Rip, Torn to Shreds
Wednesday, April 20, 2011
For a good 45 minutes in my life I was a columnist for a movie website. My duties included writing a weekly column, reviewing films, and conducting interviews. And for my first interview – and as it turns out, my last – I got to sit down one-on-one with Rip Torn, an actor I've admired for years. He may be best known for saying the immortal line, "If you can dodge a wrench, you can dodge a ball," but he has a better acting pedigree than that. He’s acted with Laurence Olivier and Steve McQueen, studied under Lee Strassberg, and has won an Emmy and was nominated for an Oscar. The man has acted for six decades, and knows his way around a film set, a TV stage, and a play theatre.
My favorite Rip Torn role was that of Artie the producer on "The Larry Sanders Show." Always swearing, always pissed, Artie would rail about the "fucking bloodsuckers at the network" in a way that could only have come from an inner well of anger and contempt. And just in case you're not grasping what kind of prickly man I'm talking about, he is also famous for hitting Norman Mailer on the head with a hammer (perhaps he thought his name was Norman Nailer...) and being in an alleged knife fight with Dennis Hopper. He has also recently had issues with breaking into a bank with a gun and having some alcohol-related problems.
And this man was going to be my first actor interview. Ever.
So going into this interview, I was a touch nervous. And when I say "a touch," I mean "really, really." But I researched his entire career and made out a clever list of questions, balanced among the milestones in his life and his various roles, both famous and obscure. Knowing my first question would set the tone for the interview, I thought I'd be smart and start by asking about the upcoming Oscars, since he was once nominated. Yeah, I'm one smart one guy. So after shaking hands and making a quick glance around the room for hammers, wrenches, and other tools, I sat down, started my recorder, and opened my mouth. And nothing came out. At that point we both realized the only tool in the room was me.
Torn squinted his eyes and looked at me with an expression that said, "Well...we're waiting." I swallowed, found a reserve of saliva that I had been keeping handy for events just like this, and glanced down at my notes, which by now all appeared to be in sloppy Russian characters written by a physician during an earthquake. I closed my eyes and an image of a gold statue came into sight. Yes, that's it. I was going to ask about the Oscars. I swallowed again, and well, the first 10 seconds of the interview went something like this:
ME: So, the Oscars are coming up this weekend and...
RT: I don't really care about those. If I'm nominated I'd show up, but really, I don't care.
Annnnd scene. Thank you all. I think we did some good work today. Let's pick it up some time tomorrow.
Okaaaaaaay. I took a breath, reloaded with spit, and decided to go to my second question, whatever the hell that was.
ME: (quieter) Well, what about...
RT: (to his publicist) What the hell did he just say?
It turns out that at 80 years old Torn is a little hard of hearing. And when I say "a little," I mean much in the same way a demolition expert without ear plugs might be "a little hard of hearing." So I was asked to get closer, which I did. About the length of my shoe away from his nose. It might be the closest I've ever gotten to someone's face without kissing it. And trust me, I wasn't going to make a move on this guy.
ME: (shouting) So you've had success on the stage, on TV and in the movies. Which do you like doing the most?
RT: (to his publicist) Why's he shouting?
Okay, so let's try this again at medium volume.
ME: (third time) So you've had success on the stage, on TV and in the movies. Which do you like doing the most?
RT: Oh, I don't think like that.
Am I really sure this is what I want to do with my life? Okay, oh-for-three, let's try again.
ME: You're in the upcoming sequel "Men in Black III"...
RT: No, I'm not.
ME: What? Aren't you reprising your role as Zed?
RT: No. They have some other goddamn guy doing that. Someone who can play me, but isn't me. It won't be funny.
I know the feeling. At this point, I have to tell IMDB.com that I'm very disappointed in your reasearch. Based on your data, I just asked an 80-year-old man with a history of violence about a movie he wasn't in, from a distance where not only could I not outrun him, but he could bite off my nose and spit it back at me. I mentally started going through other professions: sewer worker, Charlie Sheen's publicist, garbage truck driver...yeah, they all sounded good to me right now.
Okay, one more time with feeling:
ME: So the film industry has changed...
RT: I don't give a fuck about that.
Suddenly we had the appearance of Artie, which confirmed my belief that he wasn't too different from the normal Rip Torn. I hadn't been rejected this publicly since college. At this point I had nothing to lose so I looked at my notes. Torn either felt sorry for me or wanted to take advantage of the gap in the conversation, and told an unsolicited story about his dog that once saved him from a bear. It was heart-arming and obviously he loved that dog, because he proceeded to tell that same story no less than three times over the course of our "interview."
I was eventually able to get a few token questions out so I could have something to write about, but like a man with a broken leg in the Boston marathon carrying a bag of cement on his back, we limped to a painful finish.
ME: So tell me...
PUBLICIST: Well thank you. That's all the time we have. We appreciate your…your interesting questions.
Torn could see I had nothing, so at the end he threw me a bone.
RT: Do you know the reason I was called Artie on "The Larry Sanders Show?"
ME: Um, no.
RT: It was because of my initials: R. T....Artie....R.T.
ME: No fucking way!
RT: Hey, kid, watch the language.
As I left the interview room I let out the world's biggest sigh. I hung my head as I went to lunch. After I sat down I looked at my list of clever questions, realizing 75% of them were so clever I never actually asked them. But when I eventually listened to the recording of my interview I found that once I got over my initial nerves, R.T. and I had actually talked for awhile. Sure, people who want to read about his career and his work aren't going to care about his dog, but I found that I did. And when he had rejected my question about "the industry" with an f-bomb, it wasn't an interview. It was a scene out of "Larry Sanders" and I had played it with Oscar-nominee and Emmy winner Rip Torn. How cool is that?
So at the end of the day, I might not have had the world's most informative interview, but I sure had one hell of a story about Rip Torn. And he had one hell of a story about Dave Young.
Now to fill out that garbage truck driver application.
posted by Dave at 11:30 AM