Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Billy Bob's plea: pretend I'm not me

The uproar Billy Bob Thornton caused during a recent interview on CBC Radio One's Q program brought to the surface the issue of disclosure, and specifically what subjects can or should be considered off limits during an interview.

If you're not familiar with the story, Thornton went on the radio on April 8th ( to promote his band the Boxmasters but immediately became uncooperative and difficult when his movie career was mentioned in the show's introduction. He said Q producers - and by extension its host - were "instructed" not to discuss it.

Now I always thought personal things such as a recent breakup or the death of a loved one were topics that could be considered out of bounds to an interviewer. Apparently Billy Bob Thornton's list of don't-go-there topics is a bit broader.

The host of Q, Jian Ghomeshi, was clearly taken aback when Thornton began the interview by answering basic questions like "How long has the band been together?" with "I don't know," and "I don't understand the question." His band members seemed surprised too. Probably because, whether he was "instructed" to or not, Ghomeshi was actually trying to respect the wishes of his famous guest. Ghomeshi never asked Thornton questions about his movie career, though he tried to ask him several about music. And, when things came to a head, Ghomeshi also explained that the only reason films were brought up at all was to give listeners some context - in the intro - about what they were about to hear. "There's plenty of context without all that," Thornton shot back.

Thornton seemed to want to pretend this particular day that he had never been involved in films. When he was asked if music has always been his passion, he responded with "Would you ask Tom Petty that question?" He also hinted that the host was insinuating that music was no more than a hobby for him. In fact, Ghomeshi's questioning indicated that he thought the opposite was true and he gave Thornton a couple of chances to corroborate the theory.

The interview only continued for two reasons:
1. Thornton's bandmates gamely answered some questions.
2. Ghomeshi managed to keep his cool and didn't just shut down the whole thing in disgust.

But it wasn't pretty, and it left listeners fuming - mostly because Thornton made a point of insulting Canadian audiences. "We tend to play places where people throw things at each other," he said. "Here, they just sort of sit there. And it doesn't matter what you say to 'em . . . It's mashed potatoes but no gravy." Not exactly a testament to the fine character of the Boxmasters' US fan base, but I think Thornton was just trying to strike out at Ghomeshi at that point.

Thornton also refused to sing a scheduled live song at the end of the program, claiming that he was the drummer (in fact he's the singer, and drums occasionally) and didn't have his drums.

So was he just really tired that morning? Hung over? High? None of these excuses could justify his abhorrent behavior. He wanted the right to control the interview and figured he had the clout to demand that right. But it's not like Q would be incapable of booking a good alternative guest. He and the Boxmasters were lucky to be there.

And let's assume for a moment that big-name guests on Q were allowed to set the agenda for their interviews ahead of time. Would Tom Cruise be allowed to come on the program after demanding that no one mention movies he starred in that made less than $50 million at the box office? Could Kevin Costner say no in advance to all "Waterworld" questions? It's a slippery slope.

The reason a near-unknown band like the Boxmasters got on national radio in Canada was because a certain actor, writer and movie director is the band's singer. No doubt that's also why Willie Nelson asked them to open for him (along with Ray Price) on his current Canadian tour. To pretend any different is both disingenuous and hypocritical.

And this wasn't the end of the story for the Boxmasters. After a Toronto stop that earned mixed reviews in the papers - and boos from the audience when Thornton told them Ghomeshi didn't keep his word about not discussing his movie career - the Boxmasters quit the tour. No reason was given, except for a claim that certain members of the band, other than its singer, had the flu.
Perhaps Thornton realized that public opinion around the issue of reasonable disclosure was not swaying to his rhythm. I wonder if the rest of the Boxmasters were as keen to jump off Willie Nelson's tour bus. I doubt it. They have nothing to fall back on.


Blogger Mary said...

I agree with you Adam - for the most part. Although I tend to side with artists & "their craft" Billy Bob's ego had really gotten the best of him this time. Its unfortunate, cause up until now, I've really respected his work. (and "Bad Santa" is a guilty pleasure!) Athough a lot of people condemned Christian Bale's recent rant - I supported him. I don't think most people can relate to having to act in an emotional scene while being repeatedly interrupted . .unless maybe you are an actor of course. Maybe he went a little over the edge, but who hasn't every now & then. But getting off topic . .

Overall I'm glad Jian kept his cool and didn't french-kiss his wrinkly ass, but I think you might be mistaken if you think Ghomeshi can land a big star like Billy Bob every week. Ghomeshi has really, just started in this journalist biz. There are very few radio press who can command such clout. (ie. Rush Limbaugh or Howard Stern) -I doubt he was toying with the idea cutting down the whole interview.

The truth is, celebrities can and DO set the agendas for interviews all the time - whether that's right or not is another issue. But the reality remains, as Billy Bob said "play by the rules or no interview." The entertainment press relies on celebrities as much as celebrities rely on them. Perhaps that's why "junketeers" (aka entertainment press)get no respect from legit journalists. Junketeers will agree to anything just to gain access and love to give chessy quotes just to see their name in print on movie ads.

If press don't play by the rules, they won't get invited next time to a junket. -But their livelihood largely depends on these interviews, so most of them are more than willing to play "the game."

But Billy Bob was over the top, I agree. There's probably no way they would have gotten the interview in the first place if Billy Bob wasn't famous.

But you know what they say about bad publicity - there isn't such a thing!

Ghomeshi should have asked him: "With a name like Billy Bob, was the film 'Deliverance' an inspiration?"

April 16, 2009 at 10:48 PM  
Blogger More Than A Kevin Costner Fan said...

I haven't been to one of Kevin Costner's concert but I've heard that they show clips or pictures from his movies - he seems to answer questions in interviews about his movies when promoting his music. Kevin Costner hasn't done what Billy Bob did, that's for sure!!

April 17, 2009 at 4:06 AM  
Blogger geekmonkmom said...

This is a great analysis of what happened during that interview. I was really annoyed when I watched it, but could not exactly figure out why. But this pretty much sums it up, especially the statement "to pretend any different [that his fame from movies got him this venue] is both disingenuous and hypocritical."

April 19, 2009 at 7:45 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

BB is one self-centred ass. He's gone down several notches in my books now. My colleague was at the show and says he's an ass in person too.

April 22, 2009 at 2:09 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Great column.

April 30, 2009 at 12:58 PM  

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