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“Would you say that to Tom Petty?”: 17 notoriously prickly interview subjects

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1. Billy Bob Thornton
The writer-director-star of Sling Blade didn’t always have a reputation as a troublesome interview subject, but he’s always been aggressively, contemptuously outspoken and prone to random tangents and unsettling revelations. (He told Esquire in 2005, after his divorce from Angelina Jolie, that sleeping with “the ‘sexiest person in the world,’ may be literally like fucking the couch.”) His interviews in the late ’90s and early ’00s tended to focus on machine-gun topic-switches about his own oddities: a phobia of silverware and antique furniture, the tattoos and blood-smeared lockets he and Jolie used to commemorate their love, his hatred of Komodo dragons and Shakespeare. But in an infamous 2009 Canadian radio round-table with the other members of his band, The Boxmasters, he eclipsed his previous reputation as a weird, random interview subject in favor of a rep as a spiteful, egocentric, childish one. Irked that interviewer Jian Ghomeshi mentioned Thornton’s acting career in the introduction, Thornton stonewalled him on basic questions like “When did the band form?” and “You didn’t love music when you were a kid?,” offering belligerent refusals, profanity, and deliberate irrelevancies, then abruptly asking, “Would you say that to Tom Petty?” The baffled Ghomeshi was left to guess what Thornton was so angry about, then try to apologize, explain, and fumble through the rest of the excruciating interview, during which Thornton broadly insulted Canadian audiences’ passivity, calling them “mashed potatoes with no gravy.” After the exchange became a viral Internet sensation, Thornton shrugged it off with typical scorn, telling Jimmy Kimmel, “It gave humpbacked geeks all over the world something to do for a couple of days.”

2. Bob Dylan
Dylan interviews are now more wearily elusive than confrontational, but that wasn’t always the case, as anyone who’s seen D.A. Pennebaker’s 1967 documentary Don’t Look Back, a chronicle of Dylan’s 1965 UK tour, can attest. There’s a mean-spirited playfulness to the way Dylan addresses the press, turning questions back on journalists and generally treating each line of inquiry as if it was the most ridiculous question he’d ever heard. He seems like a bit of a wired-up jerk improvising profundities that he doesn’t really believe, but a jerk with a point: Why should a pop star have all the answers? Why, in fact, should a pop star have any answers?

3. Harrison Ford
For a great many artists—the majority, most likely—doing publicity for a film/album/TV show/book is a necessary evil, and they dutifully grind through the same questions hour after hour, roundtable after roundtable. By nature, Harrison Ford isn’t much of a talker—his screen persona is based more on sly smiles and caustic one-liners than vast swaths of dialogue—but over time, his contempt for the process has become a story in itself. His body language is slouched and defeated; his answers are short, curt, and mumbled; and when the questions aren’t to his liking, he lashes out. (Professional tip: Never ask him about Han Solo or Indiana Jones, and certainly don’t ask about them in the same question. And definitely don’t open with that question, either, because things will go downhill from there.) Ford doesn’t suffer fools, but lately, he hasn’t been suffering anyone, including an affable pro like Conan O’Brien. In a notorious two-part interview with O’Brien to support Morning Glory, viewers were left to speculate whether Ford was drunk or stoned as he stroked the felt on the guest chair and acted spacey and vaguely hostile. (Asked about the possibility of an Indiana Jones sequel, Ford grumbles “Maybe.” Conan: “Well, kids, you have your scoop!”) It’s high comedy, emphasis on the “high.”

4. Marlene Dietrich
Marlene Dietrich rivaled Greta Garbo as film’s most famous recluse, yet she somewhat inexplicably decided to sit down with actor-turned-filmmaker Maximillian Schell for the interviews that would become the basis for the 1984 documentary Marlene. Dietrich’s ferocious reluctance to talk about herself—a sad necessity for an interview subject—would qualify as passive-aggressive if it wasn’t so overtly aggressive and confrontational. Dietrich goes out of her way to insult and alienate Schell, who hangs around partially out of duty, partially out of stubbornness, and partially out of masochism.

5. Sigur Rós
A single issue such as a language barrier or a batch of mediocre questions can derail an interview, even if the subjects are eager to talk. Combine both those problems with a group of people who would clearly rather be anywhere else but doing the interview, and it’s a recipe for disaster. Those factors all came together when Sigur Rós appeared on the now-canceled NPR show Bryant Park Project to create what the show’s host called “possibly the worst interview in the history of electronic media.” And he isn’t wrong—if it’s not the worst, it’s definitely in the top five. The taped interview—thankfully recorded for YouTube posterity—seems composed entirely of long pauses, thinly veiled hostility, and curt answers delivered in a mumbling monotone. The end result is a glorious trainwreck that rivals the best comedies of discomfort in its awkward hilarity. The band’s fans blamed the interviewer, and he was man enough to take some of the blame, even recording a segment with a music journalist who explained what he did wrong. But the truth is that the members of Sigur Rós certainly seemed to be going out of their collective way to prove that, damn it, this interview bullshit was beneath them.

6. Van Morrison
Van Morrison is one of rock’s most notorious crabs. For a long time, he stipulated to interviewers that, in Cameron Crowe’s words, “he might bolt at any time,” though he sat still for Crowe in 1977 for Rolling Stone. Morrison told RS’ David Wild in 1990, “I don’t want to talk about anything with an interviewer,” after walking out of a Cambridge, Massachusetts restaurant during the session. (Wild ran after him and landed his story.) In a 2008 Time magazine video Q&A (headline: “10 Questions For (A Surly!) Van Morrison”), he states it outright, “There’s a thing about people who write about music—they don’t really know anything about it.”


7. Warren Beatty
“Will The Real Warren Beatty Please Shut Up?” was the headline of a Rex Reed feature for Esquire in 1967. Beatty saw it and promptly obeyed; his next in-depth talk was with Time in 1978, and then it was a dozen more years until he sat down with Rolling Stone’s Bill Zehme to promote Dick Tracy. Zehme asked about everything—the deals, the power, the press, and of course the women—and Beatty cagily denied him responses for long stretches of time. So Zehme decided to find out how much that time amounted to: His transcribers sat with stopwatches and timed Beatty’s pauses for maximum impact.

8. Marlon Brando
Having opened up to Truman Capote for The New Yorker in 1957 (“The Duke In His Domain” is one of the magazine’s all-time classics), Marlon Brando was skeptical for the rest of his life: “I’ve regretted most interviews,” he told Lawrence Grobel in his landmark 1979 Playboy interview. “You can say something in a certain spirit, with a smile, but when it appears in print, there’s no smile.” Nevertheless, when he did talk for print or TV, Brando spent many years insisting on steering things away from what people wanted to know (acting, movies, his life) to what he wished to discuss: namely, the plight of the American Indians, which he expounded upon for 90 minutes as Dick Cavett’s guest. Grobel’s interview came about after nearly a year and a half of stalling, then insisting that “the only thing he was interested in talking about was Indians.”


9. J Mascis
Some musicians are gabby nerds, eager to break down every chord change and subtle homage. Others find the whole idea of talking about process and personal expression absurd—they just pick up their instruments and let it rip, without trying to analyze. Dinosaur Jr. frontman J Mascis is in the latter tribe. Mascis has granted plenty of interviews during his three decades in the music business, and nearly all describe him as “reticent,” “laconic,” and “daunting.” It isn’t that he’s unfriendly, he’s just very quiet, speaks slowly, and nearly always sounds disengaged. Even when he’s talking about a subject that interests him—as in the video below, where he describes what he bought at a local record store and why—the conversation is as halting as rush-hour traffic.

10. Harlan Ellison
Essayist/critic/screenwriter/author Harlan Ellison isn’t a prickly interview subject in the sense of many people on this list, in that he doesn’t seem to hate interviews or deliberately set out to make things hard for interviewers specifically. (Unless they seem unprepared, off-base, or otherwise likely to waste his time. His initial response to a softball opening question in a 1998 A.V. Club interview with Onion writer John Krewson: “This is by you an interview question, right? Let’s get a little more specific, since you and I both have a limited amount of life to live and I’d just as soon not turn this interview into a career.”) It’s more that he’s famously contentious in general, with plenty of colorful invective available on virtually any topic, from online literature piracy (“People have been gulled into believing that everything should be free, and that if a professional gets published, well, any thief can steal it, and post it, and the thug feels abused if you whack him for it. Meanwhile, vast hordes of semi- or untalented amateurs festoon the Internet with their ungrammatical, puerile trash, and they think because this ‘vanity’ publication gets seen by a few people, that they are ‘writers.’ Horse puckey!”) to the question of why he put his typewriter up for sale. (“When you ask me a question like that, I can either tell you the exact truth, which will involve health talk, or I could blow you off. Why did you go to work today? Huh?”) Interviewing Ellison takes a certain amount of courage and preparation, but reading interviews with him is almost always a lively experience.


11. Lou Reed
Lou Reed has never tried to be warm and fuzzy: He cultivated a detached persona with the Velvet Underground that he’s assumed in the real world ever since. He’s been known to hang up on interviewers mid-sentence if he doesn’t like the direction of the conversation. Only Lester Bangs—one of Reed’s biggest fans and most vocal critics—seemed capable of holding his own against Reed, most famously in the contentious conversation captured by the 1975 Creem article “Let Us Now Praise Famous Death Dwarves, Or How I Slugged It Out With Lou Reed And Stayed Awake.” That was a long time ago, however, back when Reed’s asshole act still seemed a little fresh. With virtually every profile now obligated to talk about his rudeness and little else, he mostly just seems like an asshole.

12. Gene Simmons 
When you’ve become rich and famous for behaving like a petulant, entitled, ridiculously oversexed 11-year-old, why change that just to suit the needs of some piece-of-shit interviewer? That seems to be Gene Simmons’ attitude. The blood-spitting Kiss frontman famously stormed out of an interview with Fresh Air host Terry Gross when she failed to show him the proper deference and questioned statements like, “If you want to welcome me with open arms, I’m afraid you’re also going to have to welcome me with open legs.” He was a bit of a monster douche to The A.V. Club as well, though his most flagrant jackassery was either behind the scenes or ended up on the cutting-room floor.

13. Gallagher 
Watermelon-smashing enthusiast Gallagher has enjoyed far more success than his limited act deserves, yet he when he recently sat down with Marc Maron to record an episode of Maron’s riveting inside-comedy podcast WTF With Marc Maron, all Gallagher could talk about was his fierce (and unsupportable) conviction that he’d been royally screwed by an entertainment universe too terrified to acknowledge his genius. He was a hurricane of misplaced rage and unearned entitlement, a sad caricature of a hate-filled clown. When Maron took the blazingly bitter has-been to task for the homophobic nature of some of his material, Gallagher turned defensive before climatically walking out, proving that he can dish it out, but he most assuredly cannot take it.


14. Lil Wayne 
Lil Wayne’s interviews and press appearances are a little like his rapping: of greatly varying quality. Wayne can be delightful or intimidating depending on his mood and relative state of intoxication, as a hapless reporter learned in the 2009 documentary The Carter, when he asked an inane but harmless question and Wayne mocked the questioner before hastily ending the interview. Perhaps that’s to be expected when you take a rapper who’s arrogant and mercurial under the best of circumstances and factor tricky variables like weed and powerful prescription-strength cough syrup into the equation.

15. John Lydon
Lydon has long been as playful as he is thorny, as when he told a writer from Q magazine in 2007 that if Justin Timberlake couldn’t play him in the film version of his life, he’d prefer James Earl Jones or Laurence Fishburne: “What are you fucking laughing for? This is a universal tale. You’ve got to make your small, predictable little brain see beyond color.” Nevertheless, the fangs can come out pretty quickly, as with last year’s A.V. Club interview, which Jason Heller began by asking, “During the years PiL was inactive, how often did you go back and listen to those albums?” Lydon retorted, “Uh, I kind of don’t like the way you’re misappropriating my life there.” (It got better.) And then there’s Lydon and Keith Levene’s notorious Tom Snyder appearance, a classic bit of passive-aggressive performance art that left the host a wreck.

16. Tommy Lee Jones
Some interviewees owe their bad reputations to a firm sense of privacy, or a lack of social skills, or a steadfast refusal to boil their thoughts down to easily digestible nuggets. And some, like Tommy Lee Jones, are just dicks. While he isn’t averse to giving a detailed response, particularly on a subject like the state of his cattle ranch, Jones makes little attempt to hide his contempt for interviews and those who conduct them. Read almost any Q&A with him, and you can see the white patches on the page grow larger as the conversation goes on, the boldface questions growing longer as his interviewers struggle to find a question that will provoke more than a few words of response. Interviews can be a strange, artificial process, and it’s no surprise that some filmmakers are more at ease with them than others. But if Jones hates interviews so much, maybe he should just stop doing them.


17. Robert De Niro
Few prospective interview subjects engender such a heady blend of anticipation and dread as Robert De Niro, whose vague mumblings have felled many an intrepid inquisitor. Actors, famous or not, have a right to privacy, as much as that may frustrate journalists prying for personal tidbits. But his sense of what’s out-of-bounds is almost comically broad: He once refused to tell an interviewer why he first became interested in acting, on the grounds that the reasons were “too personal.” He can be relatively verbose when discussing process, and positively loquacious on the subject of restaurants, but woe betide the scribe digging for dirt, destined to return with a mangled shovel and a broken will.