like Norman Mailer or Truman Capote or Joyce Carol Oates – I was thinking: How do I impress these people, to show them that I’m worthy enough for them to keep talking to me? If I say something stupid or narrow-minded, they’re not going to talk to me very long. I’m looking to get hours with people, so of course I have to be well prepared, you don’t know what that person is going to be like. I need to get the first 15 minutes over with, then I’m fine. But the first 15 minutes are crucial! During that time, I may not even turn on the tape recorder, they are very important for warming up.
Do you talk a lot at the beginning to help start a conversation?
I do a lot of talking at the beginning, because they won’t talk to me right away. So I start telling them: “Oh, when I was on the island with Marlon Brando…” or: “You know, when I was with Barbra Streisand, or Pacino…” I may say something that looks like I’m name-dropping – and I am name-dropping – but I do it to show them that I’ve been with these people and I’ve spent time with them. If they accepted me, you can accept me, that’s my message. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. It didn’t work with Robert Mitchum; he was very nasty, but for the most part, it works.
You mentioned about stupid questions before. Some say there are no stupid questions, what do you think about this?
There are some stupid questions. What I always say is: Don’t be afraid to ask any question! If you’re not sure about something, that’s fine. But don’t ask questions that only show your stupidity, because that’s not going to help you a lot (smiles). Norman Mailer once said that the thing he hated the most was stupid people. Stupid people somehow get by in life on their own stupidity and everyone else has to cater around them. I don’t mind innocent questions, or simple questions, but you don’t have to go to Al Pacino and say: “You played Michael Corleone in The Godfather,” because he knows what he did. You can ask him what he felt like in a certain scene of the movie, for example. You have to really give thought to your question before you ask it, that’s why I’m teaching it, that’s why I wrote a book about it. There really is an art of interviewing, and if you think you’re going to get away with a whole bunch of stupidities, that’s not going to happen.
Were there any really stupid questions you were asked in interviews?
Oh, yes. I wrote a book about the Hustons—John, Walter, Anjelica, Danny. And I went for a radio interview with a guy who thought I had written about the city Houston in Texas! I just stood there, in shock. From that minute, all I could do was take over the interview. I just started talking. I told him: “You don’t have to ask me questions, I know what I’m here to promote.” But that’s not an interview.
How critical are you about your work and what do you criticize yourself most for?
I am critical about my work in the sense that when I’m editing something, I really try to make a conversation flow, I’m looking for the transitions, so when you’re reading it, it really looks like it happened in one conversation. I have to create this sensation to the reader, that when he starts to read it, he never wants to put it down. Sometimes I talk to somebody for weeks and weeks, and I have hundreds of pages, some of the interviews get to 800 pages. I print them and I’m sitting there, looking at all this stuff, and I’m trying to find a rhythm. I create questions that weren’t asked and try my best to make it flow. I move different paragraphs around, take answers from different places and put them all together to run smoothly. It’s a really tricky thing editing a long interview. I’m critical about how I do it, I’m thorough and I try to make it as interesting as I can, and I also see how much I end up leaving out. So the editing process is where you have to be critical, you have to be hard on yourself to make it work. Then I give it to somebody to read. I have a woman now who reads what I write; she’s very good, because she’s an objective reader.
How do you know which first question is the best in an interview?
There is no way to know that. First of all, the first question you ask somebody is not going to be the first question in the printed interview. That’s two different things. I think what you do in the beginning is try to break the ice. If you’re in somebody’s house, you can say he has a nice house. If you notice he has a Salvador Dali print on his wall, you can say something about that and try to start a dialogue. You have to do anything just to get people to talk, so their mouths aren’t dry.
Yes, but I was referring to the first question in an interview ready to be published. How do you choose it?
Looking for the first question–that’s probably the most difficult part of editing. The first two questions and answers. Because if they aren’t good, you won’t catch the reader right away, he loses interest. So, yes, you really have to think about your opening question. You have to pay attention, if your subject says something interesting; you can start by creating your question around that.
I remember my interview with Steve Martin. He was very boring; he sat behind his desk and wouldn’t say anything. This was in 1980 or 1981, right after he did the movie The Jerk, so he was known as a comedian. Now, when you read an interview with Saul Bellow, you know you’re not going to laugh, you’re looking for intelligence, but with Steve Martin, the reader wants to have fun. It was very difficult to get him to lighten up.
With Barbra Streisand, I discovered that she knew the Latin names of all the flowers in her garden, that was amazing! I couldn’t believe it, so I asked her randomly how the flowers were named, and she would answer me. I even asked her to spell them and she did! I realized she wasn’t lying, she really knew those things. So I thought: What a way to start the interview, nobody would ever expect that! But my editor said: Absolutely not, you have to ask her why she’s such a bitch, because that’s what everybody wants to know. We had a big fight about that and in the end, somewhere at the fifth or sixth question, I asked her why she was such a bitch. But I understood his opinion; he wanted people to read the interview and to find it interesting.
Was Barbra Streisand a disappointment to you? I remember reading about your episode with Ms. Streisand in „The Art of the Interview”, it wasn’t very comfortable at the beginning, when she asked you to sign a piece of paper through which she would have gained editorial control of your interview…
But I didn’t sign it, I refused to sign it. In my memoir You Show Me Yours I wrote a whole chapter about that incident and about getting to know Streisand. We fought and argued all the time, but in the end, I have a lot of respect for Barbra Streisand. She’s an extraordinarily talented person, she wants to do the best in her work, she wants to control the work she does, and I can’t blame her for that. She’s too controlling and sometimes she didn’t pick the right movies – if you look at All Night Long or The Owl and the Pussycat, those weren’t very good movies. That was her choice, but you see, whatever she did, she took seriously and she wanted to give her best. Even though I’ve written extensively about what happened, it was only because I spent so much time with her. When you have nine months with somebody, it’s a love-hate relationship.
Which technique never failed in getting people to be open and talk to you?
I cannot answer that, because I can’t think of anything as the best technique. I think it has a lot to do with your personality. If you can somehow get them to feel at ease with you, if you can get them to feel they can trust you – and that’s a hard one! – or that you’re not out to do a job on them, then they can at least let you in a little bit. What they think when you first meet them is that you’re looking for stories. And everyone has a skeleton in their closet. They think: If this guy gets me off guard, I’ll forget he’s a journalist and I’ll start talking about the time I killed my sister (smiles). People are nervous about what they’re going to say. Yes, I’ve had a lot of hard interviews. Robert De Niro was a tough one, because he never opened up, I never got him to relax. We met seven times, never for more than an hour, and it was always frustrating, as I felt I always had to reestablish my trust with him every time I saw him.
It happened with Barbra Streisand: every time I went to see her, it took 15 minutes for her to smile again. And I told her: “Barbra, it’s exhausting talking to you! Just trust me and hate me later, but at least let’s get this over with!” So if I had a technique, I probably wouldn’t tell you (smiles). But I don’t have one.
It’s so strange that you didn’t get Robert de Niro to relax, as you were already friends with Mr. Pacino, who recommended you to him, right?
Yes, he did, but De Niro is a much more private person than anybody else I’ve ever talked to. He has stuff in his closet, he doesn’t talk about his father or mother, he won’t go anywhere near that subject. His father left the family; he became a painter and went to Paris. I’m pretty sure his father had some sexual identity problems–but to get De Niro to talk about that kind of stuff, no way! That’s why he’s so cautious about opening up. I remember being at the Drake Hotel in New York with him, and we could hear the sirens from outside. I had been with him in L.A. before that and I told him: “Boy, the sounds of New York are really different from the sounds of Los Angeles. Did you find that growing up?” And he said: “Oh, no, I can’t answer that, I can’t talk about that!” It was a simple question, but he was so concerned about not talking about his childhood. It’s interesting that he was that way, but there was nothing I could do about that, nothing could change him.
You once said that connections are very important in your profession. But has any connection ever brought you a disadvantage?
I don’t know if I could really know that on a personal level. But I know it took me a while, after Al Pacino broke up with Diane Keaton, to be friends with her again. I really liked Diane, but I had never interviewed her. I got to know her through Al and after they ended their relationship, it took a couple of years before we could start being friends again. Anytime she would see me, she would think about Al, and she hated Al (smiles).
Then it happened to me with Sharon Stone. There was someone who knew her, he actually dated her, and he’s an actor. He told me to give her his regards. So, when I saw Sharon, I told her the guy sends his regards, and she looked at me in a way that made me understand she kind of hated him. I realized I never should have brought his name up, that was a mistake.
When do you know that you’ve finished an interview and you can stop your recorder?
When the person says: “That’s enough!” (smiles) When they start looking at their watch or give me the impression they want to end it. I never end an interview until I have to, because I never know what the next thing will bring. And I never run out of questions, that’s never happened to me. There’s always something to talk about, even it’s about the upcoming Oscars, or sports, or whatever. But for me it’s important to hear the ending in my head, to hear those things that make me think: “Oh, this would be a great ending.” If I hear that, I know I have the rest. Usually they say to me: “I only have 15 more minutes” or something like that, so I know I have to hurry up and try to get it done.
What’s your most vivid memory from those 10 days that you spent with Marlon Brando on his island in Tahiti?
With Brando everything was interesting. In You Show Me Yours the last chapter is about my time with him. Probably the most important interview in my life was Brando. Streisand was really important because it established me in a way that people saw what I could do, but Brando was the icing on the cake. He was an extraordinary challenge. I’ve written a screenplay based on my book with him. It’s hard to point out one single memory from all those that I have with him. I played chess with him, I went on a boat with him, we went on a picnic with his family, we would eat dinner together every night, we took long walks… It really was an extraordinary experience. It was an opportunity for me to spend a lot of time with someone I respected so much. He came to my house after the interview, a couple of months later. We spent five hours talking again. I wish I continued this relationship, but it didn’t happen. We talked for a few months after the interview appeared, but we didn’t stay friends, and that’s too bad.
Do you remember anything in particular that he said to you?
He analyzed me once and he told me I’m not the kind of person who will ever give up. He told me I was tenacious, but in an easy-going way, and he was right about that.
After so many years in journalism, what keeps you going on in this field, when you could do anything you wish in the publishing business?
Well, I wish what you say was true, but the way publishing has become, it’s very difficult these days, for me as well as for everybody that I know, to get published. Even the journalism that I do has changed a great deal. I used to do 16 to 20 articles a year and some of them were very high paid. I don’t do anywhere near that anymore, and not because I don’t want to. Magazines that I’ve worked for have stopped using freelance journalists, or they’ve stopped paying decently, or the editors I’ve worked with have retired, or they’ve been fired, or the magazines themselves have closed down and remained online.
The interviews I did for Playboy usually ran 25,000 – 30,000 words, that’s about half a book. The interviews they do now are around 4000 – 5000 words. As you see, they’ve reduced them a lot. A lot of that has to do with the fact that they don’t get enough advertising anymore, but it also has to do with readers’ attention, and that has to do with the Internet. In the past, people dedicated more attention to long form journalism. Now, with the Internet and so much information, they don’t have the time to read as much. They’re always on their iPads or their iPhones, working, talking to their friends or listening to music. They’re not spending as much time with in-depth writing.
I think that the whole nature of journalism has changed a great deal. The Internet has changed the way people work and think, and the situation won’t be better very soon. It’s sad to notice everything that’s happened in the media now. There are journalists who stopped doing their job and started doing something else. It’s a very hard time. I don’t know what it’s like in Romania or Bulgaria, but it is so hard here, that I feel terrible about it. But we can’t complain too much about it, it’s just how things are and we have to figure out a way to make it work for us.
Do you recommend young journalists to freelance?
It’s much more difficult to make it as a freelance writer these days. When I was teaching at UCLA, the first five years of teaching I encouraged the life of the freelancer, because I thought it’s the best life to live. You make your own hours, choose your own subjects, and do your own business. But after five years, I started telling students it’s better to find a job and freelance on the side, until you can establish yourself in some way, because otherwise it’s too hard to do.
But for someone like you, who has done so many amazing things in his career, things should be easier.
People are always very surprised to hear that I struggle. They think: “Oh, you’ve done all these people, you have it easy!” I do not have it easy, it’s just as hard, it’s just as frustrating. I’m still out there trying to find work. It never ends. In a certain way that may be good, because you don’t get jaded, but it’s also frustrating, because you’d think that editors would be calling, asking you to do things for them. And they don’t do that very often. The editors of most magazines today are younger than I am. They have their own friends, plus, they’re nervous to talk to me.
I have to admit, I myself am surprised by the fact that you say you struggle.
Well, of course there are times when I get phone calls or e-mails from editors. They tell me they want me to do an interview, and then they offer me like… 50 dollars. And I say: “I can’t do an interview for 50 dollars, I don’t mean to insult you, but I spend a lot of time preparing.” If I’m going to do an interview, I only know one way of doing it, and that’s as thorough as I can. That means that if I have to talk to a writer, I’m going to read most of his books, if it’s a movie star, I’m going to watch most of the films, I’m going to read every article that’s ever been written about that person, so I can prepare questions based on those articles, go further and do a good interview, with fresh information. I’m going to spend time trying to reach that person, and that’s not easy. Sometimes the editor tells me he wants Johnny Depp, so he asks me: “Can you get me Johnny Depp?” I’ll see what I can do, but these things take time, effort and energy, and one has to be paid for that. But if you’re a young journalist starting out, you don’t expect to get paid as much initially. You try to do it and then convince the editor you did a good job, and hopefully he’ll call you next time.
In the end, do you feel truly appreciated for the work you do, financially speaking?
Not at all. Now somebody asked me to write his autobiography, for a certain amount of money, but it’s going to take me 18 months to do it. And I asked myself, do I want to spend 18 months of my professional life on writing his life? How much money is that worth? I thought that maybe I should charge people 15,000 dollars a month for a project like this. To me that’s a decent amount of money, but I don’t get that, it’s only very rare. So, the answer to the money question is: If you want to get rich, don’t be a journalist!
Still, there was a time when one could earn good money in journalism, especially in the States, isn’t that true? I remember reading a story in „The Art of the Interview”, where you were saying you negociated an interview with Al Pacino with several magazines, and in the end, you chose the one that paid the most.
Yes, there was an editor who called me for a TV magazine, and he said he wanted me to write for him. He said he could pay me 1,000 dollars. And I said: Well, to be honest, I usually get paid a little more than that. So I didn’t do it. A couple of years later, he got hired at Entertainment Weekly, he called me back and told me where we was working. He said: We have a very big budget and we would like you to do Al Pacino for us, can you do that? I hate to say it, but he offered me 20.000 dollars! (laughs) Now, that’s a big difference! I couldn’t believe it, because I hadn’t been paid that much before. I would usually get paid half of that for my Playboy interviews.
But before this you talked to Mr.Pacino about it, because there were several magazines that wanted the interview…
Yes, and he asked me: Who’s paying you most? I said Entertainment Weekly, so he told me I should go with them. So I said I’ll do it, and it was fine. But getting 20.000 dollars for an interview is very rare. My feeling is that I don’t have a set price. Sometimes you get paid by word, sometines by article. You just do the best you can and try to have good relations with the editors.
How did you start writing for a foreign publication?
There is an editor in Poland, from Trendy Magazine, who got in touch with me, told me he liked my work and that he’d like to hire me. We negotiated a fee and it’s less than I get in America for a major article, but I like Poland, I like the idea of writing for a foreign publication, so I said OK. I’ve done 15 cover stories for them in a row – that’s the book I’ve put out on Amazon, called ICONS. All those articles in that book were written about a lot of people that I’ve interviewed: Meryl Streep. Robert de Niro, Jack Nicholson, Tom Waits, Anthony Kiedis, Cameron Diaz, Sharon Stone, Penelope Cruz, Kim Basinger, Anthony Hopkins, Halle Berry, Nicole Kidman. In the book, before each article, I show the cover of Trendy Magazine, and I wrote my introduction about how these pieces came about. It’s nice to have this book out in English, so that people in the States can read it.
What projects are keeping you busy these days?
I want to write a screenplay based on my novel Begin Again Finnegan. I have a novel that I started writing a while ago, based in Africa that I want to get back to. Then I have a book called 120 Lessons I Learned From Interviewing that I have to finish and it will take me almost a year. I have also been asked by someone who has been a reporter for the Associated Press for 45 years to help write her book. So I have to see how I can work on my own projects and do the other ones too.
I still write feature cover stories for Trendy in Poland. I’ve been interviewing people for their own books. I’ve written a book about Marilyn Monroe for Larry Schiller. I’ve written the text for another book for him about Barbra Streisand. He’s a photographer and I’ve done an interview with him and another photographer, which will be the text of the large format photo book. So I’m doing different things. I’ve been putting together books of my own and I started publishing them on Amazon. I’ve put out 11 books in the last three months. Seven of those books are new; I’ve never shown them to editors or publishers, because my theory is that it takes almost a year to get a book published. Now, I have seven new books and I didn’t feel like waiting seven years to see them published. I’m getting older, I’d like to put them out and see how they do. And that’s what I did.
“Celebrities don’t care that much about journalists anymore.”
What’s your advice for young journalists who work in celebrity journalism?
I think that no matter what you do regarding celebrities, you should be writing your own stuff and should be trying to work on other things. It takes a long time to get to a celebrity, there will always be publicists to get in your way, there are a lot of things you’ll have to go through. You have to do as much as you can in the field that you love. And I hope that you don’t just want to be a celebrity journalist, but you want to be a writer. So then you should be writing. Journalism is part of it, it helps you make a living, but it’s not the main part, or it shouldn’t be. It shouldn’t be your final goal in life.
What’s the most worrying thing that’s happening in the celebrity media right now?
Getting to a person and getting enough time, getting him to take you seriously. It’s a very difficult thing these days. They’ve got publicists to protect them, they’ve got their own websites, and they don’t care that much about journalists anymore. All you can do is hurt them. You’re not going to help them so much, because they can get publicity in so many other ways.
So they don’t need journalists so much anymore.
They used to need journalists a lot. It was a fair exchange: you needed them, they needed you, and so they were more open about it. But now they can bypass you, they can do a television interview instead.
Do you think there’s a possibility that someday in the future this profession will disappear?
No, I don’t think it will disappear. There will always be people figuring out ways of talking to other people. Will we ever stop being fascinated with celebrities? No, the answer is no. The world will always be fascinated with people they can’t reach. So I think there will always be a way to keep this thing going.
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Lawrence Grobel is a freelance writer and journalist. He wrote 18 books and signed over 400 interviews in publications like New York Times, Newsday, Rolling Stone, Entertainment Weekly, Hollywood Life, Reader’s Digest, American Way, Parade, Details, Cosmopolitan or Penthouse. For many years, he has been a contributing editor for Playboy, where he knocked down conventions and broke patterns, interviewing Barbra Streisand, Lucille Ball or Jane Fonda, for the first time in this magazine.
Lawrence Grobel’s books have been very successful in the United States and worldwide. His works include: Conversations with Capote; The Hustons; Conversations with Brando; Talking with Michener; Above the Line: Conversations About the Movies; Endangered Species: Writers Talk About Their Craft, Their Visions, Their Lives; Climbing Higher with Montel Williams (a N.Y. Times bestseller and Publisher’s Weekly Best Book in 2004); The Art of the Interview: Lessons from a Master of the Craft (also a Publisher’s Weekly Best Book in 2004); Al Pacino: In Conversation with Lawrence Grobel; Conversations with Robert Evans; The Book of Shmoga. Yoga? No, Shmoga; ICONS; You Show Me Yours; I Want You In My Movie!; Celebrity Salad; the novels The Resurrection of Layton Cross, Catch A Fallen Star and Begin Again Finnegan.
Between 2001 and 2011, he taught journalism and literature seminars at the University of California, Los Angeles. Since 2007, he is a member in the jury of Camerimage Film Festival in Poland. In 2012, he appeared as himself in Al Pacino’s movie Wilde Salome and in Salinger, Shane Salerno’s film about writer J.D. Salinger.
He is 66 years old, lives in Los Angeles and is married to artist and textile designer Hiromi Oda, with whom he has two daughters, Maya and Hana.
Lawrence Grobel English
Photos: courtesy of Mr. Lawrence Grobel, www.lawrencegrobel.comSemnat de Corina Stoica