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King of the Q & A

What Do Clint Eastwood, Jack Kemp, Richard Nixon and the Beatles have in common? they were all interviewed by David Frost.
Mervyn Rothstein
From the Print Edition:
Wayne Gretzky, Mar/Apr 97

(continued from page 2)

He returns to the sofa and takes a puff from his cigar. "Where were we?" Ah yes, he says, it's refreshing--it's good to be sitting in the opposite chair for a change.

"It sharpens you up," he says. "I do more interviewing than being interviewed, but I do get interviewed quite often and it helps you check out your reflexes. Sometimes you get a good idea from a question somebody else asks. And it confirms the basic rules of an interview."

The first basic rule, he says, is to prepare--his staff will often spend months researching everything there is to find out about a subject. For an interview with Alexander Haig, they even read Haig's master's thesis. But even more important, he says, as obvious as it sounds, is paying attention.

"People used to say about me with a tone of astonishment, 'He listens.' But it is such a given, as far as I'm concerned, that you must listen. Some of the best questions are ad-lib follow-ups to what someone has just said that's fascinating. And of course, the fun of doing it is listening, isn't it? It's important to do your homework and prepare, in terms of striking up the relationship with the person you're talking to and all that; the fact that you've taken the trouble. But what all that preparation does is liberate you to go with the ad-libbing. Sometimes people think that preparing a lot shackles you, but the answer is, of course, that you're not shackled. You are liberated to go with whatever comes up rather than having to stick with the one narrow area you know about.

"I remember one interview with Tennessee Williams when, from the very first question, every single question of mine came out of something he'd just said. It was so provocative, so bewildering. We were talking about the fact of heterosexuality and homosexuality. And at the end, he paused and grinned, and the audience grinned with him, and he said, 'I've covered the waterfront.' And he said it so charmingly that the audience virtually applauded."

Before you can hope for the ad-lib, however, you must get your subject to loosen up. "You have to overcome the slightly abnormal atmosphere that television provides," Frost says, "One way is with direct eye contact. If you're interviewing someone you've never met before, the fact that they may have seen you on television and you've seen them on television actually helps, because it sort of breaks the ice. It's almost as if the first meeting becomes a reunion, because you both know each other from television. One may know a bit more about the other and wants to get something through to them. That all helps. But I would guess the most important thing is to ask them questions they haven't heard before, questions that challenge them, to get them absorbed into the conversation as quickly as possible."

Frost leans forward. "But in the end," he says, "a lot of good interviewing is just basically instinct. For instance, especially when it comes to silence. Silence in an interview can be very good."

Silence? On television? Television usually abhors silence.

"There are three forms of silence," he says. "There's the sort of silence that feels as though it's going to go on forever, because the person has forgotten what they're going to say. It's an embarrassing silence, an awkward silence, a switch-off sort of silence. You have to leap in as quickly as possible when you sense it's that sort of silence, because then two seconds can be an eternity. It's not telling or revelatory. It's just awkward.

"But the second type of silence--there are times where you just sense that if only you shut up the person's going to go further of their own volition and they'll reveal more, they'll say more. They don't like the silence, and they'll say anything to fill the silence, and sometimes that 'anything' is really worthwhile. With that sort of silence you let it roll, and the result can be very exciting. How do you tell which silence is which? It's just instinctive."

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