Talk about the interview from hell.
Yesterday, Jian Ghomeshi, host of Q on CBC Radio, interviewed a band called The Boxmasters, about their new album.
The hook for the story is the fact that Hollywood actor Billy Bob Thornton is a member of the band. However, there seemed to have been a pre-condition in place with the shows producer, that there be no questions about Thorntons acting career.
And right off the top, in the intro, Ghomeshi broke that agreement. He referenced Thorntons Hollywood background. And who can blame him? How can you introduce a band without giving that kind of context?
Anyway, Thornton was not pleased. In fact, he was uncooperative and downright arrogant. You can watch the full video by clicking here, and someone has taken the time to transcribe and post a complete transcript here.
Heres an excerpt, beginning when Ghomeshi directed the first question at Thornton:
JG: Three albums in the past year, that seems ambitious!
(Someone else) That's the ones that have been released. We've got about five.
JG: There's more, Billy-Bob? I mean you guys just formed in the past couple of years, right?
BBT: I don't know what you are talking about.
JG: *chuckle* How so?
BBT: I don't know what you mean by that.
JG: Well.. well.. when did the band form?
BBT: I'm not sure what that means.
JG: Oh. Well when did you guys first start playing together?
(Someone else) We started playing about two years ago, and we haven't stopped since we got the ball rolling.
JG: And you've made three records in that time?
(Someone else) We've actually made about five records. And the first one... (... talking about the tour with Willie Nelson... general normal interview talk)
JG: What do you learn from Willie Nelson, Billy-Bob?
BBT: *silence* I've never met him.
JG *awkward chuckle* Are you being ironic or are you being serious?
BBT: I don't really know him.
JG: You've never really met him?
BBT: I sat down with him once. He's a nice guy.
JG: But you don't really hang out on tour.
JG: You don't know what I mean.
BBT: no.*more awkward chuckles from people*
JG: Why do I get the impression that you are going to answer I don't know what you mean if I ask you... Did Willie choose you guys to go on tour with him?
BBT: shit, I don't know.
JG: Right. Uh. Alright. Well this new record, double record. Tell me about your decision to include a whole record of covers. (...Other band members answer... about being inspired by different types of music etc.)
JG: And that was true for you too, Billy Bob? Growing up, it was sort of a combo of Stones and Monkeys and Buck Owens?
BBT: I just liked baseball as a kid.
And on it went. Thornton was surly and uncommunicative clearly angry about something, and behaving like an ass. If you watch the video, there are glimpses of other band members, looking completely frustrated and uncomfortable. Finally, Ghomeshi got to the heart of it with this exchange:
JG: ... Are you reacting to the fact that I said...
BBT: Yeah I am. Since you are instructed not to talk about shit like that. Yeah I am reacting to that. Yeah.
JG: Instructed? I'm not really instructed... you guys are here as a band, and you're performing but I...
BBT: Well your producer was instructed. Somewhere along the way.
JG: Because I mentioned you were an actor and a screenwriter?
BBT: Well first of all that wasn't supposed to be mentioned either.
JG: But that's just giving context, right? I mean I'm happy to interview you guys as a band, but for the listeners, we're giving context for who you are. That's part of your trajectory, isn't it?
BBT: Not really.
JG: It's not.
JG: You would prefer I only do this interview not mentioning at all - just to clarify - at all that you've ever done any acting, screenwriting, directing
BBT: That's right.
JG: But you know people are listening across the country and across North America and they might think that's odd that I would not mention anything to do with your past.
BBT: Well I think it's odd that you have to smoke inside a white strip outside.
JG: That is also odd. But that's a little different. That's a rule and regulation. I'm just trying to do a show and give people context for who you guys are.
BB: Well there's plenty of context without all that.
There was more verbal jousting, but finally Ghomeshi offered a truce. Thornton seemed to accept, but the interview, well off the rails by now, came to a conclusion shortly after.
There is a tremendous contradiction here, in that most people are interested in The Boxmasters because of the Thornton angle. Otherwise, its just another band struggling to get publicity. For the band to accept interviews, but refuse to discuss that angle, is inconsistent and disingenuous.
In an interview with the National Posts Ampersand blog, Ghomeshi defended his approach to the interview.
The reality is, I was willing to respect the boundaries of doing an interview focused on his music, but I think it would be irresponsible as a journalist, and to my listeners across North America, who could not get some context, Ghomeshi said. With all due respect, Tom Petty hasn't made 20 movies and won an Oscar. This is what the guy has been doing.
This interview backfired on Thornton and band in a number of ways. First, discussion about the music and album was completely sidetracked. Second, public indifference toward the group has probably been displaced by something worse: total animosity. Third, other celebrity interviewers, looking to make a splash, are going to chase this angle more aggressively than ever. And how does that help the band? Who cares about their album and music now? We just know that Billy Bob is a pain in the ass.
Incidentally, I thought Ghomeshi handled the interview exceptionally well. I wasnt always a fan of Ghomeshis, but his work on Q over the last year or so has brought me around. He is well-researched, probing, intelligent, sensitive and knows how to surf the wave of moods and emotions that can arise, often unexpectedly, during an interview. In this case, he remained perfectly composed, and came out looking fair and reasonable, versus the churlish, batty behaviour of his guest.
Not surprisingly, a debate is ranging right now at the Q web site, about the whole celebrity precondition thing with media interviews, and just general (mostly critical) comments about Thorntons behavior.
I encountered this precondition thing only once when I worked in the media, at The Herald, for a soap opera star who was visiting the province (I cant recall her name). The publicist asked that I not raise questions about the actors contractual relationship with the studio - I believe there were rumours she was leaving, though I dont recall the details.
What I do remember is the stars reaction when I did ask the question, toward the end of the interview (reporters often save the trickiest questions for the end, so that youve still got something if your subject gets up and leaves in a huff). I said something like, I know Im not supposed to ask about this, but I am wondering about
Her reaction? Oh, but I do want to talk about that. And off she went. With the publicist standing in the wings, giving me a dirty look.
So, the preconditions are not always there at the request of the interview subject. Sometimes, its the higher ups trying to control the message. That clearly isnt what happened in the Thornton case, of course. He simply shouldnt be doing interviews at all.
Hed be doing his band a favour if he just stayed home.
UPDATE: And then theres this fabulous image courtesy of Elling Lien, over at The Scope. Its a screen grab, lifted right from the video. You can read Jians computer monitor, which contains questions, prompts and so on, from the person on the other side of the glass. The words on the screen say, If this really goes sideways, we have some new Neil, new Metric standing by.